‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Director Does a Tarantino Imitation w/ Bad Times at the El Royale


Written and Directed By Drew Goddard l Cinematography By Seamus McGarvey l Music By Michael Giacchino l A Twentieth Century Fox Production l in Association w/ TSG Entertainment Group l Jon Hamm l Dakota Johnson l Chris Hemsworth l Jeff Bridges l Cailee Spaeny l Lewis Pullman l Cynthia Erivo l Nick Offerman l Bad Times at the El Royale

My most anticipated movie of the Fall was Bad Times. I was in the camp along with eventual director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon that had Drew Goddard who was eventually Oscar-nominated for adapting The Martian also helmed that project, it would’ve been a one of a kind classic rather than just a highly decent crowd pleaser. Goddard himself says it was a case of scheduling, with Netflix’s Daredevil and the now shelved Sinister Six Spider-Man spinoff, all being greenlit at once. With his other TV show The Good Place being one of the best reviewed comedies currently on television, his genesis as one of the many since successful writers on Lost, his Cloverfield writing big screen debut and the solid Cabin in the Woods directing debut (also co-written), it is easy to think of Goddard as a can’t miss wunderkind. Well he must have been very aware of his own strengths and weaknesses when turning down directing The Martian because Bad Times at the El Royale is original, ambitious and structurally sound, but also slow, empty, and lacking a sense of urgency. Book a stay at the El Royale, but getting there mileage may vary.

Seven Strangers, Seven Secrets (only one of them is who they say they are), all roads lead here: the taglines read. Much like the eerily similar disappointment Hotel Artemis from earlier this year, Goddard assembles an impressive cast that includes an Oscar winner, an Emmy winner, a Tony Award winner/ Broadway star, an Avenger, and two second generation movie stars. Unlike Artemis film, which had too many interesting characters crammed into a world without much plot, Goddard goes in the opposite direction. Fumbling all the players in an effort to put stock in a story and a vibe that technically comes together but hardly feels worth the 141 minute trip. He thankfully has a lot to say stringing together archetypal figures of 1960’s culture & counter-culture and weighing them against each other, but like one of his mysterious characters sabotages his own vehicle in the process. Characters are given either too much screen time and robbed of any wonder like Cynthia Erivo’s character, or have their impact blunted however intentional like Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, or Chris Hemsworth’s characters whose share of screen time will leave audiences at the end confused or bored.

Single-location ensemble thrillers are a favourite subgenre and exercise of mine. The practice as far as I know stretches back to John Carpenter’s pulpy 1982 version of The Thing. I find myself frequently looking back at Quentin Tarantino’s best and last film The Hateful Eight, heavily inspired by The Thing which had a seemingly basic set up only to peel away hidden layers to serve the audience’s growing hungry investment. Bad Times messily mirrors Tarantino’s structure to help capture the wider scope of the story (matching his 70mm aspect ratio to cover the width of the Motel/ Hotel would have helped) but wastes it by over-explaining character details and under explaining others, sabotaging the film’s pacing in the process. The audience is stuck reliving the same few minutes once or twice while we wait for the story to come back around. It is not worth the wait. Character backgrounds are often more interesting than the current story being told, and the director occasionally assembles a few interesting images with his framing of things like reflections, eye colour, or tracking footprints in the sand, characters/ objects in motion. Individual movements like the way characters sing and dance, hang around or handle a gun, are more interesting than when the choppy action they are involved in. It’s the same blocking problems that mar Chris Nolan’s career as an action director. Signs show that Goddard knows what it takes to put on a show but has a hard time executing or sustaining those ideas on page over an extended period of time. If El Royale only stayed open as long as The Cabin in the Woods’ 95 minute window, audiences could have glimpsed something great. Instead we’re left like Jeff Bridges character squinting at the reel under dim light trying to uncover a great secret.

I heard on my way out that this film is closing on Thursday after disappointing at the Box-Office. That’s a shame, not because the film is some hidden gem, it definitely is not. But because there is a lack of original films released nowadays, the ones that try to be deserve attention I do not think this film has gotten yet. I hope it finds an audience somewhere. If Drew Goddard’s early career success and talent is still a major Hollywood secret, it will likely keep until his next project, a Marvel comic book adaptation of course. I’ll be there, as I was in theatres for Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Martian paying my way, but I hope I enjoy a more pleasant stay than the El Royale can provide.

Rating: C+ / 66 / +1

Tidbits:

  • Dakota Johnson is Hott!! It’s funny how badly what I’ve seen of the Fifty Shades series maligns her appeal that is uncovered in this interview. She needs more Femme Fatale roles that capitalize on her innocent understated tough sexiness. This role doesn’t quite do it either.
  • If there’s a standout, it’s surprisingly not Chris Hemsworth who blows what would be an easy role by being too chill to seem threatening or carrying gravitas. Surprisingly, it’s Lewis Pullman son of Bill Pullman, who gets somewhat of an interesting role, but also seems so precocious, wide eyed and innocent its hard not to notice him.
  • I like Jon Hamm, he is a hamm according to Dakota Johnson
  • I liked Jeff Bridges in this movie and I don’t often
  • Possibly better director choices for this film would’ve been: QT, Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Joseph Kosinski, Matt Reeves, Scorsese, Roger Donaldson, Brian Helgeland, Ridley Scott, Matthew Vaughan, and the Russo Brothers .
  • Beyonce passed on a lead role and Tom Holland passed on Lewis Pullman’s role.
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