Magnolia

Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Phantom Thread

03/02/18

Phantom Thread comes to our screens burdened with promise. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There will Be Blood), it abandons his usual Californian locations for 1950s UK, and stars Daniel Day Lewis in what is purported to be his final role. Little wonder it has received so many Oscar nominations.

Unsurprising then, that there is plenty here to admire, even if there is very little to actually like. As a character study, it’s cleverly done and the acting is sublime. Day Lewis’s personification of spoiled and finicky fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock is as detailed and compelling as we’ve come to expect; Lesley Manville’s portrayal of his sister Cyril an object lesson in understated acerbity. Newcomer Vicky Krieps is an enigmatic delight, breathing warmth and freshness into the role of Alma, the young waitress who catches Reynolds’ eye. It’s great to see Julia Davis revelling in the depiction of arch gossip Lady Baltimore, and there’s a host of supporting actors doing cracking stuff on screen. And it all looks wonderful, of course: from the gorgeous fashions to the sumptuous decor; from the washed-out lighting to the grandeur of their homes.

And yet…

It’s the plot, I think, that bothers me. I don’t have the obvious concerns (rich, successful man with an overwhelming sense of entitlement meets poor foreign waitress with no understanding of her own potential – and proceeds to change her life) because I think these are successfully subverted by the way that Alma is portrayed; she has agency from the beginning, and makes her own desire as clear as his. She and Reynolds talk as equals; she is not quashed by him, even as she stands submissively allowing him to dress her. The set-up itself is fine: his unreasonable demands are shown for what they are; Cyril’s role as mediator between her brother and the world is clearly a necessary one. He’s a genius, and a successful one; allowances must be made, because he tends to tire of his girlfriends quickly, and treats them with evident contempt. But Alma is different. She challenges his behaviour, won’t allow him to dispose of her.

Some critics have suggested that this skews the power dynamic in her favour, or puts the couple on an even footing, but I find myself squirming at this suggestion. Because (minor spoiler alert!) Alma’s only power, in the end, is negative.  She doesn’t become stronger, she just weakens him. If mimicking the behaviour of Munchausens-by-proxy is the only means to sustain a relationship, then I’d argue the relationship is very toxic indeed. And it’s not that I’m suggesting that a film cannot portray a toxic relationship. Of course it can. Neither is it that I expect morals from my movies. It’s just… the story arc suggests this is a happy ending, of sorts, and the reviews I’ve read don’t even hint that this resolution is at least problematic for the characters involved. Misogyny is not challenged by feminine wiles and culinary arts, it’s merely reinforced. And, to my mind, this is a fatal wound from which Phantom Thread never quite recovers.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield