A “dream cast,” paradox and noir flourish drive “Bad Times at the El Royale”
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy; 2018; R for strong violence, profanity, some drug content and brief nudity; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), iTunes (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “Making Of” documentary
WITH ITS tried-and-true (or should it be tired-and-true?) plot, “Bad Times at the El Royale” offers the familiar contrivance of several strangers gathering at the same location, each with his or her own deep secret that becomes slowly revealed. From “Grand Hotel” (1932) to “Identity” (2003) to you-name-the-Agatha-Christie-adaptation, we’ve seen it plenty of times before – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Produced, written and directed by Drew Goddard, whose career includes production, writing and directing credits on several films and TV shows, “El Royale” begins with the promise of lots of noir-ish fun. That Goddard got some very recognizable actors to show up adds to the tempting stew. The year is 1969, and in a motel that is literally on the border between California and Nevada, we meet a disparate group of travelers, none of whom can get the hotel desk clerk (Lewis Pullman) to appear. When he finally does, he gives a worn-out spiel about the past glory days of the El Royale, where the rich and famous often cavorted, but which appear to be very much in the past as the hotel is currently empty.
The new guests include a rather confused, grubby-looking priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges); a down-on-her-luck backup singer Darlene Sweet (British singer/songwriter Cynthia Erivo); a vacuum cleaner salesman with a Southern drawl, Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm); and fashionable hippie Emily (Dakota Johnson). We also encounter her younger sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and, much later, hunky cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).
To delve into the plot would risk revealing a variety of spoilers, but suffice it to say that some of the characters aren’t who they seem, and each one’s past affects the way they ultimately interact with each other. The running time feels at least a half-hour too long, during which Goddard piles one clichéd scene on top of another, ending with an attempt at deep pathos that falls completely flat. That noted, the production value and cinematography are terrific. It’s always fun to watch Bridges do anything, and Erivo, an accomplished British singer/songwriter, gets to show off her wonderful voice.
Goddard and two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Anna Karenina,” “Atonement”) captured “El Royale” used traditional 35mm cameras during its 50-day shoot in Canada, and wisely scanned the film stock (2.39:1 aspect ratio) in 4K. The results reveal a superior level of texture and clarity from facial close-ups and distant objects at the motel, and two panoramic scenes along the Pacific shoreline and California grasslands.
The ultimate benefit is from the HDR toning, evident with controlled highlights and mid-tones, which are periodically blown out on the HD versions. Its shortcoming is evident at the beginning of Chapter 2 when Darlene arrives at the motel in a classic 1950s Studebaker as the sun shimmers off the car. There’s no detail within the hot spots, while the 4K (disc or streaming) provides a full range of highlights on the car and a background stonewall. Both formats provide deep blacks in the shadows, with a slight edge of clarity on the 4K. Both formats provide rich and vivid color palettes.
McGarvey calls Goddard “one of the most visual directors” he’s ever worked with. He says they agreed on using 35mm film with its natural grain and anamorphic lenses to add to the nostalgia.
What a lively eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack on the 4K and DTS-HD on HD. Erivo’s R&B voice on “This Old Heart of Mine - Is Weak for You” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” sounds terrific. She won a Tony Award for Best Actress for her role in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple” (2015). Classic tunes are used throughout including The Four Preps “26 Miles,” Edwin Starr’s “Twenty-Five Miles,” The Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” The Box Tops’ “The Letter,” and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Goddard calls music “the eighth character in the movie,” and explains how the ’60s-era songs help tell the story. He boasts of being so thoroughly prepared for the shoot, the actors could “play on the day,” noting he was always open to happy accidents and suggestions from the cast.
Both audio formats provide excellent fidelity, especially the bass response. The height speakers are used only for ambient sound effects.
Include a photo gallery and making-of documentary, in which Goddard calls the film a “passion project” which began “from a place of love” of film noir, crime fiction, and ensemble casts. He says he got his “dream cast” and describes how he got Bridges to sign on by offering him a type of role he’d never played before.
A producer praises the attention to detail in the production design, including a lobby clock that showed the accurate time for each scene. The art director explains the need for the building of one huge (60,000 square foot) set, which allowed for the complex action to take place realistically. The color palette reflected on which side of the state border events took place: warm colors for California, suggesting “good”; cool for Nevada, hinting at “evil.”
Goddard notes the joy he experienced in designing his “dream hotel,” and Hamm says the building reminded him of motels he had stayed in with his family when he was a child.
— Peggy Earle and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer