Life on the edge: 'El Royale,' 'White Boy Rick'

The early 'Colette' examined
By Tom Von Malder | Jan 06, 2019
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment "Bad Times at the El Royale" stars, from left, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo.

Bad Times at the El Royale (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 141 min.). Writer-director Drew Goddard has directed two episodes of my current favorite TV series, "The Good Place" (up for a couple of Golden Globes tonight), and his first feature film was the wonderfully twisty "The Cabin in the Woods" (2011). Now he brings us a film noir dripping in atmosphere and with a small cast of characters, each with secrets, who have to make hard choices as the evening progresses.

The setting is the El Royale Hotel, an establishment near Lake Tahoe that is well past its glory years, when the Rat Pack were frequent guests and entertainers. The novelty of the establishment is that the state line runs right through the lobby/main room, the bright red stripe delineating California on the west side and Nevada on the east. Rooms in California cost a dollar more and only the California side can serve liquor. The rooms on the Nevada side are only $8 a night.

The film starts with a mysterious prologue during which a man checks into the hotel, moves all the furniture in his room, then rolls up the carpet, digs up some floorboards and hides a satchel inside the floor. After putting everything back in place, the man is shot dead by a visitor. The film then moves forward 10 years to 1969, when four guests arrive for the night. Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm in a bit of his "Mad Men" style) is a vacuum cleaner salesman who insists on having the honeymoon suite, the only room currently available on the California side. Then there is a priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges, who also played a Flynn in "Tron"); the lounge singer, Darlene Sweet (film debut of Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo of "The Color Purple" revival); and the fringe jacket wearing Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy), who roars up in a muscle car.

Two have come searching for something, another is there because it is cheaper than in town and the fourth is fleeing a cult run by Billy Lee, played by a constantly bare-chested Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), doing a cross between cult leader Charles Manson and singer Jim Morrison of The Doors. (Hemsworth, except for one flashback, does not show up until 96 minutes into the film.) The fifth main character is hotel clerk -- well he fills all the jobs in the offseason -- Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman of "Lean on Pete," "The Strangers: Prey at Night"). While all are good, Pullman and Erivo, who has to do a lot of singing live on set, are the standouts.

Not much more can be said without spoiling the film's many surprises, which constantly delighted this viewer. Two of the guests are traveling under false names, and even the hotel has its own secrets. The film is divided into vignettes, each based on a different character that reveal some of their backstory as well as bring the action up to the rather violent current evening. Some of the same action is seen through different characters' eyes, so there is a bit of redundancy, but it fits the film's mood, which also is helped by the period pop and soul music, either played on the jukebox or sung by Erivo as Sweet. (One very clever scene has Sweet singing such that she covers up some noises made by another guest. It is a tricky bit of choreography.) The film may be a tad long, but it does not feel long while watching.

Bonus features include a solid making-of feature (28:35), that tells how the one large hotel set (60,000 square feet) was decorated -- warm colors for California, cool dark colors for Nevada; lots of props with the El Royale logo -- and the use of anamorphic lenses from the Sixties and Seventies, with their very wide frame and shallow depth of field. There also is a gallery of the set and custom props. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

White Boy Rick (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 110 min.). The film, based on a true story, was a bit of a disappointment, as the trailer promised a much more upbeat and fun film. Nonetheless, there is some good work done here, especially by newcomer Richie Merritt, who was pulled off a bench outside his school's principal's office to play main character Ricky Wershe Jr., aka White Boy Rick. The time is mid-1980s Detroit, when the city was overrun with a crack epidemic.

Because Ricky ran with a mostly African American crowd -- the Curry family, major drug dealers in Ricky's neighborhood and led by Johnny (Jonathan Majors of "Hostiles"), who, during the film, marries the mayor's niece (Taylour Paige of TV's "The Baxters" as Cathy), -- two FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Agent Snyder and Rory Cochrane as Agent Byrd) and a Detroit Police narcotics agent (Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Jackson) make Ricky first buy drugs for them and then sell drugs, to help set up busts and arrests. Ricky was only 14 and then 15 at the time. The leverage they have over Ricky is that his father (Matthew McConaughey of "Magic Mike," "The Dallas Buyers Club" as Richard Wershe Sr.), while a licensed gun dealer, also illegally makes modifications to the weapons in his basement, and one of his sold weapons was used in a murder case.

Richard's dream is to open a chain of video stores, but the family never seems to have much money, so Ricky decides to go into the drug business for himself, without the FBI and detective's blessing. This approximately 10 months led to his being busted and sentenced to life in prison at age 17, as he was caught with drugs above the limit that mandated such as sentence. (This basically is not a spoiler, as this information is on the back of the DVD box.) Rounding out the Wershe family is older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), who has become an addict, and Ricky's grandparents, who live next door and are played by Bruce Dern ("Django Unchained," "Silent Running, " many a TV Western in the late 1960s) and Piper Laurie ("The Hustler," TV's "Twin Peaks").

The film was directed by Yann Demange ("'71," an excellent film which I coincidentally watched last week that stars Jack O'Connell as a young British soldier, left behind and hunted in a hostile Belfast, Ireland neighborhood after a riot). Extras include six deleted scenes (6:50), including a wonderfully funny argument between McConaughey and Dern's characters over installing a VCR in the latter's house; a look at the real Ricky's story (5:35); a making-of featurette (5:18; the film was actually shot in Cleveland); and a look at the cast (10:14). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Colette (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 112 min.). The film tells the story of the first third of French author Sidonie-Gabrielle "Gaby" Colette (Keira Knightley of "Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement") life as she falls in love with and marries successful Parisian writer known as "Willy" (Dominic West of "Tomb Raider" as Henry Gauthier-Villars), who was 14 years her senior and known as one of the most notorious libertines in the city. Although her husband claimed credit as the author, Colette actually wrote the four "Claudine" novels that became the toast of Paris. (Some have said that Colette invented the modern teenager in her stories of a young girl growing up, based on recollections and stories from her own life.)

While a period piece, covering the years 1892 through 1906, Colette's story is very timely as she had to both confront her husband on his infidelities -- his weak excuse was "that's just the way men are" -- and finally battle to have her authorship recognized. In the meanwhile, her husband exposed the young country girl to the intellectual and artistic beauties of Paris, while she began having her own affairs -- with women -- and took training in pantomime, before taking to the stage, including a performance in which a female-on-female kiss caused a near riot.

Her husband ran what he called a "factory," a stable of himself and two other writers (Ray Panthaki as Veber and Al Weaver as Schwob), who all wrote reviews, magazine pieces and the like under the penname "Willy." Wanting to expand into novels, but not liking what he was getting from Veber and Schwob, Willy suggested Colette try her hand at writing a novel. Soon, Colette was revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression, casting aside societal constraints in the process.

The film, directed and co-written by Wash Westmoreland, has beautiful cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, often just lit by candles for the interiors and with wonderful, green outdoor settings. Knightley is superb as the woman most Americans probably only know of as the author of "Gigi" (1944), made into a marvelous musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and then an Academy Award-winning film (9, including Best Picture). She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Bonus features include five deleted scenes (6:29), including their wedding and her getting and reacting to her first bob haircut; Knightley talking briefly about Colette's life (2:18); and an excellent on the scene in which Colette is first introduced to Parisian society at a salon, with the director going through the scene and its lighting and how the script was first written in 2001 by his late husband, Richard Glatzer (8:05). Rebecca Lenkiewicz also co-wrote the script. Finally, there is a photo gallery of Andrea Flesch's costume designs. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.25 stars

Aquarians (India Rights, Amazon Prime Video, NR, 103 min.). Written and directed by Michael M. McGuire, the film is the story of seminary student Danny Sullivan (Chandler Massey of TV's "Days of Our Lives"), who begrudgingly returns to his home town of Silver River, Wisconsin to assist terminally ill pastor Father Rob (Richard Riehle of "Casino," "Deuce Bigalow"). While there, he is encouraged to seek out his estranged brother (Shane Coffey of TV's "Pretty Little Liars" as Jake). The film was set and shot in the snowy Midwest.

When Danny reconnects with Jake, things do not always go smoothly. They cut wood together, ice fish together and attend a party that gets out of control. The latter nearly replicates an incident in the past involving their other brother and which was the reason they were estranged for so many years. Danny and Jake also seem to have switched personas from when they were young and in school. Then, Jake was the smart one and Danny was known to me mean. Now, Jake's life is kind of pointless and he sells marijuana to people in pain, while Danny has chosen to help people by becoming a priest.

The film is well acted and moving at times, although there is some inevitability to some of what happens. Grade: film 3 stars

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