Friday, June 8, 2018

Hotel Artemis: Make a reservation!

Hotel Artemis (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, sexual references and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Back in the era of double features — when dinosaurs roamed the earth — a prestige “A-picture” frequently was accompanied by a low-budget companion pejoratively known as the “B-picture.”

The Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her newest patient — the local crime lord known as
Wolfking (a bloody Jeff Goldblum) — argue "politely" over chain of command, while the
latter's hair-trigger son (Zachary Quinto, center) watches with mounting impatience.
But a studio’s more modest units often were a training ground for gifted, up-and-coming talents, and it wasn’t at all unusual for a B-film to be more entertaining than the bloated, top-of-the-bill “spectacular” that brought folks into the theater.

Given Hollywood’s current obsession with over-hyped franchises and brain-dead popcorn fare, we’ve once again entered a time when unpretentious indie productions can be far more interesting than their mega-budget cousins. We simply don’t call ’em B-films anymore.

Case in point: Hotel Artemis, which marks an impressive directorial debut by writer/producer Drew Pearce, best known — up to this point — as part of the scripting teams on Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Pearce’s first solo effort as writer/director is a smart, savvy “what if” thriller set in the near future, with an intriguing premise that makes excellent use of ornately moody surroundings and a solid ensemble cast.

The setting is downtown Los Angeles, late on an average evening in the year 2028. (“It’s a Wednesday,” one of our primary characters wearily repeats on occasion, shaking her head each time.) The most violent riot in L.A. history has entered its third night, with the privatized police force pummeling blue-painted protestors whose only demand is clean water ... because the city’s water supply also has been privatized. Those who don’t pay get their bills cut off.

(As has been noted on numerous occasions, the best science-fiction is that which takes place in a near future that doesn’t seem far removed from reality. Frankly — given the degree to which today’s privileged one percent works so aggressively to disenfranchise the rest of us — I find Pearce’s notion disturbingly prophetic.)

One outwardly decrepit building stands undisturbed amidst a chaos that includes police helicopters being blasted out of the sky by weaponized drones: the imposing Hotel Artemis, seemingly a dilapidated relic of a long-ago past, when it might have been filled with movie stars, high-rollers and local aristocrats.

But the boarded windows, padlocked doors and graffitied walls are deceptive; the place actually is a heavily reinforced stronghold. The first 10 floors are empty, but an elevator ride — accessible only by “members” who pay dues in advance — leads to the equally secure penthouse sanctuary, where major-league criminals can hide out in one of five tastefully appointed suites. If injured, they can have their wounds repaired by the latest high-tech hospital gadgetry, under the supervising eye of The Nurse (Jodie Foster).

Names are eschewed; guests are known solely by the vacation-branded suites in which they stay. Current tenants include the narcissistic Acapulco (Charlie Day), an obnoxious, ferret-like arms dealer between buys; and the seductive Nice (Sofia Boutella), whose expensive, call-girl appearance masks her far more lethal talents.

The hotel has a lengthy list of strict rules — tabulated on a plaque that the camera swoops past too quickly, darn it — that start with the obvious: no weapons, no fighting among guests, and so forth (very much like Ian McShane’s Continental Hotel, in 2014’s John Wick). These edicts are enforced with schoolmarmish insistence by The Nurse, whose orders are backed up, when necessary, by the hulking Everest (Dave Bautista, beloved these days as Drax, from Guardians of the Galaxy).

Clearly, the nature of such a set-up demands that — for some reason — all those rules soon will be broken.

Pearce doesn’t front-load any of this exposition. Much remains mysterious, until tantalizing details — about the hotel, about Nurse, about the guests — emerge, as necessary, in context (always a sign of good storytelling).

The drama kicks off in the aftermath of a failed bank heist elsewhere in the city, when the quick-thinking Sherman Atkins (Sterling K. Brown) drags his bullet-ridden younger brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry) to the hotel, to get patched up. Once within the penthouse citadel, they become — respectively — Waikiki and Honolulu. The latter’s in bad shape, and Nurse isn’t sure he’ll survive.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Nurse gets a frantic alert regarding the impending arrival of another badly injured “client”: no less than the Malibu-based Wolfking (Jeff Goldblum), the mobster who controls Los Angeles, and also had the ingenious foresight, years ago, to create Hotel Artemis. Worse yet, he’s accompanied by his volatile son Crosby (Zachary Quinto) and a dozen thug guardians.

What could possibly go wrong?

Although everybody delivers a solid performance, Foster is captivating. Nurse is a fully fleshed human being in a crazy-quilt alternate universe: overworked and appropriately disheveled, and yet rigorously precise when administering meds and bedside manner, or fabricating a replacement human liver with a 3D printer. But Nurse also is haunted by demons: She’s an alcoholic and shivering agoraphobe who hasn’t left the protective confines of the hotel for more than a decade.

Foster doesn’t walk; she shuffles, often nattering to herself, invariably bent over like an ancient crone. But despite Nurse’s diminutive, seemingly fragile stature, she’s unexpectedly dignified and resolute, with a crispness of command that brooks no argument. 

In all respects, a fascinating character.

Bautista makes Everest unexpectedly warm, caring and deferential; it’s obvious this man-mountain would do anything for Nurse. At first blush, it seems that she takes advantage of this, but it soon becomes clear that their devotion and respect are mutual.

The evolving character dynamics are equally fascinating. These are all flawed and/or “bad” people, but some are worse than others. Pearce establishes a clear distinction between the “better” bad folks — those with integrity and a sense of honor, such as Waikiki and Nice — and the others, who are out-and-out evil.

Brown exudes quiet nobility. Waikiki is the sort of guy who doesn’t need to raise his voice or show off; everybody can sense his strength and intelligence. The exotic Boutella has a lot of fun with Nice’s femme fatale aura; it’s great to see her given a role with more depth and mystery than her popcorn turns in last year’s Atomic Blonde and The Mummy.

Day is perfect as the aggressively unpleasant Acapulco: a puffed-up blowhard whom everybody — including us viewers — loathes on sight. Braggadocio aside, he seems harmless ... but we must remember that nobody is entirely what s/he seems in this story.

Quinto literally quivers with barely restrained rage, his character a vicious troglodyte who likely wouldn’t hesitate to kill small children. Goldblum’s artificially polite, soft-spoken take on the Wolfking makes him seem even more dangerous than Nice. Jenny Slate is equally persuasive in a role that cannot be disclosed. (Spoilers, y’know.)

The mounting atmosphere of dread and anxiety is mitigated by unexpected dollops of humor and darkly flippant dialogue. Pearce excels at blending suspense and uneasy chuckles.

Production designer Ramsey Avery — who admits being inspired by L.A.’s Hotel Alexandria, which dates back to 1906 — does wonders with the Artemis’ atmospheric corridors, rooms, elevators and foyers. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung similarly shines with his use of shadows, corners and unsettling tracking shots through long hallways.

The visual effects — credited to an outfit dubbed Cantina Creative — are sparse but quite effective: just “fantastical” enough to seem credible, as things we might see a decade hence. (Well, maybe not the autodoc.) Pearce doesn’t overwork such stuff; his focus never shifts from character and story.

At 93 well-paced minutes, Hotel Artemis is quite a ride. The set-up is as beguiling as the inhabitants within, and everything builds to a terrific third-act climax. I’m eager to see what Pearce uncorks next.

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