At the ‘Nightmare Alley,’ the Circus Gets Pretty Dark

1 Comment

Nightmare Alley (CREDIT: Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Straitharn, Holt McCallany, Mark Povinelli, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 150 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Gunfire and a Little Hanky Panky

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

If you can’t trust circus folk, who can you trust? Actually, if Nightmare Alley is to be believed, carnies are the only people who can be believed (well, most of them anyway). It’s everyone else who’s trying to pull one over on you. This movie is two and a half hours long, which is to say: it takes Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle way too long to realize the truth about Truth. That’s probably because he’s fooling himself.

The movie itself is pulling a trick on us as well. Considering its spooky title, and its writer-director, we’re primed for some horror, or at least something supernatural. But instead it’s a full-on noir thriller, with all the moral prisons, femmes fatales, and cigarettes to prove it. We first meet Stanton burning away his past, quite literally. Then he wanders into the local big tent, and it’s unclear if he actually has any plans for anything at this moment. Only later do his machinations come to the fore. He gets roped into a job, which at first pays him a mere 50 cents (it would have been a dollar if he hadn’t snuck into the geek show), but then that’s followed up by steadier employment at the next town, and soon enough he’s one of the top mentalists around. That trajectory eventually leads to him teaming up with a psychologist (Cate Blanchett) for a con to bilk some big, big money out of a rich man (Richard Jenkins) who’s overcome by Stan’s promises that he can commune with the dead. But of course, there’s enough doubt and double-crossing in the air for everything to go sideways.

By the end of the whole plot, Stan essentially circles back to his original destitute and anonymous status quo. I was struck by both the futility and durability of his con man nature. The Universe, or the Fates, or God or whatever, or simply the randomness of existence has decided that his deception can go only so far. And while his reach exceeding his grasp might send him down to rock bottom, he’ll find a way to survive in the gutter if he has to. But why not do it a little differently? If Stan were a real person, and he were my friend, I would remind him that he seems happiest when he’s just hanging out with the circus crew. He found a family, but the genre that he lives in has ensured that he’s a nowhere man who’s never fully at home anywhere.

Nightmare Alley is Recommended If You Like: Hucksters, Snow, Trenchcoats, Biting heads off chickens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cold Reads

Miranda July Shows Us What It’s Like to Try to Become a ‘Kajillionaire’

1 Comment

Kajillionaire (CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez

Director: Miranda July

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for A Kajillionaire’s Worth of Language and Sexual References

Release Date: September 25, 2020 (Select Theaters)

Everyone wants to be a kajillionaire, isn’t that true? We simply won’t be satisfied until we reach that level of nonsensical wealth. That’s the driving premise behind Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire, which tells the story of a family of emotionally stunted scam artists trying to pull off their next big heist. As this movie demonstrates, the environments that we grow up in can lead us to behave in certain ways that look positively insane to outsiders. Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) sure looks resentful of the shenanigans her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) wrangle her into, but she doesn’t really know any other way to live.

I’ve been practicing a movie review routine lately in which I judge the success of the movie by whether or not it makes me want to do the thing that it’s about. So then, does Kajillionaire make me want to be a kajillionaire? Not particularly, thank you, I’m perfectly fine with earning just enough cash to be comfortable. But if I dig a little deeper, what I really should be asking is: would I like to make that cheddar by running confidence games with my family? I can see the kookiness of the appeal, which I’m sure the Dyne family and July would be glad to hear. But at a certain point, I need a foundation of logic and economic stability in my life. I think Gina Rodriguez’s character can relate. She plays Melanie, an audience surrogate type who’s a big fan of the Ocean’s 11 films and gets recruited by the Dynes during a turbulent plane ride and just has plenty of fun with the whole theatricality of their schemes. But eventually things get a little sloppy and way too much to handle for anyone with a decent amount of emotional maturity.

The limits of my particular reviewing strategy are obvious with movies like Kajillionaire when it’s clear that they’re not exactly advertising the behavior on display. But July does have a knack for generating empathy in a way that can make you wonder if you actually would like us to emulate her lead characters as they navigate their wacky and thorny situations. For Old Dolio, continuing to live with her parents doesn’t just mean continuously navigating an existence outside the law, it also means a living situation that involves renting an empty office space that keeps getting flooded with bubbles. And it further means reckoning with an “apology” in the form of receiving a set of presents for all the birthdays her mom and dad missed. So let me refine my question once more: do I want to live life on the edge and then ultimately find the wherewithal to strike out on my own as much as is necessary for my own mental health (as Old Dolio ultimately must)? Maybe for a couple of hours.

Kajillionaire is Recommended If You Like: Weirdo names, Baggy tracksuits, Random bouts of limbo

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Tremors

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘The Shape of Water,’ Guillermo del Toro Re-Molds the Classic Creature Feature According to His Vision

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Penetration From a Monster, Both of the Variety That Causes Massive Bleeding and Frustrated Profanity and the Kind That Results in Ecstasy

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

If you are a fan of ’50s and ’60s creature features but wish that they concluded with the heroine and the monster consummating their love, then it should be not surprising to discover that you have a kindred spirit in Guillermo del Toro. With The Shape of Water, there is now proof of that truism in feature-length form.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a custodian at a government research facility in 1962 Baltimore when an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset” (Doug Jones and a bunch of movie magic) is brought in from South America. With a condition that renders her an eternal outsider, it only makes thematic sense that Elisa would be drawn to The Asset. Now, my natural inclination would be to push against such a longstanding trope, but when one half of a coupling is a fantastical being, symbolic meanings are hard to avoid. And in this particular case, Elisa and The Asset’s attraction does appear to go deeper than their shared general abuse at the hands of society. Words cannot capture it, but it is undeniable that they see the world in compatible ways.

There are plenty of other sci-fi B-movie hallmarks blown out to full intensity to provide color around the monster shagging. As a colonel in charge of The Asset, Michael Shannon runs around barking orders at everybody, and I’m not sure if that’s more of a B-movie trademark or a Michael Shannon trademark, or just the perfect marriage of the two. As the lead scientist with a secret identity who wants to preserve The Asset, Michael Stuhlbarg gets a two-for-one deal of nuclear era tropes. Octavia Spencer, as another custodian and Elisa’s closest friend at work, does not necessarily fit into the mold of a classic creature feature character, but her presence is invaluable. And being that this is mid-century America, Richard Jenkins plays the tragically closeted artist; his story is saddest when he is no longer able to have any of his beloved diner-fresh slices of pie.

But this is Elisa and The Asset’s story through and through. Everything else is important, but in the grand scheme of things, they are all just in service of the lovingly shot, artfully composed, and almost too indulgent (but not quite) sex scenes. Let’s just say that Sally Hawkins is not shy. But hey, when you find love that is this real and unbridled, you owe it to yourself, like Elisa, to be rid of all timidity.

The Shape of Water is Recommended If You Like: Creature From the Black Lagoon but wish it had been more explicitly romantic

Grade: 4 out of 5 Slices of Key Lime Pie

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

1 Comment

SpotlightNewsroom

There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.