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

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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

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Joaquin Phoenix is a Recovering Alcoholic Quadriplegic, And Jonah Hill is There to Help Him Out

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CREDIT: Scott Patrick Green, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Mark Webber, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus van Sant

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for General Alcoholic Behavior, And Maintaining a Sexual Appetite Even When Your Body Can’t Move Freely

Release Date: July 13, 2018 (Limited)

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on John Callahan’s memoir of the same name, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, a recently paralyzed recovering alcoholic who discovers a passion for and makes a career out of wry, off-color cartoons. His moment of rock bottom could not be more dramatic, as an all-night session of non-stop partying ends in a terrible car crash that renders him a quadriplegic. There is plenty to Callahan’s story, but for my money, Don’t Worry is really about Jonah Hill’s weirdly transfixing performance as Donnie, John’s AA sponsor.

Hill was on hand for an interview after the screening I went to, where it was noted that Donnie’s homosexuality was probably the least interesting thing about him, and not even all that noticeable. While Donnie is certainly well-rounded enough to not be defined by his sexual orientation, that orientation is in fact clear eno9ugh. Although, the possibility that a straight man could be as fey and as much of an aesthete as Hill plays Donnie is plenty intriguing. He is an inspiration for everyone to be themselves. It is a lesson that John takes to heart. Extreme trauma is a roadblock that is always lurking; if you survive it, you shouldn’t let it stop you from discovering who you are.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Recommended If You Like: 50/50, ’70s Style and Interior Decorating

Grade: 3 out of 5 Motorized Wheelchairs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘A Ghost Story’ Has Intriguing Metaphysical Ideas But Mostly Just Tests My Patience

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

Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Director: David Lowery

Running Time: 87 Minutes

Rating: R for the Cause of Death (Though Most of the Content is Quite Mild)

Release Date: July 7, 2017 (Limited)

If you have heard of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story in passing, chances are you know one of two things about it: 1) the titular ghost is rendered by someone wearing a bedsheet with cutout eyeholes, and 2) Rooney Mara eats an entire pie for about 10 minutes straight. The former sounds dumb but is actually kind of charming, while the latter sounds like an admirable bit of anti-cinema but is actually representative of everything wrong with this movie.

The setup is notably (perhaps fascinatingly) bare-bones: a young couple, presumably married, listed in the credits as “M” (Rooney Mara) and “C” (Casey Affleck), move into an idyllic suburban house. C dies in a car accident and then awakens in the morgue as the sheet-ghost. He returns home and meets another sheet-ghost next door. He keeps an eye on M and occasionally throws some books off the shelf. She eventually moves out, presumably due to grief or maybe because of the supernatural goings-on (hardly anything is concretely explained). He sticks around and meets the new residents, haunting them a bit but mostly just observing them. Ultimately Lowery makes it clear that his conception of ghosts is not bound by the normal rules of time, as a temporal loop allows C to experience anew his and M’s entire relationship, with a few detours along the way.

A Ghost Story has an interesting metaphysical perspective, with its version of the afterlife steeped in feeling as much as ideas. It offers some rewards if you meditate over it, but actually watching it is a slog. The dialogue is sparse, and the action leads nowhere, which is not necessarily a problem if the aim is to be sensuously experiential. And in fairness, Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is pretty to look at, but not so extraordinary that it can justify a movie that mostly just stands still. A film’s purpose does not need to be obvious, but it is preferable if it feels like something more significant than “we just felt like it.”

A Ghost Story is Recommended If You Like: Endlessly Ruminating

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Pies

This Is a (Quickie) Movie Review: Carol

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carol

“We’re not ugly people,” Carol Aird pleadingly, but assuredly, insists to her husband during a custody fight that threatens to turn nasty. Carol is a thoroughly humanistic examination of the affair between a shopgirl and a housewife in 1952 New York, and the men in their life who struggle to understand them. It is about identity: the internal challenges to find your own and the external challenges to live it out. It mostly keeps it cool, in a manner that viewers who are not already fully attuned to director Todd Haynes’ restrained style might struggle to fully embrace. But when Cate Blanchett delivers the “ugly people” emphasis, Carol finds the winner’s circle.