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

‘National Champions’ Presents Its Melodramatic Case for Student-Athlete Compensation

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National Champions (CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of STX Films)

Starring: Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Big Boy Executive Language

Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Theaters)

National Champions is certainly timely, as the subject of student-athlete compensation has made its way up to the Supreme Court, and players are now permitted to financially benefit from their name, image, and likeness. But I don’t imagine that this conflict will play out in real life anywhere near as operatically it does in this movie. That’s not a criticism! I’m in the theater to be entertained, not to confirm that they get all the facts straight. And for the most part, I was thrilled, amused, and riveted.

Stephan James is at the center of it all as star quarterback LeMarcus James. James (the actor) played Jesse Owens in his breakthrough role, so he’s building up a bit of a resume of athletes who take a historical stand. LeMarcus is a senior playing his last college game in the looming title bout who’s also the presumptive number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But he’s calling an audible, as he announces that he’s boycotting the game unless and until the NCAA agrees to recognize varsity athletes as employees and pay them accordingly. He’s got about three days to convince his teammates and his opponents to join him, while also ducking out of the way of his coach (J.K. Simmons), various college football administrators and executives, and the NCAA’s ruthless outside counsel representative (Uzo Aduba).

Director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Adam Mervis (adapting his own play of the same name) have painted a massively cynical portrait of the state of college athletics. Some of their tsk-tsking is well-founded, but my god, is it breathtakingly overwrought. It kinda has to be, considering that pretty much every line of dialogue frames everyone’s decision in life-or-death stakes. This could be a formula for unbearable soul crushing, but thankfully the premise has to allow at least a hint of optimism to poke its way in throughout. That lightness helps us realize that the ridiculousness of all the melodrama is a plus, as laughing at the moral righteousness of this exploitative system is a healthy reaction.

One other noteworthy observation before I go: several real-life athletes and sportscasters appear as themselves, which would add some authenticity, but that’s undercut by the lack of real-life branding. The teams in the championship game are from fictional schools, and ESPN (or any other sports network for that matter) is never once mentioned. I’d argue that the fakeness is weirdly the right choice (though I imagine it actually wasn’t a choice at all); this isn’t the real world after all, but a slightly heightened version of it.

National Champions is Recommended If You Like: Over-the-top line deliveries, Sports movies without any sports, Kristen Chenoweth performances without any singing

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Salaries

‘Just Mercy’ One Month After It Came Out Review

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

There is a moment late in Just Mercy when death row inmate Walter McMillan’s (Jamie Foxx) conviction is suddenly overturned because the prosecuting representatives of Alabama suddenly decide to agree with the defense. It sounds pretty unbelievable, considering how the state has hitherto stubbornly refused to acknowledge the total lack of evidence against him, but apparently that’s how it actually went down. And that’s Just Mercy in a nutshell: agonizingly frustrating miscarriage of justice that keeps persisting, and then from out of nowhere sudden satisfaction in the form of a full exoneration. In simple terms, that makes this true life story successful, but in deeper terms, I would’ve liked it to explore what motivated that reversal a little more. That element is a big deal and quite unique compared to other stories of the wrongfully convicted. But while Just Mercy could have been a little more risk-taking, it’s still a net good to see the work of the Equal Justice Initiative on screen.

I give Just Mercy 3 Testimonies out of 5 Phony Deals.

‘The Report’ Details the Long Slog Towards Exposing Torture

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CREDIT: Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Jake Silberman, Matthew Rhys, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Dominic Fumusa, Corey Stoll

Director: Scott Z. Burns

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Depictions of Torture

Release Date: November 15, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a moment in The Report that might be what most viewers remember it for, in which the 2012 hunt-for-Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty is called out and basically scoffed at for implying that torture led to valuable intel in the war on terrorism. Despite this apparent antagonism, The Report and Zero Dark Thirty work well as companion pieces, offering somewhat parallel stories in the defining geopolitical conflict of the twenty-first century. I believe that the message of Zero Dark regarding the efficacy of torture is more complicated than any binary interpretation, and I actually think that the people behind The Report would agree, at least in terms of the existence of complications in the world. When a narrative is about a real-life group of people poring over thousands of government documents for months on end, you tend to find that the answers aren’t always quite so straightforward. But two things remain clear: torture is bad, and the people deserve to know that it happened.

The primary document sifter is Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who was working as a Senate staffer for California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) while he investigated the CIA’s systematic use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The job is thuddingly labor-intensive, but Daniel is fully devoted to the task, and besides, the real challenge for him is getting this information out to the public over the protests of the forces who would prefer it be as redacted as possible or just completely hidden. The Report serves the entertainment value of presenting someone doing his job supremely competently, but it is also a bit of a slog. It is not exactly fun to spend so much time in windowless basements with Daniel, and his co-workers let him know that it’s not so great for him either. But for the good of mankind, this information needed to get out one way or the other. And if this story needed to be jazzed up into a big-screen adventure for people to become more aware of this miscarriage of decency, then The Report ought to be considered a succcess at least on that score.

The Report is Recommended If You Like: The truth being made public

Grade: 3000 of 5000 Documents

This Is a Movie Review: The Coen Brothers Sing ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and Other Tales in This Western Anthology

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CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Surprisingly, Perhaps Hilariously, Deadly Gunfire

Release Date: November 8, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/November 16, 2018 (Streaming on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a Buster Scruggs problem. That is to say: Buster’s not in it enough! That can be the trouble with anthology films in which no characters appear in more than one segment. This issue can be alleviated, at least somewhat, if there are multiple memorable roles. But when Tim Blake Nelson saunters into town in his white cowboy suit, guitar in tow, he immediately wins us over with his storytelling aplomb, extreme self-confidence, and superhuman marksmanship. As Buster’s is the first story, he sets a rollicking, self-aware tone that makes us want to spend as much time with him as possible. Alas, it is not meant to be. But surely, he could have been a narrator or a wandering troubadour throughout! As it is, though, his arrival brings us pleasure, while his quick departure only leaves us hungry for more.

The other segments are more scattershot, but if you believe that the Coen brothers’ droll humor belongs in a Western setting, then you should find enough to enjoy. The three chapters immediately following the titular kickoff – in which bank robber James Franco gets his comeuppance, Liam Neeson puts on a travelling show, and Tom Waits goes prospecting for gold, respectively – wrap up before they are able to have much of an impact. It gets better and deeper with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays a single frontierswoman who must summon an unexpected amount of independence, while also dealing with a surprising, but perhaps promising, marriage proposal. It’s actually quite sweet, but then a Coen-style cruel twist of fate swoops in, leaving you a little devastated but narratively satisfied. The concluding chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is more of a tone piece than anything else, with a group of strangers in a carriage on its way to somewhere resembling purgatory, or maybe even Hell. As one of the passengers, Tyne Daly is a force of nature to bring us home, but even she cannot quite protect us in this harsh landscape. It’s an otherworldly approach befitting filmmakers who are heavily influenced by the Old Testament God, and while I may find The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a minor Coen effort, it is not without plenty to chew over.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Recommended If You Like: Coen brothers comedy in general, but can deal with scattershot results

Grade: 3 out of 5 Color Plates