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

Just How Dreamy is ‘Dream Horse’? Let’s Find Out!

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Dream Horse (CREDIT: Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street & Topic Studios)

Starring: Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page, Karl Johnson, Steffan Rhodri, Anthony O’Donnell, Nicholas Farrell, Siân Phillips

Director: Euros Lyn

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Few Horse Troubles

Release Date: May 21, 2021 (Theaters)/June 11, 2021 (On Demand)

I watched Dream Horse right in the thick of Triple Crown season, so I was very much in the mood for some equine racing drama. (Or at least as much as I possibly can be in the mood in any given year.) But this is no American horse racing movie! No indeed, the action is across the pond in Wales. But that’s perfectly fine, because as far as I can tell (as someone who’s only watched the sport on TV and never in person), the Welsh racing courses look fairly similar to Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park. Much less familiar are those accents – I could barely understand what anyone was saying! Much of the cast members are Welsh natives, although the two leads are Australian (Toni Collette) and English (Damian Lewis), though they bite into the accents as heavily as everyone else. Despite this language-in-common barrier, the pastoral charms of Dream Horse still shine through. It’s an underdog sports story, after all, and that’s something I’m not inclined to resist.

The titular true-life thoroughbred goes by the name of Dream Alliance. His story is a bit of a cross between that of Seabiscuit and Secretariat (which is awfully convenient for American viewers). He comes from the humblest of beginnings, but his top-notch skills are undeniable. In his first race, he initially just bucks around in a circle. It takes his jockey about ten seconds to straighten him out and actually get him racing, but by the end of it, he’s within striking distance of the victory. It’s a moment practically tailor-made for whatever the Welsh equivalent of SportsCenter is.

But as awesome as Dream Alliance is, this movie is more about the motley crew surrounding him. They’re led by Jan Vokes (Colette), a bartender whose previous breeding experience consists of mere dogs and pigeons. She gathers a group of her neighbors to pool their money to raise Dream, and it’s a classic case of the hoi polloi crashing the dignified upper-crust party. Although nobody really seems to actually mind this rowdy crew that gets excited by things like stumbling across Andrew Lloyd Webber while taking a leak. This isn’t the upper crust so much as a relatively crustless society. Really, everyone seems to generally like each other, so the conflicts that do arise are thanks to the fateful whims of sudden injuries and limited finances. It all gets resolved with a classic prescription of “yearning for something bigger than your day-to-day life,” and the dosage is adequately effective.

Dream Horse is Recommended If You Like: Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Incredibly thick accents

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Lengths

I’m Thinking of Writing Things (‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Review)

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Netflix)

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: September 4, 2020

I’m Thinking of Ending Things features a couple of things that I REALLY love in a pair of crucial scenes: a furry doggie and a trip to the ice cream shop! But there appear to be sinister elements lurking beneath the surfaces, as Jimmy the fluffy border collie seems to be stuck in a time loop of shaking himself dry, and Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the young woman (Jessie Buckley) buy their frozen treats in the middle of a snowstorm. Ice cream might taste great year-round, but if you’re going to eat it in the winter, you’d probably want to do it while snuggled up at home! (Also, that girl at the ice cream shop hints at … something nefarious.)

Really, the entirety of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about events that I love but that have something terrifying bubbling (barely) beneath the surface. Meeting your s.o.’s parents for dinner?! Great, but the time-space continuum seems to be coming undone. Having a conversation in the car about whatever the hell pops into your head?! I love it, but often this scene is so dark that I can’t see anything at all. Dancing in a school hallway?! Hurray! … but is the janitor okay?

You’re thinking of ending things? I’m thinking of making them last forever!

Grade: 45 Dog Shakes out of 60 Ice Cream Cones

‘Velvet Buzzsaw’: Something Killer This Way Arts

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CREDIT: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Not too long before I watched Velvet Buzzsaw, I discovered that its director, Dan Gilroy, has been married to one of its stars, Rene Russo, for nearly 30 years. I migh have previously known that fact, but I don’t think I knew about it as far back as Gilroy’s last film, 2014’s Nightcrawler, which also featured Russo acting quite excellently. Besides making movies together, they also have a daughter who’s already all grown up. I mention all this because I enjoy thinking about the familial background that can go into making a movie. And also, I find it more satisfying to think about the Gilroy-Russo family than I do to think about Velvet Buzzsaw. That’s not to say that Velvet Buzzsaw is bad, but rather, it’s just to say that I’m the type of person who generally finds it heartening to see even just a snapshot of any family life.

Anyway, it’s particularly interesting to think about this marriage in light of Russo’s death scene in Buzzsaw, which her husband wrote AND directed! Honestly, I think it’s the sign of a good relationship when you can orchestrate your spouse’s death onscreen but not do so in real life. It’s a pretty gnarly moment and probably the best realization of the movie’s concept of “killer art.” I got a real Wes Craven’s New Nightmare “art imitating life” vibe during Velvet Buzzsaw‘s first deadly set piece. It takes us a little while to get to all the moments of the paintings and pieces tearing up human flesh, but when they do happen, they’re impressively, lavishly staged. But I think I would have recommended getting to the gore a little more quickly, because before we get there, we don’t have much to latch on to, other than Jake Gyllenhaal (who, you may recall, was also previously directed by Gilroy in Nightcrawler) as a fellow named “Morf” lounging around naked with only a laptop to cover his naughty bits.

I give Velvet Buzzsaw 3 Thick Black Eyeglass Frames out of 5 Wax Families.

Movie Reviews: With ‘Knives Out,’ Rian Johnson Can Add the Whodunit to His Collection of Filmmaking Merit Badges


CREDIT: Claire Folger © 2018 MRC II Distribution

Starring: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, Noah Segan, Edi Patterson, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Frank Oz, Raúl Castillo, M. Emmet Walsh

Director: Rian Johnson

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Explosions, Possible Poisonings, and (Attempted?) Stabbings

Release Date: November 27, 2019

If you’d like to dust off a musty old genre and guide it to unexpected new depths, then you might just want to call Rian Johnson. He’s already shown what new joys await in a neo-noir mystery, a time-travelling actioner, and the biggest franchise of all time, and now with Knives Out, he moves on to the whodunit, and the answer to that question is, “By golly, Rian Johnson has done it once again!”

Since every whodunit needs a murder victim and a set of suspects, Knives Out has a bounty of them. The recently dead man is super-wealthy mystery novelist (wink, wink?) Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and the folks who might be responsible or maybe know something consist of his mother Wanetta (K Collins), his daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Linda’s husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Hugh Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), Harlan’s housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson), and his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). While his employees generally get along with him, his family members all have reason to resent him (and they also keep mixing up which South or Central American country Marta is from). Naturally enough, there are also a couple of police detectives on hand (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an idiosyncratic private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who has been hired under mysterious circumstances.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

The trick that Knives Out pulls is that within twenty minutes, it reveals everything (or nearly everything) that happened in thorough detail. Harlan’s death is initially ruled a suicide, and we are shown pretty much unmistakably that he sliced his own throat, and everyone’s presence at that moment is accounted for. Done deal, then? Well, there’s still nearly two more hours of running time left. The script keeps itself honest thanks to one particularly telling character quirk: Marta’s “regurgitative reaction to mistruthing.” That is to say, whenever she lies, or merely even considers lying, she spews chunks. Thus, there is no other option than for the truth to similarly spill out, and there is no room for contrivances to keep the audience in the dark. But that having been said, information can be obscured and unknown unknowns can take some time to make themselves known. Ergo, Rian Johnson gives us the simultaneous joy of being let in on a little secret while also playing the guessing game.

CREDIT: Claire Folger

In addition to Knives Out‘s masterful mystery machinations, it additionally offers plenty of keen observations of human nature. There is the ever-timely message of the tension that emerges when the haves and have-nots bump against each other, as well as the chaos that can reign when fortunes swing wildly. Furthermore, there is an astute understanding of the difference between truth and honesty, and how the latter can help you survive when the former is hidden. All of this is to say, motivation matters a great deal in cinema, and in life.

Knives Out is Recommended If You Like: Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Logan Lucky

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Colorful Sweaters

This Is a Movie Review: Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons Make Fine Father-Daughter Music in ‘Hearts Beat Loud’

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CREDIT: Gunpowder & Sky

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

Starring: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner

Director: Brett Haley

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Drinking Here, a Little Smooching There, and a Few Outbursts

Release Date: June 8, 2018 (Limited)

There is a certain strain of indie film of the past decade that has turned to stars of recent NBC comedies for its talent pool. I’m talking about flicks like The To Do List with Aubrey Plaza, or Sleeping With Other People with Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, or The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, or Friends With Kids with Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott, or Girl Most Likely with Kristen Wiig (a mini Kristen Wiig subgenre has kind of emerged, in case you hadn’t noticed). These tend to be more low-key than the zippy antics on the likes of Parks & Rec, Community, and SNL, but the stars are talented actors who definitely have it in themselves to stretch and show off. But there is still often a sitcom-y hangout vibe at play that makes these parts not that big of a departure. The latest example, Hearts Beat Loud, certainly has that low-key style as well, but it transcends it a bit by starring Nick Offerman, one of the more idiosyncratic of the NBC comedy vets.

Offerman plays Frank Fisher, a sometime musician and owner of the struggling Red Hook Records. The resolutely hirsute Offerman has established himself as the man’s man of comedy, both in his work and personal life. He is known for his woodworking, and his most famous character, Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson, is a staunch libertarian who has codified his rules for proper living. But his gruffness is usually tempered by a mischievous silliness. In Hearts Beat Loud, that takes the form of Frank not being the most diligent with his responsibilities and holding onto a dream of being a rock star. He tries to convince his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) to spend more time making music with him and less time obsessing over preparing for her pre-med college regimen, while she wants him to do a better job of keeping the family’s finances in order.

After a few blowouts, Frank and Sam eventually come to a compromise in which they are able to live and revel in the moment of what is a major transitional time for both of them. They get a little taste of success that might lead to something further, but there is also a sense of accepting and holding onto what is definitely real. The biggest charm of Hearts Beat Loud is perhaps its lived-in quality in Red Hook, an old shipping neighborhood in Brooklyn that is not so easily accessible available by public transport. As such, it has an out-in-the-boondocks feel even though it is not too far from away from more bustling areas. That there-but-not-there geographical situation is fitting for Frank and Sam’s life situation, and accordingly, Hearts Beat Loud, is a comfortingly empathetic viewing experience for anyone reckoning with major scholarly or professional transitions themselves.

Hearts Beat Loud is Recommended If You Like: Parks and Recreation, Record Stores

Grade: 3 out of 5 SoundClouds

This Is a Movie Review: Hereditary



I give Hereditary 4 out of 5 Decapitations:

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Please Stand By’ as Dakota Fanning Tries on Autism and ‘Star Trek’ Fandom

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

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

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, Alice Eve, River Alexander, Jessica Rothe, Michael Stahl-David, Patton Oswalt

Director: Ben Lewin

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Frank Mentions About Bodily Functions and an Emotional Breakdown or Two

Release Date: January 26, 2018 (Limited Theatrically and On Demand)

Early on in Please Stand By, Wendy’s (Dakota Fanning) Cinnabon co-worker Nemo (Tony Revolori) gifts her with a mix CD, which has me thinking, “Do people even make mix CD’s anymore?” As someone who believes in the virtue of simultaneously embracing both new and outdated forms of technology, I do not object to the presence of music on physical media (my own CD collection is still hefty and its recent slowdown in growth is due mostly to a dwindling in space and not a newfound preference for digital), but it does stick out as odd in a film that I am firmly certain is supposed to be taking place in the present day. In general, there are few, if any, clear markers indicating when Please Stand By is set. The best we have to go on is the fact that Wendy has an iPod, which tells us that the time must be no earlier than 2001.

It is fitting that Wendy’s story has a somewhat out-of-time quality to it. She is autistic and accordingly sticks to a strict routine, one that she has probably spent years firmly establishing. (That still doesn’t explain why her friend from work is still into CD’s, but whatever.) I believe that autistic characters have been well-represented enough in film and television that any single character does not have to bear the burden of representing ALL autistic people. And that is helpful, because while Wendy’s autism does play a major part in her story, it is specific in ways that go beyond that.

Ultimately from a certain angle this is a pretty simple road trip movie starring a girl and her chihuahua. They are heading out to California so that Wendy can hand-deliver her 500-page Star Trek script to Paramount Studios for a fan contest. She missed the mailing deadline due to stress involving family, and now her sister (Alice Eve) and caretaker (Toni Collette) are tracking her down to make sure she’s okay, seeing as she’s never been on her own before. This is a story of fandom, focused around a fan with an unfathomably deep interior life.

There is not all that much unique about Please Stand By. There are plenty of stories about obsessive fans, as well as ones about autistic people who struggle to connect with those around them. And it is no surprise that when you combine those two elements, you get someone who identifies deeply with Mr. Spock, as we have seen that plenty of times already as well. My Star Trek knowledge is sporadic (I’ve only seen the reboot films and the first episode of Discovery), but I believe I know enough about the major themes to say that Please Stand By does right by its inspirations. This is the sort of film that gives what is mostly a cameo outsize billing, but it feels justified: Patton Oswalt plays a police officer who speaks Klingon and makes the sort of day-to-day connection that Wendy has always been looking for. It is not instantly transformative, but it is the crux that represents the film’s easily digestible, reaffirming, humanistic message.

Please Stand By is Recommended If You Like: Star Trek (especially if you identify with Spock), Little Miss Sunshine, Patton Oswalt Cameos

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mix CD’s

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Unlocked’ is Only for the Least Discerning Action Buffs

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

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom

Director: Michael Apted

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloody Double Crosses

Release Date: September 1, 2017 (Limited and On-Demand)

Unlocked is just like any other global criss-crossing spy intrigue action thrillers that the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme knocked out in their sleep in their heydays and probably still are cranking out (oh, the mysterious wonders of the home entertainment market). But instead of a hyper-masculine slab of meat singlehandedly saving the world from terrorism, this time it’s a tiny Swedish woman. So… progress?

While it is heartening to see a woman act competently in a traditionally male domain without anyone questioning her credentials, it is not as if Unlocked is otherwise compelling enough for those involved to be especially proud of. As cinema’s original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace is right in her comfort zone, so she does manage to acquit herself admirably. But this is cookie-cutter spycraft, with every beat of flashbacks to haywire past missions and predictable double crosses crossed off in the most vanilla manner.

Rapace is supported by a cast of co-stars that are incongruously big and classy. Not one, not two, but THREE Oscar-nominated actors pop up in pivotal roles. Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Michael Douglas manage to maintain their dignity, but the movie gives them few opportunities to be interesting. Even the director is a fairly notable name. Michael Apted (perhaps best known for the Up documentary series) has action experience in his filmography, including 1999’s The World is Not Enough, but none of the style inherent to the Bond series appears to have rubbed off on him.

In Unlocked’s final act, it manages to stick in some thematic muscle that it probably meant to explore all along. It turns out that the terrorist plot at the center of it all may be the doing of government machinations. There is potential fuel here to fan the flames of 9/11 truther-style conspiracy theorists. But Unlocked lacks the conviction to be either legitimately controversial or hysterically entertaining.

Unlocked is Recommended If You Like: Steven Seagal/Jean-Claude Van Damme/Chuck Norris completism, but with a distaff twist

Grade: 1 out of 5 Global Viruses