FlixChatter Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)

nightmare-alley-2021-poster

With a name like Nightmare Alley and directed by Guillermo del Toro, those unfamiliar with the source material might assume it’s a horror movie. That’s what I thought before the trailer rolled around last September, but there is actually no ghost, ghoulish creatures or supernatural elements in this film. That does not mean there is no evil presence however, as the human heart can be utterly grotesque and vile.

Right from its opening scene, there’s a certain bleakness, a foul stench of the seedy world we’re about to enter. The carnival setting is inherently kooky and mysterious filled with strange, shadowy characters, but for a down-on-his-luck fellow like Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), it could also mean a new opportunity. After a long bus ride, Stan arrives at the traveling carnival with just a bag and a radio in his possession. Before long, he enlist a job as a carny with its owner Clem (Willem Dafoe) and help him track down an escaping carnival geek.

nightmare-alley-stan

There’s a certain charm and affability about Stan (which Cooper portrays with such ease) that people immediately opens up to him, even share their secrets. Clem reveals how he lures drunks and drug addicts and deprave them to a point where they become a sideshow subject (carnival geek). Stan ends up working with a clairvoyant act Madame Zeena (the chameleonic Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena finds Stan ‘easy on the eyes’ and seduces him, while Pete takes a shine on Stan and even begin to teach him their trick they use to fool people into thinking that Zeena is actually a gifted mind reader.

I have to say the first part of the film drags quite a bit. I mean, a slo-burn build is expected in a noir, but this feels plodding and lethargic, and the gloomy vibe doesn’t help either. One would think the carnival world would be exciting, but I remember feeling that I want to escape this dark and dreary environment. Well, so does the protagonist. As Stan learns more about the trick of the trade, he’s rearing to leave and start a new life. He manages to cajole a pretty but wholesome carnival performer Molly (Rooney Mara) to start their own show together. Del Toro’s perennial favorite Ron Perlman plays Bruno who’s protective of Molly, as does his sidekick The Major (Mark Povinelli), but soon she’s out of their grasp.

nightmare-alley-rooney-mara

Fast forward two years later—Stan is now a successful mentalist for the Chicago elite, with Molly as his assistant. Using the knowledge he learns from Zeena and Pete, Stan uses their technique of coded language and ‘cold reading’ which is basically deductive exercises that psychics and fortune tellers use in their performance. The energy of the film starts to pick up at this point, and it gets even more interesting when Cate Blanchett shows up as psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter who attempts to expose them during one of their shows. For a while, Stan’s scheming game turns out fruitful, especially once he teams up with Lilith who feeds him information about powerful men like judges and tycoons. With Lilith’s insider info, Stan manages to deceive these powerful men that he has a gift to summon the dead, but at what cost? At the heart of Del Toro’s tale of greed and treachery is a cautious morality tale… Stan clearly ignores Pete’s wise words about not leading people on about the ‘spook show’ they’re doing. ‘You can’t outrun God,’ he tells him adamantly.

Cooper showcases he’s a solid leading man, commanding the screen with cocksure swagger and restless ambition. There’s a moment where Molly has an argument following a show and from the moment she looks at him, there’s a palpable dismay in her eyes knowing that nothing will ever be enough for the man she loves. Mara, with her alabaster skin and mournful eyes, is perfectly cast as Molly who remains down to earth despite all the success.

nightmare-alley-blanchett

Meanwhile, Blanchett relishes on playing an alluring femme fatale. She always looks fantastic in period clothes, and she’s ravishing in form-fitting 1940s gowns and suits channeling Lauren Bacall in her delivery. I have to admit there’s a bit too much scenery-chewing on her part, and some of her lines comes off pretty corny. Still, it’s always enjoyable seeing her play a Machiavellian villainess and Stan definitely meets his match in Lilith in her slick, cunning ways. The one bit of casting I wasn’t too wild about is Richard Jenkins who’s usually a reliable actor, but I have a hard time buying him as a dangerous mob boss type as he just isn’t that menacing. I feel like I’ve been seeing Holt McCallany everywhere these days. Here he plays another stock character as Jenkins’s loyal bodyguard.

nightmare-alley-art-deco-office

As with all of Del Toro’s movies, his visual flair makes for a stylish adaptation. He clearly loves period pieces as he captures the era beautifully with meticulous attention to detail. Lilith’s art deco office is particularly lavish and glossy. No doubt she caters to high-end clientele with an office like that. For a film about manipulation and deception, the filmmakers are committed to realism in its storytelling. The carnival itself doesn’t look and feel artificial because the filmmakers actually built a carnival tent outdoors instead of shooting the film in a soundstage. It creates an eerie and chilling atmosphere that fits the narrative.

I love that moment the carnival staff pulls down the tent and the way the camera captures that moment. Del Toro collaborates with DP Dan Laustsen who also shot the Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. Costume designer Luis Sequeira does a spectacular job here, contrasting the clothes of the common folks at the carnival and the fashion of Stan’s wealthy clients and cohorts. The production design, costume design and cinematography seem to be a shoo-in at next year’s Oscars nominations.

nightmare-alley-bradley-cooper

I haven’t seen the original with Tyrone Power in the lead role, but Del Toro’s version isn’t necessarily a remake of the classic, but more of a re-adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham‘s novel based on a script he co-wrote with Kim Morgan (I read that the two are recently married). For a director who has spent a great deal of his career making scary-looking monsters sympathetic, he doesn’t offer much redemption when it comes to corrupt human beings. The depravity of the human soul is in full display as most characters here are sleazy con-artists, though it’s a testament to Cooper’s charm that I can’t completely abhor Stan even at his worst. There’s still a layer of vulnerability to him despite his vice. Stan’s journey is quite a tragic one… a seemingly shrewd man who’s good at reading people, but who fails to decipher himself and the person whom he places his trust.

The finale is pretty predictable but it’s played out in a pretty suspenseful way that it was still thrilling to watch. It’s always nice to see a good payoff that comes full circle, and the ending is one that lingers in my mind long after seeing the film. Despite the sluggish start, Nightmare Alley is a pretty solid thriller with spectacular visuals that warrants a trip to the cinema. I might even rewatch this again at some point to unpack some of the intricate layers hidden beneath some of the flashy, pulpy shenanigans.

3.5/5 Reels


Have you seen Guillermo del Toro’s NightMare Alley? What do you think? 

This Just In! Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ Trailer

nightmare-alley-2021-poster

It’s been four years since Guillermo del Toro won a Best Picture Oscar for The Shape of Water, and this is the first feature film he’s worked on since. Of course it’s not the only film that had to shut down because of the pandemic. Per this Indiewire article, they stopped the shoot when shooting was halfway done in the Spring of 2020.

Though he’s known for his horror films, I’m intrigued by the fact that Nightmare Alley is a noir thriller. The story is based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham published in 1946. Per Wiki, it’s a study of the lowest depths of showbiz and its sleazy inhabitants—the dark, shadowy world of a second rate carnival filled with hustlers, scheming grifters, and Machiavellian femmes fatales.

Full synopsis:

An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.

Behold it’s first trailer:


Now this is the kind of film I’d watch just for the cast! Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, and David Strathairn. Wow!! Apparently Cooper replaced Leo DiCaprio in the lead role, which is fine as I quite like the pairing of him with Blanchett who looks sultry as a femme fatale psychiatrist.

Is he man or beast?

Willem Dafoe’s narration repeatedly asks that question about one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe… the carnival world is inherently bizarre and mystical, filled with freaky ‘wonders of nature.’ But perhaps there’s a twist here? Sometimes it’s the ones considered regular/ordinary who turns out to be the ‘beast.’ I love that this trailer keeps us in suspense and not give anything away.

Now, I haven’t seen the original film, but I watched the trailer 1947’s version last night, starring Tyrone Power. This one reportedly isn’t a remake of that, but a re-adaptation of the novel. I love how from the film has that Old Hollywood look about them, I bet even it would look just as stunning in black and white.

One thing for sure, it’s going to be a visual feast!! The production design alone is freakin’ amazing, which is to be expected for del Toro… everything he’s done always look so hauntingly beautiful. As a big fan of period films, I can’t wait to marvel at the set pieces, costumes, lighting, etc. when it comes out.

Nightmare Alley is scheduled to be released on December 17, 2021… I can hardly wait!! This is definitely the film to go to the cinema for!


What do you think of the trailer? 

FlixChatter Review: NOMADLAND (2021)

I actually saw this one a few months ago at Twin Cities Film Fest. It was my pick of film of the month in October and also earns a spot on my Top 10 Best list of 2020. Nomadland is  about a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession sets off on a journey through the American West with her van. The last film of Chloé Zhao that I watched, The Rider, showed a slice of life from a world I’m not familiar with and this time she showed life of modern-day nomad.

The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder. The book documents stories of dispossessed older Americans (mostly 50s-60s) who face the largest reversal in retirement security in American history and ends up becoming workampers — working while living out of an RV or a tent. Fern is one of those people, having lost her husband, her job at a US Gypsum plant, and ultimately her old-company town Empire, Nevada, which died with the factory closure in 2011.

Now, the film doesn’t delve too much into the background of the economic crisis or the capital/government greed that causes them, but it explores a human story told through the perspective someone who choose to live that life. It seems that even though it’s obviously a tough life uprooting oneself into living in a ratty van, sans the comfort most house-dwellers take for granted, Fern and her fellow nomads seems content, even happy living this way. There’s a memorable scene of Fern saying “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” with a defiant glee when friends offer her a place to stay. The film shows her working various jobs, most notably Amazon warehouses, and at times struggling to even get seasonal work. It seems like a lonely life, but there is actually a close-knit community that sustain them and this film actually features real nomads, Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, who are featured in Bruder’s book. They become friends and mentors for Fern.

The film features a quiet yet intricate performance from McDormand, who apparently did some method acting for the role as she actually slept in a van used in the film for a while. Most of the time she only gets to act with her expressions as there are countless of shots of her gazing into the vast, beautiful landscape… and a brief shot of her serenely floating in a pool of water stark naked (I wonder if that’s what garnered this film an R rating?!). I find Fern as a fascinating character, but also frustrating and hard to warm up to, not sure if this is because the film never allowed us to really get to know her.

During her journey, Fern meets a fellow workcamper named Dave (David Strathrain, the only other prominent actor in the film) and the two strikes a tentative friendship. They end up working a part-time job together, but when Dave’s son visits him, Dave ends up staying with him in a large house on the country. Dave invites Fern to join him and later we see Fern come and visit him. It’s perhaps the only time we see Fern sleeping in a bed inside, but it’s interesting to see that she’s no longer comfortable living within the confines of a house. McDormand’s nuanced performance conveys the feeling that living day to day in the same place, same environment, despite all the comfort, would actually infringes on her sense of freedom.

Though not much happens in this film, there’s actually a lot to mull over and reflect upon. It made me think of certain aspects of my own life and others close to me, what I would do if I were in her situation. The scene of her walking in her old company town that’s now desolate is quite heart-wrenching. I was curious if Fern would actually consider Dave’s invitation and start a new life again as she once did… living with a new family (albeit an adopted one) and live in a real home again. The finale shows Fern’s decision without much words being spoken, but yet it packs a punch. Nomadland is truly a graceful, poetic, reflective film, boasted by stunning cinematography by DP Joshua James Richards and beautiful, serene music by composer Ludovico Einaudi.

After watching this, I’ve become even more of a fan of Chloé Zhao’s remarkable storytelling style. It’s so refreshing that Zhao features a woman over 50 in a leading role, which is a rarity given Hollywood’s issue with ageism. I can’t wait to see Eternals, especially after hearing Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige quote saying that her pitch was the best he’s ever heard, apparently it’ll be a very big, sweeping, multi-millennial-spaning story (per this article). So even if you’re not typically into slower-paced dramas, I still highly recommend Nomadland. It’s a study of restraint in its minimalism, almost stripped bare of frills in terms of special effects or unnecessary dialog, but done to great effect.

Have you seen NOMADLAND? Well, what did you think?

Weekend Roundup and The Whistleblower Review

Happy Tuesday, folks! Well, Minnesota weather is all but predictable and this weekend alone we seem to have gone through two seasons within a matter of 48 hours! On Saturday it was a balmy 69 degrees — people out driving their convertibles and walking in shorts ‘n sandals. There’s even a tornado touch down in a town next to mine, which is unheard of in November! But by the time Sunday rolls around, cool cold wind sets in and by Monday morning, wind chill factor is in the single digit, plus there’s a coating of snow on my way to work [sigh]

Photo courtesy of Startribune.com

I count myself blessed that I didn’t live anywhere near a hill like this one in Ramsey Street in St. Paul! There were a ton of accidents this morning as people were slippin’ and slidin’ down the icy road.

As for movie watching, well it ended up being the weekend of Mr and Mrs Daniel Craig. I saw Skyfall on Friday night and on Saturday I saw a movie starring Craig’s wife Rachel Weisz called The Whistleblower. The two played husband and wife in the the thriller Dream House and got married soon after. I think Weisz is gorgeous enough to actually play a Bond girl, I wonder if she’d ever considering it though. I mean that’d be something we’ve never seen before in the history of Bond movies, seeing a husband and wife playing Bond and Bond girl!! Anyway, thanks to Amanda who told me in the comment section of my rant post that this film has now become available to rent.

Now on to the review…

The Whistleblower (2010)

A drama based on the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who served as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and outed the U.N. for covering up a sex scandal.

Despite the stellar cast, for some reason this movie is rather obscure. I don’t even know if it ever got a theatrical release, seems like it went straight to dvd after it premiered in various film festivals. It’s too bad as it’s a decent film that deals with an important subject matter most people don’t know about. It’s heart-breaking to learn about the human trafficking and forced prostitution happening in Bosnia, especially when it’s done by the security people contracted to protect those people.

This film is deliberately done like an investigative journalism without much flair. The ‘raw’ quality is likely due to its shoe-string budget, but I find it fitting given the subject matter. In fact, I feel that the lack of ‘beauty’ in this film makes us focus on the story more, there’s not pretty scenery or manipulative music to distract us, it was just the characters and what’s happening to them. The living condition these girls are subjected to is appalling and heart-wrenching, but nobody is willing to stand up for them. In a way it’s a David vs. Goliath story told in a matter-of-fact manner.

Rachel Weisz is excellent as the sympathetic police officer who’s in over her head trying to do the right thing. She could be too strikingly beautiful for this role, but somehow they manage to make her look quite plain here. I’m glad she took on an important role despite this being a low profile project. The film doesn’t portray Bolkovac as a flawless saint, but she’s certainly heroic in risking her job and her own well-being going after such a protected organization. The supporting cast is top notch, we’ve got Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathrain, and Benedict Cumberbatch who sadly wasn’t given much to do.

Despite the powerful, ripped-from-the-headlines story, the slow pacing and some unnecessary subplots such as Bolkovach’s romance with a colleague drag the film down. It could be due to director Larysa Kondracki’s lack of experience, as I feel that it could’ve been a much more intriguing film than what it was. Overall, it’s truly a difficult film to watch, the tone is staggeringly bleak which makes it even more depressing. The violent scenes are pretty brutal, there’s one particular scene that is so barbaric that it’s painful to watch. Yet the violence is not meant to be ‘entertainment,’ but to show just the kind of extreme brutality and injustice happening in our world.

What’s most depressing is that these atrocities are still allowed to continue as the perpetrators are not persecuted due to diplomatic immunity. That said, I’m glad they brought this story to light and it’s always inspiring to see regular people standing up to those who can’t defend themselves. Despite its flaws, I’d recommend this film, it’s really quite eye-opening.
..

Three and a half stars out of Five
3.5 out of 5 reels


Well, that’s my weekend roundup. How ’bout you, seen anything good?