FlixChatter Review: Nightmare Alley (2021)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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: The Shape of Water (2017)

Once in a blue moon I fell in love for a film just from the trailer. It happened with The Shape of Water sometime last Fall, but it took a few months before I finally saw it. Forbidden love stories are my thing, but this isn’t just a typical star-crossed lovers. Guillermo del Toro created a romance unlike any other… and like Elisa with the Amphibian Man, I was smitten by this film.

I LOVE the fact that I saw Sally Hawkins in two movies in the span of a month. As fellow Jane Austen fans know, she was Anne Elliot in BBC’s Persuasion, a story that’s dear to my heart. I’ve been a fan of hers since and she’s perfectly cast here. It’s a bold role and rather fearless performance I must say, quite a departure from the roles she’s done in the past. The mute Elisa is the beating heart of the film…

When he looks at me, he doesn’t see me as incomplete.
He sees me as I am.”

… well isn’t that how we all want to be seen?

It’s the stuff fairy tales are made of. Elisa was living a mundane, lonely life as a janitor at a research facility… until one day she meets someone that changes her life forever. The sea creature was more than just an ‘asset’ the way the top secret government facility sees it… he was her everything. Del Toro captured this heart-wrenching love story so beautifully… it’s emotional, thrilling, funny, suspenseful… everything one would want in a period romance, and then some. Yes it has some disturbing and violent moments that warrants its R rating. I remember how some scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth was so shocking. This one isn’t quite so brutal but it does have its dark, scary moments, yet its beauty is spectacularly breathtaking. There’s such a dreamy quality to the whole production, and there’s something so organic and lush, it’s as if you could touch and smell the universe it’s set in.

Just like any good fairy tale, there’s also a freakish monster of a villain. No, not the sea creature, the monster in this film is the one who wants to tear Elisa away from the love of her life. Michael Shannon has played a lot of menacing characters, and he’s never more revolting here as Strictland. He’s the government official tasked to deliver the ‘asset’ to a high ranking general, as the creature is deemed advantageous to the US during the 60s Space Race. He’s so devilishly vile and creepy he makes your skin crawl.

The film’s visual effects are enthralling, but so are the supporting characters. I always LOVE seeing Octavia Spencer on screen, she elevates every scene she’s in and she’s delightful as Elisa’s sympathetic friend. Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg are two terrific character actors and they both provide memorable performances here as Elisa’s neighbor and lab scientist. I have to give props to Doug Jones who played the Amphibian Man for bringing the character to life.

I recall listening to an NPR interview of Del Toro who said he spent three years and his own money to design the creature. ‘I wasn’t designing a monster, I was designing a leading man.’ That really hit me and that’s perhaps what made this story worked. The filmmaker created a character we could relate with despite where he came from and what he looked like. It’s a message of tolerance tailored for the time we live in with the whole migrant, refugee crisis, but at the same it wasn’t on the nose or preachy. The terrific script makes the 2-hour plus running time feels like a breeze, kudos for Del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor.

Now, it’s not a perfect film. Strictland felt a bit like a caricature as there’s a lack of background about his character and Shanon’s evil-ness is borderline over-the-top at times. I also wonder some things about the creature that doesn’t seem to add up (spoiler alert – highlight to read: he’s a powerful being (even considered a god where he came from) and could heal himself & humans from even being fatally shot, yet why is he powerless when he was chained in the lab?). But none of those bothered me much, nor did it take away from the plenty of stuff that did work. I love the humorous (the one with the cat is hysterical!) and playful moments in Del Toro’s homage to classic movies. The scene of Elisa and her neighbor watched a musical and they began tapping their feet together is one of those sweet movie moments I’d watch over and over. There’s also a gorgeous musical segment that’s unabashedly sweet and romantic.

In the end, it’s films that I connect with emotionally that I love and remember the most. As a fan of classical music, I also adore Alexandre Desplat‘s ethereal score that adds so much to the film. It’s a masterpiece bear revisiting time and time again. I’m glad I saw this on the big screen before year’s end. It’s the last film I saw in 2017… what a way to end the year!

P.S. Just hours before this review’s posted, the Oscar nominations are announced, which you can check out on my friend Paul’s blog here. Keith also posted his Oscar commentary here. Thrilled to see Del Toro, Taylor, Hawkins, Jenkins and Spencer all got nominated.


Have you seen The Shape of Water? Well, I’d love to hear what YOU think!