Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

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. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

Movie Review ~ A Ghost Story

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, McColm Sephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs

Director: David Lowery

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I guess the synopsis should have tipped me off that A Ghost Story was going to be a tough one.  Billed as a “singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence” sure sets a high bar for movie filmed with no fanfare in a tiny Texas town.  I’m sure art-house audiences will gobble this one up as their latest existential exercise for bragging rights to their friends that chose to see Spider-Man: Homecoming instead.  Still, with its maudlin musings and one endless shot of pie consumption A Ghost Story might have something to say but it takes literally forever to do it.

The first half of A Ghost Story centers on C (Casey Affleck, The Finest Hours) and M (Rooney Mara, Side Effects), a young couple that doesn’t have much or say much.  Still, when C dies in a car accident just outside their house, Affleck and Mara have given us more than a general idea of the depth of their connection.  M arrives at the hospital to identify the remains and after the sheet is lifted stares in shock at the body of her husband. Shortly after she pulls the sheet over C’s face and leaves the body rises and hops off the gurney, with the sheet cleverly falling into place thus creating the ghostly figure seen in the poster and trailers.

Strangely tied to the house once called home, the ghost remains through the years long after M has moved on with her life.  A host of different people live in the house over time. A single mother.  A flock of hipsters.  When the house is destroyed there’s a brief passage of interest where the ghost travels forward and then back in time, folding back on itself to see previous scenes from a different perspective.

It would be easy to say I was in a funk the day I screened this or even easier to just claim general stupidity but it just wouldn’t be true.  This is a hard movie to sit through, much less love or even like.  There’s literally a scene where the ghost watches paint dry, not to mention the never-ending take of Mara eating the majority of a pie someone brought over to comfort her.  The moment you feel like the scene can’t possibly continue, it goes on for another six minutes.  The significance of Mara having the house to herself and gorging herself on food until she’s sick isn’t lost on me…but why keep audiences at bay long after the message has been received?

Director David Lowery used the money he made from the remake of Pete’s Dragon to fund this long gestating project and I wish he would have just bought his mom a house like other directors who hit the big time have done.  I loved what Lowery did with Pete’s Dragon and the charming characters that sprang forward fully formed but A Ghost Story feels like a deliberate step back, suggesting a director desperately trying to remind us of his indie roots.

Movie Review ~ Carol

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: R

Running Length:  118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Looking through our 2016 lens, it’s still hard to imagine a time when being gay was something no one discussed.  No one.  “Committed bachelors” or “spinster aunts” were often coded labels placed on gay men and women when discussed in refined society circles.  Then there were those that struggled with their sexuality and found themselves in loveless marriages, sometimes out of convenience, sometimes out of necessity.

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is an examination of two women at different stages of their lives.  A young woman with her life ahead of her becomes enamored with a glamorous married woman a decade or more her senior.  From the moment department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara, Side Effects) meets Carol (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) during a Christmas season shopping trip, there’s an instant connection the women silently share.  It’s a moment of electricity anyone that’s ever felt the prickle of immediate attraction can relate to.

By accident or on purpose, Carol leaves her gloves behind and when Therese has them returned it gives the women the excuse to meet up.  During their dinner conversation both women examine the other, seemingly wanting to say something more but unsure if their assumptions are correct.  Being the older, more experienced of the two Carol seems to know what comes next and Therese looks to her for guidance as she examines her own desires.

While Carol and Therese begin to hone in on their feelings, the men in their lives struggle with the loss of connection.  Carol’s estranged husband (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now) loves his wife…or does he love the idea of her more?  They share a daughter and over the course of the film the husband tries everything to get his wife back, no matter how desperate the measures are.  Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) is a man with a plan…he sees the life, the wife, and the family society says he should have.  The parallels between the younger unattached couple and the older married couple aren’t hard to see.

Director Todd Haynes delivers an achingly complex tale of love that has no easy answers or pat solutions.  There isn’t a sweeping miracle finale where everyone winds up happy, to present that response would be to alter a history that has seen gay rights and acceptance evolve at a creeping pace over the next half century after Carol takes place.

Blanchett and Mara are luminous in their roles and acting within the exquisite production design captured elegantly by cinematographer Edward Lachman, the performances live and breathe with ease.  Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) has a brief but powerful turn as a former flame of Blanchett while Chandler and Lacy make their men a product of the ideals of the time, yet not without a brain or a heart.

We’ve evolved a lot as a society, especially in the last decade, getting ever closer to a parity between individuals at a human level.  There won’t ever be consensus on what is acceptable but the first step is understanding.  Carol shows a beauty of a relationship damaged by societal norms, and the fight to reclaim what’s true.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pan

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Synopsis: The story of an orphan who is spirited away to the magical Neverland. There, he finds both fun and dangers, and ultimately discovers his destiny — to become the hero who will be forever known as Peter Pan.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: It’s probably a good thing that Peter Pan never ages because how else would Hollywood continue to find new ways to tell the same story?  Over the past few years Peter Pan has turned up on television (in an ill-advised live broadcast), been on Broadway (TWICE! Once in the thrilling Peter and the Starcatcher and more recently in the testy musical Finding Neverland), and now director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) is readying his origin story for how Peter became Pan, how Hook became a captain, and how Tiger Lily came to lead her people.  Peter Pan has always been a favorite character of mine and Wright usually hits all the, er, right notes when it comes to production values.  With a cast that includes Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as resident baddie Blackbeard, Rooney Mara (Carol) as Tiger Lily, and Garret Hedlund (Unbroken) as Hook this looks like a fun fall fantasy adventure, ably adding some early chapters to a famous literary character.

The Silver Bullet ~ Carol

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Synopsis: Set in 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.

Release Date:  November 20. 2015

Thoughts: The second of two lesbian centered dramas arriving before the end of 2015 (Freeheld is the other), Carol is arriving with strong buzz for the picture itself, its director (Todd Haynes), and its two stars.  Haynes knows his way around a the Douglas Sirk-esque work of the 1950s, having delivered the grandly soapy Far From Heaven in 2002 and he seems to have another masterwork on his hands.  While it may seem that two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Cinderella, Blue Jasmine) will be the one taking center stage during awards season, don’t count out co-star Rooney Mara (Side Effects) who nabbed the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work as a young woman that develops feelings for a mysterious older (and married) woman. 

Movie Review ~ Her

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt

Director: Spike Jonze

Rated: R

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of Her.  After all, a Spike Jonze written/directed film starring the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) about a man that falls in love with a computer program could, without question, have gone either way.  Even looking over the rest of the cast from Rooney Mara to Amy Adams to Olivia Wilde and especially Scarlett Johansson, (all actresses I like but don’t love) I couldn’t tell if this would wind up being another awards buzz movie I’d be forced to slog through and defend my overall opinion to hoity-toity critics or a new twist in the romance genre.

It was with a certain delight, then, that I emerged from Her so totally refreshed by its unconventional romance and stimulated by its two unlikely leads.  Too often critics are eager to toss out the term “modern romance” when describing a film that portrays a love story without large flights of fancy but what Jonze has created here is a futuristic romance without a lot of extra bells and whistles or spaceships to Mars.

In the future as imagined by Jonze (and not that far off the mark, I believe) we’re all even more interconnected to the world with our activity on the web downloadable and programmable leaving little to the imagination.  Fashion wise, I’m sorry to say that Jonze (who also had a hand in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) believes we’ll all be wearing high waisted wool pants, too…frightening.

Employed to write letters from loved ones that don’t have the time to do it themselves, Phoenix finds just the right words to make his clients and their addressees happy.  In his own personal life, however, he’s not so lucky in love.  Recently divorced and not yet ready to go back on the market he’s intrigued by the latest in tech must-haves…an advanced operating system that’s tailored to cater to him specifically.  After a brief set-up filtered through a typical Jonze-ian questionnaire, Phoenix is introduced to the one woman that will truly change his life…Samantha.

Scarlet Johansson (Don Jon) wasn’t the original actress cast to be the voice of Samantha…that would be Samantha Morton who was on the set every day with Phoenix to film his scenes.  When the film was completed, Jonze discovered that Morton’s voice didn’t fit exactly with the rest of the film and Morton being the pro she was agreed.  Johansson was brought in to redub Morton’s work without ever going through the live on-set emotion Morton and Phoenix shared.

Knowing this, it’s remarkable at how in tune Johansson and Phoenix are in the film and the buzz surrounding Johansson being the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar for voice-only work isn’t that unwarranted.  Her take on Samantha is grounded, curious, playful, and understanding…never resorting to breathy cooing or attempts at seduction…as a computer program, she’s not designed for that…so the eventual feelings she starts to develop for Phoenix are lovely and genuine.

Phoenix too grapples with the knowledge that he’s falling for his operating system.  Knowing that she’ll never be a real person and recognizing that she may be the best thing to ever happen to him he walks a fine line between a fantasy that can never be and the reality of his burgeoning love for her.  It’s a high-wire relationship that Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson handle with the greatest of care.

Aside from Phoenix, the rest of the cast is filled out primarily with females.  Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) plays Phoenix’s ex-wife and their frigid lunch meeting counters nicely with Phoenix’s flashback memories of their loving earlier life together.  Popping up in a brief cameo is Wilde (Rush) as a first date for Phoenix that goes south pretty quickly…I’ll say it again that Hollywood hasn’t yet found the right way to use Wilde.  Though she has less than a quarter of the screen time than she does in American Hustle, Amy Adams has a much greater impact here as a residential acquaintance and former flame of Phoenix that understands his current situation more than he/we think.

Make no mistake, though, that the movie belongs to Phoenix and Johansson.  After a while, I forgot that Samantha was just a voice and we never actually “see” her in the film.  The way that Jonze has filmed the movie and the way that Phoenix and Johansson run with the material make for a classic romance with its peaks and valleys of joy and heartache.

Her easily made my list for Best of 2013.  In a future world perhaps years away from our own when it’s hard to make a live connection with someone, Phoenix finds a love that can never be returned but finds himself thrilled and reenergized.  You’ll thrill right along with him.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Her

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Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly-purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Release Date:  December 18, 2013

Thoughts: The fourth feature film from director Spike Jonze looks like it’s traveling in the same universe that his first film, Being John Malkovich, exists in.  Though I feel like the whole man-falls-for-a-woman-he-can’t-have angle has been done to death, making said woman part of a futuristic operating system and truly unattainable may get some mileage for Jonze and star Joaquin Phoenix (The Master).  Phoenix has never been quite the accessible Hollywood star that everyone seems to want him to be but this preview reveals a softer side to his out-there persona.  With a quartet of A-list Hollywood actresses on board as well, early positive word-of-mouth for Her has been strong and its studio recently moved up the release date to take advantage of awards season.  We’ll see if Jonze has another quirky winner on his hands (Adaptation) or another troubled (but ultimately respectable) experiment like his last film, Where the Wild Things Are.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

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Synopsis: The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met

Release Date:  August 16, 2013

Thoughts: A film that looks to be an intriguing mix of Terrence Malik cinematic grandeur and Coen Brothers dark romantic triangles, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints may not be grammatically correct but it sure does look like a film to sit up and take notice of.  Casey Affleck is one of the more underrated actors working in Hollywood today and this could finally be the film that wakes up Hollywood to an actor really coming into his own.  Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) is another fascinating actress that’s on the hot list right now thanks to her ‘all-in’ approach to her performances.  Set against the ominous stretches of Texas back country, I’ll be interested in taking a look at this one later in the summer.

Movie Review ~ Side Effects

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison

Stars: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Lately, the side effects of a Steven Soderbergh film are usually indifference so it doesn’t come as a huge shock that Side Effects follows suit.  In 2012 Oscar winning director Soderbergh released two vastly different pictures.  The first was January’s Haywire, an action showcase for its star Gina Carano and I wound up liking it more than I probably should have.  The second film was the wildly popular and wholly awful Magic Mike (it made my worst of the year list) which may have set tongues a-waggin but left me a-gaggin.  Entering 2013, Soderbergh has delivered another peculiar puff of a movie featuring A-list stars in an agonizingly ordinary script.

Familiarity is the name of the game here with Soderbergh re-teaming with his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for this iffy thriller with a plot ripped from any number of Law and Order episodes.  Contagion was an interesting film that played well in the moment but disintegrated if you really sat down and thought about it.  With Side Effects, no thinking is required.  There’s nothing original here so your enjoyment of the movie is entirely dependent on how much you like the stars that pass through the glossy world filmed (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews) by Soderbergh himself.

Though Tatum receives high billing, he’s more of a supporting player in the story of a psychiatrist (Law) put through the wringer by one of his patients (Mara) as she deals with a depression that remerges when her husband (Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading.  Yes friends, right off the bat we’re supposed to buy that Tatum is playing a character savvy enough to be a financial crook while living in a luxurious mansion in Greenwich.  Don’t get me wrong, Tatum is a better actor than we all first believed but a high level business executive?  I don’t think so. 

Mara employs the same wild eyed chilly detachment which made her Oscar nominated turn as the title character in 2012’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so successful.  Here, though, that same approach comes off as sleepy…maybe it’s the fact that her eyebrows have grown back.  Though she has an interesting take on the character, she can’t really get to where she needs to be when the film requires it so she winds up as someone running after a train that’s taken off without her.

Ten years ago, Law may have played Tatum’s character but he’s an engaging centerpiece to the trivial plot twists the film employs.  Law plays his role pretty close to the chest for the first hour or so until he must give way to the script and hop in line with his heretofore ethical character suddenly changing his tune.  He’s married to a woman (Shaw, Hocus Pocus) that’s about as loyal as the day is long and soon he’s left to fend for himself against some increasingly unbelievable situations.

The best scenes are probably the scant few between Law and Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages) as a previous therapist of Mara’s character.  The two actors crackle together and Zeta-Jones especially lets every dippy piece of dialogue coo out of her mouth with pleasure.  I especially liked a brief moment outside of a restaurant when Zeta-Jones goes after Law with unusual rage…it’s the most real moment in the whole picture that’s beneath the talents of all involved.

If I’m being deliberately cagey about what kind of film Side Effects breaks down into it’s because even though the plot is beyond also-ran it still is entertaining in a strange way.  It’s pretty much the perfect length and doesn’t overstay its welcome too much, although you may be tempted to glance at your watch occasionally.  Soderbergh and co. keep things zipping along at a nice jaunt so even though you can see the finish line halfway through the race, you still are involved enough to stick with it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Side Effects

Synopsis: A woman turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety concerning her husband’s upcoming release from prison.

Release Date:  February 8, 2013

Thoughts: Well, if there’s one thing that you can say about Steven Soderbergh it’s that he doesn’t like to pin himself down in any one genre.  That can be frustrating at times for fans of his work as he’s been on an interesting run of inconsistent films in the past few years.  I for one still think Magic Mike was a piece of crap but I did enjoy Haywire and Contagion.  Re-teaming with his Contagion writer, Soderbergh has assembled a familiar stable of actors including Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Rock of Ages), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and Jude Law (the upcoming Anna Karenina).  I get the feeling we’ll be in familiar territory with this film…so here’s hoping that the wobbly Soderbergh style doesn’t take over what looks to be a decent thriller.