Archive for 2021

Parallel Mothers

Posted in Drama with tags on February 17, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Director Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers is such an accessible marriage of glamorous actors and sumptuous set design that it’s easy to forget his raw beginnings. Back in the late 1970s, he had more in common with experimental talents like Andy Warhol and John Waters. His first full-length was an underground flick called Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! My apologies to Spanish speakers for the language. The ultra-low-budget 1978 comedy was never even released. Since that inauspicious debut, he’s been showered with accolades. By 1988 most North American art house aesthetes became aware of his talent with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. An Academy Award in 2003 for Best Original Screenplay (Talk to Her) followed. Almodóvar is the most internationally acclaimed Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel. The evolution of his career has been kind of extraordinary.

His latest Parallel Mothers is a highly polished drama that examines the traumas of Spanish history by way of two women about to give birth. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a fashion photographer and Ana (Milena Smit) is a single teen mother. The father of Ana’s baby is not in the picture, but Janis does have contact with her baby’s father. Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, is married and their tryst was a casual fling. He’s also not present at the delivery either. The women’s shared experience unites them. Their lives become inextricably linked from that day forward.

Director Pedro Almodóvar has such a rapport with actress Penelope Cruz. Their association goes back to 1997’s Live Flesh. Over the past 25 years, the actress has become his muse. He has extracted some of her best performances. Volver in 2006 is a perfect example. This is her seventh collaboration with the auteur. Here again, she is luminescent in the starring role. She gives a multifaceted Oscar-nominated performance in a role that is remarkably subtle. This entertaining movie kept me transfixed for the entire runtime.

Parallel Mothers is an elegant production with a lot of working parts. There are abrupt flashbacks, melodramatic situations, and odd tonal shifts in the narrative. The glossy production vacillates between comedy to drama employing the developments of a soap opera. At one point, Janis makes a shocking discovery. The tale becomes about that information and then whether Janis will reveal this bit of news to anyone. The sweeping romantic score by Alberto Iglesias (which also got an Oscar nomination) emphasizes this.

I do contend that an understanding of the period known as Francoist Spain is helpful. The account is bookended by the history of the people who opposed dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and lost their lives. Janis wants to excavate an unmarked gravesite that may contain her great grandfather. The ability to connect the dots between that painful past and the story presented here is important. It’s an artistic choice to frame the picture at the beginning and the end with this plot. Almodóvar is making a pointed political comment on his country’s past. Tellingly Spain did not submit this much-lauded release for Best International Feature. Therefore it wasn’t even eligible to compete in that Oscar category. (Fernando León de Aranoa’s comedy The Good Boss was submitted instead). Almodóvar’s refined movie is conventional when compared to the director’s earlier work, but four decades later, the director still manages to ruffle some feathers.


Drive My Car

Posted in Drama with tags on February 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s a simple tale. A theater actor named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) mourns the death of his wife, Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima). He’s directing a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. The play features performers who speak Japanese, English, Korean, and even sign language. The international cast includes a hot-tempered star named Kôshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). The lothario was one of his late wife’s lovers. Meanwhile, Yusuke is assigned a personal driver, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura). She is an expressionless young woman, cold and reserved. Misaki predictably warms up in conversations while driving Yūsuke around in his Saab 900.

This meandering contemplation isn’t about the plot. This is an account of the inner feelings of its main character. Drive My Car is based on Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s atmospheric short story of the same name. It runs no more than 40 pages. So it’s telling that director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has taken that whisper of a narrative and expanded it into a patience-testing three-hour assemblage of chats. The opening credits appear 40 minutes into the movie after an extended prologue that is the superfluous background for the proper saga. The drama basks in a disquieting atmosphere of navel-gazing.

Murakami’s lugubrious meditation has critics universally heralding it as a profound exploration of grief, trauma, and Chekhov. This garnered 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, the first Japanese film ever to do so. Impressive, although expanding the pool to 10 nominees (for the first time since 2010) undoubtedly helped. Critiquing a film like Drive My Car is an exercise in futility. It’s kind of like reviewing an autostereogram. A major part of the op art’s appeal was the effort. The payoff is such an individual satisfaction. Whenever that 3-D shape would pop out from behind the colorful patterns, I would inevitably say “That’s it?” Such is director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s tale. The allure lies in the joy of an expected result after staring at it. The difference is that this picture demands 3 hours of your time. I adore the filmmaking of “slow cinema.” Recent movies like Roma (2018) and First Cow (2019) were among my favorites of their years because the experience was so rewarding. This ambling rumination? Not so much. Sorry, but this doleful Saab story is not my Ford Tempo.


The Worst Person in the World

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on February 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Actress Renate Reinsve is Julie, a beautiful, witty, and capricious young woman. She is unsure of what she wants to do with her life. When we are first introduced, she is a medical student in Oslo. Then she chooses to pursue psychology. After looking at some photos she has taken with her cell phone, she decides to become a photographer. Later she takes a job in a bookstore to support herself.

On the social front, she is in a serious relationship with boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). He is a successful comic-book artist. Aksel wants to have a child and start a family. She is not ready. Then one night, Julie crashes a random party while walking home and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a coffee barista. They form a connection. Her life is further complicated. The Worst Person in the World is like a rom-com filtered through the dark lens of existentialism. The ironic title could more charitably be christened “Four Years in the Life of a Free-spirited Woman.” Despite her obvious shortcomings, the film celebrates this impulsive individual. She is confident and self-possessed. The description isn’t literal, but a rather sarcastic comment on how the main character feels. Julie isn’t bad per se, merely directionless.

Julie will surely resonate with a population of Millennials who are approaching middle age. An ever-increasing segment of aimless society struggles with the so-called requirements of becoming an adult. That is, to succeed professionally, find a spouse, settle down, and have children. The drama is a tale of reality but occasionally injected with bursts of fantasy. At one point, Julie puts her commitment with Aksel on “pause” in the middle of a discussion. Time literally stands still while she sprints across town to see her lover Eivind. People, cars, and bikes are all frozen as she runs past. The trek represents a betrayal to her boyfriend. Yet this cinematic manifestation of her inner desires is a spellbinding presentation.

At the heart of the portrait is a captivating performance by Renate Reinsve. She won the Best Actress Award at Cannes in July 2021. Julie captures the audience’s attention with wit and charm. Despite this, she is a desultory and indecisive soul. Director Joachim Trier’s latest follows his earlier works Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), melodramas set in Norway’s capital city. Now in retrospect, Trier has begun referring to this trio of films as his “Oslo trilogy.” The chronicle is divided into 12 chapters including a prologue and epilogue. The bit of organization is amusing given the protagonist’s complete avoidance of structure. This increasingly whimsical character is a personality defined by her relationships. Unfortunately, Julie remains just as frustratingly vague at the beginning as she does in the end. There is no development to her identity. That may effectively emulate real life, but it isn’t a satisfying resolution to a movie. Nevertheless, Renate Reinsve is very good in the role. Julie had my sympathy.


American Underdog

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on February 3, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Pride of the Yankees, Hoosiers, Miracle…in the genre of sports movies, they don’t get more inspirational than American Underdog. The biographical sports film is about National Football League quarterback Kurt Warner who became a superstar with the St. Louis Rams. How a decent, hardworking guy went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming NFL two-time MVP couldn’t be a more unbelievable fable if you created it out of whole cloth. That’s what makes this saga so captivating. Sometimes nice guys don’t finish last.

The account details an unlikely rise to the top. The future NFL Hall of Famer initially plays for the University of Northern Iowa. Kurt is a talented player, but he’s often sidelined on the bench because he defies his coach Terry Allen (Adam Baldwin). Kurt moves “outside the pocket” when the defense attacks. Following his fifth year of college, he goes undrafted in 1994. The Green Bay Packers cut him before the regular season. Then Jim Foster (Bruce McGill) offers him a position on the Iowa Barnstormers of the significantly smaller Arena Football League. Kurt would much rather play for the NFL, but he takes the job just to make ends meet. He would play for them for three seasons. Then he catches the attention of the St. Louis Rams in 1998. The rest is history.

At the heart of American Underdog is a portrait of the man himself. Actor Zachary Levi physically embodies the broad-shouldered, handsome athlete but with the genteel humility of a sweet good-natured fellow guided by an enduring faith in Jesus Christ. This is the sixth feature directed by the Erwin Brothers. Andrew and Jon have specialized in films influenced by their Christian beliefs (I Can Only Imagine). Yet this uplifting tale (based on Warner and Michael Silver’s book All Things Possible) is a universal one. It should appeal to anyone who simply enjoys a feel-good experience. I mean the title should clue you in. This is about someone who triumphs over the odds. The reliance on hope and optimism is de rigueur for sports biopics, but his path to the NFL is anything but predictable.

This tale is uniquely more about the man himself than what he accomplished on the football field. Oh, there’s plenty of gameplay action in the second half once he signs with the Rams. His interactions with head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) are particularly supportive. However, his courtship of future wife Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin) is the foundation of this chronicle. Brenda is a single mother with two kids — including Zack, who is legally blind. In one memorable scene, he walks three miles to her house just to get her number. He instantly bonds with her son in an impulsive but touching moment. Through it all, Kurt has an unfailing devotion to football but also the woman he loves guided by his strong beliefs. His affable charm is hard to resist and so is the movie.


Munich – The Edge of War

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Munich: The Edge of War is an intimate period piece. OK sure we’re dealing with countries on the brink of World War II but at heart, it’s a human drama about individuals. As such, the portrait employs lots of tight close-ups and conversations framed by a constantly moving hand-held camera. The technique is ostensibly employed to create a sense of urgency, but I got motion sickness from all the movement.

That objection is honestly the most critical complaint I have. I rather enjoyed this handsomely mounted political thriller. The chronicle is set in September 1938 over the four days of the Munich Agreement. For the uninformed — myself included before seeing the film — this was a settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia, (called the Sudetenland) to Germany. At the time, most of Europe celebrated the pact which was presented as a way to prevent a major conflict. Unfortunately, it was completely signed on Hitler’s terms. As history has shown, this so-called “agreement” was merely the very beginning of Hitler’s conquests.

The movie is set during the events of real history but it features two fictional characters. These are childhood friends who work in the government. Fresh-faced George MacKay portrays Englishman Hugh Legat with all the naivete his appearance can muster. He is the secretary of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (sympathetically portrayed by Jeremy Irons). Actor Jannis Niewöhner is Paul von Hartmann who works as a German translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin. Paul may hold strong nationalistic beliefs, but he is still part of the German resistance. Paul acquires a top-secret document and comes to realize Hitler has been underestimated. He’s just getting started and far more dangerous. Actor Ulrich Matthes presents the most emaciated version of the Führer I have ever seen. Although Matthes registers a flicker of madness behind the eyes. Paul challenges his friend Hugh to help stop this contract from being signed. The two become reluctant spies.

Munich is conveniently based on having the 20/20 hindsight of what would ultimately happen but it is a fascinating tale of “what if”. It’s an expertly crafted and well-acted saga with an adapted screenplay by Ben Power (The Hollow Crown TV series ) from Robert Harris’ novel. Interestingly, the view of Neville Chamberlain’s actions is a decidedly positive take that gave Britain and France more than a year to prepare for combat. The somewhat revisionist view frames his rather submissive lack of opposition as an overall plan for the greater good. This political procedural can drag occasionally. However, people who love historical dramas — particularly those about the events that led up to WWII — will find a lot to enjoy here.


The Tragedy of Macbeth

Posted in Drama, History, Thriller with tags on January 27, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bold, minimalist, and grim – Joel Coen’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth is a stark vision in black and white amidst the “shadows and fog.” Joel may be working sans brother Ethan for the first time, but he isn’t alone. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant support his vivid display of German expressionism. The movie shot on a Los Angeles soundstage is an austere stage drama but with cinematic flourishes thrown in to maintain interest. There’s a lot on which the eye can feast although computers still can’t seem to render a realistic-looking bird. Oh, but brush up your Shakespeare! This version makes no concessions for those not intimately familiar with the text.

You’ll probably get the gist of it. Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) win a decisive battle over the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, for King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). On their way back from combat they meet three witches (all portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) who prophesize that Macbeth will be awarded the next Thane of Cawdor, then become King of Scotland. Macbeth and his scheming wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) collude to assassinate Duncan and take the throne. It all ends in a lot of deaths, like every great Shakespearean tragedy.

Naturally, the language is pure poetry. Disciples of the text will be in heaven. Phrases like “the be-all and end-all”, “at one fell swoop”, and “crack of doom” all first appeared in Macbeth. This is an ensemble with an A-list cast. Stars Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, and Corey Hawkins all contribute. However, it is considerably less well-known theater vet Kathryn Hunter who makes the biggest impression. She appears as one entity that can shapeshift into three witches, contorting her body in odd shapes as she speaks in raspy tones. As she sits looking downward in the rafters, the floor turns into an imagined reflective pool. That re-interpretation of the cauldron scene (with no metal pot) is a stunning highlight.

Sadly the issues I have are attributable to the Bard himself. An emotional attachment to anyone in the cast of Macbeth is elusive. The central role is consistently evil and the rest of the characters aren’t likable either. Without someone to champion, we have “no dog in this fight.” People are slain left and right and I couldn’t even summon up the feeling to give a care. Justin Kurzel, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, and Akira Kurosawa have all launched adaptations. Throne of Blood is the most compelling, but then again, Kurosawa dispensed with Shakespeare’s language. Joel Coen makes a valiant effort but fails to convince me this play is anything more than an evocative curiosity of Elizabethan English that students can pick apart and study. It will no doubt have a long run in classrooms for the next decade by English teachers who use movies as an “instructional tool.”



Posted in Animation, Biography, Documentary, Drama with tags on January 25, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“What does the word home mean to you?” an inquisitor asks. “It’s someplace safe,” the subject responds. The interviewer is Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The man he’s talking with is 36-year-old Amin Nawabi, although that is an alias. A title card informs us “This is a true story.” However, “some names and locations have been altered in order to protect members of the cast.” Flee is the saga of a man born in Afghanistan who fled his native land to preserve his own life. It was a difficult journey, but he found sanctuary in Denmark as a refugee. Jonas and Amin met in the 1990s when they were teens. They have remained close friends ever since. This is Amin’s tale.

Amin is a now successful academic on the precipice of marriage. He lives a good life in Denmark though he hides a painful past. The sacrifices of his family weigh heavily on him. Here he publicly reveals his hidden trauma for the first time to anyone. That includes his partner. He begins 30 years prior. As a little boy, he enjoyed flying kites, listening to A-ha, and wearing his sister’s nightgowns in public. Jean-Claude Van Damme fascinates him. However, they weren’t all happy times. The Mujahideen seized the capital city of Kabul in 1992. His father was seen as a threat and was arrested by the communist government.

The family had to leave. Conditions in Afghanistan were simply too dangerous. Initially, Amin joined his brother, two sisters, and mother on a perilous expedition across countries. First a terrifying getaway to Moscow. Then Amin escapes to Estonia via corrupt human traffickers and winds up in prison. His brother Abbas makes arrangements to get him to Sweden. Amin ultimately finds a literal home in the Danish countryside with his fiancé Kasper. What makes the chronicle so compelling is the vivid recreation of a trek. Flee is a unique depiction in that it presents these recollections as an animated movie rated PG-13. Visually the drawings are simple but realistic and immersive. Occasional live-action newsreel footage of Kabul and Moscow are inserted throughout.

The intimate narrative vividly conveys Amin’s traumatic ordeal. One harrowing nightmare follows another. It is an experience that many refugees must endure before finding asylum in a new country. Its scope is impressive. Flee is a captivating portrait of self-preservation that has attracted widespread attention. Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as executive producers. It has acquired unanimous acclaim from film festivals and critics winning numerous awards. As such it’s a potential Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature but as a factual account made in Denmark, it could also compete for Best International Feature and as Best Documentary. In that respect, it shares a kinship with the Israeli animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir which earned a nod for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. Will it be the first picture to make history with a nomination in all three categories? I’d love to see it.



Posted in Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on January 20, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I’ve always had a hard time understanding people who make the blanket proclamation, “I hate musicals.” How can someone write off an entire artistic discipline? It’s akin to dismissing all Westerns or horror movies. Their reasons inevitably vary, but it’s often based on the artificiality of it all and no enthusiasm for the songs. To them I say, you haven’t seen the right one. But as I sat watching Cyrano, I sympathized with those people.

It’s a tale as old as the 19th century. That’s when poet Edmond Rostand wrote a play that ultimately outgrew the fame of the actual man who inspired it. It barely needs recounting but I’ll oblige. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a cadet in the French army. He’s both a talented fighter and an expressive wordsmith. He carries the torch for his longtime friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Although his short stature (it’s his nose in the novel) gives him a lack of confidence. A foppish duke (Ben Mendelsohn unrecognizable under pounds of makeup and a big white wig) also has designs of marriage on Roxanne. She has eyes for neither. Her attention is captivated by a soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who returns the same affection. However Christian is inarticulate and Roxanne demands to be wooed with eloquent words and letters. A mere “I love you” isn’t going to cut it. When Roxanne admits having feelings for Christian to her lifelong friend, Cyrano secretly decides to assist by ghostwriting the letters that Christian will send to Roxanne. They come from the heart.

Let’s start with the good. Actor Peter Dinklage is captivating and the #1 reason to see yet another adaptation of this work. This version is penned by Erica Schmidt who is married to the star. Dinklage and co-star Haley Bennett were part of the original stage production. When Cyrano hears Roxanne has something to confess, he assumes it is her love for him. His dejected expression perfectly captures heartbreak when she doesn’t return his feelings. His crooning is less mellifluous. Peter Dinklage’s bass-baritone is reminiscent of Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies. In fact, all of the singing is — quite frankly — mediocre with Haley Bennet being a notable exception. She is the only vocalist with a dulcet tone. I appreciated her ability. Nevertheless, this is a perfect segue into what didn’t work.

Music is the foundation for any great musical. “Well, duh!” The show features songs by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the indie rock band The National and lyrics by Matt Berninger (also of The National) and his wife, Carin Besser. Sadly, Cyrano lacks memorable tunes. One forgettable ballad follows another. I’m usually humming the melodies after a production. I cannot recall a single one. They’re pleasant I suppose, but dull — like dialogue recited with a singsong delivery. I’d say more but I can’t discuss them with specificity. Oh, I do remember one where Christian sings the reprise, “I’d give anything for someone to say…” but that’s only because of the choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman. The soldiers flamboyantly prance about with overly affected gestures as they fence. It is a sight.

I have an issue with the original text. Cyrano de Bergerac is a bummer of a story. The titular character pines for a woman oblivious to his love. Here the poor guy is pouring out his soul and she’s completely distracted. Her heart has been duped by — let’s face it — a handsome face. She wouldn’t be the first, but is she worthy of his admiration? I think not. I wish Cyrano would just move on. So sad. Meanwhile, her growing frustration with Christian’s clumsy vocabulary adds self-righteousness to her obnoxious qualities. Roxanne’s ongoing fascination with Christian becomes even more superficial. I’ve never found Roxanne to be deserving of praise. Viewers are rewarded for enduring her behavior with a complete downer of a resolution. It casts a pall on the entire saga.

Even when mounted well, the developments of the narrative are difficult to embrace. The 1897 play by Edmond Rostand has been adapted numerous times, most famously as a 1950 film starring José Ferrer who won an Oscar, and as a 1990 French picture with Gérard Depardieu (he was Oscar-nominated). Roxanne — the 1987 modernization with Steve Martin — sidestepped the letdown by substituting a happy ending. Erica Schmidt’s Cyrano was originally a stage musical. I’ll give her credit for trying something new. Unfortunately, the songs don’t enhance the production. Peter Dinklage’s performance kept me somewhat engaged. This leads me to assert it would have been better as a straight-ahead drama. And yet there are so many of those. Did we really need another?


The Lost Daughter

Posted in Drama with tags on January 10, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Olivia Colman is simply one of our greatest actresses. She has been steadily working for two decades. Olivia began by appearing in a ton of British TV shows and came to prominence with the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show in 2003. Her talent entered my radar with a recurring role on the TV series Fleabag (2016–2019). She famously portrayed Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix period TV drama The Crown from 2019 to 2020. Academy Award nominations for the movies The Favourite and The Father cemented her status. Incidentally, she won Best Actress for The Favourite over American acting legend Glenn Close (The Wife) no less. Her latest tour de force is a psychological drama called The Lost Daughter. She’s fantastic and (I’m predicting) will likely garner her third Oscar nomination in four years. Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, please welcome Olivia Colman to the fold. She is a national treasure.

The Lost Daughter is the chronicle of a middle-aged divorcee. Leda is a literature professor on holiday by herself in Greece. She has a very prickly rapport with motherhood. During the account, she reveals she has two adult children, aged 23 and 25. Leda has a passive-aggressive relationship with this large, noisy family that’s also on vacation there. She is constantly irritated by the family’s behavior. When Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk) asks her to move from her spot on the beach, she declines. Callie, who is pregnant, later comes over to apologize. Leda has an uncomfortable conversation with the first-time mother. Leda awkwardly concludes with, “Well you’ll see. Children are a crushing responsibility.” Then promptly leaves.

We gradually learn more and more of this woman’s past as the drama unfolds. She is fascinated by another woman in the group named Nina. American actress Dakota Johnson embodies the individual with a disquieting vagueness. Johnson is proving to be quite a talented thespian herself. Nina is a young mother with a toddler girl. At one point the story concerns a missing doll. This development causes Leda to think back in time to when she was an inexperienced mother. The present-day flashbacks to a younger Leda played by Jessie Buckley.

At the center of The Lost Daughter is the fully realized and understated performance by Olivia Colman. It’s an achievement that’s sure to garner awards. Her interactions with this family and other people on the island can be unsettling. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is making her impressive directorial debut. She wisely keeps things intimate and intense. There’s a sinister mood that percolates beneath the surface. It is a most compelling narrative that meticulously lays the groundwork for a boffo conclusion. Sadly the denouement elicits the inevitable discontent of a promise unfulfilled. This fascinating depiction is resolved with an ending that is as ambiguous as it is supremely unsatisfying. I had developed so much admiration for the intensity of this chronicle. The saga begs for some definitive epiphany. Unfortunately, it tarnished my enthusiasm.


Nightmare Alley

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Film noir” is a term used to describe the genre of stylish crime dramas released between 1945 and 1960. Subsequently, “neo-noir” was a loosely defined term created to describe pictures that advanced the same sensibility but came after the classic period. Nightmare Alley is a novel by William Lindsay Gresham published in 1946 and subsequently became a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power. Now Guillermo del Toro has adapted the same story (with Kim Morgan). Truth be told, my expectations were substantially restrained. I wasn’t a fan of his last release, The Shape of Water. However, color me surprised. I was completely captivated by this adaptation. Some of my favorite neo-noirs of the past 25 years include L.A. Confidential (1997), Match Point (2005), Brick (2005), Drive (2011), and Nightcrawler (2014). Nightmare Alley is an outstanding addition that ranks highly on that list.

The crime drama begins within the shadowy world of a second-rate carnival. Bradley Cooper is perfectly cast as Stan Carlisle, a charismatic man of questionable character. Stan takes a job in a traveling carnival owned by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). The occupants consist of the usual hustlers, grifters, and various sideshows including the unfortunate circus geek (Paul Anderson). Stan begins working with a clairvoyant act that comprises “Madame Zeena” (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn). Pete becomes something of a mentor to Stan and begins teaching him the tricks of the trade. These methods incorporate cold reading techniques used to extract information from their marks. However, Pete warns never to use these tricks to put on a “spook show” which means channeling the dead. Meanwhile, Stan is attracted to Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), a fellow carny whose schtick is to allow electrical charges to run through her body. He makes suggestions that improve her act. They form a connection. Then he proposes they leave the carnival together and start a new routine on the road exploiting the craft he has learned. As his approach becomes more and more sophisticated, Stan enters the pantheon of high society. Things get progressively more complicated from there.

The last time Guillermo del Toro directed a production it won the Oscar for Best Picture. That feat is unlikely to happen again. Nightmare Alley hasn’t been as warmly embraced. However, as far as I’m concerned, this is a far superior work. Guillermo del Toro has built a solid reputation on stories about monsters. Although his latest chronicle doesn’t feature any mythical creatures, it still details monsters of humanity. The story may involve unsavory people but it’s gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. At the same time, production designer Tamara Deverell recreates a 1930s carnival with authenticity and style. The tale unfolds with the complexities of a carefully plotted saga helmed by a director who knows exactly what he is doing. Every filmmaking decision informs the account which features an extraordinary ensemble of actors, all of which give performances worthy of acclaim. It’s incredible I’ve gotten this far and haven’t even mentioned Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett. The character is a femme fatale in the most classic tradition. I’ve purposefully kept the specifics of her involvement secret so as not to spoil any of the twists and turns of the narrative. The second Lilith challenges Stan at one of his shows, I was enrapt. Every scene in which she is featured is mesmerizing. Ok so honestly, I was engaged throughout. That is the barometer of an entertaining movie. This also happens to be a work of art.