Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley brings the star power: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe…I could go on.  And in Act I, it does a great job creating dramatic tension, with an intensely cinematic take on a Midwest carnival in 1941. A circus where side shows are the main event and the animals are human. This part of the film wonderfully weaves directing, acting, screenwriting, art direction, cinematography, hair, makeup, wardrobe, special effects — the whole shebang —into an intriguing portrait. The homages fly: Days of Heaven, Strangers on a Train, La Strada, Wings of Desire…and yet it also seems all its own.  

But then ACT II happens, and the waves of tension and intrigue flatline. 

By ACT III the film is a mockery of itself and a bathroom break is in order. 

This is the 5th year of the LnD Report and if you look through the archive you’ll find many circumstances where the sum of its impressive parts didn’t achieve the total of a great film. What went sideways in Nightmare Alley? As D pointed out, the foil is not strong enough, particularly in terms of motivation. Also, by the time of the denouement, there are no characters for the audience to care about. The most interesting characters are left far behind. As one example, Willem Dafoe has more of an opportunity to show his dramatic range in Spider-Man: No Way Home, than he has playing Clem Hoatley, the carnival boss and geek wrangler in Nightmare Alley

According to our friend F, the 1946 novel is much better. So that would be worth checking out. I was also reminded of a great title I read in a previous life, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Or simply pop in a DVD, Blu-ray or stream Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece, Freaks, if you are jonesing for an emotional carnival drama.  

The French Dispatch

There’s a certain late night cafe in Los Angeles, in Los Feliz, on Vermont. I was there when Benicio Del Toro appeared suddenly, shadowed by the arch of the door like a cowboy avenger in a Spaghetti Western, busting in on a tavern full of bandits. I don’t think he was after me however. I’m pretty sure he was there for the fries. Then as now, he is a larger than life figure. Intimidating as well as intriguing. Wes Anderson casts him perfectly in the masterpiece, French Dispatch. 

Wes Anderson’s cinematic world is a theatrical one, including light gags, absurd stunts and impossible cross-sectioned sets. His oeuvre is really a celebration of Art Direction. And though the fourth wall is sacred in terms of performance, it is anything but in terms of the actual walls. They are unapologetically shoved around, pushed through and across. If you are wondering where the real wall is, one scene in particular features a prop that is, to great effect, resoundingly smashed right into the camera lens.

Anderson’s films cast a spotlight on our at times absurd behaviors and activities.  In his study of minutiae within the particular style of screwball writing and delivery and cinematographic controlled chaos, he is able to reveal what actually moves people.

House of Gucci

House of Gucci is an operatic yarn that spins from farce to tragedy on a dime. The tragicomedy is handed off flawlessly like a relay baton from Lady Gaga (who showed her acting chops in A Star is Born and does so again) to Jeremy Irons (Flaw. Less.), Al Pacino lights it up, Adam Driver is completely believable…but it’s Jared Leto as the fumbling, bumbling yet simpatico Paolo Gucci who shines brightest and steals this film as his character is stolen from. Paolo Gucci has some seriously funny zingers related to everything from chocolate to Lycra and he doesn’t disappoint. How does he do it? To quote our friend G., “It’s called acting.” 

Maybe some of the accents are off. Maybe sometimes they say grazie and sometimes they say thank you. Maybe there is too much espresso (strike that, there can never be too much espresso). But the point is, Director Ridley Scott knows nuance, timing, how to pull a heart string, how to intercut for drama, how to set up tension and relieve it with passion or comedy. 

For some, this won’t be an interesting movie. The high crimes and misdemeanors of the jet set. Couture. Meh. And I get that. But I enjoyed the performances overall and that was more than enough for me to say, Bravo Gucci! Bravo!

Reminiscence + The Protégé

These films both held a lot of promise but ultimately illustrate the idea that sometimes the sum of a film is not greater than its parts. If you had a recipe like: one part Hugh Jackman, one part Steampunk art direction, one part underwater fight scene — instant hit, that’s what you’d get. It’s not lost on me that a film called reminiscence, which includes all these ingredients, will soon be forgotten. 

Reminiscence, which features spectacular special effects of a not-too-distant future where cities are half-submerged in water, lags due to the self-indulgent and confused tone of the story. It’s a dystopian action/comedy/romance/thriller/sci-fi — and none of these. It also needed to be at least 30 minutes shorter. I held in check the urge to walk out. And I’m the type of person who would enjoy watching a film where grass grows. It pushed my patience as the director followed up every loose strand and tacked on egregious monologues regarding Greek mythology. Not necessary. As was the constant voice over narration by Jackman. It became an almost instant parody unfolding in real time before me. A disappointing experience. 

The Protégé at least had some interesting fun and games involving the incomparable Michael Keaton and the talented Maggie Q.  Though at some point in this film it becomes apparent that the story hinges on an absurd fantasy that Maggie Q’s character, the take-no-prisoners fighter and intellectual Anna, would be interested in Keaton’s Rembrandt, who seems to be wearing an ascot. That’s when you realize it’s a story tailored for old guys though ostensibly featuring a strong female lead. The fight scenes with Keaton and whoever his stunt double is were ridiculous. On the other hand, the Maggie Q action sequences where on par with Die Hard and fun to watch. The film goes off the rails with a shark jump to rival the original shark jump of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s. And Act III becomes predictable, preachy, involves gratuitous violence and is irrelevant. The filmmakers let this one slip through their hands and there was nothing that the great acting of Samuel L. Jackson could do to save it. Another bummer. 

In this latest batch of releases I would recommend Free Guy for a fun action film. For a strong drama, look to Stillwater, where I think Matt Damon deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Free Guy

I just played a game of online Asteroids to warm up for this review. It was on the Atari site and sponsored by AARP. Free Guy is a film that will either appeal to the 14 year old in you or your actual 14 year old. It’s a cross between Her, War Games and It’s a Wonderful Life. The film is loud and brash and original if not in plot, then at least in the graphics department (excluding the direct but well-timed references to Star Wars and Marvel) since it is not based on an existing game —or even amusement park ride!

The film doesn’t really poke fun at itself in the sense of breaking the fourth wall. However, it does have a point to make about breaking out of how you think your life is supposed to be. This theme will be obvious to those of us who know what AARP stands for but I think it’s a good message for people of any age.

Speaking of graphics, the special effects were flawless and fun.  If you are the type of person who finds yourself playing a video game and trying to say, land a fighter plane on the Golden Gate Bridge…or figure out where the edge of the simulated environment is…and try to hack it, you will probably enjoy this film too.

The other interesting aspect for those who get into metaphysics and ontology…when is something real? If an AI character is evolving on its own and believes it is feeling, is it feeling? This question motivates Act III and is covered specifically by the NPCs (non-player characters) themselves in a strong scene between Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy and Lil Rel Howery’s Buddy the security guard.

This isn’t a totally dude-centric film either (though there is a very big dude in it). There is a strong female character, Molotov Girl, played convincingly by Jodie Comer. Finally, Ryan Reynolds, this time as producer and star, is able to unleash every facial expression imaginable. Overall, this film certainly had its moments and I enjoyed it.

Stillwater

I might be late to the party but Matt Damon is a great actor. I think anyone could do the Bourne Identity stuff. Is that even acting? That’s a lot of hours in the gym so you can look like your stunt double. But Stillwater. That’s acting. The story does get trying at times. Forced suspense that carries on for too long. But there are more times where you find yourself asking, “Where is this going?”, in a good way.  The character of Virginie, played by Camille Cottin, who was outstanding in the Netflix series, “Call Your Agent!”, was a strong counterpoint and anchor Damon’s character Bill. But the scenes of Bill and Virginie’s child Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) goofing around, sharing language and advices and just playing the roles of a parent and child, absolutely stole the movie. They weren’t cliched scenes. They were real life and funny. Bittersweet really.

Which is how I would characterize this film. The characters are all flawed, very human. And even if the story twists seem improbable at times, the feeling of the place, in this case Marseille, and the everyday lives of the characters come to life. You can imagine yourself there. You can understand why the “fuck-up” can’t stop being one, though he is trying everything he absolutely can not to be. You can understand the philosophy of acceptance that the character of Allison (Abigail Breslin), tries to explain to her Dad from behind bars.  “It’s not about justice, it’s about peace.” 

I was surprised at the complexity in the story and of the characters, the humor in the film and the drama. A trip to Stillwater is definitely thought provoking and time well spent. 

An Origin Ride

Black Widow is fun ride. Maybe like the new riverboat movie, Jungle Cruise, it will become an actual ride at Disneyland. But unlike that ride, I mean movie, it wasn’t a ride first. In any case, Black Widow boasts strong leading performances by Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (of Stranger Things fame) and excellent action. The story includes women who kick ass all over the place and the highest caliber production value — except for the scene with the jail and even the avalanche stolen from War for the Planet of the Apes. They could have tried harder there. 

But it’s one of those kick up your feet, eat your popcorn, turn off your brain blockbuster summer movies. Another 200 million plus budget movie that will return over 500 million most likely. And it needs to. There were more plasterers listed in the credits than…than…you get it, they hired plasterers. 

This film did have a heart, did deal with family dynamics, with ethics and loyalty, with friendship. And had a sense of humor. All those good things. So it delivered on what you would expect, massive explosions for example and then some. Also, it’s simultaneously streaming on Disney+ but it’s a big movie that deserves a big screen.  

Floridian Inferno

Zola is a conundrum of sorts. In parts Midsommar and in others Spring Breakers, it’s an uncomfortable experience. The characters are two dimensional at best and even simple cut outs like a “fan” at a COVID era MLB game. It’s not totally surprising that the original screenplay inspiration was a tweetstorm. 

What I found refreshing and interesting about Zola was that the representations were flipped. If you’re sick and tired of the male gaze in film, welcome to the female gaze. There is more full-frontal dudity in this film than I can remember at the cinema…including one montage that featured an eye-brow raising well placed on-screen heart emoji graphic. The other element that Zola has going for it is suspense. Which way will this Floridian Dante’s Inferno break? Is it a social satire, a comedy, a horror nightmare, exploitation — somehow all and none of these at the same time?

I particularly enjoyed the brief POV driving musical interludes. Those segues kept establishing that music can set the emotional tone of a film, every time. One danger though in telling Zola’s story in such a minimalistic way is that the story of Derrek, played brilliantly by Nicholas Braun, who also shined in the powerful HBO series Succession, at times took over. Derrek was the one character played with real emotion. He was the fuck up, the hero, the only person who was in the story for something other than a good time and/or making a buck. And that’s odd for a film that is supposed to be telling the story of a strong female protagonist, which there was and which it does. But I’m left to wonder, did it inadvertently tell the story of Derrek even better? Like Dante in Inferno, Zola is an observer, traveling through these circles of misery, though it seems like a missed opportunity to find out more about her. She asks Derrek pointedly during one dramatic scene, “What do you see when you see me?” As an audience, we can only answer that in a superficial way. 

I do want to give a shout out to my old friend, Mike L. Germaine, who I worked on a few films with in the Bahamas back in the day. He’s a fantastic Key Grip and did a solid job here as usual, helping the cinematographer, Ari Wegner pull off strong visuals. And I’d be remiss not to note a stand out acting performance by Jason Mitchell, who also shined in Netfilx’s Mudbound

Ultimately, Zola ended for me just as the story seemed to be taking off or at least morphing into something else. There’s no neat ending here so the experience leaves you more with the impression that this was a filmic sketch based off an epic tweetstorm. You’ll have to manufacture your own ending but maybe that’s okay too. Ultimately, I did enjoy a movie with a different perspective than your typical megaplex offering.  

Rafiki

This is a great film, originally banned in Kenya and only released after my UCLA Film School friend, and Director of this film, Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government. According to Wikipedia, “On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film.” I was able to check this out at my local library here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s also available on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Showtime. It’s a great story, with Capulet and Montague overtones and a scene reminiscent of a film that recently blew me away, David Lean’s, Ryan’s Daughter. There is a truly indelible, good natured human spirit that runs through this film and I highly recommend it to you.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

What makes a terrible movie terrible? Gratuitous violence? Maybe. One dimensional characters? Yes. Absurd situations like…the escape boat at the end of a dock? Again? …And again? Umm humm. Bulgaria? Check. Knockoff 007 storyline? Certainly doesn’t help. A Director who doesn’t know the actor can’t pronounce Fugazi? Likely. Great actors cashing checks for skating by?

The saddest part, feeding the movie making machine when it would be more interesting to just hear what those same great actors would have to say if you were having dinner with them at a restaurant? The truth from D. …I think perhaps it’s the sum of these with apologies to Bulgaria. I’m sure it’s a lovely place. Oh and I laughed a lot but maybe it was a laugh to keep from crying type of laugh. Or maybe the movies, like most of us at this moment, are just rusty in so many ways?

In any case, I’m looking forward to a real movie by Reynolds, Hayek, Jackson &/or Banderas in the near future. This one will be utterly forgotten. However, there were a couple of references to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s “minor masterpiece,” Overboard (1987), which I’d like to check out.  Even a terrible movie, like a broken clock, is right twice a day.