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.  

Cutie and the Boxer

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An LnD guest review by Joanna K. Dane.

— Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary now on Netflix.

In a New York City studio, an 80 year old artist does his work.  Ushio Shinohara puts on swimming goggles and boxing gloves adorned with sponges and produces another “action painting,” dipping the sponges in a bucket of black paint and boxing at a giant canvas while his wife, Noriko, more than 20 years his younger, takes pictures.  

She helps him weave cardboard and attach it to a giant sculpture he is trying to finish and hoping to soon sell.  “You can tell, she doesn’t really want to help,” Ushio says.  “She is just an assistant.  The average one has to support the genius.”  

But when we finally see Noriko, quiet and alone, bent over a drawing, we learn a different story through the character of Cutie with her twin braids identical to Noriko’s.  “I’m always naked,” says Cutie, “because I am poor.”  She comes to New York as an eager and ambitious young art student.  Cutie meets Bullie at a gallery and is awed by his unusual art.  He gives her studio space for her own work.  Six months later she is pregnant with their son.

Filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling creates an intimate portrait of this complex marriage, both supportive and competitive, through close-up shots of the artists’ daily lives intermixed with animations of Noriko’s drawings. “Love is ROARRR!” Cutie says, attacking Bullie.

When the gallery owner who is going to host Ushio’s show comes to the studio to see his work, Noriko is prepared and quietly asks if he would like to see her drawings.  He is impressed and invites her to be a part of the show.  When Ushio sees the show catalog, he can’t believe it, that it opens talking about famous artist couples.  “What the hell?” he says laughing.  “That’s crazy!”

When Ushio is gone, Noriko feels calm and quiet.  But when he comes home, she runs to greet him.  She has compromised her art for him.  And yet, she knows it is her struggles with him from which her art has grown.  

Set to a beautiful soundscape by Yasuaki Shimizu, this delightfully contemplative film shows us the difficulties of love and ambition and asks us to take a closer look at the compromises we all inevitably make.

 

The Rhythm Section

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The Rhythm Section really caught my eye with some nice Steadicam moves and jaw dropping landscape shots thanks to the handy cinematography work of Sean Bobbitt. This film has great scope as we travel along Stephanie’s trail of violence throughout the world, including a unique car chase in Tangier. I also enjoyed the shot selection and style of director Reed Morano. And though The Rhythm Section hit many clichés it was still a mostly enjoyable ride due to the serious talent of one Blake Lively. For a genre crime film this is a powerful performance. It starts out intense and it ends that way — and don’t you forget it.

The film has many merits. Jude Law convincingly plays a former British spy forced to turn into trainer of lethal force. Aside Warning — Why is it the training scenes in films are always more compelling then the following events?…Full Metal Jacket, Rocky, etc. — Regardless, the drama is carried deftly by Lively and Morano. This film was extremely human for one with several car bombs. That’s a nod to novelist Mark Burnell, who created a compelling character that has to learn difficult lessons about vengeance. The Rhythm Section doesn’t have the sustained visceral energy of some other kick-ass woman films like Besson’s Anna or Lucy but it still carries you along on other stylistic and emotional levels. It certainly easily passed the Tuesday 5 dollar bar at our local cinema.

Alita: Battle Angel

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I was afraid that Alita would boil down to a cool special effect searching in vain for a story. And it was sadly just that. Not even the all-star team of Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron and Bill Pope could save this snake of story from eating itself. A homage to everything from Blade Runner to Ready Player One the remarkable visual effects creating the protagonist Alita, played by Rosa Salazar, particularly stand out in a fresh way. In fact, if you considered Alita simply from the point of view of the effects it would be a fantastic film. We watched in 3D and the depth of a few of the shots were sick without making us sick. Though some foreground elements did seem distracting at best. You would think that by now people would have gotten the hang of how to shoot 3D. Not yet. But compared to other 3D films, Alita seemed almost designed for the experience.

In the same way that the sum talents of the all-star filmmakers didn’t add up to a stellar film, all the effects in the world in and of themselves, didn’t make for a compelling story. There are plenty of interesting supporting characters but there are also obvious and cringe worthy tokens. And for a film co-written by a woman, it’s disappointing to note that Alita: Battle Angel glaringly fails the Bechdel Test. According to an interview with her in the Hollywood Reporter, co-writer Laeta Kalogridis likes to tell the story of how she got fired off Bionic Woman in part because she was told that she didn’t know how to write women characters. I don’t think the intention was that she stop writing them completely.  

The sort of Running Man meets roller derby aspect of the film to me is where credulity breaks. Where the film a la Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli on a waterski on a lake jumps the shark. It’s an obvious, and as D would say Deadpool would say, bit of “lazy writing”.  An absurd ploy for action that unnecessarily moves the film into “Feed the Hollywood Machine” territory. If the writers had as much faith in the life and stories of these characters as they do in computer generated imagery, Alita would have had a chance to breakout of the stockpile of special effects driven yawners. Note: Thankfuly it’s the end of Oscar season and we can expect some more interesting films to be released soon. 

If you are really into sci-fi or computer graphics driven films you might find Alita entertaining. I know we were actually highly entertained but mostly because we were saying the lines out loud about 10 seconds before the characters delivered them. 

Curiously, the only two other sentient beings in the massive theater were a man and his dog. The man was laying down across a few seats fast asleep but the dog seemed to be really into the ending credits. There is a scene in Alita where a pack of robotic dogs goes after a bad guy, so who knows, maybe the canine in your life would really enjoy this film. 

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

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This Werner Herzog doc from 1997 was screened as part 3 of 4 in the series I am putting on at The 602 Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. I chose the film because I watched it in the theater, the Roxie in SF to be precise, when it first came out. One of the descriptions that remained with me for decades was the young Dieter Dengler, in his home town in the Black Forest of Germany, being bombed by American fighter planes. From his window, he and his brother could see clearly the face of the pilot in the aircraft. It was at this moment, that he knew he wanted to fly.

One of the cool things about screening a film with a wide range of people there is the discussion you can have afterward. In fact, people requested a Q and A because “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a heavy film, it is Herzog after all, and folks wanted to decompress —to use an aviation term. Our discussion revolved around psychology: Stockholm Syndrome (i.e. sympathizing with your enemy), PTSD (symptoms like hoarding for fear of starvation) and also truth in documentary. According to Herzog, some stories in Little Dieter are fabricated, like the scene in which Dieter talks about constantly opening and closing doors due to his time as POW. Does this change the certain facts of the story? That he was shot down during the Vietnam War over Laos and then reappeared on the other side of the country, his body ravaged and miraculously spotted by a reconnaissance pilot? No. Dieter’s account of the POW camp, his exact details and reconstruction seem unassailable. But in his own words, he was hallucinating. Ultimately, the point may not be that this or that event exactly occurred. Which is implied in the weight of the word “Documentary”. But that from the many accounts of those who survived to live to tell POW stories and stories from Europe in WWII for that matter, Dieter’s story is utterly believable if not 100 percent accurate. This pairing or Herzog and Dieter, who passed away in 2001 with full military honors and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, an epilogue to the film tells us, seems complimentary. They are both artists of the poetic and epic story and storytelling. Their point is to illustrate human struggle, suffering, striving, compassion and even humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

In the end, I was happy I chose “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” as it sparked a personal and thought provoking group discussion. And I think that’s some of the best inspiration that Cinema can offer us.