Nightmare Alley (2021) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, David Strathairn
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 150 min
Opens : 13 January 2022 (Exclusive to Cathay Cineplexes)
Rating : M18

All of Guillermo del Toro’s feature films have included elements of horror or fantasy. One could be forgiven for thinking Nightmare Alley is the same, but it is not. This adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, which was earlier adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power, is a neo-noir psychological thriller.

Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) joins a travelling circus as a carny, doing odd jobs and studying how the various performers’ tricks work. Stan learns mentalism from Zeena Kurmbein (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn), who perform a psychic act. In the meantime, he falls in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act involves her pretending to be electrocuted. Stan is horrified at the way the carnival boss Clem (Willem Dafoe) treats the “geeks,” alcoholic, drug-addicted bums who bite the heads off chickens for paying spectators. Stan and Molly eventually leave the circus, establishing their own act. Psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) attempts to expose Stan’s act, and he gradually falls under her spell, a nguishing Molly. As Lilith draws on Stan’s skillset to stage an elaborate and deadly con, one question arises: is Stan innocent, or a willing co-conspirator?

Del Toro is known for being an atmospheric filmmaker, and Nightmare Alley is brimming with atmosphere. Gorgeously shot and designed, it evokes the feeling of noir movies in an affectionate, layered way. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen plays deftly with light and shadow, as the movie takes viewers from the grimy carny world to the gleam of Chicago high society. While Nightmare Alley is a marked departure from the kind of movies del Toro is known for, many of his trademarks are still present, and is reminiscent of Crimson Peak in many respects. The allure of the movie is that while it takes place in the real world, it feels as if the tendrils of the supernatural are creeping along the edges. Nightmare Alley is moody and deliberately depressing in a way that is somewhat surprising given the warmth present in many of del Toros’ other movies, but also fits the source material.

For all its atmosphere, Nightmare Alley is often challenging to engage with emotionally. It’s two movies: the first one at the circus with the carnies, the second in Chicago high society with the femme fatale psychologist. The movie is 150 minutes long, and while the set-up at the circus is necessary, perhaps it doesn’t require over an hour. Indeed, Cate Blanchett, who is second billed, makes her first appearance over a third of the way into the movie. Stan is maybe the first protagonist of this type in del Toro’s filmography: someone who is charming, but whom we are meant to suspect. It’s a far cry from the loveable but misunderstood monsters who often appear in the director’s movies. Suffice it to say, this is no The Shape of Water. Granted, it’s not a bad thing that del Toro isn’t repeating himself, but Nightmare Alley is sometimes straight-up nasty by design, which can be off-putting. Del Toro is sometimes criticised for relying too heavily on references to existing films and other media, and in Nightmare Alley, he is operating in full-on noir mode. Audiences who recognise the style and are registering all the little flourishes might find themselves held at arm’s length from the story.

Del Toro is a filmmaker whom actors often enthusiastically say they want to work with, so it is no surprise that the cast is stacked. Bradley Cooper is alternately sympathetic and slimy, playing a con artist who will make audiences wonder how much of what he’s up to is strictly for survival. This is a role that Leonardo DiCaprio was initially attached to, which makes sense. It starts out restrained, before becoming flashier.

Rooney Mara turns in a quietly sad, endearing performance as an innocent drawn into Stan’s web, while Cate Blanchett plays a textbook femme fatale with a knowing wink. Everywhere else one looks, there are character actors of a high calibre, including many who have collaborated with del Toro before. Willem Dafoe as an unscrupulous carny boss and Richard Jenkins as the wealthy mark of a con are the highlights.

Summary: An atmospheric, dark tale, Nightmare Alley is largely bereft of the warmth which lurks beneath the surface of many Guillermo del Toro movies. Stepping outside his comfort zone of supernatural horror and sci-fi, Nightmare Alley is a stylistic exercise in the noir genre. Unfortunately, the overlong movie often feels inert up until the very end, despite the best efforts of a talented cast. This is an intriguing but frustrating effort from the auteur, indicating interesting things to come, but straying from what has worked in his earlier films.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Godzilla: King of the Monsters review

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Director: Michael Dougherty
Cast : Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Strathairn
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 30 May 2019
Rating : PG13

            The king of all monsters is back, and he’s brought friends and enemies with him in this sequel to 2014’s Godzilla.

It has been five years since Godzilla triumphed over the MUTOs in San Francisco. The organisation Monarch has discovered that there are several more ancient megafauna known collectively as ‘Titans’ lying dormant around the world. Dr Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a paleobiologist working for Monarch, has developed a device called the Orca that can communicate with the Titans. She has separated from her animal behaviourist husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), formerly also a Monarch employee, and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) lives with her.

Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a defected British Army Colonel who is obsessed with restoring balance to the world, sets off a chain of events that awakens the Titans. These include the benevolent Mothra and the hostile King Ghidorah and Rodan. A team of Monarch scientists led by Dr Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) must figure out the best way to put an end to the global rampage caused by the ancient monsters.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a movie that gives the people what they want: lots of monsters that fight each other a lot. The film has a rather tricky task of balancing the absurd spectacle and inherent silliness of the kaiju movie genre with a certain gravity to the colossal destruction. Director Michael Dougherty is mostly up to the task, delivering a movie that is reverent of the illustrious history of kaiju films but one that’s also unafraid to have ludicrous amounts of fun.

Part of the beauty of this movie is that it very much knows what it is, and all the actors are aware of this too. It is hard to care too much about the human characters, but the movie knows that the human characters are secondary to the Titans. As a result, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the dialogue is very cheesy, and that everyone talks exactly how you’d expect characters in a disaster movie to talk. Godzilla: King of the Monsters often stays on just the right side of stupid, and like Kong: Skull Island before it, is very much a B-movie with an A-movie budget.

The visual effects, supervised by Guillaume Rocheron, are plentiful and astounding, with a huge number of creatures and environments to be created in CGI. Many scenes are awe-inspiring, but this reviewer found a quiet sequence in which a submarine comes across an ancient sunken city to be the biggest ‘wow’ moment in the film. The dogfight sequence which pits the Pterodactyl-like Rodan against a squadron of fighter jets is thrilling, satisfying and is the kind of thing that could’ve only been assembled by someone with an abiding affection for this genre.

While the monsters are created digitally, Dougherty took the right approach in hiring special effects houses known for animatronic and prosthetic effects to design them. Amalgamated Dynamics provided the design for Rodan, while Legacy Effects designed Mothra and King Ghidorah. Both studios were founded by former collaborators of Stan Winston, and there are times when the Titans feel like they could be animatronic or performer-in-suit creatures like those seen in Jurassic Park and Aliens. This is also helped by the motion capture performers TJ Storm, who reprises the role of Godzilla from the 2014 film, and Jason Liles, Alan Maxson and Richard Dorton, who play King Ghidorah’s three heads.

Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown, who play the film’s central family, are taking things seriously enough. While the characters’ back-story and their link to the events of the 2014 film is established effectively, there is not much that’s truly compelling about these characters. Like the rest of the human characters, they are mostly there to react to all the monster mayhem, but Brown especially continues to show what a natural and talented actor she is.

This film gives Ken Watanabe’s Dr Seriwaza more to do besides making grave proclamations, though he still does plenty of that. We get two characters who squarely serve as comic relief and little else, played by Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford. Whitford’s character Rick Stanton is nakedly based on the brilliant but constantly drunk and chaos-prone Rick Sanchez from the Rick and Morty cartoon. This is where the movie is dangerously close to crossing into 90s disaster movie-levels of silliness, but Dougherty doesn’t let the humour get too self-indulgent.

Charles Dance can always be called upon to deliver gravitas with a sinister tinge, which is just what he does here. He’s there to ominously intone lines like “we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no closing it now,” with just the slightest whiff of irony.

The idea behind Zhang Ziyi’s character is more interesting than the character is in execution is: she’s a third-generation Monarch scientist whose speciality is mythology. The film’s constant references to the legends of old and how mythological beasts were depictions of the Titans is a rich vein that could be further explored in future MonsterVerse movies.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters can sometimes feel like overkill, but then again, a movie about a giant monster battle royale should feel like overkill. The film’s playfulness is exemplified in its choice of end credits song: a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” by Serj Tankian and Dethklok, as arranged by the film’s composer Bear McCreary. This is exactly the right approach for a Godzilla movie, and indicates that the film is intent on delivering B-movie delights on a grand scale. It achieves this.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

November Criminals movie review

For inSing

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS

Director : Sacha Gervasi
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tessa Albertson, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn, Cory Hardrict
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 26m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : NC16

Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz are out to avenge their friend’s murder in this mystery thriller. Be warned: it’s not as exciting as it sounds, because this movie isn’t all that mysterious, nor is it very thrilling.

Elgort and Moretz play Addison and Phoebe respectively. They’re not exactly boyfriend and girlfriend – ‘friends with benefits’ is more like it, but that’s not exactly right, either. Anyway, their friend Kevin (Jared Kemp) is shot dead at the coffee shop where he works. The police write it off as a gang-related killing, but Addison insists that there’s no way Kevin, a trombonist in the school band who loved literature and wrote poetry, would’ve been in a gang. Addison refuses to let the matter lie, much to the chagrin of the school principal Mr. Karlstadt (Terry Kinney). Addison’s father Theo (David Strathairn) grows concerned about his son, especially since Addison’s mother passed away recently. Phoebe’s mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is none too pleased that her daughter is involved with Addison, whom she deems trouble. As Addison and Phoebe get further in over their heads, the criminal elements who killed Kevin threaten their own lives.

November Criminals is based on the novel The November Criminals by Sam Munson. The film is directed and co-written by Sacha Gervasi – co-writer Steven Knight was initially set to direct, with Gervasi replacing him at the helm. Gervasi made a living as a journalist while he was studying screenwriting at UCLA. As such, it’s a shame that the investigative aspect of the plot is downplayed, and the whodunit ostensibly at the story’s core is so uninvolving. Gervasi comes from a family who have been involved in both journalism and politics, but he doesn’t bring his understanding of either field to bear in this film, which would be a natural vehicle to do so. After all, it is a murder mystery set in Washington D.C. This reviewer was hoping for a far-reaching conspiracy to swallow up our young heroes. What we get is far more mundane.

November Criminals hinges on the somewhat unconventional relationship between its two leads. Elgort and Moretz seem like a pairing that would work on paper, but the writing only serves to render both actors unlikeable, instead of highlighting their charm. This is especially true of Elgort, whose persona has often been described as off-putting. While the recent Baby Driver smartly showcased Elgort at his very best, in November Criminals, he comes off as a smug, twitchy, and ultimately insufferable know-it-all. The character’s Jewishness, which was apparently a key element in the novel, is not mentioned at all.

Much as the film does not want Phoebe to end up as a stock girlfriend character, and despite Moretz’s efforts to keep the character from being an example of that, Phoebe is little more than ‘the girlfriend’. Phoebe makes her intention to lose her virginity to Addison known early in the film, leading to an incredibly awkward sex scene – the thing is, we cannot determine how much of said awkwardness was intentional, and how much was accidental. Phoebe often comes off as whiny, and while Elgort and Moretz are passably convincing as a couple, their chemistry often lacks energy.

Strathairn and Keener, dependable actors they are, show up and do their jobs but don’t make too much of an impact. Keener’s character apparently works in government, but this plays almost zero part in the plot. Cory Hardrict’s drug dealer character D. Cash is little more than a caricature, and doesn’t have enough personality or intimidation factor.

November Criminals doesn’t balance the giddy rush of young love with the intensity of a mystery thriller, resulting in a film that’s flat-footed and dull instead of deftly exciting. Oddly enough, the least endearing traits of its leads are brought to the forefront, and there aren’t really any stakes to speak of. This would’ve been a borderline okay TV film, but is too underwhelming to see on the big screen.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Godzilla (2014)

For F*** Magazine

GODZILLA

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

It has been ten years since Godzilla: Final Wars, and the King of Monsters has returned to reclaim his rubble-built throne in this film. Lt. Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordnance disposal technician, who has a young son (Carlson Bode) with his wife, nurse Elle (Olsen). As a child, Ford lived in Japan, where his parents Joe (Cranston) and Sandy (Binoche) were supervisors at a nuclear power plant. A catastrophic incident in which the power plant was attacked by a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO, still haunts Ford. 15 years later, the MUTO has re-emerged and as the military scrambles to fight it, scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) believes only one thing can truly stop it: the powerful ancient creature known as Godzilla – but not without causing its share of damage.

The release of this Godzilla film marks Big G’s 60th anniversary; the creature has appeared in a staggering 30 official films (including this one) since 1954. The original film was a serious-minded one but over time, it’s become harder and harder to take the creation seriously, the iconic kaiju sometimes regarded as camp and mostly viewed as a friendly mascot (look for “Godzilla happy dance” on YouTube). Director Gareth Edwards, who became an overnight sensation with his micro-budget creature feature Monsters in 2010, has delivered an incarnation of the monster that can indeed be taken seriously. With Godzilla, the creature’s second proper Hollywood outing, Edwards has crafted an effective disaster movie which possesses admirable scope and scale. In an age where moviegoers are difficult to impress, this is pretty darn impressive. The sheer amount of visual effects work and the number of major action set-pieces in this one film is hard to wrap one’s head around and yet, it’s not overwhelming or repetitive. 

We’ll be upfront about it: the plot isn’t Godzilla’s strongest point. The protagonist is little more than “the soldier” and his wife is merely “the nurse”. There are more than a handful of contrivances which repeatedly position Ford Brody in the middle of the action and he must be followed around by the same guardian angel who was looking out for Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in World War Z, seeing how he survives multiple catastrophes with nary a scratch. Seeing the future Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as a married couple might gross some of the geekier audience members out a tad. However, there are definitely things about the narrative that work: it’s couched as a conspiracy thriller of sorts and the downright terrific opening credits are presented as a montage of Godzilla’s appearances throughout history, which the relevant authorities have tried to conceal from the public. Even though the military plays a pivotal role, Godzilla does not come off as jingoistic.
In addition to essentially being a scaled-up take on Monsters, Godzilla also takes a handful of pages from Steven Spielberg’s playbook. The late reveal of the titular monster (it’s approximately an hour in before Godzilla shows up proper) echoes Jaws, as does the surname “Brody”. The post-9/11 disaster movie feel is reminiscent of War of the Worlds. The daddy issues are present in many of Spielberg’s works. The father who grows obsessed with an outré subject is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And of course, there’s the Jurassic Park connection, not just with the giant creatures running amok but also in scenes like a helicopter approaching a jungle. But while Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was an unsuccessful Jurassic Park rip-off, the above influences enrich Edwards’ work and do not stick out as being “stolen”. 

As of late, we’ve heard complaints of blockbusters being stuffed with too much wanton destruction, to the extent that scenes of major cities being levelled no longer carry any weight. Here, there is calamity with consequence; Edwards striking a difficult balance between the visceral thrill of seeing giant monsters punch each other and the solemnity of witnessing cities laid to waste and countless lives destroyed. Japanese fans have complained that Godzilla appears to have become the Burger King of all Monsters, having packed on the tons. Yes, Godzilla does seem a little pudgier here, but his presence is no less awe-inspiring and in spite of the extra weight and relatively small head, nothing seems very “off” about his look here. The character animation on Godzilla and his MUTO opponents is excellent; the creatures end up being great “actors” thanks to the emotion the visual effects artists imbue their facial expressions with. There’s also just enough of a nod in their movements to the heyday of men in rubber suits shoving each other about a model city without coming off as silly.  

Despite the cast not being the main draw, nobody in Godzilla is terrible. Taylor-Johnson borders on wooden but still brings a humanity to Brody, though at 23, he does seem a little young to be the father of a five-year-old. We do wish Elizabeth Olsen had more to do; she isn’t in the thick of the action for most of the film. Bryan Cranston is good as the troubled, slightly manic dad, though he isn’t in the film as much as the trailers would lead you to believe, playing more of a supporting role. Ken Watanabe is perfectly respectable, but he does constantly look worried/constipated. Sally Hawkins, in her first big-budget blockbuster, doesn’t have much to do either as his assistant. David Strathairn is the standard military type here but thankfully, isn’t characterized as ridiculously hard-nosed.
While the “human element” might be lacking somewhat, there is more than enough in Godzilla to get emotionally invested in and thanks to Edwards’ vision, this does stand above the loud, noisy blockbuster pack. The high-altitude low-opening parachute jump scene towards the film’s climax is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a moment of calm in the midst of the storm. For the most part though, the 3D effects are not sufficiently noticeable. The spectacle is massive but not numbing and the film takes itself just seriously enough without being droll and depressing. It is respectful of the original 1954 film while offering enough to make modern jaded audiences sit up and take notice. And as an added bonus, at no point does Matthew Broderick remark “that’s a lot of fish”. 

Summary: While there isn’t as much to the human characters as there could’ve been, Gareth Edwards serves up a spectacular royal rumble fit for the king. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong