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

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Hollars

For F*** Magazine

THE HOLLARS

Director : John Krasinski
Cast : Sharlto Copley, John Krasinski, Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Randall Park, Ashley Dyke, Josh Groban, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

the-hollars-posterThere are many wonderful things that can unite a family – then there are brain tumours. When struggling artist John Hollar (Krasinski) learns that his mother Sally (Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumour, he hurries home from New York to the small middle American town in which he grew up. Dr. Fong (Park) informs the family that the tumour has been growing for 10-15 years, but John’s father Don (Jenkins) has been dismissing and misattributing the symptoms. John’s brother Ron (Copley) and their dad aren’t getting along especially well, with Ron still reeling from his divorce with Stacey (Dyke). Stacey has moved on and is married to youth pastor Dan (Groban), much to the ire of Ron. Jason (Day), the nurse tending to Sally, panics on seeing John return, since John and Jason’s wife Gwen (Winstead) were high school sweethearts. Sensing that the family’s trials are wearing on him, John’s pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Kendrick) arrives in town to keep him company. Will the Hollars sort out their issues and more importantly, will Sally pull through?

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The Hollars is Krasinski’s second time in the director’s chair, following 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Krasinski directs from a screenplay by James Strouse, who wrote 2005’s Lonesome Jim, also about a struggling New York creative type temporarily moving back into his parents’ house. The Hollars seems tailor-made for Sundance and film festivals of its ilk, right down to the guitar-led score by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. While there is a warmth and sincerity to it, The Hollars contains too many sitcom-style jokes that are often cringe-worthy in their obviousness. This is a cast that is studded with interesting, talented performers, but they’re often over-acting. The soap opera melodrama that runs through the plot is too mundane to be dramatic, yet too engineered to feel organic. Standard ‘family drama’ ingredients (terminal illness! Divorce! Pregnancy! Financial troubles!) are tossed into the pot, which is given just a quick stir when it needs to simmer.

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This is an ensemble cast that one can’t help but feel bad for, not because the material is embarrassing per se, but because their respective abilities just don’t get the chance to shine through. Copley is more closely identified with the action and sci-fi genres, and while it’s fun to see him stretching outside his wheelhouse, Ron is too much of a caricature to actually connect to. The character is brittle and confrontational, a tragicomic figure whom the audience is meant to laugh at but also sympathise with. It just doesn’t work, but it’s fitfully amusing to listen to Copley wrestle his South African accent to the ground.

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Jenkins is a fine actor capable of understated turns, but his hysterical performance here makes him seem like a pretty bad actor. Yes, it’s perfectly alright for someone to be emotional when their wife of several decades is at death’s door, but a subtler, more measured portrayal would have made Don’s struggles easier to identify with. As Don’s wife Sally, Martindale is eminently loveable, a gentle, sweet matriarch who’s trying desperately to hold the family together even as she’s fighting for her life. The trouble is, because of all the subplots unspooling simultaneously, one occasionally forgets that Sally is in the hospital with a brain tumour awaiting surgery. Losing sight of the story’s primary dramatic impetus isn’t usually a good sign.

As the harried, down-on-his-luck nice guy, Krasinski certainly isn’t playing against type, and he’s able to display a fair amount of the aww shucks charm he’s known for. Kendrick never fails to light up the screen, even though there’s not very much more to Rebecca than “pregnant significant other”. Park is a decent straight man, but it goes without saying that he’s more fun to watch when he’s given more room to be funny.

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Day is one of those actors who can very easily hop over that line between ‘funny’ and ‘annoying’, staying firmly in the latter camp as the shrill Jason. Winstead is entertaining in her brief appearance – alas, she doesn’t get to spend any screen time with fellow Scott Pilgrim alum Kendrick. Groban is quietly amiable as Rev. Dan, but his range as an actor is demonstrably limited and while he’s displayed a surprising knack for comedy in skits for Jimmy Kimmel Live, he’s stuck playing a straight man here.

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The family dysfunction depicted in The Hollars can be quite relatable, but the need to fall back on hackneyed humour (the opening scene features a character urinating into a pitcher in the kitchen) undercuts its potential to be genuinely moving. While several of the performances are enjoyable, others are evidence of miscalculated choices on the part of the actors and director. Above all, it’s covering well-trodden indie comedy-drama territory, and not covering it particularly well.

Summary: Watching The Hollars is like attending a family reunion with well-meaning but awkward and sometimes irritating relatives – but the cooking’s nice, so you grin and bear it.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Bone Tomahawk

For F*** Magazine

BONE TOMAHAWK

Director : S. Craig Zahler
Cast : Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig
Genre : Horror/Western
Run Time : 133 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : R21 (Violence)

Gun-slinging outlaws are far from the only terrors a small town sheriff needs to fend off in this horror western. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) of the frontier town Bright Hope leads a party in search of Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) and young Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Samantha and Nick have been kidnapped by savage troglodytes, cave-dwelling humanoid creatures who feed on people. The party comprises Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson), Samantha’s husband who is nursing a broken leg, the dapper sharpshooter John Brooder (Fox) and elderly “back-up Deputy” Chicory (Jenkins). It turns out that bandits Purvis (Arquette) and Buddy (Haig) have incurred the wrath of the brutal troglodytes by desecrating their burial grounds. With one member of their group already wounded and two of them elderly men, it seems the odds are stacked against Sheriff Hunt and his gang.

            Bone Tomahawkis the directorial debut of multi-hyphenate S. Craig Zahler, a novelist, screenwriter, musician and cinematographer. Zahler’s noir western novels have garnered him considerable acclaim, and it is clear from Bone Tomahawk that he has an affinity for the genre. The film is an old-fashioned western that segues into graphic, gory horror and it’s quite clear that this is intended to become a cult classic, to be screened mostly at film festivals to discerning audiences. As such, its appeal is very limited and this is obviously intended for a niche market, at the risk of alienating anyone else. The film has been described as a “slow burn”, but one man’s slow burn is another man’s slog. Indeed, Bone Tomahawkmeanders and dawdles, with not very much happening until its final half hour. We get non-sequitur conversations about how one would read a book in the bath without getting the pages wet and the minutiae of flea circuses, which are intended to provide texture but come off as pointless instead.

            Thankfully, Zahler has wrangled an excellent cast and the characters embody familiar genre tropes without being one-note caricatures, which is difficult to do in a genre piece. Russell, as expected, seems perfectly at home in the setting and brings an authority to his sheriff role without overplaying the macho man aspect. He gets to kick ass, but the film wisely avoids indulging in cheeky references to Russell’s iconic past roles. For an actor of his iconic status, this is quite a small project to headline and Russell was drawn to the part as an early supporter of Zahler’s novels. We’ll next see Russell in a western again really soon, in the form of Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.



            Wilson can sometimes be bland, but he fits the everyman O’Dwyer and while the character seems set up as a bit of a milksop, he comes into his own and has us rooting for him to rescue his wife and survive this ordeal. Jenkins is on hand to provide most of the comic relief as the doddering old Chicory, but he is careful not to play the part too broad. Fox rocks a beautifully-tailored turn-of-the-century suit as the dashing, boastful rogue, though there are times when he doesn’t convincingly seem like someone from that time period. The same goes for Simmons, who comes off as a little too modern for a frontierswoman. She gets to perform a somewhat gratuitous sex scene with Wilson but is ultimately little more than the stock damsel in distress whom the valiant men have to venture into the unknown to rescue. She’s a doctor, so that counts for something, we suppose.

            Bone Tomahawkis somewhat hampered by its limited budget, the town of Bright Hope obviously standing on a backlot that’s been used in countless westerns before. While the film presents us with well-drawn characters portrayed by some talented actors, it lacks a crucial forward momentum and the flabby midsection is almost entirely devoid of urgency. The ending in particular packs in grisly scenes designed for maximum stomach-turning effect, but more impatient viewers are wont to grow restless before then. The smaller production gives Zahler the freedom to try many things which big studios would’ve forbidden him from doing and the most positive thing that can be said about the enterprise is that well, it’s different.


Summary:Kurt Russell’s strong performance gives this hybrid western/slasher flick some weight and gore-hounds might be pleased with the gruesome third act, but Bone Tomahawkis ultimately too slow and too spare to be a truly riveting genre offering.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong