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

Lion

For F*** Magazine

LION

Director : Garth Davis
Cast : Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

lion-poster“Your heart will lead you home” – so sang Kenny Loggins in The Tigger Movie. Lion tells the true story of one man’s quest to find home, a quarter century after getting lost. It is 1986, and five-year-old Saroo (Pawar) accompanies his older brother Guddu (Bharate) to search for change on a train car. When Saroo falls asleep in the train and it leaves the station, he is separated from Guddu, his sister Shekilah and his labourer mother Kamla (Bose). The train takes Saroo 1200 km away from his home of Khandwa to Calcutta. Saroo doesn’t know his own surname or his mother’s name and can’t speak Bengali, the main language used in Calcutta. He eventually lands in a government centre for abandoned children. Saroo is adopted by John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) a couple from Tasmania, Australia.

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In 2007, the now-adult Saroo (Patel) leaves to study hospitality in Melbourne. There, he falls in love with his classmate Lucy (Mara). Over dinner with some of his classmates who were originally from India, Saroo tells them his story. He picks up on a suggestion to use Google Earth as a way of determining where his hometown is, so that he may search for his family. He is afraid of hurting his adoptive parents, who are struggling with their wayward adoptive son Mantosh (Ladwa), and keeps his quest a secret. Over the years, the pieces fall into place, and Saroo inches closer to a reunion with his long-lost family.

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Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, which was optioned as a film a month before it was published in 2013. Poet, novelist and screenwriter Luke Davies adapted the film for the screen. Director Garth Davis makes his feature film debut with Lion, which must have been a daunting undertaking. Location filming in India and Australia gives the story scope, both of Saroo’s home countries juxtaposed with each other.

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Lion is a harrowing, compelling tale, one that will resonate especially with adoptive families. The film’s Dickensian first act, with Saroo getting lost and overcoming various frightening obstacles in an unfamiliar big city, is immersive and authentic in its grimness. Through restrained stylistic flourishes, Davis conveys how Saroo is haunted by memories of his childhood and is driven by a desire for closure, the possibility that he might never see his birth mother again gnawing at him. While Lion’s first half is riveting, its second half lacks dramatic urgency. As incredible a story as this may be, Saroo’s outbursts of angst as he tries to trace his hometown grow repetitive, as does his browsing of Google Earth.

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The performances in Lion are uniformly excellent. Each actor seems intent on doing Saroo’s story justice, Patel leading the charge with a heartfelt, subdued turn. There’s a profound sadness in his eyes that sells the trauma burrowing to the surface. Patel’s Australian accent is solid too. Equally deserving of praise is Pawar, who won the role over 4000 other boys. It seems that more is required of the young actor than of Patel, since a good chunk of the film focuses on five-year-old Saroo. The brotherly bond between Saroo and Guddu is endearing, making the inevitable separation all the more painful. It’s an emotionally and physically demanding role that he pulls off with considerable panache. Pawar was unable to attend the film’s U.S. premiere because he was denied a visa. Boo.

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This ranks among Nicole Kidman’s finest work in recent years. Sue is warm and compassionate, but fears that she might not be able to keep her family together. Sue and John embody the most admirable traits of adoptive parents, and it is heart-rending to see them deal with their sons’ respective struggles. Kidman was the real-life Sue’s top choice to play her. Lion reunites Kidman and Wenham, who played enemies in Australia and play a loving couple here. While Wenham has less to do than Kidman, he helps make the onscreen Brierleys a believable family unit.

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Even though Mara gets second billing, her role is not as large as that suggests. Still, the character of Lucy, based on Saroo’s real-life girlfriend Lisa Williams, is kind and supportive while having more dimensions beyond that. Saroo and Lucy fall in love in what seems like an instant; their romance receiving limited development because that’s not where the story’s emotional weight lies.

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Lion has been less charitably described as “Oscar bait”, but it is bereft of the pomposity and self-importance some films of this type possess. Despite certain structural inconsistencies, Lion held this reviewer’s attention and laudably steers clear of being melodramatic and exploitative.

Summary: An impressive cast brings a remarkable true story to life in this powerful, well-made feature film directorial debut from Garth Davis.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pan

From F*** Magazine

PAN

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried, Leni Zieglmeier, Adeel Akhtar, Cara Delevingne, Jack Charles, Na Tae Joo, Nonso Anozie, Kathy Burke, Kurt Egyiawan, Lewis MacDougall
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 8 October 2015
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes and Violence)

The boy who would never grow old is also apparently the well that would never run dry, as here we are with yet another return to Neverland, this time to see how Peter Pan began. Peter (Miller) is an orphan in World War II-era England, who alongside his best friend Nibs (Lewis McDougall) bedevils the strict nuns who run the orphanage, holding out hope that his mother will one day return for him. One night, Peter gets spirited away via flying pirate ship to the magical realm of Neverland, where he is forced to work in the mines run by the flamboyant, tyrannical Blackbeard (Jackman). Peter befriends fellow miner James Hook (Hedlund) and along with Smee (Akhtar), they escape the mines. They run into Tiger Lily (Mara), princess of the Piccaninny tribe, who helps Peter discover his destiny and unveils the mysterious truth about Peter’s mother. With Blackbeard closing in, Peter must overcome his doubts and embrace his place as Neverland’s saviour.

Since Peter Pan’s creation by author J.M. Barrie in 1902, the character and the mythos has been adapted and reinterpreted innumerable times for the stage and screen. Pan hops aboard the “revisionist fairy-tale” bandwagon, recounting Peter’s secret origins. “This isn’t the story you’ve heard before,” the opening voiceover by Peter’s mother Mary (Seyfried) proudly proclaims. The thing is, the embellishments add very little to the story as we know it, with allusions to events that will unfold later on coming off less as knowing winks and more as on-the-nose insertions. Peter Pan’s early days as an orphan give the story a Dickensian spin and the visual of a flying pirate ship taking on RAF and Luftwaffe fighter planes during the Blitz is fun, but ultimately relatively pointless. That’s a good way to sum up Pan – “fun, but ultimately relatively pointless.”

Director Joe Wright set out to craft a family-friendly live-action fantasy adventure, and it turns out there aren’t that many of those in theatres these days. It is a positive sign that Pan avoids being dark and grim and embraces the joy that has become associated with Peter Pan. Visually, it is pretty to look at, production designer Aline Bonetto crafting some dazzling mini-worlds. However, it isn’t anything radically inventive, the look of Neverland’s various environs owing a lot to previous versions of the story and other fantasy films. Complaining about computer-generated imagery has become tiresome in and of itself, but the synthetic feel of the settings and creatures undercuts the whimsy and wonder the film is aiming for. There is a frustrating lack of soul behind the visuals, and this reviewer found himself switching off at times because there wasn’t anything to, pardon the pun, hook on to. The most egregious offenders are the skeletal Neverbirds, which look like rejects from The Nightmare Before Christmas and are straight-up cartoony in appearance, never seeming like they convincingly inhabit the landscape.

There are things about the film that work, chief of which is the title character. Australian child actor Miller is a revelation as Peter, fearlessly holding his own opposite Jackman and the other adult cast-members. There’s a fine blend of confidence, impishness and vulnerability in his performance which made this reviewer never question that he was the right choice to play Peter Pan. Miller also has enough personality such that he doesn’t come across as a too-cutesy production line Disney Channel moppet. There’s a messiah element to this interpretation of Peter – his mother is even named “Mary” – but that symbolism isn’t very meaningfully explored. Wait, Mary Darling was the mother of Wendy, John and Michael…it can’t be the same Mary, can it? This is confusing.

Jackman appears to have been paid in scenery, which he wolfs down with gusto, going the full Tim Curry as Blackbeard. He’s clearly having the time of his life, rocking the over-the-top Jacqueline Durran-designed costumes. He even gets to lead a chorus of miners in singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit – a delightfully bizarre anachronism that effectively highlights the “outside of time” nature of Neverland. There was never any question as to whether or not he would be entertaining and Jackman’s sinister glee papers over some of the cracks in the well-worn story.

Captain Hook is reimagined as a charming rogue very firmly in the Han Solo mould, with Hedlund drawling and smirking his way through the part. Hedlund is pretty bland, lacking the dangerous charisma that should hint at Hook’s destiny as Peter’s arch-nemesis. The “friend-turned-enemies” plot device is kind of tired and is yet another example of an attempt to put a spin on things that is only semi-successful at best.

Mara is also quite stiff as Tiger Lily, the Princess Leia to Hook’s Han, even though she does get to partake in the action. There was a degree of controversy surrounding the casting of a, well, lily-white actress in the part, seeing as the Piccaninny Tribe are analogous to Native Americans. In the film, the tribe is composed of various ethnicities and we even get Korean actor Na Tae-joo as martial arts fighter Kwahu, who seems awfully reminiscent of Hook’s iconic Rufio. It’s a shame that the role was whitewashed, since there really is no justification for Tiger Lily not being played by a person of colour, especially given the dearth of roles in Hollywood for actors of Native American origin. On the other hand, the typically-white Mr. Smee is played by Adeel Akhtar, a British actor of Pakistani origin. Akhtar displays solid comedic chops, his Smee doing a fair amount of the expected bumbling about.

Under the guise of reinventing the story of Peter Pan, Pan walks a well-trodden path, presenting a bog-standard hero’s journey/chosen one plot that just happens to be set in a fantastical location. There are entertaining sequences, a few genuinely creative sparks and good performances, but the CGI-heavy visuals are insufficiently enchanting and screenwriter Jason Fuchs doesn’t make many worthwhile additions to the mythology. “To live will be an awfully big adventure,” Barrie famously wrote. We guess a medium-sized adventure will have to suffice.


Summary: A middling fantasy adventure that never quite takes flight, Pan is another revisionist fairy-tale that doesn’t fully justify its existence, but should be fun enough for the tykes in the audience.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong