Nightmare Alley (2021)

I’ve been a big fan of the original “Nightmare Alley” from 1947 since I was a kid. The denouncement of that film is one of the great gut punches in movies. The lead character in that film is a charming heel, but he never seemed outright evil, rather just an opportunist. The Guillermo del Toro version makes Stanton Carlisle a much more malevolent figure and that makes the remakes payoff feel even more potent. The 47 version danced around the edge of crime but was not really a murder mystery. This updated version makes death a key component for all the characters, not just the pitiful mentalist who disappears pretty early in the story. 

The film is a slow burn that picks up speed rapidly in the last act. The set up of Carlisle and his assistant Molly is nice and completely believable. I like the fact that Molly takes things slowly and recognizes the dangers that Stanton is taking as he moves his mentalist act into “spook show” territory. The film may not resonate as much with contemporary audiences because the nature of technology and the media have rendered us cynical about all sorts of things, and we might wonder how anyone could be taken in by Carlisle’s tricks. Although it seems that it is still true that Nigerian Princes requesting money still seem to get a response somewhere on the internet. The main reason I think this sort of thing can continue is that we are all like Stanton, we figure we are smarter than the other guy so no one can fool us. 

The two stories remain faithful up to a point, and then there is a break. I have not read the original novel so it is not clear to me if this is del Toro’s addition or inclusion, but the character of Ezra Grindle played by Richard Jenkins is startlingly ominous, backed as he is by the thug-like but devoted presence of Holt McCallany as his strong right hand. This is not just a mark for the long con, but a potential land mine of a personality that could easily destroy the things Stanton and Molly have accomplished. Cate Blanchett is the seductive and treacherous psychologist who is both manipulated by and manipulating Stanton Carlisle. Her character presents another perspective on the need to be the smartest person in every room, and that motivation conflicts with Carlisle pretty effectively. It was not quite clear to me how she managed to create a chink in Stanton’s armor, but there is a reason that the mentalist should not be drinking. 

The best thing this film has going for it is the production design. I may bot have been a big fan of “The Shape of Water“, but I can’t deny that it was an amazing looking movie. The carnival that is at the center of the opening act is almost as creepy as Willem Dafoe’s character. The wagons and tents and the advertising flys all reek of authenticity and aging utility. The nightclub that Stanton and Molly appear in, is the epitome of the art deco entertainment venues that make me wish I could have lived in that era. Dr. Ritter’s office has the wood inlay walls that scream power and success and there are little pieces of art, furniture and simple background that will draw you in like a magnet. There is a momentary shot of the Spidergirl attraction, and I like the fact that I was personally involved in building a few of those for carnivals and circus use back in the 1970s. 

The film is also populated with some great actors who are doing the kind of work that we expect of them. Toni Collette is sexy but diffident as she ages, David Strathairn is terrific as the pickled former mentalist with the secret Stanton longs for and the wisdom that Carlisle ignores. Roony Mara is earnest as heck as Molly. Mary Steenburgen has two scenes, the first is sympathetic desperation and the second is bone chilling mania, she was great. I would strongly recommend the film as long as you are aware that atmosphere take priority over action in the story. It will be playing in Black and White next month, I plan on going back for that version as well. 

Elf 15th Anniversary

Frankly I’m not a big fan of Will Farrell. After the first five years of listening to him scream, I lost any sense that it was humorous. “Elf” came out right about the time I started feeling like this was too much. It did manage to channel that maniacal loud voice into something that was a little bit more charming and I remember having a pretty solid reaction to the film. Flash forward 15 years and I went to see it for a second time, this was also a regular theatrical screening, in acknowledgement of the Anniversary. I still enjoyed it, but there were moments that I wanted to look away.

The movie starts and ends with Bob Newhart so it has that going for it. I’ve always been a fan. It also features a supporting role from Mary Steenburgen, whom I’ve had a crush on since I first saw her in “Goin” South” in 1978. Finally, it also features Zooey Deschanel, right before she became America’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl of choice. She was much more subdued and she has a sweet, slightly flat singing voice that worked perfectly for what she was doing in this movie.

The parts that turned me off are mostly related to eating. The Coke chugging and belch are just annoying but the spaghetti with maple syrup was a bit too far and subsequently, the stakes get raised with added candy, chocolate and then hand shoveling it into one’s maw. Definitely not funny and more disgusting than some gore I’ve seen in a horror film. Just the thought of the gum scene makes my stomach turn. One other thing that did not work for me was Peter Dinklage going all Hulk Hogan on Buddy. Another scene that just misses for me entirely.

What does work however are Buddy’d antics in the mailroom, his rocket like arm in the snowball fight and the decorating he does. The Toy section at Gimbals was lovely, as was his Dad’s apartment after Buddy works it over. The relationship with James Caan feels like there is a scene missing but the emotional payoff at the end still worked for me. All of the cast singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” was just what I could use to help lift my Christmas spirits.

One other scene that works but will probably draw flack from the SJW out there. Buddy is so enamored of Jovie singing that he wanders into the ladies locker room. Not only is that a violation of her safe space, but the song she is singing and he joins in on is now notoriously labeled an ode to date rape. Sorry my friends, the song was perfect and the scene was really a sweet moment of innocence that was awkward because of society’s way of viewing the intrusion, rather than the guileless affection that Buddy is showing.  Over all a mixed experience for me, but I was glad to be out of the house for a couple of hours and it is a Christmas movie, so that helps.

Back to the Future Trilogy

why-drew-struzan-deserves-an-honorary-oscar-back-to-the-future

OK, this is a good way to start the New Year on a movie blog. Last night I had the chance to see the three films from Robert Zemekis that cemented his position as the most commercial director of the 1980s outside of Steven Spielberg, who of course was a producer on all three films himself. This was a digital presentation at the Egyptian Theater and the house was packed. I saw several attendees wearing down vests and one guy with Griff’s hat on from the second movie. It is now 2015 and that was the year in the future that Marty and Doc went to to try and straighten out Marty’s kids. Unfortunately we don’t have the Hoverboards, Flying cars and self tying shoes predicted in the film, but we do have skype, flatscreen TVs, Google Glass, and more channel choices that someone could watch at the same time than anyone should find necessary.

Back to the Future 1This will not be a full review on each film but rather just a quick recap and a few comments. These movies are pretty well known and are beloved by millions. The first in the series is one of the great pop entertainment surprises ever. While the follow ups struggle to achieve the same kind of magic as the original, they manage to do the one thing that every consumer of films wants, entertain us.

back_to_the_future_ver2The original film roared out of no where in 1985 to incredible popular success and made Michael J. Fox an entertainment icon rather than simply a good character on a successful TV show. The cleverness of the concept and it’s execution are hard to match. This film is funny, exciting and it manages to raise our awareness of family history and it’s significance along the way. While Fox is clearly the star, the secret weapon in this film is Christopher Lloyd, who got laughs from an intake of breath and a bug eyed scream. He manages to make some of the slapstick work where so often it does not in modern films. I will also mention that Lea Thompson is best used in this film and she does the “good girl with a bad side” 50s character just perfectly. She is also strikingly attractive in the film.

back_to_the_future_part_ii_ver3Four years later, the second film was released at the Thanksgiving holidays. It was a success but came nowhere close to matching the original box office draw of it’s predecessor. Maybe too much time had elapsed or maybe it is the sour tone of the movie. Fox is still great, but the complicated movement between time periods and the inconsistency of some of the rules make it a little sloppy. Having to invent a character fault in Marty, in order to justify the story line is also a bit frustrating. Thomas Wilson as Biff/Griff does a great job in building his malignant character, but because the movie uses him in such cartoony ways and so frequently, the movie feels shrill. Doc Brown gets short shrift in this chapter of the story and Elizabeth Shue, as the new Jennifer, is put to sleep a third of the way into the movie and does not return until the coda of the third film. When I first saw this thirty years ago, it was a bit of a letdown. Last night however, it was pure joy. The future sequences play even more effectively now that we are in 2015 and the suspense bits still work. While I feel as if this is the weakest of the three films, that does not mean it is not a success. There is plenty here to enjoy.

back_to_the_future_part_iiiThe third chapter was awkwardly set up in the second film, but once it gets started it works just fine and it feels seamless rather than forced. The historical context is fun and the western tropes that are lampooned were amusing. Marty adopts the “Man with No Name” persona, and gives him a name, Clint Eastwood. The fact that Clint was a big star at the time but also the only star who tried to keep Westerns alive during the 80s was a big whoop for film fans. Familiar Western character actors are sprinkled through the film and the gulf between the real west and the movie west is explored just a bit. The addition of Mary Steenburgen to the cast was a nice touch and gives Doc a great conclusion to his story. Watch Wilson copy Lee Marvin from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” in his portrayal of “Mad Dog Tannen”. He gets the walk, swagger and body movement just right, and in case you missed it, he carries a riding crop in his non-shooting hand. This was a simpler version of the time travel story and it effectively wrapped up the story lines they had created in the second movie. The fact that the two sequels were shot simultaneously saved some money and allowed this film to be released just seven months after the second installment.

Back to the Future 2A pleasant evening was had by all and I am much more ready to come back to these films than I have been for a while. They really were terrific entertainment even when there are some issues in the time story sequences.