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. 

Knives Out

In spite of the hype and overdone praise that this film has received, it is still a pretty basic “Who Done It?” Maybe there is a slight hint of a criticism of the 1% to make it seem socially relevant and topical. There is one scene where there is a direct discussion of current political events, but that feels like it will date the film rather than make it relevant. Writer/Director Rain Johnson would probably have been better off sticking to the traditional focus of a murder mystery, rather than trying to make it woke by including jabs at immigration policies and tax brackets.

The creative part of the film is the overlapping story of who is behind the investigation rather than who killed the victim. As told in a series of flashbacks, we see how the victim died, and it appears that there was a cover-up of an accident rather than a murder. It is only after motives get investigated that it becomes clear a crime really did occur. The intricacies of the plot are manifest in a series of vignettes that reveal what happened, what the suspects say about what happened, and what took place after those events. All of this gives a variety of actors a chance to strut their stuff on screen and create a collection of self centered privileged characters that we can smirk at for their foibles.

Christopher Plummer gets a second chance to play a rich octogenarian with issues surrounding his heirs. He turns in a slight but joyful performance. While he is not in the film long, there are some great moments that he shares with each of the main characters. Harlan Thrombey does not seem to be malicious in the decisions he is making regarding his family, but he is less concerned with his family than he is with his personal desires. Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette all are given reasons to want to see him dead, but is he really murdered? What Johnson has done with his story is to find an alternative approach to the primary motivation. Daniel Craig as celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc is brought in to determine what really happened, but why he is there and who is paying is the mystery.

Ana de Arnas plays the old man’s nurse/companion who becomes a prime suspect but also the victim of persecution. The fact that she comes from an immigrant family and is not part of the rich inner circle is the thing that tries to establish some social credentials. It’s a shorthand plot device that works but in the long run, her families legal status is a distraction to the story rather than a justification for giving this movie any weight.  Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are the quirky spice in the blend. Don Johnson could have been playing the Chris Evans role thirty years ago, so it does feel like the casting decisions were right. Craig’s accent is laid on a little thick but since so much of the film attempts a comic edge I guess it works well enough.

About halfway through, I figured out who the antagonist really is, it’s not hard given the story structure. The real question is what are their motivations for choosing the course of action that was taken. The complex legal conundrum is brought up in the funniest scene where a welcome performance by Frank Oz, addresses the consequences of the dead man’s will. The extended scene is where half of the laughs in the movie can be located, not because there are jokes but because characters act out of their natures. This is a place where Johnson’s ideas stretch us a bit but do entertain us.

The film is a solid mystery puzzle and there are some good laughs to be had, but people suggesting that this is one of the great films of the year are over selling it to you. Go in with reasonable expectations of being entertained and you will be fine.


Whenever something comes to you with a great deal of advance hype, it is my advice to ignore it as much as possible. Inevitably one of two things will happen. First, the movie can live up to the hype which is great, but the experience of surprise is diminished and you feel less like the discoverer of something special, and more like another passenger on the hype train. The second outcome is even less satisfying.You find the film a disappointment and you struggle to reconcile the hype with your dissonant reaction to it. A24 Studio has released some films that I really enjoyed, including my favorite film of 2015. “It Comes At Night” was a horror based film from last year that I really liked. Another film that I saw streaming, that was referenced as a endorsement for this film was “The Witch”. I was conflicted, because I hated that film. So where does “Hereditary” come down?

In spite of some excellent visuals and disturbing ideas that are very intriguing, as a movie, “Hereditary ” ends up in the disappointment column. I was looking forward to this, it is promoted as being truly frightening, and Toni Collette is being given awards, six months before awards season begins. The performance by our lead actress will deserve some attention for sure, but the rest of the movie is a miss. It is bifurcated into a family drama/trauma story and a supernatural possession film. It works pretty well in the former capacity while having great visuals wasted in the later. Maybe I am being influenced by some recent film experiences too much because this movie reminded me of the incoherence of another movie experience I wrote and talked about a couple of weeks ago. An old horror film from 1971 begins incoherently, but as the film moves along, the ideas become a bit clearer so that you can see a plot thread while watching it. “Hereditary” has the same disjointed style but never coalesces into something tangible. I don’t think a movie needs to spell everything out for you along the way, but if you want us to care about characters and dread the coming horror, an audience usually needs to figure out where they stand in regards to the events they are watching. I never could make such an inference.

Toni Collette is Annie, an artist who has recently lost her mother, a woman that she had a unsettled relationship with. Annie specializes in making miniatures of homes, museums, theaters etc. She recreates in detail, scenes from everyday like. She is working on multiple projects, one for a museum that she has done work for before, but also a few personal stories are being shrunk down to scale size often with sad detail. The opening of the film draws us into this story by taking us into a miniature of the house she lives in, only the perspective shifts and it is suddenly the real house and her family that we are seeing.  So from the outset, we have no clear idea if what we are watching is supposed to be real, or if it is a visualization of an idea that bounces between reality and one of the art pieces. At any moment, the story feels as if we are in a dream sequence or an extended vision. At one point Annie reveals that she sleep walks and has visions of events that are not real. There are a couple of dream, within a dream moments,and that is also creating uncertainty in perspective. What is nightmare vs. what is real, this is the basis for almost everything that happens in the story. As a result, the vision we get are like the dioramas she is creating, moments in time that may be part of something bigger or simple visions of something unpleasant. Without the ability to trust anything you are seeing, you will likely become a dispassionate observer rather than an empathetic companion to the characters.

My daughter and I discussed this and the analogy that we both felt reflected the story problem was to an essay being written for a college class. Each paragraph has unique points to it, some of which are frightening or disturbing. Another paragraph comes along with a different scenario, and often a different emotional element. The second paragraph has something to recommend it as well but it feels completely disconnected from the preceding material. As the following paragraphs repeat the process, the narrative feels disjointed. In the last paragraph the student tries to pull it all together so that we can see how everything is connected. Maybe in a paper you can get away with that, but when the whole plot of your movie has to be explained in the last two minutes of the film, that simply seems like bad storytelling. Let me illustrate with two episodes from the film. In one scene, there is a character who panics like a normal person would when an emergency occurs. A sudden unexpected development follows, and the traumatized  character is in shock, so much so that the extent of a horrifying accident is only passed on to others by their accidental discovery of it. That scene plays out beautifully, in a horrifying manner that is in fact disturbing. The follow up on it however feels so unreal as to be scripted from a completely different story line.  A second scene results in our main character revealing a personality quirk with another very disturbing story attached to it. It shows us that the character has a tenuous hold on reality. That hold is supposed to be the point of the story, at least that seems where it was headed, but again, we don’t get a firm perspective until the end of the movie. Maybe if the film was structured like “Memento”, it would work more, but it is put together like a haunting film, but the supernatural elements seem to show up out of left field after the traumatic sequence takes place. That supernatural element feels about a half hour too late.

Every time we start to build some suspense, the moment is undermined by the uncertainty of the character’s reality. There are some images that should frighten us, but they have less impact because it could all be a dream again. When Annie creates a diorama of the tragic event from an objectivity point of view, it is a horrifying moment. When she is given a method to reach out to a loved one in the after life, it feels contrived. The other family members are only perceived from her viewpoint for most of the story. When the viewpoint shifts to the other characters, it seems like the film has suddenly changed. The tone is different and unsatisfying. Without a clearer backstory on the family relationships, it is hard to tell if the dynamics are new, problematic or simply typical. In a film like “The Exorcist” the audience participates and empathizes with as well as anticipating events in the characters lives. With “hereditary”, I found myself saying “why?”, even as I was looking at something that should be a horrifying moment to bring us into the story.