Nope(7/21/2022)

[Warning: Review Contains Spoilers]

In the days leading up to the release of Nope there was a (possibly staged) kerfuffle on Twitter where a guy named Adam Ellis (@adamtotscomix) posted the Rotten Tomatoes scores for Jordan Peele’s first three films and posed the question “at what point do we declare Jordan Peele the best horror director of all time?” and Peele responded by saying “Sir, please put the phone down I beg you.”  If this moment was dreamt up by publicists it would have been well calculated, it made Peele look nicely modest while calling attention to just how enthusiastic critics have been toward Peele’s work, which is somewhat unprecedented in the horror genre.  Peele brought up John Carpenter as the true master worthy of that title, but if Rotten Tomatoes were around when he was first starting it’s very unlikely he’d have gotten scores anywhere near this high coming out of the gate.  Even as someone who wasn’t as enthusiastic about Get Out as a lot of people I’m about as excited about his work as anyone, especially after Us, which I thought really stood out as an amazing horror film and his best work to date.  I wasn’t sure how excited to be about Nope though as its secretive campaign didn’t give me a great idea where it was going and it’s jokey title seemed like a red flag.  Having actually seen the film now I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of it.

Nope is set in an area called Agua Dulce, which is in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles County and focuses on a family business called the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch.  This ranch specializes in training horses to be used in film production and the Haywoods themselves claim to be descendants of the jockey seen in the Eadweard Muybridge horse galloping Zoopraxiscope, giving the family a stake to having had “skin in the game” since the dawn of the movies.  This ranch has, however, fallen onto hard times.  The family patriarch Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) has just been killed in a bizarre accident, leaving the ranch to his two adult children: Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), who is more dedicated to the work but is withdrawn and lacking in promotional skills, and the more gregarious but flakier Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer).  OJ has been having to downsize the ranch and has been selling several of his horses to a nearby tourist attraction owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) but he sees an opportunity to change the family’s prospects when he starts spotting strange things in the sky above the ranch.

Nope is a tricky movie to review as it’s a movie that has a handful of ideas in it that I think are really good, and yet I’m not really sure they all gel together as well as Peele had hoped.  Take for example a subplot about how, while he was working as a child actor, the Steven Yuen character was witness to an infamous episode in which a chimpanzee working on a sitcom went berserk and started murdering the cast of a family sitcom.  In and of itself this idea is a horrifying vignette idea, but at the end of the day it’s mere backstory for a side character who ultimately doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the movie.  So, is it meant to have some sort of thematic resonance?  I guess it’s ultimately a story about the hubris of controlling animals on set, which kind of ties into the Haywood Ranch’s family business, but the film doesn’t seem like some kind of PETA screed against animal actors and the Haywood’s don’t seem to be depicted as doing anything overly cruel.  Perhaps instead its meant to instead loop into mistakes made when dealing with the flying saucers later on, but that element is always a bit unclear and sort of comes out of nowhere.

The idea of connecting the Haywood Farm to Muybridge’s chronophotography was also a potentially interesting idea but again I’m not sure it goes much of anywhere.  To be frank I’m not sure I really share Peele’s outrage over the real jockey in this photo series having been lost to history.  Perhaps it’s my auteurist bias at play but the fact that the photographer behind this photography experiment was the name that was widely cited seems natural to me.  I am similarly not losing sleep over the fact that we don’t have detailed biographical information about the men exiting from the Lumière factory in Lyon or who engineered the train which arrived at La Ciotat Station.  Still, it’s an interesting thing to bring up, and both photography and the act of documentary filmmaking is certainly something of a running theme in the movie but what message is it ultimately shooting for with all of this?  Perhaps it’s suggesting that animal wranglers in general are an underappreciated aspect of filmmaking in much the way that horse jockey was under-appreciated?  Then is the Gordy disaster intended to represent how much things can go wrong when wranglers don’t do their job?  I guess.  The movie could in some ways seem to be oddly anti-director given how much calamity comes from someone trying to get a shot at magic hour beyond all reason, but again, that seems kind of removed from a lot of the other shenanigans going on here.

So what is the actual UFO supposed to represent?  Well, I’m not sure it’s meant to represent any one single thing necessarily.  Viewing the film as a comment on man’s attempt to control nature one could view it as something of a large scale equivalent of Gordy the chimp in that he’s sort of goaded into violence, but the movie is very unclear about exactly what the nature of that provocation is and this is generally one of the sloppiest elements of the film.  If you view the film as being more about the modern culture of surveillance and online documentation then I guess it’s a stand-in for the ultimate privacy advocate that is ultimately powerless in trying to avoid surveillance and lashing out.  If you view the film as being more about Hollywood filmmaking then maybe it’s more of a stand-in for studio heads chasing bigger and bigger spectacles even if this involves overworking people and making it harder to really achieve artistically.  Here’s a wild take: maybe the movie is an elaborate metaphor for police violence, the way it tends to affect specific geographic areas, and how you need photographic evidence before anyone believes it even exists?

That theory is probably a stretch and a half, but that’s kind of part in parcel with how all over the place this movie is.  Peele’s last movie Us arguably also had a strange plot that required you to do a lot of the work putting things together but at least with that movie the central theme of class warfare was loud and clear at least in the broad strokes.  On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, or at least a refreshing thing.  We’re currently in the middle of a particularly braindead summer movie season where jingoistic silliness like Top Gun: Maverick has somehow landed as the critical favorite, so maybe there’s something to be said for something like this which really challenges its audience to parse its themes and come up with unique interpretations.  On the other other hand, even if you set aside all matters of interpretation I think this movie as some basic storytelling flaws.  Plot points are introduced kind of haphazardly and by the end I still don’t know that I was quite as aware of the “rules” for engaging with this UFO as I was supposed to be, which made it a bit hard to follow the film’s climactic sequence.  I also don’t think that Daniel Kaluuya’s character is very engaging protagonist and his inarticulate habit made his motivations hard to tap into.  I would also say that this only barely qualifies as a horror movie; purely as a thriller it’s nowhere near as effective as Us or even Get Out and while there clearly are ideas below its surface its sense of satire is not as cutting as either of those films.  So, I have reservations about this but I certainly wasn’t bored with it and it clearly generated a lot of food for thought so I’d definitely recommend the film.
*** out of Five

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One Second(5/14/2022)

One Second is the latest film from Zhang Yimou, one of the greatest filmmakers working out of China.  Most critics would call him a “master” and yet most of them also do a rather terrible job of supporting him when he actually needs them to because most of his movies barely garner a peep from most of these same critics when they actually get released, which is certainly the case with his latest film One Second.  This is going to be one of the stranger reviews I write because it’s for a movie that was shot around 2019 in China and was released in that country in late 2020, possibly as a way to dump it during the height of the pandemic because the countries censors were not very favorable to it.  It then premiered to Western audiences at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021 where it was sort of well received but wasn’t talked about very loudly.  Prior to its screening though it was acquired by Neon who have handled it with the usual “hold off on showing people things until long after the buzz has faded” incompetence they’ve shown to most of their foreign acquisitions that aren’t Parasite.  It’s now 2022 and as far as I can tell Neon has not set any kind of release date for this, theatrical or otherwise, and at this pace I have my doubts they ever will.  Maybe it will randomly show up on Hulu without fanfare someday but I don’t have a lot of hope for it.  It did, however, manage to show up at a regional Film Festival in my area and that is how I managed to see it and write this review that my audience will likely have little real use for.

The film is set in Western China sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s.  Zhang Yi plays a man who finds himself in this remote desertous corner of the country and finds himself having arrived late for a showing of a film and is informed that the film reels will be moving on to the next town that night.  The reels had been put in a bag and left on an unguarded motorcycle when a young girl (Liu Haocun) walks up and snatches one of the reels.  No one else sees this, so the man chases after her and takes the reel back but when he returns to town he finds that the motorcycle has left, presumably not knowing that the reel was missing.  This will force him to find a way to get this reel to the next town and the provincial projectionist “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei) but he’ll need to jocky with the young thief to do it and even if and when they make it to the next town they’ll have additional challenges to deal with.

One Second is in many ways a film of two halves.  The first half is a sort of lightly comical chase movie with the protagonist and the young thief one upping each other across the desert.  Then in the second half the film transitions into a nostalgic bordering on sappy look at the effect of cinema on a small town along the lines of something like Cinema Paradiso.  The first part has its charms, but I wouldn’t necessarily want the whole movie to play out like it.  Once they get to the town the film becomes this really interesting peak into a film culture that’s much different than what most of the film’s viewers will relate to.  This remote town is said to only have a movie show up where they are once every few months, which then plays there one time only before moving on, and this day event is treated almost like a holiday festival by the towns folk.  These films are not being presented for commercial reasons and are instead being toured by Mao era communist authorities for propagandistic purposes.  The feature film is some kind of jingoistic war film called Heroic Sons and Daughters, which is said to be one of a couple of movies that they’ve rotated through this town multiple times, and the authorizes are very insistent that the Maoist newsreel plays in front of this and goes to great lengths to make sure this part plays.

Despite what in my mind is a deeply unappealing viewing condition for all of this you can tell that the people in this town are still thrilled to have this moment of escapism enter their lives.  That’s probably the most valuable part of the film but the story at the center of these three characters and their diverging interests in the fate of this film screening.  That said, the movie is perhaps a little too upbeat in the face of what seems like some pretty authoritarian conditions.  The film was rather infamously pulled from the 2019 Berlin film festival, presumably by Chinese censors who seem to have made some changes to the film.  It doesn’t feel like a work of propaganda and still has some clear criticisms of the Maoist era, but I do suspect it’s been forced to soft pedal to some extent.  Additionally there are some character moments that feel a bit contrived and some bits just reach a bit too much for sentimentality.  It’s not what you’d call a “hard hitting” piece of world cinema, but I think there’s a place for that.  In the past I’ve made fun of the 90s trend of “friendly” foreign films, including the aforementioned Cinema Paradiso, but I think there’s a place for that and I kind of miss them now that we basically aren’t getting any subtitled films that don’t exist to compete for Oscars.  That seems to be the problem this movie is having with Neon playing games with its release because they don’t know how to sell a movie like this and doing nothing with it until they can find some sort of angle.  That’s unfortunate because this is an interesting watch from a great filmmaker and it deserves a little more respect.

***1/2 out of Five

The Northman(4/21/2022)

Though he has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative minds in the history of world literature, most of William Shakespeare’s plays were derived from existing source stories that scholars have identified.  His most famous play, “Hamlet,” is no exception to this.  That play’s story is said to originate (possibly via some derivative works) in the legend of “Amleth” as chronicled in Saxo Grammaticus’ tome “Gesta Danorum” which was of course itself derived from existing apocryphal bits of Danish history and storytelling but is speculated to have ultimately derived from some sort of Icelandic source.  Like Shakespeare’s character, Amleth found himself having to deal with a father slain by an uncle who then married his mother and needing to find a way to get his revenge and ultimately does it by feigning madness.  Unlike Shakespeare’s character, Amleth is never really hesitant about wanting to kill the usurper uncle and there’s also some weird shit at the end about having to take multiple wives or something.  Really though the bigger differences are probably cultural.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nominally set in Denmark, but it might as well be set in Yorkshire for all Shakespeare knew about that place.  He turned what was likely a pagan Viking legend and turned it into a very courtly and Christianized story.  And this is likely what director Robert Eggers set out to correct with his new movie The Northman, which aims to “take back” the Amleth story by making it an even more savage story of revenge than even the original story.

This version of the Amleth story begins in the year 895 when Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is just an adolescent boy and his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has just returned from war to greet him and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Aurvandill is a bit weary from his raids and decides to put Amleth through a rite of passage ritual overseen by their shaman/jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe) that involves taking hallucinogens and embracing his inner animal totems and also then swearing to avenge his father if ever he were killed.  This ends up coming into play sooner rather than later as right after they emerge from their ritual the king is attacked and killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang).  Amleth escapes from the kingdom but right before he leaves he sees Fjölnir carrying away his mother.  The film then flashes forward about fourteen years to Amleth in his fighting prime having joined up with a group of berserkers who are raiding villages in Rus when he hears that his uncle had left the kingdom he’d taken over through assassination and was now taking up on the Viking frontier of Iceland.  Realizing that this was his chance to get revenge he infiltrates a slave ship heading to that farm intending to pose as a slave and plot his vengeance and along the way he meets a Rus slave woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who offers to help him in his scheme.

The Northman was directed by Robert Eggers, who may well be the most exciting American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years.  His 2015 film The Witch was a major landmark of the “A24 Horror” trend and his 2019 film The Lighthouse was one of the most formally adventurous movies to ever open on 980 screens.  It kind of seemed like he was a particularly canny horror guys but the real commonality between his movies seems to be his interest in history and folklore combined with some boldly uncompromising instincts during what would seem to be a highly risk averse era in American filmmaking.  The Northman is in some ways less complicated than his previous works in that it is essentially an action movie with a revenge arc as its backbone, but in other ways this is his biggest risk yet in that he’s playing with a serious budget this time around.  Reports have suggested that Focus Features made this movie for something in the range of 70 to 90 million dollars, so this isn’t a movie that can just live or die by being a cool indie, it’s in many ways a film that will decide both if he can work on large canvases going forward and also frankly if Hollywood sub-studios can afford to fund trippy historical epics even if they seemingly have a lot of bankable violence and action in them.

Robert Eggers is clearly something of a history buff but he’s not someone who’s interested in events so much as he’s interested in getting under the skin of the past cultures he depicts and rather than expose their beliefs as quaint he kind of engages with things on their level.  Satan was very much at work in The Witch, nautical superstitions were to be taken very seriously in The Lighthouse, and here in The Northman Viking notions of fate and honor are vitally important though not completely unquestioned.  I would almost compare it to 300 in the way that it kind of goes along with the ancient mindset of its characters, but the film’s visual style is way more earthy and realistic even if it isn’t afraid to kick some ass occasionally.  Audiences willing to go along with some occasional tippyness can enjoy this movie as little more than a 21st Century Conan the Barbarian but its interest in deconstructing the Amleth story while still respecting it does I think elevate things: there’s a twist to the whole story at about the two thirds point which interestingly reminded me less of “Hamlet” than of an even older Greek Tragedy that I won’t name so as to avoid spoilers.  Still, the film walks a tricky line, one could view it as a dumbed down version of what Eggers has done elsewhere and maybe be a bit disappointed in it or you can view it as one of the smartest and most ambitious mainstream action movies Hollywood has made in ages, which is maybe to overrate it.  Ultimately of the three Robert Eggers movies it’s my third favorite, but man, if you’re going to sell out even a little this is definitely the right way to do it.

**** out of Five

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2021 (2/26/2022)


For six years running I’ve made something of a tradition of going to see the Oscar Nominated Shorts program toured by ShortsTV and doing a write up, but man, I’m conflicted this year.  Hopefully this gets reversed and undone by the time this posts, but four days before this round of shorts opened theatrically the Academy announced that they were planning to cut the live presentation of eight major categories from their broadcast including all three shorts categories.  I don’t have the time or space here to express how outraged I am about this, I’ve probably tested the patience of my Twitter followers with the sheer volume of anger I’ve tweeted and retweeted as a result of this.  To me it’s an absolute betrayal of everything The Academy claimed it stood for and I’m almost embarrassed to spent as much time talking about them as I have and if they go through with this I may well make a concerted effort to stop giving them as much free press going forward.  Still, hope springs eternal that they come to their senses in the next month, and of course it would be a bit odd to give these shorts less coverage to punish the Academy for giving them less coverage so for the time being I will continue this little tradition.

As always, please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

On My Mind

The first, and by far lightest short on the program is the Danish short On My Mind, and given that it deals with a grieving man turning to alcohol to ease the pain that’s perhaps saying something about what’s to come.  The film begins with a large bearded man walking into a mostly empty bar shortly after it opens and ordering a triple whiskey which he gulps down.  The bar tender and the owner aren’t quite sure what to make of him and as he’s stumbling out he notices the bar has a karaoke machine and asks them to turn it on even though it’s not karaoke night.  The owner, who’s trying to do the books at that time, doesn’t want to but is convinced when the man hands him a 500 Krone note.  The guy then asks the bartender to film him with a cell phone as he does a recitation of the pop standard “You Were Always on My Mind” but keeps getting interrupted.  The guy is not much of a singer but you come to realize that what he’s doing is very meaningful to him and is for a pretty serious purpose.  The song at the center of all this is well chosen and is a pretty good reminder of how great a song it is even if this dude is no Elvis, but obviously the emotional story here is supposed to be the important thing here rather than the music.  I do think the movie takes a step a bit too far into the mawkish with its very final image, but otherwise this is a nice if perhaps not overly memorable little short.

B

Its Oscar Chances: Quite low.  Interestingly this was directed by a guy named Martin Strange-Hansen, who actually won in this category way back in 2002 for a short called This Charming Man (also named after a song?) but this year his short just doesn’t have the flash or memorability to really stand out and is the only of the five to not address some sort of social or political issue.

Please Hold

The second short is one of two English language shorts in this package and the sole American nominee.  It presents a dystopian science fiction vision of a fully privatized and largely automated criminal justice system.  It begins with a man named Mateo having a police drone fly up to him and tell him he’s under arrest (it instructs him to put handcuffs on himself and says “non-lethal force” will be applied if he doesn’t.  It then sends an automated car to take him to an isolated prison cell with a computer monitor and touchscreen.  The computer never once tells him what he’s charged with, instead only providing him an A.I. public defender that’s completely useless and a variety of ads for expensive non-A.I. lawyers who are presented to him in the form of advertisements.  I won’t give away too much more, but clearly the film is trying to present some of the unfair aspects of the modern criminal justice system and extended them to absurd Kafkaesque scale while also skewering several of the most annoying aspects of technological automation like fine print in terms of service agreements and automated interfaces that have all the hallmarks of terrible customer service lines.  Of course there’s a lot about this vision that is not reflective of the current system.  For one, the principal of habeas corpus does not seem to be present at all in this system: there’s not speedy arraignment and there isn’t even discussion of cash bail, both of which would solve a lot of this guy’s problems and which are both shortcomings that the current system is not really guilty of exactly.  Still, as a cautionary tale about what’s at stake with dehumanizing technology and as a reflection of how unfair the system can be in the abstract the film does have some pretty blunt allegorical power.

B+

It’s Oscar Chances: I’d say very high.  The film is fairly comparable to last year’s winner Two Distant Strangers, which also took a somewhat high concept and darkly satirical approach to a pretty serious set of issues, though that one had Netflix behind it and was made by people with deeper industry connections.

The Dress

The third short hails from Poland and from a filmmaking and concept perspective it’s probably the one I found the least interesting.  The film follows a woman in her early thirties named Julka who’s afflicted with dwarfism and who works at a cheap motel/truckstop and who generally seems to be having a rough go at life.  A glimmer of hope does shine through, however, when she gets a date with a truck driver who seems interesting.  In anticipation Julka looks for a dress to wear to this meeting, but getting attractive clothing that comes in her size is always a challenge.  The eventual date goes well, until it very much doesn’t.  Ultimately this isn’t really a romance so much as a character study, but I’m not sure it ever really probes this character as much as it thinks it does.  The film does a good job of establishing setting as working for this hotel does indeed look miserable but despite being a thirty minute short I feel like a good five minutes could have been cut from this thing, which is a sixth of its running time, and it also doesn’t really know how to begin or end.

C-

Its Oscar Chances: Can’t see this happening.  It’s a rather depressing short and not in a good way and it doesn’t have any kind of real filmmaking hook to make it stand out outside of Anna Dzieduszycka’s performance in the lead.  The deck is definitely stacked against this one.

The Long Goodbye

The fourth short is by far the one that’s been given the most press simply for the fact that it features a legit movie star: Riz Ahmed.  Ahmed apparently has a side hustle as a UK rapper and put out an album called “The Long Goodbye” last year which is a rather angry piece of work about Brexit and the rise of the far right in the UK and uses a divorce metaphor to express a feeling that the country no longer wants its immigrant population.  This short film was essentially made as a thirteen minute promotional clip for the album, which would have been nice to know before I watched it.  In the short Ahmed plays a typical UK citizen (maybe himself?) as they go through a routine suburban morning when suddenly they see vans pull up outside their home and then brownshirt types working with the police burst into their house, round up the whole family, then summarily execute them in the street… then after they’ve left Ahmed stands up and starts angrily rapping a Capella directly to the camera.  That song being recited at the end is called “Where You From,” the tenth track from the “The Long Goodbye” album that acts as something of a monologue about how disrespectful it is to ask a brown person where they’re “really from.”  I don’t think it’s the same recording that’s on the album, it’s recited with more anger and intensity here, but both are around two minutes and recited without musical accompaniment and have a certain slam poetry element to them.  Knowing now about Ahmed’s rap career and the context of that album this short makes a little more sense to me but I would say I was pretty confused watching it as the fourth film in a program of what are otherwise longer narrative pieces while this is kind of a music video.  As a piece unto itself, I would say that the intensity and fear of this raid is well executed in the video but it does seem a little odd to pair straight up genocide imagery with a song that’s essentially commenting on a micro-aggression and the whole thing is slightly derivative of M.I.A.’s “Born Free” video, which features a similar if slightly more metaphorical concept.

C+

It’s Oscar Chances: Very high, but not as high as I thought before watching it.  The celebrity connection is no small thing and if Ahmed has a lot of connections that alone could be enough to sway the race.  However, if people actually watch the shorts they may find this as jarring as I did and its status as a music video of sorts could well work against it.

Ala Kachuu – Take and Run

The final short in this package is the longest at thirty eight minutes, which is just two minutes below the forty minute threshold for what can be considered a short, but I think it earns that extra time.  Officially this movie is Swiss, but it’s actually set entirely in the West Asian country of Kyrgyzstan and does not paint a terribly flattering portrait of that nation.  The film focuses on a woman named Sezim who has just passed an SAT type exam and is learning to drive in hopes of getting a scholarship to study in the capital.  Then she’s kidnapped by three men, driven out to a remote village and forced to marry her kidnapper.  From there she’s essentially meant to be his housewife despite her strenuous objections and when her parents learn what’s happened they do nothing to save her and tacitly approve.  This is a cultural practice called bridal kidnapping or as it’s called in Kyrgyzstan “Ala Kachuu” which translates to “take and run,” and the extent of how common it is today appears to be a matter of much controversy, but few people dispute that it does exist to at least some extent.  I’ll admit that I had no real knowledge of this, so if the film’s goal is to spread awareness, mission accomplished.  The film appears to have been made with unknowledgeable people like myself in mind and really wants to give you a certain sense of shock value for the audience once this kidnapping happens and it really puts you into this woman’s mindset as she finds herself stuck in this situation.  I will say there is probably always some reason to be slightly weary about white people making art about “backwards” foreign practices, so I would not necessarily watch this as a documentary on this subject unto itself, however, as a human story it is very affecting and uses the short film timespan perfectly.

A-

Its Oscar Chances: Probably lower than I want.  In my eyes this is the best of the five but it’s become increasingly clear to me as of late that English language shorts have a massive advantage in this category.  I will say that if “Please Hold” and “The Long Goodbye” somehow cancel each other out this one more than likely has the best shot of the three alternatives.

Final Thoughts:  Kind of an odd assortment overall.  In terms of quality I’d say this is about on par with what I normally expect year to year, certainly an improvement over last year’s rather underwhelming roster.  Lots of grim material, but that’s somewhat expected from this category and compared to the legendarily grim 2018 lineup this is almost sunny (somehow it’s the animated shorts that are “shocking” this year).  In terms of predictions I’ve come to be rather cynical about this category as I often watch them and get it in my head that they’ll go with whatever my favorite was only to see them just go for the one that’s in English.  There are two of those this year and most people are predicting The Long Goodbye because of Riz Ahmed, though I do wonder how many of them have actually watched it.  Celebrity actors aren’t always everything in this (one of the losing shorts last year starred Oscar Isaac, and Riz Ahmed is no Oscar Isaac) but it might matter more here.  If they actually watch the two shorts I think Please Hold would actually have the edge… then again if they actually watch them I’d think Ala Kachuu – Take and Run would win and I’m not going to trick myself into thinking that will actually happen.

Nightmare Alley(12/19/2021)

What does clout buy you?  That tends to be a question every film director ends up asking right after a film they make becomes a popular hit or wins an Oscar.  That’s when their name is at its peak in Hollywood and studios and producers are eager to work with them in order to see if they can keep that winning streak going.  Occasionally it doesn’t matter as much because the filmmaker in question is already working on their next movie before those laurels arrive, which is what happened last year when Chloe Zhao won the Oscar while already in post-production on Eternals, which is probably the movie she had expected would get her the clout (maybe miscalculated there).  But when that’s not the case this peak of relevance is usually when a filmmaker will try to cash in and finally get that passion project greenlit that they’ve long wanted to make but could never get the moneymen to pony up the cash, often some sort of adaptation that they’ve long nurtured.  Sometimes this can lead to great things; for instance I for one think that If Beale Street Could Talk is an even greater accomplishment than Moonlight even if the Academy and critical consensus don’t seem to see it that way, or perhaps look at the fine Little Women adaptation Greta Gerwig was able to make after the success of Lady Bird.  Other times though this can lead to a sort of “Sophomore Slump” even if it’s not really the director’s second film just because that’s when everyone is watching them, like when Ben Affleck made that Live by Night movie with his Argo clout or when Ava DuVernay followed up her triumphant Selma with a head scratching version of A Wrinkle in Time.  Well, in 2017 Guillermo del Toro (a man who often needs to struggle to get funding for his various passion projects) found himself having rather improbably winning an Oscar for his interspecies romance The Shape of Water and all eyes were on him to see what he’s be able to get greenlit next.  The answer is a little surprising but kind of makes sense at the same time: a new big budget version of the novel Nightmare Alley.

You would think that with that title and this director this would be a horror movie but it really isn’t.  Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1946 novel of the same title by a guy named William Lindsay Gresham.  I’m not sure that book would technically be considered a work of pulp fiction but it was certainly pulp adjacent and was largely known for its dark look at the world of carnivals from an author who’d done a lot of research into their inner-workings and used it as a backdrop for a story about the rise and fall of a conman named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).  Carlisle is something of a drifter as the story begins and gets a job at a traveling carnival run by a guy named Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) featuring a lot of antiquated acts of the era ranging from a strong man named Bruno (Ron Perlman) to a truly grotesque “geek show” in which a desperate drunk bites the heads off of chickens for a crowds amusement.  One of the more popular acts is a mentalist show where a lady (Toni Collette) and her father (David Strathairn) employ various cold reading tricks to make the crowds think they can read minds and channel spirits, which Stan takes an interest in and tries to learn while seeing the electricity channeling woman Molly (Rooney Mara).  Little does he know that this interest in mentalism will eventually lead him to cross paths with a dangerous femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) and a brutal gangster (Richard Jenkins) who he’ll have to take on in a battle of wits.

This is not the first time that William Lindsay Gresham’s novel has been brought to the big screen; about a year after the novel’s release we got an adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power which had to bowdlerize the material a bit in order to meet the requirements of the Production Code but which made up for it by indulging in the film noir style of the time.  Despite the censorship that movie was still considered rather lurid and controversial so it hasn’t been shown a whole lot over the years and isn’t necessarily seen as an all-time classic or anything but it does have a legacy and is a pretty good movie.  I saw that version earlier this year, so I went into this new adaptation already knowing the basic story but not sure how much was changed between the two version and while this isn’t a West Side Story situation where there is this iconic movie the remake needs to live up to I must say I was maybe expecting there to be bigger changes between the two than there were.  Both movies tell the same basic story and cover most of the same sequences; the characters in the new one are allowed to curse and talk about sex and there are a couple of scenes of violence that weren’t there in the older film but the absence of these things from the older film do no fundamentally change it.  In fact I think I may well have enjoyed the new one a decent bit more of I hadn’t seen the original as it would have given me a bit more of a sense of surprise as the story unfolded.

The main difference between the two films is probably the central character, who in the original version is your typical noir protagonist who starts out as a potentially salvageable person who eventually falls when he meets the wrong femme fatale and succumbs to the green eyed monster, but in this remake it’s pretty clear that this guy was kind of fucked up from the very beginning.  Bradley Cooper is a generally more rough and tumble actor than Tyrone Powers, who was very much playing against type when he was in this role, but also an actor who can clean up and blend better into high society in the film’s second half.  This is not the most challenging role he’s taken on, but he does make it work pretty well.  The other big difference here is that the Richard Jenkins character is greatly expanded here.  In the 1947 version he was a mostly innocent sucker but here he’s a vicious gangster with a whole lot to atone for.  I think that was cut from the original mostly for purposes of time and I can see an argument that that was for the best (at two and a half hours this movie does feel like it could have been trimmed) but the version of the character here is certainly more interesting and does give the film a bit more to chew on in its second half.

As I said earlier this is not a horror movie and in some ways it may seem like an odd choice for Del Toro given that there aren’t any literal monsters here.  I would also say that the movie is generally a bit less humanist than some of his other films, which usually do have sympathetic characters at their center or are interested in finding sympathy in monsters whereas this movie is pretty unrelentingly dark and cynical.  I think what attracted him to the story, aside from how fun it would be to bring cool carnival noir imagery to the screen, is the theme about the ethics of fortune telling and séances that the Cooper character wades into in the second half.  Del Toro has made it known that despite his love of bringing monsters to the screen he is in fact highly skeptical about any sort of claims of the paranormal in the real world and I suspect that as a horror filmmaker he has some complex feelings about depicting ghosts and goblins without indulging in suggesting that they’re real.  I cannot, however, say that this theme ever feels like it’s completely explored here and it’s also not the deepest exploration of other themes like alcoholism either and I do suspect there will be people who watch this and find themselves wondering what the point of all this really is.  That said, I have very few specific complaints about the movie and there’s very little in it I would change, it just kind of never comes together into something greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s a good movie, but I’m not sure it’s entirely more successful than its predecessor and never quite feels like it lives up to its potential.

***1/2 out of Five

No Time to Die(10/8/2021)

On November 17th 2006 the movie Casino Royale came out to great critical acclaim and popularity.  As a James Bond fan I should have been thrilled about this but I wasn’t; as a Bond purist this film did not give me what I was looking for because it gave the franchise something that in my eyes it never should have had: a beginning.  Whatever other merits that movie had, and it had many, it was impossible for me to get behind a movie that was messing with the fabric of nature by rebooting the James Bond franchise.  So, as the James Bond franchise continued for the next fifteen years through the Daniel Craig era of the series I had to keep having these awkward conversations that came down to “I get why you like these movies, but I can’t” all while sounding like an unreasonable raging fanboy… which maybe I was.  It’s now 2021 and after a protracted COVID fueled delay we’re finally getting what is maybe the logical end of the mess that Daniel Craig (or more specifically the writers during his era) started: the Bond that gave us a beginning is now giving us an ending and I have the same mixed feelings I’ve had from the start.

The film begins sometime after the end of the last James Bond film Spectre in which Bond (Daniel Craig) rather uncharacteristically makes a much stronger connection to his latest “Bond Girl” Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) than normal and it was strongly implied that he would not be discarding her in his normal fashion.  Indeed, this film opens with Bond and Swann on vacation in Italy when Spectre unexpectedly strikes back at Bond.  Thinking Swann was in on this he abandons her at a train station and runs off to retire from MI6 and live in relative solitude in Jamaica.  But five years later he is visited by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and another American agent named Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) who tell him that there’s a major issue in the world, one that involves Spectre and which the Americans and British are somewhat at odds over.  They want him to go to Cuba to infiltrate what appears to be a Spectre party, but once there he will need to contend with a new British agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch) that has inherited his 007 number and is attempting to deal with this issue separately.  Eventually Bond will find himself in a high stakes chase for a weaponized virus called Heracles and a sinister villain named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) that wants to use it.

No Time to Die is perhaps notable in being the only James Bond film to be made knowing for certain that it would be the last outing for its star actor.  The rest of the Bond actors could be said to have gone out with whimpers with Sean Connery and Roger Moore simply hanging around until they aged out of the role and other actors like Geoge Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan having been rather unceremoniously dropped after making films that were considered to have under-performed.  Of course in many ways a “poignant sendoff” is not exactly what I want from a James Bond movie; pretty much from the beginning of the Craig era I’ve been on my soapbox about how Bond movies should be episodic and Bond should be an immortal 30-40 year old man who only references back to previous adventures on the rarest of occasions.  Given all the buildup that this would be “the last” Craig movie I was fairly sure this era of Bond wasn’t going to suddenly transform into what I’ve been wanting from it at the last minute so to some extent I had made peace with this and wanted to go in just appreciating the film as an action movie and to some extent I was not let down.

After a well shot but probably unnecessary flashback prologue and a bit of domestic catching up we’re treated to a very nice opening action sequence with Bond trying to outrun pursuers in the city of Matera in Southern Italy which makes use of one of Bond’s gadget-laden cars better than most of the chase scenes the series has given us in a while.  So far so good.  Soon after we get a pretty good heist scene on the part of the villains and it’s not long before we get a very fun shootout sequence in Cuba where Bond works with a CIA agent played by Ana de Armas, who I thought was really fun and who I was disappointed to see kind of disappear from the movie after that.  Later the movie transitions to a really beautiful segment in Norway, including a tense chase and fight in a moody woods.  The location scouting in general in this movie is top of the line and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is probably the best one of these movies have looked in this whole sub-series of the franchise, which is saying something given that we were just handed a pair of bangers by Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins.  This is the largest scale movie that director Cary Joji Fukunaga has worked on to date and more than makes a good bid for himself as the maker of large scale Hollywood blockbusters.  The film runs a bloated 163 minutes, which is unnecessary but I ultimately didn’t really have too much of a problem with it as it’s pretty well paced throughout.

All that having been said, there’s a glaring weakness at the center of this, one that I think will bug Bond fans and casual moviegoers alike, and that’s the villain played by Rami Malek.  It’s not so much Malek himself, though he does give the character a strange scratchy voice and incorporates some makeup (kind of inconsistently) that almost makes him seem like a parody of a Bond villain rather than a true Bond villain.  But the bigger problem is just that this character’s background and motivations seem generally half-assed.  We’re told early on that he’s motivated by revenge against Specre, which probably shouldn’t put him in conflict with Bond but it does and early on.  Then later on he suddenly turns into a more typical megalomaniac who just wants to kill vast numbers of the world’s population for nebulous reasons that aren’t really explained.  He has some sort of relation to Madeleine Swann that leads to her doing something very strange about halfway through the movie but this doesn’t really go anywhere either.  Adding insult to all this injury is simply the fact that the movie positions this guy as some uniquely dangerous foe to Bond that will get under his skin in a unique way and he just does not seem remotely worthy of this.

I’m going to try to stay spoiler-free here but the film ends in a way that’s rather unconventional for a Bond movie, and it’s unconventional in much the same way a lot of Craig’s Bond films have been… which is to say I don’t like it.  But at the same time I’m not sure I really have it in me to get worked up about it at this point, my various rantings about the heresies of the Daniel Craig era have mostly gone unheard and unheeded and on some level I’m sick of ranting about it.  This ending is part and parcel with the direction they’ve chosen to go in the last five installments and on some level I feel like this die was cast way back in 2006 and Casino Royale’s original sin of rebooting the franchise in the first place.  The Daniel Craig era has basically gone out the way it came in, with a well-crafted action movie that was seemingly tailored to annoy the hell out of a particular kind of James Bond fan of which I am a member.  So all I can say is, I guess you guys made a pretty good movie, but fuck you for making it.  Good riddance to this iteration of James Bond, all I can do now is hope they have the good sense to swing back in the other direction and make something more to my liking with the next Bond.

*** out of Five