Saturday, December 18, 2021

Nightmare Alley (2021): Movie Review

Directed by
Guillermo del Toro

Nightmare Alley is a slow burn that, like one of Stanton Carlisle's shows, sets you up for a finale that takes your breath away and makes everything else worth it.

Based on a book that was already adapted into a classic film of the 1940's, Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro's first directorial effort since his Oscar-winning efforts in The Shape of Water.  It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, who appears to have a questionable past when we meet him.  He stumbles upon a circus and finds a home among the illusionists and freak shows.  While there, he befriends a mentalist (David Strathairn) and fortune teller (Toni Collette) and begins to learn the tricks of their trades.  As Carlisle becomes confident in his abilities, he steps out on his own and starts his own show, however a partnership with a psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) leads him to possibly push his skills and abilities passed what he can handle.

This is probably Guillermo del Toro's most grounded film, as all the fantastical here is illusion.  It is a beautiful film, with great cinematography by Dan Laustsen.  The direction and visuals set the scene for the actors to give masterful performances, led by Bradley Cooper.  This is one of Cooper's best performances in awhile, and he draws you in as he discovers and becomes part of this wild world.  The rest of the star-studded cast are brilliant as well, from Rooney Mara to Willem Dafoe to Ron Perlman to Richard Jenkins to Clifton Collins Jr. to Tim Blake Nelson.  The standouts in the supporting group are definitely Strathairn, Collette, and Blanchett though.  All these performances draw you into the story and instantly have you invested.

The script and story definitely take awhile to get going.  It earns its 150 minute runtime by really taking its time setting the scene and the world this film is creating.  For the first hour or so, I was wondering where the movie was going and when the action was going to pick up.  It definitely gets more intriguing once it leaves the circus, but you can tell everything is building up for the final act.

Nightmare Alley was going to be made or broken by if it could deliver on the climactic ending.  A film like Christopher Nolan's The Prestige failed in not having the payoff it needed.  A film like Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men succeeded because of how it stuck the landing.  Luckily, the last 30 minutes are some of the best filmmaking, acting, and scenes of the entire year.  You are waiting the whole time for something to happen, but when it finally does, it still manages to shock no matter how inevitable it seemed.  My jaw was dropped as I saw each twist and turn leading to a final scene and final shot I could see coming, but that doesn't change how haunting it is.  It nailed the ending in a way only the instant classics do.

The more and more I think about this film, the more I think it is one of the best of the year.  At its worst, it is engaging and intriguing.  At its best, it's as good as film gets.  Some of the best actors in the world are showing why they have that reputation, led by Bradley Cooper.  Then there's Guillermo del Toro, who once again brings to life a story with classic themes in a way only he can.

Rating: 4 stars

Watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 6, 2021

Movie Review: Wolf (2021)

Directed by
Nathalie Biancheri

In what could have been a fascinating psycho-thriller, Wolf instead provides a snooze that was definitely better in concept than execution.

Wolf tells a tale of a hospital that specializes in conversion therapy, however not in the typical way we think of.  This hospital helps people who believe they are animals and convinces them they really are human and should act in a normal human way.  The main character we follow is Jacob, played by George MacKay, who believes he is truly a wolf.  Once in the center, he encounters others like him that think they are a German Shepherd, a panda, a horse, a parrot, a duck, a lion, and a wildcat.  The wildcat, played by Lily-Rose Depp, befriends Jacob and, despite their primal urges saying they should be enemies, they form a strong connection.  Running this hospital is "The Zookeeper," an evil taskmaster portrayed by Paddy Considine.  As Jacob struggles with therapy and whether to accept who he is or who he is told he should be, he considers escaping amidst punishments from The Zookeeper.  Depp's wildcat continues to give him support and company throughout his struggles.

This film has a wonderful premise and great intentions in using this to shed light on the concept of conversion therapy being used to force people into societal norms.  If this was the direction they were going to take this premise though, it would have been much better served as a short.  Nothing really happens in this movie.  There is no plot beyond the premise.  It was one of the longest 90 minute movies I have ever seen.

The one redeeming factor of the film, beyond the premise, is the performance by George MacKay.  In a bizarre follow-up to his breakout role a few years ago in 1917, MacKay gives a physically transformative performance as the boy turned wolf.  Watching him prowl the hallways and howl at the moon is fascinating to watch.  I think the director knew this was the best thing the film had because they overuse the visual to an annoying degree.  Lily-Rose Depp is fine as MacKay's partner as she shows she has her father's taste in non-glamorous roles.  Paddy Considine is over the top in an obnoxious way.  He thinks he's Nurse Ratched, but instead is out of control and almost cartoonish in his portrayal.  The only other standout in the cast beyond MacKay is Fionn O'Shea as the German Shepherd.  He fully commits and seems to truly understand what it means to be a dog.

Wolf doesn't know what it is as a film.  The trailer makes it feel like an exciting psycho-thriller.  What it actually thinks it is is somewhere between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shawshank Redemption.  Where it actually ends up is a character study that rides the line between subtle and boring.  The plot isn't compelling, it doesn't earn the payoff, and none of the supporting characters are strong enough to care about.  All this leads to an unimpressive, mediocre film that can't deliver on its promising premise.

Rating: 1.5 stars

Watch the trailer here: