Nightmare Alley

Written by Taylor Baker

70/100

Four years on from Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winning film The Shape of Water he returns to the big screen with Nightmare Alley. A cautionary tale built around Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle, who plays a carny that wants more out of life. After setting fire to a house on a hill Stan begins his journey. Worming his way down the literal and metaphorical road until he happens upon a carnival. There he happens into a tent to watch a creature called a Geek bite off a chicken’s head. In what may very well be a partial ode to Freaks, not just an homage to the novel it is based on and the film it shares the title of, he takes up a job offer from Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoately.

In these early portions of the film with the carnival as the backdrop, Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Lausten are at their collective best, using the frame to capture the oddities, eccentricities, and characters that make up the community and place. As the film builds there begins to be a listless unmoored sense of camera movement where jump cuts don’t work in concert, fades don’t sync symmetrically, and a lack of cohesive visual control becomes apparent. It’s as if the decisions on how to compose and block the shots were made without considering how to build out from the last sequence. Which leads to a disjointed focus that keeps the viewer from staying buried in the narrative.

Stan goes on to strike up a relationship with Toni Collette’s Zeena, a tarot reader who resides at a permanent carnival location that his troupe arrives at. He learns tools of the trade from her and her partner Pete Krumbein played by David Strathairn. Ron Perlman, the aforementioned Willem Dafoe, and Mark Povinelli round out the rest of the major supporting cast at the carnival with the real focus of Stan being on Rooney Mara’s Molly whom he becomes besotted with. As he looks for a way out to do something more exciting and take Molly away an opportunity arises.

They take advantage of their chance and head out of the carnival they call home in a truck and head to the city where years go by as they work a mentalist act. Molly begins to miss her life from before as she becomes frustrated with Stan and his pursuit of more and ever-present dissatisfaction with the present circumstances. At this point in time, Cate Blanchett’s psychiatrist Lilith comes into the film as she’s attending the performance on behalf of a benefactor. After a particularly engaging sequence performed excellently by Cooper, they begin a sort of business relationship.

From there on out the stakes of the film are made clear, and we get fantastic though brief sequences with the likes of Mary Steenbergen, Richard Jenkins, and Holt McCallany. It has one of if not the most memorable finale sequence of the year. Nightmare Alley is Del Toro’s most tame film to date. That rings as an homage more than a distinctive work, but nonetheless a film that stands shoulder to shoulder among most of the year’s crop from popular filmmakers.

Nightmare Alley Trailer

Nightmare Alley will be available in wide theatrical release starting December 17th.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Godzilla (2014)

Written by Nick McCann

88/100

I don’t think Roland Emmerich fully understood the gravity of his situation. When he made his own Godzilla movie back in 1998, he not only took advantage of the name for his own gain but left a sore legacy. The box office bombing, critical panning, and fan backlash of that film gave little hope that we’d see another American production touch the property. But as time went on and others tried to get something going, Legendary Pictures finally got a reboot rolling. Although avant garde in many ways, it still delivers immense satisfaction.

Godzilla doesn’t immediately go for the throat compared to other blockbusters. The script loves to twist certain conventions on their head, tease the monsters and build up for massive payoff. Combined with Gareth Edwards’ direction, the film builds suspense and realism the likes of which we haven’t seen much of in monster movies. I would even say it’s got the Steven Spielberg touch of wonder and intrigue(including some fun homages). At the same time, you feel an earnest respect for the character and what he stands for. Some aren’t going to get on board with this rendition of Godzilla wherein he is not constantly in sight or the sparse destruction presented, and that’s fine. But if you’re patient and willing to let it play out, you’ll be well rewarded.

This execution of the familiar Godzilla story finds itself a lot more character focused. I quickly grew to like the characters , they may seem like a typical ensemble but their parts are well defined and performed superbly by the cast. Bryan Cranston is the stand out, throwing it all on the table he’s our solid emotional center. Sadly he isn’t around for too  long but the impression is made and lasting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also makes for a capable protagonist, Elizabeth Olson nails believable reactions, David Strathairn is a refreshingly likable military leader and the always excellent Ken Watanabe fits like a glove. The most important test to the cast’s durability is that they can each say Godzilla’s name straight-faced and not have it be silly.

Which brings us to the king himself. Godzilla! His look retains the classic design while going for something more nature inspired. The special effects team realizes a grounded (and sometimes personable) Godzilla for modern audiences. His two opponents in the M.U.T.Os aren’t too shabby either. Their looks, abilities and overall characterization as a pair give them their time to shine in the wide range of Toho’s monster stable.

Whether alone or all together, these creatures seem to be able to bring the house down. The focus on build-up makes the set pieces feel gratifying and weight. They manage to find ways to have our human characters get suddenly caught up near or in the middle of the monster attacks, further giving the situation a realistic viewpoint. The ace in the hole is the cinematography, making liberal use of street view and the feeling of being someone in the middle of it all. These monsters feel massive and the damage they cause is more impressive because of it.

Sound design shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Godzilla’s new roar, the various combat engagements, buildings crumbling, explosions. Everything has an audible power. Alexandre Desplat delivers a brilliant score. There may be a lack of the classic Toho theme cues, but his music still captures the monster’s enormity and the human character’s marvel. It’s equal parts emotional and hair-raising.

Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla is where I look to when I think of reboot films done right. For all the conventions it does different, it never forgets to deliver on what you want. Again, some will be put off by a character-focused monster movie where the monsters aren’t always turning cities into pebble piles. Trust me when I say it’s all worth it by the end. There are spectacular fights, a great cast, and direction that’s as confident as it is respectful. The King of the Monsters finally got his shining moment in America and it’s only led to further excitement and anticipation.

Godzilla (2014) Trailer


You can watch Godzilla (2014) on HBO Max.

You can connect with Nick on his social media profiles: Facebook and Letterboxd.

Episode 86: VIFF 2020 & NYFF 2020 / Undine / Nomadland / Time / The Human Voice

“A documentary film-maker can’t help but use poetry to tell the story. I bring truth to my fiction. These things go hand in hand.”

Chloé Zhao

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Sound of Metal & Minari. Followed by the VIFF 2020 and NYFF 2020 Titles: Undine, Nomadland, Time, and The Human Voice.

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Streaming links for titles this episode

Time is currently available on Prime Video

Undine has been acquired by IFC and currently awaits an official release date.

Nomadland has been pushed back from it’s December 4th 2020 release date and has not yet received an official release date.

The Human Voice will become available on March 21st, 2021

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