NIGHTMARE ALLEY film review

A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive.

In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from the mysterious psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchette) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

Much like we witness sleight of hand in the carnival acts managed by Willem DaFoe’s carnival barker character, del Toro himself is a master magician. Teaching film history as part of my cinema studies classes reminds me every semester of how the world thought of film as the work of a magician, and I love just how many layers of magic we have within this marvelous motion picture. Just as various characters are playing on the predictability and fears of the audiences within the film, del Toro is toying around with our perceptions of what is really going on. The art of misdirection and illusion is alive and well in Nightmare Alley. Unlike most of del Toro’s previous films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, there is neither a monster, in the conventional sense, nor mystical or supernatural dimension in this film other than the magic and mentalism of the metaphoric monsters in the film.

Taking place in the early 20th century at the time when carnival sideshows, with their seemingly endless variety of oddities (still a fun attraction at modern day fairs and carnivals), dotted the rural landscapes, this film is populated with characters that have in one way or another experienced some form of trauma that has prompted them to find solace or absolution in their (exploitive) work as a sideshow performer. And our central character of Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is of no exception. Following the dumping of a dead body and setting a house in an idyllic setting ablaze, Stanton joins a seedy carnival. Although we are never given explicit details as to why he did what he did, it works perfectly because we don’t always need to know what a character’s motivation is. This unknown makes them more terrifying and unpredictable.

From what I have read, there are a few changes from the book that del Toro made in this adaptation, and for all the better! One of these changes is not spending too much time on Stan’s backstory. We learn and see just enough to keep his history ominous–he keeps this film lean. Far too often, nowadays, writers and directors feel compelled to psychoanalyze and delve into all the reasons for immoral or unethical behavior, and somehow try to rationalize and explain. This explanation removes a significant degree of threat. All we need to know is that a trauma affected Stanton to the degree that he killed the source of the trauma in order to start a new life. And the same could be said for other characters and their respectful traumas. But for all their baggage, this ragtag group of sideshow acts forms a close-knit community.

Without getting into specifics, the story follows the character (negative) growth arc model, which is very much in line with many film noir motion pictures. Furthermore, del Toro includes the iconic femme fatale (in the form of Blanchette’s character) and a villainous mob-like boss that is not to be trifled with. Nightmare Alley embodies a cynical soul, which is often a characteristic of film noir. This cynical nature demonstrates two or more opposing forces that are opposite sides of the same coin, both equally corrupt. As Stan is refining his skill and showmanship for what would become his high society headlining mentalist act, he receives a dire warning not to do the “spook” show because it leads to a dark path, a path on which the actor starts to believe his or her own lies.

Through lead characters Stan and Lilith, we witness two strong-willed, cunning individuals that are equally master manipulators. There are few things more dangerous than a con-artist who believes their own spiel, and del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. While the level of violence and gore in this film are rather subdued compared to his other work, when the gore hits, it HITS! There is one scene in particular that is reminiscent of the Pale Man scene in Pan’s Labyrinth. When you hits all the tropes necessary for a neo-noir, you can then bend the conventions a little in order to maintain your authorship of cinema. For fans of Sunset Boulevard (my pick for greatest film of all time), you will also love the rich character-driven conflict.

The film can be read as a cautionary tale on various systemic societal constructs and practices that prey on the most vulnerable. And many that ascribe to applied postmodernist worldviews, will find this resonating in the film. However, it can also be read through the lens that individuals may find themselves ripe for the picking to be a carnival’s next “geek” by intentionally making decisions that lead them to the carnival barker’s office. When you are in this weakened state, there are systems that will swallow you whole. So, I feel that it’s the opposite: a cautionary tale on what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

House of Gucci mini review

“A triumph in mediocrity.” From the brilliance of The Last Duel to the dullness of House of Gucci, director Ridley Scott is all over the cinemascape this year. Rodolfo Gucci, in his deconstruction of Aldo Gucci’s talent for design encapsulates the experience of this film by the summation that it merely exists without having any lasting impact of the soul of design. Phenomenal cast, intriguing historic story, fascinating look into one of the most storied companies of all time, but it’s ultimately all held back by a director phoning in his vision and a screenplay that is about as one-dimensional as the conglomerate that would eventually oust the Gucci family from their own fashion house. Individually, all the actors in the lead and secondary ensemble cast are outstanding. Unfortunately, the screenplay (and director) give them nothing substantive to do. So, there are many scenes in which each is clearly going for their respective Oscar or Golden Globe nomination.

What a disservice to the sensational true story, because there is a great story in this lackluster mess somewhere. Structurally, the first two acts drag on and on and on in a meandering direction that is suppose to point to and setup the third act, which consequently is the best part of the film. Regrettably, the third act is incredibly rushed (plot, murder, conviction, family ousted, all within 10mins it seems). I mean, those are some of the most interesting plot points of the whole story about (to quote the subtitle of the novel on which this is based) “…the sensational story of murder, madness, glamour, and greed.” One screenwriting convention is referred to as saving the best for last, but I don’t think the practice is meant to be taken that literally (it’s actually more or less directed at dialogue ending on a strong note). Perhaps the most intriguing dimension in this film is how it will likely prompt you to read up on the family and company after you get home. Just in terms of reading the Wikipedia entry, there was more intrigue than in the whole of House of Gucci. Which is saying a lot, since this film was pretty much a Wikipedia article.

If you’re a student of history or fashion, then you will likely find the background of interest. While this film is certainly not a runway film, there is commentary on art of versus the commercialization of fashion that exists within the mediocre narrative. Is is bad? No, not inordinately so. Is it good? Not particularly. Unless you want to see the fantastic performances on the big screen, I suggest at-home viewing of this film is sufficient.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

ENCANTO animated film review

Formulaic and predictable. For all its magic, cheerful colors, and spicy music, ENCANTO is a bland animated motion picture that is ironically devoid of Disney magic. While the characters and performative dimension of the mise-en-scene are paint-by-numbers in the Disneysphere, the biggest star of this film is the gorgeous set and production design! On a more philosophical level, Encanto can be read as a post-modern deconstruction of a meritocratic society in exchange for an ideological utopia built upon the foundation of socialism. Accompanied by musical numbers that do little more than service the plot, Encanto reminds me of an animated motion picture better suited for Disney+ than a theatrical run. Even with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the (billed as) 60th Walt Disney Animation picture fells more like it’s the product of an assembly line operated by a committee of non-player-characters rather than the imaginative culmination of writers whom care. Ironically, it ostensibly becomes the very societal expectations and perfection, which its pedantic and overt message is preaching against. There is little to no gravitas to the conflict, there is lacking a true character of opposition, and the central character is nearly unrelatable because she achieves everything she wants without any measurable loss. Without meaningful conflict, there is no drama.

The Madrigals are an extraordinary family who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia in a charmed place called the Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift — every child except Mirabel. However, she soon may be the Madrigals last hope when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is now in danger.

The central character in Encanto is Mirabel, and in her magical family, she is the only one without a gift. Mirabel’s grandmother Abuela is the formidable matriarch and leader of her influential family in the secluded town of Encanto, where she lives with her family in the magical Madrigal compound named La Casita. La Casita is a house with a mind of its own, right out of the silent French cinema classic The Electric Hotel (1908). After Abuela lost her husband during a pillaging and burning by (what is most likely) colonial soldiers, her great sadness and loss manifested itself into a magical candle that created Encanto and the mountains that shield it from the outside world. And while Mirabel doesn’t have any special gifts, the rest of her siblings and cousins do. And Abuela is immensely proud of each and eery one of her kids, while she tolerates Mirabel. Mirabel’s mother can heal people with her cooking (but why doesn’t she heal Mirabel’s visual acuity???), while her father can (hmm…guess he doesn’t have an ability either, but he’s obviously well-adjusted). Isabella and Louisa, Mirabel’s sisters, have the powers of flower conjuration and super strength respectively. Her aunt is a regular Storm (X-Men) because she can control the weather. One of her (poorly written and under-developed) cousins has super hearing, and another cousin can shape-shift because he is still discovering his identity (eye roll). Family Madrigal is made up of a bunch of self-congratulatory manic overachievers whose supernatural superiority is a neurotic group symptom of general unhappiness.

After a crisis besets the family and they lose their powers, it’s up to Mirabel to save the family, which equates to saving Encanto. Mirabel’s quest is to learn the secret of a long-lost cousin’s vision that placed Mirabel in the middle of the prophesied crisis. Skipping to the predictable end, the only way that the crisis can be solved is by completely destroying La Casita and rebuilding with a new foundation, which is philosophically, a manifestation of Encanto and Madrigal traditions, values, and beliefs. And instead of a foundation build upon individual contributions, Family Madrigal is now a community build upon the foundation of familial socialism, in which there are no individuals, just the group. Essentially, the entire structure of La Casita and Family madrigal had to be completely destroyed and rebuilt to accommodate Mirabel’s lack of a gift. Wonder if she even though to learn a new skill? Develop a talent? Which she has, she sings and dances beautifully. Perhaps Mirabel saw her world as unfair, but with a little critical thinking, perhaps she could’ve developed a method that didn’t require the dismantling of her entire world to rebuild it according to her standards. If everyone is the same with no regard for knowledge, skills, or abilities, then where is the incentive to learn, develop, and improve one’s self and society??? In the end, it’s the post-modern theory that favors the loss of the individual in exchange for a group identity that ultimately wins in the town of Encanto.

Flavorless and unsatisfying as this animated movie is, it did manage to execute some things well. Like the production and set design, for examples. The writing may be bland, but the design is spicy! You will be delighted at the bright colors, geometric shapes, and at times fever dream sequences. None of the songs are particularly memorable (hmm, kind of like this movie), but they are fun while they are on screen and the music will undoubtedly put you in the mood to grab a bite to eat at your local Colombian restaurant. Since this is the first Disney animated movie to take place in Columbia, I would’ve appreciated learning more about Colombian culture. Philosophically, this movie is incredibly problematic. But it is colorful and fun for an hour and a half, so you can best enjoy it as background noise while your focus is elsewhere.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Last Night in Soho horror film review

Mesmerizing! Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive meets Suspiria! It’s like Wright channeled the best of Lynch, de Palma, and Argento to craft his spellbinding thriller! One of the best films of the year, and one that commands a rewatch. Other than seeing the trailer a few times in the cinema, I did not spend any time reading up on this film–and I’m glad I didn’t. Just speculating here, but I could definitely see this film as one that cultivates a cult following and is talked about in classrooms much like Mulholland Drive. Quite different from the other films in Wright’s cinematic library, if you’re going into it for a Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or World’s End, then you may be disappointed. Although they are dissimilar in most respects, the film that this one shares commonality with is Baby Driver. As I am writing this, I’ve only seen it once, but I need to see it again. Not because I didn’t understand it–quite the opposite–the storytelling is top shelf! But I want to pay closer attention to details to gain a greater appreciation for how this kaleidoscope delivered such an immersive cinematic experience. The vibrant 1960s in London some alive in this dream-like psychological horror punctuated with giallo-esque mystery and slasher elements and nostalgic fashion. Told though a Lynchian cinematic framework, the surrealist experience of this film will capture your imagination and beckon you into the seedy underbelly of the iconic Soho district of London. Much like in Suspiria, the idyllic atmosphere and setting descend into madness in a beautiful symphony of terror! Clearly, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most personal film; we can not only see this passion but feel it in every frame.

An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. However, the glamour is not all it appears to be, and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho reminded me of so many great films! And, in all the best ways possible. Now, I don’t state that to suggest that Wright’s latest offering is derivative. Quite the contrary. It’s a testament to the scope of his career and talent. But when you watch this, and can think of Dressed to Kill, Mulholland Drive, Battleship Potemkin, and Suspiria, then the degree of thoughtfulness is evidence that the filmmaker seeks to channel some of the best cinema of all time whilst delivering a fresh interpretation. Fashion from Dressed to Kill, story structure from Mulholland Drive, cinematography and editing from Suspiria and Battleship Potemkin, and score/soundtrack from Baby Driver.

Often times when a filmmaker attempts to integrate too much from a variety of sources of inspiration, the end result is a cluster that has no identity other than in that which its emulating. But Wright’s Last Night in Soho, delivers an experience that completely envelopes the audience in a fantastical story while audiences vicariously dance through the streets of Soho; streets that, on the surface are paved with an idyllic portrait of Soho in the 1960s, but beneath the pavement, beats the sinister heart of a gritty world of pleasure, pain, and violence. For the non cinephile members of the audience, they may feel an unusual dichotomy of simultaneously being overwhelmed by the technical elements yet underwhelmed by the dizzying narrative of emotional themes, references to past films, and motifs all playing together in a perfect orchestra of cinema.

Phenomenal cast! Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie will capture your heart with her candid portrayal of the small town girl in the big city for the first time. But if you think you’ve seen this character before, think again. Yes, we’ve all seen this trope before, but she delivers an incredibly raw, unfiltered approach to this character-type. In fact, it’s probably one of the most authentic portrayals of the small town girl in the big city that I’ve seen in a long time. Never feels like a facade or contrived, but rather feels relatable. Playing opposite (or parallel) to McKenzie is Ana Taylor-Joy as Sandy. I’ve been hit or miss with Ana Taylor-Joy in the past, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of her casting in this film prior to seeing it. But I’m pleased to describe her performance as outstanding! She is perfectly cast in this role. I love how she communicates both strength and vulnerability in the promising young star character-type. When life deals her a raw deck, she plays a different game in order to survive the metaphoric prison in which she finds herself.

Comprised ostensibly of two parallel stories that emotionally share the same DNA, the montage (French for assembly) of this film will blow your mind! What Wright and his team have created here is a Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera approach to the editing. I reference these tow films because of Soviet Montage. Without going into lots of details best left to a classroom, Soviet Montage (or editing/assembly) occurs when two separate images are assembled together (traditionally by cross-cutting), in which the relationship between the images gives the meaning (not the action OF or IN the images themselves). The audience views these two separate images, and subconsciously give them a collective context. Wright’s utilization of Soviet montage theory allowed him to explore how time and space can be presented and manipulated in Last Night in Soho. Furthermore, this stylistic approach (1) engages the sympathy of the audience and (2) advances the narrative. Where Wright takes the work of Eisenstein and Kuleshov to the next level is by going beyond cross and contrast-cutting to delivering these image juxtapositions within a single frame (or series of frames) by way of non-linear editing. We see both the past and present in the same image, usually by way of a mirror (or other reflection). It’s a technique that isn’t merely stylistic for the sake of being stylized, but allows for the tension to consistently rise without any break in the mode of storytelling. Brilliant!

I highly recommend this film for anyone that enjoys any of the films that I have referenced in this review. It’s been a while since we’ve had a motion picture that is truly inspired by the greats, and this is certainly one that will find itself to be considered a classic in the future.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

ETERNALS movie review

An ambitious departure from the previous paint-by-numbers MCU films, but while it will attempt to distract you with impressive visuals (other than the Deviants), it’s a soulless film with a convoluted plot full of neo-liberal woke-pandering. Chloe Zhao’s The ETERNALS is the result of a writer/director concerning themselves far more with satisfying the rubric of check-boxes associated with toxic woke culture than telling a thoughtful or entertaining story. This is MARVEL Studios’ movie to demonstrate, through superficial virtue signaling, that they are onboard the Woke Express. Perhaps the idea of this movie sounded innovative in the echo-chamber meetings, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Diegetically, the prolific world building, MCU connectivity, and character development this movie needed to do, even the more than 2.5hr runtime isn’t sufficient, and ultimately feels like a DCEU-style rush job. Between the chaotic plotting, bad CG (those Deviants look like something right off the SyFy Channel), cosplay uniforms, dialogue lacking in any subtext, and the gross neglect for any nuance to the storytelling whatsoever, this movie is the product of an assortment of post-modern critical theories and not the imagination of a filmmaker. Clearly Zhao has an eye for cinematic composition, but her skills as a storyteller are not nearly as fine-tuned–certainly not for such a gargantuan superhero spectacle.

The Eternals, a race of immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reunite to battle the evil Deviants.

Dramatize don’t tell. This is the No.1 principle I teach in my film studies and screenwriting classes. And this important convention is broken at the very beginning of The Eternals. Very few movies have demonstrated that scrolling text in a prologue can pay off dramatically (i.e. Star Wars). It works in Star Wars because that is how the world was first introduced to the mammoth intellectual property, therefore, it becomes part of its branding (and is missed when it doesn’t happen). Moreover, there was no frame of reference prior to A New Hope; and since we were being plunged into the middle of the action, it was necessary to preface the story that was about to unfold. Audiences aren’t being introduced to the MCU–they’ve been in the MCU ostensibly since Paramount’s Iron Man. Therefore, this demonstrates a lazy approach to providing exposition that could have otherwise been integrated more thoughtfully into the main action story. Furthermore, this lack of dramatic exposition is problematic, not only at the beginning, but throughout the movie.

If there was a social media campaign or outcry about it in the last few years, you will find that box checked off in this movie. As I watched this movie (in IMAX, btw), I couldn’t help but envision a rubric, not unlike the kind many professors use for grading papers. Personally, I don’t use a rubric in my classes because satisfying requirements in that fashion does not tell me how you can apply what you learn in class to your topic; but rather, that you know the bare minimum you need to do in order to get the point(s). Think of it as a typical test. A typical test only demonstrates to the professor how much you can remember NOT how much you know or your level of wisdom (the application of knowledge). It’s as if Zhao held meetings with MARVEL Studios executives and staff to outline every woke box that needed to be checked in this progressive movie. I won’t go into all the examples because that would take up a paragraph in and of itself, but if there has been a push for representation, then you will find it here. And all those characters in one place means that most are not developed sufficiently and feel more like one-dimensional tokens than characters crafted by a writer who cares. That’s the problem here. Increased representation across the spectrum of humanity in cinema is very important, but not when it comes at the expense of the integrity of the characters themselves.

One of the hottest topics of discussion to come out of this movie is the inclusion of a PG-13 sex scene, which is long overdue in a cinematic universe such as this one, which is filled with HOT male and female characters in form-fitting uniforms. More than demonstrating to audiences that the MCU movies have grown up with their initial audience of teens and 20-somethings, this scene is important because it shows that these immortal beings have some humanity in them. Superheroes and supervillains are often not thought of as human, and even though we learn that these immortal beings aren’t exactly human, they do take on many characteristics of humans, and this scene is a refreshing reminder that superheroes have erotic passions just like the rest of us. There is a vulnerability about them.

Because of all the piping that is being laid in this movie (enough for at least two or three movies), the story feels incredibly rushed. It reminded of how the DCEU tried to complete with MARVEL, years after MARVEL had been in the MCU. The result was hurried world building. It took MARVEL years to build the MCU, but the DCEU tried to accomplish the same in a year or two. We have five stories here (1) its creation myth and early Mesopotamia (2) the time in Babylonian Empire (3) the time in the Aztec Empire (4) the Greco-Roman Empire, and (5) the present-day story. Each of these is incredibly important to the main action plot of The Eternals, and yet these otherwise rich settings are reduced to flashback fodder. There are easily three thoughtful movies that could have come out of the five aforementioned stories. The result is a single plot that cannot possibly accomplish everything that it needs to in order to effectively tell the story and do it justice. I’m still not entirely sure why the Deviants were attacking the Eternals; oh it was sort of explained, but like with much of the rest of the film, it wasn’t thoughtfully developed either.

If you are familiar with Middle Eastern or Greek mythology, you will enjoy the integration of some of the mythological stories with which you are likely familiar. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ikaros to Athena, you will learn that it’s the Eternals that inspired these stories. While we may never know precisely what inspired these stories in real life, they were likely inspired by real individuals, much like legends and lore are to this day. So, knowing that these powerful, immortal beings have been secretly living on earth makes since, and can be appreciated both through a historic lens and through the backstory of the main action plot of the movie.

There are two end-credit scenes, each setting up a new characters. I won’t spoil it (but don’t look at the IMDb either). One scene in at the beginning of the credits and the other is a post-credit scene.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1