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.

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“A Star is Born” (2018) Full Film Review

This “ageless and evergreen” movie musical will move your very soul from “the shallow” to the deep. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is the fourth version of this story, and the strongest of the group. Now, the Streisand version will always have special place in my heart because I’m a lifelong Streisand fan. But other than Streisand herself, the rest of the film is largely forgettable. However, Cooper’s A Star is Born is a mind-blowingly, unapologetic movie musical that delivers a genuine authenticity rarely seen in movie musicals. With all the hype that this film received out of the Venice Film Festival and others during September, there is often the question that IF the film lives up to the hype? The short answer is YES. Fixing some of the plot holes in the Streisand version and providing more comprehensive character development, the screenplay co-written by Cooper harnesses the power of a simple plot with complex characters dealing with the positive and negative affects of stardom on two different people caught in a “bad romance.” With two charismatic performers with outstanding vocals and music plus a gripping story that will have you hooked from the first bar to the last, A Star is Born is an etherial cinematic experience equivalent to that of a shooting star. A star that will shoot its way to the Oscars next year.

Loving the bottle as much as he loves the stage, alt-country rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) wonders into a drag bar where he arrives just in time to see the performance of Ally (Gaga). Blown away by her incredible vocals, Maine finds her in the dressing room to introduce himself. Maine is taken back by her street smarts and homespun humility, but sees an undiscovered star. Although Ally has all but given up on her dream, Maine is determined to coax her out onto the stage Determined to provide Ally with the stage she needs to showcase her uncanny ability to create magic with her voice, a magic that has profound, authentic meaning behind it, Maine invites her to join him at a gig. When she refuses the invitation, Maine sends his chauffeur to follow her until she gives in. And gives in, she does. Already smitten with Ally, Maine falls madly in love with her after their voices make incredible music together. Soon, Ally’s career takes off like a shooting star, while Maine deals with his inner demons. Just like careers have ups and downs, so does the relationship between Ally and Jackson Maine.

As a star rises, a comet falls. While the basic plot of this, and the other versions of A Star is Born are similar in nature, this one feels the most cinematic. Cooper’s screenplay takes what the previous versions did well, and then improves where the others did not perform as well. With three previous ones to analyze, Cooper certainly had plenty of source material to pour over. What I appreciate most about this version is the foreshadowing and poetry that provide a rich subtext. One of the most important parts of plot development in a screenplay is the strategic placement and execution of emotional beats. Much in the same way the original songs in the movie drive those emotional beats home, the screenplay follows in suit. Although I will argue that the first half of the movie is stronger than the second half, the story is a powerful one that shies not away from depicting real issues that celebrities, especially in the music industry, face. There is an unapologetic approach to both sides of the stage. The beginning scenes pack a powerful punch. And I was completely sold on Ally’s ability to delicately balance toughness against vulnerability. Jackson Maines character development is gritty and believable. Fortunately, after the 1976 (Streisand) version shifted the focus from Hollywood to the music industry, that shift provided the foundation upon which 2018’s A Star is Born is built. For all this story has going for it, paving the way to a likely Oscar nomination, Cooper is unable to sustain the energy from the first act all the way through the rest of the movie. While the first and third acts are strong (especially the first), the second act lacks the charm and energy of the first but does effectively lead us into the showdown and realization. Whereas the pacing looses footing a little in the middle, there is no mistaking that this is a phenomenal retelling of a classic plot for a new generation, complete with humiliation, redemption, heartbreak, and love.

The cinematography is incredibly strong. While not heavily stylized in a particular manner like other filmmakers, who’s direction is part of that filmmaker’s identity, the cinematography in this film incorporated a variety of approaches from wide shots of real concerts to intimate closeups that work seamlessly together in order to provide the film with an outstanding and comprehensive visual appeal. One of the elements of the cinematography that stood out to me the most was just how natural and relaxed the camera movement felt. There were plenty of moments that I forgot the camera was there because it felt that I was present–in those moments–witnessing the plot unfold. While some directors may have felt the need to approach most of this movie as a music video (instead of a musical), Cooper allows the camera to linger in a moment to drive the emotion of that moment home. During the musical performances, there is certainly a music video feel to it, but it never takes you out of the story, at large. From beginning to end, the cinematography flows naturally across the movie.

Cooper and Lady Gaga’s respective performances are incredible. They will certainly wow you from beginning to end. Not surprising after watching the movie last night, Cooper delivers a command performance that is sure to land him a Best Actor nomination. He looks and sounds like an alt-country rockstar. I had no idea that he could sing! At no point does it ever feel like he’s acting. Such power in subtlety. It’s the little things he does that serves as evidence of his commitment to character and never acting like a Jackson Maine type but legitimately becomes Maine with all his problems with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Because the subject of celebrity addictions leading to untimely deaths has been in the news a lot, this was a great opportunity for Cooper to comment on this issue by depicting how tragic it is, and the affects on others.

Whether you are a fan of Lady Gaga or not, there is no doubt that her acting and vocal performance will leave you speechless. Of course, being speechless never stopped me. Without breaking character or forcing her real-world persona and fandom into the diegesis of the film, there is a nod to her status as a queer icon. One of the early scenes in the film features her at a drag show. This scene fits into the story perfectly, and successfully sets up some of the subtext and commentary later on in the film regarding how the music industry (and Hollywood to an extent) package female performers. The character of Ally allows fans of Gaga to explore a different side to her through most of the film. During the second act, there are moments that remind us of what makes Gaga so popular–very similar to her real-world celebrity self–but these moments never detract from the more organic, intimate ones. Although Ally’s quest for stardom does play out a little cliche as it points us back to the real-world Lady Gaga, Ally’s character finds herself back to her true self at the end of the film. As a side note, I love the nods to the the 1976 one by way of Ally talking about how her nose was considered too big by talent scouts. A brilliant nod to Streisand’s trademark nose.

With a very strong start, mediocre middle, and relatively strong recovery, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is a don’t miss film! If you were worried that the film was not going to live up to the hype of the festivals, no need to worry any longer. From what I have gathered from other critics, members of #FilmTwitter and the #PodernFamily (podcasters), there appears to be an agreement (mostly anyway) that this film is an outstanding work that will be one to watch for this upcoming awards season. Perhaps it won’t be the next Silence of the Lambs and take the Big 5 Oscars, but it will likely still do very well.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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