Spoiler-Free Review: “Nightmare Alley” (2021) starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Colette, & Rooney Mara

In the late 1930s, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) buries a body and burns down a house in a rural area. Stan gets a job w/ a traveling carnival, after helping the owner- Clem (Willem Dafoe)- capture one of the escaped performers, a “geek.” This term comes from the German word “geck,” meaning fool/simpleton; it “geek” was used around circuses/carnivals to describe a wild man/woman. A typical geek show in the mid-19th c. would have a person on stage biting the head off of an animal (a chicken is seen in this case) and drinking its blood. Stan is silent (Cooper doesn’t speak until 11 mins. into the movie) and observant for a time, taking in the new environment and its inhabitants. He starts working w/ clairvoyant act of “Madame Zeena” (Toni Colette- who I wanted to see more) and her older/alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn- always great in any role). He has his eyes on a young performer, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), and approaches her w/ the idea of a 2-person act (away from the carnival). An older strongman, Bruno (Ron Perlman), is suspicious of Stan and protective of Molly.

I saw this move last week on HBOMax; it’s a mix of noir and horror (w/ a few gruesome images which may turn off sensitive viewers). Director Guillermo del Toro noted that this is NOT a remake of Nightmare Alley (1947) starring Tyrone Power, BUT a re-adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. However, several critics/viewers commented that they saw callbacks to the original. Leonardo DiCaprio was originally picked for the lead, but when negotiations fell through, he was shortly replaced by Cooper. As one movie podcaster said: “I hope DiCaprio didn’t turn this down for ‘Don’t Look Up,’ b/c that isn’t a good movie.” I’m NOT a fan of Cooper or a hater; I don’t see the big appeal. I get the sense that his skills are suited to lighter (comedic) roles; Cooper lacks the gravitas of someone like DiCaprio. In his characterization of Stan, Power is more compelling; he’s able to convey the dangerous/dark side to his character.

I was impressed w/ the supporting actors, though Mara should’ve gotten a BIT more character development. In the original, Coleen Gray’s Molly exuded innocence/positivity; here, she is morose/jaded. Do you think Stan loves Molly or is he just using her b/c she is young/impressionable? Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a fascinating/mysterious character; she fits into the femme fatale role (a few critics were reminded of Lizbeth Scott re: her look). I enjoyed Blanchett’s scenes w/ Cooper, BUT it’s obvious who’s the more stronger/charismatic performer. The wealthy/powerful businessman, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), makes a more formidable adversary than in the original.

I wanted to love this movie (as a big fan of noir), BUT this is a case of style over substance. There are some good scenes, so it’s worth a look. Del Toro creates a world that is visually V interesting. The cinematography, musical score, production design, costumes/hair, etc. suit the story well. There are a few (creepy) people and props in the carnival that will stay in your mind- yikes! There is a B&W version; I’d be interested in seeing that sometime. Like MANY recent films, the running time is TOO long. It takes more than an hour to get out of the carnival atmosphere. There are a few elements which will remain a mystery, such as Lilith’s past and her motivation for what she is doing. I just expected more from such an ambitious film!

Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

I’m sure almost ALL of you know the plot, as West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) set among gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The 2 gangs are the Jets (white ethnics/NYC-born) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The 2 teen “star-crossed lovers”- Tony (former leader of the Jets) and Maria (newly arrived to NYC)- meet at a HS dance and fall in love at first sight. Of course, their relationship will have (deadly) consequences!

There are MANY problematic elements in the 1961 movie, though it is also much-loved by audiences of ALL ages all over the world. First of all, Natalie Wood was NOT a Latina or of Puerto Rican heritage. The Sharks were made-up w/ dark foundation, though people from PR have a wide variety of skin tones. This movie was released after lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He did see the final cut of the film and prefers this version to the original 1961 film (as he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. -Steven Spielberg

The screenwriter is Tony Kushner; I think he did a fine job (aside from a couple of lines which came off as a BIT modern). The choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins) was updated by Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet. Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski (who often collabs w/ Spielberg), went to great lengths to replicate (as much as possible) the lighting/visual style of the1961 film. Look at the way that the camera is swinging around, even from the opening number from the Jets- wow! I liked the (more realistic) sets and (colorful) costumes here. John Williams was brought in as music consultant; he was piano soloist for the 1961 movie. As many critics/viewers have noted, West Side Story has some of the best (and well-known) songs of ALL time! I’m sure a LOT of you were tapping your feet and/or singing along. This film follows the original song order of the stage musical w/ 2 exceptions: “Gee, Officer Krupke” (really liked the choreography) is moved to earlier (as the 1961 movie also did) and “Cool” (NOT impressed by new version) is sung by Tony to Riff (not sung by Riff to the Jets).

Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides- not just territorial divides- more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957. -Spielberg on movie’s relevance today

When casting this version, Spielberg insisted that all Latino characters be portrayed by real Latino actors. Out of the 33 Latino characters onscreen, 20 are of Puerto Rican heritage. There is a good amount of Spanish used in this film; I was glad that I knew the language (though NOT fluent). You don’t need to know Spanish to get what’s up. Almost the entire cast is made up of musical theatre performers; veteran actress Rita Moreno (an EGOT winner; Maria in the 1961 movie) is the most famous. Except for Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler (cast straight out of HS), and Corey Stoll, ALL of the principals are Broadway alums.

Zegler has a V pure/powerful voice; she has received MANY rave reviews for her singing! Elgort (who shot this movie before revelation of SA allegations) is V tall, handsome (in a bland way), and moves gracefully (he studied ballet some). His voice is NOT remarkable in any way and holds little power; this makes “Tonight” NOT as impressive; it also puts a damper on “Maria.” Anita (Ariana DeBose), has the most interesting role; the actress has received a LOT of award season buzz! DeBose is Afro-Latina and worried that she had the “wrong look” for this role; Spielberg told her that she was “perfect.” DeBose and David Alvarez (Bernardo- older bro to Maria) also have good romantic chemistry. Of course, it’s tough to beat the (fiery) chemistry between Moreno and her Bernardo (George Chakiris- who was of Greek heritage). I was V impressed by Riff (Mike Faist); he commands the screen w/ his (amazing) dancing, but it also a fine actor. This Riff is hard-edged/volatile; this is a far cry from the (teddy bear-like) characterization from Russ Tamblyn (1961). You can now watch this movie on HBOMax!

“America” from “West Side Story” (2021) featuring Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez

Spoiler-Free Review: “Dune” (2021) starring Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Fergusen, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgard, & Josh Brolin

A mythic and emotionally charged hero’s journey, “Dune” tells the story of Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, who must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. As malevolent forces explode into conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence- a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential- only those who can conquer their fear will survive. -Synopsis from Warner Bros.

Dune (directed by Denis Villeneuve- Canadian of French heritage) is a movie unlike any other I’ve seen in recent years; I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Its 2 hr. 35 min. run time seemed to pass by quickly, as the story (incl. stunning visuals) was V compelling. The music (composed by Hans Zimmer) adds much to the movie; new instruments and a language were invented for the score. The costumes range from practical and lightweight to intricate and decorative. This is part one of the story; it is based on the book by Frank Herbert, one of the iconic writers of sci-fi. Herbert’s work has been compared to Tolkein’s LOTR trilogy; it obviously influenced George Lucas as he created Star Wars. The planet Arakis (also called Dune) is the ONLY place where “spice” (perhaps akin to oil in our world) can be found; many factions want to control this world. The natives of Arakis are the Fremin, a tough/desert people who live in a harsh environment w/ dangerous giant worms (yikes)! The scenes on the ocean world of Caladan were shot in Norway. Much of the desert scenes of Arakis were shot in Jordan and Abu Dhabi.

Paul: [From trailer] Dad, what if I’m not the future of House Atreides?

Duke Leto: A great man doesn’t seek to lead; he is called to it. But if your answer is no, you’d still be the only thing I ever needed you to be: my son.

In a world unlike ours 8,000 yrs. in the future, we meet Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet- doing a fine job), a skinny/bright/teen. He spends his days studying and learning to fight from his older mentor/sword master- Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin). One of the early scenes where Paul and Gurney spar is V cool; the choreography (by Roger Yuan) included a type of Filipino martial arts. Another mentor of Paul’s is the warrior, Duncan Idaho (Jason Mamoa), who brings charm and humor to the story. Much is expected from Paul, as he’s the son/heir of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac- looking fab w/ gray-streaked hair/full beard). I loved the easy/warm relationship between Chalamet and Isaac. I’m surprised that Chalamet is growing on me; his naturalistic acting style, incl. ability to portray vulnerability easily fit this role. (Though Christian Bale will always be Laurie to me!)

Duncan: Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.

Paul has inherited strong powers from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson- a standout). She is the concubine of Duke Leto and was raised by the Bene Gesserit (a secretive/powerful order made up of all women). Chalamet and Ferguson also have great chemistry. Paul has visions about Arakis w/ an unknown/young woman (Zendaya- who appears in the 3rd act of this story). The Rev. Mother Mohaim (Charlotte Rampling- a veteran British actress) comes to see (and test) Paul on his abilities. House Atreides is given control of the desert planet from the Emperor. A powerful opponent, Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard- menacing even inside prosthetics), wants to take control of Arakis. Check out this movie on HBOMax! I didn’t know much re: this story, aside from watching the miniseries (which co-starred a V young James McAvoy) about 20 yrs. ago.

Spoiler-Free Review: “Deep Water” (2022) starring Ben Affleck & Ana de Armas

A well-to-do husband who allows his wife to have affairs in order to avoid a divorce becomes a prime suspect in the disappearance of her lovers. -Synopsis

Film Twitter ands several YouTuber vloggers are commenting re: this new movie (streaming on Hulu) for the past 2 days. I watched this movie late on FRI; an alternate title could be “Deeply Wasteful.” Earlier in the pandemic, I dove back (pun intended) into the (fading) erotic thriller sub-genre. Veteran British director, Adrian Lyne, is known for his erotic thrillers, having worked on 9 1/2 Weeks (1983), Fatal Attraction (1987)), Indecent Proposal (1993), and Unfaithful (2002), among other films. As you may know, Ben Affleck (now 49 y.o.) and Ana de Armas (a 33 y.o. up-and-comer who previously had a big career in Spain) had a year-long relationship after meeting on this movie.

Vic (Affleck) is a wealthy man who has retired young; he enjoys being an involved dad to his adorable/bright daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins- who does a fine job). Vic’s younger wife, Melinda (de Armas), seems bored w/ their marriage and doesn’t seem to fit comfortably into the role of mom either. Melinda (who is a knockout) enjoys dancing, drinking (sometimes to excess), and flirting w/ other men. At first, it seems like Vic is cool w/ it (and maybe it also turns him on). His close friends (played by Lil Rel Howery, Dash Mihok, and Devyn A. Taylor) are concerned that Vic is being disrespected (and maybe even hurt) by Melinda’s behavior. Vic explains that maybe he doesn’t share their worries. We learn that one of Melinda’s male friends has recently gone missing. An older author in the community, Don (Tracey Letts- a writer himself), is V interested in this incident.

Deep Water is Lyne’s 1st movie in 20 yrs, and it (sadly) shows. There is a lack of character development here; the script is quite weak. I learned that this story was taken from a novel from Patricia Highsmith; she also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley (starring Affleck’s BFF- Matt Damon). Watch that movie instead- you won’t regret it! The camera isn’t doing anything unique either. There isn’t much “erotic” or “thrilling” here- to be blunt! It was shot on location in New Orleans- this was mildly interesting (esp. the outdoors scenes).

Many reviewers commented that (real-life) lovers usually lack chemistry onscreen- quite true here. Affleck looks emotionally detached in MOST of his scenes, though I liked his scenes w/ the daughter. As for de Armas, it’s difficult to empathize w/ her; I couldn’t help but compare her to the (mature/complex) role played by Diane Lane in Unfaithful. The “other men” in Melinda’s life (played by Brendan Miller, Jacob Ellordi, and Finn Wittrock) are indeed (conventionally) handsome, BUT they’re also V boring. Ellordi is an Australian actor who co-stars in HBO’s Euphoria; I haven’t yet seen that show.

“Gayby” (2012)

Jenn- a straight woman (Jenn Harris) and Matt- a gay man (Matthew Wilkas) are best friends from college now in their 30s. Jenn teaches hot yoga and has been single for a long time. Matt owns/manages a comic book store and can’t get over his ex-bf (who left him after 7 yrs). They decide to fulfill a promise to have a child together- the old fashioned way! They do spend some time dating new people- w/ mixed results- as it’s tough to be single in NYC. I heard about this movie a few weeks ago on the Designated Driver podcast; Adam Driver (and his future wife- Joanne Tucker) have supporting roles in this comedy. Driver plays Neil, Matt’s laid-back/supportive co-worker; Tucker plays the over-educated yoga studio’s admin. The writer/director, Jonathan Lisecki, plays the role of the (self-proclaimed) “bear”- Nelson.

There are many NYC-based character actors here (all of whom do a fine job). I recognized a FEW from the Law & Order franchise. Wilkas is V fit/youthful; I recognized his name (as former partner of Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy). He and Harris have terrific chemistry together; you truly buy them as BFFs (almost like family). Louis (Louis Cancelmi) is the brooding artist who comes to paint Jenn’s apt; he’s married to actress Elizabeth Waterston (daughter of Sam). Scott (Mike Doyle) is preppy/handsome; he comes to buy comics w/ his young son. Adam (Dule Hill, from one of my fave TV shows- The West Wing) is one of Jenn’s dates; he is charming (as usual) and does a BIT tap dancing (how he started in theater). Sarita Choudhury (a prolific Indian-American actress) plays the healer who Jenn goes to for herbs/natural remedies; she recently made a splash on the SATC reboot- And Just Like That. Choudhury is one of MANY actors I saw while living in NYC; she’s even more beautiful in-person! Driver (in perhaps his 2nd feature film role) is adorable as a nerdy/sweet guy; he wears his hair short (just covering the tops of his ears). Check this movie out IF you’re in the mood for something fun!

[1] It’s light hearted and funny throughout the story. […] The story is quite positive as well, even though the lead characters are not super successful people, they are portrayed to be good people that are down to earth and easy to relate to. 

[2] Director Lisecki has taken the bold step of using an actor- Jenn Harris- who isn’t an incredibly gorgeous woman. […] Jenn Harris looks like a person who could be your friend, or, for that matter, your yoga instructor. […] Harris is an excellent actor, and so is Matthew Wilkas. The supporting cast- including Lisecki himself- is highly competent. The dialogue is witty, the characters are endearing, and the movie is very enjoyable.

[3] While the theme of “gay guy and straight woman decide to make a baby” has been done MANY times (“The Wedding Banquet” is probably the Gold Standard) even back in 2012, this rendition absolutely comes off as believable, with well-formed characters, great acting and a solid script.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews