Saturday, January 08, 2022


Guillermo Del Toro's Nightmare Alley turned out to be the last movie I saw in 2021, and I can hardly imagine a better farewell to this year in which the world seemed increasingly claustrophobic, much of its citizenry engaged in duping or being duped, in blinding campaigns of continual carny-level chicanery elevated to national disaster, the duped refusing to believe their own eyes (and science) over the lies that line up with what they want to believe.

Not being entirely in the director’s bag (I had reservations about his last three movies, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and even his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water) I resisted the pull of this picture for a good portion of its first half hour. But this nightmare vision sucked me in. Del Toro seems at the top of his game here, adapting the original novel and the 1947 movie classic from a script co-written with film critic Kim Morgan, and it’s a hellish, seductive vision. Moment to moment, the movie may often register as too much design, or too much physical detail, or just too much, period. But it gets into your bones, and your humanity, and your inhumanity, just as the original film did, just as all superb noirs do, and the audience that allows itself the distinct pleasure of settling into the world Del Toro conjures will be amply rewarded and unsettled.

Reports of Bradley Cooper as being miscast here (too old to be continually referred to as “young buck,” said the wags) are completely off the mark, especially when you see what the actor does with the character of drifter-turned-mentalist-phenomenon Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power in the 1947), and the harrowing inevitability of where he ends up. (I cannot shake his final image, or his final line.) But the entire cast responds to the thrall of Del Toro’s visual commitment, and to his refusal to be rushed into a overstimulated approach to laying out this fiercely beautiful and frightening milieu. Toni Collette, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, they’re all excellent as denizens of the carnival world Stan knows (or thinks he knows) he’s too sharp not to escape. And in crucial but smaller roles, as two of Stan’s higher-class marks, Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins make potent, indelible impressions.

However, a special place in my dark heart is reserved for Cate Blanchett, an actress I often receive as too diagrammed and distanced in her performances. But as she also proved in Thor: Ragnarok, she’s an actress who can be fully at home in cutting loose and embodying, precisely and pleasurably, the movie she’s in, and she conjures this femme fatale, a psychiatrist who ostensibly helps Stan with his entree into the world of the moneyed victims that will ultimately lead him straight to hell, with seductive, iconographic awareness, all the better for when she takes Stan in her teeth for the final bite. Her exit from this picture made me laugh out loud at the sheer audaciousness, both of the dialogue that provides her the perfect punctuation and of her instincts in the movie’s penultimate climax.

I’m not surprised that audiences at Christmastime during a pandemic are staying away from a picture whose advertising duly hints at the level of bleakness in store for them. But it’s a shame that the movie seems on its way out of theaters already— I caught the last performance at my local movie emporium— because this is a movie that knows how to deliver the goods to a receptive audience. I don’t know how well it will play at home, where distractions are aplenty, but having been happy to have submitted to it in the dark, I can’t wait to lay my hands on a Blu-ray in a couple months and find out. At the risk of sounding like a barker milling the masses to be fleeced, I’d encourage you to see Nightmare Alley on a big screen (fully masked, of course). Good show!




When I was 11 years old, The French Connection came out and joined a list of pictures I was too young to see (Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Shaft) but would obsess over anyway. I even read the book, which somehow was okay with my parents because, I guess, it wasn’t rated R. I saw my first R-rated movie, Dirty Harry, later that year, but I never saw TFC until I was in college, and though it was among the first cassettes I ever bought for my new Betamax in 1982, once I finally did see it William Friedkin’s movie never lived up to my heightened expectations. Seeing it again last month for the first time in years only confirmed that, its landmark car chase excepted, I think of The French Connection as a fairly routine, relentless cop thriller that, despite Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning performance, is hardly the best of its kind.

In fact, I’d only ever “seen” the movie in MAD magazine (“WHAT’S THE CONNECTION?”) before I saw its sequel, French Connection II, at my hometown movie palace, the Alger Theater, sometime in late 1975. I was determined to love it, and I did like it a lot, though I remember thinking that it didn’t feel at all like what I expected its predecessor might. In fact, this would be the first of two sequels made from William Friedkin-directed megahits, both of which would stray from the path of simply ghosting the template of the original, a strategy that would not exactly endear either film to audiences or critics. The sequel John Frankenheimer made to TFC is certainly not an admirable oddity like Exorcist II: The Heretic, nor is it, like that film, a daring artistic failure, but it must have certainly frustrated those who came to theaters expecting their pulses to be pounded in the manner of the original film.

Whereas Popeye Doyle (and Hackman) by nature dominated the grim, burnt-out NYC milieu of the first film, FCII transplants the detective to Marseilles, where his overt racial bigotry can be directed exclusively, and in classic really-ugly-American fashion, toward his French counterparts, and where the movie can monitor Doyle’s fury at being brought over to ostensibly pursue Frog One (Fernando Rey, reprising his role as drug kingpin Alain Charnier), only to realize he’s being used as bait to lure the criminal into position to be grabbed by the local police force.

But Frankenheimer and screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, Robert Dillon and Laurie Dillon, doggedly, some might even say perversely refuse to follow in Friedkin’s footsteps. FCII is mapped out and directed as if the location (shot evocatively by Claude Renoir) seeped into their bones— it feels more like an arty policier that might have been made by any number of French directors of the time, its concerns much more in locating the core of Doyle’s blackened heart than in replicating the gritty, nihilistic thrills of Friedkin’s movie. One of the true strengths of FCII is how it conveys Doyle’s sense of abandonment, his lack of any real French connection, how he feels adrift in a culture, and more precisely a policing culture, that he doesn’t understand or respect— to that end, the movie provides no subtitles for its extensive French dialogue; like Doyle, the audience is left to fend for itself and extract meaning from context, observation and multiple conversations that lead nowhere.

Hackman may have won his first Oscar for the original film, but this is the far more rich, interesting, compelling performance. The actor courts our empathy at being lost in a language and society he doesn’t comprehend, but he’s no less blusteringly self-righteous for that; he makes a crude art of alienation, because he can’t allow himself to believe that any other method than his own could possibly be effective. Beyond all that, however, the filmmakers allow Hackman to dominate the center of the film in an entirely unexpected way— about 45 minutes in, Doyle is nabbed by Charnier’s thugs and, in an attempt to rid themselves of their American albatross, they string him out on the heroin they’re trafficking and then, when he’s entirely dependent, toss him back into the street. What follows is a long, harrowing, and strangely moving section in which Doyle, with the help of the French detective (Bernard Fresson) he refers to more as “Asshole” than by his actual name, agonizes through narcotic withdrawal on his way back toward the world and his now-elevated fury over Charnier and the way he has been used to tease the kingpin out into the open.

Perversely, or perhaps daringly, Frankenheimer and company have structured this section of the movie to be their stand-in for the prolonged car chase which is probably one of the only things people remember from the first movie. It is the film’s raison d’etre, its meaning, the polluted blood coursing through FCII, and it alters the perspective of the entire enterprise, including Doyle’s own sense of outrage and refusal to heed any precaution or safety in seeing his own personal mission to its end. It’s a gutsy, not entirely rational response to the mission of following up a well-respected Oscar-winning thriller, which is in its way, like Doyle’s, its own personal mission, and it turns what could have been a rote regurgitation designed to sell popcorn into something akin to a living, breathing creation, something made to respond to the world instead of just make furious noise within it.

FCII ends on a more definitive note than its closure-denying predecessor, but even in that definition Frankenheimer finds room to undercut any true sense that Doyle has finally completed his task. With an abrupt cut to end credits just before we can process the resolution we seem to have witnessed, we get Doyle’s shot at some measure of release, of payback, alongside the simultaneous realization after the cut that things are still moving on the water, that we can never really be sure if the prey is down or simply delayed in the game.

At a time when a tidal wave trend toward commodifying sequels was only just beginning, French Connection II, in a way perhaps more modest but spiritually akin to Coppola’s work in expanding the tale of the Corleone family the previous year, proved that it is possible to honor origins by mining character more than simply committing a hollow act of imitation. It may not be particularly well remembered in the shadow of its 1971 predecessor, but it should be.




Lamb was not at all what I was expecting, though I’m not sure what I was expecting-- the trailer suggests it might be another Midsommar-esque horror tale, and like that movie, it's also brought to you by the good folks at A24-- but thankfully even after having seen the trailer I had no idea where it was going. (Bela Tarr is listed as a producer in the end credits, so that might give you a clue as to the movie’s tone, at least.) It’s certainly not a horror film though, nor is it exactly the sort of traumatic metaphor of parental loss I anticipated (though it is in the neighborhood).

lands more squarely in the realm of a very deliberate, foreboding folk tale-- if you're prepared to laugh you probably will, but it may also get under your skin. Despite my ill response to Noomi Rapaace, an actress whose appeal seems forbidden to me, I found it hypnotic (especially the way the director uses those gloomy, gorgeous Icelandic landscapes) and weirdly moving, right up to its creepy conclusion, for which I don't think the movie lays quite enough foundation. I think I liked it most, though, because it was a movie with its own quiet world of rhythms and pace which I could settle into on a Friday night after a relentless, pedal-to-the-metal week, and for the fact that that its impulses and sympathies were unlike what movies from any country feel compelled to serve up these days. (TRIGGER WARNING: There is a bit of animal death, though not graphic. The animal births, however, are not for the squeamish…)


Copshop is a hoot and a holler, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it. Both Gerard Butler as a professional hit man and Frank Grillo as his slimy mob con target hold the screen like, well, professionals. But the show is handily stolen by Alexis Louder as the bored Nevada cop who ends up in a standoff with the two of them in the titular, bullet-and-corpse-littered police station. She is the real deal— funny, sharp, believable and never quite in the zone you’d expect. Hers is, or should be, a star-making performance— we’ll see. And the movie gets a major assist from Toby Huss as the gregariously deranged contract murderer who wants to wipe them all out. In the post-Tarantino landscape, it’s unusual to see someone pull off an over-the-top piece of acting like this— genuinely creepy/funny/original and not catastrophically smug— but Huss figures out how to do it. Director Joe Carnahan makes the whole she-bang a visual hoot and a holler too. Between this and The Protege from earlier this year, that’s a lot of solid, clever, mean, female-centric action from a couple of low-flying, unexpected sources. Good show!