Drifters and grifters get director Guillermo del Toro’s macabre treatment in the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley (B), an impeccably made and sometimes meandering film noir with a crackerjack Cate Blanchett infused final act. Set in early 1940s America, the movie is a showcase for Bradley Cooper as a mysterious nomad who works odd jobs in carnivals and leverages his talents as a cipher and sponge to become a bit of a mentalist to the upper class. Like many films in this genre, the antihero’s past is catching up with him, but the stakes in this case seem oddly low for much of the film’s prodigious duration. Cooper only occasionally captivates opposite a parade of colorful co-stars ranging from Willem Dafoe to Richard Jenkins to the aforementioned Blanchett (herself the most interesting character of all, an icy therapist). The production design is singularly exquisite, in both the roadside attractions and art deco upper crust sequences, and there is much to like when the characters give a glimpse behind their humble magic tricks. It’s a good but not great effort from a visionary who typically has a bit more up his sleeve.
Haunted characters inevitably return to the scene of the crime, and in Tom Ford’s stunningly realized neo-noir Nocturnal Animals (B+), its principals traverse a tragic, twisty journey to discover the inescapable character traits vexing them through adult life. Ford photographs both a posh Los Angeles modern day story and a Texas-set film-within-the-film with an almost dreamlike clarity. The actors radiate an arch intensity in flashbacks and flash-forwards over a blissfully dense old-Hollywood Abel Korzeniowski score. This amped-up storytelling style benefits shape-shifting Amy Adams as a wealthy but lonely art curator a bit more than intense-in-any-role Jake Gyllenhaal as a novelist and star of his own shattered American pastoral. Shining in more straightforward supporting performances are Michael Shannon as a plainspoken Texas detective, Aaron Tayor-Johnson as a wild-tempered roadside ruffian and a nearly unrecognizable Laura Linney as a headstrong matriarch. Packing a punch within a puzzle, Ford’s tone poem is part romance, part revenge thriller, part requiem for one’s soul; and it’s consistently absorbing and affecting. In the tradition of Mulholland Drive, In the Bedroom and Fargo, it’s a film for those who love the form. The curious finale is sure to spark conversations among cinephiles.
Films such as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Altman’s The Player and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are some of the most definitive movies in the “gritty inside Hollywood” canon; and really, the always interesting David Cronenberg’s latest work, Maps to the Stars (B-), doesn’t even belong in the same discussion with them. But as a bleak portrait of just how soulless and bizarre Tinseltown can be, it’s really quite a fascinating freakshow recommended only for those perversely fascinated with the underbelly of glamour and glitz. Julianne Moore plays washed-up actress “Havana Segrand,” whose character name alone gives you all the clues you need to know that the film will occasionally be over-the-top ridiculous. Moore plays against type and blurs every line between public life and intimacy as we see her in astonishing rawness playing a callow climber. She’s a touch point between several characters in a dysfunctional family including Mia Wasikowska as a whack-job returning to town after a mysterious absence, her child-actor turned rehab-teen brother played deliciously by Evan Bird and their dad (a miscast) John Cusack who is somewhere between psycho and therapist as a self-help guru. It’s a cautionary tale without answers and a puzzle box of an ensemble drama without an easy resolution. Shades of a less well thought out Magnolia hang over the multi-story proceedings like the story it could have been, with a pinch of Cronenberg’s own 1996 sex-in-car-wrecks drama Crash thrown into the stew, sending anyone without the patience for this type of thing running for the Hollywood hills, the exit door or the eject button. Still, despite its messiness, its baffling final act and its complete lack of mainstream appeal, it was an intriguing pulp curiosity and kept me fascinated throughout. Cronenberg invites his audiences to be the ultimate voyeurs, a notion repeated in his best work (History of Violence, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Eastern Promises, Videodrome – someone please give this guy an award already!) and even in his experiments (oddities such as Naked Lunch and eXistenZ). His Brundlefly mash-up with a Hollywood tell-all lends the film its sly signature. The movie is crude, tonally jumbled and often half-baked in comparison to his modern masterpieces, but it still plumbs magnificent depths. There’s no GPS system that will take you to where you’re gonna go here, but I liked the journey just fine.
Equal parts drama, thriller and dark comedy, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (A) is a spectacular indictment of bloodthirsty mass media. A loner played by Jake Gyllenhaal exploits the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of TV news to become a stringer for a struggling L.A. news channel and manipulates everything in his path from his equally nomadic assistant (Riz Ahmed) to a washed-up producer (Rene Russo) to feed his nocturnal obsession. Gyllenhaal is brilliant as a mash-up of Max Headroom and Mitt Romney, taking to the streets to document crime as soon as it happens – or is it the other way around? It’s a tour de force filled with the robotic glee of a man seemingly birthed by Wikipedia and an online business class module. Gilroy evokes Network and Taxi Driver while fashioning an ultra-chic West Coast dystopia steeped in a culture accustomed to get what it wants at any cost. The fact that the film’s protagonist is so creepy and unpredictable makes it all the more watchable. Kudos to Russo as well who is part desperate foil and part accomplice in an unholy alliance. This will be a film discussed for years to come.
Brace yourself for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (B+), a wild ride into the illusions of Hollywood where nothing is what it seems; or if it is, it won’t be for long. Naomi Watts is wonderful as a classic Lynch protagonist in a film that may or may not involve souls switching bodies, color-coded lights that may or may not involve parallel universes and just enough weirdness to keep you hooked.
Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (A+) is a superb detective caper introducing American audiences to a trio of magnificent performers — Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey — as Hollywood cops circa 1953. The myth and illusion of Tinseltown versus the scandals and shakedowns is a wonder to behold. Kim Basinger is a symbol of the town shrouded in mystery. The labyrinthine plot, the knife-sharp camerawork and the epic characterizations make this a spectacular modern classic evocative of Chinatown.
David Lynch’s Lost Highway (C-) is a film noir with Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette that loses its way with some plotting hokum about characters that possibly move out of each other’s souls. It’s a jarring, disconnecting ride that starts with promise and goes off the rails.