Nightmare Alley (2021), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of a 1947 film based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a long (2.5 hours), an ambitious period piece that evokes the atmosphere of old noir style movies.
Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter running from a crime who starts working for a traveling carnival. Nightmare Alley is full of strong character actors, which is fitting for a movie that’s largely set in a traveling carnival. There’s the unsavory owner Clem (William Dafoe), a fortuneteller named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her brilliant but alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman), and Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who survives apparent electrocution night after night. The carnival also has a geek who eats live chickens, so the movie isn’t for the squeamish.
The early scenes of the carnival, which are left out of the 1947 film, simply serve as Stanton’s origin story. He takes up with Molly, convincing her that they are both capable of grander things, and they take their act to the big city (or Buffalo, anyway, which seems like a big city compared to the small towns Stanton and Molly are accustomed to). We next see them conning higher end marks in nightclubs.
Nightmare Alley is not only set in the 1930 and early 40s (the onset of America’s entry into World War 2 is a background story heard on news broadcasts) but the film’s style and sensibility recall movies of this era. Of course, as a remake, this isn’t really unexpected. However, del Toro could have chosen to reimagine Gresham’s tale through a more modern lens. Instead, he amplifies many old tropes, most notably the powerful figure of a beautiful but deadly femme fatale, perfectly cast with Cate Blanchett.
Nightmare Alley is an unapologetically old-fashioned film. The neat way the story cycles back on itself is reminiscent of not only movies from the black and white era but also shows like the original Twilight Zone, where characters get what’s coming to them. This, of course, can be traced back much further, such as to the Greek tragedies. However, sometime in the late 20th century, movies began to evolve (not necessarily implying improvement) in a more postmodern direction, and things didn’t have to make sense, destiny was uncertain, and you never know what might happen. Modern audiences may, therefore, find Nightmare Alley a bit hackneyed, which is fine as long as you understand that del Toro has not actually “post modernized” a tale from the old days of Hollywood, simply made it bigger, longer, and flashier.
Netflix is really pushing I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the enigmatic film directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on a book by Iain Reid. This movie isn’t typical for Netflix, which tends more towards the mainstream while Charlie Kaufman is known for experimental indie efforts such as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and the extremely challenging Synecdoche, New York. I’m Thinking of Ending Things approaches Synecdoche in terms of obscurity and the mind games it plays on the audience. Unlike that bizarre film, however, you don’t realize what you’re in for until the last half hour or so.
Your reaction to this film will tend to fall into one of two categories. Either you’ll think it’s a brilliant, original, and mind-bending work of art or you’ll dismiss it as a gimmicky movie that tries too hard to be clever. My reaction was somewhere in the middle. It is clever and mind-bending but it also relies on a fairly frustrating and not all that original gimmick.
I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible. The interesting thing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that, unlike most obscure and intellectually challenging films or TV shows (for example, Twin Peaks or anything by David Lynch), Charlie Kaufman has actually explained what this film means, or at least the gist of it. You can read his comments in an interview with Indie Wire. I suggest watching it first. This is sort of refreshing. I mean, there’s a long tradition, which Lynch exemplifies, of telling viewers to make what they will of the film. Kaufman is rare in actually solving the mystery.
I‘m Thinking of Ending Things is ostensibly about a couple, Lucy, though her actual name is a matter of contention, which is a clue about what kind of film this is (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) who are driving through a snowstorm to visit Jake’s parents, who live in a remote farmhouse. In the beginning, Lucy narrates, expressing her intention to end things with Jake for fairly vague reasons (i.e. the relationship isn’t “going anywhere”).
From the start, we notice that everyone is, well, strange. Jake has an ominously quiet personality (exacerbated if you’ve seen other parts Plemons has played on shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad) while Lucy seems to be fragmented and unsure of who she is. If you pay attention, you’ll notice odd discrepancies. For example, when they arrive at the farmhouse, she says it reminds her of where she grew up. Yet, less than five minutes later, she claims she grew up in an apartment.
Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) take the weirdness to a new level with their awkward giggling fits. More striking is that their ages morph from one scene to the next. At this point, we realize that things aren’t merely odd but downright surreal. From there, it only gets stranger.
In the background is a school janitor (Guy Boyd) who appears to be observing and/or thinking about these characters, though his connection to them remains obscure.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film you really need to study rather than just watch. The best approach would be to see the film then read some reviews, especially ones that contain Kaufman’s revelations. Then see it again. To be honest, I’ve only seen it once and I don’t think I’ll watch it again. I mostly enjoyed it but I just wasn’t that impressed with the contrivance. At around 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s a long stretch.
I have a certain ambivalence about films or novels where the creator is playing with your mind and manipulating your expectations. I’m probably giving a bit away here, but I’ll say that if you think Fight Club was one of the most brilliant novels/films ever, you might love this. On the other hand, there’s also the problem, particular to modern media-crazy society, of getting jaded with devices that may seem clever at first but then appear derivative.
The idea of art being derivative is more of an issue the more alternative or arty you get. With a conventional thriller, rom-com, or a heist movie, for example, you accept that you’re dealing with a genre and have certain expectations. With more experimental works, however, the stakes are higher and the recollection that you’ve seen it all before is a harsher criticism. That may be because an experimental approach sacrifices certain qualities such as accessibility and comfort.
We tolerate the contrivances of a genre film as long as it offers at least something original. Yet when your expectations are shattered, you want it done in a way that’s not just clever but unique. For me, the film wasn’t quite brilliant enough to justify all the mystery. At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be something more conventional, such as that Jake and his parents were Satanists who fed guests to the farm animals. But that’s not really what Charlie Kaufman does.
I try not to be the kind of reviewer who says that you “should” or “shouldn’t” see a film. In regard to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, if you’re even remotely interested in offbeat and intellectually challenging films, you should definitely watch it and make up your own mind. On the other hand, if you prefer straightforward plots where the characters’ very identity or existence aren’t in doubt, you may want to skip this one.
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (2018), directed by indie British filmmaker Jim Hosking, is a bizarre, absurdist comedy currently streaming on Netflix. Like Hosking’s first feature film, The Greasy Strangler, An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn premiered at Sundance.
The Plot, Such As It Is
The protagonist, Lulu (Aubrey Plaza, who generally stars in more mainstream movies) does have a goal -seeing Beverly Laff Linn perform- but this is the type of film where the plot is practically irrelevant.
The story, such as it is, involves Lulu leaving her husband Shane (Emile Hirsch), a bumbling coffee shop owner who robbed Lulu’s brother (who inexplicably is an East Indian) along with his even more bumbling co-workers, all who have suits and hairstyles that seem to be from the 70s. Lulu takes up with an incompetent enforcer named Colin (Jemaine Clement), who quickly falls in love with her and basically obeys her every command.
Lulu is basically indifferent to Colin, and is only fixated on seeing the mysterious Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), who mostly grunts rather than speaks for most of the film. Linn, for his part, has a manager/hanger-on named Rodney (Matt Berry) who is just as fixated on him as Colin is with Lulu. Lulu, as it turns out, was involved with Linn many years ago and wants to reconnect.
All of these ridiculous characters converge at the hotel where Linn is allegedly going to perform in some non-specified way. I say allegedly because his performance is repeatedly postponed due to health reasons and/or Rodney’s neurotic interference.
Hosking vs. Lynch
Glenn Kenny of Rogerebert.com compares Hosking’s style (unfavorably) to that of David Lynch, as in Twin Peaks. It’s an understandable comparison as both directors populate their films with ridiculous characters with bizarre mannerisms and quirks. Kenny suggests it’s “the difference between genuinely idiosyncratic vision and an avid desire to be different.” Of course, talking about Lynch is setting the bar very high, as he’s one of the true masters of the bizarre.
Some Thoughts on Absurdism
While there are many screwball comedies, indie comedies, mumblecore comedies, and other sub-niches, there are relatively few truly absurdist comedies. A few I can think of that I’ve seen include Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman), Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh), and The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). There’s a reason that few films truly fit this category. I suppose it overlaps with surrealism, but then you’d have to start including European directors such as Fellini and perhaps David Lynch.
We could debate definitions forever, but in general, surrealism tends to be more visually-oriented, intellectual/philosophical, and dreamlike. Absurdism is more random, lighthearted, and comical. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, one of the earliest modern indie films, isn’t surrealistic, but it has definite absurdist qualities.
This long digression is really to point out why absurdism is so hard to pull off. Lacking the visual depth of surrealism and the logical narrative of more conventional scripts, an absurdist tale has to engage the audience, keep them laughing and at least somewhat connected to the characters without the usual narrative devices, such as the protagonist reaching a goal.
Worth Seeing if You Have a Taste for the Offbeat
I think Hosking does succeed to some degree at creating a macabre parallel world where people dress and speak in a weirdly anachronistic manner. The film did make me laugh a fair amount. At the same time, although the film ran an average108 minutes length, it seemed very long and probably could have been edited down to 90 minutes or even a little less.
I haven’t seen Hosking’s previous film, The Greasy Strangler. Based on An Evening With Beverly Laff Linn, though, I’d be interested to see what he comes up with in the future. At the very least, his films are something different. And while some reviewers may accuse him of being weird for its own sake, Hosking does have an aesthetic and sense of humor of his own that invokes interest in his characters.
Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho, is a rich, often shocking, and genre-bending look at class conflict in modern Korea. Unlike many films that tackle such topics, Parasite is fairly ambivalent about its heroes/villains. More accurately, there are no heroes and the villains slide helplessly into this role rather than due to any evil intentions.
Parasite starts off as a fairly lighthearted comedy, as a familiar genre piece about con artists. Failed entrepreneur Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) lives in a bug-infested tenement with his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). The children are grown but, like their parents, unemployed and without prospects. The family survives by doing odd jobs such as folding boxes for a takeout pizza place but even fail at this and have their meager wages cut when the boxes aren’t folded properly.
The family’s fortunes take an upward swing when Ki-woo is recruited by a friend headed for university to tutor the daughter of an affluent family. This is meant to be a short-term assignment but the family conspires to turn it into something much bigger. Taking advantage of Ki-jung’s computer skills (and her natural talents as an actress and forger), the family sneaks its way into the household. Ki-taek becomes a drive; Ki-jung an art tutor, and Chung-sook a maid. They do this in a humorously unethical manner, getting the legitimate household servants fired and scamming the socially insecure couple, pompous CEO Mr. Park (Lee Sun-kyun) and his naive wife Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo-jeong).
Any further discussion of the plot would amount to spoilers, so I’ll just say that Parasite veers in a very different direction from its farcical opening act. I’ll just list a few key impressions the film left me with.
Much of the film’s impact comes from imagery rather than plot developments. For example, the stark contrast between the homes of the two families. The Parks live in a modern mansion on a hill while the Kims live at the bottom of a hill (a fact that becomes important). Elevation plays a both literal and metaphorical role throughout the film.
The very title of the film is a bit of a puzzle. The title complements an earlier film of Bong’s, called The Host, which was about a sea monster. Any parasitism in the current film originates in human nature. All of the characters can be considered parasites, depending on one’s perspective. While Bong is clearly calling attention to issues such as economic inequality, his approach is far more nuanced than simply pitting the noble working class against their evil overlords. It’s more like everyone is victimized by a faceless system that fosters inequality and, ultimately, tragedy and mayhem.
It’s worth noting, and a bit disconcerting, how globally relevant the fundamental issues in Parasite are today. While the film is set in Korea, it could just as easily be the U.S. UK, France, Canada, or many other places where the gulf between economic classes is expanding.
Parasite was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best International Feature Film. I saw Parasite at Bytowne Cinema, an independent theater in Ottawa, Ontario.
Glass Chin (2014), directed by Noah Buschel and starring Corey Stoll and Billy Cruddup is an interesting hybrid of a film and one of the most interesting and entertaining offerings I’ve found on Netflix in some time. It combines characteristics of Rocky with older (as in 40s and 50s) films about washed up boxers with some 70’s-style Martin Scorcese and 90’s style Quentin Tarantino thrown into the mix. The result may not be seamless perfection, but it’s engaging, intelligently written and has a story that’s actually compelling rather than a mindless sequence of action scenes that you usually find in this type of genre.
Stoll plays Bud, an ex-boxer who is torn between training a promising young prospect and working for a sinister bookie named J.J. (Cruddup). He and his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) live in a working class New Jersey neighborhood but discuss philosophy as they sit in diners. Even the film style of Glass Chin is a hybrid, between old school gritty and extremely stylized shots of city streets, more like you’d find in a French film. The effect, however, is always interesting. I especially enjoyed the dialog, which takes up a good part of the time, a fact that will no doubt bore some viewers.
This is mainly a character (and dialog) driven film with a rather simple plot. It contains not one but two outlandish psychopaths, J.J., a very up to date thug who admires Steve Jobs and owns an art gallery and his volatile assistant Roberto (Yul Vasquez). Bud is hired to collect money from gamblers who owe J.J. money and accompanies Roberto on these shakedowns. During one of these incidents, Roberto commits a murder and Bud is framed, all so that J.J. can compel him to fix a fight.
Glass Chin is full of contradictions. It’s a boxing film with no fight scenes (save seeing boxers train in a gym). It’s a gangster film with no on-screen violence. It’s an old school, noirish film with very stylized scenes more reminiscent of European cinema. It also ends on an inconclusive note that is somewhat frustrating.
The title refers to Bud’s own glass chin, as he was infamously knocked out to end his own boxing career (in what may or may not have been an honest fight). Yet it refers equally to his moral weakness, how easily he gets sucked into J.J.’s corrupt world due to his own dissatisfaction with his ordinary life.
This is actually one of the film’s central themes –the conflict between the ordinary and the glamorous. J.J., who owns a snow leopard, shuns the ordinary at all costs, while Ellen, a student of Buddhism, embraces it. Bud is a tragic character caught in the middle and doomed by his inability to choose.
Boyhood is one of the most impressive films in the career of Richard Linklater, a director known for making innovative and captivating independent films -e.g. the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, to name just a few.
Most of the publicity around Boyhood comes from its gimmick -the fact that it was filmed over a 12 year period, in which we get to see the characters, especially star Ellar Coltrane, grow older. This certainly adds something to the movie and makes it truly unique. The only films it has been compared to in this regard are the Up series, which follow the lives of characters every 7 years. Those, however, are documentaries, which are a different breed altogether. It is indeed fascinating to watch the protagonist Mason (Coltrane) grow from a 6 year-old to an 18 year-old college student by the end.
Boyhood, however, should ultimately be judged by its merits as a film, not by the method used by the director. And in this regard, it succeeds triumphantly. What I admire most about Linklater’s films is the way he blatantly violates the cliches of formula filmmaking and nevertheless manages to end up with movies that are so much more compelling than the paint-by-the-numbers efforts of his more conventional contemporaries. At the same time, his style is down-to-earth and doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching a performance piece that’s being clever and artistic just for the sake of it.
For this reason, a film like Boyhood ends up being far more interesting that it sounds like from the description -which is the exact opposite of most movies. A kid grows up; his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) split up; his mother makes some questionable choices for replacement fathers; Mason dates a girl who ends up disappointing him…none of this is very noteworthy on the surface. Yet, with Linklater’s script and direction, there is scarcely a moment that’s not fascinating.
Boyhood has some of the philosophical, somewhat trippy dialogue found in other Linklater films, especially Slacker and Waking Life. Characters manage to convey intelligent and existentialist mindsets without coming off like people in a 1960s French New Wave film (not that there’s anything wrong with that -just that it could come across as pretentious and unlikely when the setting is 21st century America).
Creating dialogue-centered movies without having them sound like stage plays is a skill Linkater has perfected. In the Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, he avoids this (mostly; the final entry does get a little melodramatic towards the end) by the diverse settings. In Boyhood, there are similarly a multitude of settings, from backyards to wooded areas to the colorful streets of Austin.
Boyhood is a major cinematic achievement, both for the way it was created and, more importantly, the final result.
In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.
Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.
As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.
Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.
While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.
These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).
On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).
Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.
The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.
By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.
Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.
Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”
Inside Llewyn Davis is another compelling feature by Ethan and Joel Coen, who are among the most consistent indie film directors working today. This film has similarities with some of the former hits; it has a sullen protagonist reminiscent of Barton Fink and a music-centered theme like O Brother, Where Art Thou, but Inside Llewyn Davis is also a completely unique and original film.
The movie takes place in 1961, at the very beginning of the modern folk music revival in Greenwich Village. Aside from anything else, the set and photography of the film is quite impressive -it’s no easy task to recreate the lower Manhattan of half a century ago. The film is, however, more than just a period piece. Like many Coen Brothers’ films, it’s darkly humorous, with an almost-but-not-quite unlikable hero.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is also a musician and performs many songs in the film) is a sulky, self-centered but talented folk musician who hasn’t gotten his big break and, it is strongly suggested, never will. Although he doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, one reason why it’s hard to hate him is that he’s so poorly treated by everybody else in the film. Early on, he is beaten up in the alley of a folk club. We don’t find out why till nearly the end. He is verbally chastised by Jean (Carey Mulligan), an ex-girlfriend and another folk singer. Bad luck and bad vibes seem to follow him everywhere he goes, including on a bizarre road trip to Chicago. We also get the sense that the only time Davis is able to show his true self is when he performs his music.
Llewyn Davis has been called a surreal film, due to the way it plays tricks with the audience regarding time and the progression of events. I can’t be more specific or less cryptic without giving too much away. However, if you start watching the film expecting some kind of magical realism or fantasy, you’ll be disappointed. You don’t really see that there’s something mysterious going on until quite late in the film. There are, however, clues. One involves the motif of a tabby cat who keeps making appearances at unexpected times.
In addition to strong (musical as well as acting) performances by Isaac and Mulligan, the film features Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Inside Llewyn Davis is an aesthetically satisfying look at the paradoxical world of music and creativity.