MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021) – Moving Drama Adds Fresh Perspective to Anne Frank’s Story


MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK (2021), a film that hails from the Netherlands and is now available on Netflix, tells the story of the friendship between Anne Frank and her best friend Hannah Goslar and covers events from just before Anne and her family went into hiding inside the secret annex and afterwards, when Hannah and Anne were briefly reunited inside a concentration camp.

As such, the film makes for an enlightening companion piece to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the world-renowned diary written by the middle school aged Anne Frank while she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis, which the only member of her family to survive the ordeal, her father, Otto Frank, decided to publish after the war.

Hannah Goslar is mentioned by Anne a bunch of times in her diary, but Otto Frank changed some of the names of the people they knew, and in early versions of the diary Hannah’s name was changed to Lies. In the most recent versions of the diary, Hannah’s real name has been restored.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK tells its story by switching back and forth between the time just before Anne and her family go into hiding, and later, when both she and Hannah are imprisoned in concentration camps, and it does so seamlessly.

The film opens in 1942 in Holland where best friends Anne Frank (Aiko Beemsterboer) and Hannah Goslar (Josephine Arendsen) enjoy their time together with tea parties, games of hide and seek, and talking about boys, while dealing with the Nazi occupation, which at this time in their lives seems to be not much more than an annoying nuisance. It then pivots to 1945 where Hannah is imprisoned with her very young sister inside a Nazi concentration camp. Her ill father is kept in a different part of the camp, and on occasion they are allowed to visit him. The living conditions are deplorable, food scarce, and disease rampant. Hannah discovers than Anne is imprisoned in another section of the camp, and the conditions there are even worse. They communicate on either side of a wall, and as Anne pleads for food, Hannah decides to risk her life to get food to her best friend.

The film pivots back and forth between these two time periods, inviting us to witness the friendship between Anne and Hannah, and later when the situations for the two girls grow dire, to understand how such a deep friendship impacted both their lives.

I enjoyed MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK very much. Director Ben Sombogaart, who spent a lot of time talking to the real life Hannah Goslar, who is still alive and, in her nineties, has made a sensitive and in spite of its subject matter heartwarming movie that celebrates the friendship between two girls which saw them through unspeakable times. And in Anne’s case, since she died in the concentration camp, was something she took with her to her death. The movie is an affirmation of the human spirit, that in spite of the Nazi atrocities, the spirit and friendship of these two girls would not quit, and the love they felt for each other outlasted the Nazi horrors.

The screenplay by Marian Batavier and Paul Ruven, based on the book Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend by Alison Leslie Gold, has been criticized by some for sometimes showing Anne in an unfavorable light, as she is depicted at times being bratty and also being very comfortable and open talking about sexuality, but if you’ve read Anne’s Diary, you know that this is how she was, and so the movie doesn’t really get into anything regarding Anne’s personality that isn’t already known from the diary. It does a fine job capturing the friendship between Anne and Hannah and does so in a tender, affectionate way.

Josephine Arendsen is outstanding as Hannah, in what is pretty much the lead role in the movie, since the film spends most of its time telling its story from Hannah’s perspective. Arendsen plays Hannah as being much less precocious and confident than Anne, but who nonetheless possesses tremendous courage in the face of adversity. Arendsen reminded me a bit of Anya Taylor-Joy at times.

Aiko Beemsterboer was also very good as Anne Frank, and her portrayal was consistent with how Anne talks about herself in her diary.

We live in a time when authoritarianism is creeping back into the world, and so the story of Anne Frank continues to be an important one to tell and remember, to fight back against the powers that be who believe in anything less than human rights for all.

MY BEST FRIEND ANNE FRANK frames Anne’s story around her friendship with Hannah Goslar and tells it through Hannah’s eyes, adding a fresh perspective to the narrative of a young girl who only wanted to see the world, but whose life was cut short by the Nazis.

Her words live on to inspire those to remember her plight and to fight on against the powers of fascism wherever they may be.


MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021) – World War II Espionage Tale is Superior Piece of Historical Fiction


Neville Chamberlain is finally being shown some love.

Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister from 1937-1940, is generally viewed in history as the guy who for reasons of keeping the peace sat back and let Adolf Hitler gear up for war without doing anything to stop him, and it wasn’t until Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 that the United Kingdom took back its fighting spirit and met the Nazis head on.

But MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021), a new movie which premiered on Netflix last month, tells a different side of Chamberlain’s story, showing how his unrelenting determination to avoid war actually bought time for the United Kingdom to prepare for war with Hitler.

Now, Chamberlain’s story isn’t the main one told in MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR, but it’s the most fascinating one.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is actually the story of two friends, Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner), who met at Oxford and became best friends until they had a falling out over Adolf Hitler and the new Nazi regime. Paul believes Hitler is good for Germany and is making Germans feel great about their country again, but Hugh sees him as a racist monster.

Six years later, in 1938, Hugh finds himself working as a civil servant at the office of the Prime Minister, where he reads, edits speeches, and translates for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons). Tensions are high as Hitler plans to invade Czechoslovakia, and the invasion seems imminent, but Chamberlain refuses to give up on diplomacy, citing his memories of the brutality of the previous war, and predicting that any future war would be far worse. Unable to get a response from Hitler, Chamberlain turns to Hitler’s trusted friend Mussolini, hoping that the Italian leader would get Hitler to the negotiating table. On the eve of the invasion, Hitler backs down and agrees to meet with Chamberlain for peace talks.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Paul has had a change of heart about Hitler, after the Nazis brutalize his Jewish girlfriend. His position keeps him in Hitler’s inner circle, and as such, he is secretly working with a small group that wants to remove the Fuhrer from power. A top-secret document makes its way into his possession, which outlines Hitler’s true plans for Europe in specific detail, proving that Hitler isn’t interested in peace but in expanding the German empire and plans to use force to do it. Paul realizes that this peace meeting with Chamberlain is exactly what Hitler wants, as it will buy him time to build up for future invasions.

MI6 receives word that Paul has this document and that he wants to turn it over to Hugh so that Hugh can get it to Chamberlain, and they pretty much order Hugh to meet with Paul and get the document without telling any of his superiors, which sets up the second half of the movie, as Hugh and Paul navigate in the shadows around the Nazis, while Chamberlain and Hitler meet to sign a peace accord to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a fascinating movie that I really enjoyed, a piece of historical fiction that makes for compelling viewing and gives a nuanced interpretation of Neville Chamberlain while doing it.

Both Hugh and Paul were not real people, but they are loosely based on British scholar A. L. Rowse, and German diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz, who were friends at Oxford. The screenplay by Ben Power, based on the novel Munich by Robert Harris, is entertaining and intriguing throughout. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but the story it tells in this movie is a good one.

The best part is its depiction of Neville Chamberlain, a man who is shown here with an unrelenting passion for keeping the peace. It’s a noble attribute and is one that today a person would be hard-pressed to argue against.

It also helps that Jeremy Irons is playing Neville Chamberlain. As one might expect, Irons delivers the best performance in the movie. He captures the elderly Chamberlain’s devotion to peace, and the physical toll it takes on him, as he has to go toe to toe with Hitler, but it’s a task that in spite of his age he is up for, and Irons makes Chamberlain a leader that people can rally around, which is not the way history has so far remembered Chamberlain, who is often viewed as a weak Prime Minister. And it was much more satisfying to watch Irons play Chamberlain here than his recent portrayal of Alfred in the Ben Affleck BATMAN movies.

Both George Mackay as Hugh and Jannis Niewohner as Paul are also excellent. Mackay perfectly captures the tensions that Hugh feels, and he looks like he should be chain smoking throughout the movie. He makes Hugh so stressed out the intensity becomes almost palpable. Previously we saw MacKay playing a character fighting in World War I, as he played a soldier in 1917 (2019).

Niewohner, who hails from Germany, plays Paul as an intense, volatile character whose passion for Germany is so laser-focused that it enables him to see through Hitler and view him as someone whose interests are not aligned with what is best for the country.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR was directed by Christian Schwochow, who does a masterful job. The film is elegant to look at, with its depiction of 1938 Munich, as the sets, costumes, and attention to detail are superb. The story is riveting, and this is an historical drama that is much more of a suspense vehicle than a straight narrative. It’s edge of your seat material.

Not everything works about the film. While there are female characters in the movie, none of them take center stage. I realize the plot is really about Hugh and Paul, and Neville Chamberlain, but the supporting female characters in the movie are not fleshed out at all.

There’s also a key scene that I didn’t buy, and it comes when Paul finds himself alone in a room with Hitler, and he has a gun, and he intends to assassinate the Fuhrer, but he doesn’t. The reason he gives later didn’t fly, not after we perceived him as the explosive, driven young man who not only wanted to save Germany at all costs, but who held Hitler personally responsible for the brutalization of his girlfriend. The scene just didn’t work for me. Everything we learned about Paul told us he would have pulled that trigger.

But overall, I really enjoyed MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR. It’s on par with DARKEST HOUR (2017), the film which won Gary Oldman an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, and in terms of spy intrigue, it’s nearly as tense as Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and the recent THE COURIER (2020) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, even though both these films were spy stories about the Cold War and not World War II.

MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR is a superior piece of historical fiction, an edge of your seat espionage tale, that touts the value of diplomacy over war, and poses the intriguing question of who benefitted more from the time bought by the peace agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. The film argues it was Chamberlain, that his intervention helped give nations time to be ready for when Hitler would ultimately mobilize his war machine a year later. And seeing that the Nazis lost the war, that argument seems sound.


KIMI (2022) – Steven Soderbergh Thriller Efficient and Effective


KIMI (2022), the latest movie from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, is both efficient and effective.

My favorite part of this one, other than the fact that it really does tell an exciting story, is that in the days of overindulgent directors who make movies that go on for well over two hours, oftentimes flirting with the three-hour mark or more, KIMI clocks in at a brisk one hour and twenty-nine minutes. Nice! And none of them are wasted.

KIMI, which is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of Angela (Zoe Kravitz), an agoraphobic young woman who is also a sexual assault survivor. She works for the internet company which created “Kimi,” a new virtual assistant that the company boasts is superior to Alexa and Siri because they use real people rather than computer-generated algorithms to monitor and adjust people’s likings, and that’s Angela’s job. She listens to data streams and corrects errors, so when Kimi misunderstands a person’s request, Angela figures out what the person meant and adds it to Kimi’s memory.

But one day Angela hears what she believes is a violent crime against a woman, and she reports it to her superiors. This should be the end of that, except in what is the weakest part of an otherwise well-written screenplay, the crime she overhears is committed per order of the owner of her company. Small world! Anyway, he doesn’t take kindly to having been discovered, and suddenly Angela’s life is in danger.

So, the main plot in KIMI is a little far-fetched, in that the crime Angela discovers is committed by the CEO of her company. That’s a convoluted pill to swallow. But the movie is about more than just the crime, as a good chunk of it is spent on Angela’s character and how she deals with her agoraphobia, from refusing to see her dentist even when she needs a root canal, to her trying to maintain a relationship with her neighbor Terry (Byron Bowers) who she likes a lot.

Plus the suspense scenes and chase sequences work very well, thanks to the adept direction by Soderbergh. The ending is also very exciting, so KIMI is one of those rare movies which works in spite of having a rather dumb crime plot at its core. It helps that everything other than the crime plot is interesting and intriguing.

So, the screenplay by David Koepp is a mixed bag. The characterizations and the dialogue are both excellent, and the framework for the story, Angela’s dealing with her agoraphobia, and the fascinating elements of her job, are intriguing. When Angela discovers the possibility of a crime, this is also compelling. The only problem is the actual crime involves the CEO of her company, which makes things all rather a bit too neat and tidy. This one needed to be messier.

Koepp has written a gazillion screenplays over the years, having written or co-written scripts for JURASSIC PARK (1993), MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (1996), and SPIDER-MAN (2002) to name just a few. Of course, he’s also one of the folks who co-wrote the abysmal Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017).

I have mixed feelings about the work of Steven Soderbergh. Sometimes I like his movies, and other times I don’t, but more often than not, I enjoy his films. He’s on the top of his game here with KIMI. There’s definitely an Alfred Hitchcock vibe to this claustrophobic thriller, seen through the eyes of its agoraphobic main character. Lots of suspenseful scenes here, and I was on the edge of my seat for a good portion of this movie. It also builds to a satisfying conclusion, especially once Angela gets her hands on a staple gun.

I also enjoyed Soderbergh’s previous movie NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), a crime thriller starring Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro. NO SUDDEN MOVE is a very different movie than KIMI, and the only reason I prefer it ever so slightly to today’s film is that it works on a deeper, more resonating level. But I enjoyed KIMI more than some of Soderbergh’s other thrillers, including UNSANE (2018), SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and CONTAGION (2011).

Zoe Kravitz is excellent in the lead role as Angela, which is a good thing since she’s in nearly every scene. In spite of the character’s agoraphobia, Kravitz doesn’t play Angela as a victim at all. In fact, she’s anything but, and it’s fascinating to watch her consistently gain the upper hand on folks who try to convince her to do things she doesn’t want to do. She is steadfast, determined, and resourceful, which serves her well later when she has to contend with the heavies sent to do her harm by the conniving CEO.

Kravitz will be playing Catwoman in the upcoming superhero movie, THE BATMAN (2022).

The rest of the cast are all decent as well. Byron Bowers makes for a sincere love interest for Angela, and Alex Dobrenko enjoys some scene stealing moments as Angela’s co-worker in a different country, Darius.

The fact that the story takes place during the pandemic is also notable, as it adds to the story, as it’s one of the reasons that Angela cites for her agoraphobia getting worse, since she has spent so much time indoors quarantining. There’s also a chase scene through an office building in which there seems to be no one there except for Angela and the men chasing her, which would seem odd, except that in the here and now during a pandemic, many businesses have cut back on personnel, and so it’s not unrealistic to believe that a building would be mostly unoccupied.

I liked KIMI a lot. With the exception of one dumb plot point involving the CEO of Angela’s company, the rest of this thriller works well and had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, which wasn’t hard to do, since the film clocks in at a most welcoming 89 minutes.

Kimi, play movie again!


I WANT YOU BACK (2022) – Romantic Comedy is Sincere, Honest, and Very Funny


Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a romantic comedy that gets nearly everything right.

I WANT YOU BACK (2022), a new Amazon original movie, works because unlike a lot of other recent comedies, it doesn’t get bogged down with over-the-top vulgar humor or lose its way with unrealistic situations for the sake of trying to be funny. The script by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger in spite of its comedic shenanigans remains rooted in reality which results in a surprisingly fresh take on love and relationships in the here and now.

The movie opens with two break-ups. Noah (Scott Eastwood) breaks up with Emma (Jenny Slate) after a six-month relationship, as Noah feels like Emma just doesn’t have her life figured out, and he wants to move on to someone who does. Anne (Gina Rodriguez) breaks up with Peter (Charlie Day) after a six-year relationship because she feels he is stuck, and she wants to pursue her hopes and dreams, but feels she won’t be able to as long as she is with Peter.

Shortly thereafter, Emma and Peter happen to meet in the stairwell of their office building, as they work for different businesses on different floors inside the same building. They’re both in the stairwell crying over their break-ups, and they strike up a conversation. Later they agree to go out for drinks, and they get plastered as they commiserate. They agree to become each other’s “sadness sisters,” meaning that to help each other resist the urge to call their exes, they will call each other instead. Later, when they learn that both Noah and Anne are seeing new people, they come up with a plan to break up each relationship, hoping that this will lead to Noah and Anne “coming to their senses” and returning to Emma and Peter.

So, Emma volunteers at the middle school where Anne teaches English to insert herself in between Anne and her new crush, the drama teacher there, Logan (Manny Jacinto). Meanwhile, Peter joins the gym where Noah works and allows Noah to become his personal trainer in the hopes of becoming best buddies so he can help guide Noah away from his new girlfriend Ginny (Clark Backo) and back to Emma. Let the comedic games begin!

And while Emma proves very adept at being the seductress and getting in between Logan and Anne, Peter finds his job more difficult as Noah turns out to be an incredibly nice guy, and the two become real friends, and most importantly, Noah is really in love with Ginny.

I WANT YOU BACK is full of so many moments that work, from genuine sincere moments, like Emma’s friendship with a troubled middle school boy, to hilarious comedic ones, as in the sequence where Peter and Noah allow themselves to be picked up by a group of women at a club. Or the scene where Peter finds himself trapped in the bedroom when Noah plans to propose to Ginny. Everything plays out in satisfying fashion, including the climax, which takes place at a wedding on a river boat which brings Peter, Anne, Emma, Logan, Noah, and Ginny all together, and the ending, which the film gets right.

I really enjoyed I WANT YOU BACK, and I was probably most impressed by the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger. First off, I laughed a lot during this movie, which is the true indicator of how good a comedy is. The writing and dialogue were spot on. The conversation between Peter and Emma, for instance, over whether you should put on your own oxygen mask first or put the mask on your loved one first on a plane is a keeper.

Director Jason Orley makes sure we get to know all the characters well, especially the four main ones. The film takes its time fleshing out these folks, and the movie is better for it. Part of the reason the comedy works so well is that we know the characters, and what they are thinking and feeling. The situations are also genuinely amusing.

Charlie Day is very funny as Peter, the nice guy who Emma says is the type of man someone could fall in love with… over a long period of time. And while he’s not sure how to take that, she says it’s a compliment, that the “slow burn” guys are the best. What I liked best about Day’s performance here is it never becomes too over-the-top. He keeps Peter grounded in reality which actually makes the guy even funnier.

Jenny Slate is equally as good as Emma. She has the arduous task of playing a quirky character who most people just don’t understand, but she succeeds in getting the audience to understand Emma. And as Emma, she gets most of the best scenes in the movie.

Scott Eastwood exudes sincerity as Noah, and it’s one of Eastwood’s best performances yet. Noah could have been such a cliche character: the dumb hunk, the handsome guy who tries to be loving but sucks at it, or the complete jerk. But Noah is none of these things. He really is a decent, insightful person. The scene at the club where he says he can’t go too far because of Ginny but gets drunk anyway and goes home with the women along with Peter, is ripe for him to fail at keeping his word, but things don’t play out that way. He even has a poignant conversation later with Emma saying that she never seemed happy with him and that they had so little in common, and so he asks her point blank why she thought he was her true love? And Emma answers that she just wanted the process to be over, she wanted to have found somebody so badly. It’s a wonderfully sincere and honest moment, and I WANT YOU BACK is full of similar moments just like this.

Gina Rodriguez draws the short straw with Anne, as she is probably the least likable of the four characters, as she seems the shallowest. But she still gets to enjoy some sincere moments as well.

Manny Jacinto also enjoys some fine moments as Logan, the middle school drama teacher who really wants to be working on Broadway. And Luke David Blumm is very good as the middle school student who Emma befriends and helps out with.

I WANT YOU BACK is that rare comedy which understands that realistic, honest situations can be just as funny as over-the-top exaggerated ones, sometimes even more so.

If you’re looking for a satisfying romantic comedy this Valentine’s Day, look no further than I WANT YOU BACK.

It’s the perfect match.


A HERO (2021) – Intriguing Iranian Drama Is Relevant Beyond Middle East


A HERO (2021), a new Amazon original movie which hails from Iran, tells the intriguing story of the complications one man endures as he tries to win his freedom and get released from prison.

Specifically, it speaks to today’s world of social media and instant hate and messaging and of how difficult it is to speak the truth and to be believed when lies on social media are spread at a rapid-fire pace. Add to this the distrust in modern day Iranian culture, and the result is a powerful yet frustrating story of a man struggling to gain his freedom in order to live his life.

A HERO opens with Rahim (Amir Jadidi) returning to his home after gaining a two-day leave from prison. He’s living with his sister and her family, and his young son. Rahim also has a girlfriend, who he plans to marry, but their relationship remains a secret because she doesn’t want her brother to know that she is dating a convict. She has found a bag full of gold, and she suggests Rahim use it to pay his creditor, his former father-in-law, which is the reason he is in prison in the first place, because he was unable to pay back his debt to his former relative.

When they learn the value of the gold is less than what he owes his father-in-law, Rahim decides to return the bag to its rightful owner, and he places an add seeking the owner. It’s answered by a woman who describes the bag correctly, and the bag is returned to her. This selfless act gains Rahim attention, and the next thing he knows there is a movement to raise the money he owes to his father-in-law to secure his release from prison. Even the prison officials support Rahim and help him gain positive publicity.

But his father-in-law is not so easily swayed, claiming that Rahim is very good at manipulating people and situations, and that he cannot be trusted. He doubts the story and believes Rahim made the whole thing up. Besides, he argues, why is doing what you’re supposed to do— returning someone else’s money— considered heroic?

Soon, more people doubt Rahim’s story, and he is pressured to find the woman who he gave the bag to so she can corroborate the story, but she has disappeared, and it seems she might not even have been the original owner but perhaps had swindled Rahim. Rahim begs his father-in-law to help him, and when the man instead insults Rahim’s son, Rahim loses it and attacks him, unaware that the entire attack is captured on video.

Rahim isn’t considered heroic anymore.

A HERO tells a fascinating story that held my interest from beginning to end. Rahim is shown to be largely a decent person who really just wants to earn his freedom. His past is shady, but everything he does in this story is pretty straightforward and honest, yet he can’t shake the doubts people have about him. His young son speaks with a severe stutter, and the boy is a perfect metaphor for Rahim’s plight in this movie. He is largely innocent, but he can’t get his message out fast enough. The powers that are working against him are faster, and the public opinion formed by social media and rumor are too powerful for him to combat.

At the end of the movie, one of the prison officials who largely had been helping Rahim says he wants to help him one more time, and he says if he films Rahim’s son, that the boy will gain sympathy, and more people will side with Rahim. Once he starts filming the boy, he encourages him to be over emotional to really win people’s hearts. When Rahim sees that his son is being exploited, he asks for the filming to stop, and when the official refuses, Rahim tries to force the issue. Everyone in the scene, including Rahim’s family, believes him to be acting crazy because they see the official as trying to help, but it’s clear to the audience that Rahim is thinking about more than just his freedom. He’s thinking about his son. Unfortunately, this is lost on everyone else, and he is viewed instead as a crazy person who is too unhinged to be trusted.

Amir Jadidi is in nearly every scene of this movie, and he does an exceptional job as Rahim. He is just quiet enough to give one pause to ask, is he sincere or isn’t he? But his actions are consistent, and they are the actions of a man who is genuinely trying not to con anyone but legitimately earn his freedom.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi captures the flavor of the streets of Iran, and the plight of one man as he struggles to be free, a battle that becomes harder the more Rahim tries. It’s a compelling story that had me riveted throughout.

I haven’t seen a lot of Iranian movies, but I really liked A HERO.

Its tale of a man who tried to do the right thing, was hailed as a hero, until the tide of public opinion turned against him, is a modern-day story that has relevance in any country and isn’t just limited to the Middle East. People’s reliance on social media, and the strength that it wields, can be felt in any country.

Those who try to stand up against that tide are indeed heroic.


NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) – Visually Intriguing Remake Is Mostly for Guillermo del Toro Fans


Well, I continue not to be a fan of director Guillermo del Toro.

And I say this with a great deal of respect, because visually, del Toro’s films are genuinely impressive. Trouble is, I just don’t like many of them, mostly because where he excels with the visual aspects of film, he struggles with the storytelling.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021), del Toro’s latest, released in cinemas back in December and now available on HBO Max, falls into this same category. Visually, the movie is a real treat. The story which takes place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the first half set inside a travelling carnival, is beautifully shot, and the imagery is mesmerizing. The mix of vibrant and shadowy colors, the use of snow, blood, and carnival lights all add up to inspired cinematography. Del Toro’s imagery here is reminiscent of the works of Tim Burton.

But the story is far less inspired and ultimately fall short.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a remake of the classic NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) which starred Tyrone Power. It tells the story of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who when the film opens is seen burning a corpse and an entire house with it, and he then leaves in silence and eventually finds work at a carnival. He befriends Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) who once had a very successful mentalist act, during Pete’s younger days. Stanton learns the tricks of the trade and finds that he has a real talent for the mentalist act. He runs off with the young and lovely Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to start a life of their own, where they take their mentalist act on the road and begin to do exceedingly well.

Until they cross paths with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who puts them in touch with some powerful clients who are looking for individual help as they try to contact their dead loved ones. This is a line Stanton has been taught not to cross, that once someone wants deep personal help, it’s best to let them know it’s all an act, so they don’t get hurt, but the money these people will pay him is too much for him to ignore, and so he embarks on the dangerous path of conning some very powerful people into believing that he is indeed communicating with their deceased relatives.

In addition to its fabulous visuals, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also blessed with an exceptional cast. Bradley Cooper is excellent as he always is, and he’s in nearly every frame of this movie. He takes Stanton Carlisle from mysterious stranger to eager carnival hand, to a successful mentalist at the top of his game to finally when he takes things too far, to a tragic figure, and he is convincing in all of these stages. While not as impressive as his work in A STAR IS BORN (2018) or AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) it’s still pretty good stuff and a solid reminder of how far Cooper has come from his days in THE HANGOVER movies, a comedy trilogy in which he was also excellent.

Rooney Mara is sincere as Molly Cahill, and is the one constant positive force in Stanton’s life, while Cate Blanchett makes Dr. Lilith Ritter a shady film noir femme fatale. Blanchett is fine here, but I enjoyed her more as the powerful TV host in DON’T LOOK UP (2021).

The stellar cast also includes Willem Dafoe as carnival head Clem Hoatley, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, and Holt McCallany.

The screenplay by del Toro and Kim Morgan, based on the novel by Lindsay Gresham, works up to a point. I thoroughly enjoyed the set-up, the stranger with the mysterious background who joins the carnival to finally fit in somewhere, but as the plot progresses, and Stanton grows more confident and takes his act on the road to hit it big, the intrigue dies down, mostly because none of the characters are fleshed out enough to make their contributions to the story worthwhile. And Stanton becomes a one trick pony after a while. Plus, the film is very, very long, clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes, and it feels like it. Shave off thirty minutes, and the movie probably works better.

As I said, visually the film is outstanding, and so del Toro fares better as a director here. There are some brilliantly conceived almost mesmerizing scenes, featuring merry go rounds, ferris wheels, and buildings with cold, labrynth-like hallways. There’s also plenty of blood and violence. And with its talented cast it has the makings of a winner, but sometimes these elements are not enough, and that’s the case here with NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The story falls flat long before the end credits roll.

I feel the same way even about some of del Toro’s celebrated hits, films like the Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), CRIMSON PEAK (2015), and even PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006). All of these films have winning visual styles, and all labored to tell a decent story. My favorite of del Toro’s films remains his HELLBOY movies.

If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro, you will no doubt enjoy NIGHTMARE ALLEY much more than I did. But the rest of us, while we may be wowed by its vibrant onscreen artistry, will find sitting through two hours and thirty minutes of labored storytelling an arduous task at best.

At the end of the day, NIGHTMARE ALLEY isn’t much of a nightmare. It’s not even much of a bad dream. It’s just an alley, a very long alley with lots of offshoots that ultimately lead to nowhere.