SHE SAID (2022) – Important Movie on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Is Must-See Viewing

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SHE SAID (2022) is the type of movie that I don’t feel like criticizing one bit because its subject matter— sexual harassment of women in the workplace— is so important.

In other words, while the movie is far from perfect, it’s still a film everyone should see. Period. So, let there be no ambiguity about that. SHE SAID is a must-see movie for everyone.

SHE SAID is based on both The New York Times investigative reporting by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and their book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, and while it chronicles their investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, an investigation which eventually led to his arrest and conviction, the story in general is really about how pervasive sexual harassment is in the workplace and how deeply rooted these attitudes against women are engrained in men, especially but not limited to, men in power. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz makes this abundantly clear, and rightly so, as its take on this subject is spot on.

I found SHE SAID to be a very somber and unsettling movie because the story it told not only was true but exposes horrible things regarding the way men treat women that sadly are ongoing.

SHE SAID basically follows the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they painstakingly and persistently follow leads and search for victims to speak on the record and for proof to back up their claims as they try to tell the story and expose the abuse and harassment propagated by Harvey Weinstein over the years.

The film gets this right, as we witness how frightened Weinstein’s victims are, and how not only are they afraid to talk, but so many of them signed settlements which legally prevented them from talking. It also prevented them from ever working again in the movie industry, as Weinstein would make sure they couldn’t.

The more Twohey and Kantor learn about Weinstein, the more emotional they grow, because they know what he has done and continues to do, but they can’t get anyone on record to speak about it, and so they persist and go to nearly superhuman lengths to seek out and find both the proof and on the record accounts they need. They also have to deal with Weinstein, who with his connections learns they are investigating him, and he intimidates the women who are thinking of speaking out, and there are also anonymous violent and vulgar threats against Twohey and Kantor.

What the film doesn’t get right— and again, because of the subject matter, I encourage everyone to see this movie in spite of this— is a cinematic style. While the content held my attention throughout, both the writing and by-the-numbers directing by Maria Schrader kept this from being a powerful film in its own right. For example, the movie SPOTLIGHT (2015), which covered the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church’s child molestation crimes and its subsequent cover-up, was a phenomenal movie in its own right on top of its riveting subject matter. Not only did it feature a strong cast and powerhouse performances, but the writing dug deep into the reporters writing the stories, and the film also had villains, portraying the Catholic Church as being stubbornly out of touch with its victims. It never got melodramatic. It stuck to facts. But it also went for the jugular and really hit hard with its message of just what happened and was continuing to happen.

SHE SAID doesn’t quite do this. While I applaud the choice the movie made not to ever show Weinstein speaking on camera, and we only see the back of the actor’s head who is portraying him, the sad side effect of this is we never really feel the ugliness and vulgarity of the man. Not that we have to. In terms of story and making its point, we don’t need more of Weinstein. But we need something. Because the movie is almost all Twohey and Kantor and their reporting. Why isn’t this enough? Well, technically it is, but as a movie, the two hours spent watching SHE SAID are nowhere near as riveting as watching SPOTLIGHT.

And the story does give us some family background on Twohey and Kantor, but their backgrounds aren’t what is missing. It’s the process of their investigation which needs more dialogue and angst. The drama is flat.

Carey Mulligan is a terrific actor, and she nails the experienced Megan Twohey, who while growing increasingly rattled by this investigation also is dealing with a newborn at home. She also has a great scene in the movie, where at a meeting at a bar, a guy comes over and hits on them, and when she tells him they’re not interested, and he persists and becomes vulgar, she lets him have it and tells him to f*ck off! Mulligan has wowed me since I first saw her in DRIVE (2011) and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her phenomenal performance in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), and she also was pretty darn good in the more recent THE DIG (2021), in which she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes.

Zoe Kazan is also exceptional as Jodi Kantor, the less experienced of the two reporters, but the one who initially started the investigation. She also has her share of potent scenes, like when she inadvertently mentions to one of the victims’ husbands what supposedly happened with Weinstein, and the husband says his wife has never mentioned this to him. I’ve enjoyed Kazan in the horror movie THE MONSTER (2016) and even more so in the romantic comedy THE BIG SICK (2017).

The supporting cast is very good. Andre Braugher turns in a fine performance as executive editor Dean Baquet. The way he confidently pushes back against Weinstein provides some of the more satisfying moments in the movie.

SHE SAID is a very good movie, and while it has its flaws, its content is must-see viewing, and its perspective on sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be heard, acknowledged, and understood, and changes need to continue to be made.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE GOOD NURSE (2022) – Netflix Drama is a Really Good Movie

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Netflix has been able to attract A-list actors in many of their original movies. The results are fifty-fifty. Sometimes the films are disappointing, but other times they really work and make for solid movie viewing, all in the comfort of your own home.

THE GOOD NURSE (2022), based on the true story of serial killer Charles Cullen, a male nurse, who murdered dozens possibly hundreds of people while working at various hospitals, before he was finally stopped by a co-worker, the “good nurse” in the title of the movie, falls into the latter category. It’s really well done, and the two A-list actors in this one, Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, both deliver compelling performances which carry the movie from beginning to end.

I was surprised how effortlessly THE GOOD NURSE plays out, and a lot of the credit here has to go to director Tobias Lindholm, who directs this one with a straightforward style that tells its story starting with the first frame of the movie, where we see a patient dying, doctors asking questions, and male nurse Charles Cullen in the room feigning innocence, and then moves forward without any diversions or wasted scenes.

Equal credit goes to screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who wrote the screenplay based on the book by Charles Graeber, as she outlines the story perfectly and includes superior dialogue throughout, which comes as no surprise, since Wilson-Cairns was nominated for an Academy Award for her co-written screenplay to 1917 (2019).

And then you have Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, who both play their roles at the top of their games, and the result is THE GOOD NURSE is a really good movie, much better than I expected it to be.

Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom struggling to raise her two young daughters. She works long hours as a hospital nurse, and she also suffers from a heart ailment which could prove fatal, but she can’t stop working because she needs to work for at least six months longer in order to qualify for health insurance. Her supervisor can’t cut her hours, but she does hire an extra nurse to help out, and that nurse is Charlie Cullen (Eddie Redmayne).

Amy and Charlie hit it off immediately. They are both single parents with young children, and once Charlie learns of Amy’s condition, he promises to help her, and he assures her that with his help she’ll make it through the six months to get her health insurance. When one of their patients dies unexpectedly, Amy is surprised, but hardly takes notice, and when several months later, the police are alerted, the two homicide detectives Danny Baldwin (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich) shrug their shoulders and wonder why they are even being called in. But after meeting with icy cold hospital administrator Linda Garran (Kim Dickens) and the hospital attorney, and having their questions go unanswered, Baldwin and Braun feel that something is not right. And when Garran refuses to hand over the internal investigative report, citing one delay tactic after another, the officers’ suspicions are heightened.

They do a random background check on the hospital staff who dealt with the deceased, and they find that male nurse Charlie Cullen has a record for assault. When they attempt to follow-up, they find resistance from every hospital where Cullen ever worked. And when during follow-up questioning with Amy, she tells them that another patient has died, they see a blazing red flag. Amy of course, since Charlie has been such a good friend to her, can’t believe he would be involved in the killing of a patient, but then she begins looking into the matter on her own. What she finds surprises her. She then risks her career and possibly her life as she agrees to work with Baldwin and Braun to finally put an end to what Charlie has been doing.

The story is told through Amy’s perspective, and the events in the movie are framed around her. Jessica Chastain is in top form as the nurse who legally is not allowed to talk about any of the hospital deaths, as her contract explicitly prevents this, and so by helping the police she is risking losing her job. Chastain captures Amy’s exhaustion, from her strenuous nursing position, in a hospital that isn’t funded enough or prepared to properly take care of its staff, to her heart condition, to dealing with difficult children at home. Chastain makes the weary Amy sympathetic and later heroic.

I like Jessica Chastain a lot. She’s been enjoyable in so many movies, from THE HELP (2011) to ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) to THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few. We just saw her in THE FORGIVEN (2021), where she co-starred with Ralph Fiennes, and she’s even better here in THE GOOD NURSE. And of course, she won the Oscar for Best Actress this past year for her performance in THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

Eddie Redmayne kills it as Charlie Cullen. While he is soft-spoken, gentle, and polite, the way Redmayne plays him, there is something off about him, as if he is covering a deep wound, or harboring a sinister secret, which he is. He gets one of the best lines in the movie, when asked by the police why he did it, he answers simply, because they let me.

And that’s a huge part of the story told in THE GOOD NURSE. Hospital after hospital where Charlie worked knew what he was doing, but none of them sought the authorities to go after him, because as explained in the movie, that would make them vulnerable to expensive lawsuits. THE GOOD NURSE does a nice job painting a troubling portrait of the health care system and of hospitals in general, and this is before COVID!

Redmayne won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014), so I won’t claim that his work here in THE GOOD NURSE is his best yet, but it’s pretty darn good! He’s really convincing as a man who would be capable of killing that many people for no other reason other than he could.

I also enjoyed both Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich as the two homicide detectives who go from initially feeling like the hospital is wasting their time, to hmm, that seemed like a cover-up, but we doubt it, but we’ll check it out anyway, to full blown holy sh*t! this guy’s been killing people for years and no one has brought charges against him!

I didn’t really expect much from THE GOOD NURSE, but it exceeded my expectations. Driven by two exceptional performances by Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, THE GOOD NURSE tells a riveting story that is about more than just a serial killer, as it also makes clear that the hospitals which knew of his crimes did nothing about them. And it tells this story through the eyes of one very hard-working nurse, Amy Loughren, who’s struggling to get through her life with a job that doesn’t give her health insurance— and she’s a health-care worker! —and as a single mom with two children. She’s in jeopardy long before she meets Charlie Cullen, and once she does meet him and learns what he’s been doing, she puts her friendship aside and her job on the line, in order to finally put an end to his killing spree.

Just before the end credits roll, the movie reveals what Amy is doing in the here and now, and after some family updates, concludes that she is still “a good nurse.”

I give THE GOOD NURSE a solid three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THIRTEEN LIVES (2022) – Ron Howard Expertly Chronicles True Story of Extraordinary Underwater Rescue

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THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.

This is both good and bad.

But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.

In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.

They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.

John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.

Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.

Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.

Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.

And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.

Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.

Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.

The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.

There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.

If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.

THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.

Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.

Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.

The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.

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NOPE (2022) – Jordan Peele’s Latest Labors as It Tries Too Hard to be Clever

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Sometimes movies try too hard to be clever.

NOPE (2022), the latest genre movie by Jordan Peele, the man who brought us GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), goes out of its way to be puzzling and thought-provoking, but this creative zeal often gets in the way of its storytelling, to the point where its narrative never really flows, instead laboring from start to finish as it works through an otherwise interesting story.

In NOPE, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) operate a ranch in California where they train horses to appear in movies and television, so right off the bat you have an interesting premise just with the main characters’ occupation, as this isn’t something we see in movies all that often. OJ hasn’t been right since the tragic death of his father Otis (Keith David), who was killed in a bizarre accident when he was struck by random debris which fell from a passing plane. But OJ was there that day, and he never saw a passing plane in the sky, although there was thick cloud cover and some strange noises overhead.

Soon OJ is hearing and seeing strange things through the clouds which seem to always permeate the sky above their farmhouse. When computer geek Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) arrives to help them set up surveillance cameras, he joins them on their quest to find out what is going on in the sky above their home. And when OJ gets a closer look at the phenomenon, he tells his sister that it didn’t move like a ship, implying that while it seems to be a UFO, it might be something different…

And that’s the premise of NOPE, as the main characters try to unravel the mystery in the skies above their home.

As stories go, I liked the one told in NOPE, but as I said, the way Jordan Peele tells it comes across as more labored than polished. Peele obviously chose to tell the story in this way to be more creative and innovative. Scenes often end in the middle, effectively teasing the audience, not letting them know answers and information needed to figure things out. The movie also opens bizarrely, with a scene from a cancelled sitcom after a tragedy struck.

We find out later that former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a western show not far from OJ’s ranch, was on the set of that sitcom when the tragedy ensued, something that scarred him greatly. Ricky’s story ties in directly with the main one in the movie because he too has seen the strange phenomenon in the sky, but his take on it is different from OJ’s, and a lot of his interpretation is based on his childhood trauma. So, it all connects. Eventually.

As does the plot point about OJ’s relationship with his horses. Everything that happens in this story is there for a reason. I don’t have a problem with that. But the convoluted way Peele goes about telling his story gets in the way of effective storytelling, and as a result, I had a difficult time warming up to this one.

It also gets in the way of the characterizations. No one in this movie really comes to life, in spite of some nifty acting performances.

Daniel Kaluuya, who won the Oscar last year for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021), and who was also nominated for Best Actor for his work in GET OUT, is a terrific actor, and his talents are on full display here in NOPE. He plays OJ as a brooding, grieving son who is not yet over the death of his father. He’s also the strong, silent type, and barely says much of anything throughout the movie. OJ’s personality reflects the feel of the entire movie: quiet, brooding, and not that exciting.

Keke Palmer as OJ’s sister Emerald is the opposite of her brother, as she is lively, outspoken, and anything but introspective.

I also enjoyed Steven Yeun’s performance as Ricky, the former child actor now running a family friendly western show in the middle of California nowhere. Yeun is very good in a role that at first seems tangent to everything else that is going on in the movie, but when the big reveal is made near the end, it makes sense at that moment how his story ties into the main one. Yeun, who played Glenn on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2020) was also nominated for an Oscar last year for Best Actor in MINARI (2020).

It was fun to see Keith David for a couple of seconds (should have been more!) as OJ’s dad Otis. David has enjoyed a long career going all the way back to his performance as Childs in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

Brandon Perea as geek Angel Torres primarily provides the comic relief throughout the movie, and Michael Wincott plays a dedicated cameraman who agrees to help them film what’s going on in the skies above their home to give them proof, in a role that should have been much more interesting than it ultimately was. While Wincott is fine, the writing is not.

Jordan Peele wrote the screenplay, and with the exception of OJ, the characters in this one do not come to life. Michael Wincott’s cameraman character, specifically, is left dangling in the wind. He comes in and does his thing, yet we know nothing about him. The other characters are shallow as well.

While the story is clever and creative, and the reveal is satisfying, the execution here is not. Peele seems to have decided that he wanted to make this movie feel like a puzzle, something for audiences to think on and figure out, and for the most part, that’s what NOPE is. But it gets in the way of the narrative, and it reminded me of a work in progress, where another draft of the screenplay was needed, one where things would be polished, to hammer points home and make sure the story works, because ultimately, it doesn’t work completely. Why not? The number one reason is there’s little or no emotional connection with the characters.

I liked NOPE better than Peele’s previous outing, US, which I didn’t like at all, but I still strongly prefer GET OUT to this latest outing by Peele.

It has its moments. Like one where OJ is terrified of something he’s seeing, and he turns away shaking his head muttering, “Nope!” which was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, as well as a light bulb moment for the meaning of the title, and there are flashes of genuine suspense and intrigue, but more often than not, there are long periods of labored exposition and scenes that end before they should to keep audiences guessing, but when you do this too much, audiences lose interest in guessing.

I liked the reveal, but after this, the third act of the film continues to drudge through a long climax which strangely was the least exciting part of the movie, mostly because we were watching superficial characters deal with a somewhat interesting but never horrifying threat.

In its defense, NOPE has a worthwhile theme, and the story it tells is actually a good one, but the way it tells it doesn’t do it any favors. Simply put, it can’t get out of its own way.

I liked NOPE, but I didn’t love it.

It’s thought-provoking science fiction. It’s a fairly creepy horror tale. But is it an engrossing movie that I am going to want to watch over and over again?

In a word:

Nope.

—END—

ELVIS (2022) – Baz Luhrmann’s Bio Pic of Elvis Presley Is Visual Storytelling at its Best

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ELVIS (2022), the new bio pic of Elvis Presley by director Baz Luhrmann, is a visual treat.

I’m a big fan of director Baz Luhrmann. I’ve really enjoyed his movies, films like ROMEO AND JULIET (1996), MOULIN ROUGE! (2001), and THE GREAT GATSBY (2013). I find his visual style and fast-paced energetic editing contagious, as his films draw me in immediately and never let go. I know some folks find his style too off putting, but I think he is a master at creative storytelling, using images and music often in a nonlinear way to tell a complete story. While my favorite movie by Luhrmann remains his version of THE GREAT GATSBY, I really enjoyed his latest, ELVIS, which perfectly captures the life of Elvis Presley, as Luhrmann’s spectacular movie making style is in lock step with the spectacle of Elvis’ larger than life career.

Luhrmann overcomes the somewhat odd screenplay which he co-wrote with Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce, which strangely focuses more on Elvis’ controversial manager Colonel Parker than the King himself. This might not be a fair statement, because the movie does cover Elvis’ career from beginning to end, but it’s seen through its entirety through the prism of Parker’s vision, who serves not only as the main supporting character but also as the film’s narrator.

ELVIS opens with Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) in a hospital bed, and in voice-over narration he’s reminiscing and says that people blame him for Elvis’ death, but he says, that simply is not true, and then in typical Baz Luhrmann style, the film explodes into a myriad of flashbacks as we meet a young Elvis (Austin Butler), and the film takes off from there bringing to full life with amazing images and electrifying music the career of the man who would become the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.

We learn of Elvis’ roots and early influences from the jazz community, and we are there when Colonel Parker, a man who got his start doing promotions in circuses and is constantly looking for that act which will take him to the promised land, sees Elvis perform and witnesses the insane reaction Elvis gets from the women in the audience. As Parker says, the best acts are those which make people pay money to enjoy things in ways which they later realize perhaps they shouldn’t. He sees that Elvis has this power.

And once Elvis agrees to take the Colonel on as his manager and promoter, Elvis’ career skyrockets, with one hit song after another, and soon the Colonel has Elvis starring in Hollywood movies, but after a sensational appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, controversy ensues as conservative political leaders take offense to Elvis’ signature and what they deemed erotic dance moves. When they threaten legal action, the Colonel advises Elvis to play it safe, and he sends him off to the military for three years to change his image and show that he can be all-American and conservative.

In the late 1960s, when times change, Elvis begins to be viewed as a has been, but in one of the movie’s best moments, Elvis performs his 1968 Comeback Special on NBC, a special that was promoted and planned by Colonel Parker as a family Christmas event, but Elvis and the director of the show had other ideas. Elvis wore black leather and performed the way he wanted to, and the special was a huge ratings hit and inspired Elvis to start performing live concerts again. Suddenly, Elvis Presley was once again relevant.

This eventually led Elvis to performing in Las Vegas, because as the film shows. the Colonel had huge gambling debts, and as compensation for Elvis performing exclusively in Vegas, his debts were forgiven, and so the Colonel did everything in his power to keep Elvis performing there and only there, a decision which led to the King taking more drugs to keep him going to keep up with the incredible schedule, and eventually led to his early death at the age of 42.

I really liked ELVIS. As I said, Luhrmann’s style is energetic and captivating. There is never a dull moment. Its two hour and thirty-nine-minute running time flies by easily. He also captures the spectacle of Elvis’ career with big bright flashy numbers and musical montages.

There are some oddities. The emphasis on Colonel Parker is one of them. While the character is at the forefront throughout the movie and has an answer for everything, including that he was not responsible for Elvis’ death, the movie makes it quite clear what kind of influence Parker had on Elvis. Parker was always self-serving, and any decision he made which may have benefitted the rock star, always benefitted himself first. And, had Elvis broken away from Parker like he wanted, he probably doesn’t stay in Las Vegas, and chances are his life takes a different direction and perhaps he’s not dead by the age of 42.

And while the movie does provide a full comprehensive telling of the career of Elvis Presley, it does so largely on a superficial level. We see what happens throughout Elvis’ career, but the film never delves deeply into the thoughts and feelings of Elvis Presley, the man. For example, when in Las Vegas, doctors began pumping him with pills to get him through his shows, we see this happening, and we see Elvis readily taking these drugs without protest or question, but the film never really stops and takes a breath long enough for us to see what Elvis really thinks about all this.

As such, while Austin Butler delivers a notable performance as Elvis Presley, it’s not something Oscar-worthy. There’s not a lot of angst or insight or introspection, but there is a lot of performance. Why Butler is so good here is that he looks, moves, and sounds, just like Elvis Presley. So, his success stems largely from Baz Luhrmann the director, who creates this masterful visual work where we see the career of Elvis Presley recreated to perfection. On the other hand, he’s limited by Baz Luhrmann the screenwriter, whose co-written script never really delves into Elvis’s life beyond the superficial aspects of his career. I loved watching Austin Butler onscreen. But I wouldn’t say he will be up for an Oscar come Awards time.

On the other hand, Tom Hanks delivers a very memorable yet rather thankless performance as Colonel Tom Parker. Mostly unrecognizable under make-up and prosthetics which make him look older and heavier, Hanks plays the rather unlikable Colonel Parker as a man who knows who he is, a self-serving promoter, and who is comfortable walking in those shoes. Any loyalty he shows to Elvis throughout their time together is always connected to his own self-interests.

I also enjoyed Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley. Her spunky personality made it clear why Elvis fell so easily in love with her.

There are a lot of memorable moments in ELVIS, a lot that speak to racism, as Elvis received lots of push back and animosity for his friendship with the black music community, which he considered his roots and was the music he loved most. We witness the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy through Elvis’ eyes, and after Kennedy’s death, he wanted to make a public statement, but the Colonel dissuaded him, telling him that he was a singer and that he shouldn’t stick his nose in politics. It was a decision that largely led to Elvis’ later decision to ditch the Christmas format of the Comeback Special, as he wanted to let his singing do the talking to the nation.

At one point in a Las Vegas montage, while describing Elvis’ performance as being appropriate for the “older folks,” the narration mentions that for the younger folks, performing nearby are the young sensations known as The Jackson Five, and the juxtaposition of a young Michael Jackson with Elvis Presley in the same place at the same time is not lost on audiences, as Jackson would suffer a similar fate some thirty years later.

It also uses Elvis’ songs to great effect, like the sequence with “Suspicious Minds,” for example, when Elvis suspects the Colonel of not being straight with him.

I thought ROCKETMAN (2019) did a better job revealing who Elton John is as a person than ELVIS does with Elvis Presley. But in terms of visual storytelling, ELVIS is every bit as compelling as ROCKETMAN. There’s also more music, more scenes of Elvis performing, and just a museum quality of capturing history. Luhrmann’s storytelling style is that good.

If you want to experience the career of Elvis Presley… as long as you’re not expecting a deep introspective look into the man himself…. you can’t do much better than ELVIS.

It’s a hip-swiveling cinematic homage to the King of Rock and Roll.

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KING RICHARD (2021) – Will Smith’s Best Actor Oscar is Well-Deserved

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I finally caught up with KING RICHARD (2021) the other day, the film in which Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as tennis stars’ Venus and Serena Williams’ controversial father, Richard Williams.

And no, I didn’t decide to watch it because of the “slap” at the Oscars and all that has happened and continues to happen after it, but admittedly, I did decide to watch it because Smith won the Oscar. I initially passed on it when it premiered this past November, mostly because I’m not a fan of the work of Will Smith, which makes the “slap” incident all the more unfortunate, because Smith delivers a heck of a performance which is by far the best part of the movie.

In KING RICHARD, Will Smith plays Richard Williams as a driven, determined man who has a “plan” to make his daughters Venus and Serena tennis stars. In an early voice over, he explains how it is a financial decision, as he knows how much money tennis champions make, and he sets out to see that his daughters become just that. Lost in the screenplay by Zach Baylin is why tennis? There are lots of ways to make money and become successful, but why Richard set his sights on tennis is never clearly explained.

So Richard and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) who is in lock step with her husband regarding his plan for his daughters, work their daughters hard, practicing every day, so much so that they raise the ire of their neighbor who thinks they are working their daughters too hard and even goes so far at one point to call the police on them. But Richard is no slave driver. In fact, he stresses throughout the movie that he wants his daughters to have fun most of all, and he refuses to put too much pressure on them, all the while stressing the importance of their academic endeavors with the thinking being once their tennis careers are over, they will have to fall back on something else which is why they need an education.

Richard also sets out to find a coach who will work with his daughters for free, and after boldly approaching Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who at the time was coaching Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, he strikes gold when Cohen is indeed impressed by watching Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) play, and he agrees to coach— but just one of the daughters for free.

This arrangement works well until Richard decides to pull his daughters from playing in the Juniors tournament because he sees the stress of what happens to the other girls at this young age level, a decision which is highly controversial and leads to his decision to walk away from Cohen. Eventually, Richard secures another top coach for the girls, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), and while Richard’s unconventional methods continue, to the point where even his wife Brandy calls him out, they don’t get in the way of his daughters’ success, and the rest is history.

I enjoyed KING RICHARD quite a bit, and I have to say, the main reason I enjoyed it so much was indeed Will Smith’s performance as Richard Williams. His depiction of Williams is as a tireless, devoted father to his girls, who has a plan for their success which most others feel is laughable. But he sticks with it, and they become the best tennis players in the world. In spite of his insistence on doing things “his way” what’s admirable about the character is he never deviates from putting his daughter’s best interests at the forefront. Of course, in reality, there are different opinions about the behavior and motives of the real Richard Williams, but in the movie, he’s an unconventional but stand-up guy who really is all about protecting his daughters while they work their way to success, fame, and fortune.

And Will Smith captures this brilliantly. As I said, I am not a fan of the work of WiIl Smith. With the exception of his portrayal of Deadshot in the flawed and uneven DC superhero film SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) I just haven’t enjoyed his performances or movies all that much. I’m not a big fan of the BAD BOYS or MEN IN BLACK movies. I did enjoy his performance as Muhammad Ali in ALI (2001), but I liked his work here in KING RICHARD better. So, for my money, the Oscar is well-deserved, because it’s the best performance I’ve seen Smith deliver. Which makes his actions on stage at the Oscars going after Chris Rock even sadder.

I also enjoyed Aunjanue Ellis as Brandy Williams, and Jon Bernthal as coach Macci. It was fun to see Bernthal cast against type and not play his usual tough guy role. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton were also solid as Venus and Serena Williams.

KING RICHARD was directed by Reinaldo Marcu Green with little fanfare or overdramatic gusto. The tennis sequences oddly fall flat, and hardly generate much excitement. The story here really, as its title says, is about Richard Williams. Everything that happens is viewed through his eyes, and his perspective is brilliantly captured by Will Smith.

Smith’s Oscar, in spite of his misguided behavior on stage, is well-deserved.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

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Recently in this column, we looked at THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), which was the last of the serious Universal INVISIBLE MAN movies, before the invisible one went on to meet Abbott and Costello, in a film obviously played for laughs. I mentioned that the lead in that movie was Jon Hall, and that it was his second time playing an invisible man.

Hall first played the invisible fellow in INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), the subject of today’s IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, which makes Hall the only actor to play the Invisible Man as the lead role in more than one movie. Vincent Price played the Invisible Man twice as well, but one of those performances was a cameo in the final seconds of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Price also played the lead in the first INVISIBLE MAN sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940).

INVISIBLE AGENT never made the rounds on the Saturday afternoon horror movie docket when I was a kid, and so I never caught up with this one until as an adult I purchased it on DVD. It probably didn’t show up back in the day because it’s really not a horror movie. That’s right, INVISIBLE AGENT is a war movie, as the main character, Frank Griffin, who changes his name to Frank Raymond, is a descendant of the original Claude Rains’ character Jack Griffin in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). The film takes place in 1942, the year it was made, and Frank agrees to use the invisibility formula to turn himself into an invisible agent to help thwart the Nazis!

And since this isn’t a horror movie, even though the dangers of the invisibility formula are mentioned briefly in the film, main character Frank Raymond really doesn’t have to worry all that much about going insane like his infamous ancestor. That horrific plot point isn’t really on the menu here.

In INVISIBLE AGENT, Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) agrees to work with the United States government to turn himself invisible and take on the Nazis. His contact in Germany is the beautiful Maria Sorenson (Illona Massey). Together, they work to thwart the plans of Nazi Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) and Japanese villain Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). They succeed rather easily, because most of the bad guys in this one are portrayed as hapless buffoons.

Most of INVISIBLE AGENT is played for laughs, which actually works against this movie. It would have been a much more intriguing flick had the plot been taken a bit more seriously. It’s not a horror movie, and it’s not much of a wartime thriller, and that’s two strikes against it. It is, however, an amusing light “let’s beat up on the Nazis” movie which since it was released in the middle of World War II, most likely was a crowd pleaser.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, one of classic horror’s best writers, with screenplay credits that include THE WOLF MAN (1941), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), to name just a few, isn’t one of his best, but it does make for a lighthearted World War II adventure with decent characters and interesting dialogue.

Jon Hall fares better as an invisible man here in INVISIBLE AGENT than he would later in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, as his character here is likable and heroic, and he possesses a spunky sense of humor. Illona Massey makes for a strong female heroine as Maria Sorenson. She would play another effective heroine the following year in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, playing Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.

The two best performances in the movie however belong to Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre as the two villains. A huge part of this is that in this easygoing movie, both Hardwicke and Lorre play things straight and are really quite nefarious. Lorre delivers the better performance of the two, although it’s jarring and by today’s standards disturbing to watch him play a Japanese character. It wasn’t an issue back in 1942, as Lorre even made an entire film series as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto back in the 1930s.

On the other hand, J. Edward Bromberg’s Nazi Karl Heiser is entirely played for laughs. Bromberg would go on to appear in two other Universal horror movies, as vampire expert Professor Lazlo in SON OF DRACULA (1943), and as one of the Paris Opera owners in the Claude Rains remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

Edwin L. Marin directed INVISIBLE AGENT, and there are plenty of entertaining scenes, from the silly dinner sequence where an invisible Frank sabotages Nazi Karl Heiser’s plans for a romantic evening with Maria, to Frank’s inspired escape from Conrad Stauffer and his Nazi henchman. But the film never takes itself all that seriously, and at the end of the day, its lighthearted humor didn’t really work all that well for me.

The invisible special effects by John Fulton are still pretty impressive. In fact, Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects but lost out to the effects team on REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Sadly, none of the impressive Invisible Man effects in any of the Universal Invisible Man movies ever won an Oscar. Ironically, Fulton would go on to win two Academy Awards for special effects, for the Daniel Kaye musical comedy WONDER MAN (1945) and for DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).

INVISIBLE AGENT is an amusing movie if you are in the mood for a playful tale about an invisible man making fools out of Nazis. You could do a lot worse, to be sure.

But it’s not a horror movie, nor is it an overly exciting adventure, and so at the end of the day, INVISIBLE AGENT only worked for me as a minor diversion. The best part by far are the two villainous performances by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke and Peter Lorre.

Any other attributes are all rather… invisible.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020) – One of the Best Movies From 2020

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(Carey Mulligan in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020))

It took me a while, but I finally caught up with PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), one of the more heralded films from 2020, now currently streaming on HBO Max.

I wish I had caught this one sooner.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN opens in a bar with a group of guys talking about a female co-worker in a rather disparaging way. They spy an attractive young woman who is drunk and about to pass out sitting alone. The one “nice guy” in the group approaches her, asks if she is okay, and then offers to bring her home. Instead, they take a detour to his apartment, where he offers her another drink and then begins to make out with her even though she is too drunk to respond. As he begins to undress her, she repeatedly and weakly asks, “what are you doing?” The guy ignores her question, until she says loudly this time, “What are you doing?” and he looks at her, and she’s staring at him, and she’s stone cold sober.

From this moment on, the film never looks back.

The young woman is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), and she’s just turned 30 and is living at home with her parents working in a coffee shop, after quitting medical school years earlier, even though she really wanted to become a doctor. And she quit medical school to take care of her best friend, Nina, a fellow medical school student, who was raped by a male student while his friends watched. And he got away with it because the school decided it was a “he said, she said” thing and that was that. The incident literally killed Nina as she never recovered and later committed suicide.

Cassie ventures through night clubs pretending to be drunk, and each night she’s picked up by some “nice guy” who offers to take her home but instead tries to have sex with her, and each time she turns the tables on him and shows him that in reality he’s not such a nice guy.

But then another old friend from med school Ryan (Bo Burnham) walks into the coffee shop and recognizes Cassie. He eventually asks her out, and after some hesitation, she says yes, and things go well, until he mentions that one of their old friends Al Monroe is about to get married. This news jolts Cassie because Al Monroe is the guy who raped Nina. And suddenly, Cassie’s need for vengeance rises to a whole other level.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and had I seen it when it first came out back in December 2020, it would have easily been one of my favorite movies of the year.

Emerald Fennell’s screenplay won the Oscar last year for Best Original Screenplay and rightly so. The story nails the way a lot of men treat and talk about women, but better yet, what it feels like for women to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. It’s also empowering to watch Cassie turn the tables on these cowardly predators. That being said, I found this one to be a nail biter throughout, because as I watched Cassie go to these bars, I feared that one time she wouldn’t be able to turn the tables on the “nice” guy.

And later while some of the vengeance scenes are played to elicit nervous laughter, for me the overwhelming emotion throughout this story was sadness, for what happened to Nina, and for what Cassie was doing, in effect not living her life because she was hyper-focused on avenging and finding meaning in her friend’s death.

The script is tight throughout, is filled with hard hitting and memorable dialogue, and never misses a beat.

Likewise, Carey Mulligan knocks it out of the park as Cassie. I’ve been a fan of Mulligan’s for a while, and she has delivered a string of memorable performances in such films as DRIVE (2011), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), MUDBOUND (2017) and most recently in THE DIG (2021), but I’ve never seen her as singularly focused and powerful as she is here as Cassie. It’s hands down the best performance I’ve seen Mulligan deliver yet. If this were a lesser movie, Cassie would be tearing into these men with knives and other sharp weapons. In PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, she tears into them with words, and it is quite the sight to see her shred these people with the power of her words as she attacks them with truths that cut through them as assuredly as if she were wielding a dagger.

Mulligan makes Cassie an admirable avenger throughout, but one I couldn’t stop worrying about knowing the dangerous waters in which she was swimming.

Bo Burnham is effective as new boyfriend Ryan, who like every other male in the movie seems like a nice guy, but you keep waiting for his true self to be revealed, and Burnham is really good at keeping those suspicions in line.

Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge are excellent as Cassie’s worried and awkward parents. Brown gets one of the best scenes in the movie when he tells Cassie just how much he and her mom have missed her.

The film has a great supporting cast, which includes Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Adam Brody, Christopher Minztz-Plasse, Max Greenfield, and Christopher Lowell, who all contribute in small roles throughout the movie.

As I said, Emerald Fennell won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and she also directed PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Her direction is every bit as good as her screenplay. She keeps things stylish, lively, and disturbing throughout. And sad. I just couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of sadness throughout this movie, which is less about one woman’s avenging spirit and more about the cruel world in which women are forced to navigate.

The film’s conclusion, where Cassie seeks final revenge on Al Monroe the night before his wedding, is the most disturbing sequence of all in a film that is full of uncomfortable moments and reveals. It packs quite a jolt, but it works. The best part about the ending, and the film in general, is had this been a male dominated revenge tale, the final scene would have been a bloodbath. Here, that’s not the case. What ultimately happens is consistent with the main theme of this movie, with the males getting away with their crimes thanks to a society which consistently looks the other way, but in the final reel, the film has one last chess move that for the sake of this story, offers some semblance of satisfaction, although it’s hardly a happy ending. But it works.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN could easily be dismissed as just another “empowered women” movie where the women are always right and the men are always wrong, but that would be missing the point. The men’s views and attitudes towards women in this movie are always wrong, and these attitudes and views are never right. These are views and attitudes that are downright shameful and ugly. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN simply exposes these views and attitudes as it tells the story of one woman who wanted to make sure that those responsible for ruining the life of her best friend Nina never forget her name.

And after the events in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, they won’t.

Neither will you.

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