Tag: Clifton Collins Jnr

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

Capote (2005)

Philip Seymour Hoffman excels as the morally complex author in Capote

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), Catherine Kenner (Nelle Harper Lee), Clifton Collins Jnr (Perry Smith), Chris Cooper (Alvin Dewey), Bob Balaban (William Shawn), Bruce Greenwood (Jack Dunphy), Katherine Shindle (Rose), Amy Ryan (Marie Dewey), Mark Pellegrino (Dick Hickock)

What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? It’s the sort of summation that I imagine Truman Capote himself would object to as trite and obvious. But it’s a question at the heart of Bennett Miller’s thoughtful, low-key biographical drama that seems to capture not only the agony of writing and creation, but also something of the soul of its lead.

In November 1959, two drifters Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jnr) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) kill an entire family in a remote farmhouse in Kansas. News of this is spotted by Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a brilliant novelist and New York intellectual, looking for his new project. Heading to Kansas, with assistant, novelist and lifelong friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote’s initial plan for an article on the reaction of small-time America to unspeakable violence balloons into a full scale book, fuelled by his growing fascination for Perry Smith. While the book takes years – and the trial and appeals of the killer take longer and longer to resolve, the entire experience has an increasingly haunting effect on Capote himself.

Miller’s quietly and professionally assembled film, with a superbly haunting, autumnal feel to it that immediately echoes the blackness of the crime, and the traumatic effect being involved in it has on Capote. It’s also a superb film that understands how writers often work – the seizing of inspiration, the quiet observation, the shaping of moments and titbits of conversation into perfectly captured sentences that can be reproduced in the book. It helps that Capote has – despite his larger than life unusualness and eccentricity – a sort of unusual chameleon like ability, or rather the ability of the charismatically self-obsessed to make all others yearn for his attention and approval.

It’s all part of the many facets of the Capote’s personality that is brought out in Hoffman’s superb performance. Winning the Oscar – and almost every other award going – Hoffman perfectly captures not just every single physical and vocal attribute of Capote, but also seems to seize part of his soul as well. This is such a masterful examination of a person’s psyche, mixed desires and conflicting feelings that Hoffman’s psychological insight seems totally legitimate. Hoffman’s performance is strikingly perfect, transformative in the way few actors manage.

Hoffman’s Capote is a man who flits between arrogance and a caring tenderness, self-doubt and ruthless, consideration and selfishness, who slowly becomes more and more unnerved not only perhaps by his fascination with a brutal killer, but also the own moral depths he is willing to go to. He’s manipulative, emotionally intelligent and genuine enough to gain the confidence of a wide range of people – from Chris Cooper’s gimlet-eyed agent investigating the case (won other by his wife’s fondness for Capote’s novels and Capote’s starry Hollywood anecdotes) to Perry Smith’s would-be intellectual and sensitive soul who is also a hardened killer. 

It’s that relationship with Smith that is the heart of the film, Captoe’s growing closeness with him akin to a seduction, Smith the willing talker, flattered to share his insights into life with the famous writer, Capote eager to gain secret confessions of what was flashing through Smith’s mind while he committed the killings. But it goes deeper than that: Capote grows – or persuades himself he does, so great is his deception – a genuine affection and regard for Smith, wanting perhaps to see that there is more to him than appears. Nursing Smith through a hunger-strike he feeds him by hand. He spends hours in his cell. He reads every scrap Smith gives him of his writing. There is a slight breathless tension to their scenes together, and Capote agonises over the idea of Smith being executed, even as he begins to be repelled by the influence of letting someone else into his life is having over him, and his ability to finish the book.

Because finishing the book is his aim, and his every action is based around getting to that goal. Every moment of flattery and openness gains some other advantage, every second of his time in Kansas is based around soaking up the information he needs to complete the work. But the book will never be complete and finished, because Capote himself has become such a part of the story – by becoming a part of Smith’s life – it seems to almost start draining Capote himself. Writing the book, is like writing his own life, pulling out elements of his own psyche, his own darkness, you feel Capote would rather not explore.

Because as much as he enjoys the recognition and glory readings of the book bring him – he is increasingly unnerved by his own ruthless treatment of Smith. Lying to Smith about the progress of the book, lying about the title, ignoring his phone calls, finally brow beating Smith into telling all of his story about the killing by disparaging all of Smith’s “insight” by claiming there is no concept or idea that Smith can express that has not already occurred to Capote. Smith is a killer, but he is also somehow a sort of lost boy – Collins performance brings a lot out of the strange innocence and promise in Smith – and it still alarms Capote privately that he can so use Smith, lie so completely to him and still feel such overwhelming unnerved grief – or fear or something – when Smith is executed, and execution he has done nothing to help prevent despite his promises to the contrary.

Capote feels equal mixed feelings about fellow writers. His partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood in a very good performance) seems to accept his role as the lesser light – and their relationship works all the better for it. Easier than the friendship between himself and Harper Lee, superbly played by Catherine Keener. Keener and Hoffman have a natural chemistry, reflecting Capote and Lee who know each other so well they can literally finish each other’s sentences and completely understand each other. Capote however cannot accept Lee’s success of her own, striking a wedge in the relationship – just as Lee begins to believe that Capote is manipulating real people like fictional tools for his journalistic novel.

Capote tackles complex and fascinating ideas in a coolly well-assembled, extremely well directed, framework that gets some sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in artistic creation – and the moral compromises that some people are driven to make to achieve them. Not to mention the way we are can make ourselves increasingly more and more uncomfortable as we discover more and more about our own personalities and flaws.

Triple 9 (2016)

An all-star cast fail to make Triple 9 a classic, or even a decent watch

Director John Hillcoat

Cast: Casey Affleck (Chris Allen), Anthony Mackie (Marcus Belmont), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Michael Atwood), Clifton Collins Jnr (Franco Rodriguez), Woody Harrelson (Jeffrey Allen), Aaron Paul (Gabe Welch), Kate Winslet (Irina Vlaslov), Gal Gadot (Elena Vlaslov), Norman Reedus (Russell Welch), Michael K Williams (Sweet Pea), Teresa Palmer (Michelle Allen)

Triple 9 that never gets anywhere near fulfilling its potential. You look at the cast and you think “Wow! That has got to be one of the films of the year! Right?” Wrong. Triple 9 is another journey into the macho bullshit of the criminal underworld, where the “good” thieves have honour, the bad thieves are unscrupulous, the cops are all sorts of shades of grey, and the real baddies are foreign gangsters exploiting American criminals. All told with a backdrop of shouting, shooting and doping. You feel, and I suspect the filmmakers feel as well, that the film must be about something – but it really isn’t, it’s a super violent, dark Rififi with none of that classic’s touch.

Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a crack crook, leader of a gang that executes difficult jobs on demand for their Russian paymaster, mob boss’ wife Irina (a showboating Kate Winslet). Atwood’s crew includes dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jnr). Tasked to steal federal investigation data on Irina’s husband, Michael and his crew decide their only chance is to distract the police with a Triple 9 call out – the shooting of a cop. Their target? Belmont’s new partner, hotshot honest cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).

Triple 9 isn’t particularly inventive or unique. The problem is it also isn’t very interesting. This is largely because you don’t engage with any of the characters. Atwood is a blank, played by a disengaged Chiwetel Ejiofor. He has a standard sub-plot of a son he isn’t allowed to see. But it’s not enough to get us caring about him. Chris Allen isn’t particularly likeable (Casey Affleck is not the most relatable of actors) so it’s hard to get worked up over whether he’s going to be killed or not. The most interesting character is Anthony Mackie’s Belmont – but he has been saddled with an “I feel growing guilt” sub-plot that you’ve seen dozens of times before.

Perhaps aware that a lot of the writing was paper-thin, the film recruits a number of familiar actors to “do their thing” so that we can shortcut to what sort of person the character is meant to be, by seeing crude drawings of their more famous, nuanced roles. Aaron Paul’s performance will be familiar to anyone who has seen Breaking Bad; Norman Reedus essentially reprises his role from The Walking Dead. Woody Harrelson does his grizzled half-genius, half-dope fiend, difficult man schtick he’s done many times. Only Kate Winslet is cast against her type – and her scenery-chewing enjoyment of the role makes her feel like an actress doing a guest turn, rather than a real person.

Hillcoat’s direction doesn’t bring any of the film’s threads together. It never feels like a film that is about something. Where is the depth, where is the interest? It’s not even a particularly exciting film to watch, with the heist moments not particularly exciting or interesting, and its shot with a wicked darkness that never gets the pulse going. After some initial build-up, the plot never really goes anywhere unexpected, and the final pay-off is stretching for a narrative weight it just doesn’t have. 

Hillcoat and crew obviously feel they are making a higher genre film – but this is really just a pulp thriller, with actors acting tough but never convincing. None of the major events make a massive amount of sense: characters run into each other in a way that stretches credulity, the Russian mob runs its business with a counter-productive brutality, the dirty cops alternate between super cunning and horrendously dumb.  It’s a dumb, badly written movie that never comes to life. It doesn’t even have the real moments of excitement you need to at least grab you while the rest of the film drifts along. Not good. Not good at all. Triple 9? Not even triple stars.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi are cancelling the Apocalypse in Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (General Stacker Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Charlie Day (Dr Newt Geiszler), Max Martini (Hercules Hansen), Robert Kazinsky (Chuck Hansen), Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau), Clifton Collins Jnr (Tendo Choi), Burn Gorman (Dr Gottleib), Diego Klattenhoff (Yancy Beckett)

Film can be a beautiful and thought-provoking art-form. But sometimes, gosh darn it, you just want to leave the works of the great artists behind and watch a big, loud film in which giant robots hit giant monsters. Over and over again. In lurid, glorious, high colour detail. That’s pretty much the life and career of Guillermo del Toro. Make something like Pan’s Labyrinth. Then follow it up with something so wildly, tonally different you won’t believe it’s from the same guy: Pacific Rim.

In 2013, huge monsters (Kaiju) emerge from an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. As they destroy cities left, right and centre, mankind is pushed to the limit. Eventually they develop Jaegers – giant robots controlled by two pilots, whose minds are linked together and used to drive the Jaeger’s movements. In 2020, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) leaves the Jaeger force, commanded by General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), after his brother and co-pilot is killed by a Kaiju. By 2025, the world governments decide to cut the funding of the Jaeger programme – forcing Pentecost to call Becket out of retirement and team him with his adopted daughter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to launch a final, desperate, assault on the portal with the few remaining Jaegers, in an attempt to stop the ever-increasing number of Kaijus for good.

Pacific Rim is loud. It is silly. Its plot is a collection of clichés and offcuts from other movies. Some of the acting in it is ludicrously bad, over-the-top, poorly accented or all three. It looks and sounds like a direct-to-DVD movie made on a massive budget. Yet, despite all this, it’s really, really good fun. The ultimate guilty pleasure. Deafeningly dumb, but somehow it sort of knows this, and it knows you know it, so it just gives you what you wanted when you sat down – bangs, bashes and silly dialogue. Maybe this all works because Del Toro is actually a real director: he can shoot this nonsense with a sense of flair and scale, and is confident enough as a storyteller to just accept he’s making a dumb film and doesn’t need to try and pile some spurious depth on it, but just run with the emptiness.

Pacific Rim gives you this: some truly sublime robot vs. monsters battling in a variety of beautifully shot locations, in particular downtown Hong Kong. I mean, who wouldn’t love seeing this smashy super-action? The robots basically look really cool, the monsters are really imaginative, it’s tonnes of fun. Of course the battles are silly, there is always “one more weapon” to use that is bigger and better than anything they’ve used before (so why not do that from the start?). Del Toro also shoots the fights with a surprisingly calm camera, that makes the action the frantic lead, rather than the normal thing you see in these films, with the camera flying around all over the place. They’re edited really well. The score is great. The battles don’t overstay their welcome, and the characters at the centre of the Jaegers are always kept front-and-centre. Who wouldn’t love them?

The plotline of the film has a B-movie directness, which del Toro manages to fill with some depth. It’s a film about co-operation and learning to work together. This should be pretty wearingly obvious – okay it is – but somehow it strangely moving in the film. The Jaegers literally need two people to work together so closely they share a mind to operate it. The whole Jaeger programme only works from intimate co-operation. Characters feud and argue – but the film is about them learning to overcome these differences and work together. The film hammers home the fatality rate of this war with kaijus so well, that you end up really caring for sacrifices and risks these people are running. When Jaeger pilots start dying, I find it actually rather moving in its brutal suddenness. 

At lot of this comes from the wonderful, hero-worshipping, film style del Toro uses. Look at shots such as when (in flashback) Idris Elba’s Penthouse climbs out of a Jaeger, framed by the sun behind him – he looks like some sort of ultimate hero. The Jaeger pilots all have their own distinctive themes, and are framed and shot with idealism and adoration. Sure their personal issues are the most rampant form of clichéd melodrama – but it’s sold with complete conviction, and told with such unabashed simplicity, that you end up caring for it. 

This is despite the fact that most of the acting is pretty below par. Idris Elba is the one major exception – the only one with the charisma to sell such basic plots as “dying of brain tumour” and to make chuckle worthy lines like “we are cancelling the apocalypse” sound like rallying cries, rather than seriously awful crap. Charlie Hunnam, by comparison, has nowhere near that level of charisma and Raleigh Becket is probably the most forgettable lead character you’re going to see in a movie like this. Robert Kazinsky is pretty awful as his rival Jaeger pilot (his accent is dreadful). Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are hit-and-miss as the comic sidekick scientists. Rinko Kikuchi is however pretty good – and with her “drift” memory loss she has probably the film’s most affecting sequence.

But this isn’t a film of subtle character work or sharp scripting. It’s got a B-Movie aesthetic, but it delivers it totally honestly. Basically, Guillermo del Toro is a good enough director to be comfortable with making a really, really good bad movie, Pacific Rim is deeply silly and stupid, but it is a lot of fun and its characters (despite their pretty forgettable or clichéd nature) are still people you really invest in. Del Toro pulls off a neat trick filming this, perhaps because the film is so sweetly honest, and unabashed, about what they are doing here. It’s got a heart-warming message about co-operation. It never feels exploitative. It’s got a childish sweetness about it, a real family robot basher. It’s the best bad movie you’ll ever see.