Tag: Richard Jenkins

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.

The Core (2003)

The Only Way is Down for our heroes in super silly Sci-fi disaster The Core

Director: Jon Amiel

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Dr Josh Keyes), Hilary Swank (Major Rebecca Childs), Delroy Lindo (Dr Edward Brazzleton), Stanley Tucci (Dr Conrad Zimsky), Tchéky Karyo (Dr Serge Leveque), Bruce Greenwood (Commander Robert Iverson), DJ Qualls (“Rat”), Alfre Woodward (Dr Talma Stickley), Richard Jenkins (Lt General Thomas Purcell)

Dr Josh Keyes: “Even if we came up with a brilliant plan to fix the core of the Earth, we just can’t get there”

Dr Conrad Zimsky: “Yes, but – what if we could”

If you have any doubts about the type of film you are going to watch, then that tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchange (and the words can’t capture the playful, I-know-this-is-crap wink that Stanley Tucci tips practically to the camera) should tell you. The core of the Earth has stopped rotating. Which basically means all life on Earth is going to end in the next few months. Unless, of course, we can restart the rotation of the Earth’s core. So time to load up a team of crack scientists into a ship-cum-drill, made of metal that doesn’t buckle under pressure (this metal is, by the way, literally called unobtainium by the characters) so that they can sprinkle nuclear bombs through the centre of the Earth to kickstart the rotation of the planet and blah, blah, blah.

It’s perhaps no surprise that The Core was voted the least scientifically accurate film ever made by a poll of scientists about 10 years ago. Nothing in it makes any real sense whatsoever, and it’s all totally reliant on the sort of handwave mumbo-jumbo where you can tell getting an actual logical explanation was going to be far too much hard work, so better to roll with a bit of technobabble and prayer. Questions of mass, physics, pressure are all shoved aside. The film sort of gets away with it, with a leaning on the fourth-wall cheekiness – no fewer than three times in the film the impossible happens with a “what if we could” breeziness, as a character pulls out a theory or discovery with all the real-world authority of the fag-packet calculation.

But then scientific accuracy is hardly why we watch the movies is it? And this is just a big, dumb B-movie piece of disaster nonsense, which throws in enough death-defying thrills, predictable sacrifices and major landmarks being wiped out topside to keep the viewer entertained. In this film Rome and the Golden Gate Bridge both get taken out by spectacular disasters. Beneath the surface, the characters go through the expected personality clashes and learn the expected lessons.

The script (most of which is bumpkous rubbish) really signposts most of this personal development. Will Zimsky and Brazz rekindle their respect and overcome decades of rivalry? Will Serge, on the mission to save his wife and kids “because it’s too much to think about saving the whole world”, have to pay the ultimate sacrifice? Will Major Childs finally get the courage and determination to take command and make the hard calls? I won’t tease the fate of Mission Commander Bruce Greenwood, but he is called upon so often to reassure Childs that one day she will be ready to take command, alongside other mentoring advice, that the only surprise is that he lasts as long as he does.

So why is hard to not lay into The Core? Because, not that deep down at its core, it knows it’s a silly film. The script has enough awareness of its cliché and scientific silliness that it almost doubles down on it. And the actors play it just about right: for large chunks of it they perfectly hit the beats of sly archness that suggest just enough respect to not take the piss, but enough self-awareness of what they are making. But these are all very, very good actors and when the serious moments come, it’s remarkable how much they can shift gear – with the grisly death of one character (while the others powerlessly try and save him) played with an almost Shakespearean level of tragedy by a distraught Eckhart and Lindo. Later, as three characters juggle over who will go on a suicide mission to keep the mission on track, the bubbling emotions of shame, relief, pride, respect and buried affections are genuinely rather affecting. Its moments like this that makes me kind of love this big, dumb, stupid film.

But it remains stupid. Topside, Alfre Woodard and Richard Jenkins bumble through roles they could play standing on their heads. A hacker – Rat – is as clichéd and full of techno-nonsense as any of the science, which is even more painfully obvious to us now that we’re all so much more tech-savvy than we were in 2003. Events happen because, you know, they can. Discoveries and scientific conclusions are made because the script needs them. But the film knows this, it doubles down on it and it accepts that every problem is just a “But what if we could!” away from being solved. Stupid, but strangely loveable.

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The ape headlines and all other parts of the movie get crushed in Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Colonel Preston Packard), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C Reilly (Hank Marlow), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), Toby Kebbell (Major Jack Chapman), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Jing Tian (San Lin), Jason Mitchell (Glenn Mills), Shea Whigham (Earl Cole), Thomas Mann (Reg Slivko), Richard Jenkins (Senator Al Willis)

Kong: Skull Islandis another attempt to kickstart a monster franchise (rumours abound that eventually Kong and Godzilla duke it out. I’d start worrying about all those major landmarks.). So anyway, Kong: Skull Island sees a team of explorers head towards the mysterious Skull Island to… well to poke around I think. Actually the aims of the expedition rarely trouble the screenwriters so they shouldn’t trouble us. Anyway, Kong (larger than ever) is deeply pissed at this invasion of his territory so trashes every helicopter going. Our heroes are stranded on the island, while their incursion releases numerous monsters who endanger the whole world that only Kong can stop.

This pretty feeble film is a crumby repackage of numerous (much better) films – and yet another example of a generation of film-makers producing films whose only points of reference are older, better movies. This one plays like Apocalypse Now humped by King Kong. Perhaps one day we’ll actually get some truly original, distinctive films that make their own points rather than reworking others. And perhaps we’ll still get genre films that actually are interested in character and development, rather than bashing and blowing things up.

Anyway, the human characters are almost completely pointless in this B-movie retread. I was wondering how they persuaded such an illustrious cast of actors to come on board. This mystery was solved when I watched a remarkably bland DVD-feature – Tom Hiddleston’s video diary. This was basically shots of Hiddleston talking about having a great couple of weeks in Hawaii flying in helicopters, four weeks sunning himself in Australia and three weeks of travelling down a Vietnamese river. And he got paid millions of dollars to do it. No wonder he ends the video saying he’d recommend this life to anyone.

It certainly wasn’t the character that lured him in. Conrad is interesting for precisely one scene – as a troubled drunk in the bar – before he reverts into clean shaven, upright and heroic. His vaunted skills as a tracker are never used. His set-up as the natural survivor and leader never comes to fruition. His relationship with Brie Larson is based solely on them being the two most attractive members of the cast. As for Larson: has an Oscar-winning actress ever followed up her win with such a truly pointless, empty, non-part? 

The film is completely uninterested in human beings – it can’t even bother to make those that buy it early in the film distinctive individuals. Even the ones left at the end barely pass as people we know. Only John C Reilly crafts a truly engaging character as a sort of Ben Gunn figure. Samuel L Jackson gets the “soldier maddened by war” so that we have the typical “the real danger is man” sub-plot, but everything is by the numbers. The characters are so mix-and-match that you feel no peril at any point. It’s so cynical that it can even drop in a Chinese scientist from nowhere (who does nothing at all in the film) solely to try and sell the film to that market.

Our nominal heroes: most of them I’ve already forgotten

Kong is the real focus of the movie – and there is limited interest you can get out of a gigantic ape bashing and ripping things apart. Protracted battles go on and on and on. You really see the difference between the work of Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson in their Kong movie and this one. That Kong actually felt like a character you could bond with. This is just the wet-dream of a boy who grew up watching too many Harryhausen pictures, a behemoth who everyone stares at with wonder but whom the audience never feels any emotional investment in. And for all the faults of Jackson’s Kong, it was a film with brains, with heart, made with artistry and which understood character and emotion give meaning to spectacle, rather than being dull speed bumps a film needs to get over.

The film aims sometimes for an Apocalypse Now-style dread of humanity and the madness of war etc. etc. – but nearly always misses. The humans (and their aims) are such non-event blanks that we can’t care less about the danger of humanity. The film itself has none of the poetry of Apocalypse Now, and instead just wants a lot of (PG rated) violence and a bit of madness. Some of the madness even seems a bit uncomfortable – a tribe of natives are treated as humble exotics. It’s aiming to piggy-back on an attitude of America being humbled by Vietnam and lashing out – but never adds any material in the story to actually take this idea anywhere. Calling characters Conrad and Marlow doesn’t suddenly give it a Heart of Darkness depth – it just makes you think the screenwriters thumbed through CliffNotes before naming their characters. 

Instead the film winds on, never really getting entertaining, boring us with the characters and taking way too long lingering over monsters and bashings. The only thing the film loves is the bang, the buck and the “ain’t it SO COOL” shots of a monster ape hitting things. It’s totally empty, boring trash and it has all the grace and skill of a child’s home movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s professionally made – but totally empty. Nothing in there is designed to stick with the audience or even remotely make them think. Harryhausen movies had a depth and magic to them that inspired a generation. Films, like this one, churned out by today’s imitators are empty light shows that won’t last a week in the imagination.

The Shape of Water (2017)

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer work together to save a misunderstood creature in The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Colonel Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Doug Jones (The Creature), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Robert Hoffstetler), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Delilah Fuller), Nick Searcy (General Frank Hoyt), David Hewlett (Fleming), Lauren Lee Smith (Elaine Strickland)

Guillermo del Toro: part arthouse director, part thumping action director, who else could have made both Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim? The Shape of Water falls firmly into the former category, and continues the director’s long-standing interest in fairy-tales and fables, creating adult bedtime stories filled with romance and wonder, but laced with violence and human horror (and it’s always the humans who are the monsters). The Shape of Water has been garlanded with huge praise – but yet I’m not quite sure about it. Just not quite sure.

In 1962 in Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working in a government facility with her colleague, friend and effective translator Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her only other friend is her neighbour, a gay out-of-work advert artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). The research facility takes delivery of a strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones), captured in the wild by sinister CIA man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While Strickland and lead scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) conduct tests on the creature, Elisa befriends it – the two of them drawn together by their isolation and inability to communicate verbally. When the decision comes from above to dissect the creature, Elisa decides to help it escape. 

The Shape of Wateris an adult fairy-tale that uses the structure, rules and heightened reality of the bedtime story. So we have Elisa as “the Princess without a voice”, the government facility as the evil castle, the creature as a mixture of damsel in distress and knight errant, and Michael Shannon’s vile government spook as a sort of perverted evil Queen. While the film is set in 1962, it’s aiming for a fantasy world feeling: Elisa and Giles even live above an old-school movie cinema, while the facility itself is a dank, subterranean concrete prison, part medieval dungeon, part industrial complex, dressed in a retro-1950s style. There’s no denying the film looks fantastically impressive.

The plot hinges on the growing bond between Elisa and the creature, which flourishes first into a mutual friendship, then semi-romance and finally into a full-blown relationship. If there is one part of the movie which I felt didn’t quite work, it was the build between friendship and love. While del Toro does some excellent work showing these two bonding over a common lack of language – she teaches him some basic sign language, they both share a love of music – I felt the jump between friendship and sexual attraction seemed a little big.

Del Toro films it all beautifully – and his empathy for both characters is very moving. But the film wants us to feel this deep connection for (and between) the two characters – and I’m just not sure I did. I’m not sure the film gives the time it needs for this development. Great as Michael Stuhlbarg’s (and excellent as his conflicted performance is) character is, could the film have removed his sub-plot and invested more time in the relationship? Yes it could – and I think this could have made a stronger movie. This is of course a personal reaction – I’m sure plenty of people will be bowled over by the romance of the film – but I didn’t quite buy it. For all the soulfulness of the film, I just didn’t find myself investing in this relationship as it built as much as I should.

This is despite Sally Hawkins’ expressive acting as Elisa. I find Hawkins a bit of an acquired taste: she is a little too twee, something about her eyes and vulnerable smile is a little too head-girlish. Of course that sprightly gentleness works perfectly here, but the character is more interesting when del Toro explores her depths, her desire and well-concealed resentfulness under a cheery exterior (practically the first thing we see her do is masturbate in the bath – a daily ritual timed to the second via egg timer, functionally getting these feelings out of the way before the day ahead). Hawkins mixes this gentle exterior and passionate interior extremely well throughout the film.

The principal supports are also excellent. It’s no coincidence that del Toro makes our heroes all outsiders: a mute, a black servant and an ageing gay man. As well as showing why these characters might be drawn together, it’s also a neat parallel commentary on attitudes of the time – Octavia Spencer in particular makes a huge amount out of a character that is effectively a voice for Elisa half the time, investing the part with a huge sisterly warmth.

Richard Jenkins is both very funny and rather sweet as a man scared of being alone and frightened about doing the right thing. Most of the film’s laughs come from him – but so does a large degree of its heart. Jenkins gets some fantastic material – from hints that he has been fired for social and sexual misdemeanors from his Mad Men-ish former job, to his growing realisation that his hand-drawn art is being left behind in a world embracing photography (“I think it’s my best work” has never sounded like a sadder mantra), and above all his hopelessly sad infatuation with the friendly barman at a local diner (the sort of hopeless crush you feel he must realise isn’t going to go anywhere good – but still manages to be endearing before it gets there).

Del Toro’s dreamy fable has plenty of potential monsters and obstacles in it – from government suits to Russian heavies – but the main antagonist is Shannon’s Strickland. Great as Shannon is in this role as a menacing heavy with a hinterland of insecurities and self-doubt, it’s a character that feels a little obvious. He’s the monster, you see! It’s a heavy-handedness the film sometimes uses – not least in its occasional references to the race politics of the era – that weights the deck, and tries to do a little too much of the work for the audience. Again, a film with one fewer sub-plot might have allowed this character greater depth. As it is, his vileness is established from the first second, which means the metaphor of his hand with its increasingly rotten, gangrenous fingers seems a little to on-the-nose.

But The Shape of Water is a labour of love, and a testament to love – and del Toro reminds us all what a luscious and romantic filmmaker he can be. The later romantic moments between Elisa and the Creature have a beauty to them – not least the moments when they immerse themselves together in water. Other moments are too obvious: an imagined song-and-dance routine is so signposted in advance that it carries little emotional impact. In fact, the film’s main fault may be it is too predictable: most of its plot developments I worked out within the first few minutes – but it sort of still works. After all, fairy-tales are predictable aren’t they?

Del Toro has made one from the heart here. It’s not a perfect film – it’s not a masterpiece, and I think it’s a less complex and affecting work than the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth – but it’s made with a lot of love and a lot of lyrical romanticism. It looks absolutely astounding. It’s actually surprisingly funny and wonderfully acted: Richard Jenkins probably stands out, and my respect for Octavia Spencer continues to grow. Del Toro is gifted filmmaker, and he is working overtime here to make a romantic, sweeping, monster movie cum adult fairy-tale. All the ingredients are there: but somehow I didn’t fall in love. Did I miss it? Maybe I did. And I can’t think of much higher praise than I’m more than willing to go back and look again and see if I get more of a bond with it next time. But, for all its moments of genius, I found the delight was on the margins rather than the centre.