Nightmare Alley

Stan and Zeena

2021’s Nightmare Alley isn’t based on the 1947 film noir of the same name, so we’re told by various venerable authorities. Tell that to the judge. Even if it genuinely is a bona fide and honest reworking of the same source material, William Lindsay Gresham’s smash 1946 novel, even a quick look at the 1947 movie is enough to convince anyone that this Nightmare Alley has seen the older one, taken notes and then studied them hard.

This extends to the casting choices. These start with Bradley Cooper as the grifter who starts out as a nobody in a carnival, works his way to the top of showbiz with a mentalist routine, over-reaches himself and is suddenly chuted back to way lower than where he started. As both movies bring down the curtain, a broken Stanton Carlisle (Cooper here, Tyrone Power originally) is about to play the bottom of the bill, as The Geek, the booze-sodden, cage-dwelling half-man/half-beast who terrifies carnival crowds by dementedly biting the head off a live chicken.

Other roles go to read-acrosses of the original cast. Even down to hair colour in the case of the three significant women in Stan’s life. There’s Zeena the seen-it-all-dearie carnival seer who teaches Stan the carnival ropes, played by a blonde Toni Collette. Molly (dark-haired Rooney Mara), the sweet, innocent thing who runs off with Stan after he’s stolen the secrets to Zeena’s mentalist act. And Stan’s ultimate nemesis, blonde femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett in another of those vagina dentata roles).

It’s a Guillermo del Toro film and so a) it’s way too long, b) del Toro’s love of the elaborate picturesque often gets in the way of the drama and c) it cries out “Look, Ma, I’m making Cinema! Cinema! I tell you” from its opening shot to its last, the camera never still when it can be gliding, sliding, craning up and down, moving in and out.

Molly and Stan in a dressing room
Going up: Molly and Stan

Del Toro is one of world’s most luxuriant film-makers and Nightmare Alley is best approached as an exercise in visual spectacle. There is lots to enjoy at this level, though again the 1947 film is the noirish reference point. Considering how much money and computer whatnot del Toro has compared to 1947 director Edmund Goulding, you’d expect him to outgun the older director in every department. But interestingly, in the spectacular climax – when Stan’s mentalism almost bags him a fortune courtesy of a desperate rich magnate (Richard Jenkins) who wants a glimpse of his dead daughter – Goulding leaves del Toro sprawling in the dust.

Tyrone Power was the original star and though he made the film to get away from being typecast as a horny pirate or a strapping caballero, the camera of Goulding (and ace DP Lee Garmes) repeatedly got right up in his face for massive shots of Power’s pert features. Del Toro and DP Dan Laustsen (who also worked on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, though his best work is on the remarkable-looking Norwegian film Headhunters) also go large, and there are some fabulous close-ups, Bradley Cooper fans, particularly when Stan is dealing with brittley sexy shrink Dr Lilith. This really is a film that’s worth seeing on as big a screen as you can possibly manage, assuming you believe (sorry, Martin Scorsese, who took out adverts imploring people to go out and see it) that it’s worth seeing at all.

No, I didn’t like it much. It’s half an hour longer than the original, which is also too long, and has exactly the same arc, hits the same plot beats and yet manages to drain almost all of the drama out on its journey. Is this Stanton a wrong’un, as the original made clear? Or just a drifter who doesn’t know when to say “enough”? Del Toro doesn’t seem sure, and the soundtrack by Nathan Johnson reinforces that impression with its relentless stuf-stuff-stuffstuffstuff-is-about-to-happen vamping. Stuff does happen, but most of it doesn’t mean a stuff.

There’s one great moment in it, one genius del Toro sequence reminding us of how good he can be, right after Stanton has been exposed as the terrible fraud he is, has committed a couple of bloody crimes in rapid succession and is then driving away like the wind through a snowy night. In lights, camera and action, Del Toro catches the desperate, droomed drama of the moment. All his guns are suddenly firing in the same direction. Like the car, the movie suddenly seems to be motoring. Too late. Ten minutes later Nightmare Alley is all over.

Nightmare Alley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Licorice Pizza

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman

Paul Thomas Anderson’s quest to make the perfect 1970s movie continues with Licorice Pizza, a living, breathing simulacrum of the sort of film that stalked the landscape before George Lucas came along with changed/ruined (according to taste) everything with Star Wars.

Ironically, another Lucas film, American Graffiti, might have served as a moodboard for his attempt to outdo 2014’s Inherent Vice – itself an attempt to outdo 1999’s Magnolia – along with Robert Altman’s rambling, discursive Nashville, though the storyline deep down is actually A Star Is Born – guy on the way down meets gal on the way up – with a scrappy side order of What’s Up, Doc.

The guy is Gary, a 15-year-old teenage TV star and, in his own estimation of himself, god’s gift to everything. Licorice Pizza opens with him hitting on Alana, a woman 10 years older than him. By the time it’s ended poor Gary, still hopeful that the treat-em-mean Alana will finally yield, has dropped several rungs in social status while Alana’s star is on the up.

This is Cooper Hoffman’s movie debut and though he’s the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s aiming for another namesake, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate era, in his performance as the over-reaching, under-performing young man who’s probably going to succeed in life by dint of simply trying harder than anyone else. He’s entirely convincing. The smart, funny and self-possessed Alana is played by Alana Haim. This is also her first time in front of a camera, if we discount all the music videos (many of them directed by Anderson) she’s made with her sisters and fellow Haim bandmates.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in a car
Bradley Cooper in a short but dazzling cameo

It is all a bit of a cosy family affair – Anderson has known Cooper Hoffman all his life, since he was best buds with Cooper’s father, and Alana’s mother was Anderson’s art teacher at school. She plays Alana’s screen mother. Alana’s father plays her screen dad. Her sisters play her sisters.

It all helps oil the machine as Anderson spins his cast into a freewheeling 360 about the decade not so much as it was – non-white faces are rare in Licorice Pizza – but as it was mediated through the movies. It’s a meta-movie, in other words, though the soundtrack (Doors, Nina Simone, Todd Rundgren) keeps it grounded as does its particular interest in water beds – one of Gary’s various stabs at entrepreneurial activity after he loses his gig on the TV show.

Some nods to the moment seem to have infuriated the Twittersphere – some bizarre racism directed at the Japanese, a casual pat on a female behind – or the bit of it that can’t distinguish a commentary on something for the thing itself.

Either way, as the sassy and smart Alana and the slightly hapless Gary duck and dive from selling waterbeds – is anything more 1970s? – to campaigning for an up-and-coming politician, Anderson sings a song of regret for what has been lost in the intervening decades – community spirit, a belief in the transformative power of democratic politics and the depth model of culture (see Star Wars).

Two firecracker cameos really hit home. Sean Penn turns up as a jackass movie star recreating one of his screen stunts for an adoring crowd. He’s John the Baptist to Bradley Cooper’s Jesus. Cooper plays Jon Peters, the libidinous hairdresser (he was the model for the Warren Beatty character in Shampoo) who became a movie producer specialising in precisely the sort of film that Licorice Pizza isn’t. Each represent the pupating “sovereign individual” of the 21st century in different ways. George DiCaprio (Leo’s dad) also blurs on and off, as the wild man of the water bed, an amusing cameo that is all too brief.

It’s an unashamedly golden-age, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest and, of course, it’s all shot on proper old-fashioned, warm-hued celluloid, the way real movies were (and on old lenses for extra 1970s texture). The licorice pizza of the title, is a reference to the vinyl LP, cultural currency for the boomers, talisman of authenticity for the hipsters. If you’re in neither camp you might not like the film very much.

Licorice Pizza – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022