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









The Social Network

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

 

 

It’s often said that Kids Today can’t concentrate, that they don’t love words the way their parents did. Well, they flocked in the droves to see The Social Network, an old fashioned, plot driven, very talky film that seems aimed at people capable of mastering fine detail, people with an almost legal mindset. Regardless of the true state of the ADHD generation – isn’t it obvious that anyone who sits and plays a computer game for hours on end demonstrably has no problem with concentrating? – The Social Network tells the story of one of its generation’s figureheads, for good or ill: Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. In particular it spins on the relationship between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, the money brothers who spent years pursuing Zuckerberg through the courts because, they claimed, he either stole their idea or failed to compensate them adequately for their input on the original FaceMash project. In the way that Facebook hooks people up, The Social Network mashes together a lot of fine talent – and the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. We have Aaron Sorkin’s fast, involving dialogue – the opening scene between Zuckerberg and a date (Rooney Mara) tells us everything we need to know about the subject’s personality, his attitude to women, his intelligence, his arrogance, his obsession (she says obsessed, he says motivated; Sorkin lets us decide). David Fincher is the perfect directorial choice too, a guy obsessed with process and function (you only have to see Seven to know that), whose muted pallette of oranges and browns, low lighting, and decision to pump Trent Reznor’s music up high – suggesting intense brain activity, the frenzy of creativity, the buzz a bright idea delivers – allows the viewer to scope the areas where words cannot go. And around one hour or so in, it might suddenly hit you that Jesse Eisenberg isn’t actually Mark Zuckerberg, such is the perfection of his playing of this character – charming, yes, but just this side of overweening – even though Eisenberg is clearly too old to be playing a 19 year old.

In terms of plot the film breaks down into how it was done – how hacking into the personal files Harvard kept on its students (a late-night computer prank fuelled by sexual rancour and a feeling of social exclusion) gave birth almost magically to a once-in-a-generation megacorp. And then how that idea was subsequently monetised (enter Justin Timberlake as Napster guy Sean Parker, Mephistopheles dressed as a cruising shark). Running like a sore under this rise-and-rise plot strand are the Winklevosses, the socially connected (in all the right but old ways) brothers about to be shafted by a new paradigm. The Winklevoss stuff injects an old-fashioned courtroom drama ambience, and – set in brightly lit lawyers offices and Harvard professors’ studies, all suited and booted – provides relief from the bars and bedrooms and really lets Sorkin crack wise. Fast moving and littered with just enough references to MySQL and Apache, The Social Network entirely succeeds in making us feel like we’re inside with the new kids on the block, not outside with… er… us.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Social Network – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Side Effects

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

19 February

 

 

Damages for thalidomide children, 1968

On this day in 1968, the High Court in the UK presided over a settlement to 62 children born with deformities caused by the drug thalidomide. Thalidomide had been first marketed in 1957 in West Germany as a sedative and was later sold over the counter as a cure for morning sickness in pregnant women. Within months there was a huge increase in the number of babies born with missing and deformed limbs, deformed eyes, bowels, and hearts. Around 40% of these children died. The story repeated itself in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Canada and other countries where it had been claimed that it “can be given with complete safety to pregnant women and nursing mothers without adverse effect on mother or child.” It was this claim for “complete safety” that would lead to a claim against The Distillers Company, who marketed the drug in Britain. The drug was never licensed for use in the USA, largely because one woman at the FDA, Frances Oldham Kelsey, refused to grant a licence without evidence of safety trials. In the UK the trial and compensation award largely hinged on whether Distillers had a duty of care to unborn children. English common law was silent on the issue. It was essentially down to the distinction between “fault” and “responsibility” – Distillers might not have knowingly done what they did but should they have taken responsibility. The out-of-court award negotiated on the steps of the High Court was made thanks in part to a campaign by The Sunday Times, but Distillers’ largesse came with the understanding that all allegations of negligence be withdrawn. Eventually, partly goaded by a share price suffering from negative publicity and a campaign against it in the USA, Distillers substantially increased their payment. Thalidomide is still in use today, as a cancer growth blocker.

 

 

 

Side Effects (2013, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

One of the fascinating things about watching Side Effects is trying to work out what sort of a film it is. It kicks off with a depressed Rooney Mara getting put on a series of SSRIs, happy pills, after a suicide attempt, by her doctor (Jude Law), who eventually gets her on to a new wonder drug, Ablixa. She goes home to her husband, just out of prison for insider trading, who is taken aback by the fact that she wants rampant sex with him, all of a sudden. The fact that the husband is played by Channing Tatum being an obvious sign that she really was depressed, because what woman wouldn’t normally want to … etc etc. But then things take a turn and the side effects of Ablixa start to exert themselves spectacularly. Mara winds up in prison for a crime that might have been caused by the pills she’s on. Somewhere round here the film starts to switch focus, from the patient to the doctor, who starts digging further into the case, uncovering as he goes a toxic Big Pharma advocate in the shape of Catherine Zeta-Jones (who seems to have decided that poisonous is what she’s best at as an actress). We’ve been diverted slyly into a whodunit, with Law as the not-entirely-righteous searcher for truth in a murky world controlled by mega corporations who spend vast budgets convincing the gullible they need what’s on offer. The slide into something much more recognisably 1940s continues with two further twists which won’t do anything for the promotion of women but do allow both Mara and Zeta-Jones to really let rip as actors, Mara in particular. It’s true that Side Effects has its faults – Law’s transformation from passive doctor to active investigator never quite stacks up. But as I said the real joy here is watching Soderbergh making the film change track as if it were a train running across a mammoth set of points. As for Scott Z Burns’s script, it deliberately invokes the 1940s femme fatale in an attempt to say something salient about the 21st century sense of entitlement – First World Problems, in other words.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A twisty dark thriller
  • Another great Rooney Mara performance
  • The associated spoof website for Ablixa
  • Thomas Newman’s jangly mood-setting score

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Side Effects – at Amazon