Thursday, January 20, 2022

Belle is one of the more thoughtful cinematic takes on the internet

This will be a real quick review since I'm juggling Sundance Film Festival obligations and the start of a new graduate school semester right now.

This is an awesome movie! What especially struck me about Belle is that it's one of the few movies that seem to "get" the internet, its inherently chaotic nature, and how to properly reflect that in a film. Projects like Ralph Breaks the Internet keep trying to tether the inner workings of the internet to a parallel to recognizably human environments like your average workspace or a library. But within the social media service U, it's just mayhem, avatars speeding along the screen without any rhyme, reason, while the closest thing to "protectors" this domain has can appear at any moment. There's randomness here, not to mention a leaning in into the inherently stylized nature of animation, that captures the unpredictability of navigating an average day on the internet.

It's also fascinating to see the various animation styles collide within the domain of U, which also functions as a great visual manifestation of the variety of people and perspectives you can encounter on the web. It also makes for a great contrast with the real world, which is coated in a singular visual scheme and a more restrained color palette. These sequences strike a fine balance between emphasizing a sense of normalcy without sacrificing an ability to conjure up well-blocked shots or evocative imagery. Much like Sean Baker or Lucrecia Martel, writer/director Mamoru Hosoda understands that conveying a sense of everyday reality doesn't mean you have to throw out your ability to create interesting imagery.

One of the stealthily impressive parts of Hosada's screenplay comes from how the well-rounded nature of the supporting characters sneaks up on you. It isn't until the final half-hour arrives and everyone converges together to help fulfill one goal that I realized just how enjoyable everyone from the protagonist's adult lady friends to a himbo classmate was. Making this many characters seem engaging while juggling a deeply personal central story about coping with past trauma, not to mention incorporating all the fantastical elements related to the U universe, makes Hosada's writing here truly exceptional. 

Best of all, it's cool to get a movie about the internet that see's the potential for this tool to bring people together. There are obviously insidious parts about the internet, particularly when big corporations like Facebook turn a blind eye to festering swamps of white supremacy. But the internet can also be a wonderful way for people to bond, to discover new interests, and to bring out new parts of yourself. Belle is conscious of the darker parts of the internet experience, but it's also an ode to all the possibilities that exist within the realm of the online. Such possibilities are explored through thoughtful writing and extraordinary animation to make for a remarkable viewing experience.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Scream is a conflicted but mostly fun slasher sequel

So much has changed in the last two years. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world as we know it and reinforced so many problems in our society (namely ones related to wealth inequality and how we treat working-class jobs) that were always hiding in plain sight. Change is good, obviously, especially when it's related to altering systemically-ingrained problems that harm the proletariat. But the avalanche of uncertainty that greets each new day in the pandemic does make the idea of a new Scream movie, on paper, a cozy one. Who knows what new horrors this unending health crisis will bring, but I know what the beats of a Scream film are! That sounds like just the ticket! 

Though intended to bring some of that comforting familiarity to slasher movie fans, Scream is very much rooted in the pop culture world of 2021. Everything's changed for scary movies since Scream 4 graced multiplexes in April 2011, let alone when the original Scream hit theaters in 1996. In the time between the fourth and fifth Scream installments, The Purge and Conjuring franchises were born while Jordan Peele has gone from being a sketch comedy pro to the face of the genre. The new status quo is made apparent right away, when just minutes into the runtime of 2022's Scream, Tara Carpenter (Janna Ortega) references her fondness for The Babadook and "elevated horror".

Carpenter won't have any time to soak in the finer details of the new Ti West or Brandon Cronenberg movies, though, since this Woodsboro teenager is promptly attacked by Ghostface. Her estranged older sister, Samantha (Melissa Barerra, good to see the In the Heights leads getting further major work), returns to Woodsboro with boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow upon hearing this devastating news. Once she gets there, she realizes that somebody is picking off people in Tara's friend group one by one. To fight this new iteration of the Ghostface killer, Samantha calls upon the help of reclusive former sheriff Dewey (David Arquette). And if Dewey's tracking down masked killers, well, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) can't be far behind...

I mentioned at the outset of this review that the familiarity of a new Scream movie sounds, on paper, like a balm in these uncertain times. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that the weakest parts of this installment come when it adheres too closely to both the original 1996 Scream as well as other legacy sequels (I'm not using the term "lequel"). While commenting on the hallmarks of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Terminator: Dark Fate, Scream ends up indulging in these very same elements. In trying to have its cake and eat it too, Scream sometimes feeds moviegoers a juicy cake, but other times just spills everything on the floor. This also injects a bit too much familiarity into the production, which is just not what you want in horror filmmaking, a genre that's all about surprises.

Thankfully, for the most part, Scream does remain a fun horror movie, with much of this coming from screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick making sure to focus primarily on new characters above all others. These newbies are given new personalities and interior struggles that ensure they're not just rehashes of old Scream personalities, save for one teenager who proves to be a smart modern equivalent to Randy Meeks. Samantha and Tara's estranged relationship is an especially smart dynamic to anchor the film on to immediately differentiate themselves from the internal horrors Sydney was navigating in the original Scream titles. 

Meanwhile, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, fresh from their work on the rousing 2019 horror/comedy Ready or Not, also leave a distinct mark in their filmmaking compared to the late great Wes Craven (who helmed all four preceding installments in this saga). The duo establishes this identity by defining many of the big scary set pieces through a sense of playfulness. They stretch out big scary sequences, including the obligatory cold opening, nearly to their breaking point as you wait for something to pop out of nowhere, but in a way that charms and gives you some shivers rather than frustrates. I also enjoyed the fun recurring visual motif where something in the background of a mundane character exchange will resemble Ghostface (a black cloak with a pale white face) but it's just some mundane objects, like garden tools or a coat. The fact that the movie never comments on this makes it an extra fun touch that amplifies the devilishly devious nature of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet's approach to the scares of Scream.

Much like the 2018 Halloween movie, Scream feels torn between being something extra subversive and also delivering the requisite element of the franchise it belongs to. Luckily, there are enough fun scares, not to mention solid performances from cast members new and old (David Arquette is the MVP of the legacy performers) to keep you entertained despite the production's jagged nature. It can't hold a candle to the original in terms of scares or The Matrix Resurrections in terms of commentary on legacy sequels. However, unlike Scream 3 and Scream 4, this new Scream does feel like it has more to say than just asking fans of the franchise to give them some more money. I had a fun time watching it and I suspect die-hard devotees of this series will find it an especially rewarding experience.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Asghar Farhadi delivers another great film with A Hero


A little over a decade ago, filmmaker Asghar Farhadi delivered A Separation, one of those widely-acclaimed features you watch years after it first hit theaters and discover that it's even better than the years of hype would suggest. With this project, Farhadi weaved a story about a morally complicated man navigating a divorce and potential murder charges. The questions of morality, truth, and justice were heavy in this film and Farhadi managed to navigate such weighty queries with a stunningly deft hand. Though his newest directorial effort, A Hero, isn't as good as A Separation (what is?), it's another slice of morally complicated cinema that will make you grateful Farhadi is around on the filmmaking scene.

Like so many great cautionary tales about morality, A Hero begins with a bag of money. In this case, it's a bag of coins, which have been discovered by the sister of Rahim (Amir Jadidi) at a bus station. Once Rahim comes home on parole, he considers using the coins to help pay off some suffocating debts that are crushing his life. However, he opts instead to return them to their owner, a choice that leads him to be declared a hero by his local community. However, as the days go on, and Rahim tries to get employment, his newfound image begins to unravel. One little falsehood after another keeps getting revealed in this situation that ensures that Rahim's already difficult life will only be getting harder from here.

Though the premise seems ripe for big grand dramatic events, A Hero takes its storytelling cues from prior Farhadi films in shaping its plot around small incidents that add up over time. To watch Rahim's world gradually crumble is to watch a series of dominos slowly but surely tumble rather than just one explosion going off in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it fashion. The glacial approach to conflict allows viewers a chance to understand how Rahim and his loved ones are responding to each new setback in their lives. It also allows viewers to appreciate and understand how the tiniest details can come back to haunt someone. There's no line of dialogue here that's wasted, everything serves a purpose. 

It's also a welcome trait that Farhadi refuses to pigeonhole even aggressive supporting characters as just broad caricatures of villainy. A brother-in-law, whom Rahim owes a significant amount of money, is the primary source of the anti-Rahim sentiment in earlier parts of A Hero. However, his quarrels with this ex-con are not unfounded, there's an understandable weariness to his behavior and dialogue that makes it believable why he'd be so slow to believe this man has undergone a drastic change of heart. By allowing the individuals who populate A Hero to remain fleshed-out people, its grappling with moral quandaries can be all the more interesting. 

The nuanced storytelling is told through equally thoughtful filmmaking from Farhadi, whose camera often finds such ingenious ways to use camera placement and blocking to accentuate the inner lives of the principal characters of A Hero. The final shot, especially, is a haunting piece of work contrasting shadows with a small doorway of bright light. No one needs to utter a word of dialogue for the underlying meaning of this moment to bowl you over. That may be the apex of A Hero's visuals, but there are tons of other shots and images throughout the runtime that prove similarly impressive in terms of being as detailed as the central moral quandary.

All of these details culminate in a third act that begins to lean a bit too hard on more obvious moral shadings, including a climactic scene involving Rahim's son (who has a speech impediment) that isn't bad but does feel easier to navigate in terms of "is this good or bad?" compared to the more intricate story that preceded it. Aside from these climactic stumbles, though, A Hero resonates as another powerful and insightful work from Asgar Farhadi, who has a gift for tapping into the complexities that define everyday life. It's impossible to boil down people to "good" or "bad" labels, but it is much easier to boil down movies as well-made as A Hero into the label of "great".

Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is a monstrously forgettable animated sequel


The binary nature of online film criticism can often boil movies down to being either the best thing ever or the absolute worse creation foisted on an unsuspecting Earth. Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is an unexpected reminder of why nuance is a necessary ingredient in these kinds of discussions. The fourth installment in the long-running Hotel Transylvania franchise isn't necessarily bad, even by the standards of animated kid's movie sequels. But boy is it perfunctory. The whole film feels like an obligation, resulting in a viewing experience that isn't torturous so much as it is instantly forgettable.

Dracula (Brian Hull, taking over the role from Adam Sandler) is preparing to finally retire after running the titular Hotel Transylvania for centuries. He's decided to leave this vacation destination to his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and, by proxy, her human husband Johnny (Andy Samberg). Dismayed at the thought of a goofball like Johnny taking over his beloved hotel, Dracula tells his son-in-law that he can't legally hand over the place to a human. This results in Johnny using a magical crystal to turn himself into a dragon while the fantastical object also manages to turn Dracula and his cohorts into humans. Reversing these spells will require a dangerous trek to South America to pursue a new crystal while also forcing Dracula and Johnny to work together.

After Hotel Transylvania: Summer Vacation finally gave this series some comedic oomph by focusing squarely on absurdist gags and strange visuals, Transformania, unfortunately, brings things down to Earth again. For one thing, Dracula and Johnny are back to being antagonistic with each other like all the other sequels never happened. It's never a good sign when comedy sequels just backtrack character development to justify lazy narratives (see: Anchorman 2). Meanwhile, turning the monsters into humans largely removes any chances of doing monster-centric gags that could only work in this franchise. The majority of the jokes are instead focused on generic beats related to the monsters dealing with everyday human ailments like loss of hair, mosquito bites, and not being able to fly. 

Transformania also stunningly miscalculates where its strengths lie by turning over a shocking amount of screentime to poignant moments. This includes a nails-on-the-chalkboard monologue in the climax from Dracula meant to wrap up the primary emotional storyline of the whole production. But does anyone care about the Hotel Transylvania crew to this degree? Leave the big moments of pathos to PIXAR movies. Across this series, the best Hotel Transylvania moments have been ones leaning on slapstick and visual gags that could only be accomplished in animation. Nobody comes to these movies to cry. Given that, it's a bummer Transformania tries so hard to be a tearjerker and comes off so hollow in its attempts at these beats to boot.

It's not all necessarily a wash, of course. There are some fun character designs to be found in translating recognizable monsters like The Mummy or The Wolfman into everyday humans. Meanwhile, the colorful animation remains as vibrant as ever. Returning voice performers like Kathryn Hahan admirably refuse to sleepwalk through an easy paycheck gig. Meanwhile, though Genndy Tartakovsky has left directorial duties this time around to Jennifer Kluska and Derek Drymon, it's nice that Transformania maintains its predecessor's love for squashing and stretching computer-generated characters to their limits. Plus, young kids are bound to still like Transformania, it'll work fine as a babysitter. 

That's about the highest compliment I could pay this newest installment in the Hotel Transylvania saga, though. The whole thing's just a miscalculated exercise that feels especially strained on a storytelling level, with Transformania constantly feeling like it's sweating to figure out how to stretch its premise to a feature-length runtime. This is exemplified by how 19 minutes of Transformania's 97-minute length is comprised of credits. Though obviously not the worst movie of all time, Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is an exceedingly disposable enterprise, one that not even Adam Sandler could be bothered to show up for. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

You'll wanna say hi, hi, hi to Red Rocket


After Tangerine and The Florida Project delivered riveting tales about everyday, morally complicated people navigating the hardships of poverty, without having said poverty be their defining quality, I thought I knew what to expect from a movie by writer/director Sean Baker. And then he throws the ultimate cinematic curveball in the form of Red Rocket. Baker has maintained the naturalistic settings and use of non-professional actors from his preceding works, but this otherwise feels like a different beast. A dark comedy that's bound to make you squeamish, Red Rocket distinguishes itself from prior Baker movies, though the compulsively watchable nature of the production will be familiar to anyone whose watched Tangerine and The Florida Project.

Mikey Davis (Simon Rex) is not an upstanding person. Not because he's a former pornstar, oh no. Davis isn't trustworthy because of how he views every person who crosses his path as just a means to his own end. He begins Red Rocket by stumbling off a bus in a bruised state in Texas City, his hometown, and someplace he hasn't been in years. His mission here? Well, firstly, he's gonna hit up his ex-wife for a place to crash. From there, Davis alienates all potential employment opportunities and resorts to selling weed so that he can make some rent money to pay off his spouse and her mom. As he looks around for other people to exploit, he begins dating a 17-year-old by the name of Raylee/Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Like I said, Davis is not a good guy.

Red Rocket is an excellent example of how to make a film with an unlikeable protagonist work as the lead of a movie for two hours. Perhaps the most important reason is something that isn't in the film: backstory. Not once does Baker attempt to give audiences a sob story to explain why Davis is the way he is. Similarly, there aren't even feigned gestures at the idea of a tidy redemption arc that could pack his life into a neat three-act structure. Heck, the audience doesn't even get the full details on how Davis ended up so beaten up when he arrived in Texas City. Davis is an enigma, his abhorrent behavior is just part of who he is. By not trying to provide a rationale for Davis, Baker makes this character click together. This fellow works so much better as an inexplicable tornado than anything else.

It also helps that Simon Rex is electrifying in the lead role, holy cow. Rex portrays Mikey Davis as someone who's always talking yet not saying much. He exudes a confident air, but he always portrays the character, on a physical level, like he could crumble if a strong breeze came along. There's an undeniably fascinating contradiction here, a dude who thinks he's Harold Hill, but in reality, is circling a drain. This compelling personality is executed with live-wire energy from Rex, who harnesses a motormouth dialogue delivery yet such realistically awkward body language in portraying this idiosyncratic guy. A trainwreck manifested as a human being, Davis is always repulsive, but Rex's performance ensures you can't keep your eyes off of him.

Rex's performance plays off a variety of natural Texas City locales that make for a great contrast to the character of Mikey Davis. This guy's always got his head stuck in delusion of enormous grandeur, but he's waltzing around small homes, tiny businesses, and other locations whose physical imperfections reflect the unavoidable reality Davis ignores. These environments are often peppered with bright hues, including an important donut shop coated in vivid yellow or a series of houses near a beach that are adorned in shades of blue and red. This color palette makes Red Rocket a pleasing affair in terms of cinematography (props to Drew Daniels on that part of the production) while the colors themselves look great captured on 16mm film.

Red Rocket is so good that even its choice to set its story against the 2016 presidential election comes off as a thoughtful detail rather than an intrusive strained grasp at relevancy. With speeches from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz blaring on TV's throughout the film, it's interesting to hear their commentary played in close proximity to the newest lying diatribe from Davis. There are chilling parallels here, as Red Rocket quietly suggests that the manipulative behavior of its protagonist is no anomaly. Rather, Davis is emblematic of how much white guys can get away with in American society. Having a moment where Davis races past an American and Texas flag while naked in the climax of Red Rocket only sends home how much this guy is supposed to represent the country he's living in. 

There's a lot going on underneath the surface of Red Rocket, but impressively, Baker manages to pull off noteworthy feats of filmmaking and sociopolitical commentary with ease and without undercutting experiencing this feature in the moment. The barrage of unsavory behavior and successful dark humor makes Red Rocket an entertaining film, the kind that can keep your eyeballs engaged in the moment but then leave you impressed with the details informing all that entertainment afterward. It's not quite as good as his last two films, but Sean Baker has delivered another uncomfortable yet well-crafted winner with Red Rocket

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

No tragic disappointment to be found in the excellent The Tragedy of Macbeth

We've done Macbeth on film. A lot. Even more than that, honestly. It's been adapted in so many ways in cinema over the years that it's hard to imagine that we'd need another one. History will tell if Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth is indeed essential to the canon of William Shakespeare film adaptations. Right now, though, I can say it's plenty good enough to justify returning to familiar territory. Much like Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake, The Tragedy of Macbeth takes a tale you know and makes it seem brand-new again. Impressively, Coen does this without gimmicky updates or attempts to make the text "cool". 

While out beyond his kingdom's borders, Macbeth (Denzel Washington) is informed by a witch (Kathryn Hunter) that he'll secure great power as a king. It's an impressive prophecy for Macbeth, but it's one that, with encouragement from Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand), he becomes convinced can only be achieved through bloodshed. So starts a series of massacres, which see Macbeth slicing throat of anyone who gets in his way. However, the severity of his actions began to weigh on the man's mind all while Macduff (Corey Hawkin) begins to plot a scheme of revenge against this mad ruler of Scotland.

The visual style of The Tragedy of Macbeth is an immediately striking one. The imagery captrues the haunting nature of the works of Ingmar Bergman, the intentional artificality of the play scenes in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and both the intimacy and the scarceness of a black-box theater play.Combining all these influences into one makes for a visually impressive experience, with everything coated in black-and-white coloring and told in sparsley-decorated sets. The castle belonging to the titular character is never shown in full in exterior shots and its interior environments are intentionally vaguely-defined. It's practically the suggestion of a castle, one that, like the hotel at the heart of The Shining, seems to go on forever and ever indoors

The haunting emptiness is reflected in the sparing use of a score, with a constant bump-bump-bumping noise on the soundtrack being more prominent to the ears than a traditional orchestral accompaniment. It all creates such an eerie feeling I haven't always gotten from prior MacBeth film adaptations and this sensation is compounded by the decision to depict the principal characters as being over the age of 60. The finite amount of time Macbeth and his wife have in their life lingers quietly over their actions. This emphasis on their mortality only heightens the creepiness of the production and add an extra sense of tragedy (no pun intended) to the slaughter that follows.

I mentioned West Side Story earlier, but allow me to return to comparing The Tragedy of Macbeth to that newest Spieberg triumph in how both recontextualize familiar moments both of their respective pieces of source material to outstanding effect. In the case of Macbeth,  I found myself impressed by how familiar pieces of dialogue get rendered brand new by unique pieces of staging. Macbeth's query of "Is that a dagger I see before me?" is here shown as the "dagger" being the door handle to a fateful room where he'll commit his horrific murders. Meanwhile, the mental anguish informing Lady Macbeth's "Out damn spot!" line is powerfully felt through surrounding the character with pitch-black darkness.

All these thoughtful reinterptations of some of Shakespeare's most famous lines are handled beautifully by a cast that excels under the restrained creative direction of this enterprise. With the sparse surroundings drawing most of the focus primarily on the performances, rightful acting legends Washington and McDormand don't mess around and deliver just the kind of stirring turns you'd expect actors of their caliber to churn out. The standout by far for me, though, is Kathryn Hunter in a new vision of the witch. Her opening scene alone conveys an eerie otherworldly quality and her creaky voice can make a few syllables something that forces the the hair on the back of your neck to go straight up. It's a bravura performance you won't soon be forgetting.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is an odd outlier in Joel Coen's filmography in some ways, including its lack of dark humor, something that permeated even the most brutal of earlier directorial efforts from the Coen Brothers (even No Country for Old Men had time for some glib gags). That's not a complaint, though, rather just a reflection of what a unique creative enterprise this is. Rather than rehashing what he's already done as a filmmaker or even just leaning on classic visions of what Macbeth can be, Coen delivers an idiosyncratic vision told with impressively precise visuals and powerful performances. With these achievements, The Tragedy of Macbeth leaves no question on whether or not we needed another adaptation of Macbeth.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Guillermo del Toro goes grounded, to varying degrees of success, with Nightmare Alley

Fresh off directing The Shape of Water, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has some clout in Hollywood. For his next cinematic trick, del Toro isn't just working with a star-studded roster of acting talent. He's also delivering something more grounded than his previous projects. No fish monsters, no superheroes, no giant robots, no allegorical fairy tale beasts. Nightmare Alley is the most grounded in reality del Toro's ever been as a director. Committing to realism leads to some intriguing performances and visuals, ones that couldn't have been accomplished in his other directorial efforts. Strangely, though, Nightmare Alley also lacks the thoughtfulness of his prior stylized endeavors.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) begins Nightmare Alley disposing of a corpse and walking away from a burning home. From there, he hops a bus and ends up at a carnival fairground, where he ends up securing work performing manual labor for Clement Hately (Willem Dafoe). While working at this carnival, Carlisle sparks up a romance with Mary Elizabeth Cahill (Rooney Mara) and becomes proficient in the act of clairvoyance, or at least pretending he is. Able to trick audiences into thinking he has this fascinating fit, Cahill and Carlisle set off on their own to perform a solo show. This program attracts the attention of Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who sees right through Carlisle...and also becomes embroiled in his latest scheme, an elaborate plot that could either make or break this conman.

If I have a major grievance with Nightmare Alley, it makes the unfortunate mistake of believing that inherently making things very quiet and slow-paced will automatically make your movie meaningful. Those qualities aren't bad, but all-time classics with glacial pacing aren't classics because of their glacial pacing. They're classics because this pacing allows one to appreciate a certain atmosphere, or subtle editing details, or the finer nuances of the performances. Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley's screenplay, penned by del Toro and Kim Morgan, falls prey to this in several spots where it opts for slow-burn grimness but can't quite come up with themes worthy of this approach. This includes a drawn-out ending whose conclusion you can see coming a mile away.

This isn't the default mode of the movie, but it happens enough to make Nightmare Alley the weakest del Toro film since the original Hellboy in 2004. On the plus side, its overtly bleak nature makes it work well as a modern homage to classic noirs and both del Toro and Morgan show a welcome ability to letting everyone in the story be totally duplicitous. There are no kind audience surrogates here, Carlisle is just one of many people looking out for themselves. This wall-to-wall nastiness even leads to some quietly cutting social commentary, like the camera lingering on Carlisle plopping coins into a Salvation Army tin. Wonder if there are any parallels between that organization and a man saying he's doing good while only engaging in malicious behavior?

The carnival ground backdrop also allows del Toro to get his freak on with the visuals in a pleasingly grotesque manner. A dead baby's carcass, complete with a strange third eye on its forehead, floats in a jar of green goo while all the interior locations in this carnival are adorned with impeccably-realized expressionistic visuals. This filmmaker may not be bringing out the aliens or monsters that dominated his prior features, but these sets do show that del Toro hasn't missed a beat in his vision for memorably stylized backdrops. Period-era costumes are also spectacular looking while the heavy use of snow-covered landscape in the third act also results in pleasing-looking imagery. 

As for the performances, it's an overall solid collection of talent, though I felt Bradley Cooper suffered most from Nightmare Alley mistaking inherent restraint for substance. Cooper's got several memorable moments in his performance, including his final scene captured in an extended single-take, but other times he fades a bit too much into the background. Most of the other players, namely Blanchett and Dafoe, are playing variations on their movie star personas, but they're entertaining to watch, so it's difficult to complain. The major standout turns out to be Richard Jenkins in a small but pivotal role as the reclusive Ezra Grindle. Leave it to Jenkins to leave a mighty impression with minimal screentime.

There's a welcome sense of creative ambition in Nightmare Alley, as del Toro channels the horrors man, rather than monsters that go bump in the night, are capable of. Lingering on these terrors doesn't necessarily result in a production as thoughtful as its tone would suggest and certain storytelling beats (including rushed shifts in Carlisle's relationship to both Cahill and Grindle in the third act) undercut its thematic goals. Still, it's a del Toro movie, so it looks beautiful and leaves you with idiosyncratic chilling moments. Even a lesser effort from this filmmaker is bound to deliver some kind of impression.