Bradley Cooper

Nightmare Alley

25/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After the heartwarming optimism of Belfast, could there be a more contrary film than Nightmare Alley? This bleak, cynical tale of corrupt grifters, who spend their days trying to part the vulnerable from their worldly wealth, is a noir in the truest sense of the word, and marks the first time that Guillermo del Toro has stepped away from the supernatural or  sci-fi in order to tell a story. That said, this is every bit as dark as anything he’s done before.

It is of course, a remake, originally filmed in 1947 and starring Tyrone Power. Here, the boots of the lead character, Stanton Carlisle, are convincingly filled by Bradley Cooper. When we first meet Carlisle he’s carefully eradicating all traces of something he’s done – something bad that can only be cleansed by fire – but we won’t be given more detail until much later. After a long ride on an overnight bus, Carlisle arrives on the doorstep of a seedy carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), a venal charmer who thinks nothing of employing alcoholics and passing them off as ‘geeks’ – supposed ‘wild men’, who will bite the heads of live chickens for the entertainment of the carnival’s visitors.

Carlisle makes himself useful, helping to pitch tents and dispose of rubbish. He meets up with ‘Zeena’ (Toni Collette), who runs a mind-reading act alongside her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and, spotting an opportunity, Carlisle succumbs to Zeena’s charms, whilst filching the basics of Pete’s old routine for future use.

The carnival provides a wonderful setting, an atmospheric world where the neon-lit, tawdry wonders seem to throb with an innate sense of dread. Carlisle meets up with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act has her being ‘electrocuted’ on a nightly basis. Carlisle transfers his affections to her, and the couple head off to the film’s second act, which takes up the story two years later. Now Carlisle and Molly are running a successful night club act, using Pete’s old blueprint, and are living the highlife. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this is noir, so of course there has to be a femme fatal and she dutifully arrives in the shape of psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She starts to dangle the prospect of even greater riches in front of Carlisle. Will he yield to temptation?

Del Toro’s theme here is that the unscrupulous operate by exploiting the weaknesses of their victims, whether they’re doing it from the grubby confines of a canvas tent or the swish environs of an art deco apartment building. And, as ever, the wealthy are never happy to stand still, when they can see even more riches glittering enticingly, just out of reach.

Nightmare Alley is proper, grown-up filmmaking. The lengthy running-time and serious subject matter will doubtless put some punters off, and financial success will rather depend on whether any of its predicted Oscar nominations come to fruition. While this might not be the slice of cinematic perfection that is The Shape of Water, it’s nonetheless the work of a gifted director at the peak of his powers, handling a tricky subject with consummate skill, aided and abetted by the dazzling cinematography of Dan Lautsen.

Plans are afoot to release a monochrome version of this, but it’s hard to imagine how it could look any more lush than it does here, with every frame a veritable work of art.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney



Licorice Pizza

03/01/22

Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Paul Thomas Anderson has directed some of my all-time favourite films.

Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are all gems, a triumvirate that any filmmaker would be proud to leave as a cinematic legacy. But more recently, his work has underwhelmed me. Inherent Vice (2014) was an incoherent mess and 2017’s Phantom Thread – though wildly acclaimed by many critics – left me curiously unmoved.

On the face of it then, Licorice Pizza feels like a return to his comfort zone, exploring the sleazy canyons of the San Fernando Valley in the early 70s, an era that yielded such delights in Boogie Nights. This is the story of Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a supremely confident fifteen-year-old child ‘actor’ and all- round entrepreneur, with an extended family working to his orders on a variety of different projects. While it quickly becomes clear that Gary may be overestimating his own genius, he seems to have convinced a surprising number of others to give his projects a whirl.

Then, out of the blue, he falls in love at first sight with Alana (Alana Haim) who is twenty-five and makes no bones about telling Gary that he hasn’t a hope in hell of ending up with her. (This age thing, by the way, feels needlessly controversial. Hoffman’s actual age is eighteen and Haim thirty, so it would have had the same dynamic if they’d simply nudged Gary’s age up a year or so. Just saying.)

Despite Alana’s protestations, something sticks and she agrees to meet him for a drink. Soon enough, she becomes his loyal sidekick (although she’s insistent that they’re just friends), and he’s trying to get her into the movies…

What follows is an exuberant scramble of a film, as Gary and Alana run (and I mean literally) all around the valley, struggling through the ups and downs of an on/off relationship, while Gary tries out his madcap enterprises, setting himself up as a purveyor of waterbeds and – when the oncoming fuel crisis puts the kibosh on that – relaunching himself as the owner of a pinball arcade. The anarchic sprawl that ensues in that emporium probably mirrors the kind of youthful carnage that was played out in the Licorice Pizza record stores from which the film takes its name. – but that’s just my best guess.

Along the way, the duo encounter ageing action-movie star, Jack Holden (Sean Penn), desperate to impress Alana with an impromptu motorbike stunt, and terrifying coke freak Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper) who urgently wants to purchase a water bed for his wife, Barbara Streisand! Watch out too for a sensational cameo from Harriet Samsom Harris as Gary’s agent, Mary Grady, who delivers an object lesson in how to make the most of limited screen time.

This is a kinetic, adrenalin-fuelled movie, pushed along by bold, swooping cinematography and a no-holds-barred 70s soundtrack. Hoffman (the son of Anderson’s old muse, Philip Seymour Hoffman) is terrific as Gary and has great chemistry with Haim. She is, of course, a member of the rock trio that bears her name (for whom Anderson has shot several videos) and, as if to emphasise the ‘home movie’ feel of the project, Haim’s sisters – and even her parents – have supporting roles to play in this story.

While Licorice Pizza can’t claim to be up there with the very best of Anderson’s films, it nevertheless delivers a thoroughly enjoyable ride as Gary and Alana run side-by-side and finally – inevitably- towards each other. I fully expect to see its two stars going on to greater things.

And for Paul Thomas Anderson, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

A Star is Born

03/10/18

What is it about A Star is Born that makes filmmakers so keen to revisit it?

It first saw the light of day in 1937, when Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March played the original star-crossed thespians. In 1954, Judy Garland spectacularly relaunched her career with it, starring opposite a ‘never-better’ James Mason. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson moved the action from the movie studios of Hollywood to the world of rock music (a version that I have yet to catch up with.) And now Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut with a version that seems hewn from the same cloth as the the latter outing. Cooper stars opposite Lady Gaga, whose previous big screen appearances have amounted to a guest appearance on Muppets Most Wanted and the lacklustre sequel to Sin City. 

Cooper plays ageing rock star, Jackson Maine, still gamely gigging around the world but beset by the twin demons of tinnitus and rampant alcoholism, with a few lines of cocaine chucked in for good measure. Stopping off at an LA drag bar one evening for a post-concert drink, he witnesses Ally (Lady G) performing a spirited rendition of La Vie En Rose and is instantly smitten by her. Fortunately, she is equally attracted to him. A whirlwind courtship ensues and, almost before we can draw breath, Ally and Jackson are an item, and the pair of them are performing at concerts across the USA, with Ally submitting some of her own songs to each show. Which is all well and good. But then, after one gig, she is approached by Rez (Rafi Gavron), a big time music promoter and a character so repellant that he manages to make us hate him before he’s even uttered so much as a word. Rez offers to make Allie a star. It will mean being styled and packaged, of course, but still, it’s what she’s always wanted, so… what could go wrong?

There are no great surprises here, mainly because the storyline is so familiar – and it’s hardly a spoiler to say that events are soon heading in the direction signposted ‘Tragedy, Arizona.’ Cooper does a great job with Maine, making us care about him even when he’s deep in the throes of his own self-destruction. Sam Elliott as his older brother/manager, Bobby, is good too, somehow managing to look not a day older than he did in The Big Lebowski, twenty-frickin’ years ago.

Okay, so this may not be the five star masterpiece that Garland’s version is. (This one does make me cry a couple of times, while the 1954 movie never fails to reduce me to a blubbering wreck.) But it is, nonetheless, a palpable hit, with decent songs that sound convincingly like proper chartbusters, some nicely sketched supporting characters – I particularly like Allie’s Sinatra-obsessed father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) – and a timely updating from the Academy Awards to The Grammys, with an appearance on Saturday Night Live added to the mix.

The biggest revelation here is Lady Gaga, who is simply mesmerising, both when she’s singing and when she’s acting. At one point, Ally bemoans the fact that potential employers simply haven’t seen her as a good fit for a particular role. Is this what’s happened to Gaga herself in previous attempts to move her career into film? Whatever else occurs from hereon in, it would seem a bright future on the big screen is hers for the taking, if she decides she wants it.

A movie star is born.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

17/05/17

Amidst the plethora of movies featuring characters in spandex and capes, the original Guardians of the Galaxy stood out from the competition. Funny, self-deprecating and soundtracked by a collection of 80s classics, it was an enjoyable space romp. It was, however, hampered by a couple of not-so-positive notes – a needlessly complicated plot and an evil villain who seemed to have wandered in from Casting Central. But the film was a huge hit and it was never in doubt that there would be a sequel. Director James Gunn is clearly on a roll – Volume 3 has just been announced.

It’s clear from the get-go that Volume 2 is going to be fun. The prologue is set in 1980 and features a young, fresh faced Kurt Russell (how the thump do that do that?) as an extra-terrestrial canoodling with an earthling woman. Then we jump twenty-eight years into the future and see the Guardians, battling a hideous space beast, which is trying to get its sneaky tentacles on some very powerful batteries. This film has a secret weapon, which its not afraid to deploy with lethal effect – and that weapon is Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, in what must have been the easiest voiceover  job in film history). This tiny offshoot of the original Groot is so downright adorable only the flintiest hearted viewers will be able to resist him. (Even the most heinous villains in the universe find themselves unable to dispose of him, which generally proves to be their undoing.)

Next up, the Guardians are visited by Ego (Kurt Russell, his real age now), who, in the best Star Wars tradition, announces that he is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father and he’s been trying to reconnect with him for years. He whisks Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) off to his home planet, which he has modestly named after himself and tells Peter that he is willing to share his super powers with his long lost son. He also introduces the team to Mantis (Pom Klimentieff), an empath, who can tell things about people simply by touching them – and who is clearly destined to be a member of the Guardians herself. But Gamora isn’t happy. She senses that something isn’t quite right about this set up. Meanwhile, back at the spaceship, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is being pursued by Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has a few Volume 1 scores to settle…

Okay, once again, this isn’t a perfect film. The central message – the importance of family love – is as unremittingly cheesy as any of Disney’s most cloying output – but, once again, it’s saved by the deliciously snarky dialogue and some genuinely funny jokes.  I particularly enjoy Drax’s spectacularly clumsy conversations with Mantis. There’s another classic rock soundtrack, and any film that has the good taste to use Cat Stevens’ Father and Son in a key scene is sure to earn some brownie points from me. If the movie’s final confrontation becomes too much of a pixel-fest, well, it’s probably to be expected of the genre, but for my money, this once again works best when it concentrates on the engaging interplay between the characters. Overall, I feel Volume 2 works better than the original.

Make sure you stay in your seats throughout the closing credits. There are not one, not two, but five short clips to whet your appetite for Guardians 3 – plus, the by now obligatory cameo for Stan Lee.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Joy

Unknownimages

29/12/15

David O Russell seems to have the knack of creating great films from fairly unpromising material – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are two movies that rose far above their IMDB outlines. On paper, the true life story of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the ‘Miracle Mop’, might suggest that the average viewer should take along a pillow in order to sleep comfortably through the whole experience. But Joy is actually a riveting slice of cinema, made especially enjoyable by a luminous central performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

When we first meet Joy she’s a child, obsessed with building imaginary worlds out of scraps of paper; but very soon, she’s grown up, stuck in a dead end job, and divorced from her husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who still lives in the basement and shares parental responsibility for their young children. Joy’s soap-opera-obsessed Mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen) refuses to leave her room, while her wayward husband Rudy (Robert De Niro) has just insisted on moving back into the family home after breaking up with his latest partner. All-in-all, this has to be one of the most dysfunctional families in America and Joy is the one tasked with making everything run as smoothly as possible.

In the midst of the chaos, she gets an idea for a self-wringing mop and persuades the rest of the family, plus Rudy’s hard headed but minted new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to back her invention with hard cash. But the path to bringing it to reality is not an easy one and there are shady business people out there queuing up to steal her idea. Joy soon discovers that if she’s going to take her dream to fruition, she’s going to have to be as tough as the sharks she’s sharing the water with…

Russell’s take on the story is quirky, assured and never loses its sense of pace. There are great supporting performances from the ensemble cast (how lovely to see De Niro finally getting a decent role after a string of one-note cameos) and Bradley Cooper also shines as QVC pioneer, Neil Walker. But make no mistake, this is Lawrence’s movie and she makes the most of it. The camera loves her in this and you will too.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

American Sniper

MV5BMTkxNzI3ODI4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjkwMjY4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_

1/2/15

The unprecedented success of this film at the American box office, displays the depth of feeling that the US audience (especially those who vote Republican) have for Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Chris Kyle, proclaimed on the poster as the ‘most lethal sniper in history.’ Interestingly, it’s not something that Kyle himself ever wanted to boast about and as the film makes clear, it’s a legacy that took a terrible toll on the man himself and, indirectly, even led to his own death. There are many liberal-minded people who have been quick off the blocks to denounce this as dumb, Republican rhetoric, a recruitment film for would-be psychopaths, racists and the NRA, but I honestly feel that those who denounce it are failing (perhaps deliberately) to see it for what it is – a grunts-eye view of the war in Iraq from the perspective of somebody who had the unenviable task of actually being there.

The film begins with a young Chris being taken hunting by his daddy and making his first ‘kill,’ a deer. (So far, so redneck.) We then gallop on some years to find an older Chris (a beefed-up Bradley Cooper) witnessing the attack on the World Trade Centre and promptly enlisting in the Navy Seals. The man is a unabashed patriot who doesn’t hesitate to do what he perceives as ‘his duty to his country.’ He undergoes a brutal training regime and his gift for target shooting some comes to the fore. And all to soon, he’s in Iraq, on the first of four punishing tours, working as a sniper, only to discover that his first target is a little boy carrying a lethal weapon…

Now, if there is a criticism to be made of the film, it’s this. We only ever see the ‘enemy’ from the point of view of the American soldiers and, to a man, woman or child, they are all duplicitous, evil villains, every one of them intent of killing the infidels at any cost.  Common sense tells us that that simply can’t be the case and it would have been nice here to have witnessed some Iraqi characters portrayed in a more sympathetic way, but that clearly wasn’t Eastwood’s objective here and he ignores it.

But don’t go thinking either that this is a film that glorifies or whitewashes the war in Iraq. It’s a savage, visceral recreation that horrifies as much as it thrills and Eastwood makes it clear how such a career exacts a punishing price on those who live it, something that is clearly demonstrated by Kyle’s fraught relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), whenever he comes home on leave. Cooper plays Kyle as a big, genial giant, a quiet man who constantly hides his inner turmoil from the world and who only eventually finds release by working with veterans who have themselves been damaged by the war. Whatever your political take on this (and there’s no doubt that Eastwood pitches his tent squarely in the Republican camp) the film surely doesn’t deserve the approbation that’s been heaped upon it. It’s well directed, its battle scenes are unflinching in their graphic detail and at no point does anybody stand up and make a speech about how America has done the right thing.

War is always a tragedy and American Sniper never pretends that it’s anything else.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney