Willem Dafoe

Nightmare Alley

26/02/22

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



Spider-Man: No Way Home

17/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I’ve seen most of the superhero movies and the one franchise I consistently enjoy is Spider-Man. I suppose it makes perfect sense. I was a big fan of the comic books back in the day and the films – all three of the major strands – have always had that lightness of touch that somehow steps aside from the pomposity of so many Marvel projects. Played mostly for laughs, the ‘Spidys’ have a levity about them, as their young protagonist goes about his heroic duties, whilst trying to woo his girlfriend and ensure that he gets a proper education.

I was somewhat apprehensive when I picked up on the various rumblings about the Multiverse (inevitable, I suppose, after the success of Lord and Miller’s wonderful Into the Spider-Verse) and also, the heavily-trumpeted presence of a certain Doctor Strange, but, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. While this is undoubtedly the most complex Spider-Film to date, the sparky script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers manages to keep things moving briskly along. Every time a scene threatens to become too portentous, they throw in a snarky comment or a bit of tomfoolery and everything blurs back into motion. The two hour running time is never allowed to drag.

No Way Home picks up at the cliff-hanging moment where Far From Home left off – with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) being publicly outed. The ensuing fallout from that event kickstarts the new film straight into action and it barely stops to take a breath. It all feels horribly real as Peter, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) are trolled, mocked and despised by the right-wing buffoons who have been listening to shock-jock, J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons). It’s weirdly prescient.

Feeling cornered and understandably worried about those he loves, Peter has what he thinks is a brilliant idea. He approaches his old pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to reverse time (as you do) so everyone will forget that he’s actually our favourite neighbourhood web-slinger.

Needless to say it’s a very bad idea.

Strange’s celestial tinkering accidentally opens a breach in the Multiverse and, almost before Peter knows what happening, he’s being pursued by adversaries from across time – they include Doc Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and many, many others, most of whom are astonished to find that Peter doesn’t look anything like the man they remember, but are perfectly happy to try and kill him anyway. Luckily, he doesn’t have to fight them off single-handedly, because he’s offered help from an unexpected quarter…

As is so often the case with these movies, there’s an extended super-powered punch-up at the conclusion, but even this is saved from becoming tedious by liberal deployment of the aforementioned witty dialogue – and there’s a surprisingly poignant coda to the film, which ties all the multifarious strands neatly together. Holland has hinted that this may be as far as his involvement will go and I have to say, if he does choose to step away, he’ll be leaving a very accomplished trilogy to remember him by.

Mind you, it’s clear that this won’t be the end. A post-credits teaser dangles the dubious prospect of a Spawn/Spider-Man mash up, which really isn’t something I relish, but Sony are bound to want to involve their other big-selling franchise at some point, so we’ll see what happens on that score.

Those who are willing to stay in their seats till the credits stop rolling will be rewarded with a trailer for the upcoming Dr Strange movie, which looks… strange, to say the very least.

But meanwhile, No Way Home is well worth your attention. Even unapologetic spandex-haters should give this one the benefit of the doubt. Because, you know what? It rocks.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Lighthouse

05/02/20

It’s always frustrating, isn’t it, when others commend the work of a particular director and – for the life of you – you just don’t see what they love about it?

I’ve felt like that about Quentin Tarantino, pretty much since Pulp Fiction onwards; more recently, I really didn’t care for Robert Eggers’ debut film, The Witch, which many respected critics hailed as nothing short of a masterpiece. Now here’s his sophomore effort, The Lighthouse, which arrives in cinemas virtually creaking beneath the weight of the many superlatives that have been heaped upon it. Of course I have to give him a second chance, right?

This doom laden two-hander, shot in grainy black and white on 35mm stock and projected in a claustrophobic 1:19:1 aspect ratio, concerns the story of two ‘wickies,’ despatched to a remote lighthouse off the coast of New England, where they are to live and work for a month. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is an old hand, who lords it over new recruit Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), making him take on most of the menial duties while he reserves the tending of the light itself as his own personal privilege. He also mentions that Winslow’s predecessor went mad after seeing some ‘enchantment in the light’ and hints that something bad happened to him.

The two men embark on their dull and thankless routine, which is depicted in punishing detail. Wake is a drinker of alcohol and, though Winslow resists the temptation to join him at first, he soon succumbs. When a terrible storm maroons the men long past the time when they should have been heading back to the mainland, madness and depravity rapidly descend upon them…

Sadly, I am left completely unstirred by what ensues. Here is a ‘horror’ movie that completely fails to generate any sense of threat, an allegory that cloaks its meaning to an irritating degree. What we’re left with is a study of two tedious examples of toxic masculinity, who spend most of the time in silence and then ramble away in what Eggers insists is an aproximation of the language of the late 19th century, but which is mostly rendered unintelligible by the over-enthusiastic sound effects. They fight a bit too. And sing. And dance.

Winslow’s character has recurring dreams (possibly memories, it’s never entirely clear) of discovering a mermaid and having sex with her – sadly that appears to be the only role for a woman in this film – and there are visions of tentacles, floating logs and a severed head that might just belong to Winslow’s predecessor.

There are various attempts to allude to classical elements. The killing of a bird presaging disaster is surely a nod to The Ancient Mariner, while a climactic image seems to refer to the myth of Prometheus. But honestly, there’s so little incident in this film’s one hour, forty-nine minute run, that I spend most of my time feeling as bored as its two protagonists. Dafoe and Pattinson are both excellent actors, but neither is given enough to do here (unless you count Wake’s unbridled flatulence) and, when the final credits roll, I leave wondering, once again, what it is about Eggers that generates so much adoration?

I really wanted to like this film. And I gave it my best shot. Honestly.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Motherless Brooklyn

13/12/19

Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Letham, has clearly been a labour of love for actor, Edward Norton. He’s been trying to put a movie version together for something like fifteen years now and, finally, here’s the result. As well as starring as lead character Lionel Essrog, Norton has gone ‘the full Orson Welles,’ serving as screenwriter, executive producer and director. He’s transposed the novel’s setting from the 1990s to the 1950s, an astute move, as the look and feel of the film is most definitely noir. Dick Pope’s bleak cinematography evokes memories of some of the great movies in this genre, particularly Chinatown.

Lionel is working for a small-time detective agency in New York. When we join the action, he and Gilbert (Ethan Supplee) are watching out for their boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has an important meeting with some powerful people and has asked his employees to covertly back him up. 

The meeting goes spectacularly wrong and Frank winds up with a bullet in his gut. As a result, Lionel finds himself following up on Frank’s recent cases, one of which has him following Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist and daughter of a local jazz club owner. Lionel is able to call on some pretty special skills, as he has an uncanny ability to recall everything that’s ever been said to him. He also has a tendency to blurt out seemingly unconnected utterances at random moments – it’s probably Tourette’s syndrome but, this being the 1950s, his condition doesn’t yet appear to have a name.

As Lionel digs deeper into the case, he comes up against ruthless property developer, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also Randolph’s mysterious, down-at-heel critic, Paul (Willem Dafoe). But what do these two men have to do with Laura? And will the unravelling of the case prove dangerous for both her and Lionel?

Motherless Brooklyn is a curiously old-fashioned concoction, one that takes its own sweet time to roll out its labyrinthine story, but Norton, in what is only his second attempt at directing a movie (his first was Keeping the Faith in 2000) has done a pretty good job of pulling the various narrative strands into a satisfying whole. His performance is pitch perfect and he’s helped by a stellar supporting cast. Baldwin is particularly good as the decidedly Trumpian Randolph, a dead-eyed, frost-hearted megalomaniac with no scruples whatsoever, while Mbatha-Raw dazzles like an orchid in the drab heart of 50s America. I like the way Lionel’s disability is handled (it feels very convincing, just a part of who he is, ordinary to those who know him) and I also enjoy the film’s refusal to tie its storylines up with easy resolutions. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the jazz score, a style of music that usually repels me, works brilliantly here, as does a haunting piece by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

This won’t be for everyone, but those with an enduring love of film noir will find plenty here to savour – and Norton deserves much credit for his tenacity in seeing this slow-gestating project through to the end.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

At Eternity’s Gate

14/11/19

Here’s one I missed at the cinema, but – as is increasingly the case these days – it’s right there on Netflix for anyone to see at the click of a button. While this would definitely benefit from the immersive qualities of a big screen, beggars can’t be choosers.

Julian Schnabel’s film of Vincent Van Gogh concentrates on his years in Arles and, later, at Auvers Sur Oise. Willem Dafoe stars in what is possibly the role he was born to play, so convincingly does he settle into the great man’s persona, and he greatly deserved his Oscar nomination.

This is far from a straightforward biopic, however. Indeed, anybody who prefers a clear narrative arc will probably have a tough time with this. There’s a lot of footage of the artist, easel strapped to his back, wandering for miles across the French countryside in search of the elusive ‘perfect light’ and the film takes its own sweet time over those sections. But there’s no doubting the power of the sumptuous cinematography of Benoit Delhomme, which really does capture the unique look of Van Gogh’s paintings.

A lot of big names pop up in cameo roles. Oscar Isaac is a suitably swashbuckling Paul Gaugin, Rupert Friend is Vincent’s endlessly patient brother, Theo, and Mads Mikkelsen gets the dubious honour of portraying the priest at an asylum, who unashamedly informs the artist that his work is ‘ugly and without merit.’ Dafoe, meanwhile, suffers for his art in utterly convincing style and generates pity for Vincent as well as anger at the horrible treatment he receives on an almost daily basis.

There’s a powerful payoff when, after his mysterious death (which is frustratingly skipped over), we witness Vincent lying in his coffin, surrounded by his paintings and we cannot help but see that the mourners are already taking more interest in his work than they ever did when he was alive.

An interesting effort, then, and – while it lacks the jaw-dropping power of Finding Vincent – it’s still essential viewing for fans of one of history’s greatest artists.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The Florida Project

11/11/17

The Florida Project is my favourite film of the year so far – and there are only a few weeks left of 2017 for any new contenders to knock it off its perch. It’s a real gem: imagine Ken Loach Does Disney and you won’t be far off.

In fact, though, it’s Sean Baker exposing the tragic underbelly of the Magic Kingdom and, if this is anything to go by, the forty-six-year-old writer-director has an important career ahead of him, chronicling the travails of the American poor, living precariously in motels, lurching from one inadequate paycheck to the next.

There is real beauty in this film: Brooklynn Prince, as six-year-old Moonee, is an absolute delight, all swagger and daring, as cheeky and charming as it’s possible to be. She feels real, a happy, confident kid, who knows she’s loved and cared for, and doesn’t worry about much. Because her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), might be living on the edge – struggling to find work, doing whatever she has to in order to pay the rent – but she never once lets Moonee down. She’s there for her, always, ensuring Moonee is fed and bathed, enjoying life. She’s a textbook problem parent – jobless, feckless, dabbling in drugs and prostitution – but this film shows us how wrong the textbook is.

It’s heartbreaking though; no one should have to live as uncertainly as this, especially not in the world’s richest country. Disney World’s looming presence, just out of reach, serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor: we see the glitz and glamour of the phony castle, while the squalid truth lurks just beneath. At least Halley’s found them a decent motel, with a caring manager called Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who keeps the place clean and tidy, and respects the residents. But they’re still living in one room, forced to participate in the farce of ‘moving out’ once a month so that they don’t accrue any rights as residents. They’re still eating food delivered by a charity, all cheap sugary carbs, presumably stale and out of date.

The cinematography is striking: the overwhelming impression is of cheeriness and colour. This is Moonee’s world and, free for the summer from the confines of school, she owns it, roaming freely and playing host to new motel guest, Jancy (Valeria Cotto), who’s staying with her grandmother (Josie Olivo), while her own mom ‘sorts herself out.’ Jancy’s grandma provides an oasis of calm: she has things very much sorted out; she might be poor and living in a motel, but she cooks proper food and is hot on discipline. Almost everyone here is decent, really, looking out for each other, doing their best. It’s a warm-hearted and affectionate depiction of those who are often disparaged. It’s also a searing damnation of a system that lets its people down, and its shattering conclusion is utterly devastating. Baker is clearly a film-maker with a lot to say – and he says it very well.

5 stars

Susan Singfield