I've had occasion, these last 10 days or so, to do some catching up — obvious, probably inevitable reasons. Circumstances notwithstanding, this period of isolation has coincided nicely with a few notable movies from the last year finally migrating to streaming services. And so, in addition to watching all eight episodes of the lamentably, somehow charmingly stupid first season of Amazon's Reacher series — I've only read one of the Lee Child novels, I think the 22nd in the series — I took the time to consume and consider a handful of 2021's marquee releases. (I use that expression a little cheekily, as these were three of the movies that braved diminishing returns and ignored good advice by opening exclusively in cinemas.)
In the meantime, the 2022 Academy Award nominations have been announced, reminding me that I've ignored or simply missed a few other notable, debatably noteworthy movies; there may well be more catching up to be done. The three briefly discussed herein bear consideration both on their own merits and in light of their presence (or absence) among the nominees.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I've long admired the work of Guillermo del Toro (and his delightful presence in interviews and DVD commentaries) but I don't always seek it out. And so, while I braved the viral tide to see Licorice Pizza on a big screen, I let Nightmare Alley's theatrical release come and go; my loss, clearly. It's been recognized with a handful of Oscar nods, including Best Picture, although del Toro is conspicuously absent among the directing nominees, as are all members of the incredible cast in their respective categories. But since I've made a point, too frequently, of crowing about the irrelevance of the Academy Awards, I should probably let that go. Nightmare Alley is a fully-formed masterwork of a bygone era, a film noir in the truest sense, in as much as it uses that tropes and motifs of the genre to excavate the venality of mankind, its atavism, avarice and ignorance of its own crude impulses. It's simple and too easy to classify del Toro as a maker of monster movies. It may be true, and I think he would be the first to acknowledge his passion for the genre and its influence on him, but Nightmare Alley makes clear just how significant noir has been in his development as a storyteller and a visual stylist. (We can save the career retrospective for another day.) And, as such, this most recent work can be seen as a culmination, even if it arrives at (hopefully) a midpoint in his career.
Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel (the first cinematic version of which was released in 1947), Nightmare Alley describes the ascent of country boy turned carnie turned mentalist Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a voracious striver who can't recognize when he's overmatched or outwitted. As he transitions from tent shows to the inner sanctums of the ruling class, Carlisle's appetite for financial success and getting over on the marks eventually overwhelms his moral compass, leaving him vulnerable to the machinations of more sophisticated operators.
Like all del Toro's work, this is a gorgeous thing to look at, each frame filled with artfully placed visual cues and story details, the whole thing sumptuously dressed in '40s finery. It is an immersive, intensely atmospheric experience and the sort of thing few directors would or could execute, much less with this level of focus and control. The supporting cast, including Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Holt McCallany and Richard Jenkins (chillingly revelatory), among many others, all give note-perfect performances. R. 150M. HBO MAX.
THE LAST DUEL. In the course of one calendar year, one of our most prominent living directors, Ridley Scott, released two insanely ambitious, completely dissimilar movies into theaters and apparently nobody (myself included) really gave a shit; shame on us.
I wouldn't call myself a student of Scott's work, much less a devotee, but he's always been there for me. He is and has been about as prolific as they come, with these two as evidence: The guy's in his 80s and just made a bloody, 14th century French battle epic that is actually about women's rights and also made a bonkers Italian fashion melodrama, each with an unerring eye for detail, elaborate productions and mega-star casts.
The former, written by Nicole Holfocener, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, uses Rashomon-style multiple perspectives to describe the events (read: rape) leading up to the last sanctioned duel in French history. It somehow balances the horror of suppression and the conditions-at-large of the period against the silliness and idiocy of its male characters, presenting a chillingly modern portrait of gender politics (read: sexism and misogyny). Jodie Comer is revelatory in her careful, capable portrayal of Marguerite de Carrouges. (No Academy Award nominations.)
HOUSE OF GUCCI is at least two concurrent movies — one a lurid, pulpy, delicious melodrama and the other a meditation on greed and regret — that don't really seem capable of acknowledging each other's existence. The result is about eight-tenths of a great time at the movies, with Lady Gaga staring daggers and, inexplicably, speaking in a sort of pan-European Cruella DeVille accent, Jared Leto disappearing into the greatest unwitting clown the movies have given us in years and the whole affair dripping with inimitable Italian trappings. (One nomination for hair and makeup.) R. 158M. AMAZON PRIME, VUDU.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
BELFAST. Kenneth Branagh writes and directs his own Irish coming-of-age story. PG13. 98M. MINOR.
BLACKLIGHT. Liam Neeson plays a retiring spy and you'll never guess what happens to his family. PG13. 108M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
DEATH ON THE NILE. PG13. 127M. Kenneth Branagh and his mega-stache return as Hercule Poirot in the ensemble Agatha Christie mystery remake. Starring Gal Gadot and Annette Bening. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
JACKASS FOREVER. It's all fun and games until somebody in this aging crew breaks a hip. R. 96M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LICORICE PIZZA. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of coming of age and first love in 1970s California. Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. R. 133M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
MARRY ME. JLo as a pop star who marries rando teacher Owen Wilson as if Bennifer 2.0 hasn't put me through enough. PG13. 112M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MOONFALL. Halle Berry goes to space to save the planet with Patrick Wilson and John Bradley. PG13. 120M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PULP FICTION. R. 154M. The Quentin Tarantino cult classic turns 25 and now we have to listen to every dude's elaborate theory from 1994 all over again. MINOR.
SCREAM. The horror franchise picks up 25 years later like a Friends reunion but stabbier. With Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette. R. 120M. BROADWAY.
SING 2. The animated animal musical returns with the voices of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. PG13. 148M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE WOLF AND THE LION. Molly Kunz and Graham Greene in a story about a rescued wolf pup and lion cub. PG. 99M. BROADWAY.
For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.