Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ (2021), starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Toni Collette

December 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Culture Representation: Taking place the U.S. (including Buffalo, New York) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, the dramatic noir film “Nightmare Alley” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A con man finds work at a carnival, where he learns how to use phony psychic skills to swindle people; he then leaves the carnival and teams up with a psychiatrist to con people in high society. 

Culture Audience: “Nightmare Alley” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro and noir dramas that are too bloated for their own good.

Rooney Mara and and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” is a beautiful-looking noir film about many people with very ugly personalities. The movie’s production design, cinematography and costume design are impeccable. Unfortunately, the movie’s sluggish pacing, hollow characters and corny dialogue drag down this film into being a self-indulgent bore. It’s disappointing because there’s so much talent involved in making this film, but a movie like this is supposed to intrigue viewers from beginning to end, not make them feel like they want to go to sleep.

The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” (which clocks in at an overly long 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours) is a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film “Nightmare Alley,” starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. The movie is based on the 1946 “Nightmare Alley” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” is also Guillermo del Toro’s directorial follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy drama “The Shape of Water.” Most of the “Nightmare Alley” remake’s stars, producers and department chiefs also have Academy Award recognition, as Oscar nominees or Oscar winners. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, all this talent cannot overcome this movie’s dreadfully dull pacing and painfully heavy-handed screenwriting that’s filled with hokey conversations. The “Nightmare Alley” remake screenplay (written by del Toro and Kim Morgan), which takes place from 1939 to the mid-1940s, lacks enough flair and nuance to bring these characters to life as well-rounded people. And fans of the original “Nightmare Alley” movie should be warned: This remake has an ending that’s much bleaker than the original movie.

In addition, better judgment should have been used in trimming parts of this movie that didn’t further the story very well. The first half of the movie takes place in a carnival, while most of the second half takes place in more upscale environments, when the central character (who’s a con artist) decides to go after wealthier targets than the type of people who go to carnivals. It seems like the filmmakers were so enamored with the elaborate production design for the carnival scenes, they overindulged in this part of the movie, which has a lot of drab dialogue and scenes with repetitive intentions.

At the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York City, producer J. Miles Dale said in an introduction on stage that the movie had been completed just two weeks before the premiere. That might explain why more thought wasn’t put into the film editing, which fails to sustain a high level of suspense and intrigue. This type of thrill is essential in a movie that pays homage to film noir of the 1940s.

And this is not a good sign: Many people at the premiere were laughing at lines that weren’t intended to be funny. (I attended the premiere, so I saw all of this firsthand.) As the movie plodded on, more and more people were checking the time on their phones, and the audience seemed to get more restless. But the bigger indication that this movie might not be as well-received as the filmmakers intended is that audience members at the premiere were openly giggling at lines of dialogue that were supposed to be dead-serious.

For example, there’s a scene where a character is physically assaulted in an attempted murder, which is thwarted when help arrives. When the character is asked how they’re feeling right after this attack, the character says in a melodramatic tone, “I’ll live.” It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama played to maximum effect, but several people were laughing because of how the scene is delivered in such a hammy way.

At the end of the movie, people in the audience politely applauded. (Keep in mind, that the audience also consisted of numerous people who worked on the film.) However, it wasn’t the kind of thunderous, standing-ovation applause that usually happens at a premiere for an award-worthy movie that’s going to be a massive, crowd-pleasing hit. Considering that there were many awards voters in the audience, this type of underwhelming response indicates that—at least for this particular premiere audience—many people weren’t that impressed with this remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Even if the audience response had been more enthusiastic, it wouldn’t be able to cover up the movie’s problems. All of the cast members seem to be doing the best that they can, but they are often stymied by some of the trite dialogue that mostly renders them as caricatures. Very little is revealed about the characters’ backgrounds to give them a story behind their personal motivations.

Bradley Cooper (who is one of the film’s producers) portrays the lead character: Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a con-man drifter who ends up working at a seedy traveling carnival. He starts off doing lowly odd jobs, such as helping with construction and clean-ups. But eventually, he charms his way into becoming part of the fake psychic act at the carnival.

The carnival’s psychic act is led by a married couple named Zeena Krumbein (played by Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (played by David Strathairn), who coordinate their act through code words, body language and hidden written prompts underneath the stage. Zeena (whose carnival nickname is The Seer) is the flamboyant “psychic” who acts and dresses like a stereotypical fortune teller. While she’s on stage, Pete is underneath the stage, where he writes information on placards that Zeena can see from where she’s standing. The information supplies the hints and codes that prompt Zeena to correctly guess personal facts about someone who gets a “psychic reading” from her.

The Krumbeins have recorded the secrets of their con game in a small journal-sized book that is mostly kept in Pete’s possession. Stan is eager to read the book, but the Krumbeins won’t let him, although they eventually divulge some of their main secrets. Although the Krumbeins have had a partnership in work and in marriage for several years, the romantic passion has left their relationship.

Pete (a former magician) has become an alcoholic, and his alcoholism has caused him to be sloppy and unreliable in his work. He might pass out during one of Zeena’s performances, which is what happens in one scene where Stan has to quickly take over for a barely coherent Pete. It’s implied that Pete has become an alcoholic because he feels guilty about conning people. At one point, Pete warns Stan that the Krumbeins’ con-game secrets should not be abused, and anyone who does so could be cursed. “No man can outrun God!” Pete says ominously.

Zeena openly has affairs with other men. And you know what that means. It isn’t long before Stan and Zeena have an affair, but it’s all lust and no love. And considering that Stan is a con artist, he has ulterior motives for getting close to Zeena. This is an example of the cornball dialogue in the movie: Zeena says this pickup line to Stan before they begin their sexual relationship: “You’re a maybe. And maybes are real bad for me.”

While Stan is carrying on an affair with Zeena, he finds himself more attracted to a virtuous young carnival worker named Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), who performs as an electricity-absorbing phenomenon named Elektra. Molly’s Elektra act consists of being tied to an electric chair and absorbing shocks of voltage that could kill or injure most people. Molly has a trusting nature that makes her blind to Stan’s manipulative ways. Not much information is given about Molly’s background to explain why she’s so naïve about the “smoke and mirrors” carnival business and the con artists that this type of business attracts.

Stan and Zeena’s affair eventually fizzles out, and he begins ardently courting Molly. However, the carnival has a strong man named Bruno (played by Ron Perlman), who is very protective of Molly and is suspicious of Stan’s intentions. Bruno has a co-star named Major Mosquito (played by Mark Povinelli), who also sees himself in a patriarchal role for the carnival. Bruno’s hostility toward Stan doesn’t stop Molly from falling for Stan’s charms. Eventually, Molly and Stan become lovers.

Not much is revealed about Stan’s background except that he’s originally from Mississippi, and he has “daddy issues.” On a rare occasion that he opens up to someone about his past, he talks about a treasured watch that he has that was previously owned by Stan’s dead father. In brief flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed what Stan’s relationship with his father was like.

Meanwhile, other characters at the carnival are in the story, but they are essentially superficial clichés. The carny boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a typical huckster. The carnival barker Clem Hoatley (played by Willem Dafoe) is a gruff taskmaster with a cruel and sadistic side. He likes to torment the carnival’s caged “freak” (played by Paul Anderson), a pathetic, gnarled, and dirty human being whose birth name is never revealed in the story and who is usually referred to as the Geek.

Clem tells people that the Geek can go days without food and water. The Geek doesn’t talk but instead snarls and growls like an animal. As part of the Geek’s “act,” Clem or other people feed live chickens to the Geek, who tears the chickens apart and eats them raw. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie shows these acts of animal cruelty in detail, through visual effects.

Cruelty and degradation (to animals and to human beings) permeate throughout “Nightmare Alley,” which is nearly devoid of any intended humor. The scenes are staged with immense attention to detail on how everything looks, but the filmmakers didn’t pay enough attention to how these characters are supposed to make viewers feel. Most of the main characters are obnoxious and/or smug, which makes it harder for viewers to root for anyone. Molly is the only character in the movie who seems immune to becoming corrupt, but she’s written as almost too good to be true.

When too many people in a movie are unlikable, that can be a problem if they’re unable to convey some shred of humanity that can make them more relatable to viewers. And the result is a movie where viewers won’t care much about the backstabbing, selfish and greedy characters that over-populate this movie. Because so many of the characters (except for Molly) are so blatant with their devious ways, there’s no suspense over who will end up double-crossing whom. And that makes almost everything so predictable.

Due to a series of circumstances, Stan ends up becoming Zeena’s partner in the fake clairvoyant act. Stan thinks that he’s got real talent for this type of con game, so he decides to run off with Molly and target wealthier “marks” so he can become rich too. Considering that Bruno is the type to get physically rough in his disapproval of Molly and Stan’s relationship, and Bruno isn’t leaving the carnival anytime soon, Stan and Molly believe the time is right to leave the carnival for a better life. Molly and Stan relocate to Buffalo, New York.

Stan then become a semi-successful solo psychic named the Great Stanton, who does his act at sleek nightclubs attended by upper-class people. Molly is his willing accomplice, as long as Stan confines his act to entertaining people as a performer who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Stan often wears a blindfold for added effect when he makes his guesses about people, based on their body language, the way that they dress and any information he can get about the guests before the show. Stan is no longer financially struggling like he was as a carnival worker, but he wants to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the people who attend his shows. He’s about to meet his new partner his crime.

During one of his performances, Stan has a heckler in the audience who challenges his authenticity. Her name is Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who tries to humiliate Stan by demanding that he tell everyone what is hidden in her purse. Through a series of observant deductions, Stan correctly guesses that she has a gun in her purse. He then proceeds to turn the tables on Lilith and publicly embarrass her with scathing comments for trying to prove that he’s a fraud.

Under these circumstances, any fool can see that Lilith is not the type of person to forgive and forget this public shaming. However, when Lilith invites Stan to her office, Stan readily accepts. She tells him that she knows he’s a con artist and won’t believe otherwise. Stan then admits it and tells Lilith how he figured out that she was carrying a pistol in his purse. The stage has now been set for two people who think they’re more cunning than the other, as they both try to see what they can get out of any relationship they might have.

Lilith tells Stan that she secretly records all of the sessions that she has with her patients, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the area. Stan immediately has the idea of using that information to target some of these people with his phony psychic act, by using their private information from these recorded sessions to convince them that he knows their secrets. Stan asks Lilith which of her clients is the wealthiest.

And that’s how Stan hears about ruthless business mogul Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins), who is successful when it comes to his career, but his personal life is filled with bitterness and loneliness. Ezra has confessed to Lilith that he’s been plagued with guilt over causing the death of a young woman he once loved. It’s information that Lilith and Stan use to concoct a scheme to swindle Ezra out of a fortune that they want to get in cash.

Stan and Lilith have the type of relationship where they trade insults but are sexually attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long for Stan to cheat on Molly with Lilith. Blanchett fully commits to the role of a classic noir ice queen, but her portrayal of Lilith is so transparently calculating, it’s never convincing that Lilith can be trusted in this con game that she’s agreed to with Stan.

Ezra isn’t the only “mark” who’s a target of Stan and Lilith. A well-to-do married couple named Charles Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) and Felicia Kimball (played by Mary Steenburgen) get caught up in the deceit and fraud that Stan and Lilith have in store for them. It has to do with the Kimballs’ emotional pain over the death of their 23-year-old son Julian, who died while he was enlisted in the military. And it’s an example of how low Stan and Lilith are willing to go to exploit the death of a loved one for money.

As lead character Stan, Cooper is in almost every scene of “Nightmare Alley.” His character remains mostly an enigma because, like many con artists, he changes his persona to fit whatever perception will work to get people to do what he wants. He’s the most complex character of the movie, but his personality never comes across as genuine. Over time, Stan shows that he’s not only heartless, but he also doesn’t have much of a conscience unless he’s the one who might get hurt. He’s not even an anti-hero, although the last 10 minutes of the film try to garner some viewer sympathy for Stan.

Ezra can sense that Stan can’t be trusted, so Ezra goes back and forth with how skeptical he is when Stan tries to charm his way into Ezra’s life. However, Stan knows so many private details about Ezra, it’s enough to convince Ezra that maybe Stan is the telling the truth about being psychic. Ezra is supposed to be a brilliant businessman, but at no point is he smart enough to figure out that maybe his psychiatrist has been leaking his personal information.

Stan is supposed to be a skillful con artist, but at no point is he wise enough to figure out that if Lilith has a recording device in her office to secretly record people, maybe she would use it to secretly record Stan too. After all, the recording can be cleverly edited to leave out any incriminating things that Lilith would say. This is all just common sense, which is why it’s a bit of a slog when the movie lumbers along to make it look like there’s some kind of mystery about Lilith’s intentions. The only thing in the movie that might be considered a little unpredictable is what happens with the Kimballs.

“Nightmare Alley” is not the first retro-noir-inspired movie directed by del Toro. He also directed 2015’s “Crimson Peak” (starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska), which also yielded mixed results because the pacing for the movie was so lethargic. At least “Crimson Peak” has a less tedious length of two hours. “Nightmare Alley” tries to convince people that it’s fascinating to watch monotonous scene after monotonous scene of Stan working his way up the carnival hierarchy, when the real story is what he does once he decides he’s going to become a phony psychic. The pace of the movie would’ve been better-served if about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie’s first half had been edited out.

The movie’s screenplay is still problematic though because of how it leaves no room to care about the story’s overabundance of distrustful and shallow characters, who spout a lot of words that don’t have much substance. “Nightmare Alley” takes so long to get to the inevitable end result of Stan and Lilith’s partnership, many viewers might have emotionally checked out by the time it happens. It’s enough to say that Molly is really the only character that viewers might care about by the time the movie is over. This remake’s revised ending has a well-acted, emotional final scene, but it’s not enough to make up for the character soullessness throughout most of the movie.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Nightmare Alley” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

UPDATE: Searchlight Pictures will release a black-and-white version of “Nightmare Alley” titled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Humans’ (2021), starring Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb and Jayne Houdyshell

November 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, June Squibb, Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell and Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” (2021)

Directed by Stephen Karam

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “The Humans” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Asian person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Thanksgiving family gathering in a creaky New York City apartment brings out various levels of tension and secrets. 

Culture Audience: “The Humans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies adapted from stage plays and movies about family gatherings that show realistic conversations.

Amy Schumer in “The Humans” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“The Humans” will keep viewers guessing on what terrible things might happen at an often-uncomfortable family reunion during Thanksgiving. It’s not a horror movie, but it’s a well-acted study of psychological turmoil. “The Humans” movie is the feature-film directorial debut of Stephen Karam, who adapted the movie from his Tony-winning play of the same name. Don’t expect any major plot twists to happen. This dialogue-heavy movie puts more emphasis on the characters’ interactions and creating an uneasy mood.

If watching “The Humans” makes some viewers feel slightly claustrophobic, that’s clearly the intention. The entire film takes place in one location: a drab New York City duplex apartment in a shabby building. It’s the type of apartment that’s probably overpriced just because it’s in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has undergone various degrees of gentrification. The apartment has several rooms but still seems cramped and unsettling when the Blake family (the clan at the center of the story) gathers for this Thanksgiving dinner.

The two residents of the apartment are Brigid Blake (played by Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (played by Steven Yeun), who have recently moved into this duplex. Their move is so recent, their new home is still mostly unfurnished. Brigid, who is in her late 20s, is an unemployed classical musician/composer who is looking for work in her chosen profession. Richard, who is 35, is studying to be a social worker.

The other family members who are at this Thanksgiving gathering have all traveled from Pennsylvania. Brigid’s older sister Aimee (played by Amy Schumer) lives in Philadelphia. Brigid and Aimee’s parents are Erik Blake (played by Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre Blake (played by Jayne Houdyshell), who both still live in Scranton, where they raised Brigid and Aimee. Erik’s mother, who’s nicknamed Momo (played by June Squibb), uses a wheelchair and has dementia.

Momo lives with Erik and Deirdre, who is Momo’s primary caretaker while also holding down a job as an office manager. Later on in the movie, Deirdre mentions that she’s been at the same company for 40 years and started working there not long after she graduated from high school. Deirdre expresses some resentment that she’s been passed over for promotions. She complains that she now reports to two guys in their 20s who make a lot more money than she does, just because they have fancy college degrees.

Erik has also been a longtime staffer at his place of employment. For the past 28 years, he’s been working as a maintenance custodian at a Catholic school. As one of the perks of the job, when Aimee and Brigid were children, he was able to enroll them in the school without having to pay tuition. Erik and Deirdre are planning to build a lake house for their retirement. Construction on the house has been stalled due to various issues, but Erik tells the family that things are back on track to finish building the house.

Aimee, who is openly a lesbian or a queer woman, is experiencing some setbacks in her career and personal life. She’s heartbroken over a recent breakup with a girlfriend named Carol, who is not seen in the movie, but who talks to Aimee on the phone during one of the movie’s heart-wrenching scenes. Aimee also tells the family that she’s being ousted from her corporate job because she took too much personal time off from work.

Aimee needed the time off to deal with her medical issues: Aimee has kidney dysplasia and colitis. She hasn’t told her parents yet that she has to make a decision on whether or not to get surgery. Aimee confides in Brigid that she’s afraid that no one will want to date her after the surgery. Brigid gives Aimee a pep talk and tells her that Aimee is attractive and a great catch.

“The Humans” moves along at a slow pace where not much happens except people talking. However, throughout the movie, there are things that literally go bump in the night—specifically, loud thumps that can be heard from the apartment upstairs. The noise unnerves Erik the most. Several times during the movie, Brigid has to assure him that the noise is coming from a harmless elderly woman who lives upstairs.

Out of all the family members gathered for this Thanksgiving, Erik is the one who seems to be the most restless and on edge. He sometimes goes to the windows (which do not have drapes or blinds) to look out, as if he’s certain that people might be looking in on them. This old, creaky building also has problems with its electricity and plumbing. You can easily predict what will happen at one point with the electricity.

“The Humans” might give the impression that it’s going to turn into a haunted house movie. “The Humans” has some “jump scares,” but it’s best if people know in advance not to expect “The Humans” to be a horror film. There’s a feeling of foreboding and dread throughout the film, but it’s mainly from these family members dealing with and confronting their insecurities and secrets.

For example, there are various resentments that certain family members have toward each other. Brigid feels that her mother Deirdre is overly critical of her, while Deirdre resents that bossy Brigid always acts like talkative Deirdre is an embarrassment to the family. Erik and Deirdre are very religious, so they’d prefer that Richard and Brigid live together as a married couple. Brigid seems to want to eventually get married, but it’s a sensitive topic for her because she thinks that she and Richard should be more financially stable before thinking about marriage.

Erik and Deirdre accept Aimee’s sexuality, but they don’t discuss Aimee’s love life at length in the way that they talk about Brigid’s love life. These parents don’t really come right out and say it, but they show through their words and actions that they’re more invested in who Brigid’s life partner will be because they think that because Brigid is heterosexual, she’s more likely to get married and have children.

Erik is more judgmental than Deirdre, when it comes to what other people experience in life. For example, Erik believes that therapy is self-indulgent, and he thinks that he personally never needs therapy in his life. At one point during the dinner, when someone reveals getting treatment in the past for depression, Erik insensitively says that religion has been his own “anti-depressant.”

How religious is Erik? He has a figurine of the Virgin Mary that he has carried with him for this Thanksgiving dinner. And it should come as no surprise that he’s the one who leads the prayer before they begin their Thanksgiving meal. Erik believes in having a traditional patriarchal role for his family. And usually, when someone is this self-righteous in a movie, that person is probably the one who has the biggest secrets to hide.

This is Richard’s first Thanksgiving with the family, so he has the “outsider” role in the movie. He tries to keep the peace when certain family members start to bicker with each other. Richard has some secrets too that eventually come out in the dinner conversation.

As an example of how cheerful Richard wants this family gathering to be, he has a device that can project visual images onto any wall. He chooses to project the image of a cozy, burning fireplace. When it’s projected on the wall, it looks like a real fireplace, and it gives the drab and nearly empty room a warmer ambience.

Brigid, who is somewhat of a control freak, turns off the device because she thinks that having a fake fireplace looks tacky. Richard disagrees and wants to keep some kind of ambience projection image going in the room, to make the room look lived-in and not so barren. Observant viewers will notice that this back-and-forth between Brigid and Richard about whether or not to use this device in the room is not just about any power struggles in their relationship. It’s also about Brigid showing defiance about Erik’s expressed disapproval of the shabby condition of the apartment building.

Erik isn’t shy about telling Brigid that he thinks her choice to live in New York City is somewhat foolish, when she can have bigger and better living space in Scranton for a fraction of the cost of living expenses in New York City. It’s implied that Erik and Brigid have had ongoing disagreements about where she lives. She lives in New York City because she loves it and knows that she will have better career opportunities in New York, but Erik sees it as Brigid turning her back on her Scranton roots. Erik also doesn’t understand why Aimee wants to live in a big city like Philadelphia, although Erik is much more disapproving of Brigid living in New York City.

At first, Richard and Erik have some unspoken awkwardness between them, because Erik doesn’t know Richard very well and isn’t quite sure how much Richard might be a threat to Erik’s influence over the family. However, Richard is very mild-mannered and a people pleaser. Erik starts to warm up to Richard when he sees that Richard has no intention of being the most dominant person in this family.

But some things are really bothering Erik. And little, by little, he begins to reveal what those things are. Erik starts off by telling everyone that he’s been having nightmares of being chased in a tunnel. Richard then confesses that he’s also had a recurring nightmare: falling through an ice cream cone made of grass. Richard is also a sci-fi enthusiast, so he shares a theory of what outer-space aliens must think about human beings on Earth. This theory ties into the main theme of this movie.

Every movie about a family Thanksgiving dinner seems to have it share of family squabbles. “The Humans” is no exception. Much of this discord has to do with family members not feeling respected or heard. For example, an emotional blow-up happens after Brigid shares her disappointment over getting constant rejections for a grant and because her job search hasn’t been going well. Erik replies flippantly, “Well, you can always work in retail.” That comment sets off an argument between certain members of the family.

And what is Momo doing during all of this family drama? She doesn’t say much, but there’s a moment during the dinner when her memory seems very sharp. It gives the other family members some hope that maybe her dementia hasn’t gotten worse. How long that hope lasts is shown in the movie.

Because “The Humans” is more of a “slice of life” film instead of an event-filled movie, some viewers might feel disappointed that the movie isn’t a mystery thriller. The film’s music, cinematography and editing certainly give the impression that something terrifying and possibly supernatural could happen at any moment. However, viewers should know in advance that this movie has several scenes that show mundane activities, such as family members trying to navigate Momo’s wheelchair in narrow doorways, or people making small talk about repairs that need to be done in the apartment.

The main reason to see “The Humans” is for noteworthy performances by the cast members, who bring a lot of authenticity to their roles. The conversations between these family members are at their best when they’re about showing their vulnerabilities and not trying to put up a façade that life is perfect. And that seems to be the point of this movie: It’s easy to blame others for causing misery. It’s a lot harder to admit that people are sometimes their own worst enemies.

A24 will release “The Humans” in select U.S. cinemas and on Showtime on November 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Kajillionaire,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

“Kajillionaire”

Directed by Miranda July

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in New York City, the dark comedy “Kajillionaire” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and poor.

Culture Clash: A family trio of con artists, who are on the verge of being evicted, scheme up ways to get their rent money and team up with another con artist who has a big effect on them.

Culture Audience: “Kajillionaire” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies that have original and memorable characters.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Stepping into the world of “Kajillionaire” (written and directed by Miranda July) is like stepping into a sad and desperate world that rarely gets acknowledged in the media, but exists for an untold number of people in America. It’s a world where unemployed white people are barely making enough money to survive, but they’re not homeless, they’re not out on the streets begging for money, they don’t fit the “trailer park” stereotype, and they give the appearance that they’re regular, middle-class citizens. They’re not on government assistance, probably because they haven’t filed any recent tax returns to prove they’re eligible for benefits.

And so, some of these destitute people turn to illegal scams as a way to make money. Usually, the narrative in the media and in movies is that poor people who live a life of crime in big U.S. cities are usually people of color who are drug dealers or armed robbers. But “Kajillionaire” flips that narrative to show that there’s an underbelly of people who might not be dealing drugs or committing armed robbery, but are still caught up in illegal activity that involves cheating and stealing. “Kajillionaire” also flips the typical narrative of white con artists in movies, who are usually depicted as thinking big and going after fortunes worth millions.

People familiar with writer/director July’s work already know that she brings a quirky and often sardonic sensibility to her movies. It’s a sense of humor and style that’s not for everyone, especially people who prefer more conventional, straightforward comedy. “Kajillionaire” (which is July’s third feature film) is her best feature film so far, because it’s more than a story about con artists. It’s also a story about the value of empathy and human connection.

In “Kajillionaire,” viewers are introduced right away to the lifestyle of a Los Angeles family trio of small-time con artists who are barely getting by financially. Old Dolio Dyne (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a morose 26-year-old who doesn’t know any other life except being a con artist, because her parents trained her to be that way. Old Dolio’s parents Robert Dyne (played by Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (played by Debra Winger), who look like ex-hippies, think up a lot of schemes with their daughter to get money illegally, but the parents usually send Old Dolio to do a lot of the dirty work.

That’s what happens in the movie’s opening scene, when Old Dolio is shown taking a set of stolen keys to a post office, opening a mailbox there, and extending her hand so far back into the mailbox that she can reach over and steal the contents of the mailbox next to the one she opened. She feels confident in committing this crime because there’s no surveillance camera in that particular room of the post office. There’s a choreographed movement sequence that Old Dolio does before she enters the post office, so she can avoid other video cameras around the building.

What she steals from the other post-office mailbox is a package in a bubble wrap envelope. When she goes outside, she and her parents open the package, only to find that the package’s contents have very little value. There’s a stuffed animal that Old Dolio figures she can use to get a fake refund at a retail store, because she has an old sales receipt from the store that lists a generic “toys and games” item for $12.99.

There’s also a necktie in the package, which Robert guesses is “not a cheap tie.” And he says something odd to Old Dolio: “You can’t see it because you’re not a cheap birth.” It’s the first sign that something is “off” about the way Robert and Theresa have raised Old Dolio, besides the fact that they’ve taught her how to be a con artist.

It’s revealed later in the movie that her parents named her Old Dolio (which is her legal name) because it was the name of an old loner guy they knew who inherited a fortune. Robert and Theresa (who walks with an unexplained limp) were hoping they could steal his fortune through identity theft after he died. But after he died, they found out that he had squandered his fortune, so the name turned out to be useless.

It’s just one of many examples that show why this family has remained on the margins of society as small-time con artists. They’re not down on their luck. They’re just not very smart and they don’t want to do honest work.

On the one hand, Robert and Theresa seem to want the American Dream of becoming wealthy. As Robert says, “Most people want to become kajillionaires.” On the other hand, Robert and Theresa don’t want to call too much attention to themselves by doing scams involving large amounts of money. It’s a mindset that they’ve instilled in Old Dolio.

Later in the movie, Robert tells someone that Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned how to write her own name. The eccentric con artists in “Kajillionaire” also have a fear of experiencing a devastating earthquake, which they call “The Big One.” It’s a term that people who live in California often use to describe the earthquake that scientists say can happen sometime in the future and can kill thousands of people.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio are a self-contained con-artist unit. They live in a downstairs back office of a factory called Bubbles, Inc., which apparently is in the business of making water bubbles. One of the inconveniences of the family’s cramped and cluttered living space, which has been rented to them, is that pink water bubbles frequently seep from the ceiling and down the walls at a certain time of day. They have to clean the bubble mess before it spreads to other parts of the room. (It’s one of this movie’s many quirks.)

Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa don’t have any friends, and no other family members are mentioned. It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Old Dolio never went to regular school and was probably homeschooled by her parents. There are many signs that Old Dolio is clueless about certain things in life that she would’ve known about if she grew up being around people other than her parents.

It also becomes apparent that Old Dolio is very uncomfortable in her own skin and is fearful of being touched by people. After the family’s stolen haul from the post office yields items of very little cash value, Robert and Theresa then send Old Dolio to do a scam they’ve apparently done before: Old Dolio dresses up as a Catholic school girl and pretends to be a “good Samaritan” who found an expensive watch and is returning it to the rightful owner.

The scam is that the family really stole the watch, and Old Dolio is supposed to get a reward for “finding” the watch, not by asking for a reward, but being so nice that there’s a big chance that the owner will give her an unsolicited reward. It’s not explained in the movie how or where they got this stolen watch and how a random Catholic school girl would know how to track down the rightful owner. However, Old Dolio is next seen showing up at the house of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged couple named Althea (played by Patricia Belcher) and Victor (played by Kim Estes), who welcome her into their home when they see she’s there to return Victor’s watch.

Old Dolio’s entire conversation with Althea and Victor isn’t shown, because the next thing that happens is Old Dolio goes back to her parents, who find out with dismay that Althea and Victor gave a reward, but it isn’t the cash that the con artists were expecting. The reward is a gift certificate for the massage business owned by Althea and Victor’s daughter Jenny (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Old Dolio says (with some envy) Althea and Victor couldn’t stop talking about because they’re so proud of their daughter.

Old Dolio goes to Jenny (who works out of her home) to try and finagle a deal so Old Dolio can get some cash out of the gift certificate. Jenny explains that there’s no cash refund for the gift certificate, and she offers to give Old Dolio the massage so she can at least get something out of the gift certificate. Old Dolio reluctantly agrees, but she says that she wants the massage to last only 20 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes that would be covered by the gift certificate.

Old Dolio flinches every time Jenny touches her. Her discomfort goes beyond someone who’s never had a massage before. It’s a sign (one of many) that Old Dolio has never been touched affectionately before, especially not by her parents. Old Dolio’s almost pained reaction to the massage reaches a point where Jenny just keeps her hands slightly above Old Dolio’s body without touching her and asks her if that’s okay. It’s only then that Old Dolio says this touchless “massage” is acceptable to her, but she doesn’t stay long anyway.

Another awakening for Old Dolio comes when she finds out about how mothers who’ve just given birth form a bond with their newborn babies. This discovery (which serves as a catalyst for what comes later in the story) happens by chance. A neighbor named Kelli Kain (played by Rachel Redleaf) sees the family outside the bubble factory and knows their con-artist reputation, because she offers Old Dolio $20 to impersonate her to attend a class that was “assigned by a case worker.” Kelli says that the people in the check-in area won’t ask for identification.

When Old Dolio gets to the class, she finds out it’s a class about parenting newborn children. The class watches a video showing how a mother bonds with a newborn baby, who instinctively knows how to find a breast to nurse on when the baby is placed on the mother’s chest. The class instructor named Farida (played Diana Maria Riva) then explains that newborn babies who are placed on their mothers’ chests are more likely to be well-adjusted people, compared to babies to are ignored and “put on a cot.”

This information ignites a curiosity in Old Dolio, who asks her parents if she was one of those “cot babies.” Her mother says yes. And there are many other signs that Old Dolio’s parents have withheld physical and emotional affection from her.

There are also indications that Old Dolio is a virgin who has never dated anyone before, because she’s been taught not to trust other people who aren’t her parents. In one scene, Old Dolio shows her mother a wooden trinket. Theresa responds by saying in a tone of warning, “When a man gives you anything made of wood, he’s saying, ‘You give me wood.'”

In another scene, when Old Dolio asks her parents about what it was like to take care of her as a baby, Theresa suspiciously asks Old Dolio if she is pregnant. Old Dolio shakes her head in surprised disgust and reminds her mother that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be pregnant. But then, Robert bizarrely starts sniffing like a dog at Old Dolio, as if he can smell whether or not she’s pregnant. No one said these people are entirely sane.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio have been dodging their landlord Stovik (played by Mark Ivanir), because they’re three months behind on the rent. When they do see him, Robert always lies and says things like that they’ll have the money but he just started a new job and hasn’t gotten paid yet. They owe $1,500, but in reality, they aren’t even close to having $150. Stovik (who has an unusual emotional condition where he starts to cry when he’s agitated) finally has had enough of their excuses and gives them two weeks to pay what they owe or else he’ll evict them.

Old Dolio comes up with the idea to do a luggage insurance scam. The plan is for the three of them take a round-trip air flight to New York City, with their luggage insured. On their return trip back to Los Angeles, Old Dolio will pretend to be a stranger to Robert and Theresa, who will “steal” one of Old Dolio’s suitcases from the baggage claim area. Old Dolio will then file an insurance claim, which pays about $1,575.

Viewers have to assume that this trip was paid for with a credit card, since these con artists don’t have the cash for this trip and they don’t have checking and savings accounts. Knowing this family, the credit card information was probably stolen. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa are seated next to a chatty and flirtatious stranger named Melanie (played by Gina Rodriguez), who makes it clear that she likes to drink alcohol and have a good time.

Robert takes to Melanie right away. Old Dolio, who is in a seat located slightly behind her parents, notices this instant camaraderie and seems envious that her father is friendlier to this stranger than he is to his own daughter. It isn’t long before Robert tells Melanie about the family’s luggage insurance scam. Melanie immediately agrees to help them, which sets off a series of experiences where Melanie latches on to the family because she’s a con artist too. Unlike the Dyne family, Melanie has a job, but she’s looking to make more money, and there’s a sense that she’s in the con game for the thrills.

During the family’s con artist antics with Melanie, it’s apparent that Old Dolio’s repressed sexuality is something that she can no longer ignore. Melanie is aware of it too, and she sometimes seems amused by it and sometimes seems to be sympathetic about it. There are several scenes in the movie where Melanie subtly and not-so-subtly uses her sex appeal to test boundaries with certain members of this family.

Old Dolio sometimes scolds Melanie for trying to “rile people up” because of Melanie’s tendency to wear revealing and tight clothes. Any adult can see why Old Dolio has this reaction to what Melanie wears. It’s because of Melanie that Old Dolio starts to understand how her parents have prevented Old Dolio from missing out on many things in life.

Melanie, who lives alone, is very close to her mother, whom she talks to frequently on the phone. (Elena Campbell-Martinez is the voice of Melanie’s mother.) It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship that Old Dolio never had with Theresa. And Melanie joining this family of con artists tests the bounds of the family’s loyalties to each other.

What’s so distinctive about “Kajillionaire” is how July made this story otherworldly yet grounded and how well the main characters are brought to life by Wood, Winger, Jenkins and Rodriguez. Wood (who does some great physical choreography in the movie) and Rodriguez are the standouts, because the heart of the story is how Old Dolio and Melanie’s relationship evolves. Melanie and Old Dolio have opposite personalities but have something in common: They’re both con artists, in more ways than one.

It isn’t until Melanie comes into the family’s lives that Old Dolio slowly finds out how emotionally stifled she has been. Old Dolio hasn’t been really been “living” but really has just been “existing” in a dysfunctional bubble created by her parents. (And if people really want to go deep in analyzing this movie, perhaps the bubble factory is a metaphor.)

Wood plays the Old Dolio character with a voice that’s a few octaves below Wood’s normal speaking voice. It’s a way of perhaps giving Old Dolio a somewhat androgynous aura. When she’s not dressed up as part of a con game, Old Dolio wears baggy unisex clothes. It’s an indication that she’s unsure of her sexuality, or at least trying to avoid wearing clothes that make her look feminine.

Old Dolio and Theresa also have identical hairstyles: very long and parted down the middle. They wear their hair in a way that it sometimes obscures their faces, as if in their perpetual lifestyle of being con artists, they know that it’s better to have their faces disguised as much as possible. Old Dolio automatically looks for surveillance cameras everywhere she goes, as demonstrated in a scene where she and Melanie are shopping in a grocery store and Old Dolio tells her immediately where all the security cameras are. Melanie cheerfully responds by saying that she doesn’t need that information because she’s going to pay for her selected items.

“Kajillionaire” has such unique characters and situations shown in memorable ways that it’s a welcome alternative to the stale and formulaic comedy films that Hollywood has been churning out for several years. People who have no tolerance for seeing weirdos on screen won’t like this movie. But for everyone else, “Kajillionaire” takes viewers on a sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous ride that shows how the pursuit of money everything else is not worth the cost of losing one’s humanity.

Focus Features released “Kajillionaire” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins get caught up in an unusual love story in ‘The Shape of Water’

December 1, 2017

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in "The Shape of Water" (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in “The Shape of Water” (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

From master storyteller, Guillermo del Toro, comes “The Shape of Water,” an other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962.  In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation.  Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.  Rounding out the cast are Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones.

Here are videos and photos from “The Shape of Water”:

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