Review: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,’ starring the voices of Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett

December 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Culture Representation: Taking place in World War II-era Italy in the 1940s (and briefly in 1916), the animated film “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” features cast of human characters (all white Italians) and magical creatures representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly wood carver/carpenter makes a puppet boy that comes alive and then goes on a quest to become a human being. 

Culture Audience: “Pinocchio” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie and are interested in seeing a unique retelling of this classic story.

Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a stellar example of how to do a highly creative movie remake that maintains the spirit of the original while making imaginative revisions. It’s destined to be a classic in stop-motion animation. The movie takes a while to get to the action-adventure part of the story, so be prepared for a lot of very talkative scenes in the first half of the film. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is such a visual treat that lets viewers get to know the characters in a meaningful way, the leisurely pace in the movie’s first half is not too much of a detriment to the film overall.

Oscar-winning filmmaker del Toro had been trying to make a stop-motion animation version of “Pinocchio” since 2002, when the Jim Henson Company acquired the rights to make Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (whose animation is inspired by illustrator Gris Grimly’s interpretation of Pinocchio) is directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson, with the movie’s adapted screenplay written by del Toro and Patrick McHale. The book was famously made into Disney’s 1940 musical animated film “Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” keeps the gist of the story (an Italian wooden puppet named Pinocchio that wants to become a human boy) and brings it into the 20th century.

It’s not a political movie or a preachy film, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is primarily set during World War II, when Italy was under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. A such, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has themes about the horrors of war and how people can become puppets under an oppressive government. The movie keeps the original story’s meaningful messages about family love, coping with death and self-acceptance. There are touches of comedy in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but people should not expect a perky musical. The movie’s overall tone is dramatic.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” begins with a flashback to 1916, in an unnamed part of Italy, where a kind and amiable wood carver/carpenter named Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) lives happily with his son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), who’s 10 years old. Geppetto is a single parent. Carlo’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. The movie’s intermittent narrator is a nomadic cricket named Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who has settled in Geppetto’s home workshop to write a memoir about his extensive travels.

One day, Carlo finds a pine cone and gives it to Geppetto so that Geppetto can plant the pine cone, with the expectation that it will grow into a tree. Carlo gives this gift to Geppetto on the day that he accompanies Geppetto to a carpenter job at the local church, where Geppetto is restoring a giant statue of Jesus Christ on a crucifix. Suddenly, military airplanes appear in the sky, and a bomb is dropped on the church. Geppetto escapes, but Carlo is killed instantly.

About 25 years later, Geppetto is a very lonely elderly man, who is still grieving heavily over the death of Carlo. He sometimes gets drunk to try to cope with his emotional pain. The pine cone that Carlo gave to him all those years ago has now grown into a pine tree. In a drunken rage, Carlo cuts down the tree and makes a wooden boy puppet out of the tree, as a tribute to Carlo. Sebastian observes it all.

One night, the benevolent Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) visits the workshop, and finds out from Sebastian that the puppet was made so that Geppetto wouldn’t be lonely and to remind Gepetto of his son Carlo. (The Wood Sprite is called the Blue Fairy in other versions of “Pinocchio.”) The Wood Sprite brings the boy puppet to life, and names the puppet Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann), while Sebastian witnesses this magical spell. The Wood Sprite calls herself a “guardian” on Earth. She tells Sebastian: “I care for little things, the forgotten things, the lost ones.” And she asks Sebastian to help her look after Pinocchio.

At first, Geppetto is frightened by the sight of Pinocchio being alive, but he eventually loves Pinocchio like a son. One day, Pinocchio follows Geppetto to church, where the parishioners treat Pinocchio with fear and suspicion. The churchgoers think that this talking puppet is demonic, but Geppetto assures them that Pinocchio is just a puppet. Still, Pinocchio is treated like an outcast in the village from then onwards.

The church’s priest (voiced by Burn Gorman) and the village’s podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman), who represent the village’s top authority figures, order Geppetto to send Pinocchio to school, so that Pinocchio can learn the rules and laws of this Italian society. Viewers will have to overlook that most of the main characters have British accents in the English-language version of this movie. Because most of movie’s voice actors do not have Italian accents, it’s one of the few details that “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” gets wrong, but most viewers won’t notice or care.

The very stern podesta has a son named Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard), who often lives in fear of his domineering father and tries hard to please his father. The podesta is quick to judge others harshly and is eager to dole out punishment to anyone he thinks doesn’t follow his orders. Candlewick and Pinocchio are around the same age, in terms of emotional maturity level, and their relationship at first consists of Candlewick being a bully to naïve Pinocchio.

For example, Candlewick plays a mean-spirited prank on Pinocchio by suggesting that Pinocchio move closer to a fire to get warmer. As a result, Pinocchio’s legs get partially burned off, but Geppetto compassionately makes new and improved legs for Pinocchio. Candlewick and Pinocchio eventually become friends in a poignant storyline where they find out they have more in common than Candlewick thought. Pinocchio also wants to please Geppetto like a dutiful son. These father-son issues are recurring themes in the movie’s story.

Pinocchio doesn’t go to school as planned, and he ends up being lured into working at a carnival as the star act. The carnival is led by greedy and unscrupulous Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), who is cruel and abusive to his loyal and sweet-natured monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett). The rest of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has faithful renditions of the original story while adding very different new plotlines to the movie.

Sebastian the cricket (who is a purple instead of the traditional green) is not an ever-present sidekick with Pinocchio. In this movie, Pinocchio actually spends more time with Candlewick. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” also has a character called Death (also voiced by Swinton), who is the sister of the Wood Sprite. Both sisters are blue magical creatures that talk without moving their mouths. The character of Death has a lot to do with some of the main changes to the story.

There are some pleasant original songs performed in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but none that will become iconic such as “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Disney’s 1940 version of “Pinocchio.” Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the terrific musical score for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” collaborated with Roeban Katz on the movie’s original songs “My Son” (performed by Bradley) and the Mann-performed “Fatherland March,” “Big Baby Il Duce March” and “Ciao Papa.” It certainly would have been easier (and lazier) to try to replicate the Disney songs from 1940’s “Pinocchio,” so the filmmakers of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” deserve some credit for not relying on the same old type of tunes.

The voice cast in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is top-notch and delivers the expected emotions on a very entertaining level. John Turturro has a supporting role as a doctor, while Tim Blake Nelson voices the four Black Rabbits that encounter Pinocchio. Mann’s high-pitched British voice is perfectly fine, but might be a little bit of a distraction for people who think Pinocchio should’ve sounded more Italian or southern European in this movie.

Waltz has played many villainous characters, so his interpretation of Count Volpe has the expected amount of sleaze and smarminess. Blanchett’s voice work is the biggest surprise because many people would never guess she’s the wordless voice of a monkey in this movie. McGregor’s distinctive voice seems underused, since the cricket character isn’t as prominently featured in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” compared to other “Pinocchio” movies. However, Sebastian gets a big scene in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” where his strong-willed and opinionated personality is expressed in full force when scolding Geppetto for not appreciating Pinocchio.

As for the movie’s visuals, the animation is striking, gorgeous and often emotionally rousing. It is stop-motion animation that represents the best of what could be done creatively and technically when this movie was made. The ending of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a major departure from the original book and 1940’s “Pinocchio,” but the conclusion is handled in a way that’s of a much higher quality than Disney’s inferior 2022 remake of “Pinocchio.”

Fantasy films of del Toro often walk the line between whimsy and melancholy in telling stories of life and death. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is no different and is, without question, one of del Toro’s most impressive movies. Some people looking for more action sequences in this movie might be disappointed, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has much more to offer than being a superficial joy ride.

Netflix released “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” in select U.S. cinemas on November 9, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Ghosts of the Ozarks,’ starring Thomas Hobson, Tara Perry, Phil Morris, Angela Bettis, David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson

February 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis and Thomas Hobson in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Ghosts of the Ozarks”

Directed by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1860s Arkansas after the U.S. Civil War, the horror film “Ghosts of the Ozarks” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young doctor is summoned by his uncle to live in a secretive community in Arkansas that is haunted by ghosts.

Culture Audience: “Ghosts of the Ozarks” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching very boring and poorly written horror movies that aren’t very scary.

Phil Morris in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Ghosts of the Ozarks” tries to make social commentary about power and race relations in Arkansas after the Civil War, but the intended message gets buried in a cesspool of sluggish storytelling and terrible acting. This horror movie also fails to be suspenseful or scary. The cheap-looking visual effects don’t help.

Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long co-directed “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” whose screenplay was co-written by Long and Tara Perry, with Sean Anthony Davis credited as a collaborating writer. Glass and Long also co-directed the 2018 horror comedy “Squirrel.” “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” which is not a comedy, has a simple concept that gets muddled with a lot of boring filler scenes that add very little to the story. In addition, many of the cast members give lackluster performances, as if the story is monotonous to them too.

In “Ghosts of the Ozarks,” which takes place in the 1860s sometime after the U.S. Civil War, physician Dr. James McCune (played by Thomas Hobson) has been summoned by his uncle Matthew McCune (played by Phil Morris) to live and work in a secretive rural Arkansas community named Norfolk, where Matthew is the leader. Norfolk is located in the Ozarks Mountain area. The movie was filmed on location in Arkansas.

James (who is African American) is eager to take the offer to become Norfolk’s doctor, because he wants a better life than the one he’s had. Racism has prevented him from getting the same opportunities as white doctors, so he wants to go to a place where he’s welcomed and appreciated. In addition to being a doctor in private practice, James has experience as a medic for the Union Army in the Civil War.

During his trek to Norfolk, James reads Matthew’s letter that convinced James to live in Norfolk. In the letter, Matthew says: “I invite you to Norfolk. It’s a sanctuary for all in these times. We like to keep to ourselves. We have need for a doctor with your skills. It’s a place unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” What Matthew doesn’t say in the letter, but which James finds out after he arrives in Norfolk, is that Norfolk’s previous doctor mysteriously disappeared.

James’ horse Ruthie runs away in the beginning of the movie, so James has to make the rest of his way by foot to Norfolk, through a heavily wooded area. It’s here that James gets the first clue that something might be strange about this place. He’s at a campfire by himself when a creepy-looking man named Micah (played by Scott Dean) approaches James in a suspicious manner and invites himself to join James at the campfire.

In a comment with racial overtones, Micah sneers at James, “It must be mighty nice, now that you’re free, you can go wherever you want.” James answers with confidence, “I didn’t need a war to be free.” Micah’s tone becomes even more hostile when he wrongfully accuses James of having precious stones. Micah then lunges at James and attacks him. But then, a mysterious red fog comes out of nowhere and pulls Micah into the fog, as Micah can be heard screaming in fright. James is also terrified, and he runs away.

When James arrives at Norfolk and tells Matthew what happened, Matthew nonchalantly tells James that the area is haunted by ghosts, which manifest themselves in the red fog. Matthew and James are the only African Americans in Norfolk. Everyone else is white. Toward the end of the movie, it’s haphazardly explained why an African American man in 1860s Arkansas was easily able to convince a white community to make him the leader, in a region of the United States where slavery of African Americans was legal just a few years earlier.

Matthew tells James why Norfolk is a utopia: “People here don’t care what you look like. Purpose is all that matters.” Throughout the movie, it’s repeated to the point of annoyance that everyone in Norfolk has a “purpose.” There’s also a wall that makes Norfolk a gated community. Security guards or “gatekeepers” are always at the entrance gate. Norfolk residents are discouraged from going outside the gates unless it’s to fulfill their “purpose.”

James doesn’t really believe in the supernatural, but Matthew says to James about the ghosts of the Ozarks: “They’re as real as I’ve ever known. They’re as magical as I’ve ever known. There’s not a soul [in Norfolk] who hasn’t come in contact with them. Most are wearing their history as their scars. The ghosts are real, boy. So are the walls. As long as that’s honored, each to his or her own purpose.”

Norfolk is filled with eccentrics. And because it’s a small community, everyone seems to know each other’s business. Torb (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a quick-tempered blind man with an acute sense of hearing. He tends the bar/saloon at a local inn, where his gossipy confidante Lucille (played by Angela Bettis) likes to play the piano at the bar/saloon. The movie has a cringeworthy, out-of-place scene where Torb and Lucille perform an entire song together.

James also meets Douglas Giuseppe DuBois (played by David Arquette), who’s proud of the fact that he’s one of the few people in the area who has a camera and a photo studio. Douglas makes a living by taking studio portraits, but it’s later revealed that he uses his camera to take photos of people without their knowledge. Arquette is one of the least-believable 1860s characters in this movie’s cast. He just seems to be playing dress-up in a costume.

One of the Norfolk residents is a grandmother-age woman named Miss Roberts (played by Neva Howell), who is James’ first house call as a doctor in Norfolk. Miss Roberts has a girl living in her household named Emma (played by Skylar Olivia Flanagan), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. The movie is so poorly written, it never explains what Emma’s relationship is to Miss Roberts. Both of these characters get too much screen time, considering that they don’t do much, unless you think it’s fascinating that Emma sometimes goes outside the gated walls to fly kites.

Three other Norfolk residents who encounter James are an outgoing young man named Joe (played by Aaron Preusch), his socially awkward friend Mick (played by Brandon Gibson) and a middle-aged man named Jesse (played by David Aaron Baker), who is Emma’s uncle. Not long after James has settled in his own place at Norfolk, he has another unsettling experience one night: Joe suddenly bursts into James’ home and coughs up a lot of blood. James puts something that looks like a heat-glowing tongue depressor in Joe’s mouth, and Joe eventually recovers. The glow on this device looks supernatural, but it’s never explained why.

Outside the gated walls of Norfolk live two siblings who are the children of the doctor who disappeared: Annie Hunter (played by “Ghosts of the Ozarks” co-writer Perry) and her brother William Hunter (played by Joseph Ruud), a hulking and bearded man who doesn’t talk much. Annie and William used to live in Norfolk, but they were cast out by the community for not following the rules of “living your purpose.” The dislike goes both ways: Annie and William don’t think the community did enough to help find their father. Annie thinks of herself as an outspoken, gun-toting maverick, as if she’s Annie Oakley before Annie Oakley became famous.

Because James has been tasked with taking over the missing doctor’s clinic, he goes outside the gated walls to ask for Annie’s help to show him around and help set up the clinic. She reluctantly agrees. Over time, Annie and James develop an attraction to each other. Annie is also sought after by Mick, but she rebuffs his advances because she has no romantic interest in him.

As a Norfolk newcomer, James initially has a positive outlook on this place he now calls home, which he describes as a “haven.” Annie has the opposite opinion when she tells him: “This is a prison, James. They’ve convinced the inmates it’s a paradise.” If you consider why James has ended up in Norfolk, and who would have the most power to get things done, it’s very easy to figure out who’s the villain in this story. It really is that obvious.

Even though the movie has an obvious villain who isn’t revealed until the last third of the movie, there are things about “Ghosts of the Ozarks” that just don’t make sense. Micah—the man who attacked James in the beginning of the movie before being hauled off by the red fog—is found dead later near the Norfolk gates. James sees Micah’s body being carried away, while a Norfolk resident declares that the ghosts killed Micah. And yet, James doesn’t appear unnerved at all. And for all this talk in the movie about “purpose,” characters like Miss Roberts and Jesse seem to have no real purpose in the movie.

There are parts of “Ghosts of the Ozarks” that introduce ideas and then just leave these ideas to dangle with no real resolution. Emma’s kite flying didn’t really need to be in the movie, even though considerable screen time (about 15 minutes) is spent on this kite-flying activity. If it’s supposed to create tension that Emma could get in trouble for being outside the gates, then this intention fell flat. In addition to the strange heat-glowing device that James used to medically treat Joe, there’s also a brass wind-up device that James has brought with him, but he can’t get it to work. It’s another time-wasting part of the movie that’s never explained.

Early on in the film, Matthew asks James to find mushrooms for a “remedy” recipe that Matthew says can “work wonders” for Matthew’s health. It leads to a scene where James is digging for mushrooms in the woods at night, and he encounters the ghostly red fog again. It’s all so contrived and phony, because James could’ve easily been digging for mushrooms during the day. It’s yet another “Ghosts of the Ozarks” scene that’s weak on being scary.

Most of the acting in “Ghosts of the Ozarks” is downright awful and made worse by the idiotic dialogue in the movie. Nelson is the most acclaimed actor in this cast, but he plays a hollow caricature in this movie, which makes him look foolish with his corny overacting. At least Torb has something resembling a personality. James is as bland as bland can be, with Hobson giving a generic and forgettable performance to match.

“Ghosts of the Ozarks” gets dragged down with a lot of badly staged and tedious scenes about the social environment at Norfolk. It isn’t until the last third of the movie that it seems to remember that it’s supposed to be a horror story. A big showdown is rushed in toward the end. But just like this entire movie, it’s badly conceived, sloppily executed, and just one big letdown.

XYZ Films released “Ghosts of the Ozarks” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on February 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Old Henry’ (2021), starring Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins and Stephen Dorff

January 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tim Blake Nelson in “Old Henry” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“Old Henry” (2021)

Directed by Potsy Ponciroli

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1906 in the Oklahoma territory of the United States, the Western drama film “Old Henry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widower farmer and his teenage son find themselves in a violent standoff in their home, after they take in a mysterious, wounded stranger, who is accused of being a bank robber on the run. 

Culture Audience: “Old Henry” will appeal primarily to fans of Westerns that have good acting and suspenseful twists to the story.

Stephen Dorff in “Old Henry” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

At first glance, “Old Henry” seems to be another Western about a bank robbers and gun shootouts. However, the movie has different layers and a few twists that are eventually revealed in this suspenseful and intriguing story. Led by a memorable performance by Tim Blake Nelson, “Old Henry” is also a family drama that tackles issues of father-son relationships and how a family can shape someone’s identity.

“Old Henry” (written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli) takes place over a few days in 1906, in the territory of Oklahoma. (The movie was actually filmed in Waterton, Tennessee.) Henry McCarty (played by Nelson) is a widower who lives on a farm with his son Wyatt McCarty (played by Gavin Lewis), who is about 16 or 17 and is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps of being a farmer. Henry’s wife/Wyatt’s mother, Marie Hobbs McCarty, died of tuberculosis in 1896, at the age of 35. Marie’s brother Al Hobbs (played by Trace Adkins) regularly visits the farm to help out when he’s needed.

Henry is a stern and strict taskmaster who’s not very talkative, and he doesn’t express deep emotions very easily. However, there are things in his past that haunt him. These memories are shown in flashback scenes that are like pieces in a puzzle that eventually reveal the answer to a mystery. Henry and Wyatt are also grieving over the death of Marie, but they have the type of household where these feelings are not openly discussed.

What Henry does talk about to Wyatt is how he made something of himself after a life of hard knocks. Henry tells his son that he was born in New York. By the time he was 3 years old, Henry and his family had moved to Kansas, then Arizona, and then New Mexico.

“Finally,” Henry says, “I settled on the life of a farmer, which is what I am.” Wyatt says skeptically, “I still can’t believe that’s what you wanted.” Henry replies, “There are worse arrangements.” If Henry wanted to do something else with his life besides being a farmer, he’s not about to tell Wyatt in this conversation.

One day, a mare wanders onto an open field on Henry’s farm. The mare has a bloody saddle and no rider. Henry goes to investigate and finds an armed man nearby with a bullet hole in his chest and a knapsack full of cash. The man is barely alive. Henry doesn’t seem to want to take the cash at first, but he soon changes his mind and takes the knapsack and the man’s gun.

Meanwhile, Henry brings the mystery man back to Henry’s house to give him medical attention. Because Henry doesn’t know anything about this stranger, as a safety precaution, Henry ties the man’s hands and feet to a bed while Henry and Wyatt look after him. Eventually, the man regains consciousness and tells Henry that his name is Curry (played by Scott Haze), and that he’s a lawman who was shot by bank robbers.

Henry is immediately skeptical of the story, but he has no proof that Curry is lying or telling the truth. Not long after Curry is found, three men on horseback arrive at the farm. Their leader introduces himself as a sheriff named Sam Ketchum (played by Stephen Dorff), and the two men with him are named Dugan (played by Richard Speight Jr.) and Stilwell (played by Max Arciniega). The movie’s opening scene shows how far Ketchum and his men are willing to go to get what they want.

Ketchum tells Henry that he and his cronies are looking for a bank robber who got away with a lot of cash. Ketchum’s description of the man fits the description of Curry. However, Henry doesn’t quite trust these three strangers either, so Henry lies and says that he hasn’t see anyone fitting that description. Meanwhile, Curry tells Henry that Ketchum is lying and that the sheriff’s uniform and badge that Ketchum is wearing were actually stolen in the shootout that wounded Curry.

When Ketchum asks to look around the property, Henry gets hostile and says no, so this reaction arouses Ketchum’s suspicions that Henry might be hiding something. What follows is a tension-filled battle where viewers have to guess who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. And because “Old Henry” is a Western, there are inevitable gun shootouts that take up a great deal of the action. Henry and Wyatt also have their trust in each other tested in this life-or-death situation.

“Old Henry” is a great example of a movie that does a lot with a low budget, a relatively small number of people in the cast and only a few locations. Because the movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, Henry’s personality is shown through his actions and facial expressions, thanks to the admirable acting talent of Nelson. “Old Henry” is a taut mystery thriller wrapped in the genre of a Western that effectively shows the lure of America’s Old West as a place for new beginnings and wild endings.

Shout! Studios released “Old Henry” in select U.S. cinemas on October 1, 2021, and on digital and VOD on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

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: ‘Naked Singularity,’ starring John Boyega, Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgård and Ed Skrein

August 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Olivia Cooke and John Boyega in “Naked Singularity” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Naked Singularity”

Directed by Chase Palmer

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the dramatic film “Naked Singularity” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An idealistic public defender, who gets involved with a female drug courier, has to decide if he’s going to help her or betray her by stealing one of her big drug hauls that’s worth a small fortune. 

Culture Audience: “Naked Singularity” will appeal primarily to people who like watching cliché and unrealistic heist flicks.

Ed Skrein and Olivia Cooke in “Naked Singularity” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Naked Singularity” is a perfect example of talented stars who are stuck in a terrible movie. All of the principal cast members have done much better work elsewhere. This heist movie, which could have been thrilling to watch, is instead mired in a permanent creative rut filled with outdated depictions of women.

There’s absolutely nothing original about “Naked Singularity,” except some mystical mumbo jumbo from a conspiracy-spouting nutcase—a supporting character in the movie—who rambles on about how singularity in the universe is the loss of physics. This crackpot theory serves as the basis for the title of this film, which was adapted from Sergio De La Pava’s 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity.” This award-winning book has been turned into a horrific mess of a movie.

“Naked Singularity” is the feature-film directorial debut of Chase Palmer. He co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with David Matthews, who has a background in television and also makes his feature-film debut with “Naked Singularity.” Palmer wrote the screenplay for the 2017 horror movie blockbuster “It,” which might explain why “It” star Bill Skarsgård (who played the evil clown Pennywise) was suckered into being in a flop like “Naked Singularity.”

The cast members actually do fairly good jobs in their roles. Too bad they have to spout some ridiculous lines and depict even more ludicrous situations. The first clue that this movie is going to be horrible is in the opening scene, which depicts a New York City courthouse that looks more like a jail or psychiatric institution. Belligerent criminals, one with his trousers down to expose his half-naked butt, get rowdy in the hallways and have to be subdued by security officers. Random people are yelling at each other. An attorney snorts cocaine in a bathroom.

Amid this chaos is idealistic public defender Casi (played by John Boyega), who’s in his mid-20s and in his first job out of law school. Casi (whose name is pronounced “Cassie”) wants to be a public defender because he thinks the system is rigged against disenfranchised people, and he wants to try to level the playing field. Viewers will soon see that Casi doesn’t level the playing field for his clients. He demolishes it because he’s such a terrible lawyer.

Even though Casi is the movie’s protagonist, don’t expect much of a backstory for him or any of the other characters in “Naked Singularity. ” Apparently, these people don’t have families or anything else going on in their lives besides work and the dumb heist that’s at the center of this movie’s flimsy plot. It’s an example of how hollow and boring these characters are.

Meanwhile, tough-talking and sarcastic Lea DeLeon (played by Olivia Cooke) works as a front-desk clerk at a tow pound. One day, a sleazy-looking guy comes up to her window and tries to flirt and sweet-talk his way into convincing Lea to let him drive one of the impounded cars off of the parking lot. His story is that he’s there to pick up the car for a friend, whom he says is unavailable.

Lea doesn’t fall for this obvious lie, because this guy doesn’t have a notarized statement from the so-called “friend.” Lea casually dismisses this con artist, and he reluctantly walks away. But judging from how Lea looks at him, it’s easy to see she thinks he’s kind of cute, in a way that seems to say, “I know he’s up to no good, but I’d sleep with him anyway.” Lea looks like the type to go for “bad boys.”

And sure enough, not long after meeting this liar, Lea (who’s single and lives alone) is swiping through a dating app on her phone, when she sees him. She finds out his name is Craig (played by Ed Skrein) and he’s very single and available. The next thing you know, Lea and Craig are having sex at her place.

The next morning, Lea is about to send Craig on his way because she sees him as just a one-night stand. But you don’t have to be a psychic to know that this loser, who tried to con Lea the first time that he met her, is still going to try to find a way to get the car that he wants. He won’t leave Lea’s apartment, he starts making threats, and she ends up pulling a gun on him.

Viewers later find out why he wants the car. It’s for the most obvious reason possible when it’s revealed that a Mexican drug cartel wants the car too. There’s a stash of heroin hidden in the car. And it’s supposedly worth on the low end of several million dollars.

It’s not shown in the movie, but Lea eventually did agree to help Craig, but she got busted at work for it. Not only did she get fired, but her boss had her arrested. And that’s how Lea ends up as Casi’s client. Lea and Casi have met each other before, although the circumstances under which they met are a little vague. It has to do with her previous criminal record, which is never explained in the movie, but whatever she did was serious enough for her to spend time in prison, because she’s on parole.

Even though Casi and Lea have met before, this is the first time that Casi has become Lea’s attorney. She admits to him that Craig offered $100,000 to Lea get the heroin that’s stashed in the car. The car and the heroin are still at the tow pound.

Casi soon finds out that being Lea’s attorney is going to be a lot more complicated than he thought it would be. She tells him that her life is in danger from Craig unless she can get the heroin. Craig wants to sell the heroin to a drug lord called the Golem (played by Kyle Mooney), an Orthodox Jew who leads a criminal gang of other Orthodox Jews. Yes, this movie is that bad.

Casi wants nothing to do with this drug deal at first, but there would be no “Naked Singularity” movie if he stayed clear of Lea’s messy problems. After Casi gets suspended from his job for six months for breaching courtroom protocol, his corrupt co-worker Dane (played by Skarsgård), the attorney seen snorting cocaine in the movie’s opening scene, convinces Carl that maybe the two of them should try to steal the heroin for themselves. Don’t forget the Mexican drug cartel, because they want that heroin stash too. Meanwhile, a narcotics cop named Detective Winston (played by Robert Christopher Riley) is hot on the trail and wants to bust this drug cartel.

“Naked Singularity” has a subplot of the antagonistic courtroom relationship that Casi has with the stern Judge Cymbeline (played by Linda Lavin), who is apparently the only judge in New York’s criminal court system, since she’s the only judge whom Casi is seen interacting with every time he has a case. Casi, like an idiot, mouths off and is rude to the judge, which leads to the judge filing the formal complaint that gets him suspended. The movie tries to make it look like Judge Cymbeline could be racist, but anyone with common sense can see that Casi is his own worst enemy in the courtroom. He’s woefully incompetent at his job.

Who does Casi have in his life to turn to for advice? An eccentric and scruffy loner named Angus (played by Tim Blake Nelson), who spouts a lot of what he thinks is deep philosophical thoughts but it’s really nonsensical crap. Angus is the one who imparts his “singularity” theory on Casi. Angus also has a samurai sword that Casi ends up taking, because you know that sword is going to be used at some point during the inevitable fight with the drug dealers.

It should come as no surprise that Casi and Lea end up sleeping together. It happens after he’s suspended and can no longer be her attorney. It’s an example of how Lea, who’s supposedly “street smart,” is still treated as a not-very-smart sex object by the filmmakers. Needless to say, the filmmakers have Lea usually dressed in some type of revealing clothing.

Lea made the dumb decision to invite Craig over to her place, knowing he was some kind of criminal who wanted to illegally get that car from the tow pound. Did she think that Craig would forget about that, just because she slept with him? Apparently so. But it just set her up as an easy target for him to threaten.

However, later in the story, this movie inexplicably has Lea threaten Craig, by demanding that he give her $1 million so that she will give up her criminal lifestyle and go away. Does that make any sense? Of course it doesn’t, because this is an idiotic movie. By the way, Lea’s $1 million demand isn’t blackmail, because whatever incriminating information she has on Craig, she’s involved in those same crimes. And remember, she’s on parole.

Throughout “Naked Singularity,” there’s a countdown to what this movie calls “the collapse,” which might lead people to believe that Casi or someone else in the story might be headed toward some kind of mental breakdown. “Naked Singularity” is too shallow for that. It’s just a dumber-than-average heist movie, with predictable double crosses and violence.

Although all of the principal characters in this movie are American, the principal stars of the movie all come from other countries. Boyega, Cooke and Skrein are British, while Skarsgård is Swedish. Their American accents vary from convincing and consistent (Cooke) to average (Boyega and Skarsgård) to a little shaky (Skrein). Boyega adopts a nerdy Midwestern American accent, even though the movie gives the impression that Casi grew up in New York City. However, viewers will never find out what Casi’s background is because “Naked Singularity” is such a poorly written movie.

“Naked Singularity” is one of those “let’s try to outsmart the gangsters” movies written and directed men, who give male actors the most prominent roles and have one token female (almost always young and attractive) who gets to tag along for the ride. In these “boys club” movies with top billing going to several men and one token woman, older women have much smaller roles, usually as nurturing maternal types (which doesn’t apply to this movie’s characters) or as hard-nosed battle-axes, like Judge Cymbeline. Casi has an older female boss named Liszt (played by Liza Colón-Zayas), another “battle-axe” type, and she gets less than five minutes of screen time. All the other female characters in this movie are just extras, almost all of whom have no names and don’t speak.

Women and girls are 51% of the population in the United States and in the world. Therefore, it’s really moronic how certain filmmakers, such as the people who made “Naked Singularity,” continue to peddle these narrow-minded, outdated and inaccurate views of women as a minority who only exist for men to fight with, have sex with, or do dirty deals with so the men can get rich. That’s how women are portrayed in this garbage movie. And yes, Lea could get a cut of the deal that’s at stake, but the men get more money out of it overall, so the men still come out on top.

“Naked Singularity” starts out trying to be a message movie about bucking the legal system as an underdog. But it ends up going into a lazy and uninteresting downward spiral of being a doltish heist movie that looks as phony as a counterfeit bill. Luckily for the stars of “Naked Singularity,” their talent will land them in better projects, and this embarrassing dud will be a forgettable footnote in their careers.

Screen Media Films released “Naked Singularity” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital an VOD on August 13, 2021. The movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD is on October 5, 2021.

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