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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Nightmare Alley is too gentrified to generate any bumps in the night.

House of Damnation

Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper)
Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper)

Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Shape of Water is a psychological noir thriller with undertones of a morality play, all based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

It starts off right up del Toro’s alley, in a 1930s traveling carnival with all the usual trappings: the freak show, the house of horrors, the mystic tricksters. It’s a grim and Grimm start, full of the kinds of visual flourishes that are the hallmark of a del Toro movie. It’s fun. And it doesn’t hurt that Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) enters the picture as Stan Carlisle looking a heckuva lot like Indiana Jones; under a fedora and sporting an off-white shirt covered by a brown jacket (corduroy — not leather — in this case), it’s almost as if he’s auditioning for the role (he’s rumored to be in the running as Harrison Ford’s successor), but who’s to say what the cards hold.

Amid the gruesome carny acts and contortionists, Stan finds enchantment in Molly, a sweet girl who takes the stage as Electra. For the era, it’s a scandalous act and with Molly scantily clad, it’s enough for the authorities to come in and try to shut down the whole carnival.

But, ever the opportunist, Stan answers the call, pulls a carny mind trick on the officer and saves the day.

All of that works well. The problem is — and it almost hurts to write this about a del Toro production — what ensues for the subsequent two hours struggles to hold the attention. It’s a strange paradox for a movie that’s focused on mind games. But, while the visual is without fail one of del Toro’s greatest filmmaking strengths, it’s not enough for a story that’s intended to play with the mind.

Odd “I” Torium

The movie’s troubles begin when Stan and Molly break free of the two-bit carny life and find professional and financial success as a mentalist duo entertaining high society at swanky dinners. Sure, the movie still looks great with all the pretty people and elegant eveningwear, but the tension falters in the middle chapters.

The challenge that’s hard to overcome is there’s nobody to really care about in this trip through Nightmare Alley, the underbelly of America. From the outset, it’s understood Stan has some sort of shady background and a murder in his past. He’s certainly not one to trust; he’s a grifter to the core.

The one saving grace is Rooney Mara as Molly. She’s so sweet here, a stunning turn in comparison to her edgy roles, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But hers is a smaller role, a catalyst for many of the things to come without — oddly enough — being a central figure to the overall story.

Having a cast of characters front-loaded with deplorables is a tough trick. House of Gucci pulls it off because of the outrageousness of those characters and the fun that’s had by watching their colossal egos and impressive blunders usher in their downfall. The same can’t be said of Stan; he’s too enigmatic to engender strong feelings either way. Rise or fall, life goes on with or without Stan.

Here, del Toro tries to create tension through the trickery that surrounds Stan in the carnival environment. Stan’s warned, “No good comes out of a spook show.” And there’s foreshadowing in the Tarot cards, albeit to a forced extent as the movie makes its way to the climax. There’s a turn of events and a turn of the camera angle to refer back to the moment when Stan turns one particularly ominous card upside down.

Problem solved.

Or so he (both Stan and Guillermo) thinks.

Ultimately, the creepiness of the movie’s opening carnival scenes isn’t sustained and suitably exploited as the setting shifts. It’s a missed opportunity to create a wholly unnerving experience and the movie’s final moments — as stunning and dramatic as they may be — aren’t enough. The ending is telegraphed a bit too early, even though it is a wicked, eerie conclusion that suits Stan well.

White Ribbon

Molly (Rooney Mara) with Stan
Molly (Rooney Mara) with Stan

Hints are dropped along the way. There’s the opening sequence with a bagged corpse being dragged across a wood floor and a house being set ablaze.

There are clues scattered around in conversations. Stan asserts, in defense of his own trickery, “Marks want to be found out.” As flashbacks provide more pieces to the puzzle, it becomes clear Stan has some daddy issues.

The movie takes its time in those reveals and others. It’s roughly 20 minutes in before Stan’s name is disclosed. The exact timeline — pinning the story to 1939-1941 — isn’t clarified until past the midway point, as news of F.D.R. announcing America’s entry into World War II makes the headlines.

All of that works well. But it doesn’t quite gel.

Given all of those details so carefully placed, it’s the relationships that falter. Most notably, it’s jarring to establish a guardianship-type arrangement between Molly and fellow carny Bruno (del Toro favorite Ron Perlman — Hellboy himself) that is abruptly upended. In the ace of Stan trying to steal away with Molly, all Bruno does is take a couple good (really good) fists to Stan’s face. After that, Stan and Molly are off on their own, with Molly simply telling Bruno it’s what she wants serving as the beginning and ending of the argument. It’s doesn’t play out quite right; those relationships aren’t given their due.

Similarly, The Green Knight was a slow journey that was filled with intriguing and atmospheric interludes; characters come and go, but they have an impact on the story’s direction. That Arthurian tale found its own pace and it all led to a revelation that demanded a pause for thought.

With Nightmare Alley, however, the slow, precise journey is a hard sell with a payoff that isn’t entirely worth the effort.