Tag Archives: Ron Perlman

Pride Before the Fall

Nightmare Alley

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Step right up, folks, and witness a master of the macabre! See Guillermo Del Toro twist the familiar tale of ambition run amuck! Gasp at the lurid, gorgeous, vulgar world of Nightmare Alley!

Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, good lookin’ kid on the skids taken in by Clem (Willem Dafoe, creepy as ever) to carny for a traveling show. Stan picks up some tricks from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), then lures pretty Molly (Rooney Mara) to the big city to set up their own mind-reading racket.

Things are going swell, too, until Stan gets mixed up with psychiatrist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) whose patient list includes some high rollers with large bank accounts ripe for the picking.

That’s already one hell of an ensemble, but wait there’s more! Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson all add immeasurably to the sketchy world Stan orbits.

What Del Toro brings to the tale, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (a solid slice of noir with Tyrone Power in the lead) dulled the edges of any seediness. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks – maligned as it was – found the unsettling carny life mainly wholesome.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Nathan Johnson create a delicious playground for Del Toro’s carnival to call home, one where even the most likable members of the family turn a blind eye to something genuinely sickening and cruel happening in their midst. The filmmaker plumbs that underlying horror, complicating Stan’s arc and allowing the film’s climax to leave a more lasting mark.

As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Cooper, Stan’s journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

And Blanchett – shocker – is gloriously vampy. She swims elegantly through the sea of noir-ish light and framing that Del Toro bathes her in, as Lillith casts a spell that renders Stan’s helplessness a fait accompli.

Nearly every aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Del Toro and Kim Morgan) creates a richer level of storytelling than the ’47 original. The dialog is more sharply insightful, the finale more dangerously tense and the characters – especially Mara’s stronger-willed Molly – more fully developed. All contribute greatly toward the film rebounding from a slightly sluggish first act to render the two and a half hour running time unconcerning.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply.

So as much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

Don’t believe me? See it with your own eyes, step right up!

Hillbilly Noir

The Big Ugly

by Hope Madden

When my son was young, we liked to watch Animal Face-Off, an educational program that proposed hypothetical battles between animals that wouldn’t normally fight. Sperm Whale v Colossal Squid, African Lion v Nile Crocodile, Walrus v Polar Bear.

Ohioan Scott Wiper delivers a similar culture clash movie: Brit gangster v hillbillies with money. The filmmaker drops us in the Appalachians along with London mob elite Harris (Malcolm McDowell), his muscle, Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), and Neelyn’s girl, Fiona (Lenora Crichlow).

After decades of hard, dirty work, these men are about to make a deal with an oilman who can’t get legal money to drill. They finance Preston (Ron Perlman) and his son Junior (Brandon Sklenar) now, and it pays off for the rest of their lives.

Bills are exchanged, drinks are drunk, but when the dust clears the next day, Fiona comes up missing.

Even at 55, Jones is still an intimidating presence. He’s looking a bit worse for the wear here, but the effect gives Neelyn a weariness that serves the character well. And while it’s always wonderful to see veterans McDowell and Perlman with real characters to dig into, it’s Sklenar who impresses most.

His entitled sociopath schtick slides fluidly from charming and hateful, and the fact that he and writer/director Wiper offer the character both intelligence and physical prowess makes this a villain who may just stand a chance.

It’s also to the filmmaker’s credit that the West Virginians are rarely the oversimplified hillbilly clichés we’ve come to expect.

Which isn’t to say the film is full of nuance. Though the tone is less laughable, The Big Ugly sometimes takes on a Roadhouse feel about it. Plot contrivances and obvious resolutions mark a film that’s clearly breaking no new ground.

The subplot about the heads of the families carries too little weight and too much screen time. It’s hard to complain about an honor-among-thieves conflict between two such beloved genre veterans as Perlman and McDowell, but Wiper tells of the bond more than he shows it, so the payoff feels unearned.

Still, for a B-movie, The Big Ugly delivers what it needs to. Our favorite Animal Face-Off was Hippopotamus v Bull Shark because we love it when the big, lumbering beast you’d bet against turns out to be the badass. Doesn’t everybody?

Yo, Chucky!

Chuck

by George Wolf

I remember the sweaty, battered face staring at me from the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1975, a face that had taken plenty of punches, and was lining up to take more at the hands of The Greatest.

It was face of Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, who was about to fight Muhammed Ali in the old Richfield Coliseum near Cleveland – then a sparkling new jewel – for the heavyweight championship and inspire a young Sly Stallone to write a screenplay about “The Italian Stallion.”

Chuck finally gets the story of the real-life Rocky on the screen, utilizing painful honesty, subtle humor and a compelling performance from Liev Schreiber to craft a touching look at hard lessons learned.

Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) gets the 70s period details just right, and surrounds Wepner’s shot at the title with cinematic versions of the cliched boxer looking for his chance to be a contender, sharply illustrating how much Wepner defined all that is celebrated about life in the ring.

As Wepner claws his way to the New Jersey heavyweight championship, he watches 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight and longs for respect, even as he continually takes his wife (a terrific Elizabeth Moss) and daughter for granted while following his love for “wine, women and song.”

Besting all expectations, Wepner’s plan to “wear (Ali) down with my face” lasted into the 15h and final round, and he became one of the few opponents to actually knock Ali to the canvas. His increased celebrity status, and the news that the Oscar-winning Rocky was based on his life, only fueled Wepner’s primal urges and accelerated a downward spiral that included drugs, divorce, and fighting live bears.

Schreiber is transformational, adopting the voice, gait and body control of a lumbering man with a good heart and great survival instincts, but a child-like self control that often betrayed him. Schreiber commands the screen without ever being showy, blending easily with an outstanding supporting cast that includes Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport and Morgan Spector (as Stallone).

Familiar in theme but illuminating with its intimacy, Chuck is a fascinating glimpse at life imitating art imitating life.

Verdict-3-5-Stars