Tag Archives: Toni Collette

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!

Do It For the Hwyl!*

Dream Horse

by George Wolf

How much of a feel good story is this? Dream Horse is the second film to tell it in just the last five years.

2016’s Dark Horse introduced it as a splendid documentary, with archival footage and first person accounts from the working class U.K. folk who pooled their money to breed a race horse. That horse, named Dream Alliance, become an unlikely winner, ultimately racing for the Welsh Grand National title.

If you’ve seen that doc (and I recommend it), it will come as no surprise that narrative filmmakers are having a go at the tale. I mean, it’s got majestic horses, regular Joes and Jans crashing the owners boxes, triumphant sports moments, and it really happened! Barton Fink couldn’t have cooked up anything more big screen ready.

Director Euros Lyn (lots of TV including Doctor Who) has a terrific anchor in Toni Collette, who stars as Welsh barmaid Jan Vokes. It was Jan’s idea to form a “syndicate” ownership group for a racehorse, leaning on bar regular Howard Davies (Damien Lewis) – a tax advisor with some experience around the track – for backup.

For Lyn and screenwriter Neil McKay (also a TV veteran), the challenge becomes keeping the generic sports cliches from overpowering the moments that transcend sport. And for the most part, they do.

Yes, you’re going to hear swelling music and a dismissive trainer admitting “there’s just something about him…” But more importantly, you see people finding a renewed joy in their very existence – and a touching pride in knowing they were a part of something worthy enough to outlive them.

One of the many joys of Dark Horse was getting to know this colorful gang in person – they are a collective hoot. Collette, Lewis and a solid ensemble bring them all to life in warm and witty fashion, while Lyn earns some bonus points for the refreshing way he brings out the real players for a curtain call.

The best sports movies are almost always about more than the sport. Dream Horse doesn’t forget that. You can bet on it.

*a old Welsh saying meaning doing something for the stirring sensation, fervour, emotion and enthusiasm

Parasites

Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

All in the Family

Hereditary

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.

The Graham family is maybe less grief-stricken over the loss of Grandma than you might expect. Daughter Annie (Toni Collette) delivers a eulogy that admits her mother was difficult, secretive. Her oldest son Peter (Alex Wolff) seems nonplussed by it all. He’s probably stoned, though.

Supportive but exhausted husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is almost relieved, but the loss does bother the Graham’s socially isolated younger daughter, Charlie (Millie Shapiro, in one of the more chilling performances this year).

With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.

The eulogy caps a striking film opening, where serpentine camera movement intertwines the Graham family with the intricate miniatures Annie creates inside their grand, secluded house. What we see suggests a scaled-down world of its own, lifelike but lifeless.

Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.

If horror fare such as The VVitch or It Comes at Night is not your bag, then you probably don’t care for the slow, detailed burn that A24 studio regularly serves. For those that do, hooray! Here’s another “adult” horror film, one that invests more in character development than in jump scares (though there are a few, including one so jarring it awakens the potential of the device).

Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.

Applause to cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski for turning this intricately designed home into a foreboding character all its own. Like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Haunting, The Others and any number of brilliant genre hauntings, Hereditary uses its surroundings to create a space where the most mundane moments take on a diabolical chill.

The family dynamic at work here is gut-punch authentic. Collette anchors the film with a performance full of grief, insecurity, bitterness and terror. It’s another in a string of award-worthy turns, and the support she gets from the ensemble, including a game Ann Dowd, elevates the tension in every intricately detailed frame.

You will have been quietly unnerved, startled from your seat, and then unsettled by the time the supernatural elements overtake the story. The peppering of hardline genre tropes in act 3 may feel like a cop out, but Aster’s interplay with the differing family members is too careful for such an easy summation.

The web of mental states, understandable suspicions and direct bloodlines layer the brutally effective fable, and Aster wields these weapons with stealthy precision. His work here is so smartly embedded that Hereditary continually tempts potential non-believers to dismiss where it leads as something you’ve seen before.

Don’t. You haven’t.





For Your Queue: Sketchy Parenting with Varying Results

 

Usually we take this opportunity to point you in the direction of a great new release, then pair that with an older film with similarities. But today is so stocked with great new releases, we’ve chosen to just recommend a couple of those. (Check out our Halloween Countdown for another new release recommendation: The Conjuring.) Aside from a theme of sketchy parenting, these two films could not have less in common. Still, both are well worth your time.

The Way, Way Back was one of the summer’s most enjoyable flicks – a nostalgic but smart look at the painful and awkward transitions of adolescence. Sam Rockwell owns the film as Bill Murray-esque mentor to self-conscious teen Duncan (a very believable Liam James), a boy stuck on a summer vacation with his mom (Toni Collette) and her tool boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing marvelously against type). Fresh, funny and surprisingly honest, it’s that rare coming of age tale that hits on all cylinders.

Only God Forgives, on the other hand, is Nicolas Winding Refn’s dreamlike trip through hell itself. Set in Bangkok, the tale that unspools is a slow-moving nightmare in red, a visual spectacle of family dysfunction and vengeance of the most vulgar and unseemly sort. Ryan Gosling smolders, Kristin Scott Thomas stuns, and Visaya Pansringarm sings karaoke, but they all have a lot of blood on their hands. You may not enjoy it, but you will be amazed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tcl2hnhze3E





A Bittersweet Farewell

by Hope Madden

How bittersweet that the great James Gandolfini goes out on such a high note. The man who may have been the all time best onscreen Mafia boss showed surprising versatility throughout his film career, and this talent is on beautiful display in one of his final performances.

In writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s new indie gem Enough Said, Gandolfini plays Albert, the unlikely yet fitting new suitor in Eva’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) life.

Both are divorced and facing the prospect of empty nests as their daughters head off to college, and together they develop a sweet crush that is a joy to watch as it blossoms.

Disheveled and genuine, Louis-Dreyfus has never been better, and together these veterans best known for their epically impressive television careers sparkle with tender onscreen chemistry.

Holofcener’s made a career of exploring the issues facing privileged, urban dwelling women. While this may seem too trite to tolerate, her laid back style, dialed-down neuroticism and eye for casting tend to balance things out.

Characteristically, Holofcener’s focus in Enough Said is the day to day struggle with intimacy, connection, and the compromise that accompanies a relationship. Still, this film is probably her most mainstream and accessible to date because the problems themselves are more universal.

Expect the loose narrative and slice of life structure, but with Louis-Dreyfus and her infectious chuckle driving the story, everything seems cheerier, more forgivable, and ultimately hopeful.

The film’s conflict feels a little contrived, but Louis-Dreyfus’s comic timing and unadorned performance keep things honest. She’s aided immeasurably by a cast eyeball deep in talent.

The always excellent Catherine Keener and Toni Collette are impressive, of course. Ben Falcone also gets in some good lines, and keep a look out for Toby Huss as Eva’s ex. (He’s The Wiz, and nobody beats him! Seriously, it’s that guy from Seinfeld. You’re welcome.)

Holofcener’s crafted a wise and affectionate look at middle age. Her writing is just as incisive as ever, but this cast finds more heart in the humor – Gandolfini in particular. As he did with all of his best work, he uncovers the vulnerability in the character that makes him human, recognizably flawed and therefore compelling.

That’s right. He could even play the romantic lead. The guy could do anything.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEEJaIjF_Lo