At The Movies: Nightmare Alley feels retro yet fresh; Scream is failed attempt at do-over

A still from the film Nightmare Alley starring Bradley Cooper. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Nightmare Alley (M18)

150 minutes, opens Jan 13 exclusively at Cathay Cineplexes, 5 stars

It has been a while since a movie that hits the quality quadrants of story, cinematography, acting performance and entertainment value has come along.

Nightmare Alley checks all the boxes - it is a lush, luxurious work that works as retro homage to noir cinema as it arouses emotions of romantic desire, revulsion and curiosity.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a man of few means who appears to be on the run. He stumbles across a carnival run by Clem (Willem Dafoe), known for its stage acts and freak show, in which human grotesqueries are offered as entertainment.

Clem offers Stan a job and, before long, the smart, ambitious handyman catches the eye of the performers - among them, the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and magician Molly (Rooney Mara). At the carnival, Stan picks up skills that will serve him for the next stage of his life.

This film has been labelled a psychological thriller, but it operates more like a hard-boiled detective story. Stan might not look like the cynical gumshoe crossing a city of broken dreams, but he is a searcher - on the hunt in a dark forest filled with creatures more predatory than him.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, together with co-writer and wife Kim Morgan, adapts the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham - with an eye to giving Stan a more tortured history, which is shown in a series of flashbacks. This accomplishes the feat of character exposition while adding plenty of visual style.

In a movie deliberately filled with noir archetypes - the anti-hero, the cuckold, the saving angel - Cate Blanchett, who plays the scarily poised psychiatrist Lilith Ritter, fulfils the role of femme fatale without lapsing into Jessica Rabbit-style purring, cigarette-puffing cliche.

It is just one of several strong performances in this work that feels like a classic movie but, at the same time, fully fresh.

Scream (M18)

114 minutes, opens Jan 13, 2 stars

A still from the film Scream starring (from left) Dylan Minnette, Jack Quaid, Melissa Barrera and David Arquette. PHOTO: UIP

The Scream slasher films - there have been four before this one (1996 to 2011) - are, at heart, Scooby-Doo mysteries. A series of terrible events happens, a cast of characters is assembled and in its midst is the killer who, in the finale, is literally unmasked.

The films, by necessity, have to be carefully plotted because the killer has to remain in plain sight yet be an unexpected but logical choice in the final reveal - lest the whole affair lapses into unintended comedy.

The latest addition to the franchise checks off the box for fan service in rote fashion: the return of series stalwarts Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette; the reappearance of the Ghostface villain; and the frequent citing of slasher movie lore as rules guiding the killer's behaviour, along with some self-aware comedy.

The whole affair feels by-the-numbers and the self-awareness makes the mediocrity more and not less obvious.

There is plenty of winking at the audience, especially in acknowledging that the movie is a requel - a combination of reboot and sequel, which is taken to mean that its events occur after the first instalment in 1996, erasing the canon left by other sequels.

And its characters certainly behave like that is the case. A cast of young persons - citizens of Westboro who are connected to the victims and perpetrators of the first Ghostface attacks - has to revisit buried traumas while dealing with new ones when fresh slashings happen. The new crew calls the reluctant Gale (Cox), Dewey (Arquette) and Sidney (Campbell) back to the scene of the worst days of their lives.

The Tragedy Of Macbeth (PG13)

105 minutes, opens Jan 12 at The Projector/available from Jan 14 on Apple TV+, 4 stars

A still from the film The Tragedy Of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. PHOTO: APPLE

Of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is among the most cinematic. There are fights, big and small, and locations that range from gloomy castles to blasted heaths. The three witches provide a touch of the macabre, while Macbeth follows the screenwriting directive that the main character must always be moving towards a goal, which Shakespeare obliges by giving the Scottish thane the biggest goal of all: the king's throne.

The 2015 adaptation from Australian director Justin Kurzel that starred Michael Fassbender made the play an action movie featuring muddy sword fights and a thrusting young Macbeth grunting and slurring his lines.

This version from director Joel Coen, however, leans into theatrical minimalism - the colours have been bled out into monochrome, the locations are expressed in geometrically stark, barely there props, and every syllable is consciously articulated.

Denzel Washington's Macbeth - as the aristocrat cursed with ambition and the witches' predictions of his greatness - is also older and more fretful.

The actor's performance, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, is complex and arresting, while Frances McDormand (also Coen's wife in real life) as Lady Macbeth, his wife and conspirator, is a deliciously evil instigator who is just as hungry and also as knotted with worry.

This movie - the first solo project by one of the Oscar-winning Coen brothers (thriller No Country For Old Men, 2007; comedy The Big Lebowski, 1998) - is perfectly suited to the temperament of the Coens, who have long been Shakespeare-adjacent in their love of irony, omens and supernatural visitations (the 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one example) and, of course, the hard-luck hero who snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 355 (PG13)

123 minutes, opens Jan 13, 2 stars

A still from the film The 355 starring (from left) Diane Kruger, Jessica Chastain and Lupita Nyong’o. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

There is a sound premise behind this movie: an espionage thriller fronted by an ensemble of women stars. Think Charlie's Angels, but smarter and minus the male gaze or girl-power comedy. Picture Mission: Impossible, without the domination of the white male leader. This project would have heroes who are not simply gender-flipped male archetypes, as so many women-led thrillers and comedies are.

The problems plaguing this project, directed by Simon Kinberg (a writer and producer who made his directorial debut with the 2019 superhero film, Dark Phoenix), have nothing to do with its gender ambitions. Rather, the fault lies in his plodding direction that fits awkwardly into a story much cheekier than his pedestrian style can accommodate.

The film starts with a plot that is meant to be pacy and kinetic, but which devolves into a series of chases across "exotic" locales.

When a hack-anything device falls into the wrong hands, intelligence agent Mason Brown (Jessica Chastain) is put on the case. It has her traversing the globe, sometimes with former partner and love interest Nick (Sebastian Stan) in tow. Along the way, her path crosses with that of agents from other countries - including Graciela from Colombia (Penelope Cruz), Marie from Germany (Diane Kruger) and Khadijah from Britain's MI6 (Lupita Nyong'o).

The frenemies do what all movie frenemies do: form a team to act against Shanghai-based black market dealer Lin (Chinese actress Fan Bingbing).

There is plenty to indicate that the story's breathless Around The World In 80 Days tone is deliberately tongue-in-cheek, but the directorial mishandling makes it feel off-puttingly repetitive.

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