Then Playing — Shiva Baby; The Velvet Underground; Nightmare Alley

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2021). Written and directed by Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby locks its gaze on Danielle (Rachel Sennott), an emotionally careening college student whose various tribulations converge at a shiva observance she attends with her parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed). The premise is exquisitely simple and most of the action is confined to the mournful gathering. Within that structure that could be limiting to another filmmaker, Seligman constructs an amazing pressure cooker, subtly using every trick at her modestly budgeted disposal to heighten the sense of inescapable dread. Sennott is a wonder in the lead role, providing the connective thread — the warped inner logic — to the character’s willfully self-destructive decisions. The sense that Danielle is lost rather than truly damaged is always present, instilling potent sympathy and a rooting interest that she’ll wriggle free of her own agonies. In her feature directorial debut, Seligman announced herself as a major talent to watch.

The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, 2021). A conventional approach simply wouldn’t be acceptable for a documentary about the monumentally influential band formed by Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker (and also including Nico and Doug Yule on the roster at different points). Fortuitously, director Todd Haynes is disinclined toward conventionality. The Velvet Underground traces the band that provides the title through their financially unsuccessful and world-shaking tenure in the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, effectively conveying the basic facts of their shared history while floating along with experimental cinematic techniques borrowed from the their impresario benefactor, Andy Warhol. The film feels like memories organized, especially when Haynes is clearly striving to immerse the viewer in the distant time when countercultural art and ideas pulses through New York City, briefly knocking askew unprepared gatekeepers of the broad swath of art and entertainment. The approach might occasionally leave the uninitiated perplexed; a rapid montage summary of post-Loaded trajectories of the various players shortchanges the complexities of their careers and the occasional partial and full reunions undertaken. Haynes’s interest is so clearly reserved for the band’s proper heyday (he adheres to the unofficial mandate to pretend that the 1973 album Squeeze, credited to the Velvet Underground but featuring only Yule, doesn’t exist) that he might have been better off without any coda. Consider that observation the merest whisper of complaint, though. Overall, The Velvet Underground is mesmerizing and enthralling.

Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947). Adapted from a William Lindsay Gresham novel published one year earlier, Nightmare Alley is a bleak, pulpy roundhouse punch of a film. The story centers on Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a low-level carnival employee with aspirations to big-time grifting. He finds his scam in a fake mentalist system he swipes from one of the sideshow’s star attractions, Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell). Stan’s amoral duplicity and innate sense of showmanship sends him soaring to grand heights, and the film practically vibrates from the rolling thunder of this impending fall. Director Edmund Goulding keeps the proceeding lithe to enhance the sharp cynicism of the story. It makes for a fine film-noir offering that cavorts in realms slightly different than the usual crime potboilers of the shadowy subgenre.

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