Then Playing — Nightmare Alley; Moonstruck; Greenland

Nightmare Alley (Guillermo del Toro, 2021). Director Guillermo del Toro brings characteristic visual panache and gleeful excitement over the most lurid doings to this adaptation of a 1946 William Lindsay Gresham novel that was previously brought to the screen not longer after its initial publication. In keeping with the cinematic predecessor, del Toro bounds headlong into the florid film noir trappings of the story, about a carnival huckster (Bradley Cooper) whose scheming escalates precipitously and dangerously. Striking as the film often is to look at (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen), del Toro has no touch for the blackjack-smack dialogue, leaving most of the cast adrift with performances that vary widely. The only actor who isn’t at least occasionally undone by the language is Cate Blanchett, playing a psychologist who gets drawn into the morally dubious doings, and she has to pitch her performance at close to high camp levels to do it. Running about two and a half hours, this Nightmare Alley is plainly too long, sagging when it should be taut like piano wire wielded as a weapon.

Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987). Cher won her Oscar playing Loretta Castorini, a New York widow in her late thirties who becomes engaged to a gently addled lump (Danny Aiello) to the consternation of her brusque Italian family. A more serious complication arises when she plummets into a torrid affair with her fiancé’s estranged brother (Nicolas Cage). The trophy was understandable (though no actress or actor bettered the work of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News that year). Cher is sympathetic and commanding, deftly playing Loretta’s weariness and blossoming, never resorting to cliche in the process. Olympia Dukakis got a matching trophy for playing Loretta’s mother, and she, too, is excellent. The film’s third Academy Award went to John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, which now feels a little trite and pat in places, built on too much easy convenience and pat resolution. Surrounded by a cast of skilled performers (Vincent Gardenia and John Mahoney are especially good in supporting roles), Cage is dreadful, nearly sinking the film with hammy fluttering. Norman Jewison’s directing is solid enough, but the film really cries out for a touch of twinkly magic that he determinedly does not provide.

Greenland (Ric Roman Waugh, 2020). Bizarrely, this action-peppered drama is like Don’t Look Up with the caustic comic smugness scraped. When authorities determine that a comet bearing down on Earth is likely to result in a planet-killing direct hit, they institute an emergency evacuation of a select number, all chosen for their professional ability to help rebuild society when, literally, the dust settles. Among them is a structural engineer (Gerard Butler), who is initially invited to bring his wife (Morena Baccarin) and son (Roger Dale Floyd, who’s especially terrific in a couple of tense scenes that ask a lot of a child actor). Director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Chris Sparling indulge in a little disaster-movie bombast around the edges, but Greenland is mostly devoted to a reasonably plausible depiction of a desperate humanity flailing in response to its imminent doom, like one of Rod Serling’s fables of twisty duplicity rendered with a generous budget. They can’t quite sustain the balance between insight and momentum when the film movies into its third act, but for a shocking amount of its runtime, Greenland is sharply effective.

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