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

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

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