Friday, January 28, 2022

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo del Toro: Nightmare Alley (2021) starring Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Bradley Cooper (Stan Carlisle), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill, "Elektra the Electric Woman") and Cate Blanchett (psychoanalyst, Dr. Lilith Ritter).

Nightmare Alley / Nightmare Alley.
    US 2021. Searchlight Pictures Presents – A Double Dare You Production – A Guillermo del Toro Film. P: Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale, Bradley Cooper.
    D: Guillermo del Toro. SC: Guillermo del Toro & Kim Morgan – based on the novel (1946) by William Lindsay Gresham. DP: Dan Laustsen – colour – 1,85:1 – source format: Arriraw 4.5K, 6.5K – master format: digital intermediate 4K – released in D-Cinema. PD: Tamara Deverell. Cost: Luis Sequeira. Makeup and hair: Sideshow Prosthetics. M: Nathan Johnson.
    Soundtrack selections: "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon, 1941), "Danza degli spiriti beati" from Orfeo ed Euridice by C. W. Gluck, lyrics Raniero de Calzabigi (1762), "Stardust" (Hoagy Carmichael, 1927).
    S: Nathan Robitaille. ED: Cameron McLaughlin. Casting: Robin D. Cook.
    C: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Ron Perlman (Bruno), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Paul Anderson (the geek).
    Filming: 16 Sep – 11 Dec 2020.
    Loc: Buffalo, New York – Hamilton, Ontario – Toronto, Ontario.
    150 min
    Alternative black and white version: Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light, also in 35 mm.
    US premiere: 1 Dec 2021.
    Finnish premiere in selected cities (but not in Helsinki): 28 Jan 2022, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Finland with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Timo Porri / Hannele Vahtera.
    Corona precaution: 50 max capacity, hand hygiene, face masks.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 3, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 28 Jan 2022.

Synopsis from the production notes: "When charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, he crafts a golden ticket to success, using this newly acquired knowledge to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s New York Society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) loyally by his side, Stanton plots to con a dangerous tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might be his most formidable opponent yet."

AA: The greatest strength of Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of Nightmare Alley is its excellent cast.

Like Tyrone Power in the 1947 Nightmare Alley adaptation, Bradley Cooper in the leading role of Stan Carlisle has such a pleasant surface that he can fool even the most hardened potential victims. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves."

It is the women who run the show. The co-screenwriter Kim Morgan is perhaps to thank for the strength and complexity of those roles, and Guillermo del Toro for the direction of the actresses in their performances.

Zeena (Toni Collette) is the tough clairvoyant. Even she is bluffed by Stan who learns all the tricks from her and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena is a sex tiger, unfulfilled as a woman with Pete whom she deeply loves. With Stan, pheromones and appetites match instantly and perfectly.

The psychoanalyst, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is Stan's most formidable adversary. Between them, it is a battle of wits and even a cosmo-psychological fight comparable with Dracula vs. Van Helsing stories. But here both adversaries are evil. In this movie we learn that Lilith Ritter is also deeply wounded, even literally, with a dark secret related to Ezra Grindle.

Stan Carlisle is caught in the spell of evil, but he has a serene phase during which he tours together with his good guardian spirit Molly (Rooney Mara). Molly brings out his best potential, and greatness is within Stan's reach, but there is a tragic flaw in his character. As interpreted by Rooney Mara with subtle conviction, Molly, Elektra, “the lady who can absorb any amount of voltage”, conveys the sole force of light in a world of darkness.

Richard Jenkins plays Ezra Grindle, the richest man in town, as a mythic figure comparable with Croesus, Scrooge and Citizen Kane. In this film adaption, he is also a sadistic abuser of women, to whose victims also Lilith Ritter belongs. A lost soul, he lives in a purgatory, eager to believe in Stan's mentalist hallucinations.

The approach is consistently tuned to wavelengths of legend and fairy-tale. This is the first film of Guillermo del Toro that does not belong to the cinefantastic, but it is not far from the territory. "Every time I make a movie, I always say that the worst monster is a human", del Toro confesses in an interview with Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian. In Nightmare Alley, the monster is Stan Carlisle. In del Toro's film there is a framing story in which he lets his father freeze to death before burning him and his home. Stan is so absolutely a force of evil that it is hard to relate to him.

Visually and narratively the film is divided into two worlds: the countryside where the carnival circuit flourishes among the common people, and the city where a jet set audience is mesmerized by Stanton Carlisle's elite act. "Between two evils I always pick the one I never tried before", said Mae West. Stan Carlisle picks both.

I have been impressed by del Toro's work since Mimic and Blade II. Since then, he has become one of the most successful directors in the world. I also sense that he may have become a prisoner of his success, chained to blockbuster budgets. Nightmare Alley is needlessly prolonged.

Last summer I participated in Gerald Peary's Facebook chain on film noir, a phenomenon notoriously difficult to define. The discussion inspired in me a deeper revelation and insight about the trend. For me, the Golden Age of film noir started in 1941 and lasted around ten years. While film noir has formidable predecessors and successors, genuine film noir for me can be defined from the viewpoint of a philosophy of history. As distinct from previous crime fiction, film noir reveals a world view of cosmic agony and metaphysical evil in a reflection of what happened during WWII.

To that key corpus of film noir belongs also the original Nightmare Alley (1947), created by the unexpected team of actor Tyrone Power, producer George Jessel, director Edmund Goulding and screenwriter Jules Furthman. In their pioneering book-length study of film noir, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton found a surrealistic, an oneiric quality a hallmark of the phenomenon. This connection is signalled already in the very title Nightmare Alley, which might be great even for a book about film noir – and both film adaptations are dream plays.

The new Nightmare Alley is very striking, but there is no such compelling drive and sense of urgency as in the original film. The surface is impressive, but I find the inner core wanting.


Saturday, January 15, 2022

Vinski ja näkymättömyyspulveri / Vinski and the Invisibility Powder

Juha Wuolijoki: Vinski ja näkymättömyyspulveri / Vinski and the Invisibility Powder (FI 2021) starring Kuura Rossi as Vinski with Pirjo Heikkilä (Krista), Martti Suosalo (the pharmacist) and Mikko Leppilampi (Antero).

Vinski och osynlighetspulvret.
    FI © 2021 Snapper Films Oy. P: Juha Wuolijoki, Laura Salonen. Co-P: Ramūnas Škikas.
    D: Juha Wuolijoki. SC: Jari Olavi Rantala, Juha Wuolijoki, Mauri Ahola – based on the novel Koko kaupungin Vinski (1954) by Aapeli [Simo Puupponen]. Cin: Kjell Lagerroos (Finland), Mika Orasmaa (Lithuania). PD: Arūnas Čepulis. Cost: Kristina Mališauskiené. Makeup: Žaneta Jasiūniené. M: Leri Leskinen, Lasse Enersen. Richard Wagner: "Treulich geführt" ("Here Comes the Bride", Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, 1850). Song during end credits: "Näkymätön" (2021, comp. Anna Puu, Tiina Vainikainen, Jukka Immonen, lyr. Anna Puu, Tiina Vainikainen) perf. Anna Puu [Anna Puustjärvi]. S: Kimmo Perkkiö. ED: Antti Reikko.
    C: Kuura Rossi (Vinski), Mikko Leppilampi (Antero), Pirjo Heikkilä (Krista), Martti Suosalo (pharmacist), Fiona Iyare (Roosa), Sampo Sarkola (tv reporter), Minka Kuustonen (priest), Hannu-Pekka Björkman (policeman), Chike Ohanwe (teacher), Cécile Orblin (nurse), Kari Ketonen (neighbour).
    Loc: Lithuania and Porvoo.
    86 min
    Language: Finnish.
    Also released in a Swedish version, translated by Nina Donner (see cast of voice talent beyond the jump break).
    Premiere: 22 Dec 2021.
    Corona precaution: 50 max capacity, hand hygiene, face masks.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 1, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 15 Jan 2022.

Tagline: "Real heroes are invisible".

AA: Directed and produced by Juha Wuolijoki, Vinski and the Invisibility Powder is a family film with solid production values, a good cast and a wonderful score.

The books of the humoristic author Aapeli (Simo Puupponen) were filmed in the 1960s and the 1970s by top directors like Jack Witikka and Rauni Mollberg, and his Vinski books were adapted for teleplays in the 1960s. There has been a long break until Juha Wuolijoki's current adaptation.

It's a fairy-tale with invisibility powder as the central device. Invisibility is more than just a gimmick. Vinski, raised by a single mother, is being bullied at school. An eccentric pharmacist becomes his best friend.

With the pharmacist's magic powder Vinski gains the superpower of invisibility. The novel on which the film is based is from the 1950s, but Juha Wuolijoki integrates contemporary superhero discourse in the tale. More specifically, there is an affinity with Spiderman lore: "a real hero wants to remain unknown".

With good judgement, Wuolijoki combines timeless elements (old townscapes of Lithuania and Porvoo) with modern details (SUV's and computers). The special effects of invisibility and the transition scenes are stylish.

Kuura Rossi conveys the growth of the bullied schoolboy into a superhero with conviction. The appealing comedienne Pirjo Heikkilä impresses as Krista, a single mother who runs a confectionery. Mikko Leppilampi is the suitably sleazy master burglar Antero operating under the cover of a security company. Martti Suosalo is an enchanting pharmacist / magician.

A comic highlight is a dinner scene in which Antero tries to seduce Krista with a fish treat called nahkiainen (lamprey), while the invisible Vinski sabotages him.

Leri Leskinen and Lasse Enersen have composed a score that provides a magic atmosphere. This Christmas I listened every day to Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, and this movie score belongs to the same realm and dimension of enchantment.

In the cast, diversity is observed, and Minka Kuustonen's interpretation as the priest is open to the non-binary.

Speaking about the priest: Vinski and the Invisibility Powder is another instance of the cinema's obsession with the theme of the cancelled wedding.


Monday, January 03, 2022

The Truffle Hunters

Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw: The Truffle Hunters (US 2020).

Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw: The Truffle Hunters (US 2020). Poster design: Michael Koelsch.

Piemonten tryffelinmetsästäjät / Tryffeljägarna från Piemonte.
    A documentary film about Piedmont's truffle hunters and their dogs.
    US 2020 Go Gigi Go Productions LLC. [IT/US/GR]. PC: Beautiful Stories / Artemis Rising Foundation / Bow and Arrow Entertainment / Faliro House Productions / Frenesy Film Company / Go Gigi Go Productions / Park Pictures. EX: Luca Guadagnino, etc. P+D+Cin: Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw – camera: Arri Alexa Mini – colour – 1,85:1 – release format: DCP. M: Ed Côrtes. Soundtrack selections: "Je cherche après Titine" (1917, comp. Léo Danirdeff, lyr. Louis Mauban & Marcel Bertal) ; Giacomo Puccini: "E lucevan le stelle" (aria from Tosca, 1900) ; "Vieni via con me" [?]. S: Stephen Urata. ED: Charlotte Munch Bengtsen.
Carlo Gonella (88) and Titina. Wife: Maria Cicciù.
Aurelio Conterno (84) and Birba.
Angelo Gagliardi (78): "Despite living on land historically rich with truffles, Angelo has given up the hunt, frustrated with what he sees in the world: deforestation, rival hunters poisoning innocent dogs, new hunters prematurely picking a truffle, which destroys its spores from ever blooming again. Angelo has a deep connection to the land and cries whenever a living tree is cut down."
Egidio Gagliardi (83) trying to cultivate white truffles.
Sergi Cauda (68) and Fiona and Pepe.
Gianfranco Curti, seller.
Paulo Stacchin (78), authenticator and judge of truffles.
The dogs: Birba, Biri, Fiona, Charlie, Nina, Titina, and Yari.
    Spiritual advisor: Caroline Libresco.
    Loc: Alba (Piedmont, Italy), around the villages of Santo Stefano Belbo, Monforte d’Alba, and Roddino.
    84 min
    Languages: Italian, Piedmontese.
    Festival premiere: 30 Jan 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
    US premiere: 12 March 2021.
    Finnish premiere: 10 Dec 2021, released by Cinema Mondo, with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Mirka Malkonen / Frej Grönholm.
    Corona precaution: 50 max capacity, hand hygiene, face masks.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 3, Iso Kristiina, Lappeenranta, 3 Jan 2022.

Sundance Film Festival (2020): "Deep in the forests of Northern Italy resides the prized white Alba truffle. Desired by the wealthiest patrons in the world, it remains a pungent but rarified mystery. It cannot be cultivated or found, even by the most resourceful of modern excavators. The only souls on Earth who know how to dig it up are a tiny circle of canines and their silver-haired human companions—Italian elders with walking sticks and devilish senses of humor—who only scour for the truffle at night so as not to leave any clues for others."

"Still, this small enclave of hunters induces a feverish buying market that spans the globe. With unprecedented access to the elusive truffle hunters, filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (The Last Race, 2018 Sundance Film Festival) follow this maddening cycle from the forest floor to the pristine restaurant plate. With a wily and absurdist flare, The Truffle Hunters captures a precarious ritual constantly threatened by greed and outside influences but still somehow protected by those clever, tight-lipped few who know how to unearth the magic within nature.
" (Sundance Film Festival 2020).

Official website: "Deep in the forests of Piedmont, Italy, a handful of men, seventy or eighty years young, hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle—which to date has resisted all of modern science's efforts at cultivation. They're guided by a secret culture and training passed down through generations, as well as by the noses of their cherished and expertly-trained dogs. They live a simpler, slower way of life, in harmony with their loyal animals and their picture-perfect land, seemingly straight out of a fairy tale. They're untethered to cell phone screens or the Internet, opting instead to make their food and drink by hand and prioritizing in-person connections and community."

"The demand for white truffles increases year after year, even as the supply decreases. As a result of climate change, deforestation, and the lack of young people taking up the mantle, the truffle hunters' secrets are more coveted than ever. However, as it soon becomes clear, these ageing men may just hold something much more valuable than even this prized delicacy: the secret to a rich and meaningful life.
" (Official website)

"Tuber magnatum, the high-value white truffle or trifola d'Alba Madonna ("Truffle of the Madonna from Alba" in Italian) is found mainly in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy, and most famously, in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti." (Wikipedia)

AA: The Truffle Hunters is a masterful documentary film by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. It tells about the grand old tartufai of Piedmont who with their beloved dogs pursue white truffles on autumn nights at the forest hillsides near Alba.

Dweck and Kershaw have shot the movie themselves. They use their imagination to catch gorgeous long shots of forests and landscapes. They compose eloquent portrait shots of the wise old men. The introduce "dog vision" to show truffle hunting from the point of view of a dog (a Piemontese shoe cobbler built for the film-makers miniature camera harnesses that strapped unobtrusively around the dog’s head). They follow their heroes during four seasons, also on snowy winter days and muddy autumn days when cars get stuck on forest roads. The aerial shots are refined. They were inspired by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Titian. In interiors I feel an affinity with Vermeer lighting.

The soundscape (designed by Stephan Urata) is equally important: "in portraying the truffle forests, we found that sound was sometimes more important than the image. We wanted to create the feeling that the forest, the truffle hunters, and their dogs were, in some way, a unified whole. To do this, we worked with our sound team to explore the idea of a forest breathing, all of nature coming together in a sonic harmony." (Gregory Kershaw).

Younger generations ask to know the secrets, but the old-timers are not telling. "People are greedy. They just want to exploit the products of nature". They don't let anybody follow them to the hunting grounds. Only us, but probably our scenes are staged.

This is a movie about taste. "Tartufi con molto forti profumi sono incredibili". We witness a gastronomic moment at a restaurant where truffle is properly served. We also visit the fiera del tartufo. The price is tenfold when the truffle is sold to the dealer. It is again tenfold when sold to the buyer. A 73.000 Euro truffle is auctioned to Dubai.

We live in a time when the secret life of mushrooms is finally being understood, the gigantic world wide network of terrestrial life. This film about "the diamond of the kitchen" (Brillat-Savarin) is exciting to contemplate also in this context.

Last night (2 Jan 2022) on the 20.30 Yle TV1 television news there was an item about the centenarians of Cilento (Campania, province of Salerno). They not only live long but stay healthy. Elements of good life seem to include friendly conversation, good family ties, the presence of the church, clean air, vicinity of nature, local food (such as freshly picked tomatoes), real garlic, red wine, regular exercise, music and dance, and avoiding stress and digital gadgets.

Some of these elements occurred to me while watching The Truffle Hunters. These tartufai brush aside those who would like them to slow down and stop wandering in the forest by night – including wives, priests, doctors and young generations who would like to replace them.

They will never reveal their secrets, but I believe that they already have. You need to love the forest and find a good dog. You need to love the call of the owl. Just like mushrooms are about the symbiosis in nature, truffle hunters thrive in the symbiosis of the tartufaio, the dog and the forest.

Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy would have loved this movie.



"Deep in the forests of Piedmont, Northwest Italy, a handful of men, seventy or eighty years young, hunt for the rare and expensive white Alba truffle—which to date has resisted modern science’s efforts at cultivation. They hunt through the night, guided by a secret culture and training passed down through generations, as well as by the noses of their cherished and expertly trained dogs. They are the last of their kind, carrying on a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in the modern world."

"Here, there is a commitment to a simpler life, where handmade food, daily labor as exercise, a connection to community and nature, and a passion for the hunt are the mechanics that keep people physically and mentally young. It’s a world built on the simple pleasures that have been forgotten in the modern era: the quiet simmering of freshly-picked tomatoes; the hours spent in conversation at the dinner table; communing with beloved animals, treated as kin; the mystical forest, where truffles grow at the roots of tall oak trees that breathe in the night; receiving a truffle-tinged blessing at church; or the unaware belting of an off-key folk tune on the drive home."

"However, climate change is drying up the lands where rains used to be plentiful. Deforestation is destroying trees whose symbiotic roots have given life to truffles for centuries. The young people, who would be carrying on their family's traditions, have left the small towns in search of stable work. THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS captures this endangered culture at a key moment in time: for the men who have made truffle hunting their lifelong passion, their way of life, and very existence, is under threat."

"As truffles become more and more elusive, the competition has grown fiercer and these men keep the secrets of their hunting grounds to themselves. They lead their closest friends astray with little white lies, hunt at night without flashlights, and cover up their footprints and car tracks behind them. They have little trust in each other, let alone an outside world that constantly threatens to impinge upon their way of life."

"In THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS, audiences can, for the first time, take a peek into this secretive world, driven by incredible characters with an unshakable passion coursing through their veins. These ageing men who inhabit a fairy tale land may just hold something much more valuable than the prized delicacy they hunt: the secret to a rich and meaningful life.


"The secret forests of Piedmont, Italy hold a mystery."

"The white Alba truffle grows at the roots of tall oak trees. No one knows how or why it grows where it does. Some say a white truffle can only grow at the base of a tree where lightning has struck. Others think it is dependent on the phases of the moon, or magnetic fields. Some even believe it is the work of witches and warlocks. When it blooms, it produces an aroma unlike any other, a sweet subterranean musk that seduces and enchants. It is one of the rarest and most expensive ingredients in the world."

"We are both obsessed with finding places and people that have escaped the sameness of global culture. We look for hidden worlds that possess a beauty that might be overlooked, or perhaps have chosen to remain hidden. It was the enigma of the white truffle that drew us in and led us to the truffle hunters. They are men who are old in years but young in spirit, who spend their days and nights hunting for truffles with their faithful dogs in forests that have beckoned them since they were children. They live close to the land, guided by tradition. Time seems to have stopped in the days of their youth. Digital technology and globalism have not yet upset the rhythm of life. The natural world is an inescapable fact of their daily lives and a lifelong blessing which remains with them as they pass through the twilight of their lives."

"Today, the mystery of the white truffle remains. Our film is a portrait of a fragile place and a passionate group of people who are a reminder that this beautiful world still has much to celebrate.