Nightmare Alley – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman and David Strathairn
Written by Guillermo Del Toro, William Lindsey Gresham (Adapted from the novel by) and Kim Morgan
Length: 150mins

After a Best Picture winner, a cult classic fairytale retelling, as well as a few action movies, Guillermo Del Toro has firmly established himself within Hollywood as a great storyteller. Each of his films delve completely into the setting and history of the environment they play out in, and ‘Nightmare Alley’ is no different. In the film, a young man establishes himself amongst all the intriguing going-on’s of a local travelling circus, becoming further and further embroiled in trouble of his own making. 

Bradley Cooper leads the film as a mysterious and unpredictable character. His simple introduction tells us everything we need to know, and nothing at all. For the first twenty or so minutes, his character of Stanton Carlisle seems content to sit back and let others run around him, barely saying a word. His apparent satisfaction from remaining quiet shows his intelligence, and understanding of how words can be manipulated – a key skill needed for his mystical future employment as a psychic. Cooper is excellent as the leading role, and, combined with his recent appearance in ‘Licorice Pizza’, is showing the world that he’s a brilliantly versatile actor who can deeply involve himself in any role he plays. You’re never quite sure what to make of him, and even in moments of sincerity, there’s an underlying feeling of manipulation that provides an intriguing extra layer to his performance.

Of course, with a cast to rival that of a Wes Anderson film (well, perhaps not quite that good), it would be a shame to not highlight some of the other performances on display. Toni Collette delivers as excellently as always as the charming and warm Madame Zeena, a supposedly mystic character who knows when her act has gone too far. However, the real stand out supporting character falls on the shoulders of David Strathairn, the alcoholic husband of Zeena. His early relationship with Stanton allows the story to consider the ethics behind the tricks conjured upon the circus stage, as well as what the young man should do with his ability to seemingly manipulate others using only a few words. Scenes between the two are completely engaging, as we watch their apprentice-teacher relationship experience its fair share of high and low points.

Aesthetically, ‘Nightmare Alley’ brings to life the magic of the circus. Not entirely sure what you’re seeing, but unable to turn away, the bright lights of travelling entertainment draws in crowds just as much as it does the audience, and by allowing us a look behind the curtain, Del Toro is able to deliver some really intriguing scenes. The film is very much composed of two parts. The first, showing the hidden secrets of a 1940’s circus, visually contrasts with the high society setting of the film’s later action, whilst establishing through characters and dialogue an idea that in neither location is everything as it seems. Vague references to political powers and key historical events not only establishes a clear setting, but considers the ideas of the film’s fictional story within a real, historical context.

With a runtime of two-and-a-half hours, I can’t deny that you do begin to feel the length towards the later half of the film. However, the detail that Del Toro applies to every scene consistently keeps your attention, and strengthens the moments which are already exciting or intriguing. Just like many of his other films, ‘Nightmare Alley’ feels as if it came straight from a storybook that a parent would never want their child to read. 

The 355 – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o, Bingbing Fan, Sebastian Stan and Jason Flemyng. Directed by Simon Kinberg. Written by Simon Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck. Length: 122mins

When a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands, scorned CIA agent Mace Brown (Chastain) goes off grid in an attempt to retrieve the weapon. She joins forces with former rival and German intelligence agent Marie (Kruger), her MI6 ally and computer scientist Khadijah (Nyong’o) and Colombian psychologist Graciela (Cruz) to track the weapon down, all while staying one step ahead of a mysterious woman, Lin Mi Sheng (Fan), who is tracking their every move.

The plot is relatively basic in the ‘spy film’ genre; a threat is established and the intelligence agencies around the world race against time to get their hands on it. Although somewhat generic, the fast pacing of the movie keeps the audiences attention, meaning the audience doesn’t sit and think too deeply into logistics or intricate details. The writing does lack surprise, the main twist isn’t difficult to see coming, and its missing any real suspense or humour. But I think it works. Audiences have such high expectations in this genre and of course it will be compared to the well established, male led franchises like James Bond, Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne, but I think it’s our job as audiences to try to avoid such comparisons. Not to say that it shouldn’t be scrutinised to the same level – we have expectations and a desire for those to be met, but I think it’s an obvious concept that a female led movie in a genre that is dominated by male leads should be different. Celebrating the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, as you would expect in any other film, depending on who they are and how their stories unfold.

While the character relationship development is perhaps a little clunky, particularly between Mace and Marie, the group forms with an interesting chemistry. The writers do manage to avoid some of the cliches one might expect to see; our group doesn’t become really close, really quickly, they don’t all use their appearances to get what they want (apart from one of the characters, once…but even then it’s not a massive plot point). The focus relies on the concept of five, highly trained individuals who are going after their mission. The writing also allows our leading ladies, to retain their own sense of feminimity throughout, without changing for the sake of making any of it’s audience ‘feel better’, they are strong, they are determined, they are skilled, they have vulnerabilities and they are human. It makes it work.

It’s been said that the cast are ‘wasted’ in The 355, and yes, I can understand that the acting abilities of the cast were not stretched to reach the full potential of their skill, but the work didn’t need it. Chastain’s character goes through real emotional turmoil throughout and she rides it with just the right level of drive, Kruger brings a real strength and passion to Marie, while Cruz doesn’t push too hard for her character to be anything other than it’s written to bes. Nyong’o and Fan play roles who are somewhat more mysterious with their past experiences hinted at but not really explored. All of the women are generous in their performances, none demand focus and quite frankly having 5 leading ladies in an action movie who are all aged between 38-48 is something I would like to see more of.

Unfortunately, I’ve already seen some folk turn their nose up and not being willing to watch the film purely because it features “women playing mens roles” (not my words, but a quote from a moviegoer who didn’t buy a ticket for this particular feature…), which is really sad to me. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film that isn’t trying to push any agenda and it’s really worth a watch. While not a perfect movie it had everything that I wanted from a film in the action/spy genre.

Licorice Pizza – Review

Rating: 15
Cast: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie and Skyler Gisondo
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Length: 134mins

If Quentin Tarantino has set a precedent of highly established directors creating fun and stylised films about the period they grew up in with ‘Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’, then Paul Thomas Anderson has just released a great addition to the collection. Like George Lucas’s ‘American Graffiti’ and Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ before them, everything’s cool in these films – it’s just teenagers running around, having a good time and getting into trouble. Set in 1970’s L.A, ‘Licorice Pizza’ follows fifteen-year-old Gary Valentine, a successful child star, as he grows up hoping the girl he’s in love with might be won over by his charm, whilst also somehow seeming to get involved in just about everything that was going on in the valley at the time.

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim are brilliant as the two lead characters. Despite it being the feature debut for the both of them, their chemistry onscreen is effortlessly engaging. Whether they’re arguing about pinball machines or making up over water beds, the constant highs and lows of their relationship is central to the story of ‘Licorice Pizza’, and captures everything that’s exciting about being young in a beautiful place like San Fernando.

Looking back through his filmography, it’s hard to argue that Paul Thomas Anderson is anything less than a modern master of filmmaking. His style is unique, but adapts with each new story he tells, whether that be the early twentieth century oil industry, or the trappings of dressmaking in Britain. ‘Licorice Pizza’, although arguably less direct in its storytelling, doesn’t disappoint. Scenes pass by effortlessly as a result of Anderson’s excellent direction, hailing back to the films which established his career like ‘Boogie Nights’ and ‘Magnolia’, where the camera moves with grace, whilst capturing everything around it. When the kids are excited about some new business venture or plan they’re about to lay into action, so is the camera, moving with a degree of its own energy that you can’t help but be drawn in by.

There are some absolutely brilliant moments within the film. Bradley Cooper lights up every scene he’s in, not only because of the blindingly white outfit he’s wearing, but also from the energy and intensity he dedicates to every small detail. Benny Safdie’s role as a candidate for the local mayoral position brings a great level of sincerity to the film, showing that not everything is bright and cheerful in the world of the characters. Although the narrative is fairly loose, jumping from one moment to another with little explanation, the choice to play the film out in this way works as a reflection of the energetic and impulsive way in which Valentine’s mind functions. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that this is a nostalgic film for Anderson, reflecting on the times in which he grew up with a great amount of fondness, which, like a memory, is thought back on like a patchwork – some things are more vivid and others aren’t.

‘Licorice Pizza’ is exactly the kind of fun and relaxing film that could do really well at the cinema these days. It looks beautiful, the characters are engaging, and it transports you back to the feeling of excitement you had when you were a kid and the summer holidays were in full swing, even if that wasn’t in the 1970’s L.A. It’s not without its flaws, but as a fun trip out to the cinema, you can’t fault it.

Tick, Tick…BOOM!  – Review

Rating: 12A Cast: Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda Written by Steven Levenson (screenplay by) and Jonathan Larson (based on the musical by) Length: 115mins

Tick, Tick…BOOM is a heartfelt tribute to Broadway talent Jonathan Larson, played here by Andrew Garfield. A show written by Larson himself to tell his story and express his struggle, adapted by screenwriter Steven Levenson from Larson’s autobiographical piece that came just before Rent to tell the story of his first major musical project: a wildly ambitious futurist fantasy called Superbia that almost no one seemed to get. In short; it’s a musical about making a musical based on an autobiographical one man show…

This film is explicitly theatrical, going back and forth between Larson’s story and his one-man show of him telling that same story. This will undoubtedly not be to everyones taste, however I feel like this film was created for a certain audience; then if others enjoy it then its a bonus. It’s a true love letter to musicals and the artists that create them, with a wider scope of anyone who is grinding for a career in the arts. Tick, Tick…Boom throws its audience into the Larson’s ordeal of the quarter-life crisis, the first glimmers of approaching mortality and the realisation that options are closing down, something that particularly afflicts those approaching their 30s in the creative arts who don’t seem to be making it. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda saw Rent on his 17th birthday, he saw that musicals could be about every day people in places and situations that he understood..two years later he started writing his tony award winning show‘In The Heights’. It’s a really great to see a director take on a movie about someone who directly impacted his life – Larson was the composer who inspired his own creative awakening. Miranda, who also starred as Larson in a theatrical performance of this, directs the film with a deep understanding of the passion, struggle, and ebullience of an artist committed to an art form that requires a lot of money and a lot of other people to be brought to life.

Some people will be frustrated by Larson’s sense of his own importance and neglect of those around him. But theatre kids of all ages will appreciate that it’s not his own importance he’s excited by, so much as the importance of the stories he wants to tell, even if they are not yet awards worthy.

This film is really stylised which fits perfectly with the somewhat chaotic narrative and you can see how much heart has been put into it’s creation. As stated earlier I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but it’s an opportunity to get a glimpse of struggle demonstrated on this particular path of life. Had this film been based around another subject matter, I probably wouldn’t have connected to it to the same degree, but for what it is, I think it’s brilliant.

Jonathan Larson died at 35, just before the opening night of Rent, an almost unbearable metaphor for the backstage heartbreak of musical theatre. This film helps remember him and his creativity in a beautiful way. 

Active Spectator Film Awards 2020/2021

This it is! Time for the winners! Have a look through the post to see who came out victorious in each category at this year’s glamorous Active Spectator Awards!

Best Picture:

  • Another Round
  • Power of the Dog
  • King Richard
  • Minari

(Dune, The Father)

Best Lead Actress:

  • Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman)
  • Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
  • Jennifer Hudson (Respect)
  • Jodie Comer (The Last Duel)

(Frances McDormand – Nomadland)

Best Lead Actor:

  • Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal)
  • Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
  • Will Smith (King Richard)

(Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round, Steven Yeun – Minari)

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Olivia Cooke (Sound of Metal)
  • Youn Tuh-jung (Minari)
  • Olivia Colman (The Father)
  • Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)

(Rebecca Ferguson – Dune, Gaby Hoffman – C’mon C’mon)

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Vikesh Bhai (Limbo)
  • Benicio Del Toro (The French Dispatch)
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
  • Jon Bernthal (King Richard)

(Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah)

Best Director:

  • Chloe Zhao (Nomadland)
  • Kelly Reichardt (First Cow)
  • Denis Villenevue (Dune)
  • Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)

(Ben Sharrock – Limbo, Steven Spielberg – West Side Story)

Best Cinematography:

  • Joshua James Richards (Nomadland)
  • Greig Fraser (Dune)
  • Claire Mathon (Spencer)
  • Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog)

(Andrew Droz Palermo – The Green Knight, Janusz Kaminski – West Side Story)

Best Original Score:

  • Hans Zimmer (Dune)
  • Jonny Greenwood (Spencer)
  • Jonny Greenwood (The Power of the Dog)
  • Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall)

Extra Categories


  • Dune
  • Spiderman: No Way Home
  • Power of the Dog
  • Jungle Cruise
  • Cruella

Based On a True Story:

  • King Richard
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Respect
  • The Last Duel
  • The Dig


  • Spiderman: No Way Home
  • A Quiet Place: Part II
  • Dune
  • Jungle Cruise
  • Get Back


  • Spiderman: No Way Home
  • Cruella
  • Jungle Cruise
  • Clifford the Big Red Dog
  • Ghostbusters: Afterlife