Men on the Run. Films reviewed: Flee, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Afghanistan, Animation, Circus, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, Drama, melodrama, Movies, Refugees, Sex Trade, Texas, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

With Award Season quickly approaching — from the Golden Globes to the Golden Turkeys — the studios are releasing a lot of its big ticket movies in hopes of being considered for some of the major prizes up for grabs. This week I’m looking at three potential Oscar nominations, all stories about men trying to flee from their dark pasts for a potentially better future. There’s a man who leaves a burning house to join the circus, a middle-aged porn star who leaves LA to find a job in small-town Texas, and a young man who runs for his life from Afghanistan in hopes of finding a better one in Europe.

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is down on his luck. He was an LA porn star in his heyday, along with his wife, 

Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the good times are long gone. Now he’s back home in Texas City, Texas, with no money, no possessions, no reputation, the prodigal husband knocking at his ex-wife’s door. Naturally she and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss) want nothing to do with him, but he manages to sweet talk his way into letting him sleep on their couch. And after an exhausting search for employment — no one will hire a former sex worker — he falls back on his teenage job as a pot dealer. And soon enough, with the help of his blue happy pills, he’s sleeping wth Lexi again each night.  But everything changes when he meets a beautiful naive young woman with red hair, who works at the local donut shop. Her name is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who loves pink hearts and everything sweet. Mikey becomes infatuated by her, both as a focus of his lust and his imagined ticket to wealth. He tells her he’ll take her away from this dead-end town and introduce her to the top names in Hollywood porn, after, of course, she turns 18. Wait… what?

Red Rocket is an outrageous  comedy about the misadventures of a former male porn star, including an extended across town by a panicking naked Mikey brandishing his Sabre. This is Sean Baker’s third such film — Tangerine about two black transwomen in LA, and The Florida Project, told through the eyes of kids in Orlando — shot, guerilla-style, on location on a budget using mainly first-time actors (who, I have to say, are all great!) And he helps normalize marginal sex workers by defying the usual stereotypes. At the same time, a movie about a predatory 40-year-old guy seducing a Lolita-like teenaged girl is not the same as rambunctious kids in Florida or wisecracking transwomen in LA. Don’t worry, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, but Red Rocket will make you squirm and cringe uncomfortably along the way.

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin is born in Kabul where he grows up under communist rule, watching Bruce Lee movies and dancing to pop music on his walkman. Now he lives in Copenhagen with Kasper, his lover — they’re thinking of buying a house in the countryside. After that is, he finishes his post-doctoral work at Princeton. But how did he get from Afghanistan to Denmark? When the US-backed Mujahideen invaded Kabul his family is forced to flee. Russia is the only place offering a tourist visa — but Moscow is a mess; the the Soviet Union has just collapsed and is now run by oligarchs and corrupt police. Now they’re stuck in limbo, supported by his older brother a janitor in Sweden. Can the family stay together? Can they ever make it to somewhere safe? Or will unscrupulous human traffickers lead them to disaster?

Flee is a deeply moving drama about one man’s journey as a refugee from danger to sanctuary, and all the moral compromises he is forced to make along the way. It’s sort of a documentary, in that it’s a true story told by the man it happened to, even though it’s voiced by actors using animated characters. And by animation, I don’t mean cute animals with big eyes, I mean lovely, hand-made drawings that portray what actually happened. Far from being the heavy, ponderous lesson I was dreading, Flee has a wonderfully surprising story, elegantly told.

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a bright and fit young man with great ambitions and a shady past. Leaving a dead man in a burnt house behind him, he sets out to find his fortune He comes upon a circus, and makes his way through the tents to Nightmare Alley, the area where the carnies do their work out of sight. He gets hired as a roustabout, hammering nails, pitching tents, but soon rises quickly within the circus ranks. Zeena  the Seer (Toni Collette) seduces him, and in return she provides access to her partner Ezra (Richard Jenkins) an aging alcoholic. Ezra holds a little black book outlining exactly how to con strangers out of their money by convincing them you can read their minds and talk to the dead. But he warns Stan, don’t fall into the trap of believing you it’s real — that can kill you. Meanwhile, Stan only has eyes for the beautiful and innocent Molly  Cahill (Rooney Mara), the electric woman. She’s fiercely defended by the other carnies, but they let her go when she says they’re in love. 

They move to the big city where they find great success in their psychic act. Stan loves their new rich lifestyle, while Molly pines for her previously life at the circus. But trouble brews in the form of a femme fatale, a beautiful blonde woman with an ivory-handled gun who attends one of their acts. Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a successful psychoanalyst who listens to — and records — the confessions of the richest and most powerful men in the city… and she is intrigued by Stan’s psychic abilities. (She completely ignores Molly). Perhaps they can combine their resources for even greater success? 

Nightmare Alley is a dark movie about an ambitious but ruthless man in his quest for success. Bradley Cooper is credible in the lead, but even better are all the supporting actors, from Willem Dafoe to Cate Blanchett. It has a novelistic storyline with a plethora of characters, almost like a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense.  Based on a novel, it’s a remake of the 1949 film noir of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. And it fits perfectly in del Toro’s body of work, with his love of freaks, legerdemain, underdogs, young women with pageboy haircuts, and of course many actors who appeared in his previous films. Guillermo del Toro (who shoots his movies in studios and locations around Toronto) has a troupe of actors he uses over and over, like Ron Perlman, dating back to his earliest movies. NIghtmare Alley is quite long — two and a half hours — but kept my attention all the way to a perfectly twisted finish. It’s a good, classic drama.

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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