Lisa Marie Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Nightmare Alley (dir by Guillermo del Toro)


In March, CODA won the Oscar for Best Picture.

By May, I think most people had forgotten about it.

I point this out not to be snarky about CODA (which, for the most part, I found to be a well-made and sweet-natured movie) but to just point out that occasionally, the Oscar for Best Picture Of The Year does not go to the nominee that’s necessarily going to be remembered and watched by future generations.  CODA’s victory is not a travesty, regardless of what some members of Film Twitter insisted.  This isn’t like when Green Book won.  It’s just that CODA seems to be destined to be remembered in much the same way that we remember Argo and Spotlight, i.e. a well-made and well-acted film that gets the job done but don’t necessarily stick around in your mind for long after you watch it.

In fact, looking back at all of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, the one that has really stuck with me is Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter who, in 1939, gets a job with a carnival.  Stan is running from his past.  He’s haunted by visions and dreams of a dying old man and a burning farm house.  When we first meet him, he avoids alcohol which is perhaps a good thing as getting drunk at the carnival just makes someone easier to exploit and, ultimately, the carnival is all about exploitation.  The carnival’s owner, Clem (Willem DaFoe), specializes in tricking alcoholics into becoming opium-addicted “geeks,” who bite the heads off of chickens for gawking country audiences.

It’s not a glamorous life but it’s one that allows Stan to hide from his past.  He comes under the tutelage of Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her husband, Pete (David Straithairn).  They teach him how to give “cold readings,” and Stan proves to be an eager student.  Pete tells Stan to never pretend to be able to speak to the dead and, from the minute that Pete says it, we can tell that Stan is already thinking about how much money he could make by doing just that.  Stan also appears to fall in love with Molly (Rooney Mara), a performer whose act involves a fake electric chair.  When Stan eventually abandons the carnival, Molly goes with him.  When Stan finds success as a fake medium, Molly is his assistant.

Stan becomes quite a success in Buffalo, trading in his shabby clothes and his unshaven appearance for a tuxedo and suave mustache.  With success comes arrogance and Stan soon ignore what Pete told him about pretending to be able to speak to the dead.  When Stan meets a psychologist named Dr. Lillian Rith (Cate Blanchett), he gets involved in a plot to con a judge who is still mourning for his deceased son.  It also leads to Stan meeting a corrupt and murderous businessman (Richard Jenkins).  Ignoring Pete’s lesson sets off a chain of events that leads Stan right back to where he started.

There’s something wonderfully subversive about taking Bradley Cooper, a legitimate movie star who is probably one of the most personable and likable actors working today, and casting him as such a sleazy character.  This isn’t a case, as in American Hustle or even The Hangover movies, where Cooper is playing a goof who gets in over his head.  Instead, Stan is someone who uses his eager manner and his natural charm to cover up the fact that he’s hollow on the inside.  Watching the film, you’re never quite sure as to whether or not Stan truly cares about any of the people who come into his life.  Does he love Molly or is he just using her?  Does he care about his friends from the carnival or is he just manipulating them into acting as a shield to keep out his former life?  When he goes against Pete’s lessons about pretending to speak to the dead, is he motivated by greed or arrogance?  Or does he truly want to believe that he’s somehow become the all-powerful psychic that he pretends to be?  Stan becomes a success because he knows how to con everyone but eventually, he meets someone who is even emptier than he is.  Ultimately, Stan cons himself.  He tricks himself into believing that he’s more clever than he actually is and he ends up facing the fate that he secretly always knew was waiting for him.  Cooper gives an outstanding performance as Stan.  Both he and del Toro cleverly play with what audiences expect when they see Bradley Cooper onscreen.  In the end, the film suggests that not even charm can ward off karma.

Nightmare Alley is work of what Lucio Fulci called “pure cinema,” one in which the imagery and the emotions generated by that imagery is even more important than the story itself.  The sets, whether it’s the carnival or Dr. Ritter’s office or the Buffalo ballroom where Stan cons the wealthy, are large and ornate.  The cinematography is gorgeous.  The supporting performances are arch and witty.  Cate Blanchett’s and Rooney Mara’s costumes are to die for.  Nearly every shot feels as if it could have been lifted from a particularly vivid dream.  Guillermo del Toro’s love of cinema is evident in every frame of Nightmare Alley.  It’s a film that celebrates the grandeur and the power of imagination and also warns about the destructive power of hubris.  Despite the fact that del Toro has gone on the record saying that there’s nothing supernatural about Nightmare Alley, it’s still a wonderful film for the Halloween season.  The costumes are beautiful and the final third of the movie plays like an homage to the classic German expressionistic horror films, with Blanchett playing her role as a mix of Dr. Caligari and a classic noir feeme fatale.  Nightmare Alley is a big, flamboyant, and unforgettable work of pure cinema and, looking back, it’s my favorite film of 2021.

It’s a film that stays with you.

Here’s The Trailer For Walter Hill’s Dead For A Dollar


Dead For A Dollar is director Walter Hill’s first film in six years and Christoph Waltz’s first western since his Oscar-winning turn in Django Unchained.  The film will bring Waltz together with Willem Dafoe, as they play two rivals in the old west.  Waltz is playing a bounty hunter who is hired to track down the runaway wife of a prominent politician.  Dafoe plays a gambler and an outlaw who apparently has a score to settle with Waltz.  Rachel Brosnahan (star of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) plays the woman for whom Waltz is searching.  The film is scheduled to premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 6th.

Here’s the trailer!

Alex Skarsgard seeks vengeance in Robert Eggers’ The Northman Trailer!


Robert Eggers is back with another film, and I couldn’t be more excited for it. I’m a little surprised that The Northman isn’t under A24 like his other films. This time, Eggers is working with Focus Features and Universal.

Look at this cast: Alexander Skarsgârd (Godzilla vs. Kong), Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Claes Bang (Netflix’s Dracula), Willem Dafoe (Eggers’ The Lighthouse), Anya Taylor-Joy (Eggers’ The Witch), Ethan Hawke (The Black Phone) and Bjork (Dancer in the Dark). Much like Conan, The Northman follows a man hellbent on avenging his father’s death.

The Northman releases in theatres April 22.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (dir. by Jon Watts)


This is basically where we are.

If you haven’t seen a film on the Thursday preview night, chances are every online publisher is going to share spoilers by Friday Evening. I get it. It’s the Nature of the Beast. It makes for news, and there are people out there who either don’t mind being spoiled or need to know what they’re seeing going into a film. It’s partially why sites like Movie Pooper, and Does The Dog Die are popular. I usually try not to say anything about a movie on Twitter because of this. Everyone deserves to feel that sense of awe and surprise when the lights come down in their cinema.

These are as spoiler free as I can make them. I may write something else to focus on my thoughts with spoilers down the road.

If you managed to stay off the Internet and avoid any spoilers to Spider-Man: No Way Home (outside of the trailers themselves), then you are in for some grand fun that is almost on the level of Avengers: Endgame. I’ve been to the theatres a few times during the pandemic. Perhaps because it was an After-Midnight showing, but the audience was fantastic. The film comes full circle, with an adventure that celebrates Spider-Man’s guest appearance in the MCU for Disney/Marvel, while still building on the character for Sony’s purposes in the future. As a Trilogy, Jon Watts and the team deserve a round of applause for sticking the landing so very well here. The third film in a series is never easy, and even Sam Raimi found that out with Spider-Man 3. By the time the movie was done, I was soaking up the applause like Colin Robinson in What We Do In the Shadows.

The film picks up right at the last end credit from Spider-Man: Far From Home with Quentin Beck’s Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) proclaiming to the world (through J. Jonah Jameson, played by J.K. Simmons as usual) that Spider-Man was in control of the Stark Drones and that he is really Peter Parker. Normally, my first thought here would be to own it – like Stark did. However, with murders tied in, it’s a bad rap for our webbed hero and anyone associated with him. Peter decides to make things right by visiting Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Power of the Dog) to make everyone forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. This gets botched and pulls through some villains that our Peter (Tom Holland) isn’t quite ready for.

As you’ve seen in the posters and trailers, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), and Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) along with a few others are pulled from their universe into Peter’s. When Peter discovers their fates in their own universes, he makes an attempt to save them, which puts him at odds with Doctor Strange. Can Peter find a way to change their futures, and clear his name in the process?

Of course, the gang’s all here. Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Marisa Tomei, and Jon Favreau are all on hand for this third one. Everyone has something to offer, with Zendaya, Batalon, and Tomei carrying the most weight. The only awkward character in the whole bunch is Favreau’s Happy Hogan, who is regulated into kind of a silly comic relief here. I don’t know. I just remember Happy being a bit more capable than they way they have him this time around.

From a writing standpoint, it’s somewhat innovative. If we didn’t already have the 2019’s Academy Award winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, I’d say No Way Home was walking into uncharted territory. The film makes up for this by allowing our Peter to choose differently, compared to what we historically know about Spider-Man and these villains. I honestly enjoyed that angle and thought it helped to drive home the whole “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility” motto that defines Spider-Man.

Musically, Michael Giacchino weaves his own form of magic here. Pulling themes both from Doctor Strange and what he’s done with the previous films, there are a number of great sequences. When all is said and done, the score for this film may very well rival Shirley Walker’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm score for me.

At the time of this writing, it sounds like NYC is headed for another lockdown. I’m hoping that’s not the case. If this is the last movie I get to see in a theatre for a while, I’m thankful for it. Spider-Man: No Way Home completes a great handoff from Disney/Marvel to Sony. The character did what he needed for Disney/Marvel’s MCU, and Sony still holds the movie rights to the character for where they want to take him. I’m hopeful for Spider-Man’s cinematic future.

Our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man’s going to be okay.

Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions for October


It’s time to take a little break from horror so that I may once against do my list of my monthly Oscar predictions!  I guess some people would consider predicting the Oscars to be a scary thing.  Personally, I have fun doing it, even if my predictions often seem to be for naught.  That said, I did manage to predict that Thomas Vinterberg would be nominated for Best Director last year so take that, haters.

Probably the biggest development this month is that I’ve lost all faith in Spielberg’s West Side Story.  It’s just not getting the type of hype that I would expect from a Spielberg Oscar movie.  In fact, it seems like everyone involved is in kind of a hurry to move on.  So, for now, I’m dropping it from my predictions.  While West Side Story goes, Dune has definitely established itself as a probable nominee.  I think the only problem that Dune will have is the possibility of people saying, “We’ll just nominate the sequel instead.”

I’ve also added C’mon C’mon and Passing to my list of Best Picture nominees.  This is almost totally due to their popularity with the Gothams.  If the other critics groups don’t duplicate the love, they’ll probably get dropped from my predictions come January.

As always, keep in mind that I don’t claim to be an expert.  The picture is a bit clearer but I don’t claim to have any inside information or anything like that.  These are just my guesses, for better or worse.  To see how my thinking has evolved,  check out my predictions for March and April and May and June and July and August and September!

Best Picture

Belfast

C’mon C’mon

CODA

Dune

The Lost Daughter

Nightmare Alley

Passing

The Power of the Dog

Spencer

The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Director

Kenneth Branagh for Belfast

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Maggie Gyllenhaal for The Lost Daughter

Guillermo del Toro for Nightmare Alley

Denis Villeneuve for Dune

Best Actor

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano

Jude Hill in Belfast

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Lives

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

Best Supporting Actor

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Jamie Dornan in Belfast

Ciaran Hinds in Belfast

Jason Isaacs in Mass

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

Dame Judi Dench in Belfast

Ann Dowd in Mass

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Lisa Marie’s Oscar Predictions for September


Well, it’s the time of the month again.

No, not that time!  That time ended two days ago.  I’m talking about the fact that it’s time for me to once again share my monthly Oscar predictions.  Thanks to the festival circuit, we’ve finally gotten some advance word on the big Oscar contenders that will be coming out over the next few months.

Belfast, as of right now, sounds like the prohibitive favorite to win it all.  At first, it seemed like the reaction to The Power of the Dog was a bit mixed but later reactions were almost overwhelmingly positive.  It sounds like the type of film that will be nominated even if it won’t necessarily win.  Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter is coming on strong, as is Spencer.  For me, the biggest surprise has been the amount of acclaim that Dune has been getting.  I was a bit dismissive of its Oscar chances earlier this year but now it definitely sounds like it will be in the hunt.

West Side Story has been seen by no one but I continue to list it because it’s a Spielberg film and, with all the musicals that are being released this year and which have subsequently struggled with either critics or audiences or both, it still seems the most likely to pick up a nomination.  I’m a little bit skeptical on whether or not Nightmare Alley is going to be an “Oscar picture” but the trailer was nice to look at so I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.  House of Gucci is three hours long and full of stars so it’s either going to be an Oscar nominee or a complete bomb.

You may notice a lack of predicted nominations for Licorice Pizza. Licorice Pizza is a film that I fully expect to love but the trailer definitely feels a bit more like Inherent Vice than The Phantom Thread.  I still think that the actors could get nominated but the rumor right now is that Bradley Cooper’s role is actually very small.  That’s why I no longer have him listed as a supporting actor nominee.

Again, keep in mind that I’m not an expert.  The picture is a bit clearer but I don’t claim to have any inside information or anything like that.  These are just my guesses, for better or worse.  To see how my thinking has evolved,  check out my predictions for March and April and May and June and July and August!

Best Picture

Belfast

CODA

Dune

House of Gucci

The Lost Daughter

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

Spencer

The Tragedy of MacBeth

West Side Story

Best Director

Kenneth Branagh for Belfast

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Guillermo del Toro for Nightmare Alley

Steven Spielberg for West Side Story

Denis Villeneuve for Dune

Best Actor

Clifton Collins, Jr. in Jockey

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Lives

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Kristen Stewart in Spencer

Best Supporting Actor

David Alvarez in West Side Story

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Ciaran Hinds in Belfast

Jason Isaac in Mass

Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter

Dame Judi Dench in Belfast

Ann Dowd in Mass

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Here’s The Teaser for Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley!


Here’s the first teaser for one of the most anticipated movies of the year, Nightmare Alley!

Guillermo del Toro’s previous film, Shape of the Water, won the Oscar for Best Picture. Could Nightmare Alley pull off the same feat? I have no idea but the trailer looks good and I’ll watch Bradley Cooper, Willem DaFoe, and Cate Blanchett in anything. Nightmare Alley is scheduled to be released on December 17th.

Incidentally, Nightmare Alley is based on a novel, which was previously adapted into a film way back in 1947. That version, which is considered to be a noir classic, was directed by Edmund Goulding and starred Tyrone Power, Jr in the lead role.

Lisa Marie’s Early Oscar Predictions for June


2013 oscars

It’s the end of the month and that means that it’s time for me to post my monthly predictions!

What has chanced since I last made my predictions in May?  Though it was acclaimed by critics, the box office failure of In The Heights has probably ended that film’s time as an Oscar contender.  For all the musicals that are coming out this year, only Spielberg’s West Side Story really seems like a good bet to emerge as a major contender.  Dear Evan Hansen was pretty much eliminated from consideration as soon as its trailer dropped.  Tick, Tick …. Boom seems to be destined to be loved by theater kids while being dismissed by everyone else.  I’d love to see Joe Wright and Peter Dinklage nominated but my instincts are telling me that Cyrano will probably not be a huge contender.  In the end, West Side Story seems like the most likely musical nominee.

I’ve been reading up on Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which is set to premiere at Venice and then be released via Netflix.  Based on a novel by Thomas Savage, this sounds like the type of film that could potentially be a strong contender, depending on what approach Campion takes the story.  The main character of Phil Burbank is the type of bigger-than-life role that could lead to Oscar glory.  (The closest recent equivalent to Phil would probably be Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.)  Phil is a sharply intelligent but cruelly manipulative Montana rancher, the type who brags about castrating cattle while quoting Ovid and who goes out of his way to bully anyone who he considers to be effeminate.  Of course, there’s a secret behind all of Phil’s cruelty and how the film handles that secret will have a lot to do with how strongly the film comes on during awards season.  Phil is being played by Benedict Cumberbatch, which is …. interesting casting.  (Personally, I probably would have begged Michael Fassbender to take the role.)  Still, it seems like Phil could be the type of change-of-pace role that, should Cumberbatch’s casting pay off, could lead to Oscar glory.

Coming up in July, we’ve got Cannes and we’ll be getting our first look at contenders like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.  Though Cannes is hardly a reliable precursor, the Oscar race should start to become a bit clearer as the festival start up and the contenders — many of which we’ve been waiting to see for over two years — will finally start to be released.  Until then, take all predictions with a grain of salt!

If you’re curious to see how my thinking has developed, check out my predictions for March and April and May.

Best Picture

The French Dispatch

House of Gucci

A Journal for Jordan

Nightmare Alley

Parallel Mothers

Passing

The Power of the Dog

Soggy Bottom

The Tragedy of MacBeth

West Side Story

Best Director

Pedro Almodovar for Parallel Mothers

Paul Thomas Anderson for Soggy Bottom

Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog

Ridley Scott for House of Gucci

Denzel Washington for A Journal For Jordan

Best Actor

Clifton Collins, Jr. in Jockey

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog

Michael B. Jordan in A Journal for Jordan

Will Smith in King Richard

Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Penelope Cruz in Parallel Mothers

Jennifer Hudson in Respect

Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos

Tessa Thompson in Passing

Best Supporting Actor

Adam Driver in The Last Duel

Bradley Cooper in Soggy Bottom

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Bill Murray in The French Dispatch

Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog

Vera Farmiga in The Many Saints of Newark

Marlee Matlin in CODA

Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of MacBeth

Ruth Negga in Passing

 

Lisa Marie’s Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For April


Well, now that the latest Oscar ceremony is out of the way, I guess it’s time to focus on predicting what will be nominated next year.

(Well, it’s not really time but if you’re an Oscar-obsessive like I am, you really have no choice. Oscar speculation is an addiction that’s easily shaken off.)

Below, you’ll find my predictions for April. As always, these should be taken with several grains of salt.

First off, I haven’t seen any of these films and some of them might not live up to expectations.

Secondly, I’m not even sure whether the Academy is going to go back to the old rules of using the end of December as their eligibility cut-off or if they’re going to continue with the extended release window that they used last year.

Third, the Oscar picture is never anywhere close clear until November or December rolls around. Right now, I can only predict what I know is going to be released between now and December 31st. Obviously some of the movies below might have their release date changed and several movies will be picked up from the various film festivals. In all probability, next year’s big Oscar winner isn’t even on anyone’s radar right now. (Let’s not forget that, up until February of this year, most people were still predicting that Da 5 Bloods would be a huge Oscar player.)

Also note, the Academy is finally going back to having a set number of best picture nominees so no more of this stupid 7 or 9 nominees nonsense. In theory, that’s good news for film like Dune, which will probably get a lot of technical nominations but which probably would have struggled to make the final best picture lineup under the former rules. Of course, the Academy is also about to institute their inclusion requirements so it will be interesting to see if any of the expected contenders are disqualified from competing for best picture.

If you want to follow how my thinking has developed, be sure to check out my predictions for March!

Best Picture

Dune

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The French Dispatch

A Journal for Jordan

King Richard

The Last Duel

Nightmare Alley

Respect

Soggy Bottom

West Side Story

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson for Soggy Bottom

Wes Anderson for The French Dispatch

Guillermo Del Toro for Nightmare Alley

Steven Spielberg for West Side Story

Denzel Washington for A Journal For Jordan

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

Peter Dinklage in Cyrano

Adam Driver in The Last Duel

Michael B. Jordan in A Journal for Jordan

Will Smith in King Richard

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

Jennifer Hudson in Respect

Rachel Zegler in West Side Story

Best Supporting Actor

David Alvarez in West Side Story

Willem DaFoe in Nightmare Alley

Andrew Garfield in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Bill Murray in The French Dispatch

Forest Whitaker in Respect

Best Supporting Actress

Chante Adams in A Journal for Jordan

Judi Dench in Belfast

Vera Farmiga in The Many Saints of Newark

Audra MacDonald in Respect

Marlee Matlin in CODA

The Unnominated: Auto Focus (dir by Paul Schrader)


Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim that the Oscars honor the best of the year, we all know that there are always worthy films and performances that end up getting overlooked.  Sometimes, it’s because the competition too fierce.  Sometimes, it’s because the film itself was too controversial.  Often, it’s just a case of a film’s quality not being fully recognized until years after its initial released.  This series of reviews takes a look at the films and performances that should have been nominated but were,for whatever reason, overlooked.  These are the Unnominated.

The 2002 film Auto Focus start out as almost breezy satire of the perfect all-American life and it ends with an act of shocking violence.  It’s based on a real-life mystery, a murder that revealed a secret life.

When we first see Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), he’s a disc jockey and a drummer living in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the mid-60s.  He’s got what would appear to be the ideal life.  He’s got a nice house.  He and his wife (Rita Wilson) seem to be devoted to each other.  His children are adorable.  He goes to church.  He tells corny Dad jokes.  He’s got a quick smile and a friendly manner and it’s impossible not to like him.  When he gets offered the lead in a sitcom, his happiness and enthusiasm feels so generous that it’s impossible not to be happy for him.

Of course, the show is a comedy that takes place in World War II POW camp, which doesn’t really sound like a surefire hit or really anything that should be put on the air.  (“Funny Nazis?” Crane says in disbelief when he’s first told about the project.)  Still, with Crane in the lead role, Hogan’s Heroes becomes a hit and, for a while, Bob Crane becomes a star and it seems like it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

The problem, of course, is that Crane seems like he’s too good to be true and we all know what they say about things like that.  From the start, there are hints that Crane may be hiding another side of his personality.  His wife, for instance, is not happy when she discovers his stash of pornographic magazines in their garage.  (“They’re photography magazines!” Crane protests with a smile that’s a bit too quick.)  Crane obviously enjoys the recognition that comes from being the star of a top-rated show.  He starts hanging out at strip clubs, occasionally playing drums with the club’s band and watching the dancers with a leer that’s really not all that different from the smile that he flashes whenever he asks anyone if they want an autograph.

Crane also meets John Carpenter (Willem DaFoe), an electronics expert who introduces him to the then-expensive and exclusive world of home video.  As opposed to the clean-cut and smoothly-spoken Crane, Carpenter is so awkward that it’s sometimes painful to watch him move or listen to him speak.  He’s the epitome of the Hollywood hanger-on, the type who has deluded himself into thinking that his celebrity clients genuinely like him and enjoy his company.  He and Crane become fast friends, though it’s always obvious that Crane considers himself to be better than Carpenter.  However, Carpenter is the only person with whom Crane can share the details of his secret life.

The film covers several years, from the late 60s to the mid-70s.  Crane goes from being so clean-cut that he neither drinks nor curses to being so addicted to sex that he can stop himself even when it starts to destroy his career and leads to him losing everything that he loves.  Carpenter and Crane’s friendship becomes progressively more and more self-destructive until the film ends in violence and tragedy.

Auto Focus begins on a light and breezy note but, as Crane’s addiction grows, the film grows darker.  By the time the movie enters the 70s, the camerawork becomes more jittery and the once soft-spoken Crane seems to be drowning in his own anxiety.  He becomes the type who causally goes from talking to Carpenter about how he wants to direct the world’s greatest sex film to cheerfully announcing that Disney has decided to cast him in a film called SuperDad.  Auto Focus‘s key scene comes towards the end, when Crane is a guest on a silly cooking show and shocks the audience by harassing a woman sitting in the front row.  When the audience boos, Crane flashes his familiar smile and it becomes obvious just how much of Crane’s life has been spent hiding behind that smile.  By the end of the film, not even Crane himself can keep track of whether or not he’s a wholesome comedy star or a self-destructive sex addict.

Both Greg Kinnear and Willem DaFoe gave Oscar-worthy performance in Auto Focus, performances that hold your interest even after their characters sink to some truly low depths.  The film makes good use of Kinnear’s amiable screen presence and Kinnear convincingly creates a man who wishes that he could be the person that he’s fooled everyone into thinking that he is.  By the time he’s reduced to begging his agent (well-played by Ron Leibman) to find him a game show so that he can finally stop doing dinner theater, it’s hard not to have a little sympathy for him, even if the majority of his problems are self-created.  As Carpenter, DaFoe is convincingly creepy but, at times, he’s also so pathetic that, again, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him.  At his worst, Carpenter is the 70s equivalent of the twitter user who stans a celebrity by sending them adoring tweets and then picking fights with anyone who disagrees.

Unfortunately, the Academy nominated neither Kinnear for Best Actor nor DaFoe for Best Supporting Actor.  The competition for Best Actor was fierce that year, with Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Jack Nicholson all losing to Adrien Brody in The Pianist.  While Kinnear deserved a nomination, it’s hard to say who I would drop from that line-up to make room for him.  As for DaFoe, I would argue that he was more deserving of a supporting actor nomination than The Hours‘s Ed Harris or The Road To Perdition’s Paul Newman.  Perhaps DaFoe was just too convincing as the type of clingy groupie that most members of the Academy probably dread having to deal with.

Nominated or not, Auto Focus is a disturbing and ultimately sad look at the darkness that often hides behind a perfect facade.