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Looking ahead at what's coming this holiday season: 'Nightmare Alley,' 'Red Rocket' and 'The Tragedy of Macbeth.'

Nightmare Alley (★★★½) - No one can craft a monster movie quite like Guillermo del Toro. Even though Nightmare Alley doesn’t have any supernatural creatures in it like his work so often does, the human monsters in this carney tale are so vicious that they might as well have claws and fangs.

Starring Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a twisted and wildly messy movie. It starts as one thing and morphs into another, keeping you on your toes until its explosively violent conclusion that borders on B-movie territory. It’s as if del Toro is trying to make a Reanimator-like goofy terror a best picture contender. There’s an art to it, such as the stunning production design and cinematography, but there’s also a sloppiness that makes it a whole lot of fun. 

Embrace its every turn, and don’t expect quality work on par with Pan’s Labyrinth or The Shape of Water. This is like Crimson Peak, a film that plays you like a fiddle, looks gorgeous and is deliciously messed up.

Rated R, 139 minutes. Now playing in theaters nationwide.

In 'Nightmare Alley,' an ambitious carny (Bradley Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is.

Red Rocket (★★★½) - Sean Baker will forever be the king of slice-of-life movies. The Florida Project and Tangerine filmmaker probably doesn’t like being boxed in when there’s a lot to his work. But his films have such incredibly specific details, powered by the narrative’s geographical location, that it’s difficult not to mention it.

Set in Texas City, A24's Red Rocket takes a lot of elements from his other films, most notably 2012’s Starlet (a good companion piece), with many kick-ups on the uncomfortable meter. Many parts of this story - about a suitcase pimp/pornstar (an excellent Simon Rex) who goes back home following a career fallout - are deeply upsetting — and intentionally so as to steer away from anything traditional or expected. 

Baker and his longtime co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, have a knack for being brutally honest. As a result, you may have difficulty swallowing the central relationship. It’s definitely an icky thing. However, the point is you’re following someone who doesn’t care. He’s trying to get where he needs to, and he’ll break every rule and every heart to get there.

So, if you walk out of the movie completely confused about how to feel (because you laughed a lot and were also profoundly disturbed), you needn’t worry! This isn’t a feel-good movie. It’s a feel movie.

Rated R, 128 minutes. Opens in select theaters on Dec. 24.

From director Sean Baker and starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod and Suzanna Son. 'Red Rocket' – in theaters Dec. 24.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (★★★) - A24 and Apple TV’s The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the first film directed by just one of the Coen brothers, the filmmaking duo responsible for Fargo and No Country for Old Men

Joel Coen brings an intoxicating gothic style (with beautiful black-and-white photography) to this new William Shakespeare adaptation. While it’s a dull blade at the start (a little too slow and difficult to connect with), it’s not too long until the firecracker performances by Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand turn up the heat and intrigue. 

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a simple but moderately effective adaptation, aesthetically and thematically existing somewhere between The 400 Blows and The Raven. However, one wishes it were a bit more inventive like the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? was of Homer’s The Odyssey

Rated R, 104 minutes. Opens at the AMC Northpark and Angelika Plano on Dec. 31, and premieres Jan. 14 on Apple TV+.

From writer/director Joel Coen and starring Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Corey Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Harry Melling. 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' – in theaters Dec. 25. Streaming on Apple TV+ Jan. 14.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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