Monthly Archives: November 2016

Nocturnal Animals — 9/10


When A SINGLE MAN burst onto the scene in 2009, its critics dismissed it with slams such as “looks like a perfume commercial.” I never really understood those complaints. Well, okay – I understood them, but they were short-sighted and seemed to be easy, pre-conditioned refusals to embrace a profound, substantial motion picture. Critics saw a guy who makes handbags for a living sitting in the director’s chair, and waved off his filmmaking skills as if his effort was just another product to be sold at Crystals in Vegas.

Sure, it looked beautiful and had impeccably-dressed actors looking great amidst sparkling production design. But the composition of every shot and the aching existentialism of the story were proof that a real artist was at work here, and the “perfume commercial” diss implied a superficiality that could only be assessed with willful disregard for the content of the film. I don’t know what the reaction to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has been, but because it’s grittier, more violent, and has more of a plot, it seems like it would be even harder to write off as a flashy style-over-substance curiosity. But who knows; maybe that’s the charge. If it is, I’d ask those critics what’s so bad about a movie that looks that good? Perfume commercials aren’t ugly to look at, so the real objection you’re making is that there’s nothing underneath. Any sincere investigation into the meat of NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will turn up plenty underneath, and in fact it’s one of the most intellectually engaging films I’ve seen in months.

First, there’s a very clever story within a story embedded in the film’s narrative, which brings to the forefront a meditation on art itself. When Susan begins reading Edward’s novel, Ford plunges us into the book, shooting it like a hot-blooded noir. But this is Susan directing the film in her head, so the images we see in the book-within-the-film are actually created by one of the characters, not just by Ford himself. So they’re clues — clues to Susan’s fears, regrets, and visual language. This is key: Ford is developing character through imagery, not actions or dialogue.

So what is he saying? First of all, we learn through flashbacks (shot entirely differently; a warmer glow, smoother editing, and with softer acting) that nothing in the book is autobiographical. And we know Susan told Edward not to write about himself — but she pictures Edward in the lead role, and pictures a woman much like herself in the role of the guy’s wife (that she’s played by Adams’s doppelgänger Isla Fisher is a shrewd in-joke).  So what are we to make of the revenge plot? Is the book Edward’s revenge? Is the fate of the family a fantasy? It’s hard to know when Ford only puts us in Susan’s head, but as the present-day actions play out, it starts to become clear that if anything the novel presents an opportunity, not a threat. Susan may realize what she’s lost, but she’s no longer wearing a mask.

Speaking of masks, the ways in which we present ourselves vs. the way we really are is a central theme throughout. In one present-day scene, Susan delivers a thinly-veiled attack on a colleague’s plastic surgery, having discovered the emptiness of the falseness we construct. This puts into context the opening sequence, a bizarre slo-mo parade of obese naked women holding symbols like flags and pom-poms. It’s presented without context at first, allowing the audience to question our own reactions to these images — are they grotesque? Beautiful? Crass? Liberating? Only when it’s done do we find out that this is the art Susan is trafficking in — this is the art she displays in her gallery, the statement she makes. The very idea of beauty or lack thereof is central to Susan’s spirit, though it’s something she might come to change after undergoing the existential crisis both Edward’s book and her husband’s behavior put her through.

Performances are electrifying across the board. Gyllenhaal plays two characters, and fills them out so realistically that we never even once question whether we’re watching Tony or Edward within half a second of a new scene beginning. Adams expertly paints the arc from her optimistic, loving younger version with Edward to Susan’s cold, broken older self — the uncomfortable deadening of a woman who gave up what she needed in favor of something she thought she wanted. Whether that happened because of a genetic predisposition to be like her mother (Laura Linney, absolutely slaying it in her one terrific scene) or through a culture that favored surface glamor over true connection, it’s communicated wonderfully through Adams’s “sad eyes” and the crisp, delicate 35mm photography by Seamus McGarvey. Then there’s Michael Shannon as a dying cop, a character that could easily just be a crutch for a cheap book-within-a-movie, but there’s so much life behind his physicality and dialogue, life both lived and wasted, that the guy is a marvelously tragic figure stuck in the purgatory of West Texas.

Anyone who’s driven through West Texas knows just how barren it is — how crushing the realization is that you have hours left to go to get out, and you’ve already been there for hours. And it’s so flat — it’s like the end of an earth that gave up. What a great setting, then, for the philosophical meditation Edward writes (and Ford presents): this is where we face our fears and regrets, and revenge — whether served hot or cold — is a futile, merciless enterprise.

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Manchester By The Sea — 8/10

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

Even sadder than Lonergan’s previous sad dramas, this one lingers on tiny details that underline the truth that life moves on despite fragile human emotion. Luckily for the audience, the punishing moroseness is leavened by lots of humor, and you may find yourself laughing more at this than any crushing work of nihilism you’ve encountered in recent memory.

Credit to the two leads, and while Affleck has been a marvel for over a decade, it’s Lucas Hedges who impresses the most — he embodies a real teenage kid in a way that’s refreshing compared to how 16 year-olds have fared on American screens of late. He’s cocky and ambitious, a smart-ass, immature in a real way, but never condescended to or treated with kid gloves by Lonergan’s story. Hedges understands how the rhythm of Lonergan scenes often involves quickly escalating anger and arguments, followed just as quickly by defused understanding and let’s-move-on reconciliation. Affleck may have a more difficult job, though, since he has to portray a deadened soul, wrecked and alone, and communicate the character of someone who doesn’t want to communicate. (I lost track of the number of times he says “I don’t want to talk about this right now”).

Curious editing choices by Jennifer Lame (veteran of the last three Noah Baumbach features) make some of the dialogue scenes feel choppy, and do a disservice to the actors — especially Williams, who is absolutely stunning in her brief screen time, but whose great takes are disrupted by cuts that make little sense. And I don’t think I was emotionally affected the way Longeran wanted me to be (not like I was for something like JAMES WHITE, which is a tall order I realize). But the cumulative message that a place and its memories are stronger than anyone’s ability to deny is one that sticks, and makes the characters’ struggles to just get through life by any means necessary both humanist and extremely depressing.

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Hacksaw Ridge — 6/10

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016, Mel Gibson)

Nothing here that isn’t prototypical Gibson: it’s fervently Christian, though not in nearly as annoying and crazed a way as THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST or BRAVEHEART; it’s corny and old-school, and the action is sensational. It may not be incongruous for a right-wing religious filmmaker to also have an incredible amount of blood lust, but Gibson’s movies are always way gorier than you’d expect. Even in a war setting, the exploding heads and legless, crawling torsos feel like parts of a horror movie — made a little weirder by the fact that at times the message seems slightly pro-war: although it proves to be hell for the soldiers in Okinawa, it provides its lead character with the opportunity to be saint and savior, and gives men the courage it takes to kill the bad guys.

Sketchy moral ground aside, the entertainment value in HACKSAW RIDGE is in its quaint, almost exploitation-movie simplicity. The first act introduces our soulful hero (Andrew Garfield giving one of his best performances) and gives him a cartoonishly saintly nurse-wife (in the ever-present Teresa Palmer). The second act puts him through basic training, with Vince Vaughn amusingly chewing up his R. Lee Ermey impersonation. TIGERLAND this ain’t, and Sam Worthington isn’t exactly Shea Whigham, but it sets the tone for the third act, which is straight up war insanity. And it’s there where the APOCALYPTO filmmaker thrives — the pace, the effects, and the action staging are stellar. And even in its nearly comical Christ-figure worship of Doss, it packs an impressive punch.

Nobody will mistake Gibson for a nuanced contemplator of war in the vein of Malick with THE THIN RED LINE or Kubrick with FULL METAL JACKET, but there’s something to be said for the boyish, propagandistic enthusiasm of this trial-by-fire hagiography. I don’t know if it’s something good, but it’s something.

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Nocturama — 8/10

NOCTURAMA (2017?, Bertrand Bonello)

No American release date as of yet, that I know of, but I’m assuming it’ll likely come out in 2017. It’s been on the festival circuit all season, though, and it’s worth reviewing now in case you have the chance to see it at your local fest.

Bonello’s HOUSE OF TOLERANCE, the only other film of his I’m familiar with, is elegantly directed but didn’t prepare me for the intensity of this project — a suspenseful, direct, and achingly humanistic portrait of lost youth finding their aim in domestic terrorism. There’s very little dialogue, just enough to establish character. The rest of the story is told through action and editing, and it’s hard to find any fault in either. We’re given very little background on any of the gang (they seem to be mostly in their late teens, but who knows why they’re compelled to commit this heinous act) and it doesn’t bother me at all that Bonello shows little interest in the reasons for their behavior.

What matters is that they do it, and the mindsets that lead kids to this action exist all around us. One character in a key moment begs for help, and it’s a plea that extends well beyond the scene to a generation at large. The state responsible for helping them shows no mercy, and perhaps there’s a good reason for that too. Bonello avoids being too heavy-handed; this is a movie about a thing that happens, and there’s an ability to understand that each side’s reaction to it makes sense. The plan isn’t clean — neither execution nor getaway/hideout — and yet there’s enough intelligence around some of it to let us know these youths aren’t morons. They’re adrift, angry, and immature.

That they do hide out in a large department store says a lot, and it’s sort of the flip side of seeing zombies take over a mall in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. You can’t escape the juxtaposition of chic, upscale materialism with despondent soldiers of political unrest. (The addition of two homeless characters late in the film underscores this quite directly). When one outgoing character dresses in drag and makeup to perform a soulful lip-synch performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (the Paul Anka version), Bonello stops the film cold to observe the young man in his artistic assertion of individuality and identity. Another character freezes when he sees a mannequin dressed exactly like himself. And in one of my favorite moments, a young woman ignores a clownish music video blaring on her TV in order to pry open the windows of her room to hear the world racing by outside.

Stylistically, Bonello rips off Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” a little bit, showing the same interactions throughout the day from various characters’ perspectives, allowing the movie to replay an incident over and over. But in one terrific shot, the camera settles on a quad-split monitor of security cameras, showing action in all four corners and letting things go in and out without moving or cutting. It’s a nifty feat, but the strength of this film isn’t in its style — it’s in the storytelling, which respects its audience enough not to provide too much backstory, not to over-explain, and just present a situation that feels both inevitable and devastating.

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Moonlight — 7/10

MOONLIGHT (2016, Barry Jenkins)

First of all, apologies to all 14 of my readers, for not publishing anything lately. It’s been tough to focus on reviewing movies — or even seeing them — ever since the country was blown to smithereens by an uninformed electorate who made a horrible choice, the consequences of which seem terrifying even before Trump is inaugurated, and which will grow to apocalyptic levels in due time. Forgetting for a moment the political side of it (which, sure, reasonable people disagree on the economic and foreign policy differences between the democratic agenda and the republican one — but in Trump’s hands it seems clear that nobody will benefit when global finance tanks and world leaders lose all respect for the USA), there’s the cultural impact: the realization that we live in a country with enough people who at worst cheer for racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, or at best think a person who embodies those evils is fine to install as leader of the free world. Not just tolerating him, but actively voting to put him in such a powerful position (to surround himself with even worse cronies).

And apologies to MOONLIGHT itself, which I saw a couple of weeks ago and am only getting around to reviewing now. Plenty of details no doubt have vanished from my mind, and this would be a better review had I written it shortly after I saw it, and/or in a mindset that wasn’t cluttered by the ascendency to autocracy of a narcissistic demagogue supported by neo-Nazis and contemptuous of the very people he duped into electing him.

I wonder what Chiron would think of the nightmare that 60 million people have chosen to inflict upon this country for who knows how long. Does he think about such larger issues? Does he vote? Will he miss Obama? It’s hard to know from MOONLIGHT, since he’s a character formed by nothing more than what we see on screen: some poverty porn, a crackhead mother, a soulful drug-dealing father figure, homophobic violence, and the discovery of his own sexual identity. Not much else. That Jenkins and co-writer Tarell McCraney’s screenplay brush this life in broad strokes isn’t a deal-breaker, though, because so much else about this movie works really well.

Take the tiny details: Chrion removing the gold fronts he wears on his teeth in order to eat the dinner Kevin has lovingly made for him; this not only deconstructs the hard-banging black male thug stereotype, but it serves as a kind of unmasking of Chiron for Kevin. There’s the shot of Chiron’s hand gripping the beach sand during his first erotic encounter, a grasp at texture to remember a moment that feels unreal. There are the lyrical passages reminiscent of Malick and Wong Kar-wai, and a swelling soundtrack. And best of all, the performances of Mahershala Ali and André Holland — at once understated and powerful. They suggest lives complex enough to exist outside the frame of this movie.

Naomie Harris doesn’t fare quite as well, though I’m not sure if that’s due to the role as written or her showy performance (though the latter stands out in opposition to the styles utilized by Ali and Holland, as well as the three guys who play Chiron). There’s a lot to like about Jenkins’s voice and I look forward to his next movie; but the ideas here are better than the overall package that made it to the screen.

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