Nocturnal Animals (2016)

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threehalfstar

There’s no doubt in my mind that fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford has a masterpiece in him somewhere. His 2009 debut A Single Man was an interesting work that suggested that maybe his intense vision as a meticulous stylist wasn’t exactly suited for an intimate, small cast drama. Ford took the note and his follow-up, the gleefully trashy Nocturnal Animals, makes much more deliberate strides to match the arty perfume commercial pretension of the his visual obsessions to a more appropriately detached work of cinematic abstraction. In its best moments, Nocturnal Animals nearly touches the transcendent modes of exquisite trash that wins me over so fully in titles like Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and The Neon Demon. Ford has seemingly accepted his role as an art curator & visual stylist here, aiming more for a well-constructed image than an emotionally engaging narrative. Nocturnal Animals still feels oddly restrained, though, and the director hesitates to follow through on the film’s more exciting, disorienting impulses, restraining it from becoming the soaring cinematic achievement Ford will surely make someday. Hopefully, it’ll be someday soon.

Amy Adams stars as an art gallery curator struggling to hold onto a flailing marriage with an indifferent business dick, played by Armie Hammer. Their imperfect, handsomely tailored reverie is disrupted by a package containing a manuscript for a new novel from the curator’s first husband, played by Jake Gylenhaal. This framing device sets up three competing storylines: the narrative of the novel, flashbacks to the bickering that dissolved the first marriage, and an endless parade of shots of Amy Adams thinking & reading in bed. All three of these narrative threads are dripping with melodrama, but only one of them is consistently entertaining to behold. The novel, which plays almost like a parody of macho fiction scribes like Bret Easton Ellis & Cormac McCarthy, follows a family who are derailed from a road trip by some West Texas hooligans who rape & murder all but one surviving member.  After a years-long pursuit with the help of a grizzled law man, an absurdist terror brought to life by a top of his game Michael Shannon, those hooligans are brought to a justice of a kind, but at a devastating cost. There’s some kind of parable here about the flawed nature of revenge, but the point Ford’s trying to make doesn’t really matter all that much in the end, given how little attention the “real” world drama of the art curator’s love life is given in comparison to the crime novel’s sensationalist violence & self-doubting masculinity. I like how the novel’s years-long search for retribution mirrors the frustration of constantly performing mental autopsies on a past failed romance, including the incessant impulse to return to the scene of the crime in both cases. However, I’d rather that the art curator’s half either match the novel’s narrative significance so that both halves are equally strong or for the film to not try to make a point at all. As is, their connection feels a little thin considering the effort they take to merge thematically.

The one thing the Amy Adams end of this fractured narrative does accomplish is to contextualize Nocturnal Animals as a work of Art, rather than a conventional feature film. The opening credits are a stunning, immersive gaze into a gallery exhibit where flabby erotic dancers shake their naked bodies in a Twin Peaks void of sparklers, confetti, and tiny American flags. At a fancy cocktail party between artsy types, Adams rattles on about “junk culture, total junk” and a swishy Michael Sheen chides her (along with the audience) to “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful when you do.” Gyllenhaal’s frustrated novelist even laments at one point about how painful & vulnerable it is to make divisive art that seemingly no one likes. Nocturnal Animals feels most alive when Ford drops the pretense of trying to make a point and instead lovingly shoots his beautiful sets & impeccable costumes without any semblance of making them narratively significant. His art curator framing device works best as an instruction manual on how best to appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish in the film, rather than a participation in its thematic goals. I have very little interest in the way Ford’s narratives clash fragile artsy types against the unhinged threat of dangerously macho hicks, but any abstracted moment where he carefully posed naked bodies before blinding red fabric voids on top of a classical music score had me drooling in my chair. I’m not convinced Nocturnal Animals has anything useful or novel to say about the frivolity of revenge or the human condition, but it often works marvelously as an art gallery in motion (when it’s not hung up on watching Amy Adams think & read herself through another lonely night).

I’m loving the new weird territory Tom Ford explores here; I just think he can afford to get a whole lot weirder. There’s a third act shift into audience disorientation in Nocturnal Animals that I found far more exciting than any of the film’s various moral dilemmas and moments of bitter melodrama. Ford cuts from one reality to the next in jarring transitions where you sometimes aren’t even sure if you’re watching a scene or a still photograph. If this narrative jumble between its various storylines lead to some kind of a psychological break along the lines of a Persona or a Mulholland Drive, I might be singing its praises (the way I have been with its fellow exquisite trash pieces Tale of Tales & The Neon Demon) as one of the best films of 2016. It instead leads to a much more pedestrian narrative about revenge & bruised emotions: a hollow, although beautiful, shell of what could have been. I doubt Ford would be interested in doing so, but I’d love to see the director move into an even trashier genre than a pulpy crime story in the future. If he left behind his impulse to make a narrative point about life & humanity and instead applied his stylist skills to a horror of sci-fi genre pic, where the stakes are lowered from the heights of an intimate drama & the thrills are more or less predetermined, he’d feel way more free to let loose & deliver that weirdo masterpiece I’m convinced is in his imminent future. Nocturnal Animals very nearly gets there and it’s fascinating to watch him reach for it in his own carefully meticulous way, but he needs to loosen up just a little bit to arrive at that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Arrival (2016)

fourstar

I was very shaky on Arrival’s merits as high concept sci-fi until its third act revelations & narrative upendings completely turned me around on how I was thinking about the story it was telling. As such, it’s difficult to discuss the film’s successes without diving headfirst into spoilers, which is something I’d like to avoid in this review if possible. Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

My initial complaints about Arrival‘s narrative shortcomings are fairly indicative of how I feel about high-concept sci-fi cinema as a whole. With a lot of hard sci-fi, Big Ideas are given prominence while smaller, more personal emotions take an unfortunate back seat. In an ideal sci-fi work, something like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, those two ends meet a well-balanced compromise. Arrival struggles to find that compromise, opening with a world-class linguist (played by a wonderfully measured & muted Amy Adams) as she recounts the loss of a child & the monotony of an academic life lived alone, but not taking the time to live in those moments & make their emotional impact count for something. The familial drama at the film’s center is conveyed through an impressionistic set of Tree of Life-type imagery & brief conversational snippets, a preview of the worst information dump stretches of the film’s eventual alien invasion plot that finds Adams’s protagonist at the center of a potentially world-ending interplanetary negotiation. The way narrative information is conveyed in Arrival is often cold & blatantly utilitarian, at one point even spelled out in a narrated monologue that completely disrupts the flow of its storytelling rhythm. The film is much more interested in the global implications of an alien invasion (within which it’s much less realistic than a Godzilla film from this year of all things, in how it depicts America’s involvement in such a crisis) and the tensions between military & academia in its problem-solving strategies than it is depicting the smaller scale personal impact that would make these tensions resonate with any significance. Any and all personal drama within Arrival, no matter how traumatic, exists only to serve the weirder turns the plot takes in its mind-bending second half. It’s a good thing that the ideas they serve in the film’s gloriously strange conclusion are so interesting that their emotionless delivery in the front end doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I’m typically a style over substance audience when it comes to movies, especially sci-fi, so a lot of Arrival wasn’t my usual mode of genre filmmaking. Until the film pushes its narrative into the loopy, paradoxical territory of its glorious third act, it mostly just reminded me of The Martian: a reasonably entertaining story of scientific problem-solving with more in-the-moment significance than ideas worth chewing over long-term. I was very much struck by the film’s design of the alien species and their vaguely egg-shaped ships, which had a kind of 2001 monolith vibe in their clean lines & oppressive grandeur. The film would have been perfectly admirable as a The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable about humanity’s potentially aggressive response to alien contact had it remained a straightforward story, but it thankfully expands into something much stranger & much more unique. Arrival is above all else a story about the power of language, how it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict, how learning a new one can rewire your brain to think differently. Once you learn the film’s own language, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Director Denis Villeneuve tried to do something similar with the surreal conclusion of his film Enemy, another work that plays with his audience’s linear perception of storytelling, but I think he’s much more successful in pulling off the trick in Arrival. For all of my early misgivings about the film’s emotionless information dumps & preferences for big ideas over small character moments (despite the best efforts of Adams & other capable actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Forrest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner), the weird dream logic surrealism and paradoxical reality-shifting of the final act makes all of those complaints entirely worthless. The truth is that the film & I just started off speaking different languages and it’s value as a work of high-concept sci-fi storytelling was lost in translation until we found common ground. I’m very much eager to give it a second look now that I know how to communicate with its more outlandish ideas in a less-linear, less literal fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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twostar

I’ll start out saying this: I didn’t hate Batman v Superman … as much as I thought I was going to. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as I hated Man of Steel, for starters. Further, despite the fact that I found co-writer David S. Goyer’s script for the final Christopher Nolan Batman flick to be patronizing and transparent in its privileged take on income inequality, this film wasn’t quite so morally bankrupt in its presuppositions about audience attitudes. I even had a few positive takeaways from the flick, although some of those things were probably in spite of the filmmaker’s goals and not because of them.

I’m not a Zack “The Hack” Snyder hater, either. I know that hating on him is popular and easy, and he certainly deserves some of the criticism that is leveled at him. I’ve heard mixed things about Sucker Punch (although never anything that enticed me into watching the whole thing), and I find that the director’s cut of Watchmen is a decent adaptation of the source material. The problem with Snyder is that he knows and understands that film has a language, but he doesn’t know how to make that language work for him. Snyder just doesn’t grasp how to handle pacing and tension, so, instead of having rising action that grows at a steady rate up to a film’s denouement, everything is metaphorically cranked up to eleven at all times. Snyder knows how to make things look “epic,” but he uses that same technique in every shot; as a result, every action has the same dramatic weight, be it people fleeing in terror from collapsing buildings, potential warnings from the future, nuclear deployment, or uneventful board meetings.

Not all of this is Snyder’s fault, really; it’s the audience’s. The general public took 300, a film that revels in its consistently over-the-top nature and (arguably) succeeds as a narrative within that paradigm, and made it Snyder’s first real mainstream success. We taught Snyder the unfortunate lesson that this style was laudable and commercially viable when it’s actually exhausting. He’s like that classmate of yours who misunderstood the definition of a word from context clues and then proceeded to use it incorrectly all the time because it sounds good to their ear. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t have experience; he’s got several films under his belt now, each one more popular (or at least profitable) than the last. Snyder is simply living proof that sometimes a person can create a worthwhile piece of media without grasping the reason that it works. He understands that using a particular visual rhetorical strategy is something that filmmakers do to elicit a response, but he doesn’t seem to know why they do it. As a result, you can’t really say that there are any “quiet moments” here in Batman v Superman, just scenes and sequences that would be treated with some deftness and gravitas in another, more sensitive movie, a film in the hands of a more mature filmmaker.

Ironically, the audience is expected to assume that the immature Superman of the previous film has grown into a true-blue hero after a short montage of him rescuing people in scenes that appropriate the images of real-life disasters. Just as Man of Steel relied heavily on 9/11 imagery, so too does this film co-opt the images we have seen of the victims of Hurricane Katrina waiting for rescue on their rooftops. What’s more, it seems that the criticism of the previous film’s inappropriate use of this visual rhetoric resulted in an increase in it this time around, which is horrible. The audience is supposed to believe that Superman has learned his lesson about accountability and the value of life despite the fact that, metatextually, Snyder certainly didn’t. Further, he couldn’t figure out how to communicate that idea visually; you know, like making Metropolis a warmer looking place, or subtly lightening the blue of the Superman outfit in order to make him stand out as a beacon of hope in contrast to Batman’s more fear-mongering approach.

Of course, just because their names are in the title doesn’t necessarily mean that either Batman or Superman is really the main character in this film; Lex Luthor is. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact number of lines that each says in the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s character had as many as Henry Cavill’s and Ben Affleck’s combined. Luthor’s actions kick off the plot, Luthor is behind the false flag operation in Nairomi (which provides the final catalyst for Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement), Luthor kidnaps Ma Kent in order to force Superman’s hand, Luthor creates Doomsday, etc. Luthor even collates the data about potential powered individuals for Bruce to later stumble upon. Every other character is reacting to Luthor’s manipulations, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to make the character work. Eisenberg has been in a few things that I’ve enjoyed and a fair few others that I have not. He’s not necessarily a bad actor, but he is one with a fairly limited range, and, in fairness to him, I don’t know that any performer could have played this role and pulled it off. Luthor is framed as some kind of wunderkind, but any menace that he could possibly embody is undercut by the character’s shrill, foppish affectations. I don’t know if that was a character choice made by Eisenberg or on his behalf, but it’s distracting and obnoxious. Overall, Luthor ends up as a non-threatening villain despite the heinousness of his actions.

Clocking in at just under three hours, Dawn of Justice seems interminable at times, and the above-cited problem with a lack of variation in intensity is only one factor. There are abundant issues with pacing as well. Something like 10% of the film’s 166 minutes, including the very first scene, is taken up with dream sequences (and dream sequences within dream sequences, and imagined conversations with dead relatives). I don’t want to go into too many details in case any of you reading this want to maintain some surprise when/if you get around to seeing it, but there’s a prolonged scene that occurs near the film’s climax which interrupts the preparation for battle to focus on a character watching a series of video files. This sequence exists solely for the purpose of planting the seeds for DC’s attempt to create a Marvel-style interconnected film franchise, and its placement  in the film is utterly baffling. There’s a basic misunderstanding of narrative at play here with DC’s embarrassing attempt to play catch up with the House of Ideas. I can’t tell if it’s a blatant attempt to differentiate their business model from Marvel’s or a stubborn unwillingness to take the time and effort to give individual characters the needed breathing room for an audience to get to know them before forcing an Avengers style team-up with the upcoming Justice League (Part I… ugh). Either way, Batman v Superman doesn’t work as a cornerstone for the building of this larger universe or as a notable film in its own right.

There are occasional hints of a better narrative throughout (for instance, having Lex act as both a corrupt businessman and a bit of a mad scientist, as he has been portrayed as both in the past/comics, was a good idea that was poorly executed). I would even go so far as to say that the first half of the film works surprisingly well, especially with Holly Hunter acting circles around every other person onscreen in her performance as Senator June Finch. It’s really all downhill once she’s no longer present, with the second half feeling like a completely different movie. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane spends most of the climax struggling to retrieve a kryptonite spear from an underwater location that she herself threw it into in an earlier scene; that’s a first draft plot problem if I ever saw one. In one particularly noteworthy scripting problem, Lois’s Senator informant tells the President that the monster Bats and Superman are fighting only gets stronger each time that they attack it. This occurs after they attack Doomsday only once; sure, the knowledge that Doomsday gets stronger with every defeat is something that certain parts of the audience will know because of a familiarity with the source material, but why does this character have this knowledge?

I am sure that defenders of this film will find ways to justify the problems with the narrative, just as there were many who bent over backwards to make excuses for Man of Steel and its poor choices. We live in a world where there are people who will look you in the eye and defend the Star Wars prequels, so there’s no possibility that I could ever again be caught off guard by individual tastes and perceptions, no matter how alien they seem to be to me. This is an objectively bad movie, but I’m certainly not here to judge (I’m writing this next to a DVD shelf that contains both Dead Heat and Astro Zombies, after all). I will say, however, that I cannot fathom getting sufficient enjoyment from this movie to merit dealing with the long swathes in which there is nothing that could offer the smallest amount of filmic pleasure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should cite the film’s good elements. I mentioned Holly Hunter’s strong performance above, but Gal Gadot does good work here with the limited screen time they give her, and there really is nothing quite like finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time (not counting The Lego Movie), and I gave the movie an extra half star for her appearance alone. The guitar-heavy track that serves as WW’s leitmotif is strange, but it does effectively differentiate her musical arrangement from Clark’s and Bruce’s even if it is an unusual choice. I also appreciated that the film trusts the audience to infer that Bruce was once the Batman and has since retired, even though Snyder apparently felt the need to show the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley for approximately the millionth time, complete with falling pearls, as if this wasn’t the most well-known origin story on the planet other than the birth of Christ. There’s a fun cameo from a Major Ferris (i.e. Carol Ferris from the Green Lantern comics) as well as some other Easter Eggs, and I’m always happy to see Lauren Cohan (Mrs. Wayne) getting work.

If you were already planning to see this movie (or not), one more negative review on top of all the others that are floating around isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Still, even if you (like me) are enticed solely by the prospect of Wonder Woman, don’t waste your money trying to catch this flick in theaters. Like the Luthor character, Dawn of Justice is less interested in being clever than it is in investing time in making itself seem more clever than it really is, and ultimately ends up being incoherent for all its effort.

Random Remaining Questions (spoilers for both this film and Man of Steel):

● In the trailer for the film, we see Bruce getting a piece of hate mail that says “You let your family die,” and we see this same scene in the film. In context, this makes no sense, as no members of the Wayne family were killed during the showdown that ended Man of Steel, just Wayne Enterprises employees. So what was the point of that, other than to mislead people with the trailer?

● At the end of the film, Lois is hanging out in a bedroom in the Kent farmhouse. From the look of it, it seems like it’s supposed to be Clark’s room from before he left for college. So did Ma Kent really have the house recreated so exactly after its destruction in the first film that they duplicated this room, right down to its rural teen aesthetic?

● When will TV and films realize that an atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon is exponentially worse than one that occurs on the ground? Heroes got called out for doing this same thing ten years ago at the end of their first season; was no one listening?

● This one was pointed out to me after the fact by my friend who saw the film with me: was Luthor intercepting Wally’s mail for eighteen months before he used him to infiltrate the senate subcommittee? My reading of the situation was that Wally was returning his checks to Wayne Enterprises for all that time and then came to Luthor’s attention following his public arrest for vandalism of that hideous Superman statue, at which point Luthor approached Wally to help him. But later Luthor seems to admit that he sent the final piece of mail to Bruce personally, implying that he was behind the returning of checks this whole time. So which is it?

● I know that the locations of Metropolis and Gotham City are not fixed and as such they sometimes are close to each other and sometimes further apart, but putting them across the bay from each other really bothers me for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I feel that you shouldn’t be able to see one city from the other? Like, if any random person in Metropolis could look toward the waterfront and see the Bat-Signal in Gotham City, it really strains credibility that these two characters would have never interacted previously.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Big Eyes (2014)

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threehalfstar

It’s tempting, but not exactly accurate to think of Big Eyes as a return to form for Tim Burton. Although it recalls the vibrant cartoon suburbia of classic titles like Edward Scissorhands, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice and the biopic format of the masterful Ed Wood, it’s not quite like anything Burton’s ever made before. In some ways Big Eyes is a by-the-numbers biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, elevated only by performances by always-welcome names like Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Christoph Waltz. The most interesting play with form here is the way Waltz’s controlling husband steals the movie from its subject the same way his real-life counterpart stole the limelight & credit for her life’s work, kitschy paintings of depressed children with oversized eyes. For the most part, however, Big Eyes is a straightforward genre exercise, low-key in its scope & ambitions. At this point of Burton’s career, though, a low-key genre exercise is a welcome change from the long string of CGI remakes he’s been releasing since the early 2000s. It’s the most fun, relaxed, and memorable film he’s made in years, even if it bears little resemblance to the cartoon goth aesthetic of his 80s & 90s heyday.

That’s not to say that the film is devoid of Burton’s traditional modes of comical horror; it’s just that the horror takes on a much different form. In this case, Waltz’s sleazebag showman plagiarist (who takes a very Warholian approach to art as commerce) is the threat that plagues the film’s characters. Amy Adams’ Margaret Keane begins the film by leaving one abusive relationship and slipping immediately into another, with Waltz’s crazed pathological liar husband sucking up all of the life & freedom she barely had left over from her first marriage. As she explains it, “I’ve never acted freely. I was a daughter and then a wife and then a mother.” Even as a painter she’s treated as a subordinate, her personal expressions converted into commerce by an abusive, manipulative man. The creepy thing is that he’s so sleazily charming even while he’s ruining her life. Waltz is hilarious, hamming it up as much as he’s allowed, chewing scenery like a hungry dog who’s food’s about to get taken away. His performance is an impressive balance between funny & creepy and before you know it he’s forced Adams’s Keane to take a backseat to her own story the same way the true life plagiarist sidelined his kitsch artist wife. He’s not a headless horseman or a bloodthirsty Martian or a fabricated man with scissors for hands, but he most certainly is a monster.

I spent a lot of Big Eyes’ run time trying to figure out exactly what inspired Burton to tell this story. There are aspects of art as show business, the uselessness of critics, and the redundancy of an artist endlessly repeating themselves that could invite comparisons to Burton’s own work as a filmmaker, but none with too concrete of a conclusion. Maybe he was drawn to telling a story about how it sucked to be a woman in the 50s or he’s just a huge Margaret Keane fan and wanted to tell her story (which is quite interesting). Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome change of pace from Burton’s recent output and his catalog could benefit from more low-key, straightforward works like it. I’m not sure Waltz needs to be set free to ham it up more often, but it works here and the rest of the cast offer a good, calm counterbalance to his eccentricities. For now, it was great to see him steal some spotlight and for Burton’s aesthetic to receive some much-needed sunshine & relaxation.

-Brandon Ledet