Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Advertisements

The Bling Ring


Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

(2013) True Life Dramedy (A24) Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale, Stacy Edwards, G. Mac Brown, Marc Coppola, Janet Song, Anne Fitzgerald, Lorenzo Hunt, Timothy Starks, Rich Ceraulo, Joe Nieves, Nelson Rockford, Doug DeBeech, Erin Daniels. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Woman Power

It’s hard for some to recognize what America has become. Celebrity-obsessed, fame-driven, materialistic and entitled. In many ways we’re a nation of spoiled brats.

None more spoiled than the Bling Ring, a group of bored, privileged sorts who yearn to be celebrities. Rebecca (Chang) is the ringleader, more or less. She meets new kid Marc (Broussard) and find themselves with much in common. One thing is a talent for larceny as at a party the pair steal things from unlocked cars of other partygoers.

When Marc mentions offhandedly that a wealthy acquaintance is about to leave town, Rebecca spots this as an opportunity to make a big score. While Marc is reluctant – this is a friend, or at least someone he knows after all – Rebecca overcomes his misgivings and the two steal a handbag, which Rebecca notices is the same one as her fashion idol, Lindsay Lohan, owns. The two steal a Porsche and use the cash they steal to go on a shopping spree that allows them to buy the luxuries that they couldn’t previously afford.

Soon, they’re hanging out at posh clubs where celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton hang out. They discover that Hilton is going to be out of town and decide to find her address and check it out. With a key conveniently left under the doormat, they gain entry and find wall-to-wall swag, so much there’s no way she’ll notice any of it missing. Rebecca begins to show off some of the jewelry she’s stolen to her friends Nicki (Watson), Sam (Farmiga) and Chloe (Julien). Unsurprisingly, the others want in.

They continue to go on what they think of as shopping sprees in the homes of celebrities who they can confirm are out of town – among the victims are Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the kids may be bold but they’re not bright; they’re seen on security cameras and brag about their bling on social media. This leads the cops right to them.

Coppola, who grew up surrounded by famous directors (Francis Ford, her dad, and Marc, her brother) and actors (Nicolas Cage, her cousin and Talia Shire, her aunt), has the experience to put a personal edge on the film and the directing chops to make it interesting, but curiously as frenetically paced and glamour-conscious as the movie is, there’s an oddly flat quality to it. The lead actresses all seem like their eyes are glazed over, not quite drugged but almost like they’re staring into a different place than the rest of us see. It’s a bit disconcerting.

Watson, the best-known of the young actors playing the crooks also does the best job. Her Nicki is by turns bored, peer-pressured, demanding and self-delusional. Like all of the other characters, she’s truly unlikable and her value system is virtually non-existent. These girls (and boy) are all about self-gratification and achieving fame without earning it; it’s no wonder one of the real perpetrators ended up with a reality TV show; the mentality of becoming famous for being famous is irresistible to these girls.

While Nicki’s new age mom (Mann) is proof that shallow can be genetic (or at least environmental), it’s really hard to find anything that smacks of a redeeming quality for any of them. When the poop hits the fan they turn on each other like rats. They have no empathy for the people whose homes they are invading, only a lust for designer clothes, high-end watches and of course whatever the loose cash lying around can buy them. This is the true entitlement generation rather than the welfare recipients that Fox News misidentifies in that regard. These young people believe that fame is something that should be handed to them rather than earned. I think most famous people would assure them that fame is a double edged sword and maybe these kids have learned that by now.

Coppola displays the culture of celebrity, material possession and fame obsession that we have degenerated into quite dispassionately and without judgment or comment, although perhaps by displaying the ultimately empty pursuits and absent moral compasses may be in itself a kind of judgment. We are left to watch, horrified perhaps or maybe just plain disgusted as these kids show the worst qualities of our modern society; whatever remorse they might have had seems to be more in line with being caught rather than in having done something wrong.

Because the characters are so without redeeming qualities it is difficult to find anything to relate to here, except maybe by relating to the polar opposite of what these kids are, which is harder work. I wonder how many young kids will see something of themselves in the Bling Ring; I suspect that those who are most like them will not. Most of these sorts of people can (and often do) look at themselves in the mirror all day long, but fail to see the ugliness that’s reflected there.

WHY RENT THIS: Trainwreck; you just can’t look away. Scathing indictment of our shallow society.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Characters so unlikable that audience has nothing to identify with. Occasional bouts of “Look ma, I’m directing!”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of bad language, plenty of drug and alcohol abuse (by teens) and some sexually suggestive conversation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Paris Hilton’s home were shot in her actual home.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette about the real Bling Ring, hosted by the author of the original Vanity Fair article that inspired the movie, as well as an interview with Paris Hilton, one of the victims of the crimes, and her decision to allow her home to be used in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.2M on an $8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spring Breakers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Results

Mercy (2009)


Mercy

Wendy Glenn has a problem with the script.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Scott Caan, Wendy Glenn, Troy Garity, Erika Christensen, Alexie Gilmore, James Caan, Dylan McDermott, Whitney Able, John Boyd, Balthazar Getty, Kelly Lynch, Dorian Brown, Bre Blair. Directed by Patrick Hoelck

Love is as ephemeral as perfume; there in your senses one moment, disappearing on the barest puff of wind the next. We all need to bathe in it; drown in it; feel it all around us but it is the nature of love that it can be cruel as well.

Johnny Ryan (Scott Caan) is a successful author of what amounts to romance novels. Unfortunately, he may not be the best qualified man to write them. His life has been a series of one night stands and failed relationships. Johnny doesn’t believe much in love; he doesn’t want to give it that much power over him. He is sexy and handsome enough to capture the attention of women, particularly those who read his books and find them to be romantic but he himself doesn’t think romance is real.

Then he meets Mercy Bennett (Glenn) at a party celebrating his latest book and the two hit it off. It isn’t until afterwards that he discovers that she is a book reviewer and she’s written a particularly scathing review of his latest review. Far from being upset, he’s fascinated and curious and arranges to meet her to discuss the book and why she hated it so. It turns out she thinks he lacks depth, which I can certainly agree with.

The two wind up developing a relationship that grows and matures until they are very much in love. Suddenly Mr. Doesn’t Believe in Love is a believer. Still, life has a way of throwing us curveballs, some quite wicked and one is thrown at Johnny, one that will cause him to doubt even the most basic preconceptions he’s ever had and turn to the most unlikely place for answers – his father Gerry (James Caan), who initially forged Johnny’s belief that romance is a myth.

The movie is smartly written by Scott Caan, extremely literate in its conventions. I liked the conceit of naming the two parts of the movie “Before” and “After,” which lead you to a central event which shapes the movie (one which shouldn’t be disclosed here in order to preserve the element of surprise it brings). Caan also stretches his wings a little bit as an actor; the roles he is usually assigned are as second bananas, so it’s nice to see him take a lead role for a change. His scenes with his father in the second half of the movie are the best in the movie. Glenn also does a good job in the thankless role that could easily have been relegated to plot contrivance; instead, she fleshes it out and gives the part a little bit of bite that helps flavor the film a bit.

However, most of the other roles – including the usually reliable McDermott as Johnny’s agent – are undefined and somewhat bland. Even if Caan does a fine job acting, he is let down by his writer who crafts a character whose parts don’t end up adding up to the sum the movie wishes you to arrive at. That leaves you with a vaguely unsettled feeling, as if you’re being asked “what’s wrong with this picture” and you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Mercy explores the nature of love as redemption to a very large extent (although that’s not the only thing the movie is about, that seems to be its primary mission so to speak) and that’s a tall order for any film. The movie asks us to take a lot on faith – why a confirmed bachelor would suddenly change his outlook almost 180 degrees for someone who thinks him (and correctly so) shallow is a bit of a stretch for me. Still, the movies main sin of reaching for lofty heights is a forgivable one, and while this isn’t enough for me to rave over, there’s enough going on here to make the movie at least an interesting viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott Caan does an exceptional job and his scenes with his father are well done.  The filmmakers capture the L.A. literary scene nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the characters don’t really grab the attention as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is salty at times.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that James and Scott Caan have appeared in a movie together (the first was A Boy Called Hate in 1995) and in both they have played father and son, which they are in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,780 on an unreported production budget; the movie was a flop in its theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Dukes