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

Trade


Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

(2010) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitan, Kate del Castillo, Marco Perez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Tim Reid, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Natalia Traven, Guillermo Ivan, Christian Vazquez, Jose Sefami, Leland Pascual, Jorge Angel Toriello, Luz Itzel, Eren Zumaya, Norma Angelica, Kathleen Gati. Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner

Like most things, human trafficking to a large extent has much to do about sex. Most human trafficking is for sex slaves and most of the victims are women. It is at epidemic proportions and is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

In Mexico City young Adriana (Gaitan) has been given a bicycle as a gift from her brother Jorge (Ramos) and despite warnings not to ride it because it is too dangerous, Adriana decides to do so anyway and of course manages to run into members of the Russian Mafia who kidnap her off her bike. Jorge, feeling responsible, does some digging and discovers that she’s about to be shipped off to New Jersey and arrives at the house where she’s being held moments too late, witnessing her being loaded into a truck along with several other girls.

He manages to follow them to a border town where he hooks up with Ray (Kline), a Texas Ranger who has been searching for his own daughter for a decade who has been similarly kidnapped. He agrees to help Jorge and drives him to New Jersey, the last stop for Adriana before being put up for auction on the Internet. Is rescue in the cards for Adriana? Is redemption in the cards for Ray?

Human trafficking is a major law enforcement issue worldwide and has become a billion dollar industry for organized crime. There is certainly a good movie to be made on the subject. The issue is that the filmmakers who tackle it tend to go for titillation ahead of content and that is the case here. There are plenty of scenes of sexuality and rape but very little that looks at the impact on families of losing loved ones, or the challenges of law enforcement in tackling this epidemic.

Kline can always capture the decency of a character but while this particular character is a Texas Ranger, Kline doesn’t really radiate the toughness that those law enforcement officials seem to be infused with on a cellular level. While Ray’s strong force of will is in evidence, you never get the sense that he’d be capable of kicking anyone’s ass. Still, Kline makes the character sufficiently compelling that he’s worth watching. His chemistry with Ramos seems pretty genuine.

Cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk offers some magnificent views of rural Mexico as well as urban Mexico City scenes as well as bucolic suburban New Jersey shots. There is definitely some interesting procedural suppositions about how the human trafficking industry works and it is handled in a very un-sentimental way, despite the prurient content. Some of the scenes engender legitimate suspense.

That is undercut by the overuse of shaky hand-held cameras which have become epidemic in cinema, sadly. As someone who has issues with vertigo to begin with, I am extra-susceptible to the nausea that comes with the use of that technique so I might be forgiven if I’m a little overly sensitive about the subject. Even if you don’t mind that so much, you’re bound to notice the plot points that strain credibility and the way the movie meanders from time to time and loses plot focus.

Affection for Kevin Kline can only  take you so far and sadly the flaws outweigh the strengths in this particular film. That’s a shame because the subject matter deserves a really good movie; this just isn’t it.

WHY RENT THIS: Kline is always reliable. Some nice cinematography. Un-sentimental and occasionally gripping.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much shaky-cam. Plot proceeds with impossible coincidences. Loses narrative structure at points. Too titillating for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, much of it involving minors as well as a fairly graphic rape. There is also lots of violence and foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the original news article that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Dracula Untold

True Grit (2010)


True Grit

Not bad for a one eyed fat man!

(2010) Western (Paramount) Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Marvel, Leon Russom, Ed Corbin, Candyce Hinkle, Bruce Green, Peter Leung, Don Pirl. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When you remake a movie that most would consider a classic, you had better know what you’re about. Not only must you retain the essence of the original, you need to add something significant to it; otherwise, what’s the point?

Maddie Ross (Steinfeld) has come to Ft. Smith, Arkansas from her farm in Yell County. Her father has been brutally gunned down by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Nobody in Ft. Smith seems particularly interested in pursuing Chaney who has fled into the Indian territories. The Sherriff (Russom) has no authority there and recommends a U.S. Marshal. There are several choices, but the Sherriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).

Mattie tries to track down the Marshal but is unsuccessful at first. He’s obviously drunk and refuses to come out of the outhouse – and it’s not as if she’s about to go in after him. In the meantime she goes to Col. Stonehill (Matthews) to settle her father’s affairs with him. He’s a horse trader who meets his match in the 14-year-old girl. When after being bested in the first session she means to initiate a second, he moans “Oh God we’re not going to haggle, are we?” He knows a superior negotiator when he sees one.

Finally when she meets Marshall Cogburn he is at first unimpressed but when Mattie shows up with $50 he takes her a mite more seriously. She insists on accompanying him, not trusting him to do what he says he will. He is reluctant to allow it but at last gives in.

However, Mattie isn’t the only one looking for Chaney. There’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Damon) who wants to collect the reward for a murdered State Senator and has been tracking Chaney (who was called Chelmsford in Texas) for months. He entreats Mattie to go home but she is obstinate. This won’t be the first time she displays that trait.

She wakes up to discover that Cogburn has already left. Nonplussed, Mattie follows on her pony Little Blackie who turns out to be a helluva horse. She is surprised to discover that LaBoeuf has thrown in with Cogburn but after LaBoeuf takes a switch to Mattie that partnership disintegrates. Truth be told, Cogburn admires the determined young girl deep down.

Cogburn believes that Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Pepper, ironically enough) who is an outlaw operating out of the territories. He goes in search of information to confirm it and winds up deep in the Indian Territories, going up against hardened outlaws…and the frailty of his employer…of himself.

It is inevitable that the new version will be compared to the old. Let’s first establish that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Quite intelligently, Bridges doesn’t even attempt to be Wayne. His Rooster Cogburn is allegedly closer to the character in the Charles Portis book both films are based on (I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read it). He’s a drunken reprobate with a past that for one or two wrong turns may have turned out just like Chaney or Pepper. He dances just this side of the angels and has one foot on the side of the devils.

This isn’t a typical Coen Brothers movie. Gone are the quirky characters, the off-kilter sense of humor that pervades. In that sense, this is more like No Country for Old Men; the storytelling is more linear, more direct. The Coens are very particular about the language they use; the language here is more authentic than the original True Grit. In that sense, again this is closer to the Portis novel which was known for utilizing authentic idioms of the era. The 1969 movie was made for audiences of that time who weren’t looking so much for authenticity as much as adventure, and to a certain degree, of the Duke although by that time he had fallen out of favor to a large extent, having grown old and less imposing than he once was; he was also battling cancer at the time which was less known.

Wayne and Bridges aside, this is Mattie’s story and once again we are left to compare Kim Darby, 20 when she filmed the 1969 movie and Steinfeld, 13 when she filmed this one. Darby is spunkier than anything and while she talks like a bookkeeper, she is less convincing as a 14 year old. Certainly Steinfeld gets points in that regard and she has the inner strength that the character possesses, as well as the intelligence and fortitude. She also has the singularity of focus; Steinfeld certainly is impressive in communicating all these things. She is a gifted young actress who may very well get a Best Actress Oscar nomination this February. 

Damon plays the Texas Ranger role that Glen Campbell played and here is where this movie gets better. Damon gives the Ranger much more depth than Campbell was able to deliver and to be fair Campbell was more or less stunt casting. Damon makes the Ranger much more dangerous than the Campbell version which was more or less comic relief. You can believe that LaBoeuf is quite capable of killing from distance and efficiently here.

One of the issues I have here is the ending and this is where the filmmakers teach us a valuable lesson; not everything that is in the book is necessarily as good as the first movie. This movie adds the epilogue that was in the book, showing Mattie 25 years later (Marvel) but the coda is a bit anti-climactic and really adds nothing to the story.

However, this really is a much different movie than the first one and in some ways judging one against the other isn’t real fair but is necessary – after all, the first won the Duke an Oscar and is a bit of a standard among westerns. This has already become the largest-grossing movie in the Coen Brothers 20 year career and comes about it honestly, without a 3D or IMAX upcharge to artificially inflate the numbers. This is serious entertainment and proof positive that even though Westerns are no longer a guaranteed box office draw that when done right they can still be big hits. This is deserving of the success and is one of the must-sees of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography adds to strong performances throughout. While Bridges is no Duke, he holds his own. Damon makes a great LaBoeuf.

REASONS TO STAY: While it is very good in its own right, this is still not as good as the John Wayne version. Much grittier than the original, sometimes too gritty in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a few disturbing images and some peril for 14-year-old Mattie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Bridges and Brolin have portrayed Wild Bill Hickock, whose Wild West Show is the setting for the movie’s epilogue.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Little Fockers