The Specter of Past Relationships in Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals

*SPOILER ALERT – READ WITH CAUTION*

(Read With Caution could’ve been an alternate title to the film, by the way…)

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been ridiculously advertised as a schizophrenic film within a film that anyone watching any of the tonally different trailers would be hard pressed to tell you what the devil the thing is about. But one almost wonders if the strange advertising is all part of the Ford game? Look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s tipsy smirk plastered across your IMDB homepage…oh…and look…he’s taking a blue-eyed gander at the even bluer-eyed Amy Adams, all red tresses and smiles…America’s sweethearts. It’s all so fake. And all so wrong. Like much of the film. But also so symbolic. And borderline brilliant when it’s not absurd.

Ford’s opening credits of obese women doing some post-modern Burlesque (ah, what an art show!) will put some off with its Lynchian inspired weirdness (and there’s more sick touches interspersed throughout the film)…but it serves a purpose if you wisely invest in the film until the very end. It’s just one of many tricks the director pulls off here…like inserting a go-for-broke performance from…you guessed it…the ubiquitous – and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times –  always amazing, Michael Shannon, into the film within the film on what seems like a total lark.

Nocturnal Animals is really much more straightforward than any encapsulated description of its plot would lead you to believe. Or is it? Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller about reading. In a grander sense, it’s about how the viewer (or reader) brings their own emotional baggage to viewing art. In a bizarrely humanist bent, it’s also an infinitely sad testament to the spectre past relationships and traumatic break-ups cast upon one’s ensuing life.

In the film (based on a novel by Austin Wright), a teetering-on-depression art gallerista named Susan (Adams, so delightfully complex and subverting all her norms in what is her second great performance this year after Arrival) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, who somehow both under-acts and overacts, Edward’s tottering emotions always subject to Susan’s sometimes melodramatic interpretations of his writing) that he has mysteriously dedicated to her. Continue reading

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Changing the World Brick by Brick in Loving

loving_true

loving_film

In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading

We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things in Midnight Special

Midnight Special

*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”

It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government.  They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.

Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take.  The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon.  Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen).  In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious?  Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny).  Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things.  This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.

In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears.  Continue reading

The Death of the American Dream in 99 Homes

99 Homes

Michael Shannon’s character Rick Carver spouts some great lines in the tense and heartbreaking new film from Ramin Bahrani, 99 Homes.  At one point he tells his morally conflicted protégé in crooked evictions and house flipping, Dennis Nash (played by Andrew Garfield, raw but with a somewhat questionable Southern accent), “America doesn’t bail out losers.  America bails out winners.  It was made of, for and by winners.”  Yeah, eff the People!  No…what?  Wait a minute.  It was moments like that, where sitting in a near empty theater on the weekend of this indie’s wider release into multiplexes, I thought that a savvier studio would be playing the line in endless teaser loops and marketing this as the flip side to Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.  Maybe that would’ve gotten more people into the seats.  But the wounds 99 Homes pours salt on are too fresh… and as successful as it is from a tactical perspective (well-written, well-acted, well-directed and timely), I don’t know if this could ever be a financial hit.

In the fall-out of the housing crisis, Florida-based construction worker/everyday handyman Dennis Nash suddenly has no new homes to build and loses the one he shares with his part-time hairdresser Mom (Laura Dern – the epitome of lower-middle class optimism and angst) and young son (Noah Lomax) to foreclosure.  Into his life steps the non-nonsense, slick-talking, worn down but looking up real-estate agent, Rick Carver, who evicts default homeowners and then runs crooked deals to flip the houses where he screws the banks and the government (and anyone else who he crosses paths with).  Carver offers Nash a helping hand, but it’s akin to making a deal with the devil, and he keenly warns Nash, “Real estate should never be personal.  Don’t get sentimental about a house.  It’s just a box.”  But it’s a box that represents the American Dream for so many, who through predatory lending practices, got screwed out of their homes after the housing bubble crash of 2008 that sent the US and the world tumbling into the Great Recession. Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: Devil You Know

Boardwalk Empire - Chalky and Daughter

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Devil You Know

Season Five: Episode Six

Directed by:  Jeremy Podeswa

Written by:  Howard Korder

The Spin:  SUPER DUPER SPOILERS AHEAD – A skipping record plays over the closing credits of Korder’s masterfully penned slow-build to the two-fold finale, and Daughter Maitland’s (Margot Bingham) rendition of “Dream a Little Dream” haunts the hour as our dear Chalky (Michael K. Williams) makes a deal with the devil Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) in order to give Daughter and her/his daughter a chance (even if only in a dream).  It’s been a roller coaster season of highs and lows and mostly frustration, but Korder, who has always been the most reliable of the Boardwalk scribes, operates on this one with the expert precision of a Shakespearian surgeon.  Did anyone ever really doubt this was a tragedy?

Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: King of Norway

Boardwalk Empire 5.5

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – King of Norway

Season Five: Episode Five

Directed by:  Ed Bianchi

Written by:  Steve Kornacki

The Spin:  The title of tonight’s episode refers to the picture of the king the Norwegian Mrs. Muller hangs in the kitchen.  Turns out she’s been having drunken afternoon tristes with Eli (Shea Whigham) who can only barely remember a thing.  Too bad his memory gets jogged by the mustachioed regent, and Mrs. Muller chose to reveal the tawdry details at a disastrous dinner where Eli’s pregnant wife had come to visit from Atlantic City, a dinner that could only have gotten worse if say, I dunno, the Feds had shown up.  Oh, they did.  The Muller formerly known as Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Eli have been paired as a some sort of tragic comedy team this year where they try to one up each other with their sad, ironic life events.  Two former law men nabbed by the feds who now want their help getting the books on Capone so they can nail him on tax evasion – what a joke.  And sadly it was about the only interesting turn of events tonight.

Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: Cuanto

Boardwalk Empire 5.4

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Cuanto

Season Five: Episode Four

Directed by:  Jake Paltrow

Written by:  Christine Chambers, Howard Korder and Terence Winter

The Spin:  There’s been a melancholic pall hanging over Boardwalk Empire’s fifth season.  Yes, it’s the last, which is sad enough alone, but it’s also strangely fitting that in the real world the actual current Atlantic City is on a generational decline with the closing of multiple casinos (most notably the lavish Revel) and nothing seeming to go the city’s way.  Watching the flashbacks to “The Education of Nucky Thompson” where the city was but one resort and a modest boardwalk before the turn of the 20th century reminds those localized to its current perils just how far the city has come and how long the way down is (I fear in the real world we ain’t seen nothing yet about how down and out AC can get).  You see this mirrored in the lethargy of 1930’s Nucky, a man who’s gonna have to wake up.  And could Capone’s warning call to Nucky about Luciano’s insinuation that the Italians should cut out Nucky from their empire at the end of tonight’s episode be that wake up call?  Nucky is a man who’s come so far (from Dickensian beginnings so painstakingly tailored in the flashbacks) and runs the risk of falling ever harder.

The episode oozed a calming dread in almost every scene.

Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: White Horse Pike

Stand by your man...

Stand by your man…

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – White Horse Pike

Season Four: Episode Ten

Directed by: Jake Paltrow

Written by: David Flebotte

The Spin:  As much as Nucky has tried to stay out of the Chaky-Narcisse War, he can’t help but get sucked in when he learns Narcisse is in cahoots with not only Masseria’s clandestine Tampa heroin run (of which he got tipped off by stalwart Sally) but also with his puppet Mayor (whom he learns about from the trusty Willie).  Meanwhile he’s completely oblivious to Eli’s ongoing betrayal.  Elsewhere up in New York, Rothstein makes an interesting deal with a desperate to be independent but still all kind of cutesy-crooked Margaret.  Out in Chicago, a newly confident Muller is in like Flynn with Capone and gang who are celebrating high off the hog, hooch and hookers oblivious to the obvious retaliation brewing in the wake of Obanion’s obituary. Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: Marriage and Hunting

The Happy Couple

The Happy Couple

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – Marriage and Hunting

Season Four: Episode Nine

Directed by: Ed Bianchi

Written by: David Matthews, Jennifer Ames and Steve Turner

The Spin:  With the help of Roy (Ron Livingston) acting as her lover and confidant, Gillian (Gretchen Mol) has cleaned herself in her attempt to win the Tommy custody battle, but a shady phone call hints at Roy not being so forthcoming.  Meanwhile, Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) suspects her father’s terminal illness and gets married to Harrow (John Huston), who now comes crawling back to Nucky looking for steady work to support his family.

In other marital news, Muller (Michael Shannon) gets tired of being berated by his wife and bullied by Capone and regains some of his old Van Alden bad-assery.  Continue reading

Boardwalk Empire: All In

Boardwalk Empire - Rothstein

Boardwalk Empire: Complete Episode Guide

Boardwalk Empire – All In

Season Four: Episode Four

Directed by: Ed Bianchi

Written by: David Matthews

The Spin:  New alliances and showing one’s true colors were the themes of the night as writer Matthews focused on the old plot thickening and director Bianchi provided some clichéd thrills with panache – check out the lighting, sound design and camera angles on that guy getting tossed out of a Chicago window or watch Capone going tommy-gun bonkers on that poor fat bastard who finally met his damnable fate.

In AC, Nucky calls on Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) to see if he wants in on the Tampa deal.  While waffling, Rothstein shows his true colors at an endless poker match, leaving Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) wide open to strike up his own deal with Nucky. Continue reading