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

Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

cemetery+of+splendor_02

What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. 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

Crazy Mothers, Scrappy Kids, Idiot Fathers and Humorless Dictatorships in The Babadook, St. Vincent, Wish I Was Here and Rosewater

It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.

All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter.  Here’s the rundown:

Babadook Poster 1

First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.  In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born.  Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored.   The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia.  The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future.  The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes.  The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading

Is Gone Girl the Greatest or the Worst Hate Story Ever Told?

Gone Girl Rosamund Pike

I’m drinking a glass of wine as I write this review of Gone Girl, as I imagine this is how many fans of the book enjoyed reading Gillian Flynn’s twisted and twisty tale of the worst marriage ever.  I didn’t read the book, so the twists came as genuine surprises to me, and I credit my fellow critics for not really spoiling much in their reviews when the book and film are so damn spoilable.

But the thing you have to know about David Fincher’s film adaptation (spun for the screen from Ms. Flynn’s own hands) is that EVERYTHING about it (okay, and maybe this is a spoiler, so sue me)…is a ruse. Continue reading

The Art of Style as Substance in Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 300: Rise of an Empire

Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy

Enemy Spider over Toronto Skyline Poster

Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce.  The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double.  It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.

Enemy Location Shot

The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film.  Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film).  For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises.  Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera).  I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film.  I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers.  When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater! Continue reading

Holding the Audience Captive in Prisoners

Prisoners

Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture.  While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive.  Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.

Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way.  Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children.  Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry.  We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format. Continue reading

Revisiting Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

And thus Bruce Wayne’s fate was set from the start.

When I think about my favorite genres of film I turn to noir, crime dramas and psychological thrillers. My least favorite genres of film would probably be musicals, romantic comedies and comic book movies. Hence, back in 2005, when one of my favorite up-and-coming purveyors of my favorite types of film decided to take on a reboot of a comic book movie franchise, my faith was tested. Not even I could predict then that Christopher Nolan would pull off the unexpected. He took the most obvious and surface level of modern archetypal stories and used its trappings as a vehicle to tap into a cultural zeitgeist and to provide commentary on our contemporary war against global terrorism.
Continue reading

Weird Films I Have Seen

Three weeks…three really weird films from Netflix focused on three (or more) psychologically disturbed women.

Where do I even begin?  Let’s start from the beginning.

The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodovar

Remember the episode of Seinfeld where George was dating the woman who looked like Jerry and Kramer was far too eager to diagnose the “perverse sexual amalgam” and “George’s man-love for a she-Jerry?”  Ah, funny stuff, right?  Good times.  Good times.  Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is kinda like that episode of Seinfeld only imagine George is a renowned plastic surgeon (played by Antonio Banderas) with a deeply personal motivation for creating the perfect skin-graft for burn victims and his girlfriend is the man who raped his suicidal daughter whom against which he holds a fetishistic vendetta.  Wait…what?  No…that’s not right. 

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is like David Lynch’s Lost Highway re-imagined by a hysterical Spanish woman with a gender-identity crisis.  Yeah…that’s it…that’s the ticket.  Or maybe not. Continue reading

Keep Watching the Skies and Take Shelter

Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Sundance hit Take Shelter is a haunting slow-burner about a man trying to weather the storms from within and without.  It exists at that rare cinematic nexus of emerging talents in front of and behind the camera.  It’s the type of small film that deserves a bigger audience than it has thus far earned.

In the lead role of Curtis, Michael Shannon (currently mayor of creep city on Boardwalk Empire) builds upon his past typecasting in films like Revolutionary Road and My Son My Son What Have Yee Done? to fully inhabit a man at wit’s end.  As his wife, Samantha, Jessica Chastain emerges from the dreamy otherworldliness of Malick’s The Tree of Life to portray a lovely down-to-earth young woman who fights with every fiber of her being to keep her family together even as she fears her husband is losing his mind.  Shannon’s unnerving physical performance and average schlub personality is the perfect foil to Chastain’s girl-next-door beauty and gumption.  Together they dance through Nichols’ quiet mind-field and let off tiny emotional explosions that could rattle the doors off a barn…or a storm cellar. Continue reading