“Nocturnal Animals” Suffocates Us in Its Constrictive Embrace

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Until just recently, it would have been hard to imagine seeing a film that would make Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon seem like a subtle and moderate take on the conflict between art and passion. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man), however, has managed just that, creating an overdetermined, overplotted and overwrought melodrama that leaves no room for audience interpretation, every beat micromanaged within a letter of its scripted sentence. For those who enjoy the claustrophobia of an MRI machine, run to the cinema, where Ford’s miserable effort at storytelling (based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright) awaits to enfold you in its constrictive embrace.

Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Susan, an established establisment artist whose grotesque work we meet before her. In an opening sequence that is actually quite beautiful in a Lynchian (as in David Lynch) way, Ford gives us obese women, naked and writhing to  an unheard rhythm (we hear only the strings of the soundtrack), joyfully wriggling their pounds of flesh. Sadly, this expression of freedom – which, it turns out, is a video projection that serves as backdrop to Susan’s new exhibit – is the last one we will see (or feel) in the film, for what follows is a stultifying series of scenes of ennui punctuated by deeply horrifying violence that make this film one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences of the year. Susan, it seems, has built her success on the foundation of one egregious sin, committed years ago, and now that shameful act returns to haunt her. Cue music.

Past history arrives in the form of a manuscript, written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals. He has dedicated it to her, and the rest of the movie alternates between dramatic reenactments of the book’s plot, Susan’s reaction to it, and flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s relationship. After her rupture with Edward, Susan remarried, to Hutton (Armie Hammer, The Birth of a Nation), creating a life of opulence we glimpse in the sleek surfaces of a house in the Hollywood Hills. Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition) moved back to his native Texas, where he has been teaching English and, apparently, wallowing in despair and hatred, all of which he pours into his repulsive novel of murder and retribution. Unluckily for us, we are treated to his unvarnished rage as we watch the plot unfold. Fortunately, the story within the story features a very fine Michael Shannon (Elvis & Nixon) as a detective helping Gyllenhaal (who plays the main character within that story, as well) track down those who have wronged him. I’ll take whatever small pleasures I can fine.

Individual elements are not without merit, but the overall whole is simultaneously repellant and ridiculous. The murderous violence – and there is plenty of it – is excessive, even if we ultimately understand the roots of Edward’s anger (at which point the obviousness of the conceit makes the entire affair even more egregious). Adams, a terrific actress, does her best, but she is as hampered by the script as are we. Gyllenhaal fares a little better – he is given more to do – but it’s really Shannon (an actor I have not always admired) who takes his part and spins it into rough treasure. If only we could isolate his scenes from the rest, we’d then have a relatively watchable thriller. Instead, we just have this mess.

In “Moana,” Disney Offers a Powerful and Delightful Fantasy of Female Derring-Do

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Moana

Moana (Ron Clements/Don Hall/John Musker/Chris Williams, 2016)

Moana, the 56th animated feature from the Walt Disney Company, gives us a ravishing musical confection about a young Polynesian woman who must journey far and wide to save not only her people, but the world, battling monsters and demons along the way. The United States of America may not yet be ready for a female leader, but apparently our prime purveyor of coming-of-age fables has no problems shattering the proverbial glass ceiling (here, made of salt water and lava), and has been doing so for quite some time (albeit with minimal personal agency for its earlier princesses). What makes this particular version of a teenager seeking her place in life particularly fresh and engaging is its beautiful visual design, snappy songs (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame) and winning cast. Who knew that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Central Intelligence) could sing?

Johnson voices Maui, a disgraced demigod whose actions in the film’s prologue – stealing the heart of the goddess Te Fiti – begin a slow process of ocean decay that, as the main story begins, has finally brought blight to the island where our heroine, the titular Moana, is but a child. All is good, at first, and the lovely baby – daughter of the chief – frolics in the sand and waves, oblivious of dangers to come. In a blissful moment, she rescues a young sea turtle on its way from nest to surf, and as she does so, the ocean chooses her for greatness by offering her the lost heart of Te Fiti. Which she promptly drops. She is, after all, at that point but a toddler. And so the film goes, mixing profundity with charming humor and crisp performances.

Speaking of charm, Johnson has it to spare. But he’s not alone: newcomer Auli’i Carvalho, as the adolescent Moana, matches him beat for beat. Along for the ride are other actors of Polynesian or Maori descent, including Paula House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Moana’s beloved grandmother and, most notably, a hilarious Jermaine Clement (People Places Things) as a villainous giant crab with a taste for bling. Indeed, the film acts as a gentle corrective to movies past – among them, Disney’s own – that have too often cast white actors in non-European roles (even the otherwise innovative Kubo and the Two Strings came under fire for whitewashing its main characters). Positive and empowering racial and gender politics aside, though, this is a film that deserves to be seen on its many wonderful merits as joyous storytelling, above all else.

I was especially a fan of the gorgeous animation – in 3D for those who choose to see it that way – of both landscapes, seascapes, humans and creatures. The scene where Moana and Maui first meet, in which Johnson struts and sings his stuff, is filled with a wildly imaginative mix of 3D and 2D images within the frame that shows a delightful new level of visual sophistication. Maui, himself, is a work of art, his body covered in tattoos that shift and slide across his body. There are also adorable animal sidekicks, and even a cute army of vicious sentient coconuts that are as funny as they are deadly. As Moana struggles against internal doubt and external foes, with a reluctant Maui as guide and helpmate, we journey alongside her, basking in the giddy glow of a tale well told. Disney has given us a wonderful Thanksgiving present, to be savored by all. I’ll take seconds (and maybe thirds), please!

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Is Charming, If Very Messy, Fun

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)

Published in 2001, after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – the fourth volume in the parent series of the Harry Potter universe – had already come out, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a slim, mock textbook on magical creatures ostensibly written by a specialist in that subject named Newt Scamander. It is a guide to a little-known part of author J.K. Rowling’s richly textured world of witches and wizards, and as such is a delightful compendium of esoterica that offers scrumptious tidbits for casual fans and Potter aficionados, alike. What it is not is a story, or even a template for a story, so the fact that Rowling has borrowed Scamander’s title for her first-ever screenplay provides little clue for what might await the viewer, other than the titular creatures. And they are there, prominently featured in this new film brought to us by the studio (Warner Bros.) that made all previous Potter films and the director (David Yates) who directed the final four (starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

Rowling and Yates start out by giving us what we want, which is good magical fun and adventure, but if I mention the movie’s pedigree, it is to emphasize how much the enterprise feels brand-oriented, cramming in so many details of new-series set-up as to overwhelm both beasts and story. In fact, the beasts, themselves, are almost superfluous. Instead, we get yet a new battle between forces of dark magic and forces of good, embodied by one evil wizard named Grindelwald and one super-nice-guy bloke named … Newt Scamander. I won’t divulge any major plot spoilers by revealing the identity of the villain, who remains hidden in plain sight for most of the movie, but unless you are one extremely inattentive audience member, you’ll know who he is from the moment he appears on screen. Still, there are surprises in store, so even as we realize that we’re merely watching the launch of a new franchise, we marvel at how well the effort entertains.

Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays Scamander as a charmingly distracted academic, whom we first meet upon his arrival in New York of the mid-1920s. He’s in possession of a special suitcase from which emerge knockings and groans (and a claw), but which he makes Muggle-proof with the flick of a switch. It turns out he has misplaced one of the creatures he collects, and soon makes his way to a bank where the lost soul – an unbearably cute cross between a platypus and a magpie – is busy stealing gold. His use of magic on a Muggle (called a “No-Maj” – pronounced “no-madge” – in America) draws the attention of a local inspector, Tina Goldstein (a very fine Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice), and what should have been a simple extraction mission quickly blows up into a major flash point between ordinary humans and wizards. Add a dash of malicious intent (courtesy of he who shall be named, i.e., Grindelwald), and it’s a wonder that there’s anything left standing in New York by the end. It’s engaging enough, as these things go, but burdened with too many subplots. Yes, there will be sequels, but perhaps the one story would have been enough here. After all, we came for the beasts.

Many of these creatures are wonderfully designed – as is the Big Apple of yore – though I was disappointed that the one scene where we see them all in one place suffers from a certain visual artificiality, as if the green screen had not been properly keyed out. In an otherwise technically superb production, this was a glaring failing. And though one of them does end up playing an important role in the climax, they still feel shoehorned into the clash between the main protagonists. Fortunately, those characters are portrayed by actors who know what they’re doing: in addition to Redmayne and Waterston, we also have Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Dan Fogler (Don Peyote) and musician-turned-actress Alison Sudol, among others. It’s an appealing cast, game for anything (Fogler, as a hapless No-Maj swept up in the mayhem, especially) and when Rowling remembers to keep the script moving jauntily forward, they shine. 

One major problem with the movie, however, that refused to leave me in peace, was its central conceit of the self-imposed restraint that wizards and witches must show in order to hide from us regular folk. In the Harry Potter books and stories, with their emphasis more squarely on the lives and customs of the magical world, the clash of civilizations was not so foregrounded. Here, given that those with wands can more or less do whatever they want, with no discernible reciprocal weapon on the part of ordinary humans, why – as Grindelwald asks – would they feel the need to hide? Yes, we hear tell of ancient witch burnings, but given what we see of the overwhelming superiority of those witches in this story, how could that actually be a viable threat? Rowling fails to make a compelling case for the division of worlds. Perhaps she will in the next film, or the one after that. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, however, there are a few too many loose threads for it to be more than a diverting set-up for revelations to come.

Delightful “Edge of Seventeen” Breathes New Life into Teen Comedy

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)

A delightfully offbeat coming-of-age tale, The Edge of Seventeen gives us Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Nadine, a surly teenage girl whose first words of the movie are a declaration of suicidal intent. To whom does she make this horrific confession? Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), one of her teachers (as it turns out, her favorite), who looks at her from behind his desk, slouched in midday fatigue, his weary eyes unmoved. His response is to crack a joke at her expense and complain that Nadine never lets him eat his lunch in peace. Either he (and, by extension, the movie) is extremely insensitive, or he has her number, knowing just what kind of pushback is appropriate to kick Nadine out of the melancholy of adolescent despair. Something in the crinkle of his brow gives away the game: they’ve been here before, these two. It may all work itself out.

As it turns out, that opening interaction sets the tone of the film, which sees Nadine careen from crisis to worsening crisis, alienating those who would love her if she would only give them the chance. She lives at home with mom (Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer) and big brother Darian (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!), and more or less hates them both. It’s a good thing she has best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson, The Young Kieslowski) to break up the depressive repetition of high-school mundanities. The film presents the history of her bleak (as she sees it) life in a snappy montage of misadventures that works in tonal opposition to Nadine’s gloomy voiceover. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig – whose first feature this is – proves herself extremely adept at balancing respect for the very real challenges of the teenage years with a bubbly recognition that we’ve all been here before and that, surely, somehow, it will all end well.

Which it does, but in ways both familiar and unexpected. The joy of this movie is how Craig breathes new life into a cinematically commonplace narrative. Seinfeld is a large part of the reason, delivering a charming and winning performance that makes Nadine infinitely appealing even when she is cruel. Harrelson is equally perfect as the cynical teacher, who may not, in fact, be as jaded as we initially think. Sedgwick, Jenner and Richardson are also very watchable, but it is perhaps Hayden Szeto (The Unbidden), both endearing and very funny as Erwin, the lovesick student ignored by Nadine, who steals the show. Overall, then, The Edge of Seventeen is a near-perfect teen comedy that announces a bold new directorial talent and is a wonderful antidote to the poison in our collective system after the rancorous election season. A must-see for all.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” Stumbles Mid-Field

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ang Lee, 2016)

Ang Lee has made many fine films, some of them great. Among the latter, I would count both Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi; among the former, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and SensibilityThe Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has also had one unmitigated misfire: 2003’s Hulk (no “The,” just “Hulk”), which stands alone as that rare film by Lee that was both box-office and critical flop, failing to make back its production budget domestically (though it recouped the loss when we add in international sales), and receiving a general, if neither uniform nor unanimous, drubbing from movie reviewers around the globe. Nobody’s perfect.

Now comes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 book. The original source material is both frustrating and deeply satisfying: frustrating because its rambling structure frequently meanders beyond its story; satisfying because it is a much-needed critique of our society’s hypocrisy when it comes to war. Billy is a young man more or less impressed into the U.S. Army after an act of vandalism, who returns home on a Thanksgiving-week victory tour after he and the members of his unit win a battle over Iraqi insurgents. Videotaped by an embedded Fox News crew, this victory is used by the Bush Administration (the book takes place in the mid-2000s) to increase public support for the war. And so the boys of Bravo Squad are fêted and dined on a cross-country trip which ends in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, during a Cowboys-Bears football game. The entire present-day plot of the novel takes place before, during and after that game, interspersed with flashbacks to the war and Billy’s life before the war. What passes for narrative allows author Fountain to set up encounter after encounter where the general words of support and encouragement spoken to the soldiers by the public are revealed as hollow. Mass consumption is all Americans think about.

Lee’s film is very much like the book in structure, albeit simplified. All the major characters remain, and the central question of the novel – should Billy stay in the army or turn deserter, as his sister implores – is the same. This is all for the good, since the book raises important issues, but also bad, since the time we spend in the stadium is distinctly undramatic. Indeed, it may be even less engaging than similar scenes in the book, since the cast of young actors who play the soldiers are not up to the challenge of shouldering the weight of the story. Sadly, chief among those who fall short is Billy Lynn, himself, portrayed by newcomer Joe Alwyn. He is not alone, however. When your movie’s biggest emotional scenes are given to Vin Diesel (Riddick), a fine performer in the right kind of flick but not exactly a powerhouse of a thespian, you know you have a problem. Perhaps the only actor who acquits herself honorably is Kristen Stewart (Certain Women), as the sister encouraging Billy to quit. Even veteran Steve Martin (It’s Complicated) fares poorly as what passes for the movie’s unctuous villain. Fellow comic Chris Tucker (Rush Hour) comes across only slightly better, while Garrett Hedlund, as Billy’s commander, can’t get past his shtick from last year’s Pan.

Leaving the actors aside, however, the real problem with the film is the way it is shot. Although most of us will never be able to see the movie in its native 120 frames-per-second format (I only saw the 24fps version), we are still subjected to a roving camera that never quite seems to find its subject, crossing the 180-degree line at will, disrupting our sense of perspective. When that camera does stop, the actors often turn to it and break the fourth wall, looking directly into the lens for no discernible aesthetic reason. It’s odd and off-putting, and when combined with mannered performances it pushes us out of the story. My guess is that the choice to use the high frame rate was made to create the effect of a live sports event, using the stadium setting as inspiration, to heighten the emotional content. The other disruptions were most likely intended to shake us out of our own complacency as viewers. I get it, but it’s neither pleasant nor effective. Whether or not 120fps would achieve a better result is a judgement to be reserved for the lucky few who catch the movie in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The rest of us just get the muddled remains.

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Scott Braid – on “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Moonlight” and “Trolls”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Scott Braid, Associate Director at the Maryland Film Festival

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Scott Braid, Associate Director at the Maryland Film Festival

Welcome to the second episode of the 2016-2017 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. My guest this time was Scott Braid, Associate Director, Associate Director at the Maryland Film Festival. We reviewed three new films: Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, Trolls.

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the  the first episode of this current season, plus all six from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). And you can also always watch the previous segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. We’ll be back at the start of January with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

In Visually Stunning (If Derivative) “Arrival,” a Powerful Amy Adams Offers Hope and Peace for All Time

Arrival

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

There is much to admire and love in Arrival, the new film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a creatively dynamic soul known for the eclectic variety of his subjects. While I have not enjoyed everything of his that I have seen, I nevertheless usually appreciate his restless mind, which strives to explore the human condition from a multitude of different angles. His often troubled characters act as mirrors of our own existential crises, suffering on the audience’s behalf as they journey through tortuous (and tortured!) metaphysical labyrinths. That description makes the movies sound like philosophical gabfests, but Villeneuve’s strength is his ability to combine tense action sequences with profound meditations on life. When this combination works, it’s a thrilling experience. When it doesn’t, it’s a bit of a muddled mess, even if occasionally exciting. Arrival is of the former variety, through paced more slowly than earlier Villeneuve films (all with his trademark one-word titles) like Sicario (muddled, yet exciting), Prisoners (just muddled) or Incendies (thrilling all the way). If some of it feels derivative of other science-fiction work, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the movie tells a beautiful story about how the best of us might behave when confronted with the mystery of the unknown.

Amy Adams (American Hustle) plays Louise, a celebrated linguist whose seemingly tranquil life as a college professor is interrupted when the Earth is suddenly visited by 12 gigantic extraterrestrial black pods that hover above their respective destinations (scattered around the globe), defying gravity and just about every other scientific fact we take for granted. Once contact is made with the creatures inside, she is recruited because of some previous interpreting work done for the military, whose commanders (embodied by Forest Whitaker (The Butler) now believe she may be the best person to help us decipher a brand-new language. She’s not alone among the academics: Jeremy Renner (Kill the Messenger), as Ian, a physicist brought along to decipher the science of the aliens once we know how to talk to them, joins Louise on the team that interacts with the one pod hovering over the United States, in Montana. As they struggle to understand these strange beings from afar, they find that time is not their ally, as the other nations where pods similarly hover grow aggressive in their suspicions that the aliens do not come in peace. Soon, it seems, that aggression may lead everyone into a battle not only with the visitors, but with each other.

Time and its linear progression forwards and backwards have always been the medium of cinema. Without divulging any plot spoilers, Arrival takes that manipulation of time as its central conceit. The opening images give us Amy Adams talking to the memory of her child, now deceased, in flashback. Later events take these dreams of the past and move them front and center in her consciousness as she confronts the challenge of alien technology. What can the past teach her (and us) about the future, and is each moment in time really so separate the one from the other?. It’s a beautiful question to ponder, and also a very sad one, as the dead child reappears over and again, a mix of inspiration and despair. Unfortunately, it is also a derivative one, as well, culled from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, another science-fiction film that used the fluidity of time as the driver of its plot. This is not the only borrowed element in Villeneuve’s movie: the extraterrestrials – a combination of octopus (though they have but seven legs) and pachyderm – recall the design of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters; the pods, themselves, gracefully swimming through the sky like humpback whales, accompanied by what sounds like whale song on the soundtrack, call to mind another time-based sci-fi adventure, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It’s as much homage, I suppose, as copy, and Villeneuve still carves out a niche of his own, but I nevertheless found these resonances occasionally distracting.

Adams and Renner, however, are not distracting, but wholly engaging, Adams, especially. As Louise, she owns the film, her liquid eyes containing pools of thought and feeling that pull us in, no matter the limitations of Villeneuve’s imagination. Whitaker, unfortunately, though a fine actor, has made the choice to give his character an odd, almost impenetrable accent that gradually fades as the film progresses; early on, I could barely understand what he said in a few key moments. The rest of the cast is solid enough, though this is clearly Adams’ movie, as well as cinematographer Bradford Young’s, shooter of Selma and A Most Violent Year, among other visually stunning works. Hats off to the visual-effects team, too, which has done a marvelous job making the creatures feel real and present. Overall, then, this is a film to see, ponder and savor, even if it sometimes falls short of perfection. In our current world, ever more riven by cultural division, we need stories like this, where vastly different beings find a peaceful way to communicate. See it for that reason, and for Adams.

3 Reviews @hammertonail, of “The Eagle Huntress,” “Moonlight” and “Sonita” + @middleburgfilm wrap-up @filmfesttoday

h2n-fft-november-6-collage

Hammer to Nail posted three new reviews of mine last week for The Eagle Huntress, Moonlight and SonitaAlso, Film Festival Today posted my summary of the recent Middleburg Film Festival. Here are the links to each post:

Enjoy!

“Roughly Speaking” on “Certain Women,” “Moonlight” and Political Films from the Cinema Canon

november-4-roughly-speaking

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed two new releases – Certain Women and Moonlight – as well as politically themed films from the cinema canon (you know, because of this impending election of ours), including, but not limited to, the following: Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonA Face in the CrowdThe Candidate and BulworthHere is the link to the show. Enjoy!