Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s garish and gritty movie within a movie pushes and pulls between high and low art

Nocturnal Animals PosterPerhaps no one other than fashion designer Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) could’ve nailed the beautiful, perverse, bizarre blend of high and low art he attains in “Nocturnal Animals.” Equal parts alluring and sickening, sexy and bleak, lush and trashy, Ford’s film within a film is deliciously silly pulp, but also stylishly deep and smart in its examination of psychology and privilege.

The disturbing dichotomy between each of those polar opposites starts as soon as the movie does, when Ford stages a perplexing, bordering on exploitative opening credits sequence. Morbidly obese women dance fully nude except for some Stars and Stripes hats and streamers. They’re dancing in front of a bold, deep red backdrop and writhe and gyrate endlessly in slow motion. Ford sees them as grotesque and trashy, but also as sensuous, hypnotic, beautiful and human.

The dancing turns out to all be part of Amy Adams’s art gallery, where she glides detached and unaware through the garishness on display. Her life is perfect and extravagant. Her home is luxurious and empty. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is a perfect specimen, but also lifeless and barely hiding an affair. She’s delivered a manuscript written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals,” a pet name he used to describe her ambition. Continue reading “Nocturnal Animals”

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder’s follow-up to “Man of Steel” pits Superman and Batman against each other.

BatmanSupermanPosterHave blockbusters really come to this? We’ve grown so desperate to make superheroes dark, gritty and realistic that we’ve fallen to sticking Superman, in full spandex, in front of Congress? “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” has it all: senatorial hearings, editorial newsroom meetings, CNN, Charlie Rose? It’s the spectacle of the new millennium!

Director Zack Snyder has officially made superhero movies no fun. Whereas Snyder’s “Man of Steel” was depressing, overly tragic and evoked disturbing 9/11 mayhem for action, “Dawn of Justice” is messy, overstuffed, boring, and still manages to double down on “Man of Steel’s” doom and gloom.

“Dawn of Justice” opens with a revisit of Bruce Wayne’s tortured childhood, when his parents were killed in a mugging. Anyone even remotely familiar with Batman will know this story, so Snyder’s just making exploitative melodrama. The super slow motion gun chamber blasts and falling pearls from Martha Wayne’s shattered necklace are laying it on a bit thick, no? Snyder then takes us back to the titanic battle at the end of “Man of Steel,” with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) horrified at the havoc Superman can wreak. Bruce swears to find a way to beat Superman, while Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) believes Batman to be the dangerous criminal and vigilante.

18 months later, Superman is the figure of heated political controversy. Has Superman been sent by God, is he human, or is he God himself? And if he has the power to bring about our destruction, can he be trusted and held accountable? Except Snyder doesn’t actually explore or consider any of these themes through drama and storytelling. We have to endure an endless torrent of TV talking heads spouting claptrap analysis on cable news, or Superman being called before Congress in an oversight committee held by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter). Snyder even dragged Neil DeGrasse Tyson into this mess.

When it’s not Anderson Cooper debating the moral dilemma behind Superman, it’s Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the head of a massive, nebulous company called Lexcorp. What movie exactly does Jesse Eisenberg think he’s in? Dressed in a baby blue suit and white sneakers with a wild mane of dirty brown hair, Eisenberg delivers a fast-talking, wide-eyed performance as less an ironic, tongue-in-cheek, super villain and more an eccentric mental patient. Luthor has for some reason declared his own war on Superman, and by extension a vengeance against God, utilizing his infinite resources to gain access to Superman’s only weakness, the mineral Kryptonite, and devise experiments on the body of the defeated General Zod.

Snyder goes all over the place in this story (written by “Argo’s” Chris Terrio and “Man of Steel’s” David S. Goyer). There’s an apocalypse dream sequence complete with a desert wasteland and unexplained mutant hornets policing the planet. There’s the sexy Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) needlessly inserting herself into Bruce Wayne’s business. And there are more than a few diversions to introduce the other members of the upcoming Justice League movie.

At no point however does Snyder tease out a strong main tension for the movie, a reason to care for the outcome of a fight between Superman and Batman or even urging us to root for a particular side. If it’s the fate of the world at stake, “Dawn of Justice” needs to do a better job than superficially profound lines about morality. “The world has been so caught up with what he can do that no one has asked what he should do,” or, “Devils don’t come from hell beneath us. They come from the sky.”

Snyder has also lost all his credibility as a visual stylist. While not as washed of color as “Man of Steel,” “Dawn of Justice’s” ending epic battle is a dizzying CGI laser-light show, in which Superman and another unstoppable behemoth wail on one another without consequence. And while some critics took Christopher Nolan to task for some sloppy editing and continuity within “The Dark Knight,” the car chase here is simply incomprehensible.

Affleck is a fine Batman, but his version of conflicted and tortured means being slow and lumbering. Cavill doesn’t fare much better as a perfectly bland Clark Kent. Eisenberg simply feels out of place. And poor Amy Adams. She’s taking Lois Lane far too seriously than this movie requires.

Every origin story has been told, every universe explored, every franchise booted and rebooted, and now as superhero movies have dominated popular culture, filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to fit their comic book idols into the real world. “Dawn of Justice” poses questions of governmental oversight that no one cared to ask, and in the process, the genre itself has ceased to be fun. Perhaps in the sequel, Superman can take out a mortgage and settle down into a nuclear family.

1 ½ stars

Big Eyes

Tim Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ is missing the gender politics and humor that would vitalize Margaret Keane’s story.

BigEyesPosterA woman is carefully studying one of Margaret Keane’s paintings of a waif like child with big eyes in a state of poverty and despair. She says, “It’s creepy, maudlin and amateurish. And I love it.”

Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” tells the story of Margaret Keane, but his film only meets the last two criteria of Margaret’s paintings. “Big Eyes” feels like a standard biopic placed in a maudlin setting, but it lacks the surreal, absurd, cartoonish character that has defined even some of Burton’s worst films. In the process, he loses the humor, wit and even political point of view necessary to make good on Margaret’s story.

Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) was a painter in the ‘50s and ‘60s who attained enormous success with her “Big Eye” paintings. All portraits of children, the moody sketches were pure kitsch and possibly art, but regardless, they sold like hotcakes. Reproduced countless times over, it became possible to buy a Keane at your local grocery store.

The only problem was that Margaret saw none of the attention for her work. Her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) convinced her that the work would sell better if people thought that it came from a man, so he took credit for himself and eventually became an established artist hobnobbing with Andy Warhol and being torn to shreds in the New York Times. Once the lie and Big Eye empire were established, Walter convinced Margaret that if she were to ever reveal the truth, the whole enterprise would come crashing down. Margaret remained silent for years until a circus of a legal battle in which Walter still claimed he was the sole painter of the Big Eyes.

Immediately Margaret’s story brings to mind women’s rights and what it means to be a female artist either in 1960 or 2015. Burton however doesn’t seem to have a political bone in his body, and he comments as little about the present as he does the past, seeking only to tell Margaret’s story in traditional terms.

Burton also misses an opportunity to take the courtroom material and make it truly outrageous. At one point Walter acts as both his own prosecutor and witness, leaping up and down from the stand with aplomb and play-acting the stereotypes he’s seen on old Perry Masons. Waltz executes the scene with charm, but he’s an actor who can go further, and Burton doesn’t ask him to, playing the moment mostly straight and not technically for laughs. The historical details of Margaret’s story are seedier and more outrageous than Burton even thinks to portray, something that seems peculiar given just how kooky and dark Burton can make established properties like Batman, Alice in Wonderland or the soap opera Dark Shadows.

Even bigger questions of truth, forgery and art seem to linger as untouched subjects. Something like “American Hustle” worked the idea of forgery into the very fabric of its storytelling. Even one of Burton’s best films, “Ed Wood”, explored the idea of whether even the worst art can still be called genius. Why can’t “Big Eyes” make a bigger claim about the nature of art, and how even kitsch and sentimental pap can still move people in a way that makes it art?

Keane’s art was all of those things but seemed weird enough to suggest there was an artist under those layers of canvas. “Big Eyes” amounts to little more than its surface level appeal.

2 ½ stars

2014 Oscars: The Most Popular (and Likely) Upsets

We’ve made all the predictions, but what would be real surprise this Oscar Sunday? Here are some likely upsets.

I’ve made my Oscar picks, and hopefully so have you, but anyone who has ever done this before knows that Oscar night ends up with pitiful looking ballots and people shouting at the TV (how in the world did that win?). So it actually makes sense to bet against the house in some occasions  and picking with your heart rather than your head is always allowed. So here are some last minute Oscar upsets to make to your ballot that a strong minority would both love to see happen and actually might.

Leonardo DiCaprio over Matthew McConaughey

People love Matthew McConaughey, but as I alluded to in this gallery, people really love Leonardo DiCaprio. A win for McConaughey is seen as justified, but only to commemorate a hot streak; it’s not something that’s obscenely long overdue as though an Oscar was the embodiment of Leo’s kids in “Inception” and he’ll never ever get to see their faces unless he’s caught in his own perpetual ambiguous dream world existence. 

Leo will win if the Academy convinces itself that somehow Leo gave the biggest, most physical and grueling performance of the year and his career by flailing like a fish out of water… a fish that has just done a ton of quaaludes and is trying to get into a Lambo. And yes, this will be seen as even more physical than McConaughey losing 40 pounds, Christian Bale gaining 40, Chiwetel Ejiofor spending 2+ hours getting whipped and hung and Bruce Dern being ancient.

Amy Adams over Cate Blanchett

I think everyone agrees that Cate Blanchett gives the best female performance of the year, but is anyone rooting for her? Is anyone rooting for anyone in this category?

Yes! It’s Amy Adams of course! She’s the only one in this bunch who doesn’t have an Oscar. But not only that, of all living actresses, only Glenn Close has more nominations and no wins than her (six to Adams’ five). Her split personality work in “American Hustle” is as complex as the movie itself, and her surprise nomination is evidence the Academy is already behind her and the movie. Continue reading “2014 Oscars: The Most Popular (and Likely) Upsets”

Oscar Nominations 2014 Analysis: Full of Surprises and None

All the Oscar surprises that really weren’t surprises after all

The Oscar nominees rarely satisfy, only surprise and enrage, although never in the way people expect, which I guess is its own surprise.

It was expected that Amy Adams could “surprise” by breaking into the field of Best Actress nominees, but did anyone suspect that it would be at Emma Thompson’s expense? There were predictions that Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio could get into an even tighter race, but both of them? Sally Hawkins was less expected behind perhaps Octavia Spencer and others, but was Oprah really the weak link?

These are the kinds of revelations that both delight and frustrate Oscar pundits. In a way, they were right that the Academy after all did not love “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “Saving Mr. Banks,” but then those prediction tallies never seem to match up.

The fact that there are surprises each year really shouldn’t be a surprise at all. If the Oscar nominations were as easy to predict as picking all the top ranked favorites, then what would be the fun of waking up at 7:38 in the morning to watch them? For instance, why was there doubt that David O. Russell couldn’t lead yet another cast to a sweep of the acting categories like he did with “Silver Linings Playbook” and nearly did with “The Fighter”? That’s one of those “surprises” that people should’ve seen coming a mile away, but no one did.

I guess it’s less of a surprise that Oscar pundits will now all turn around and rationalize the nominations in the way I’ve just done, as though it made sense or was expected all along, but no one “knew” that Thompson would be out, or no one “knew” that “Philomena” was a sure thing thanks to Harvey Weinstein after all. (I did however bet Hanks would get nothing) Continue reading “Oscar Nominations 2014 Analysis: Full of Surprises and None”

American Hustle

“American Hustle” is David O. Russell’s brilliant charade of a movie led by an amazing cast.

 

Christian Bale gained 43 pounds for his role in “American Hustle.” When he first appears on screen, he spends minutes “perfecting” an elaborate comb over of glued on hair and parted strands that will fool no one.

The beauty is that Bale and O. Russell have fooled everyone. We immediately are torn between the “real” Bale, the real character he’s portraying or the carefully tailored version he’s putting on for his associates, and if this portrayal is good enough, we’ll believe whatever these master performers put in front of us.

“American Hustle” is a brilliant charade of a movie. It’s a talky, intricate and intrigue filled caper in which everyone’s a con artist and there’s little sense of what’s real and what isn’t. We’ve been conditioned to believe in the movies there’s a certain element of truth within each story, no matter how fictional, fantastical or how deceitful and crafty the characters.

O. Russell’s film takes the real life story of ABSCAM, a ‘70s FBI sting operation that convicted several congressmen and a senator, and turns that concept of reality on its head. He opens the film with “Some of this actually happened,” a clever twist on the ambiguous “Based on a True Story,” and inhabits his and Eric Singer’s screenplay with a wacky, high octane and deliciously fun investigation that can’t be fully followed, trusted or believed in the slightest. Continue reading “American Hustle”

Her

Spike Jonze’s “Her” deepens our relationship with humans by embracing love and technology.

We live in a world of screens. There are now more screens and devices on this planet than there are humans. So it’s amazing how few of them there are in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

Jonze’s film only invokes technology as a way to communicate the imperfect beauty of human nature. “Her” has a sci-fi high concept but it’s as true and honest a relationship movie as any ever made.

In Jonze’s near future, men don un-ironic mustaches, pants are beige and hitched high with no buttons or belt loops for style, walls and homes are pristine white and softly focused but not exaggeratedly so, and few people crane their necks staring down at cell phones. Everyone can be seen talking with head held high, but they’re speaking to indiscreet ear buds implanted in their sides, getting headlines and emails read aloud to them on the subway. In this new age Los Angeles, everyone is alone together. Continue reading “Her”

Man of Steel

“Man of Steel” neglects to provide Superman with personality or a sense of wonder in its depiction of doom and gloom CGI mayhem.

If Superman’s outfit were not originally a bright blue and red, in Zack Snyder’s world it would be gray. It would be dampened and washed of color along with the sky palace vistas on the planet Krypton, the vast Kansas prairies and even Amy Adams’s hair.

Red and blue do not represent the doom and gloom Snyder is trying to convey in “Man of Steel.” And although the “S” on Superman’s chest is actually a symbol for hope, “Man of Steel” is more content to bludgeon us with tragedy and CGI devastation to the point that it neglects a compelling origin story, a sense of wonder or even the idea of heroism.

Superman’s origin story is inherently richer and darker than that of say, Spiderman, and producer Christopher Nolan has imbued in it the same grim overtones that he did in his Batman trilogy. Rather than childhood bullying and crushes on redheads that live next door, Superman’s origin begins with the destruction of his home planet, the tearful abandonment from his parents as he is jettisoned to Earth and the military coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) that leads to the death of his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe).

And yet after Krypton implodes in spectacular display and engulfs his mother in horrifically apocalyptic images, the movie does not dial back to a time when Clark Kent, now of Kansas, is at peace. Rather, Snyder’s idea of melodrama is cataclysm, with a pre-teen Clark being forced to rescue his classmates from drowning in a crashed bus, followed by a teenage Clark watching his father (Kevin Costner) die in a tornado and finally an adult Clark with a healthy beard (Henry Cavill) rescuing workers from an exploding oil tanker. Continue reading “Man of Steel”

On the Road

“On the Road” was well before my time. In fact, the names Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs mean significantly less to this generation of millennials. It’s not a book you necessarily read in high school anymore.

And yet the Beat Generation still holds a lot of importance for today’s young people. Kerouac embodied the simple question of “How are we to live,” and Director Walter Salles answers him with a film about picking up and going, finding ways to live through drugs, jazz, driving and lots of sex while leaving some of the things you love behind.

Both the book and the movie chart the adventures of the Kerouac persona Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a free-spirited writer with a sense of adventure and daring. He’s motivated by Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) and his girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart) to travel the American open road, living and working on ranches and parking wherever there’s excitement. Dean is the kind of untamed, wild creature who acts on instinct and can survive at it much longer than you can. It’s his wispy, mysterious spirit that keeps the story going. They’re charting their journey as they go, and even the movie doesn’t know where they’re headed.

Sam Riley’s bouncing and flailing and Kristen Stewart’s free-form swaying to the tune “Salt Peanuts” in a New Year’s Eve party scene is vividly captured by a camera that jumps and dances just as freely. It moves aimlessly, but with alacrity and sexual energy. The editing too has a mind of its own, leaping and moving from spot to spot with sporadic attention, just caught up in all the timeless images and energy.

Salles then has created a movie as animalistic as its heroes, beautifully unorthodox and poetic at times and completely bonkers, clumsy and misguided at others. Characters evaporate from the movie, as does the little plot it sustains, but “On the Road” always has at least some direction, a journey for truth and meaning in life and not just being completely lost.

If “On the Road” doesn’t sustain its energy as hard as its characters try, it’s because what could match the rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness prose that made Kerouac’s book so iconic, and so unfilmable?

3 stars

The Master

Don’t blink. If you do, we have to start from the beginning.

This phrase marks the first time both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix truly communicate with one another in “The Master” and possibly the last time they really get inside each other’s heads.

They’re in each other’s control, both devoting their full attention. We, as an audience, can look away no sooner.

With “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson has made yet another film that demands intense focus and patience. But it rewards those opening their eyes with a vividly allegorical film about the lengths of human control, one with tour de force performances, hauntingly pallid colors and towering images of stunning depth and clarity.

We meet Freddie Quell (Phoenix) languishing over his peers at the end of World War II. Sprawled out on his ship’s upper deck, he looks like the giant in “Gulliver’s Travels” surrounded by swarms of shipmates way below hurling stones to wake him. He’s arrived at this point after a night of heavy drinking, enabled by a lethal cocktail of his own fermenting. This swill will get him into trouble later when it poisons an elderly farmer.

The incident sends Freddie running and hiding as a stowaway to the cruise ship of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a man who comes to be known to Freddie only as Master. He’s a writer, philosopher, doctor, but above all a man, as he says to Freddie, but more accurately he’s the leader of a growing cult movement called The Cause.

Maybe it’s because he enjoys Freddie’s swill, but Master sees potential, bravery and room for personal growth in Freddie. He takes him into his home, enlists him as a guinea pig for The Cause, performs “processing” on him and believes that through Master’s own guidance, Freddie can be helped.

Master and The Cause are both fictional versions of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and the accounts of the film show the religion’s initial development in the early ‘50s. And yet neither this comparison nor the actual plot of the film give a great sense of what “The Master” is really about.

More so than a nihilistic condemnation of Scientology, Anderson uses this as a setting and metaphor for themes of sexual repression and the possibility of man. Continue reading “The Master”