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”

Loving

Jeff Nichols’s modest true story values romance above civil rights melodrama

loving_2016_filmJeff Nichols should make all civil rights dramas. He’s not interested in making history, in exposing melodramatic movie racism or in grand speeches and moments of righteousness. “Loving,” a film about the landmark Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia that allowed interracial marriages, separates the broader cultural and historical significance of this couple’s story from their more personal struggles to keep a family together. “Loving” is impressive because it ignores so many clichés, but more so because it’s a modest drama that’s intimate and understanding when looking at this romance.

The film’s first words are said in close-up on Mildred (Ruth Negga): “I’m pregnant.” It cuts to Richard (Joel Edgerton), who breathes a long pause before smiling. Before we know what time period this movie is even set in, or whom these people are, we know that this pregnancy will be a point of contention, whether because of their skin color or because of reasons we can only begin to surmise. The question of if they can make it work will be far more interesting than the inevitable court decision.

And in Mildred and Richard’s country lives, the Supreme Court doesn’t even register as a concept. Upon traveling to Washington D.C. to get married in a court house, Mildred asks her brother what the city is like. For the people in Mildred’s family, their marriage is far less a question of decency but whether it will threaten to take Mildred away from the country. Integration nationwide may be on the minds of Mildred and Richard Loving, but it’s hardly the only challenge in their lives, and the movie feels more naturalistic and less overbearingly political as a result. Continue reading “Loving”

Midnight Special

Michael Shannon stars in this mysterious and surprising sci-fi of fathers and sons.

MidnightSpecialPosterWith “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”

Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.

As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.

And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.

With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.

4 stars

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”

Mud

Jeff Nichols’s Mud is a true Americana movie that, like a wise elder, has true secrets and wisdom to impart.

Jeff Nichols, along with Ramin Bahrani, is the best director today capturing the spirit of down-south Americana values. His third feature “Mud” follows this tradition by showing just how deeply rooted all his characters are, each with their own deep-seeded histories that guide the film through otherwise rough waters.

Deep in the rivers of Arkansas, two boys named Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan of “The Tree of Life” and debut performer Jacob Lofland) come across an island, a boat stuck in a tree and a drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) calling it his home. These kids have hard faces and journey out into the open fully aware, yet still wary, of the danger. So when Mud appears and asks for their help, they act on instinct and ingrained country wisdom.

Mud’s a murderer on the lam with only a shirt and a pistol to his name. He explains to the boys that he killed a man trying to defend the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The two plan to escape together, but Juniper is aimless, uncertain and faced with her own danger.

It’s a thriller in this way, one that turns a bit too Hollywood near the end for its own good, but the intricate subtext surrounding the livelihood of Ellis is what makes “Mud” feel so at home. Continue reading “Mud”

Take Shelter

The usual through line for family movies about mental or physical disabilities involves the struggle of the family to care and love for a disabled person. “Take Shelter” however considers that were a father to suffer a mental illness, he may lose his masculinity and his ability to care for his family. For all this to come in a riveting, often surreally brilliant psychological thriller shows the intense bravura filmmaking at play in Jeff Nichols’s film.

Like Nichols’s first film “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” finds depth and character in its vivid slice of Americana living. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). They’re a happy family, and although they seek surgery to correct their daughter’s hearing, they do so not because they can’t manage but because she’s not playing with the other kids as much as she could be. Curtis and Samantha’s love for her is summed up in one beautiful moment as they watch her sleep. “I still take off my boots so I won’t wake her up,” Curtis says. “I still whisper,” Sam adds.

But Curtis feels his capacity to be the father he should be is in jeopardy. He starts having dreams in which a storm of biblical proportions is nearing, and it causes his loved ones to attack him. In one dream his dog ferociously bites his arm, and Curtis cages him outside. In another his best friend Dewart (Shannon’s “Boardwalk Empire” costar Shea Whigham) fights him, and Curtis gets him transferred to a different crew at work.

Nichols seamlessly weaves special effects into this simple landscape, blurring the lines between what Curtis perceives and what is really in front of him. For him, dark, rippling clouds are always looming, birds spiral in hypnotic patterns and the rain and lightning is so dense that it seems to engulf us.

The clever aspect of the screenplay is that the terrors don’t just surround Curtis figuratively. His daughter’s disability already gives him pause, but we learn before long that his mother too has spent years of her life in a nursing home suffering from schizophrenia. Is Curtis really suffering a spell, or is he causing his own distress? The movie’s lack of melodrama and careful ambiguity keep us rapt and guessing.

But the physical shelters Curtis builds to block out the imagined ones start to have an impact on his home life in ways he was precisely trying to prevent. When he takes out a loan and uses equipment from work to expand a tornado shelter in his backyard, “Take Shelter” wonderfully pits Curtis’s mentality against his way of life. It’s a powerful metaphor captured in a realistic story.

Chastain’s womanly realism and Shannon’s earthy substance elevate “Take Shelter” to that of an indie Americana masterpiece. Shannon plays much of the film in more reserved moments, but he shows as much intense, insane, outrageous and unbridled range as any actor today or ever. He has a solid, stoic face but eyes that show his mind quivering. His pensive gaze and late night conversations with his wife seem to ask that amidst the home he knows so well, he can’t really be alone, can he?

4 stars

Premium Rush

When YouTube was still in its infancy, some of the earliest viral videos I remember watching were bicyclists doing trick moves to hop up steep inclines and thread the needle in tough to reach places.

It was parkour… but with bikes!

And you know what I always thought those videos were missing? Bumbling cops chasing these daredevils for absurd comic relief.

Thankfully, “Premium Rush” delivers.

And “delivers” is the right word, because “Premium Rush” is about that most loved of all groups of people, bike couriers. Yes, now those annoying people who you just want to run over in traffic (unless they’re bringing you your Jimmy Johns) have their own movie dedicated to making you wish you were as constantly amped as they are. Continue reading “Premium Rush”