Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"Nocturnal Animals"

 4.5 / 5 

There is something roiling under the calm, sleek surface of Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford.  Like his first film, the exquisitely painful A Single Man, the polished veneer hides real pain -- but Ford gets at it quite differently this time, offering up a complex, puzzling thriller that, both thematically and stylistically, invites and mostly lives up to comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.

Ford begins Nocturnal Animals with a baffling, uncomfortable but mesmerizing scene: Overweight women, completely naked, dance in slow motion to a lush symphonic score.  The dancing women, it turns out, are part of an art installation overseen by the decidedly not overweight Susan, a distant and unhappy woman who lives in a Hollywood Hills mansion run by servants and drivers and who seems still dissatisfied.

Icy, impenetrable and surrounded by excessive luxury, she is a quintessentially Hitchcockian female, except here she is the lead, or at least it seems as the film begins.  Perfectly groomed, perfectly poised, Susan is so pampered that when a mysterious paper-wrapped package arrives on her desk one morning and she cuts her finger opening it, she can't continue -- she calls over one of her servants and tells him to finish the task and to read aloud the letter that comes with it.

It's the galley of a novel written by her ex-husband, a man she hasn't seen in 20 years.  He has dedicated the novel to her.  The unexpected arrival rattles Susan but almost no one around her, least of all her strapping, chiseled current husband (Armie Hammer), whose financial -- and other -- proclivities are threatening their livelihood.

While he travels (and cheats), Susan begins to read the novel, also called Nocturnal Animals.  She knows the meaning of the title: She's never been one to sleep.  But as the novel's story consumes her, she drifts further into insomnia -- and into memory.

Nocturnal Animals tells Susan's story, both in the past and in the present, as her ex-turned-author Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) falls in love with her -- perhaps a bit too deeply -- but also dramatizes the novel.  It's a dark, violent, brutal tale of torture, rape, murder and revenge.  Gyllenhaal, whose puppy-dog face is used to its fullest extent in the flashbacks of Susan and Edward, takes on a completely different persona in the story-within-a-story.

In this version of Nocturnal Animals, he's Tony, a doting West Texas husband and father who wants to takes his wife and daughter on a camping trip to Marfa but crosses paths with some sadistic hoodlums, including the seriously unhinged Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).  Left for dead in the forlorn desert -- whose wild uncertainty stands in stark contrast to the visually perfect world in which Susan moves -- Tony escapes and finds himself paired with a drawling Texas detective (Michael Shannon) who has an extraordinarily strong sense of justice.

As they hunt down the murderers and thugs, Noctural Animals spins an engrossing crime story that seems to have little to do with Susan -- and she takes the story at face value, and takes the opportunity to reach out to Edward for the first time in decades.

Ford, who also wrote the screenplay (adapted from Austin Wright's novel), never strains to directly connect the two stories, but spends most of its time in Susan's mind, revealing her vision of the way Tony's story plays out while digging into her memory to explore the dissolution of her relationship with Edward.

Through it all, Ford never loses his sense of pacing or, unsurprisingly, style.  He doesn't try quite as hard to be visually sumptuous as he did in his first film, but that's not to say the scenes aren't exquisite.  He has a rare ability to convey difficult, distant emotions through film: loneliness, fear and disconnection are everywhere in Nocturnal Animals -- but it's not a distant film.  It's visceral and expertly calculated; it takes time to build, then release, considerable suspense.  At least twice, the audience I was with audibly gasped at plot developments, and I was right there with them.

Of immeasurable aid to Ford's vision are startling central performances by Adams, Gyllenhaal and, particularly, Shannon, who creates what I suspect will go down as one of the all-time great character roles.  If he's a standout, Adams and Gyllenhaal are no less noteworthy as the film offers multiple perspectives on Susan, Edward and his fictional surrogate Tony.  Gyllenhaal's ability to move from sweetness to rage is astonishing, and Adams finds a sincere, honest depth to Susan, which is enhanced by a single memorable scene with Laura Linney as Susan's socialite mother.  She's on screen for perhaps five minutes, but Linney leaves an indelible impression.

So, too, does the film.  There aren't many filmmakers with the precision, style and skill that Ford showcases here.  He's done the near impossible, something usually left for such rarefied names as Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese: Nocturnal Animals explores rich, deep cinematic and literary themes that are clearly well considered.  It's a film worthy of study and examination.  Yet, despite the seriousness of its both its intention and its execution, Nocturnal Animals never fails to be the one thing a thriller should be -- thrilling.

Viewed Nov. 9, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, November 5, 2016


 5 / 5 

A few minutes after Moonlight ended I was thinking about the physical beauty of the movie, and about the way it was put together, considering its considerable technical achievements, when I started to cry.  It took me a while to realize just how moved I had been by this movie, and that may well be by design.

Moonlight makes no effort to tell a universal story of a hero who could just as easily be any of us.  Its story is a specific one, and pointedly so -- because its director, Barry Jenkins (who wrote the screenplay from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney) knows just how used we are to seeing movies that tell stories about people who are entirely unlike Moonlight's protagonist.

We've all seen movies in which rich white people muse about their lives in Santa Monica or ponder why things are so difficult in modern London.  They look for love in the urban jungles of New York, meeting cute while bumping heads getting into the taxi after dropping off their child at a private preschool. Moonlight may not be trying to deny the truth of those movies, but it doesn't exactly endorse them, either.

Instead, it takes us to a place we almost never see depicted in modern storytelling: a black slum that isn't in South Central or New York.  Moonlight is mostly set in and around Liberty City, Miami's notoriously violent, drug-laden neighborhood.  Half of its residents live in poverty and a third are unemployed. Jenkins and his film are justifiably outraged about this, but Moonlight is not a movie about politics or race relations or social apathy.

It's the singular story of a boy named Chiron (say it like "Tyrone" with an "sh" at the front), who has grown up all his life knowing his single mother is addicted to drugs.  She gets some of her drugs from Juan, who one day finds Chiron running away from school bullies.  Juan has no idea that his drug-dealing connects him to Chiron, and since the traumatized little boy won't talk to him, Juan takes him home.  His wife, Theresa, coaxes some information out of the kid: Everyone calls him "Little."

That's how the first part of Moonlight starts.  The movie plays out in three clearly delineated chapters: the first shows how Juan becomes the only father figure Little has ever known.  The second shows how the world continues to heap abuse on high-school aged Chiron.  In the third, he's known as Black, and though he's probably not even out of his twenties yet, all he knows is regret -- until he gets an unexpected phone call.

In two of the sections, Chiron gets a fleeting moment of happiness, each of which happens along the beach, a place that is only a few miles from his home but seems impossibly out of reach.  In the third, Chiron returns to the beach, and to the possibility of happiness, and Moonlight leaves us wondering if he will be able to to get it.

The odds, it has to be acknowledged, aren't good.  But Moonlight, despite its seething anger at the unfairness of life, tries to find optimism and even romance in its hard and mean surroundings, and it plays all of its emotions with a muted caution that is both unnerving and artful.  In one integral moment, Chiron's mother summons all the hatred she has toward the world, pulls it all into her, then hurls stinging, poisonous words at her only son, but Jenkins removes the sound -- we can't hear the words, but they are no less painful.  In another key moment, the death of a major character is revealed in passing, as if this kind of tragedy and loss is an everyday part of Chiron's life.

And throughout all of it, there's the truth that Moonlight is almost as fearful to reveal as Chiron is himself, because it's already hard enough for him: Chiron is gay.  He knows it almost from the start.  Certainly his mother knows -- it's yet another reason for her to reject him, as if he needed another.  Juan and Theresa know, too, and urge him only to make his own way in the world.

But that is what Moonlight knows is the hardest thing to do, not just for Chiron, but for anyone.  His way out of Liberty City is already unlikely enough; the last thing he needs is a reason for it to be harder.   Maybe that's why he hardly speaks: He can't think of anything to say that would help.

Moonlight casts three remarkable actors in the role of Chiron: Alex Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black.  They share the extraordinary ability to convey both quiet strength and silent anxiety, to balance Chiron's seemingly dual nature as frightened and injured but determined to get through life with dignity intact.

And while it's not quite as showy a role, Moonlight offers up a second character whose played by three different actors: Chiron's best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), who orbits Chiron's life like a moon whose tides inexorably pull him back to Miami.

Those two central roles, and six fearless performances, are enhanced by the genuinely breathtaking performances of Naomie Harris (who couldn't be more different than her Bond "girl" role -- she is spectacularly raw here), who plays Chiron's mother; Mahershala Ali as Juan; and Janelle Monáe as Theresa.  All three exude a tangible presence even when they're not on screen.

Yet it's the three actors playing Chiron who dominate, and while it seems unfair to single one out, we're left, in the end, with Rhodes' Black, who has tried to remake himself in the physical image of the only man he's ever really admired, but who seems still reticent and afraid despite his hulking, imposing physical presence.

And in its final act, Moonlight does something I've never seen a movie do this effectively, persuasively or beautifully: It shows two men being emotionally and physically romantic, and makes us forget almost completely about their gender.  Moonlight makes us forget, in those moments, that we're watching the story of a gay, black drug dealer -- all we care about in the end is all Moonlight wants us to care about: That Chiron is a person who wants to be loved.

With artistry, beauty, honesty, anger and forgiveness, Moonlight demonstrates that movies, when they are really good, bind us to the characters they show, make us feel what they feel and know what they know.  Moonlight is not simply really good.  In a particularly good year for films, Moonlight is one of the very best.

Viewed Nov. 5, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, November 4, 2016


 4.5 / 5 

A woman loses her daughter to a long and painful illness in the opening moments of Denis Villeneuve's grand, ferociously intelligent science-fiction movie Arrival.  In the scenes that follow the death, the same woman, a college professor played by Amy Adams, is trying to teach a class of linguistics students, but they cannot focus on what she's saying because the world has just changed.

Most everyone who sees Arrival will be familiar with the moment the world changes.  We remember when it did that on a late-summer day.  We know the way that you hear something that your mind doesn't quite process, then you sense there's something bigger going on, then you find out the facts and you still can't process them because the rules that have been in place your whole life have been broken with a catastrophic suddenness.

That's what happens for Louise Banks, the character Adams plays in this marvelous, expectation-shattering movie.  She has spent her life studying languages, and now the government wants her to work for them to help unravel the explanation-defying incidents that have happened simultaneously around the globe.

Twelve large objects have descended from space and have parked themselves in various locations.  It's a setup reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's sci-fi classic Childhood's End, but instead of waiting for generations to learn what's inside the spacecraft, the aliens in Arrival aren't keeping themselves invisible.  But there's a problem: They don't speak any of the languages known to humans.  They can't understand us, and we can't understand them.

That's where Adams' linguistics professor comes in.  She's teamed up with Ian Donnelly, a mathematician played by Jeremy Renner, in the hope that at least one of them -- the one who speaks or the one who calculates -- will be able to communicate with the aliens.  They need to answer a simple question, one that has been the backbone of science-fiction from the beginning: Why are you here and what do you want?

The Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) who has brought them both in makes it clear that if they can't get that question answered, one of those 11 other nations will, which will be bad for the U.S. and bad for the world.  Louise and Ian take the threat seriously, and head up into the spaceship to find out what they can learn.

What's most interesting about Arrival, the reason I'm eager to make this a movie I return to time and time again, is that its script by Eric Heisserer, which is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, has no interest in solving the central puzzle in a way that follows standard Hollywood conventions.  The script and Villeneuve's realization of it openly defy the usual expectations: Only once are guns even fired in this film, and then at a distance; there are no CG-laden skirmishes with the aliens, no thrillingly edited chases, no battles.

There is, instead, intelligence and curiosity.  Banks does not learn the aliens' language easily, but as she does, she becomes overwhelmed by the task and its consequences.  This is a film about smart people doing smart things for smart reasons.  Adams and Renner both excel in the portrayal of their intelligent, committed characters.  Indeed, if there is a minor flaw to be found in Arrival its in its almost overwhelming braininess: The revelations and their underlying explanations (and this is the rare film that takes time to explain what is happening) are so impressively based in the nuances of language and communication that they are sometimes hard to keep up with.

And yet, like any really great mystery, the answer is right in front of us from the very beginning, hidden, at least partly, in the form of how the aliens communicate.  As the film progresses, it reveals even more about their subtleties and meanings, which weigh on the plot in unexpected ways.  There's also a beautiful design to their language, which contains a secret that, when it's finally revealed, is both so obvious that it makes total sense -- and so unexpected that the direction in which it takes Arrival is turns out to be similarly complex and simple.  It leads to a climax of remarkable beauty and restraint.

Arrival is not the film I expected it would be, and that is its biggest and most enticing surprise.

Although Arrival plays out against a grand scale, with no less than the fate of Earth (and maybe even more) hanging in the balance, it is also an impressively quiet and thoughtful movie.  It's intense, but not in the same way of Villeneuve's Sicario (which was one of last year's best movies); even though the two films share a similar propulsive force, Arrival and Sicario could hardly be less similar, which makes Villeneuve's accomplishment perhaps even more impressive: How could one director create films with such vastly different approaches and perspectives?

The bleak hopelessness of Sicario is nowhere to be found in Arrival.  Instead, this a movie suffused with kindness, patience and even tenderness toward humanity and certainly toward its central characters, who grow and change in surprising ways.

Although it's not a political allegory -- it's way too smart to be concerned with something as petty as politics -- there is a certain irony to arrival of Arrival. It's debuting in theaters just days after the most contentious and unpleasant election in modern U.S. history comes to an end.  By eschewing the simpler approach it could have taken in telling a story of an alien invasion, it underscores a more important point: When it's all said and done, we're all in this together.

Are we ever.

For better or for worse.

Viewed Nov. 3, 2016 -- Los Angeles Film School