Nocturnal Animals Review

Tom Ford’s sophomore attempt follows Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who is struggling to be happy in her rich luxurious life. This is reflected in the beautiful but incredibly cold aesthetic present in her section of the story. She receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), that is dedicated to her. Reading this strange, demented tale of revenge in West Texas leads her to reminisce somewhat nostalgically about her life with Edward. The film is thus split between the present, her past and the novel. Each has its own style and mood, with the shots of the past drenched in this wistful tint, and the scenes set in West Texas taking on a grittier, dirtier feel.

All of the leads in this story are admittedly superb, doing great work with what they are given. Amy Adams is cold and stern and emotionally shattered at times, just about holding it together. The problem however is that she feels cruelly underwritten. Her character is only half there, with Adams admirably trying to fill in the rest on the fly. She is barely recognisable as a real human being. We, as an audience, have no way to connect to her emotionally, and thus have no real inroad into the movie itself. We are kept at an uncomfortable distance, unable to be truly moved by the happenings on screen. Then again perhaps that is the point. She is just as cold as the world she inhabits.

Armie Hammer’s cheating husband however is generic and rather useless except as a plot point to pile on the dismay in Susan’s life. Gyllenhaal though is magnificent in his dual role as Tony and Edward. These roles make full use of his quite incredible range, and thus despite his characters’ sensitivity, he is also able to tap into the unhinged side that made Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler so compelling. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson are suitably unnerving and add greatly to the unsettling atmosphere. Being character’s within a novel, something in a way almost entirely separate from the film at hand, allows them great freedom.

There is a particularly scene that runs and runs and runs and it is honestly rather superb. The tension builds and builds, until the final moment of devastation. Unfortunately for Nocturnal Animals the scene takes place in the opening half of the movie, and no matter how hard it tries it can never reach the same level again. The tension is there, and it is certainly enjoyable cinema, but it just never packs the same amount of punch.

Ford certainly has an interesting approach to filmmaking. His incredible style is unquestioned, but the actual substance and storytelling of his work has come under criticism in both of his movies so far. Here his storytelling decisions will once again divide. Gyllenhaal’s Edward, Susan’s ex husband and the man who wrote the book she is reading, is surprisingly absent throughout most of the film. Instead his psyche is presented only through the actions of his fictional protagonist Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal. It’s an interesting approach, but it means that the moments between Susan and Edward are less affecting than perhaps they would have been had we been given more of their actual relationship. Instead we only see small slivers of the past before the climax of the movie. It appears there should be two great devastating moments towards the end. Both however just fall rather flat, leaving the audience thinking “Wait, was that it?”. Therefore unsurprisingly the final scene will be met with mixed reactions.

It’s certainly not a film for everyone. Strangely it reminded me a little of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon from earlier this year, although i would argue Winding Refn’s effort was even more stylised than the designer Ford’s. Both however end with a bizarre thud when the preceding hour and a half promise something perhaps more gripping.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is not only one of the best antiheroes we have seen on the cinema screen in the twentieth century, but one of the best characters in the last 16 years period. It is utterly bizarre that neither Gyllenhaal nor the actual film were honoured by the Academy Awards, because it was one of the best movies of 2014, and has rightly taken its place as a cult classic.

We first meet Bloom whilst he is making ends meet through petty thieving. Immediately we gather, through Dan Gilroy’s brilliant script, that Lou is somewhat charming, but also greatly unsettling. He has learned all he knows from the internet, and uses rehearsed quotes and phrases to communicate with the people he meets. He sounds like a slightly twisted inspirational speaker. After coming across a car wreck on the highway he learns of the world of the Nightcrawlers – men who seek out devastating incidents in order to film them, and sell their tapes to the highest bidding news channel. Something clicks deep within Lou and he is addicted to this gritty, somewhat sleazy, and certainly unwholesome world. Lou climbs the ranks, becoming a prominent figure in video news, and even hires his own assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). This is when the movie kicks up a gear and the tension builds to a fantastically shocking finale.

Lou is a fascinating character to spend two hours with. He makes you squirm in your seat as he quickly and seamlessly shifts from merely unnerving to completely demented and terrifying. Gyllenhaal is utterly compelling in the role, shedding weight to create a gaunt, bug-eyed, almost Nosferatu-esque figure, who roams the night. The leading man good lucks are stripped away to reveal the slimey, discomfiting Lou underneath. Few other Hollywood a-listers would have been able to shed their reputation and inhabit such a character in such a way.

Nightcrawler allows us to delve deep into a unique and strange world. One that actually takes place in society around us. The moral and ethical questions that it brings up are fascinating, as are the legal ones when Lou decides to take things into his own hands. It is the perfect thriller, that will genuinely haunt your thoughts for days, and will mean you never look at news the same way again.

 

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Jarhead (2005)

The war movie is a genre that many have tried to perfect. It is however also a very difficult genre to get right. And so out of the hundreds of war movies made in the last hundred years, only a handful or so stand out above the rest as absolute classics. Jarhead, unfortunately, does not sit amongst such movies as Apocalypse Now or the Deer Hunter (both of which are watched by Swoff and co. in the movie (well we at least see the Deer Hunter’s opening credits)). It is however much better than most war movie output seen over the last few decades or so. That is thanks to a number of factors.

First is the men behind the scenes. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) directs, with Roger Deakins as cinematographer, and these two work incredibly well together, to create a disturbing but at times beautiful war zone. The great vastness and potential unseen dangers of the desert are so unnerving that Swoff’s slow mental breakdown works brilliantly.

Of course the actors are also magnificent, inhabiting the world Mendes and Deakins create, and adding the raw masculine energy, and the hidden brokenness of the men inside the camouflage. Jake Gyllenhaal leads the way as Anthony “Swoff” Swofford, on whose memoir the film is based. It is the late 1980’s and he enlists as a Marine shortly before the Gulf War. In boot camp he learns from Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx)  to become a sniper along with his spotter Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). They are then shipped out to the Arabian Peninsula where they have to cope with the gruelling conditions.

Swoff, the new kid, undergoes the usual transformation from the unknowing innocent to military hard-head. Sykes is a dictator-esque commander; and Troy the somewhat cocky, intelligent leader of his group. Thankfully Jarhead doesn’t stick to these original cliches though, allowing each character to develop and become something much more recognisable as human beings. They all struggle to cope with their new environment, whether it’s their first time at war, or they are veterans. Paranoia and boredom and jealousy and envy and anger all rise amongst the group. We see the harsh reality of war but in a new way. Because this story isn’t about the crash bang explosions of war, but about the effects on the people involved. It borrows more from  The Deer Hunter than any other war film in that way.
As Swoff says towards the end, his involvement in the war only lasts four days. This film is about the build up and the waiting. The fear that grows out of that, and the cabin fever. We get access into the minds of the men who sign up for this, and we see the effects it can have on a human being.

Where the movie perhaps trips up is at the very end when the war is over and done with (and no I’m not talking about the travesty that is the dreadful wigs). It all works nicely to show how war never leaves those who have served, but there is a single scene that isn’t as affecting as perhaps Mendes had hoped for. That however is a minor gripe.

Jarhead is an admirable attempt, not least because for the most part it takes the “war” out of the “war movie” and instead leaves the audience for two hours waiting with the soldiers on the sidelines. It’s fun and at times hilarious, but also manages to find that emotional aspect without it feeling heavy handed. A good, if not amazing, modern war film.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko is the type of movie that everyone should see at least once in their lives. It is completely captivating and completely bizarre and unlike anything else out there. Hence why Darko has become a cult favourite. It is neither a sci-fi nor a psychological thriller nor a drama. It is indefinable. It is one of the few true masterpieces of 21st century independent cinema.

This was my second viewing of the film, having seen it perhaps five years ago. Previously I watched the Theatrical Cut, whereas this time I sat down to enjoy the Director’s Cut which is around twenty minutes longer. The DC is more of a hand-holding experience, but in having that approach, it does clear up a few of the (many) questions one would have after watching the TC. Both cuts are highly recommended, although I’d say the TC just about edges it, especially for a first viewing.

The film follows the titular Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young troubled boy, who narrowly avoids certain death by following a six-foot bunny away from his house on the night when a jet engine falls through his bedroom window. Safe from danger, the bunny, called Frank, informs Donnie that the world will end in 28 days. Over the course of the movie we see Donnie struggle with this apocalyptic prediction and the directing finger of his new friend Frank. It’s a time travel movie like no other, an idea so original and so perfectly executed. Gyllenhaal is quite frankly superb. Donnie does some terrible things in the movie, and yet Gyllenhaal allows the honesty and innocence and even fear of Donnie to seep through. The chemistry he has with Jena Malone’s Gretchen adds a great emotional element to the movie. It is heartwarming and at times completely heartbreaking.

Richard Kelly has only made three films in his career. Thankfully he created his masterpiece with his very first one. Donnie Darko will intrigue you, flabbergast you, thrill you and then break your heart. Still, after all that, it will leave you wishing for just a little bit more of its crazy (some would say ‘mad’) world.

Actor Appreciation Week 3 Review: Source Code (2011)

Duncan Jones is certainly a young director to watch. His first film Moon (2009) was revolutionary, one of the best science fiction films of the 21st century so far, and it quite rightly has developed a cult following. For his follow up, 2011’s Source Code, Jones called upon the leading man charm of Jake Gyllenhaal, to carry the peculiar, in many ways Groundhog Day-esque, sci-fi thriller. Gyllenhaal is military man Colter Stevens who wakes up on a commuter train with no idea why. A beautiful lady in front of him by the name of Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keeps calling him Sean and claiming she knows him. In all the confusion a bomb explodes somewhere in the train and everyone perishes. Colter then wakes up in some type of capsule with Vera Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin communicating with him through a computer screen. The shady Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) lurks in the background teasing at unknown secrets to come.

It’s a lean film, coming in at just under 90 minutes, and yet it packs more into its runtime than most films manage in 120 or 150. That is in part due to a very tight script from Ben Ripley, who ratchets up the tension from the word go. He expertly weaves a tale of great stakes both personal and for the greater good. The mystery aspect is slowly unravelled and it concludes with at least a couple of knockout moments. Knowing the ending doesn’t cheapen a second viewing either, and in fact another watch rewards the viewer who pays attention and seeks out the teases and nods.

This sort of action thriller can only work if the actors are on top form, and thankfully Jones and his crew recruited four excellent lead actors. Gyllenhaal’s ability to switch from charming, smooth ladies man, to cool and collected army vet, straight into panicked, flustered and at times terrified civilian out of his depths is absolutely incredible. Monaghan’s Christina has more depth and more gravitas than she would have had in many other similar films played by other actresses. Even though we understand the train has already exploded, we still root for her, urging her to escape with Gyllenhaal’s Colter/Sean hybrid. The two of them actually spend a rather small amount of the film together, and of course she sees him as Sean not Colter, so it is a true testament to the two performances that we are so invested.
Instead most of Gyllenhaal’s screen time, when he’s not assaulting random civilians on the train, is spent interacting with Farmiga’s Goodwin on the small television screen. Again even though she spends 90% of her performance simply acting to a camera, Farmiga is able to display expertly the conflicting mentalities rattling around in her character’s brain.

Carried by these great performances Source Code is an intelligent action thriller. Thankfully it finds a nice middle ground between explaining too little, and trying to over-explain the science-fiction elements involved. Still, it will likely be divisive when the end credits roll. That does not mean it is one to be missed. It’s a tense and at times emotional thriller, which you’ll be discussing (/arguing about) for weeks once it fades to black.

Actor Appreciation Week 3: Jake Gyllenhaal

To celebrate the release of his new film, Nocturnal Animals, we are taking a look back at the career of one of cinema’s biggest stars.
Since his explosion onto the Hollywood scene with the incomparable Donnie Darko (2001), Jake Gyllenhaal has carved out a great reputation in the film industry. He has collaborated with some of the best directors working today, from David Fincher to Denis Villeneuve, and even in the lesser movies, his performances stand out as amongst the best on show. His range is such that any compelling movie could very well have a role perfect for Gyllenhaal. He is truly a chameleon. Many actors are described as such, but very few are as deserving of the term as Gyllenhaal.
In his fifteen years as a leading man he has acted in some truly magnificent films, such as Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Enemy, and Nightcrawler. The latter for which he received nominations from BAFTA, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Thus it has been difficult to pick only a handful of his movies to review this week.

The running order is as such:

Monday 7th November: Source Code (2011)
Wednesday 9th: Donnie Darko (2001)
Friday 11th: Jarhead (2005)
Sunday 13th: Nightcrawler (2014)