Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in once scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).

Advertisements

Love & Friendship (2016) starring Kate Beckinsale & Chloe Sevigny

My friend and I recently saw this at the Jane Austen film festival held annually on the grounds of Dumberton House (Washington, DC). You can watch it w/ Amazon Prime. This is the first movie based on Austen’s epistolary (letter format) novel Lady Susan (1871), which uses a name from another of her novels- Love and Friendship. It’s well-made (though w/ low budget of $3M), funny (w/ both subtle and obvious humor), and a fresh take on the beloved author’s work.

It’s with ticklish glee, then, that you watch Love & Friendship live up to every possible expectation you could set for it, opening out the adulterous games of Austen’s surprisingly risqué text and elaborating on them with impish, often breathlessly funny verve. It’s flat-out hilarious… Gliding through its compact 92 minutes with alert photography and not a single scene wasted…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

The daughter of an earl w/ little money, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale- check her out in Emma), visits her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), w/ little advance notice at Churchill, their country estate. Catherine is quite anxious/unhappy; years ago Lady Susan (the widow of her older/deceased brother-in-law) tried to prevent her marriage to Charles. Also, Lady Susan (though considered old-  mid-30s) has the reputation of being one of the biggest flirts in England (more likely, just their social circle). She owes debts to many merchants in London. Among Lady Susan’s conquests in London is the married Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Catherine’s genuine/handsome younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) arrives a week later, and despite Catherine’s  warnings, soon falls under Lady Susan’s spell. She messes w/ his affections for her own amusement, as well as upsetting Catherine. Her closest friend, an American woman, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny),  recommends she marry the eligible Reginald ASAP. Lady Susan considers him to be greatly inferior to Mainwaring. 

Too old to be governable, and too young to die. -Lady Susan comments re: Alicia’s older/respectable husband, Mr. Johnson

Frederica, Lady Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, tries to run away from school when she learns of her mother’s plan to marry her off to a wealthy/stupid young man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). She stays at Churchill where her aunt and uncle come to like her (her character is totally unlike her mother’s). Sir James shows up uninvited, much to Frederica’s distress; she still doesn’t want to marry him (though she doesn’t hate him as a person). Lady Susan isn’t having it, telling Frederica that she doesn’t know how much worse their lives could be. After all, they need a permanent home and security, so she should obey her mother. 

…Tom Bennett, whose scene-stealing efforts should make him every bit as much of a star, grins and grins and understands nothing as the biggest stooge of the lot…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

Frederica even goes to the local church alone, asking the kind young parson re: the commandment to “honor thy mother and father.” One day, Frederica is crying in the parlor, and Reginald asks her to tell him what’s wrong. She begs Reginald for support, feeling she has nowhere to turn, as her mother has forbidden her from telling her aunt and uncle. Reginald is shocked to learn that Lady Susan would want her daughter to marry such a dolt as Sir James! 

Facts are horrid things! -Lady Susan declares to Alicia

Lady Susan returns to London; Reginald follows her, still in love. One day, he goes to see Mrs. Johnson and deliver a letter from Lady Susan. He finds the inconsolable young Lady Mainwaring (Sophie Radermacher) meeting w/ her former guardian, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry, in a rare serious role). After reading the letter, Reginald finally learns Lady Susan’s true character (she came to London to be alone w/ Mainwaring)!

Lady Susan ends up marrying Sir James herself, and allows Frederica to live at Churchill. As Catherine always wanted, Reginald and Frederica grow closer, fall in love, and marry. At their wedding reception, we see a very pregnant Lady Susan, Sir James (still clueless), and Lord Mainwaring (her lover) all looking quite satisfied. Of course, Sir James is NOT the father! 

Lady Susan has few parallels in 19th-century literature, according to scholars. She is selfish, clever, VERY attractive to men, and unashamed of her relationship w/ a married man. She has an active role in the her life story; she is NOT just beautiful, BUT intelligent and witty. Her suitors (incl. Reginald and Sir James) are much younger than herself. The ending includes a reward for morality; Frederica is praised for her “virtue” in a poem written by Reginald. While Alicia has to sail back to Connecticut (a punishment) w/ Mr. Johnson, Lady Susan is settled into a comfortable life w/ a husband she can control.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, & Ethan Hawke

Director Antoine Fuqua brings his modern vision to a classic story in MGM and Columbia Pictures’ re-imagining of The Magnificent Seven (based on Seven Samurai). With the town of Rose Creek under the control of evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the desperate townspeople (“simple farmers”), led by young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns: warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), card playing Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Bible-quoting bounty hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), East Asian knife fighter Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee- a star in his native South Korea), wanted outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo- a Mexican actor), and young Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). As this motley crew prepare the town for the violent showdown w/ Bogue and his (many) hired men, these mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.

Right off the bat, we realize that Bogue is a cartoonish villain, unlike Eli Wallach’s bandit leader in the original. Bogue shoots a farmer, Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), who stands up to him outside the town church. That’s NOT even a smart bad guy move, as the reviewers on What the Flick!? said. Don’t look for much characterization in this movie, though it’s nice to see Denzel and Hawke’s chemistry onscreen many years after Training Day. I wanted to know more re: how they were connected, aside from one scene. I thought Haley Bennett did well; her character ends up fighting (w/ the Seven; in the original, it was a young Mexican man from the town.

The cast is diverse, which has a contemporary edge, as Mark Kermode noted. Vasquez repeatedly calls Faraday “huero;” Faraday asks what it means, but receives no reply. It’s a Mexican racial slur meaning “whitey.” Considering the ethnic make up of the Seven in 1879, the fact that this is the only racial slur directed at any one of the Seven during the entire film is somewhat of an anachronism. The two former Confederates (Faraday and Robicheaux) and African American Chisholm would likely have at least some animosity. Horne who has taken “300 Comanche scalps” would certainly make Red Harvest feel wary. D’Onfrio (who also worked earlier w/ Hawke) is playing an eccentric, over-the-top character, yet pulls it off so well that you want to know more. The way he speaks is so unusual, too. As for the Asian, every race looked down on them at this time in US history! However, the men’s mutual respect for each other as fighters may go some way to explain lack of racial tension.

I’m NOT a fan of Chris Pratt; the jokes he is given (mostly) fall flat and NOT that funny. In moments, his way of talking and attitude comes off as TOO modern (as Jeremy Jahns observed). As for Pratt’s screen presence and charisma factor, sorry, BUT I fail to see it. Fuqua cast him in the Steve McQueen role, BUT he just doesn’t measure up. I don’t see how this actor keeps getting big roles! I applaud him for losing weight/getting healthier after age 30. I heard that he and Denzel became quite friendly on the set; maybe Pratt picked up some tips from the veteran actor. We can hope, right?

This film embraces cliches and the typical things you expect from the Western genre. The action here is bigger, louder, and longer (in part to the incorporation of the Gatling gun in the third act). OK, I was NOT expecting that, which made the stakes higher and created even more danger for the heroes and the townspeople. Aside from the action, one of the reasons to see this movie is its music. Fuqua explained that James Horner’s team visited him on set in Baton Rouge, one month after the composer’s accidental death, to deliver the completed score. Horner liked the script so much that he composed the entire score during pre-production (WOW)! Almost each time there is a shot of Vasquez, we hear a reused cue from Horner’s score for The Mask of Zorro (1998). I knew this sounded familiar, then saw this bit of info on IMDB. From the moment when Faraday gets his horse and rides away, there are some beats from the original movie’s theme song, but with different instruments. In the closing credits the entire original theme song is heard.

There are some great wide shots in this film (which you can see on Amazon Prime). It aims for entertainment, NOT critical acclaim. It’s got some nice moments, BUT I expected more. There are a few lines (of Denzel’s) that I thought were quite fitting for the genre and his character. He does a fine job (as usual); he has an all-black costume, yet plays it cool (restrained), as Yul Brynner did. We eventually learn that Chisholm wants revenge against Bogue b/c of what happened years ago to his family. Finally, Emma gets to kill the man who took her husband from her. Only three of the Seven survive the fighting: Chisholm, Vasquez, and Red Harvest- this may be subversive (as Kristy Lemire said).

The Dinner (2016) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, & Rebecca Hall

[1] Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. 

[2] What happens when your are face to face with a clear moral dilemma? Can you bury your integrity in lies? Surely, such a deception will haunt you if you have a conscience. Self interest makes it harder to do the right thing, and this test will be faced by everyone at some point in their life.

[3] The enablers… are not helpful. They help perpetuate the problem via denial and/or self-interest. Unfortunately, this is how many families deal with mental illness: by winging it and not bothering to look up symptoms of abnormal and/or destructive behavior, and/or to consult with experts when these behaviors emerge.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

A former high school history teacher, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan- an Englishman I’d only seen in Philomena) and his wife/cancer survivor, Claire (Laura Linney- one of my faves), meet at an exclusive restaurant w/ his older brother/congressman, Stan (Richard Gere), and his much younger wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall). Paul (who sees the negative side of life) obviously doesn’t want to be there; he has a very strained relationship w/ Stan and thinks that this food is extravagant. The plan is to discuss over dinner how to handle a crime committed by their teenage sons, Mike and Rick. We see in flashbacks the teens harassing a homeless woman, throwing garbage at her, then setting an ATM building on fire (w/ her inside). This was filmed, uploaded online (by Stan’s adopted black son- Beau), and made the local news. The boys have not been identified yet; the parents are very anxious about how this will affect their future.

Stan’s tireless assistant, Nina (Adepero Oduyo from 12 Years a Slave) is in the sitting room, holding his calls. Stan is a very busy man, running for governor and trying to pass a mental heath bill (partly b/c his own family has been affected by this issue). Kate is the one who truly knows Stan’s kids, as she has time for them (his ex-wife Barbara, played by Chloe Sevigny, has run away to India). We learn that the brothers’ mother was abusive, esp. to Paul. Stan was favored and had to be “the man of the house” (since their father was “checked out” emotionally). Paul lost his job after he lost his cool (in front of his class), cursing and insulting them. He was placed on meds, though stopped taking them (wanting to “feel like my old self”). Claire noticed that he was hiding the pills, yet didn’t say anything. 

This film has an interesting premise and tries to tackle big issues: morality, loyalty, mental illness, family dysfunction, and different fears (losing a spouse to illness, losing a child to jail, etc.) It’s not effectively put together, unfortunately. The sound design is bad (at times), the camera moves around (for no reason), and the editing is choppy. The characters turn out to be unlikable, yet not in an entertaining way. (A few viewers mentioned that the play Carnage tackles some of the same issues, but in a more interesting way.) The ending of the film is very abrupt- it’s as if the producers ran out of money! 

The author of the book “The Dinner” (Herman Koch) walked away from the European premiere of this film in early 2017. The Dutchman did not wish to stay for the after-party to talk to the director (Owen Moverman), cast members, or audience. Koch thought the scriptwriter had transferred his cynical story into a moral tale. He esp. disliked the movie’s reference to themes like American violence and the stigma of mental illness. A Dutch film came out in 2013, then an Italian one in 2014; both were well received and nominated for many awards.

I think it needed to be trimmed down. I loved the performances, esp. Rebecca Hall; I think she’s great in everything. I wasn’t bored. I was exasperated on some occasions. 

-Comments from Mark Kermode’s review (see below)

 

AFI LAFF: You’re Killing Me Susana (2016) starring Gael Garcia Bernal

This movie ((a blend of comedy, romance, and drama) is part of AFI’s Latin American Film Festival (Silver Spring, MD); it is in Spanish and English w/ English subtitles. The star is ageless hottie (he’s 39 now- whoa) Gael Garcia Bernal (GGB). If you have Netflix, you can see him in Mozart of the Jungle (highly recommended by friends, both online and offline). 

After working on his soap opera, Eligio (GGB) comes home late to party at his apartment w/ some buddies. He discovers that his wife, Susana (Veronica Echegui), has left him w/o a word or note. Clueless as to why she left, he goes on a quest to find her, as he loves her deeply. Eligio travels from Mexico City to an university town in Iowa (actual shooting location: Canada) where Susana is attending a conference of international writers. Susana may have moved on (for good this time); she is no longer willing to accept Eligio’s behavior (incl. cheating w/ other women). She has become involved w/ a Polish poet who is silent, imposing, and very tall (esp. in comparison to Eligio). Eligio eventually changes his macho attitude and realizes that he can’t always get by on charm! 

It just doesn’t know what it is. The character arc is completely absent; it has an uneven tone; the laughs are cheap and spread too far between each other… It sort of glosses over the subjects which the movie promised to tackle in zero-effective way. The way this movie was marketed has nothing to do with the movie at all, and created expectations that, probably, ruined the whole experience for me (which is becoming a common problem with movies nowadays). 

-A female viewer from Mexico

The procedures of the TSA, being in a foreign land (incl. driving in a snowy blizzard), and the culture/people of rural America add bits of humor and danger to the story. However, it’s a (mostly) awkward movie. I learned that it was based on a novel when the credits rolled; maybe the filmmakers should’ve let the author have input. The rural folks w/ a love of guns and beer come off as hokey. There is an (obvious) scene where the cute blonde American (w/ a crush on Eligio) proves to be a bit of a stereotype, too. I wondered why Susana didn’t get many lines of dialogue; she should’ve had more to say/do. This is another example of a movie that can’t rely on just one actor (albeit a big name w/ a lot of talent) to carry the story!