Nocturnal Animals (2016)

“A lot of people have it worse than us” says a wealthy art patron. In Nocturnal Animals, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams; Man of Steel), lives an extravagant but vacuous life as an art gallery owner. She lives in a mansion and has an attractive husband but is struggling with personal and marital issues. Her husband is likely unfaithful and she is so preoccupied that she is unable to sleep. Unexpectedly, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal; Nightcrawler) who she hasn’t heard from in over a decade. They married young, but soon divorced after Edward’s failed writing career was unable to provide the pragmatic stability Susan desired. Surprisingly, the delivery is a manuscript of Edward’s debut novel, dedicated to her and titled after his nickname for her. The book has some apparent parallels to their relationship and is about a man named Tony Hastings, also played by Gyllenhaal, who is confronted by potentially dangerous men while on a road trip with his wife and teenage daughter. The film interweaves the story of the novel with Susan’s present life.

Jake Gyllenhaal continues his streak of transformative performances. In flashbacks to their early relationship, he appears gentle and romantic with full cheeks and a warm smile. In the novel however, he becomes deranged with sunken eyes and a gaunt appearance close to his character in Nightcrawler. In each role he fully inhabits the character while maintaining the belief that they are really the same person, exemplifying how deeply his relationship with Susan has changed him.

Director Tom Ford made a name for himself as the lead designer for Gucci and his high-end taste is clear in the outfits and sets. Everything down a shirt’s threading or a the positioning of a lock of hair is chosen for its aesthetic value. Susan’s entire life looks like it has been ripped out of a fashion magazine. Initially, this has a distancing effect because the characters look too perfect or at least too fashion obsessed. There is one scene in particular over the opening credits that is incredibly indulgent and unnecessary “avant-garde art” that starts the film off on the wrong foot. Fortunately, the majority of the film shows the events of Edward’s novel which is set in the much more down-to-earth, but still exquisitely designed, rural Texas. This setting provides a much need contrast to Susan’s almost sterile high art milieu.

Susan leads a pristine but empty life.
Susan leads a pristine but empty life.

The framed narrative balances the two stories. Susan’s perspective is that of upper-class existentialism. She is wealthy and successful, but is unsure of the decisions she has made in the past and the direction her life is headed in. Her struggles can be difficult to relate to and seem small compared to what most regular people face everyday. On the other hand, Tony’s story is immediate. The moment the rednecks force them to pull over, the fear sets in. Echoing films like Deliverance, the unknown threat of what these lower-class men could do makes their every move precarious. Tony is faced with an impending danger that pulls Susan out of her bubble. She begins to see the deeper emotional fears and damages that her ex-husband faced after their relationship dissolved.

Ford has said in interviews that his films are truer reflections of himself than his work as a fashion designer. If that is the case, then his interests lie in the grieving process. Just as Colin Firth’s character in A Single Man was coping with the loss of his significant other, Edward uses his novel as catharsis to get over his relationship with Susan. It is his own way of cleaning and dressing the wounds left by her departure. To Ford, the dissolution of a romance is as painful as the death of a loved one. Nocturnal Animals is his examination of how both sides of a partnership endure that loss.

4/5 stars.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea is a tale of terse men trying to cope with emotion. Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), a Boston native, plays Lee Chandler, a man whose older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler; The Wolf of Wall Street) suddenly passes away from a heart condition, leaving him as the guardian of his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges; Moonrise Kingdom). Lee is close to his nephew, but because of a past tragedy of his own feels unable to move to back to Manchester.

Despite its somber premise, there is a surprising amount of humor. Lee, Joe, and Patrick are full of foul-mouthed wisecracks about even morbid topics. The Boston accent is also used buoy the writing with words like “shahks” (sharks) providing chuckles on their own. The humor serves as relief from the tragedy the characters face. It pops up most when they get into arguments about funeral arrangements and Patrick’s living situation. Rather than rely solely on loud conflicts or tearful breakdowns, director and writer Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) uses jokes to point out which topics are the most sensitive. They don’t know how to deal with the emotions overtly, so they use quips to address the issues indirectly. The humor provides endearing levity in the midst of their grief.

The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.
The awkward, but needed, embraces show their true affection for each other.

Lonergan directs his actors to understated performances. Stoicism is the main trait of the characters here, especially the men. Lee in particular never appears remotely eloquent. He isn’t comfortable with expressing himself so he chooses not to. Instead he spouts a few reluctant words at a time. Affleck continues the labored drawl he has used in films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Even as his ex-wife tearfully opens up to him about their difficult past, he isn’t able to respond. He doesn’t hold eye contact and quickly leaves the scene. He epitomizes the core of the film: how men unaccustomed to emotion cope when overwhelmed by it.

The sense of family is palpable. The film is intercut with scenes from Patrick’s childhood with his dad and Lee and memories of Lee’s happy marriage to show how strong their bonds are. Even as things fall apart in the present, the love between them, while unspoken, is clear. This makes their predicament more complicated. In his will, Joe arranged, without Lee’s knowledge, for Lee to become his son’s guardian and move in to take care of him. Lee loves Patrick and wants to be there for him, but cannot cope with the remnants of his past that he is reminded of in Manchester. To make matters worse, Patrick isn’t open to moving in with Lee because his friends and school are already set in place. Together they struggle to find the best solution for both of them. Even as their desires are in direct conflict, their love for each other always shows through the arguments.

Manchester by the Sea slowly cements itself as a film about the small details of shared tragedy. Eschewing common melodramatic tropes, Lonergan provides a brief glimpse into the lives of regular people attempting, and often failing, to cope. The cold New England setting provides the perfect tonal backdrop to the film. The landscape is cold, plain, and unglamorous and the director portrays the characters in the same way. These are matter-of-fact people dealing with ineffable misfortune and the film embeds itself within the minutiae of their sorrow.

4/5 stars.

Elle (2016)

Some things work in theory, but not in practice. Elle is that type of movie. Isabelle Huppert (Amour) plays Michèle LeBlanc, a woman who is raped by a masked stranger at her home. Michèle lives by herself, runs her own video game developer, and supports her less-than-capable son and mother. She is emblematic of a strong, independent woman. So strong, that after the rape, she doesn’t change anything. She doesn’t call the police and goes about her life like normal. It isn’t until a few days later that she reveals to close friends what happened. Due to a childhood trauma, she doesn’t trust the police and decides to buy pepper spray, change the locks of her house, and identify her assailant herself, believing him to be someone she knows.

Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop) restrains himself from being being too explicit with the actual rape scene but cannot stop himself from being pulled into more twisted ideas. After Michèle discovers the culprit, her relationship with him enters unexpected territory. There is the implication that whether it was unwanted is not as clear as we initially believed. Anytime a filmmaker decides to explore consent, he or she opens up a can of worms. The topic is both intricate and delicate. Films like Straw Dogs have used situations of possibly changing consent successfully before, but their intentions were different. Verhoeven is trying to present an ideal of a strong woman, but this wrinkle in her character undermines her fortitude. It conflicts with her previously established traits and makes later story elements feel abrupt and unearned.

Michèle is fully in control of her life.
Michèle is fully in control of her life and refuses to relinquish that.

That being said, there are few actresses more capable of playing this part than Isabelle Huppert. Having worked with tough directors like Michael Haneke that deal with difficult subject matter, she is perfectly equipped to tackle the challenging role. Huppert, now 63, is absolutely convincing in her determination. She is the type of woman who runs her business, runs her family, and is not about to let anyone get in the way of that. Her performance is the only aspect making the character believable. It is also exciting to see the type of work she does. Rarely, if ever, has an older woman been portrayed leading an industry dominated by young men. She is confronted by employees who don’t believe she is qualified to be in her line of work, but quickly shuts them down with her knowledge and conviction. The issue, that is no way to be blamed on Huppert, is the character’s response to her assault.

There is a kind of faux-feminism on display here. Verhoeven presents Michèle’s handling of her attack as an ideal to be strived towards. Of course, a person capable of immediately moving on after such a violent experience would be an incredibly resilient individual, but the absence of any sort of emotional fallout here is troublesome. By ignoring these after effects, Verhoeven implicitly denies the long-lasting trauma rape survivors face. He asserts that it is possible, or even best, to simply move on and get back at the attacker. This isn’t necessarily surprising given that he is the same man who directed films like Showgirls and Basic Instinct, but it is still unacceptable. In fact his presentation can be viewed as the stereotypical, and emotionally safe, male response. Don’t feel things! Just get revenge!

It could, incorrectly, be argued that Verhoeven is aiming for more genre fare. Elle might be interpreted as a modern, arthouse take on films like I Spit on Your Grave, but it’s clear that the director has a much loftier impression of his own work. He is attempting to create a role model of how to deal with this type of attack, but isn’t willing to fully explore its aftermath. Verhoeven chooses to neglect the complex emotional damage of sexual assault in favor of a simplistic and often perverted revenge story.

2/5 stars.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

In 2012, Peter Jackson released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 3D, displayed at 48 frames per second (fps). He, along with James Cameron, claimed that shooting at a high frame rate made viewing 3D a more stable experience and would prevent the headaches they sometimes cause. Here, Ang Lee (Life of Pi) brings us a film shot at 120 fps in 4K 3D. I was lucky enough to see the movie in one of the few theaters that are equipped to show it at its native 120 fps.

The film tells the fictional story of a Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a young soldier who recently earned a Silver Star when caught on video leaping into the line of fire to save his Sgt. Shroom (Vin Diesel; The Fast and the Furious). Lynn and his team are invited to come on stage during a halftime show by football team owner Norm Ogelsby (Steve Martin; The Jerk) while they are temporarily back home for Shroom’s funeral. Along the way, Lynn reconnects with his sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart; The Clouds of Sils Maria) and has a brief romantic encounter with a cheerleader.

The most immediate and striking aspect of the film are its visuals. The images are perfectly clean, without the slightest hint of grain or imperfections, and movement appears differently. The high frame rate means motions are almost too smooth. While initially jarring, the unique look quickly becomes acceptable. To Lee’s credit, the high frame rate significantly improves the 3D effect. Unlike viewing normal 3D films, where the images to separate when your eyes dart back and forth, here the 3D effect always holds constant and Lee uses it for impressively staged shots that take full advantage of the increased image depth.

Vin Diesel offers some sage advice as the spiritual Sergeant.
Vin Diesel offers some sage advice as the spiritual Sergeant.

The drawback to the image clarity is that it puts acting, good or bad, into stark relief. Lynn’s team has the back and forth expected from a tight knit group of young men, but the cheesy banter is made even more blatant by the visuals. The moments when an actor deliberately pauses before responding with a memorized quip are obvious and it makes the acting from the younger cast feel forced. The real standout is Garret Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) as Sgt. Dime. His loud, but incredibly eloquent and often hilarious diatribes convey his strength but also his love of his reports. Hedlund’s confident acting steals every scene and exemplifies the potential benefits of the shooting at this frame rate.

The film is at its best in scenes of action. Whether it is the fireworks of the halftime show or the deafening gunfire of battle, the film’s look is transportive. Normally, we look at films displayed on a flat screen. Here, it feels as if we are looking through the screen. In flashbacks of Lynn’s service, exploding buildings feel within reach and it makes every gunshot immediate. Lee smartly compares war scenes with the pyrotechnics of the concert to portray the effects of PTSD. The soldiers of Bravo squad leap at normal sounds because they are taken back their tour in Iraq. Using the strengths of his chosen medium, Lee is able to do the same to the audience.

Some have claimed that claimed that the format of the film is distracting and a step in the wrong direction. This idea is too narrow-minded to be correct. Using 120 fps will likely never become the standard. Instead it is a unique alternative that offers different strengths from the regular 24 fps we are used to. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk makes a strong case for the potential of the format, especially in action films. The increased image depth pulls in the eye and brings out details that would otherwise have been missed. While slightly diminished by some obvious acting, Ang Lee effectively uses the new technology to create heightened immersion into a character’s world and state of mind.

4/5 stars.

Arrival (2016)

The typical movie about aliens coming to earth is a war movie where humanity has to fight off their attackers. Arrival chooses to examine this situation from two other perspectives: a linguist trying to communicate with them and the divided nations struggling to deal with this potential threat and its social and economic implications. Amy Adams (Man of Steel) plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics hired by the government to find out why the aliens have come to earth. She is aided by Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner; The Hurt Locker), a theoretical physicist, and led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker; Lee Daniels’ The Butler). As they make contact with the aliens, Louise discovers they use an extremely complex form of writing and struggles to understand them while dealing with exhaustion and visions of a young child.

The most frustrating, but realistic, aspect of the film is how terrible earth’s nations are at anything that requires coordination. After the aliens arrive, people are in disarray, economies tank, and the media goes wild with conspiracy theories and unfounded, inflammatory advice. Initially, the nations form a coalition and share their progress, but that changes when one country learns of something that might be a potential weapon. They immediately go offline and the rest of the world follows, effectively ending any cooperation despite its clear benefits. The aliens are viewed from a military defense perspective, not a scientific one. The Colonel tells Louise that everything she does has to be reported up to “a group of men asking ‘How can this be used against us?'”. Their fear causes them to make grave mistakes and construe any alien action (or non-action) as a potential threat of war. The script very convincingly captures how the mentality of self-preservation would likely doom any chance of a unified global effort.

Who knew linguistics could be so exciting?
Who knew linguistics could be so exciting?

The linguistics perspective provides a fresh take on familiar subject matter. Louise’s slow discovery process with the aliens is fascinating. Despite the incredibly complicated nature of the task, the closest parallel is a parent teaching a child to read, but with enormous consequences. Louise and Ian learn and teach certain words until they are able to form and understand rudimentary sentences. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) shoots the film with the foreboding tracking shots he has become known for. Each step forward is hard-earned and grants reprieve from the threat of conflict present throughout their meetings. Some may find the pacing of their discovery to be sluggish, but it feels realistic given the difficulty of their objective.

The veracity of Arrival‘s interesting angle is damaged by a hokey twist. There are hints that there is more to a character’s life than explicitly stated, but when this comes to fruition the deeper element is revealed to be a giant plot hole. As different governments plan to take offensive actions, Louise and Ian are working against their own government as much as they are an alien language. This creates an interesting dilemma as it is unclear how they will overcome this obstacle, but instead of attempting to grow the situation towards a climax, the screenwriter, or perhaps the writer of the short story the film is based on, uses a sci-fi element as a get-out-of-jail-free card to resolve the conflict. It is in complete opposition with the film’s sober tone and damages its intent. Arrival‘s realistic approach to encountering aliens is debilitated by a contrived plot device.

3/5 stars.

The Love Witch (2016)

Like an Apple product, sometimes a movie is so married to its form that it forgets its supposed function. The Love Witch is about woman, Elaine (Samantha Robinson; Sugar Daddies), that casts love spells on men, has sex with them, and then they die because they “love her so much”.  After moving to town, Elaine cycles through brief affairs searching for her true love.

The film strives to be knowing satire but falls completely flat. Director/writer/producer/production designer/costume designer/editor/composer Anna Biller (Viva) clearly loves films of the 1960s and shows that passion in her attention to detail in the sets of the film. Unfortunately, this precision did not extend into the performances or writing. Characters deliver exaggerated dialogue with self-satisfied theatrical overacting.  They might as well look directly into the camera and wink as they hint that you should be laughing after each line is spoken. The cast has stated that because the film was low budget, they were usually only able to do one take and it clearly shows. The performances are obviously rushed and unrefined. Biller either lacked the time or the strong hand needed to improve their acting and without it, the intended humor fails miserably.

Comedic problems aside, it’s difficult to not love the visuals. The film was shot on 35mm and, unlike most, was actually processed through photochemical coloring rather than the standard digital intermediate. The cinematographer also used lenses from the 70s and netting over the lenses that give the images a softer look. Even though the story clearly takes place in present day, due to the presence of smartphones and modern cars, the main cast and the set dressings use deliberately retro stylings. The result is a vibrant landscape of eye-popping colors that perfectly replicate early Technicolor films.

The film's beautiful visuals are its best asset.
The film’s beautiful visuals are its best (and perhaps only) asset.

Within the layers of artifice, there is a parable about gender. The film tackles relationships and the conflicting societal ideals of female sexuality. Elaine’s friend is more traditional and only engages her husband when she wants whereas Elaine’s philosophy is to open herself up to a man physically above all else. Her beliefs represent the female sexual empowerment movement of the 1970s taken to the logical extreme. Is she taking control of her own body or just giving into male fantasy? Are the people that reinforce her behavior helping her or just creating a new form of subservience?  Biller leaves these questions not only unanswered but underdeveloped. A definitive stance isn’t needed, but the ideas are neglected in favor of poor attempts at comedy. While her intent is laudable, the director never expands her thoughts enough to be intellectually engaging.

It’s a shame that such technical talent and painstaking effort are wasted. A film with these aesthetics and design is a refreshing break from the often hyperreal visuals provided by the 4k, 5k, and even 6k cameras used today. Biller’s extreme dedication to creating her vision is also praiseworthy, but the film never succeeds as a whole. There were some laughs in my theater, but the majority of the audience was silent and Biller’s thoughts on gender are only fleeting. Despite its noble goals and meticulous craft, The Love Witch is a dull pastiche stuffed with bad acting delivered with an increasingly irritating smugness.

1/5 stars.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Given the controversial remarks made ten years ago, it’s easy to forget who Mel Gibson really is. He is a talented actor (Mad Mqx) and has proven himself as a director as well (Braveheart). After being blacklisted for almost a decade, Gibson makes his return behind the camera with Hacksaw Ridge. The film covers the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield; The Amazing Spider-Man), the first conscientious objector to win a medal of honor. Desmond is a deeply religious young man who grew up in Virginia with an abusive, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving struggling to maintain a southern accent while displaying the slurred speech of a drunk; The Matrix). After WWII begins, Desmond joins the army with the goal of working as a medic. He refuses to touch a firearm, due to his religious beliefs, but is convinced he can still serve his country.

Gibson’s favorite themes of religion and duty provide the backbone to the film. Doss is almost a messiah-like figure. He encounters strong opposition during his difficult but surprisingly funny basic training. He is the model of morality and Gibson lays on the religious imagery thick. The camera circles around Doss as water cleans off the blood and dirt of battle in a blatantly Christ-like fashion.  For some, the often hamfisted allegory will be upsetting.

Doss risks his life to save his brothers in battle.
Doss risks his life to save his brothers in battle.

Despite his saintly behavior, Doss never becomes preachy. Instead, he is portrayed as a lovable simpleton. He is the regular boy whose dumb grin and boundless faith and optimism will allow him to accomplish things any normal person would be too cynical to attempt. It only takes one interaction with a woman for him to go home and tell his mom that he has met his future wife. Garfield may sometimes push too far into Forrest Gump territory, but it’s hard to care when his attitude provides such a welcome contrast to the pessimism prevalent in his peers and most modern day characters. In a world where brooding has become the norm, Doss provides the counterargument that unwavering conviction can be just as involving.

The majority of the film takes place on the battlefield. Hacksaw Ridge itself is littered with dead bodies, dugouts, and fortified caves, the Japanese use for cover. Gibson manages to balance the scale and chaos of the larger battle with the intensity of a single soldier’s fight.  As guns are fired and bombs explode, the camera never turns away from the damage. Blood splatters and limbs fly leaving behind bloody stumps. Even as the film rapidly cuts between action, the fighting is never disorienting. The danger is intense and every moment holds potential disaster.

Gibson has never been a cerebral filmmaker; his intentions are always emotional. During Doss’s objection, Gibson never explores the morality of violence during war. There are brief mentions of extenuating circumstances, but he is more interested in the impact that one’s beliefs can have on themselves and others. The strength of Doss’s faith gives his fellow soldiers something to latch onto. As their world literally explodes around them, his belief in God is the one constant they can depend upon. It allows them to overcome the illogical act of returning to a battlefield. Gibson uses Doss’s story to show how spiritual conviction can conquer even extreme situations.

4/5 stars.