“Nocturnal Animals”

Tom Ford, I like your politics, your clothing line, your eyewear and make-up forays and your first film, “A Single Man” (2009). Your screenplay of the Austin Wright novel “Tony & Susan” just left me cold. What to say. I have not read the novel, but with  themes like unending discontent, abuse of power revenge, masculinity and protectiveness, and guilt with accompanying fear, one should feel something in the end besides alas.

Amy Adams is miscast as Susan. She does not play selfish well. Though she tries, Tilda  Swinton she is not. Somehow, she interprets her ex-husband novel’s dedication as a reason to examine her past actions. Because she liked to stay up at night, he called her a nocturnal animal. Now, that she has married a cheating husband, she now can feel how she hurt her first by cheating on him and aborting his child. “What goes around, comes around” seems to be a suburban cliché Susan can not bear.

Cleverly, as Susan reads the story of West Texan road rage violence and revenge, we are volleyed back and forth between  her truth and his (Tony’s) fiction. It is a story within a story that never meshes. The bullying “Deliverance” – like miscreants are the nocturnals. Their savage rapes and batterings are met with two years of chasing and vigilante closure. Susan has already gotten her just desserts, so take the book’s dedication at face value: Susan was Tony’s best critic. No threats are being made against Susan, but then everything is about Susan. I found her vacuous and boring, deserving of a table for one.

Tony ( Jake Gyllenhaal )  is the protagonist we feel for the most . As an author, he takes Susan’s advice and writes about someone besides himself. What could his character have done to protect his wife and  his daughter ?  When does a thinking man take visceral action? What is weakness and what is stupidity ?  Tony perseveres and Gyllenhaal does him justice. It is just that Director Ford tries so hard to make  an art film that almost every scene is extended one-hundred and twenty seconds too long. What is the point of massaging every camera angle when only the overwrought twelve-tone scale is left ?

One of the most overwrought sequences has Susan walking up a marble staircase in stacked-heeled boots. The rather stylized ascent, meant to show that Susan is ambitious, has viewers shoulder-shrugging and sighing, ” so what”.

A similar example of wasted-camera-lingering with no impact is the scene where our villain, Ray Marcus (  Aaron Taylor-Johnson ), squats on a self-plumbed toilet au natural. On his trailer’s extended porch, we even watch him check his wiped tissue~ a film first for me. See if he doesn’t remind you of  a younger “Prison Break” ‘s  “T- bag”.

My movie partner liked Michael Shannon’s portrayal as “the lung cancer sheriff”. He is a fine actor and shows real empathy to Gyllenhaal’s weakness-angst. Masculinity-driven, he gave a rather Clint Eastward aura to his role, but added a bit of dead-pan quirk.

The West Texas book chapters are very scary: four whacked roadies and car bumping aside. The arch New York speech and social commentary on vaginal rejuvenation, being married to a gay man, and the high-society quotable:” our world is a lot less painful than the real world” are to be noted. Naked, heavy women on red velvet couches must mean something. It can’t just be art.

Laura Linley adds to the cast with her role as Susan’s mother. Looking like Tricia Nixon, her three strands of mega pearls precede her  marriage warning. And there is a nightmarish scare for a baby named Willow.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a derivative noir thriller with an odd paradox: too much going on while not enough.

 

 

“Demolition”

A little patch of off-beat pairings is good for the soul. And who doesn’t love Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts ?  Throw in Chris Cooper and a theme about paying attention to our emotions, and we have an adult version of “Inside Out” and “Frozen”.

In Brian Sipe’s script it is easier to block feelings with narcissistic wants like M&M’s, sort of like re-channeling your toddler with treats, than it is to honestly feel and deal with guilt or grief or unhappiness. Jake Gyllenhaal is both inattentively robotic and jive-dancingly free in this film. Getting between the two is our story arc.

Gyllenhaal is , yet again, another soulless, financial investment firm bigshot, who is being weaned in his father-in-law’s ( Chris Cooper’s) company. There is at first an almost sinister aspect in his inability to express any kind of caring. A beautifully filmed accident scene leaves his wife Julia ( Heather Lind ) dead. Stop action images offer us an ER room’s bloody sheets and vacant crash cart.

This is not a traditional comedy, but a film trying to document the struggle some have in finding  their identity and their way. Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) follows a number of roads, most of them easy and marked ” Dead End” and ” Wrong Way”. In one terrifying scene, we think he is tricking the teen-age son of Naomi Watts ( Karen) into shooting him in the chest.

Davis verbalizes that he never really knew his wife, and that he didn’t love her. Her image reoccurring in puddles and hazed mirrors contradicts this. What we know is that he doesn’t pay attention ,yet  he is self-absorbed with his workouts and in his grooming. He even shaves his chest hair.  Oft naked physically on screen, he is never naked emotionally. We even see Gyllenhaal, as Davis, sitting on the john with his toes turned in – retentive to a fault.

In a script that reminds me of  “Her” ( reviewed Feb. 2015)  in its loneliness and in its obsession, Naomi Watts pays keen attention to a series of self-confessional letters directed at a vending machine company. She is the customer complaint department in her boss/boyfriend’s business. She, as a pot-smoking responder, feels his pain and admires his honesty. They stalk each other and have us wondering if “soul-mates” are made for us to find. The song “Crazy On You” is the undercurrent.

Chris Cooper, as Karen’s father and as Davis’s boss, regrets that there is no word like “widow” or “orphan” in our language to address the loss of a child. ” We need a word for this.”, Cooper intones. Davis sees everything as a metaphor: “I am the uprooted tree”, ” the cold front that collided…”. More letter writing ensues, ” Dear Vending Company, there is something else…” Davis’ self-disclosure is pathetically funny. We know he has caring parents ( they may drive a station wagon), though no friends surface. He believes that like a bad gait, if you wish to fix something, you have to tear it all apart. Here the demolition begins literally with Davis buying a bulldozer on e-bay and taking his shiny, modern home down. Sledge hammers are used with abandon as  the refrigerator, office computer and bathroom light fixtures and stall doors are broken down or dissembled. Karen’s son, Chris ( Judah Lewis ), adds another dimension of anger and angst. Friendship is developed, something they both need.

French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee , who also directed Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”, ( reviewed  Jan. 2015 ) believes in redemption and changing for the better. Audiences feel the upward draft, and you smile as you leave the theater. Quirky and ultimately satisfying.

 

“Southpaw”

Ever since I read Edward Hoagland’s second novel “The Circle Home” in 1965, I have been drawn to boxing as a metaphor for slugging out a life. “Scrappy” might be the adjective that sticks best. In Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, “Southpaw” he plays the scrappy kid,who made it out of the orphanage with a partner who stayed by him,even when he was incarcerated. Now married,Billy Hope and Mo (Rachel McAdams) are living the “good life” with pergolas and pools and canopied beds. Their ten-year-old daughter, Leia (Iona Laurence)is protected and cherished.Then fate intervenes as screenwriter Kurt Sutter follows the typical story arc of falling from grace and redeeming oneself.

The dialogue and the storyline are the weakest parts of the film,and the great cinematography can not really save it, even though photography director Mauro Fiore choreographs some stunningly fast montages of gauze wrapped hands, blood-vessel-broken eyes, and neck-snapping punches and upper-cut jabs.

As Light Heavy Weight Champion of the World,Gyllenhaal has worked to look the part. His musculature is completely different from his last highly acclaimed role in “The Nightcrawler”. His neck and abs are impressive. His arm tattoos reading “Fighter” and “Father” set his roles. “Fear No Man” is inked on his back in the same font used in the initial credits.

Billy ends his career ignominiously by hitting a referee. The shot of him naked and alone sitting on a white-tiled,shower floor and crying out,”Anyone still here?” is an example of the dialogue. “I feel like I broke her heart” and ” My wife would have liked you” are other  examples of his simple declarative sentences. But one comes to a “fight movie” to see the sweat spume and the blood fly.  Here  the sound of the strikes and jabs is what you will remember.

The score is by the late James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Eminem has a new song heard as one of these  famous montages flick on and off the screen. The beat was good,but I could not make out the lyrics.

A social conscience of sorts is attempted with the character of Tic Wills (Forest Whitaker).He becomes Billy’s trainer and come-back manager who organizes charity bouts and teaches young street kids disciplined sport. Billy who has been dubbed “The Great White Dope” tells Wills, “I can handle the rules. I grew up in the system.” It is this same system that Billy wants to keep his daughter out of. But provisional custody is court ordered. Naomi Harris plays Angela Rivera,a social worker who shows professional caring and warmth. Oona Laurence,likewise, is painfully believable with her anger-crossed arms answering the question “Is that your Dad?” with her sad “I don’t know anymore.”

I was basically disappointed in “Southpaw”. Scriptwriting like,”Come on,baby, get off those ropes” leave me punch-drunk and I want to go home. And the boy named “Hoppy” because his mother liked bunnies was as sad as his killing. Sorry, but Clint Eastwood did a better job with his “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.