Nocturnal Animals (2016)

2017 #55
Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nocturnal Animals

In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

Shocking reading

To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

Who's who?

Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer can choose how to read as they see fit.

Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

5 out of 5

Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Godzilla (2014)

2015 #31
Gareth Edwards | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

GodzillaThe second attempt at a US re-imagining of Godzilla received mixed reviews last summer, though there can be little doubt that it’s much more successful than the first, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt. Where that movie basically starred a generic dinosaur-esque creature, here British director Gareth Edwards (director of the exceptional, five-star low-budgeter Monsters) has endeavoured to stay faithful to the style and structure of the original Japanese movies starring the titular beast, albeit brought in to the Hollywood fold with slick storytelling and a modern CG sheen.

In many respects, Edwards’ work is the real star of the film. Other elements are successful, but sometimes fitfully so, and it’s his choices and vision at the helm that hold the whole together. This is none more obvious than in the way the movie treats the titular beast — essentially, it’s a giant tease. It’s a slight spoiler to say when he first turns up on screen (the unknowing, like myself, will expect him in one specific bit considerably earlier), but we’re made to wait for it… and then Edwards abruptly cuts away. Godzilla disappears off under the water, heading for the next plot location, and he’s off screen for yonks. When he does (literally) resurface, we’re again teased with glimpses, and any full-on shot is a quick few frames before jumping to something else.

Some viewers and/or critics have questioned this as a bizarre attempt not to show the monster, but they’re entirely missing the point, and Edwards’ genuine filmmaking technique. It all becomes obvious in the finale (or should, anyway, but clearly some people don’t get it): after over an hour and a half of teasing us, there’s an almighty brawl, and Godzilla is shown off in all his glory. Edwards isn’t trying to hide the monster, he’s saving it. What is THAT?He’s denying us shots of it not to punish the viewer or to trick us, but literally to tease us, to build excitement and suspense and desire for the final battle. Too many people aren’t used to this — modern blockbusters have trained them for non-stop show-us-all-you’ve-got action from start to finish — and that’s a shame, and their loss, because Edwards’ method is superior to, and ultimately more entertaining than, 95% of other similar blockbusters.

It’s fair to say that around the monster action is a fairly rote plot. The human characters get some drama early on, but then are largely swept away by events. I can’t say I minded this too much — I don’t come to a Godzilla movie for the emotional relationships of the characters. At any rate, I’ve seen an equal number of reviews that criticise the film for not making more of the Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Elizabeth Olsen storyline, to those that think there’s too much of it and it should have been dropped. I guess it depends what you want from the movie — for me, Edwards almost hits the Goldilocks point of getting it just right, though I think Olsen is ill-served by how little she has to do.

The cast is full of actors who you might say are better than this — Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche — which, again, is a bone of contention for some. Why are such quality actors in this? Why are they given so little to do? Again, this is a decision I think worked. For one, they’re actors you’re not used to seeing in this type of movie, which immediately brings a freshness. For another, no, the script doesn’t give them all it could. But because they’re such good actors, they bring it anyway — Hawkins and Watanabe, in particular, bring all kinds of layers to their characters Layered looksthat simply aren’t present in the functional dialogue they have to work with, simply in the way they stand, the way they look at things… It’s not the focus of the film, it’ll pass many people by (indeed, it has), but I think there are some fine performances here. Not awards-winning ones, obviously, but in the hands of lesser actors, they would’ve been so much poorer.

If the human drama isn’t always up to scratch… actually, I’m going to stop myself there, because this is a blockbuster about giant monsters — how many of those have human drama that’s “up to scratch”? Very few, if any. I’m not saying that to excuse the film, but rather to point out that the fact it manages any at all (and it does) is a greater success than most of its ilk achieve. Nonetheless, the stars of the show are the action sequences. Rather than assault us with them, Edwards keeps them nicely spaced out. Each one feels different from the last — not an insignificant feat for a movie about a giant monster that stomps on things, which is more or less what these movies usually do ad infinitum. They’re clearly constructed, cleanly shot… I don’t always mind ShakyCam, but it’s too easy to do, and as such is most often used unintelligently. This is proof that a well-executed classical style is the way to go.

Perhaps the best thing of all is the sense of scale. I believed in the monsters’ size and the effect it had. That was something I never got from Pacific Rim (as I noted in my review). Some have claimed the monsters’ relative size shifts around, or that their effects on the environment are inconsistent (at one point Godzilla’s arrival causes a veritable tsunami; Godzilla-scalelater, he slips quietly into the bay). Maybe, maybe not, but they always look big — more importantly, they feel big. There are various reasons for this, including Edwards’ shot choices: we often see them from a human perspective on the ground; when we do see wider shots, they’re from suitably far away, or high up, like a helicopter shot (if it were real…) Too many directors shoot their giant monsters with angles and perspectives as if they’re human-sized, which makes them come across as human-sized even when there’s a building next to them, never mind when they’re in places without reference points (coughatsea,PacifcRimcough). Edwards never does this, and it pays off. More than once I regretted that I can never be bothered to go to the cinema any more, because I bet this looked stunning on the big screen (I know I’m certainly not alone in this feeling).

Another point worthy of praise is Bob Ducsay’s editing. It’s hard to convey in text exactly why, but the size of the monsters is used to wondrous effect when it comes to scene changes. For instance: we might be in part of the story following Olsen’s character. The monsters appear fighting in the background, so we follow the action. In the last shot of that particular sequence, the camera pans down to find Taylor-Johnson and pick up his thread of the story. The film does this multiple times throughout; it’s a distinct style, even. Written down like this it sounds kind of cheesy and forced, but it isn’t in the slightest: it’s subtle, seamless; I’d wager it goes unnoticed by most, even, but I was impressed.

Godzilla clearly isn’t a perfect film, but Edwards has done a great job of taking the essence of Toho’s long-running character (celebrating its 60th anniversary in the year of this film’s release) and rendering it in a Hollywood blockbuster style, one that’s pleasingly more classical (as it were) than the crash-bang-wallop instant-‘gratification’ style of In Marvel movies, they're brother and sistermost present big-budget summer tentpoles. That it got a little lost and under-appreciated in a summer of mega-hits is a real shame — it may not quite match summer 2014’s high points of X-Men: Days of Future Past or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but, for this viewer at least, it edged closer to them than to Marvel’s two widely over-beloved offerings.

And it wraps itself up as a completely self-contained film to boot — bonus! A sequel is forthcoming, however, just as soon as Edwards is finished with his Star Wars rumoured-prequel. I think both films are something to really look forward to.

4 out of 5

Godzilla debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.