Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Director: Tom Ford

****

What a strange beast Nocturnal Animals is.

Like so many creatures that emerge in the darkness, it’s at once alluring and repulsive, and thoroughly unpredictable. That’s entirely the point, of course; to follow his stylish and moving debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-writer/director Tom Ford has made a film of contradictions, where truth and artifice constantly switch roles. In adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford has produced something lurid and provocative, but still with that pronounced style that defined his first film. The style’s a lure, though. This is a film that’s twisted in both content and form. There are narratives within narratives, whose brightly-lit worlds are deceptive and whose strangest sights bring their own kind of beauty.

The opening credits are a good example of Ford’s methodology here. The credits are backgrounded by a series of obese women dancing naked. The women are set against a velvety red wall that envelops the screen in warmth, thanks to the efforts of DoP Seamus McGarvey. Thanks to the oft-garish colours and another sumptuous string-led score from Abel Korzeniowski, beauty can be found even in so unorthodox a sight. The dancing women are part of an exhibit being put together by gallery owner Susan Morrow. The role of Morrow sees Amy Adams exchange her natural charm for excess make-up, horn-rimmed glasses and a cold demeanour, as Morrow’s dissatisfied with her pristine L.A. life.

Susan’s pretty house, prettier boyfriend (Armie Hammer) and obvious wealth cannot dispel her angsty fog. Indeed, this fog seems to cover the Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals. An early aerial shot of the city at night shines a bright light on its skyscrapers, leaving the streets in the dark, like an eerie alien landscape. For all the colours McGarvey can bring to the city, it’s intentionally cold to the touch. All is artifice in Ford’s vision of L.A., from every overly made-up face to the jangling jewellery worn by a near-unrecognisable Andrea Riseborough. Indeed, the polish can feel excessive at first, lapsing into silliness, but as time goes on, this feeds into Ford’s point.

Instead of harsh realities, we get a delivery of very harsh fiction. Susan is sent a draft of a novel from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a piece of hard-boiled crime drama entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’, which he’s dedicated to her. Like Wright’s original novel, the film plunges into this book’s narrative, in which Tony (Gyllenhaal again) goes through a night of hell travelling through rural Texas, as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are menaced and tortured by a band of rednecks, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray. Their initial encounter is a prolonged and masterful exercise in tension, as Ray’s gang drive the family car off the road and proceed to psychologically torture their quarry. Tony’s inability to do anything about it is matched only by the anxiety that never stops building behind him. Nocturnal Animals is a film about weakness and insecurity, male weakness especially. Nocturnal animals prey on the weak.

The novel’s narrative brings a change in look and feel, going from polished galleries to the parched Texas sands. The book’s story is foreboding and cruel, and the shift in style feels the same way at first. The intertwining of narrative strands between Susan’s life, the novel, and flashbacks to hers and Edward’s marriage initially jar. Shifts between L.A. and the novel are usually signalled by Susan dropping the manuscript in a horrified daze. Yet, as Tony and Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, charm and accent as thick as molasses) chase the wrongdoers, and the switches between Hollywood glam and Hell Or High Water-alike grit become more frequent, they also begin to gel. Edward has dedicated his book to Susan for a reason, and her memories of him grow increasingly melancholy. This is by Edward’s design, though. Nocturnal Animals is a testament to the liberating power of creativity, as Edward expresses his darkest feelings to Susan using this narrative, a method he never could have used before their divorce. The weakness is dispelled by his creative strength.

Ford plays fast and loose with expectations throughout Nocturnal Animals. While he admirably keeps the interloping structure of narratives from the source novel, he also makes changes to accentuate the tonal shifts. In the novel, Morrow was a teacher and mother of three; in Ford’s world, she has only a floundering relationship and failing gallery to her name. These changes, these exaggerations, add an extra punch when emotion and violence do come to the fore. This and Andrew Dominik’s documentary on Nick Cave, One More Time With Feeling, would make an excellent double-bill treatise on how great creativity can be triggered by intense trauma. (All this begs the question: is Ford working out a weakness of his own in this adaptation? It hardly matters. This is a film that will offer wildly different ideas and meanings to different viewers)

It’s a tribute to Gyllenhaal and Adams that they keep the audience invested, even as tones and timelines pinball wildly. Both impress in roles that see them put aside natural charisma for broken people, whose pain is etched in every grimace. The eccentricities of the film’s look and tone extend to the supporting cast. What Michael Sheen or Laura Linney (A vision in pearls and a Southern-fried accent as Susan’s mother) are doing here is anyone’s guess, but they add undeniable flavours. Best of the bunch is Taylor-Johnson, delivering levels of ever-present menace many would have thought beyond him (Remember him as the leading man in Godzilla? Nope, us neither.)

What Ford has done here, as both writer and director, is remarkable. On the surface, Nocturnal Animals is over-stylized and potentially devoid of empathy. Yet, as it goes on, it forges its own path, keeping the style while making its angst more relatable and palpable. It’s a sleight of hand that’s both blatant in its machinations, yet surprising in its emotional power. The vividness of its colours and the horrors of its violence ensure a place in the memory, but there are levels at work here that mean Nocturnal Animals’ deeper meanings could sneak up on you when you least expect it.

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Review: Birdman (Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

In numerous ways, Birdman is miraculous. For starters, it’s a miracle it exists. It’s unapologetic in its sarcasm, and makes no bones about the targets it lines up for an almighty mocking. Here’s a superhero film with no delusions about its central hero being super; for all the assistance CGI can offer, Birdman shares more comic-book spirit with American Splendor than The Dark Knight.  At the time of writing, something in the region of forty superhero movies are at some stage of development or production. This phenomenon appears critic-proof, so a film taking a potshot at their increasingly-bloated and convoluted omnipotence proves both an inevitability and a necessity. Birdman will save us!

It’s hard to believe that superhero flicks were once a novelty, with no guarantees of success. Those were the days when Tim Burton still made solid work and Batman was more than a bit of a goth. 25 years after Burton’s first Batman brought the Dark Knight to filmic life, Michael Keaton brings his cape out for an airing. He had to be the only choice for the role of Riggan Thompson; Birdman’s ability to flip expectations on their head begins by making this actor’s baggage a welcome burden. Riggan is a washed-up actor, having had little success since playing the eponymous Birdman in a trio of outings twenty years previously. Despite starring in some higher-profile films in the last couple of years, Birdman is the biggest thing to happen to Keaton since Jackie Brown. We first find his Thompson in a crummy off-Broadway theatre, in a meditative position but apparently floating off the ground. Why this is happening, or why his gruff-voiced alter ego is delivering opinionated voiceover is not immediately clear, but from the off we’re invited to go with the rhythm. Unlike, say, most superhero movie trailers, all will be revealed gradually.

In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start his career, Thompson is directing, producing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Anyone who’s read it knows that this is a fool’s errand. Getting Birdman right could have turned into a similar folly for Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the director/co-writer potentially overreaching to escape the shadow of the worthy, miserabilist dramas that have defined his career up to this point. Amores Perros was the high point, and the films just got more ambitious and more dour. Discovering his funny bone can only be a good thing, but marrying it to his brand of ambition is a gamble. Fear not; ambition is Birdman’s fuel. It aims to do so much that the fact most, if not all, of it works is another of its miracles. As well as the superheroics, it’s a film obsessed by theatricality, and the associated freedoms and limitations. Shot and edited to give the impression of one impossibly continuous take, Iñárritu’s film invokes the same rebelliousness that spurred Hitchcock and Sokurov’s one-take wonders, and is driven by its own brand of kinetic energy. The camera rarely stops moving. Theatrical acting and production is always heightened, pitched a little closer to hysteria than what’s demanded by film or TV. Iñárritu embraces this approach, allowing the actions of both cast and camera to inform the film’s outlook. It’s overly dramatic? So are most superhero films. It’s dripping with sarcasm? So is Robert Downey Jr. Birdman’s medium is crucial to its message.

Thompson’s opening meditations belie his traumas. His play and his private life are coming apart at the seams. His ex-junkie daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is barely staying on the wagon, while his relationship with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) seems to be faltering. Meanwhile, the lead actor has just been incapacitated and is threatening to sue, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is doubting her abilities onstage. What drives Thompson on through all this? Ultimately, it’s desperation with a side dose of mental issues. He needs a comeback, but his delusions of telekinetic ability and conversations with ‘Birdman’ threaten to derail his efforts. Keaton brings enough vulnerability and layers to the role to ensure he’s not just stunt casting. He’s necessarily stiff onstage, but comes alive when dealing with the real pressure offstage. The Hollywood system is an unforgiving beast, so it’s great to see his recent return to bigger roles reach such a sarcastic and triumphant apex. Keaton bites the hand that neglected to feed him for a long time, and it tastes delicious. Also taking a bite is Edward Norton, the former Incredible Hulk, playing leading-man replacement Mike Shiner. He’s written as a walking ego, and Norton delivers a hilarious performance, mocking both actorly self-importance and his own intense persona.

Shiner’s preening and the anxieties of Keaton and a uniformly-engaging supporting cast are all housed within the elaborate theatre, a character in and of itself. DoP Emmanuel Lubezki follows his Academy Award win with camerawork of such nimbleness and smoothness that the continuous shot effect, deliberate as it may be, doesn’t jar. Yet Birdman does have the potential to annoy. It demands you go along with its theatrical sensibilities and heightened performances. Occasionally ‘Birdman’ tauntingly manifests himself to Thompson, who in turn imagines taking flight as an escape. Birdman threatens to take off and leave its audience behind in a self-aware fuzz, but the performances keep it grounded. Thompson is brought down to Earth gently on occasion by talking to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, with less-than-enough screentime). Hearing Thompson’s manager Jake’s (Zach Galifaniakis) pronunciation of ‘Scorsese’ or seeing Antonio Sanchez appear on screen performing his own sassy drum score could be grating, but the score and Galifaniakis are more than engaging enough to ensure they stay on the right side of self-aware. At the very least, Birdman is interesting; at its best, it’s dazzling.

The film constantly and consistently draws attention to itself, but what’s the harm? It’s refreshing to see a film not take itself too seriously, even one with as much satirical potential as this one. Many a true word said in jest, and all that. While superheroes get a pummelling from one of the original and best of them, Iñárritu and his script (co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) risks goodwill and takes aim at critics. As represented by Lindsay Duncan’s veteran New York Times theatre writer Tabitha, the critical eye is accused of being unfeeling and pessimistic (As Thompson asks Tabitha, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?”). Watching so much fluff can breed contempt, but that’s why we need “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. That subtitle may seem like another layer of artifice to weed out anyone predestined to hate this thing, but it’s what Birdman is all about. On occasion, something like this comes around to surprise us. When superheroes didn’t dominate our billboards, we didn’t get teaser trailers for teaser trailers and Michael Keaton was Batman, we didn’t know any better; ignorance was bliss. If you go into Birdman knowing little about it, it might just astonish you. Birdman is anything but ignorant. The next umpteen years of umpteen caped crusades could be very long indeed, but Birdman probably has them sussed before they’ve even begun.

Review: Shadow Dancer (2012)

Director: James Marsh

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

Andrea Riseborough’s attempts to earn leading lady status have fallen short thus far, but it certainly hasn’t been her fault. In both the unnecessary remake of Brighton Rock and Madonna’s stylishly hollow W.E., Riseborough proved to be capable of commanding the screen despite the shoddiness around her. Her characters are often fragile but possessed of strength beyond what her slender frame seems capable of. And with Shadow Dancer, she finally has a capable director and crew to back her up.

After Wallis Simpson in W.E., Riseborough plays another character on the cusp of attacking the British establishment, albeit with plastic explosives rather than extra-marital affairs. London, 1993. IRA operative Colette McVeigh is caught attempting to plant a bomb in a Tube station in London. After being picked up and left to stew in her own guilt, MI5 handler Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a choice: snitch on her terrorist brothers or go to jail and have her young son be put into care. Her decision to go behind her brothers’ backs reflects the humanity at the heart of Shadow Dancer.

Adapted from Tom Bradby’s novel (by the author himself), Shadow Dancer eschews the political for the personal. Whilst Colette’s brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Brendan (Domhnall Gleeson) rally against the newly-signed Downing Street Declaration, and her mother (Bríd Brennan) looks away in wilful ignorance, Colette reports to Mac to preserve what little life she has. Riseborough is never less than terrific as Colette, as she effortlessly shifts from barely-kept composure to panic and back again. Despite her fragility, she convinces as a woman driven to horrible deeds by a tragic past. She also gets bonus points for managing to get the accent right.

Director James Marsh switches from his exploits as documentarian (Project Nim, Man On Wire) to make a fine thriller. This is a personal story primarily, though this doesn’t stop Shadow Dancer from offering plenty of thrills. As Colette struggles to keep her new sideline a secret, local organiser hothead Mulville (Daniel Wilmot) threatens violence from just beyond the screen. The angst is written all over Riseborough’s cracked-porcelain face, and she strikes sparks with an effectively gruff Owen in scenes with just the right amount of Stockholm Syndrome injected into them. Marsh keeps the pace zippy, and Shadow Dancer often threatens to send you to the edge of your seat.

However, Marsh’s visual choices are more than a little obvious (Colette’s red coat is the only colour in a Belfast comprised of beiges, mauves and greys). There’s also little evidence to convince that we are ever really in Belfast (the film was shot mostly in Dublin), and the likes of Gillen and Gillian Anderson (as an MI5 ice queen) are effective but underused. Still, these niggles can’t detract from an effective thriller with a marvellous leading lady at its heart. Rest assured, after this Andrea Riseborough won’t be ignored so easily again.