Skip to main content

Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.

Nocturnal Animals
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I’d heard Marmite things about Tom Ford’s sophomore effort (I’ve yet to catch his debut), but they were enough to make me mildly intrigued. Unfortunately, I ended up veering towards the “I hate” polarity. Nocturnal Animals is as immaculately shot as you’d expect from a fashion designer with a meticulously unbuttoned shirt, but its self-conscious structure – almost that of a poseur –  never becomes fluid in Ford’s liberal adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel, such that even its significantly stronger aspect – the film within the film (or novel within the film) – is diminished by the dour stodge that surrounds it.


I read a comment suggesting Nocturnal Animals’ “framing” material was like The Neon Demon if it had nothing remotely interesting going on beneath its shiny surface. There’s definitely something to that. Ford has sketched a portrait of shallow, superficial super-rich dining out on their ever-so-empty artistic elitism (the picture kicks off with an exhibit of gyrating obese nude women, as if someone had dragged Peter Greenaway down the discotheque and then summarily locked him in an art gallery with a selection of variable frame rates).


 Amy Adams (she’s okay; I mean she’s never not good, but she has nowt to chew on here) is Susan Morrow, the gallery owner who has eschewed any personal creative aspirations and finished it with her sensitive/weak – genuinely creative – first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his failed to come to anything and she met bland superstud Hutton (Armie Hammer). But, when she receives a manuscript from Edward, dedicated to her, she discovers a tale she can’t put down, and as apparently distinctive as the characters and setting are, she recognises within a hard-hitting allegory for her own severed relationship.


It sounds like there’s a decent kernel here, but there’s nothing about Susan’s story to engage the viewer; it’s impossible to feel much empathy for her plight, her (new) hubby having an affair while her frivolous friends (Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, of whom we see far too little) advise her “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world” as she opines “Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?” We’re treated – asked to endure, more like – flashbacks to her relationship with Edward that entirely fail to make either more interesting or reinforce the idea that there was something to invest in here in the first place.


So instead, the raw meat of the movie derives from Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals, Ford seguing back and forth from in the most indelicate manner. It’s a pretty big clue anyway that Susan reads the novel’s protagonist Tony Hastings with Edward in mind (so he’s also played by Gyllenhaal), a man who loses his wife and daughter to a trio of murderous redneck rapists on a deserted Texas road. What befalls them both is as crudely devised as any manipulative shocker – the build-up to events is horribly, expertly sustained – so Tony, tortured by his own – yes – weakness is naturally out for revenge, abetted by cancerous cop Michael Shannon, yet Ford makes this tale grimly compelling even as Aaron Taylor-Johnson appears to have studied at the foot of Straw Dogs and Deliverance for his unapologetic psychopath.


Ford is such a glacially controlled director that you almost forget to double take at some of the dialogue he attempts to get away with (as screenwriter). At a crucial moment, we discover that Susan not only left her first hubby, she had an abortion to boot, thanks to her leaving the clinic and delivering the line “I just don’t think I’m ever going to be able to look at Edward again after what I did to his child” to a consoling Hutton. Guess who’s standing in front of their rain-lashed car looking entirely bereft, right on cue? Just who’s writing the pulp novel here? Certainly, Sheffield is, with lines like “It’s fun to kill people”.


At other points, Susan is beset by dark visions of her haunting read, as Taylor-Johnson somewhat daftly leaps into frame on a colleague’s baby monitor app as if Ford’s decided to go all out for cheap jump-scare tactics. I was going to suggest he’s trying for a Polanski vibe with her unravelling psyche, but he doesn’t come close. He’s probably also angling for a Hitchcock flavour, certainly with Abel Korzeniowski’s sumptuous, elegant score.


Ford leaves us with Susan being stood up at a dinner date with Edward, letting the viewer surmise whether this was some elaborate revenge on his part – that he knew her emptiness would allow him to reel her in with the book – or rather that he decided he couldn’t face her. I’m not sure she should be too upset, since it probably wasn’t a great idea going looking to rekinde anything, not if Edward’s exorcising his demons through such an extreme elaboration of their experience. But if only we cared either way.


Taylor-Johnson was ladled a Golden Globe for his backwoods pains, while Shannon mustered on Oscar nomination. That latter’s certainly the most watchable part of Nocturnal Animals, enjoying a sympathetic role for a change and eschewing the over-familiar bug-eyed loon shtick. But as potent as Edward’s story is, it can only feel diminished as a tool of revenge/catharsis (complete with ending so absurdly nihilistic, only Nordberg in The Naked Gun could have outdone poor Tony). Ford isn’t so much delivering a slippery narrative conceit as a clunky one, since at least two-thirds of his devices are stillborn, and the one that isn’t is really little more than spruced-up western-noir horror.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What do you want to be? Rich or dead?

Blake's 7 1.3: Cygnus Alpha

Well, the quality couldn’t last. Vere Lorrimer does a solid job directing this one, and the night shooting adds atmosphere in spades. Unfortunately the religious cult on a prison planet just isn’t that interesting (notably, big Brian Blessed was about the only well-known British thesp who wasn’t cast in the similarly themed Alien 3).

It’s Who-central from the off with lovely lovely lovely Kara (Pamela Salem – The Robots of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks) and the Caber, I mean Laran (Robert Russell, Terror of the Zygons) noting the incoming London. Which reuses a shot from Space Fall (the spinning object is a planet, clearly one with an unhealthy speed of rotation).
The length of journey issues in this story don’t bear much analysis. It’s now four months since the events of Space Fall, and poor old Leylan has clearly been affected badly by what went down. But he’s only now sending his report? Useful for the wayward viewer, but a bit slack otherwise.

So.…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She's killed my piano.

Rocketman (2019)
(SPOILERS) Early on in Rocketman, there’s a scene where publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) listens to a selection of his prospective talent’s songs and proceeds to label them utter shite (but signs him up anyway). It’s a view I have a degree of sympathy with. I like maybe a handful of Elton John’s tunes, so in theory, I should be something of a lost cause with regard to this musical biopic. But Rocketman isn’t reliant on the audience sitting back and gorging on naturalistic performances of the hits in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is; Dexter Fletcher fully embraces the musical theatre aspect of the form, delivering a so-so familiar story with choreographic gusto and entirely appropriate flamboyance in a manner that largely compensates. Largely.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

Looks as though vaudeville may have just decided to fight back.

The Avengers 6.7: Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…
Well, it took a while, but The Avengers finally rediscovers the sparkle of the best Rigg era episodes thanks to a Dennis Spooner teleplay (his first credit since the first season), one that spreads itself just about as broadly as it’s possible for the show to go – Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers… was purportedly rejected for the Rigg run for just that reason – but which is also nigh on perfect in pace, structure and characterisation. And guest spots.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

No one is very happy. Which means it's a good compromise, I suppose.

Game of Thrones  Season 8
(SPOILERS) How many TV series that rely on ongoing plotlines – which is most of them these days – have actually arrived at a wholly satisfying conclusion? As in, one that not only surprises but pays off the investment viewers have made over (maybe) seven or eight years? I can think of a few that shocked or dazzled (Angel, The Leftovers) and some that disappointed profoundly (Lost) but most often, they end on an “okay” (reasonably satisfying, if you like) rather than on a spectacular or, conversely, enormously disappointing note. Game of Thrones may not have paid off for many vocal fans who’d accept nothing less than note-perfect rendering of certain key desired developments, but much of the season unfolded in a manner that seemed just the kind of thing I would have expected; not, on the whole, shocking, blind-siding, or (give-or-take) spectacular, but okay, or reasonably satisfying.