Reviews written by registered user
tributarystu

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201 reviews in total 
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13 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
The Relationship Hive Mind, 3 March 2017
7/10

Netzer's follow-up to the excellent Child's Pose (2013) shares some elements with its precursor, but takes a different angle to the emotional roots and psychological ties of family life. A complex and layered film, it is framed in the present, but plays with the chronology of events to suit its thematic anchors: how relationships shape their protagonists and create inherent tension, abiding by no morality punch- card. While pertinent and polished in its construction, I found it hard to stay connected emotionally, especially as the characters evolve elliptically and the change in their dynamic feels abrupt.

Our couple is Toma and Ana, two lovers who meet during university and, more than anything, fall into a relationship. They are both cultured individuals and complete each other well, as Ana suffers from anxiety attacks and Toma is seemingly always there to support her. The movie proceeds to take us through the usual familial meet and greets, which prove traumatic and lay the groundworks for all the ensuing/existing psychological trauma. Those scenes have a sense of caricature about them, with 'traditional' values of partner screening proving funny and harrowing at the same time. But they prove to be just pieces of an ambitious human puzzle, which ends up taking us down an exploratory route devoid of superfluous emotion.

As an aside, some people in the cinema were taken aback by the explicitness of a sex scene, which I would rather deem justified, due to the Freudian aspects of Netzer's approach - and a meaningful character- building moment.

The attention to detail in fleshing out Ana and Toma provides the characters with a lot of depth. They are, as one would say, profoundly human in their imperfections and the manner in which this comes to the surface as their relationship evolves feels very true. The movie puts psychoanalysis at its core, turning it into an indirect plot device, which sometimes looks like a black box. More important though is how Ana and Toma react to change, in particular to Ana's gradual self- empowerment (thanks to a mixture of religion and psychoanalysis), which fundamentally alters Toma's role as 'the saviour'. It all becomes a matter of identity, of shaping and losing it, as defined by relationship roles, rather than intrinsic traits. Quite interestingly, the first scene finds the protagonists discussing Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil - the subjugation of morality to Christian dogma and the idea that good and evil are not quite opposites. By the end of the film, the overwhelming sense of some moral misappropriation between Ana and Toma can and, perhaps, should be seen through this lens, with no clear distinctions at hand for who is in the right and who might have been wronged.

While all this is intense and fascinating stuff, the chronological structure creates a bridge I couldn't cross. On the one hand, the technical execution of the to and fro was handled well - it's impressive how different degrees of a receding hairline can create a sense of time. Although some nuances are lost, that ends up challenging the viewer and keeping him engaged. On the other hand, because of gaps in time, Ana is difficult to grasp. She becomes a completely different person, which goes so far as her accent changing, and due to the elliptical nature of the story, she also feels emotionally like a third character in the relationship. Whereas Toma is more consistent throughout, Ana is fractured, making her feel foreign and inauthentic.

This is part of the reason why the second half of the film lost some momentum. Upon its conclusion, which tries a little twist and then goes one mile too far by trying to explain it, I wasn't engaged any more. It's a shame, because there is so much pain and sacrifice in Ana, Mon Amour that it really makes love feel like penance and weaves an exquisite psychological pattern to justify the claim. For the exploration it undertakes in what drives the two lead characters, both so well portrayed by Postelnicu and Cavallioti, it is commendable.

A Moment in Time, 17 February 2017
8/10

Brazilian director Joao Moreira Salles wrote and directed this documentary (English Title: In the Intense Now) wrapped around the years 1966-1968 and the intense revolutionary spirit that engulfed certain parts of the world: France, foremost, but also Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil. Although the movie is inherently political, it rises above politics to express the fleetingness of self-actualization, the kind moments of such a spiritual coming together catalyzes. Although a tad long and sometimes too explicitly ponderous, Salles's work provides a unique frame to a very particular moment in time which is exceptionally relevant in the present day climate, all around the world.

The starting point for this project, composed predominantly of amateur archival footage, was Salles stumbling across film recordings his mother had shot during her visit to China in 1966. It was the first year of the Cultural Revolution, but what's really striking is the almost transformative effect the experience had on his mother. Providing a somewhat pedantic observational narrative, brimming with suppositions about what certain scenes mean, or what protagonists recorded on video might be thinking and feeling, the director spends most of the movie in Paris, where he lived for a while around the same period. Then, in May 1968, protests broke out among students in France, against the class- driven hierarchization of society and sexual conservatism. The dispute between students, on the one side, and university administration and the government on the other, escalated quickly, as worker unions joined the protests. All of a sudden, France was paralyzed. And liberated, at the same time, as Salles observes.

The events of those months are about more than social discord though. Salles nuances the idealism which spread like brushfire, manifesting itself in certain leading characters of the otherwise leaderless 'revolution', like Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a student at the University of Nanterre, where the protests were ignited before reaching the Sorbonne and Paris. The shift in communication dynamics, from a stifling top-down approach rooted in centuries of class division, stood out in interviews of the time. Yet, more than anything else, the protests also developed a renewed sense of belonging and generated an artistic flurry of dissent, Banksy-esque almost, including:

Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible (Be realistic, ask the impossible)

Sous les paves, la plage (Under the paving stones, the beach)

It's hard not to feel something. And then, the movement slowly withered – in the approximate words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who personally interviewed Cohn-Bendit: Spring belongs to the students, but Summer belongs to the holidays. Moreso, the commercial potential became obvious and even Cohn-Bendit, exiled for a short while in Germany, ended up writing a memoir of the events for a quick buck and a publishing deal. The Revolution that never was, lead with spontaneity and not with political manifestos and lists of demands, then faded, resulting in minimal, percentage-sized improvements to worker wages. The divide persisted as well, even between the protesters, as the worker class and the student class never found the equal footing. In the wake of it, desolation set in for the idealists, even though the landscape for social and political movements had changed forever. Salles contrasts martyrdom across Paris, Prague (the Soviet occupation, after the Spring protests) and Rio (march against the military dictatorship), focusing on the familial textures as well as the wider social impact of these deaths, questioning whether they represent persistent hope or the effigy thereof.

What really hits hard is the sense that for many involved, especially among the students, those days of 1968 were the highlights of their lives, the purest form of ébouillant existence, living 'in the intense now'. There's a joy of camaraderie, of a mutual and subliminal understanding which stem from the joint struggle. One wonders whether the depth of those weeks of protests, of standstill, is something that can still be today, with the rhythm of life and the exhibitionist nature of social media. Although subverting the status quo should be easier, just by looking at the recent (and ongoing) protests in my home country, Romania, I'm left more with vague hope, than conviction. I don't dare draw further parallels, because these are not trifles; they are intricate manifestations of a shared design of what life should be, in spite of apparent similarities.

Salles stumbled across the perfect time frame per chance. His work on No Intenso Agora started in 2012, before the world went aflame – in his native Brazil, in Europe, in the United States. The choice of spanning over four different manifestations of revolt is overbearing and tentative at times, but one can sense an inner core holding them together. Perhaps what bothered me, if anything in particular, was some of the narration, coming across as professorial. Once purpose was established, more natural expression and feeling coming directly from the images could have enhanced their impact and their significance, not unlike something as eccentric as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).

Other than that though, this was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It's a strange mix of analytical-poetic- social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I'm not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it.

The Dinner (2017)
An Exciting Mess, 12 February 2017
7/10

Oren Moverman's latest movie is quite the challenge. It has difficult characters, discomforting dialogue, an intricate construction and spreads over two hours. Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. Thankfully, not an unbearable mess.

Although Richard Gere (Stan) headlines, it's Steve Coogan (Paul), playing his brother, who appears to lead at the beginning. In an unexpected American accent, he narrates with misanthropic cynicism, as preparations for a dinner event are underway. The narration stops at some point and comes back randomly throughout the movie - just one of several small incoherences that make everything feel unusual. Stan and Paul's relationship is strained, at best, while their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) act as mediators. Some dark matter seems to have brought them together at an elitist restaurant boasting culinary lushness; a matter which unfolds at a slow pace, interlaced with Stan fighting to pass a bill in congress, Paul's Gettysburg obsessions, their children's suspect affairs, past personal traumas, all across several courses of an impressive sounding meal.

For a movie that desires to tackle the lofty theme of social divide, it starts out feeling very personal. As it progresses, it distances itself from Paul to focus on the bigger picture and gravitate around Stan. It's a difficult move to pull off, as some sense of alienation occurs in the viewer, who has to accept the deep flaws surfacing in the 'object of attachment'. I felt a bit stranded, which culminated in a subpar ending.

But it wasn't a complete shipwreck, as Stan, alongside Kathey and Claire, managed to wrestle my attention. Indeed, wrestle is the right word, in what turns out to be a less than peaceful digestif. The whole preachiness of the last thirty minutes or so is borderline crass, yet engaging, in a visceral kind of way. It's a decent payout after ninety minutes of fluctuating intensity.

Do the themes and motives really blend though? It's hard to find a 'red string' to carry you through, as Paul's Hobbesian worldview overlaps with discussions of mental illness, political maneuvering and familial discord. You get pushed into finding personal interpretations to allegorical content, which is fun and rewarding, yet the movie proves heavy- handed in framing its moral questions and imperatives. Next to its schizophrenic identity dilemma, this just works against itself in the final scenes.

I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it's being served, Oren Moverman's film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be.

Barrage (2017)
A Solo Woman Facing the Void, 11 February 2017
6/10

'A solo woman facing the void' is the expression someone used during the film's Q&A, when describing herself. The tag applies equally to the leading character in Barrage, Catherine (Lolita Chammah), a woman in her thirties trying to reconnect with her daughter, who had been raised by her grandmother for most of her life. Seen from a wider perspective, it looks a lot like a movie about a single mother and the struggle to prevent family-inherent traumas. But it's just as much about the struggle with oneself.

Story-wise, there's very little to say: Catherine shows up and wants to spend time with her daughter, to the disapproval of her own mother, both on and off-screen, Elisabeth (Isabelle Huppert). A few hours turns into half a day which turns into a weekend, as the two struggle to feel at ease with one another. And then the movie ends.

A more cynical person than myself could claim that the whole experience represents what European films are denigrated for: almost two hours of nothing happening. But that assessment would only be partially true. Overlong at its current run time and with a heavy observational period that spans for about an hour in the middle, the movie tests your patience. But it also builds on the bony relationship of the mother- daughter couple, in real-to-life process that just is painfully slow. Wrought with tension due to the expectation of failure on Catherine's part, even as she does come short, there is no sense of artificial doom, only for it to be swapped by some deeper recognition in the last three scenes. Rather the movie sets up a finale that offers relevant insights into the further dynamic of the characters, the generationally conditioned aspects of who they are and where they will go from there.

Somehow, I find myself writing that it all works, in spite of its shortcomings. The gorgeous scenery, the restrained performances and some unexpected, but well-suited musical arrangements come together into a coherent experience. It's going to be an acquired taste, flying close to artistic pretension, because of the pacing. Perhaps what swayed me was the metaphorical use of tennis in framing the relationship of the three women, a sport that's recognized for the battle one wages not so much with his or her opponent, but with oneself.

It's not an exciting movie, in a sense. Yet there are moments where it manages to connect and resonate, which has the power to outdo mere excitement. So yes, there is some reward at the end of this particular winding road.

Django (2017/II)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Great Music Alone, 11 February 2017
5/10

The opening film of the Berlinale competition is yet another take on the sufferings brought on by the second World War. In a mixture of biopic and historical drama, Django fails in standing out from the crowd, walking down the one- dimensional route of escape from Nazi persecution, while rendering its characters secondary.

Django Reinhardt, a guitarist of Romani ethnicity, is dazzling the crowds in Paris during the later days of the German occupation. The specter of deportation looms over his family, his band, yet he refuses to accept the idea that anyone would harm him, due to his positive notoriety. However, after declining to tour in Germany, a quick visit to a local police station makes him see the light, as he flees close to the Swiss border, awaiting transfer. There, he comes across a local Romani camp and they come together to perform music in the area, as a means for survival. That's pretty much the gist of the story, which is as bland as it sounds. After a great opening scene, followed by an equally impressive musical performance, the movie drifts into this grey area where not much happens. Reda Kateb's performance is strong enough to retain some interest, yet the production lingers without delving deeply into either Django's person, nor the plight of the Romani people. Whenever music starts playing, the film comes to life, but this is not sufficient to keep a rhythm.

It's a shame, really, because there are glances of why Reinhardt could have been a relevant leading figure. Being unable to read or write, and bearing a childhood injury on his playing hand,his performances come from a deeply rooted passion for music, seemingly instilled by his Romani heritage and culture. This generates the contrast of music from the heart and music from the head, which is not subtle, yet it plays well with how ridiculously rigurous and lifeless Nazi censorship was. The close knit relations with his family, band and the fellow survivors he meets at the Swiss camp are well shaded against Reinhardt's privileged position, and his sense of entitlement. Yet, there is no clear sense of inner conflict, although the movie does imply that his personal quest is to learn some self sacrifice, putting himself second.

This is part of the problem, that Django just can't set itself apart and come across without conviction. Supporting characters have little to no personality, and function as either plot enhancers, or easy to swap band members. Only the relationship between Reinhardt and his mother is distinguishing, even if it feels at times like comic relief. The generic portrayal of the Nazi oppressors doesn't help either, as is the case with some of the elliptical moments in the story. Even the name of the movie should have given pause for thought: how does one make something distinctive with such an overused title?

Django would have been a much better experience, had it stuck to its music, especially as some of the artist's work was lost, which is a cause for grief. As another survival movie from the war, it falls flat, especially compared to some of the previously released hard-hitting productions, be they grim or soulful representations of the horror.

The Wound (2017)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A Simple Tradition, 10 February 2017
7/10

A South African film was on show for the opening night of the Berlinale. Directed by John Trengove, it's the story of Xolani, set against the backdrop of a local circumcision initiation ritual. Barely had I settled into my seat, that penises were being sliced up at the edge of a forest, in ad-hoc conditions. So, yeah, it caught my attention.

The whole story though finds itself at an interesting intersection between tradition, homosexuality and validation. For Xolani, who otherwise works in the city, it's the yearly return 'in the mountains', to meet Vija, the man he loves. For Kwanda, Xolani's initiate, it's the pressure to conform with alpha male stereotypes. For most of the other participants, it's a last stand in the face of modern turpitude, both a rite of passage into manhood and a rite of separation from the others.

The first half or so of the movie, which sets the scene and introduces the characters, is almost fascinating. With strong acting all around, it's easy to get sucked into the experience and what's even more impressive, is the manner in which Trengove infuses such sensibility in something that otherwise could count as butch. The contrasting personalities are wrought with tension, culminating in some beautiful moments of just…being. It all comes to life thanks to commanding craftsmanship and an eye for strong visuals, which is one consistent feature throughout.

Unfortunately, the latter part of the film elects to go for a more traditional exposition and resolution, with uneven pacing. What's worse though is the characters losing some of their sharpness, especially in scenes where they are turned into mere rhetoric tools. By the time the finale came around, I felt waywardly uninvolved. It's like the need for relevance and clarity became overbearing.

All things considered, The Wound stands as a film that, at its best, conveys a unique poetic restraint. It might not shine all the way through, yet it provides insight into a corner of the world that's usually left in the dark, tackling some big themes on the way. I would never want to fault someone for being too ambitious, so The Wound gets my recommendation.

The Anachronistic Avantgard, 10 January 2017
6/10

The last year or so has seen several Romanian documentaries about cinematic heritage and the associated resistance against the communist dictatorship, with Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015) and Cinema, mon amour (2015) at the forefront. Their desire to paint this picture of subversiveness is a stretch undermining some of the unique stories they present and Camera Obscura proves a perfect companion piece in this regard.

Starting with the sixties, many state owned companies (usually in the primary or manufacturing industries) decided to subsidize some form of cinema clubs, providing obsolete tools from before the war and facilities for those interested to partake, with the aim of fostering some sort of communal film-making endeavour. The objective was to produce mostly propagandistic material, document work procedures and provide some stock footage of day to day activities. However, a great temptation to go beyond this existed and was not rigorously discouraged, conditioned by strict monitoring and censorship.

Camera obscura is, for better and worse, a walk down memory lane. A series of talking heads are interspersed between archival footage ranging from the mundane to, honestly, the sublime. The discussion is not particularly focused, but the emphasis falls on the technical aspects conditioning production, as well as the comprehensive interest in cinematic aptitude - rather than cinematic art. It makes sense, as the people partaking in the cinema clubs mostly had a technical background. Yet, especially because of this, some of the best moments in the movie come to the fore: a sisyphic, anti-system short about a man pushing a nut with his nose; a Beckett-esque scene with three men sharing a metallic office closet; a metaphoric cartoon about going to the store and buying some (very rare) chicken wings; or a visual analysis/juxtaposition of drawings following the rhythm of a scene in traffic. In a way it's funny, because there's a lot of talk about a kind of experimental cinematic avantgard, when actually, due to existing limitations, most of the work looks like a rehash of the 1920s.

The filming constraints provide some perspective and they frame the idea of the amateur filmmaker - something that has since vanished, in that it has become ubiquitous. But the movie is too stuck in its reminiscences to look for such shifts, which makes it plod at times. This happens particularly in some of the lackluster anecdotes the protagonists retell, or when it offers (unnecessary) interpretation. The nostalgia effect becomes overwhelming, which in itself is not an issue. However, with better framing and contextualization, certain paradoxes and inherent compromises would have become more apparent to viewers. For example, the atmosphere described at the clubs is often romantic, with only regulators being indicated as constraints to the film-making freedom. Yet, it is an accepted truth that with the clubs organized under the unions, there would have been 'infiltrators' within them, ready to report on any ill-doings.

While these shortcomings could be overlooked due to the rather solid and coherent material put together by Gheorghe Preda, what I cannot abide by is the occasional lack of focus and the complete pivot made in the final scenes to connect the clubs to the 1989 Revolution. Within ten minutes, there's a (wannabe) amusing breaking-the-documentary-wall moment, when an interviewee calls his wife and asks her to take care of their dog barking incessantly, followed by fully explicit scenes of freshly dug up bodies of people killed during the Revolution. Talking of rhythm and story, this just doesn't work and it is not justified either, in the context of what the movie is about.

I would have loved to understand what the people involved in the film-making process ended up doing with their post-communist lives, whether all the precious time spent in understanding the process saw them practice it once they had the freedom to do so. Knowing what the landscape of Romanian cinema was like in the 90s, they probably did not, but this was something worth exploring in conclusion. It would have been more appropriate to the people who took part in this movie, mostly people who have not found artistic or, presumably, financial actualization post '89.

I do recommend Camera obscura, especially if you have an interest in film-making, because it provides some special moments along the way. It's just unfortunate that a certain unwillingness to prod deeper and a lack of visionary discipline undermine it over the long run.

Blind Date (2015)
3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A Wall Apart, 5 December 2016
5/10

Full disclosure, 2016 hasn't been a great romancing year for me, so I get easily irked by too much quirky stuff or unsubstantiated love kernels. And for the most part, easy-breezy romcoms tend to consist of a string of those. So it's at least partly my fault that Blind Date didn't stick.

Then again, it felt like all the creators were working with was a concept and a final scene: the former bordering on the absurd, the latter more romantic than I was set up to expect, by the look of things. Everything else was filled in with a competent, but cloggy and predictable plot and endearingly cardboard-y characters. OK, that's harsh. The leads have a tinge of something special about them, both reclusive introverts, passionate creatives - playfully nicknamed Machine and Machin. Separated by a thin and not at all soundproof wall, they get to organizing their lives around one another and ultimately fall for each other. The secret sauce lies in them not having seen each other and therefore being able to focus on the essence of what's being conveyed. At times, the two even have enough personality to be more than cardboard cut-outs.

Instead of spending more time with them, we're served with two second-hand supporting characters, the adulterous sister (or was it friend?) of 'Machine' and the overly supportive friend of 'Machin'. The problem with these two is that they bring nothing to the story. Instead, they are classic counter-points - the rebellious matron to the timid girl, the happy-go-lucky fellow to the misanthrope. This makes them superfluous, because no time is dedicated to truly fleshing them out enough for anything they do to even matter.

Coming back to our protagonists, their purpose is to free one another of what's tying them down, while also coming together. For one, it's a perfectionist obsession with the creation brain-teaser games; for the other, it's a perfectionist obsession with playing the piano. It fits, we do like fixing in others what we can't fix in ourselves. This takeaway, so common to romantic comedies, is the bane of my existence. To its defense, Blind Date tries to nuance the matter, as one might find motivation in another, but still needs to independently commit to change. Even so, there's just an excessive amount of wish fulfillment about the movie, as too much is left unexplored to really make it worthwhile. Luckily, the bits of Chopin scattered throughout help out.

People seem to like the flick, so with my disclaimer in mind, take what you will out of this review. Yet I cannot help being disappointed, because while it does feel authentic at points, it predominantly appears trite. Maybe I should just lower my pretentious romcom bar a notch or two.

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
That's How It's Done, 27 November 2016
7/10

I still recall Igor Cobileanski's first two shorts ("Cand se stinge lumina" and "Sasa, Grisa si Ion") with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet when someone recommended them to me and, to this day, every time conversations turn to movies from Moldova, I chuckle. After missing out on the first feature film directed by Cobileanski, quite different from the darkly humorous tone of his shorts, Afacerea Est promised to be more of, let's say it, his trademark style.

A meek and naive music teacher Marian ('intellectual') is forced to team up with a harsh, rudimentary, yet world-wise fellow Petro ('entrepreneur') in order to settle a bizarre business deal involving horseshoes. Their simple trip to complete the transaction is rocked by the theft of Marian's bag, which contained their documents and, more importantly, a wad of cash. So they're off the train and hustling to reach the final destination, making money however they can - playing guitar and singing for donations, enlisting as helpers to a local politician or conning farmers during the peak of an Avian flu outbreak. And all of this, of course, for love - so that Marian can afford to wed his beloved, Veronica.

It's a road trip/buddy comedy that works hard at portraying a reasonably faithful caricature of society in Moldova. Sometimes it's overbearing how hard. The timing of events seems set in the mid 00s, but while technology has shaped the way some things work, the undertones are not as different as they should be. Judging by how the story unfolds and the themes poked at, there isn't that much separating Romania from Moldova, only that the geopolitics exert different gravitational forces on the two.

The force holding the story of Marian and Petro together is that of deception. Everything almost everyone does is aimed at misleading someone in one way or another. What Cobileanski points out well is that we're not faced with good and bad characters - although one might be inclined to look at Marian for the weak but positive hero of the tale, in contrast to Petro. Yet, both of them engage in the deceits and Cobileanski's world is only segregated by size: small time crooks, big time crooks and very big time crooks. For all the hassle the protagonists go through, dealing with sums of money that appear significant, only upon meeting with their 'client' does scale begin to come into perspective.

The wild, wild East we're being shown was pretty much the transition phase after the end of communism. It's 'doubleplus' surreal set in Moldova, where the past and the present appear more intertwined. Cobileanski manages, at times, to really capture the irony and the foolishness of life in situational humour. Luckily, I was alone in the cinema and could laugh as hard as I felt like doing. However, there are also several scenes that come across quite flat or overly contrived, while language isn't used as skillfully as a tool for irony. And not to nitpick, but even a couple of fools like Marian and Petro didn't have to get off a train leading them to certain cash for a miserly stolen pouch.

All in all though, I'm glad that Afacerea Est is more of what Cobileanski promised with his first films. It's not perfect, yet it's good enough and presumably plays as a crazy adventure for someone not familiar with 'the way things are done' here.

7 out of 17 people found the following review useful:
The Story Within the Story, 21 November 2016
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Minor interpretation spoiler.

Any follow-up to 'A Single Man' was bound to be challenging, with bar set so high. Expectations are a horrible thing to have. Ironically, Tom Ford puts together an intricate tale about exactly that: expectations and love and mistakes and payback. It is captivating thanks to the lead trio of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. It works visually in spite of the occasional clichés. But it's not an even story and the mediocre writing cannot be forgiven. Implicitly, Nocturnal Animals taints itself with the muck of pretentiousness. Yucky muck.

Susan, unhappily wrapped in her glamorous life as director/board member of an art gallery, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. It's a book about a family being assaulted on a lonely country road by a bunch of aggressive do-nothings. Susan begins to read it just as her own ideal marriage cracks at a distance and we are enveloped by the story within the story. One, in the cold and sterile home/life Susan has built for herself, the other in the violent, passionate, conflicted Western-ish decor of Edward's novel. The parallels between the two are as plentiful, as they are visceral. Which is the best thing that can be said about Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams is such a strong presence on screen. She is particularly adept at portraying frailty, the kind that works as an undercurrent more than a dominating trait (see Arrival for even more nuance). Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, atypically provides the 'weak' character, the dreamer, the one who is sensitive to a fault. It is in this study of what we might desire and how elusive it all is, how hard it is to find the right amount of something at any given time in another person that Nocturnal Animals strikes an honest chord. What carries the movie beyond the procedural 'catch-the-bad-guys' it sets up for itself, is an unpredictable, loose and enthralling Michael Shannon, who plays the law enforcement element. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn't a half bad asshole either.

The problem is there are several filler characters as well, such as some of the party faces (even if they were mightily familiar, i.e. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough), Armie Hammer's role as the distant husband, or Laura Linney's domineering mother-figure. It's particularly a problem because, to me, they are the ones supposed to be the nocturnal animals, the predators. And in this commentary on a social divide, the movie falls short, because all it does is point caricatures of fingers at it. The uninspired writing, including some awful and pedantic dialogues, kept taking me out of where I wanted to be, enjoying the drama. And some fairly random scares did little to help with it either. The movie just can't strike a consistent tone, trying to be a lot of things at the same time and inevitably failing.

So yes, I was disappointed. Tom Ford might not have undermined his stylistic approach, as he still manages to iron over the elements that don't work so well by applying his particular aesthetic. But if it were not for some of the performances on screen, it would be really hard to recommend Nocturnal Animals - which is pretty damning. Well, expectations and all considered.


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