Tom Ford’s meaty thriller makes for a festival favourite around the globe
Fashion label mogul Tom Ford treats us to his second outing in the Director’s chair. It’s been 7 years since his well received, repressive gay sexploits-of-the-60’s film, A Single Man hit the deck, but with such a long furlough between sessions, Ford hasn’t lost his touch. If anything, Nocturnal Animals showcases just how raw and cohesive a long gestating passion project can be and still pay off. Beautifully woven together, the details of the story wrap themselves together like a mass ball of snakes in coitus. It’s only once we reach the apt conclusion, and step back to view Ford’s latest creation as a whole, that the sum parts reveal a masterpiece.
The real meat lies in the hefty script. It is one innately woven web of complexity, yet by limiting the realities to two strands – audiences are able to follow along easily with Ford’s craftily placed transitions a lesson in suave. Amy Adams and Armie Hammer suitably play their parts as the upmarket Morrow couple. Unfortunately for Adams’ Susan Morrow, they spend so much time acting within societal expectations that they are no longer enjoying themselves. Gallery owner Susan suddenly finds herself drawn into moments of thoughtful reflection after a novel from her ex turns up on her doorstep. As she delves into the pages late at night while home alone, the trajectory shifts to semi-fictional POV of the characters within. Gyllenhaal’s character Tony/Edward flits between fatherly weakling to vengeful psycho – taking on the persona of Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover from Prisoners. For all this a-list talent, it’s Michael Shannon who truly shines as the rough housing Texas sheriff. His no-nonsense lawman breathes bemusement into the more serious, life altering vignettes. Often known for playing the villain, deranged loon or vacant-eyed loser, Shannon’s Bobby Andes’ steely resolve is the only thing that gives the B-Track side to proceedings any real momentum. Along with Shannon’s aloof sheriff are friends of Susan and Hutton – played by Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen. The artistic, hipster virtuoso couple bring a little humanity to Susan’s crumbling life as they try reassure her there’s no shame in defeat – even when you’re rich.
Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Ray is a virile mess of hopped up amphetamines and testosterone. Some of his dialogue and interaction pushes the limits of believability. With everyone else doing their job, background, costume, acting – it feels out of place that Johnson is trying so hard in some scenes. It’s as if he saw the concept of Nocturnal Animals as a doomed arthouse piece and was seeking to resurrect it off his own back. The camerawork is sharp and deliberate in the vein of Ford’s earlier outing A Single Man. Each character is dressed immaculately and blends into their surroundings like camouflage. That’s not to say clothes don’t get dirty or bloodied. Shannon’s 10 gallon hat and crumpled cigarettes flesh him out as the complete Texan package, ash falling on his cuff like a blemish on a Gaudi painting. With nothing to prove, but everything to gain, Ford’s second substantial filmic outing touts superb mis en scene and the type of acting that makes pretenders cringe in its wake. Thrilling, and well paced, Nocturnal Animals is best viewed from the darkness of one’s penthouse – or failing that, local cinema.
Reviewed by Nicholas Brookland
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
There are currently 20 books about the fictional ex-Military cop, Jack Reacher, and the popularity of these Lee Child penned novels has so far delivered us two films with Tom Cruise in the title role. The new film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back does not require the viewer to have actually seen the original film or have any prior knowledge of the character, as it opens with a brief re-introduction into who the character is and what he is about; a drifter who walks about the country helping right injustices that he encounters on his travels. It is essentially the standard ‘knight errant’ character trope we’ve seen in countless stories and movies before, especially westerns. In the latest film, Reacher goes back to his army roots to help defend an acquaintance, Major Susan Turner, (ably played by Cobie Smulders in a role reminiscent of her turn in The Avengers), from charges of treason and in doing so uncovers a larger governmental conspiracy. Interweaved with the main military mystery is a sub-plot about a rebellious 15-year-old girl, who according to army records, may be a daughter Reacher did not know existed. The film is directed by Edward Zwick, who has worked with Cruise before on The Last Samurai, but shows none of the cinematic zeal he displayed in that earlier film with a rather by-the-numbers effort this time around.
The movie starts off promising, though admittedly at a rushed pace, quickly establishing who the Reacher character is and gets him to Washington DC where the overall mystery behind Turner’s alleged treason quickly takes shape. Unfortunately the story takes an absurd turn when it tries to incorporate the side-issue regarding Reacher’s alleged daughter, turning the tale into an odd family melodrama at times instead of a crime thriller. The movie is less convoluted and aimless once the story moves the action from Washington DC to New Orleans, but is relatively predictable in both sections with few surprises along the way.
The character of Reacher is described as being a tall and imposing figure in the books, and some fans have had a hard time reconciling that an actor of Tom Cruise’s stature effectively embodies the character from the books. To make up for this the film uses Cruise’s physicality and willingness to do his own stunts relatively well with the screenplay also constantly finding ways to remind the audience that this version of Reacher is an unstoppable force of nature and that the anti-social loner enjoys taking justice into his own hands. Using this personality trait, it also creates tension between the two main characters of Reacher and Turner as they are on the run from the villains for a lot of this movie together and both want to take charge of proceedings. Smulders’ character of Major Turner is a tough, self-assured woman, with skills and abilities relatively similar to Reacher and the story attempts to create a playful romance between the two but unfortunately it often comes out as contrived and largely unexplored in the end. One particularly cringe-worthy scene has the narrative drive take a break for a few minutes while these two hard-as-nails military types engage in a domestic scene over gender roles and who should babysit Reacher’s alleged daughter. It’s the type of scene that possibly could have been left on the editing room floor, and one wonders if the romance angle was even needed for this story to still work? All in all, the chemistry between the two leads worked well while they acted as investigative partners but largely fell flat whenever it tried to instil a sense of attraction or a false family dynamic involving the kid.
While there are several villains involved in the plot to frame Turner, the main antagonist of the film (played by Patrick Heusinger) works as a sort of anti-Reacher; that is another ex-military officer who now uses his skills as a mercenary and assassin for hire. This one-dimensional villain is relatively lack-lustre and lacks imagination or ambition, his only goal simply to prove he is better than Reacher by killing him.
The sequel is certainly filled with dramatic fight scenes and entertaining chase sequences, however they are unbalanced by all the forced emotional connections between the characters. This results in a story that feels lifeless with an unfortunate lack of sincerity. By requiring Jack Reacher to remain an enigmatic lone figure from the beginning of the story to the end, it’s difficult to ascertain why so much of the movie wants to spend so much time on any character development, he does not really change. Overall, for those who like their Tom Cruise action and just want to watch a relatively straight-forward crime thriller, this might be just the thing to pass away an easy and enjoyable two hours, but for those looking for a movie with a bit more substance or real suspense, look elsewhere.
Reviewed by Barbra Ho for Pink&Sparkles
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
When I first heard that there was going to be a spin-off film from the famous Harry Potter series titled after one of Harry’s magical textbooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I at first envisioned a globe-trotting adventure following its Magizoologist author, Newt Scamander, on an expedition into the wild to track down and catalogue all manner of exotic fabled creatures. As more information was released about the production it became apparent that author JK Rowling was penning a far more ambitious project spanning several movies that was going to expand upon the backstory hinted at in her novels about the dark magician Grindelwald. I tried to put my original expectation aside going into this movie, but having now seen the film I can’t help but wonder if a simpler tale, focussed exclusively on Newt Scamander and his interest and care for misunderstood magical beasts, might have been a better option to open this new series with after all. By combining Newt’s introduction to audiences within the confines of this larger historical tale about Grindelwald’s impact on the wizarding world, the result is a muddled spectacle that has conflicting storylines struggling for relevance. Despite this, Eddie Redmayne does do well playing this socially inept yet thoughtful mop-haired wizard, and portrays a very well-rounded character by the film’s end, but it takes a while before the screenplay really allows us to feel engaged with this awkward new hero.
The film opens with Newt’s arrival in New York city by steamer and it isn’t long before a few of the fantastical creatures he has magically contained within his suitcase have escaped into the city. He sets out to try and recover them before they cause too much trouble and is aided in this quest by the unassuming, non-magical New York native, Jacob Kowalski. Caught up in the action are the Goldstein sisters, the disgraced Auror (wizard cop), Tina, and her mind-reading sister, Queenie. The four leads are an interesting mix, as Queenie and Jacob are both immediately likable characters as soon as they turn up onscreen (and have quite good chemistry), while it takes a while to warm up to both Newt and Tina. As noted earlier, interwoven with this jaunty premise of recapturing magical creatures is a darker overarching plot where the American wizard community is having trouble keeping their presence hidden from the non-magical citizenry around them, primarily because of some kind of malevolent force that is being investigated by the steely Auror, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). The animosity that is growing between these two populations has the danger of leading to open conflict, though this threat is never really translated to the audience effectively. The Harry Potter franchise has always featured some excellent mysteries with effective twists and revelations in them yet this new tale is a confusing affair, and it is not immediately obvious what the puzzle really is that needs solving within the movie. The fun moments with the mischievous magical animals are delightful action set pieces, but they do not always juxtapose well alongside this more serious storyline which is really an allegory about race relations and the dangers of prejudicial beliefs.
Bad Santa 2
As a kind of counter-culture response to the joyous festive season and the usual sentimental cinematic offerings we get at this time of year the mean-spirited comedy, Bad Santa, was one of those films that was probably intended to be a cult classic amongst Christmas grinches but caught on and gained a lot of critical approval and a mainstream following. Come thirteen years later and we are suddenly treated to an unexpected sequel yet the degree to which you are familiar with and fond of the original may run against your enjoyment of Bad Santa 2 as its basically just a re-tread of everything that the first film already accomplished but not so cleverly done. This is immediately apparent when the sequel has to assert its reason for existing by having to open with the dialogue “happy endings are bullshit” and quickly undoing any hopeful and conclusive developments from the original film, as ambiguous as they were. By reducing Willie back to what he was at the beginning of the original film, a self-loathing suicidal loser with few friends and passions in life, the sequel is effectively free to just tell the same story all over again.
Being the primary personality associated with these films it would be unfair to fault Billy Bob Thornton for the sequel’s transgressions as he is still well cast as the titular Bad Santa, and was probably quite capable of handling any new imaginative developments the writing team could have come up with. It’s a difficult role to pull off as it would be easy with the wrong actor to just dislike the main character and thus the movie. However Thornton still manages to convey Willie’s contempt for the world and people around him with a gleefully deviant leer that still makes this despicable human being unabashedly enjoyable to watch. And like the original, those few moments, where we see a sense of heart or decency break through and crack his outwardly hostile demeanour, (often with his clueless ward, Thurman), allows the viewer to not feel guilty about finding the character endearing, pitiable and maybe even relatable. So despite the right actor in the part Thornton’s efforts are unfortunately let down by the imitative screenplay and direction the sequel decided to go in.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is David Yates’ fifth directorial entry into JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry, and as such you would have thought his familiarity and confidence with the material, which is abundantly apparent in the visuals on screen, would have also helped steer the narrative through its convoluted plot with a more steady hand. His stylistic choices of muted colour schemes and more sombre and adult-oriented sensibilities carries over into this new series but I do wonder if there was a missed opportunity here to inject some new creative energy into proceedings. Especially since we have not only swapped continents, but also time periods, with the story set in the gaudy heights of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ before the Great Depression. In fact Yates treats the 1920s setting as just an inconsequential backdrop for the events being depicted, and while the production value is exceedingly convincing in its portrayal of the period, the culture of that era is hardly utilised in the story at all. The one exception to this is a fun scene set in a jazzy speakeasy run by the unscrupulous goblin club-owner, Gnarlack, and I kind of wish there had been more colourful moments like this.
The movie isn’t all negatives though, there are still plenty of exciting wand battles or moments of humourous antics that one has come to expect from JK Rowling’s world. For the average Harry Potter fan the film also provides plenty of fascinating expansions upon her already rich and vibrant universe, offering all kinds of new insights due to the new time setting and location the film is set in. Additionally the important moral lessons in tolerance and acceptance that make up the subtext of this instalment seem rather topical in light of recent real world events and provide an interesting layer of social commentary into the movie. The visual effects look great, and those tell-tale signs of green-screen and digital environments that can quite often pull you out of your suspension of disbelief are few and far between in this $180M extravaganza.
Overall, the film is worth a watch but unfortunately Newt’s excursion to New York is just not as compelling as following the exploits of Harry, Ron and Hermione attending the Hogwarts school in the original series. I was happy to discover that for the most part this is a self-contained tale and you do get a sense of closure when the credits roll instead of having to wait for another movie to find answers to lingering questions. However there are also enough intriguing hints of future events included in this opening chapter that the film-makers have still succeeded in making me eager to see what is in store next for Newt Scamander.
Reviewed by Matt Whyte for Pink&Sparkles
While the first film was the result of a wry innovative script based off a Coen brothers premise and made under the eye of award-winning indie director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World 2001, Art School Confidential 2006) the sequel seems more like a marketing exercise riding the coat-tails of the original’s popularity. Having someone as mainstream as Mark Waters (Freaky Friday 2003, Mean Girls 2004, and The Spiderwick Chronicles 2008) take over directorial duties this time around may also have backfired as perhaps handling such dark and complex adult sensibilities may have been a bit too unfamiliar for someone whose background is more in line with teenage comedic fare?
As it is Bad Santa 2 has safe-cracker Willie Sokes reunited with his foul-mouthed "elf" sidekick, Marcus (played by Tony Cox), to once again don the Santa outfit for yet another robbery, this time to steal from a Christmas charity rather than a department store. Making up the third member of the heist crew this time out is Willie’s mother, Sunny Sokes. Kathy Bates seems to revel in playing this loathsome mother figure, taking great delight in a role where she can just let loose with a tirade of vulgar language and offensive put-downs, though at times this can get tiring when you get enough of it in the film from Willie and Marcus already. As a foil to all the negativity is the return of Thurman Merman (played by Brett Kelly again). The overweight kid who Sokes befriended in the first film is now a 21 year old young man yet continues to be as naïve as ever and is a hopelessly upbeat nuisance in Sokes’ contemptuous life, but one he desperately needs. The film has to admittedly jump through some hoops in order to shoe-horn Thurman back into the narrative once the action moves to Chicago, basically using the character’s stupidity to make this work. The sequel also introduces charity manager, Diane, (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame), who replaces Sue (played by Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham) in the original as the seemingly normal love interest who turns out to have an odd sexual desire for Willie. However it was more on point in the first film where the two bonded because of a Santa fixation, whereas this time it’s a slightly sad combination of sexual frustration, alcoholism and addiction.
Overall Bad Santa 2 is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, without the purpose that drove the shock value in the original, some jokes in the new film still land perfectly and elicit laughs, but many more come across as overly mean and unnecessary. The less you remember about the original movie the more you are likely to enjoy seeing similar material again so my recommendation is to not go and catch up on Wille T. Stoke’s previous bad antics before seeing this one and just go in cold (Christmas) turkey. If you can still recite many lines from the original and it’s become a frequent Christmas classic at this time of year then this sequel may well disappoint.
Reviewed by Matt Whyte for Pink&Sparkles
Hope you have all had a good start to the week! There's so much to do before the year ends however I am loving this journey and thankful to my team in assisting me with amazing work which I am very proud of. Quality trumps quantity. Have you been to the movies lately? We are looking forward to watching Allied this week. Stay tuned on our thoughts and follow us on Instagram: PinkandSparklesNZ.