Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *

Keeping Up With The Joneses

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When a movie takes its title from a tagline used to promote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I can’t help but walk into it with high expectations. Indeed, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” boasts a plot which quickly reminded me of “True Lies” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in which government spies disguise themselves as ordinary suburban residents, and it has a cast of actors who you can always count on to give you a fun time. It’s even directed by the man who gave us “Superbad” and “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola. But while it does have some inspired moments, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” ends up feeling, to put it bluntly, half-assed.

We meet Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) who works at a corporate office as a human resources director. He is happily married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two children who, as the movie starts, are heading off to summer camp for a few weeks. For the first time in years, the Gaffneys have the whole house to themselves which has them thinking of all kinds of mischief to get into, but any plans they have for getting naughty are interrupted when a new couple moves into the neighborhood.

Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) are not your usual couple as they look as if they have traveled all over the world, and they look far too gorgeous to pass as ordinary people. As a result, the Gaffneys get overly suspicious and are eager to learn everything there is to know about them. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize they are spies, but whether they are foreign or domestic spies remains to be seen.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” gets off to a strong start as we get a picturesque view of suburbia with the peaceful neighborhood these characters inhabit. As the camera pans around the different houses, one of them blows up into smithereens, and the explosion almost feels like something out of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. Next thing you know, the story moves back to two weeks before the explosion, so we already know this peaceful neighborhood won’t be very peaceful for much longer.

The great things about the movie is the cast. Galifianakis gets to play a different role this time around as Jeff Gaffney is not like the mentally unstable characters he became famous for playing like in “The Hangover.” Seeing him play a down to earth guy who is all about family and good times feels like a stretch for him, and it’s fun watching him opposite Hamm especially when they have lunch at an underground restaurant which is definitely not for vegans.

Hamm gets to play on his sexy guy image, and he is well matched with Gadot who looks very comfortable in the action comedy genre. Isla Fisher has been great fun to watch in any movie she appears in ever since her scene-stealing turn in “Wedding Crashers,” and she doesn’t disappoint here. There’s also a nice pair of performances from Matt Walsh and Maribeth Monroe as a pair of neighbors who might be getting a little to nosy in everyone’s affairs.

But as terrific as this cast is, they are not enough to save this movie which runs out of inspiration very quickly. It would have been more fun if the director and screenwriter kept us guessing as to whether the Joneses really were spies or not. Looking back, I kept thinking everyone missed out on various opportunities to make this movie cleverer than it is. This could have been an uproarious comedy had more effort been put into the script. After a while, we know how things are going to turn out for the four main characters here, and it just reminds us of other movies like it which were much, much better.

When the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s sunk by a predictability everyone could have avoided for the benefit of the audience. What we are left with is a premise which everyone could have and should have had a lot more fun with. The characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, could have been better developed to where they don’t feel like caricatures. The action scenes are fun, but you feel like they could have been more thrilling. Instead of accepting the movie for what it is, we keep thinking about the movie it could have been, and realizing this is depressing.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is one those films I analyze endlessly as I watch it because I am convinced I could have done a better job with the material. This premise could have been taken in a number of different directions and could have ended up being an insane amount of fun. But we get instead is a motion picture which have spent more time in the development phase because this one came out of the oven far too soon. It has its moments, but it could have had a lot more of them.

* * out of * * * *