Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Tom Ford’s career diversion from fashion designer to film director goes from strength to sumptuous strength in this superbly confident psychological thriller.

Ford has tailored a smart and stylish affair of seamless precision, one you must luxuriate in it to appreciate the finesse of the cut and the fit. It provides aesthetic, intellectual and emotional thrills you will struggle to shrug off.

Five times Oscar nominee Amy Adams gives another flawless performance as immaculate gallery owner, Susan. While her husband is away, Susan receives a soon-to-be-published manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals, from her ex, Edward. As Susan reads the book, she is reminded of long hidden terrible behaviour.

Edward is played by Jake Gyllenhaal and though I’m occasionally underwhelmed by his presence in a movie, there’s no questioning the strength of this performance. Gyllenhaal also plays the role of the lead character in his novel, Tony. We see his dark, sad and violent story as a film within the film.

Tony’s family are brutalised while on a road trip through West Texas. He teams up with a local sheriff to hunt down the good old boys responsible. As Detective Bobby Andes, Michael Shannon is hard smoking, slow talking and always amusing.

Colin Firth was Oscar nominated for his turn in Ford’s debut A Single Man (2009) and many of the performances could follow suit. Laura Linney is sublimely sharp as Anne Sutton, Susan’s mother, nearly stealing the film in her only scene. Brits Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Aaron Taylor-Johnson provide strength in depth.

The score by Abel Korzeniowski is swooningly bleak and there is an extraordinarily bold and considered use of colour. The cool blues and glossy enclosed spaces of the Los Angeles art world are contrasted with the scorching rocky ochre of the vast expanse of Texas. Oscar nominations should surely arrive for production design and cinematography, respectively Shane Valentino and Seamus McGarvey.

An opening images of naked dancers begin a dialogue within the film of the nature of the artistic process. This conversation is based on the themes of exposure, vulnerability, pain and truth. They are central to the plot and are reinforced by the frequent mirroring of images and actors play dual roles. There is a pointed comment regarding critics who possess the power to destroy creativity, at no risk to themselves.

Careless viewers may scratch their heads at the final scene, but this is because Ford respects his audience and demands you pay attention to his beautifully bespoke tale of revenge.

@ChrisHunneysett

Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World

Director: Werner Herzog (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

This sketchy documentary by intense German filmmaker Werner Herzog is a series of musings on the history, perils, benefits and future of the internet. Sadly it’s only intermittently amusing or informative.

Travelling across the US, Herzog interviews among others, a robotist, an astronomer, a cosmologist and a hacker. Criminally, Brit genius and inventor of the web Sir Tim Berners Lee barely gets a mention.

It touches upon the development of driverless cars, manned missions to Mars and the chances of robotic football winning the World Cup. Better than England’s, probably.

Some interesting points are made, but the lack of an overarching philosophy to bring the material together betrays the initial premise for the film as a series of short Youtube clips.

It wanders off into electronic existentialism to question whether the internet is self aware and if we can live without it. With a healthy disregard for his own brief, Herzog seems far more interested in the people he meets than in the technology he’s investigating.

We learn the transmission of the first ever internet message was interrupted due to the computer crashing. At least the future began as it intended to carry on.

@ChrisHunneysett

Doctor Strange

Director: Scott Derrickson (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Released on a Tuesday to capitalise on UK schools half term break, this is a movie which doesn’t need the leg up to take the number one spot in the box office chart. The eye popping visuals and star power of Benedict Cumberbatch means this sorcery-based superhero adventure will have you spellbound.

In an astute piece of casting every bit as inspired as having Robert Downey Jnr play Iron Man, the star of TV’s Sherlock star plays Dr Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon turned Sorcerer Supreme.

In the latest introduction of a minor character in the Marvel canon to the wider cinema audience, the impressively psychedelic stylings of this latest product off the assembly line are sufficient to distract us from the functional plot.

Plus its East meets West magic and martial arts action means it possesses it a far stronger sense of identity than some of its franchise fellows. Yes, I’m looking at you Ant-Man (2015).

Despite a distracting American accent, Cumberbatch is alarmingly dashing in goatee beard, glowing medallion and a red cape. Similarly to the magic carpet in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1994), the cape has a mind of its own and is a major character in its own right. It says a lot for the actor’s comic ability he can play straight man to his costume.

The strong supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong. Stan Lee has one his better cameos. McAdams is focused, bright and underused in the role of Strange’s love interest. By coincidence she appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) as Holmes’ love interest Irene Adler.

A rampant egotist, the Doctor’s glamorous lifestyle and career are ruined when a car accident crushes his hands. In Nepal he is trained in the art of sorcery by Tilda Swinton’s mysterious Ancient One. Her sink or swim teaching methods include abandoning her pupils on Mount Everest to find their own way to safety.

Having fun in a role which is absolutely not stretch of his talent, former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen sports glam rock eye shadow and periodically teleports in to cause carnage. As renegade mystic Kaecilius, he’s attempting to destroy the world with the help of Dormammu, a powerful demon from the Dark Dimension.

The story skips between London, New York, Hong Kong and Nepal in a series of gravity defying, time twisting, space curling, mind bending action set pieces. For a lot of the time it’s like watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception on acid.

This is easily the most visually ambitious, funny and entertaining superhero movie of the year.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Director: Edward Zwick (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Tom Cruise returns as homeless hero Jack Reacher and the entertainment is as solid as the hero’s punches in this sequel to 2012’s action thriller.

The veteran superstar’s star intensity, physical presence and light comic ability raise this above the ordinary. Always better when playing opposite strong women, Cruise enjoys himself immensely being buffeted by a pair of sparky female costars.

Cobie Smulders plays a kick ass army major and the super confident scene stealer Danika Yarosh is a 15 year old street wise urchin. The three develop a fractious family dynamic which powers the film along in its quieter moments.

While on the run for murder the threesome must unravel a plot concerning corruption and conspiracy in the army. A New Orleans halloween party adds colour to the many fist fights and car chases.

Based on Lee Child’s best selling novel Never Go Back, this is a competent and enjoyable adaptation, but as a film it lacks the epic sweep of director Zwick’s other Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai (2003).

There’s a patriotic defence of the integrity and symbolism of the US military uniform, references to the difficulties facing females in service and a discussion of gender roles in parenting. Which not many action movies attempt to do.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Ouija: Origin Of Evil

Director: Mike Flanangan (2016) BBFC cert: 15

This belated and unwanted supernatural prequel to 2013’s Ouija is scary only in its lack of originality and ability to frighten up any fun.

When a widowed fortune teller introduces a Ouija board into her repertoire, her younger daughter makes contact with a spirit from the other side. At first providing gifts and helping with homework, when it exposes its malevolent nature there are dire consequences for the family.

Hard working Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson form the basis of an agreeable cast as mother and daughters. But as there’s no flesh on the scripts ghoulish bones for them to tear into, and we don’t care when very bad things start to happen.

There’s no attempt at twisting the setup into something interesting or topical such as drawing a parallel between the ouija board and internet grooming. Instead the script scratches at the walls of blank eyed possession, hidden rooms and half-hearted torture porn.

Among the absence of thrills are laughable nods to The Exorcist (1974) and Poltergeist (1982). The lighting and period detail gives the paranormal activity an undeserved gloss, while an underdeveloped sense of camp is bludgeoned into submission by cheap shocks.

The banging and shrieking on the soundtrack is loud enough to wake the dead. And possibly even the audience.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

I, Daniel Blake

Director: Ken Loach (2016) BBFC cert: 15

If a measure of a films greatness is its ability to generate anger, then this raw slice of social realism is a masterpiece.

This is a rage fuelled articulation of the pain and damage imposed on ordinary people by the machinery of state geared up to disenfranchise them. It’s a bleak and uncompromising condemnation of the deliberate destruction of the social contract between state and citizen by successive UK governments.

The 80 year old Ken Loach delivers a typically powerful piece of political agitation. The veteran director of Cathy Come Home (1966) demonstrates his undiminished rage at injustice inflicted on the most vulnerable.

As Daniel and Katie, the honest performances of Dave Johns and Hayley Squires give humanity and dramatic weight to the story.

Following a major heart attack, 59-year-old joiner Daniel Blake has been signed off sick by his doctor. He is contrarily assessed as able to work, losing his state sickness benefits. This decision making process is outsourced to a private company by the Department for Work and Pensions.

While Daniel attempts to appeal the decision he has no income and is unable to work, but is expected to look for a job in an area of high unemployment.

He meets single mother Katie of two who has relocated to Newcastle from a homeless persons’ hostel in London. He takes a grandfatherly interest in her kids and their positive response to him makes the subsequent slide into distress all the more affecting.

Moments of humour, camaraderie and small acts of kindness make the uncaring cruelty suffered all the more bitter. Debt, hunger, criminality and mental illness are accompanied by a crucifying sense of shame.

All these afflictions are prompted and then maintained by a bureaucracy which actively seeks to avoid helping the deserving poor by an incomprehensible claims system. Jargon, call waiting and internet-only applications are effective barriers to successful claims. Sanctions for non compliance with the rules are routinely threatened.

Loach presents in a style as severe as the policies of austerity meted out by the UK government. There’s an absolute absence of sentimentality and spectacle. The lack of the latter means this will translate easily to television, but without losing any of its righteous anger.

Filming took place on location in Newcastle Upon Tyne. The city offers an array of locations rich in visual texture which are mostly ignored, as a result the city never feels like a character in its own right. The majestic Tyne Bridge is absent, there’s the merest glimpse of glorious Grey Street and scenes are content to play out in anonymous streets, offices and front rooms.

Saving his fury for the dehumanising bureaucratic systems, Loach refuses to demonise anyone. Pimps, madams, police and even the bureaucrats are generally given sympathetic hearings, while outright villainy is absent.

This is probably just as well, the gangsters in Loach’s enjoyable magical realist fable Looking For Eric (2009) were very weakly drawn. In order to create a palpable sense of community, Loach glosses over the chaos of noise, vandalism and random violence which exists at the frayed edges of society.

Fish are a recurring motif and the Christian symbol for hope and peace is a mocking reminder of politicians who make political capital from being openly devout, but whose policies are criminally destructive. This criticism is cross-party and deep rooted.

I’ve never left a cinema burning with anger at the state of the UK. And if you have the slightest sliver of a social conscience, neither will you.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold (2016) BBFC cert: 15

No one in cinema captures the grim essence of poverty with the clear eyed compassion of Brit director Andrea Arnold. Now she’s taken her unique talent across the pond for this extraordinary road trip through the heartlands of the USA.

When Ridley Scott made Thelma and Louise (1991) he embraced road trip convention by choosing a widescreen format. The master stylist painted beautiful landscapes on which to place his characters, though his glorious images were at odds with the desperate plight of the women.

Arnold’s decision to film in a boxlike aspect ratio creates a cage to reflect the limited life of her characters. Plus it allows the face of her lead to frequently fill the frame and these portraits create intimacy and empathy.

Always a challenging and uncomfortable ride, we’re made to experience the forlorn apathy, hopeless hedonism and rootless grind of the lives of a crew of travelling magazine salespeople.

It’s an episodic tale with undertones of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. An 18 year old named Star escapes her chaotic and abusive life. She sprints away to be recruited by a cocky and flamboyantly dressed team leader who is himself under the thumb of a snarling gangmaster.

Arnold points to the hypocrisy of avowed Christians, the tremendous disparity of wealth distribution and the casual drift in and out of criminality. She’s very concerned with the vulnerability of her characters who are physically and emotionally damaged. Their dreams for life are desperately small and pitifully beyond their means.

Star’s interactions with insects, dogs, turtles and a bear are all witness to her development. By turns selfish, courageous, impulsive, sexy, damaged and guilt ridden, she is the most real person you will meet in cinema this year. It is a breathtaking debut by Sasha Lane.

Shia LaBeouf plays Jake with the devil may care of the Artful Dodger, giving a performance to suggest he’s the great actor he’s always told us he is. As their combative boss, Krystal, the smouldering attitude of Riley Keough burns an after-image on the screen every time she appears.

A triumph for all involved.

@ChrisHunneysett