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.


Elvis & Nixon

Director: Liza Johnson (2016)

Elvis Presley enters the building in this rocking good dramatisation of the day he dropped by the White House to visit president Nixon.

They are played with competitive brilliance by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey.

These global heads of music and politics met on December 21 1970. This is in the wake of the optimism of the luna landing and before the crucifixion of the American psyche caused by fall of Saigon.

Brooding in his Graceland mansion and disgusted by the state of the world, Elvis flies to Washington DC. Guards are bemused when he rocks up to the White House and asks to see the President.

Nixon is persuaded a joint photo will help him capture the youth vote. Elvis wants to become a Federal Agent At Large, in order to infiltrate the underworld and fight crime.

A smart script milks the meeting for humour and a comparison of their homes flags up the similarities between the isolated, paranoid and self made pair.

They bond over a love for their daughters and share fears for America’s future in the face of a youth culture neither understand.

Their defining relationships are with flunkies who sacrifice their own lives to serve. Alex Pettyfer and Colin Hanks provide very effective support as Elvis acolyte Jerry Schilling and White House aide Egil Krogh.

The emotional core of the film lies in the gap between the differing attitudes of these characters to their bosses.

With hunched shoulders and wrists flashing like a snakes tongue, Kevin Spacey captures the voice and mannerisms of Tricky Dicky. A broad performance rather than deep but we enjoy it almost as much as the actor does.

Nixon has been essayed several times on screen. In Frost/Nixon (2008) in a best supporting Oscar winning turn by  Frank Langella. Anthony Hopkins played him in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Dan Hedaya was a Nixon surrogate in Dick (1999). My personal favourite Nixon is James Le Gros in surf and bank robbing thriller Point Break (1991).

In a film career of increasingly questionable quality Elvis starred in 31 movies. Viva Las Vegas (1964) was his last excellent film and it’s notable it was released the same year as The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band who pushed Elvis aside as they imported a new brand of music to the US.

Kurt Russell was enjoyable in TV movie Elvis (1979) and Val Kilmer was a charismatic gold lame-clad spiritual guide in the Tarantino scripted True Romance (1993).

The brave decision not to feature any Elvis songs in Elvis & Nixon prevents us from being distracted by miming or less than perfect singing.

Shannon looks even less like Elvis than I do, but his astute and captivating performance sidesteps caricature to give us the man and the myth.

Still capable of causing hysteria in secretaries and receptionists wherever he goes, Elvis is thoughtful and proudly polite, employing his charm and celebrity status to open doors.

Deadly serious in his intentions and brilliant at relating to people, he also seems a couple of places removed from our everyday reality.

This is an existential Elvis struggling with the weight of his own legacy, gold medallions and sunglasses. One who recognises the gap between the lonesome rockabilly and the global superstar and is calculating enough to use the latter to achieve the objectives of the former.

The meeting in the Oval Office is all too brief and being a consummate performer, the king keeps us wanting more.


Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols (2016)

This downbeat road trip takes you on a mild goose chase with no particular place to go.

A messiah metaphor without a message, the story is bogged down by it’s own dour incoherence.

Stern Michael Shannon and vulnerable Jaeden Lieberher play  Roy and Alton, a father and son on the run.

Alton is considered a weapon by the FBI and a saviour by the cult his father has just escaped him from.

Alton’s speaking in tongues has revealed location to which they are heading, but time is running out.

With his health is worsening, Alton has to wear goggles and headphones for protection – except for when he doesn’t.

Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton offer solid support while Adam Driver brings as much humour to the role of an FBI analyst as he dare smuggle in.

Every line of dialogue is delivered with ponderous import but script has nothing to say about religion, belief or faith.

Car chases and shoot outs compete with earthquakes, meteor showers and power cuts but due to Alton’s increasing cosmic powers, there’s not much tension.

Man Of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder (2013)

Brit actor Henry Cavill carries the weight of the world on his shoulders in this monumental rebooting of Superman.

The planet Krypton is in deadly peril so the baby Kal-El is jettisoned off to Earth for safety by his father Jor-El – Russell Crowe on top form.

An attempted coup by Krypton’s compellingly evil General Zod is defeated and he is banished to the Phantom Zone.

Zod, an elemental Michael Shannon, swears revenge on the son of Jor-El and when Krypton is destroyed he escapes into open space with his followers.

Kal-El is 33 and has developed super powers when Zod’s spaceship arrives to demand the US military hand him over – but only Lois Lane knows where he is.

The battles that follow are conducted in state-of-the-art CGI and there are some nifty flying sequences. All the costumes and space hardware are fabulously well designed, as is Krypton.

For all her no-nonsense journalist-on-a-mission attitude, Lois (Amy Adams) exists only to be rescued. The plot makes great leaps over logic to keep her involved.

Cavill is so ridiculously handsome and buff he could well be from another planet. But his Man of Steel character is somewhat flat here because of the absence of the traditional Clarke Kent alter ego.

It is not until the absolute end that the actor is allowed to demonstrate any humour, charm, or light-heartedness, which is a waste of his talent – and a lot of our time.

Superman saves more soldiers’ lives than civilian ones despite the military being stupidly belligerent and not trusting of him. Mind you, the civilian body count must be astronomical.

With the Man of Steel no longer wearing underpants outside his tights, everything is played with utter seriousness.

The tone stays in the narrow realm of the ominous and desperately solemn. Doom-laden declarations litter the dialogue, which is workaday, dull and occasionally silly with Adams’s Lois Lane having the worst of it.

A well acted and solid spectacle is bookended by two titanic battles. But taken as a whole, Man of Steel never escapes the heavy gravitational force of its own furrowed brow.