LFF 2016: Nocturnal Animals ****

With a creative like fashion designer turned film-maker Tom Ford at the helm, his second big-screen venture was always going to be another thing of great beauty to watch. Whereas A Single Man still deals with ugliness tainting its glossy surface, Nocturnal Animals goes a step further and is more visceral, part exquisite art display, part bleak crime thriller – as though Ford is dipping his film-making toe into another genre to test his skills, while still being cushioned by his trademark chic.

Amy Adams plays high society art gallery owner Susan, whose marriage is crumbling, as is her sense of being. Her life changes after she receives a copy of her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller that seems to be based on their past – a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

Adams was a Ford leading lady waiting to happen. Her looks, pose and expressive nature wonderfully relay all the emotions that Susan is going through, amplified by the ‘pretty bird in a gilded cage’ scenario she finds herself in. There is a sense of foreboding in the calm of her perfect existence, as though she challenges the status quo in order to feel alive again when all around her feels stagnant. Adams effortlessly carries these scenes until the next dramatic revelation from the fictional side of the story – the recreation of the novel she is reading.

Jake Gyllenhaal is both the ex-husband in flashbacks and the novel’s grief-stricken and tormented protagonist, being no stranger to such dark roles from his previous work. It’s here in the film that Ford’s biggest contrasts happen, even injecting bouts of displaced beauty in the midst of depravity and despair. As solid as Gyllenhaal is in the role, it’s actually Aaron Taylor-Johnson as perp Ray Marcus who utterly steals the scenes – definitely a defining moment for him as he fleshes out every odious, unpredictable and terrifying characteristic of Marcus. Michael Shannon as cynical old-school detective Bobby Andes brings up the rear of exceptional casting, an actor who gives the film a gravitas and 1950s-style essence in his acting style. As stunning as the Adams scenes are, Ford has proved that he is more than capable of producing a thriller without the sheen.

What comes across with Nocturnal Animals is a passion for a project, attention to detail and dramatic Hitchcockian production values. The intensity sometimes dips as we are thrust back into the banality of Susan’s priviledged existence, though simply serves to tease us and keep us in awe of the next part of the gruesome puzzle being exposed – ironically, where the film’s true passions and sentiment stem from.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Prisoners *****

Coming third in the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival this year, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and Contraband writer Aaron Guzikowski’s dark thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, packs a blood-chilling and sickening punch for any parent. It also questions just how far you would go to find a missing loved one, igniting a vigilante side. Its controversial element is further emphasised by an equally controversial performance by Jackman who gets far more bestial than Wolverine could ever dream of.

When Keller Dover’s (Jackman) young daughter and her friend go missing after a Thanksgiving meal with close friends, the Birches (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he takes matters into his own hands, as he believes local detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is pursuing the wrong leads. As the pressure mounts and time is running out, how far will this desperate father go to reunite his family?

It could be argued just how ‘realistic’ is the father’s response in this story, acting merely as a convenient excuse to suggest some titillating, barbaric torture methods for kiddie abductors. This could affect how the rest of the film is received for some. That said the blind panic and subsequent frustration are a powerful and heady cocktail that fuels sentiment as the film’s eerie momentum moves in stops and starts.

Guzikowski’s story satisfyingly balances Dover’s actions with Loki’s reactions, throwing open debate about who is right or wrong in the escalating situation. Like Contraband, family is the key motivator so it’s easy to go along for the grim ride and pin it on the obvious bogeyman. There are some satisfying twists and action set-pieces too, keeping things stimulating enough throughout the two-hours-plus run-time.

Jackman is a compelling ‘man possessed’ in this, obviously tapping into his own paternal feelings to bring a wounded Dover alive. Fans may be shocked at just how aggressive the likeable actor gets and what inner demons he evokes. However, his character’s trump card is his missing daughter and the ‘unknown’ factor of being in such a dilemma that most of us will thankfully never find ourselves in – think Liam Neeson’s Taken, only more raw and graphic. For this reason, however bizarre and skewed events get, you are still behind Dover, flaws and all. His domineering presence also challenges Howard’s convincingly played, moralistic but guilt-ridden Birch and the futility of the law – as the fathers see it.

Actually, Gyllenhaal as Loki is the dark horse, who operates from behind a badge but has a mysterious, undisclosed background. We can guess Dover’s actions, and to an extent, Loki’s on the job, but Gyllenhaal’s easy and accommodating stance is punctuated by volatile self-loathing outbursts as Loki, even though the detective does play to type (the jaded wild card who always gets his man). Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s verbal confrontations bristle with controlled menace as we watch both pushed to their limits. Their conclusion will both thrill and divide opinion too, and the core reason for the abductions are not wholly clear, initially.

Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s taut directing, coupled with a strong story, gritty cinematography and captivating performances (including Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano and Melissa Leo) make Prisoners a tantalising watch that will solicit and repulse in equal measure, like a gladiatorial show on display in a barren environment.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2012: End Of Watch ****

Those who favour the ‘cops on camera’ TV shows can expect much the same style of ‘caught of camera’ thrills and spills from Harsh Times and Training Day director David Ayers’ gritty and affecting End Of Watch. Ironically, as well as hooking you in from the start and sparking curiosity as to where the story is going, the mockumentary-style, ‘found’ footage is also an Achilles Heel of the film from the offset: It becomes rather confusing as to exactly whose point of view we’re watching, although the cop banter and games from its leads, street-smart cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), are supposed to make that apparent.

We follow the two officers on their patrol through various rough South Central LA neighbourhoods, trying to keep some form of law and order. We watch as they spend work and play time together, including all the teasing and tomfoolery that goes on both inside the patrol car and out. However, after confiscating money and firearms from a notorious cartel during a routine traffic stop, both officers are placed on a hit list.

The main strength of End Of Watch is the key central relationship between two cops – one of Irish decent, the other Spanish – that is allowed to develop and solidify, once the initial bilious caught-on-camera footage is played out. Coupled with some truly outstanding and memorable performances from Gyllenhaal and Peña who really get under the skin of their characters, you start to get to know and second-guess their actions before they happen – crucial for the full impact of the finale to work.

The script is full of starkly poignant and laugh-out-loud moments of irony and frank observation that almost feel completely non-scripted and improvised at times, giving the whole affair an even greater realism than merely the cop-camera footage alone could hope to do. As with this genre, such a film is always going to have elements of déjà vu theatrics, but the relationship keeps it fresh and centred, so that it becomes more character-driven than anything else and a highly rewarding watch.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Source Code ****

With the acclaimed Moon, his debut film under his belt, Duncan Jones is fast proving to be a master of sci-fi mystery, a scholar of MacGuffin in his film plots. Source Code is no exception. It toys with its lead character, US Army pilot Colter Stevens, played by Jake Gyllenhaal – no stranger to military fatigues after Jarhead – to the point of insanity. It goads both characters and viewers as to what is reality, right to the very end in a succinct and compelling storyline that feels too unreal not to be real.

Confused? You might be. And you would certainly not be alone. The story follows Stevens who wakes up on a train opposite a woman who claims to know him (Christina, a teacher, played by Michelle Monaghan), but he finds himself in another man’s body – much like an episode of Quantum Leap. Before he has had time to get to grips with his situation, the train he is on blows up on its way into downtown Chicago. Stevens is then rudely awakened to find himself in what looks like the ruins of a spacecraft capsule, in his pilot gear, and being spoken to in confusing but urgent riddles by a female military officer, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), while being coerced into completing a mission; find the bomber of the train – but he has eight minutes to comply. Each time he fails, he is propelled back into his capsule state, but each time he goes back to the train, he picks up more pieces of the puzzle, and so on. The other story concepts and the end reveal are a treat to mull over. Can Stevens save the day?

As in Moon, there are questions upon unanswered questions, which is the purpose of the Hitchcockian-styled plot. This constant state of limbo is scintillating cerebral frustration for the viewer, as it is for the players. This is Jones’s triumph. In fact the ending is even more powerful but equally challenging, setting off a whole new dimension of the truth. Added to the mystery is a healthy but suitable amount of action that drives Stevens’s determination to fruition.

Gyllenhaal adds intelligence to the action hero role that is infectious, and Monaghan delivers the graceful style of his ‘love interest’ (in the loosest terms, with regards to this). More intriguing is the relationship Stevens has with Goodwin, a beautiful but controlling being that is android-like and initially detached, but like some sci-fi classics, like Bishop and Annalee in the Alien films, begins to learn and feel humility. In this case Goodwin is actually human, but there would be a fair case for thinking otherwise, as who knows what the US military get up to behind closed doors?

What’s it all about is for you to decide and not to reveal here, but Source Code implants the ideas for you to make your own judgments in a well-directed action thriller with a sci-fi twist. Coupled with an engaging cast, Jones offers you another voyage of discovery; so if you like puzzles, check this film out.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Love and Other Drugs – 2*

Let’s be frank: This is a film for dedicated Jake Gyllenhaal and/or Anne Hathaway fans because both are paraded in their full glory and look hot to trot (just see the poster) – even the latter, which is tad unsettling, considering she plays a Parkinson’s Disease sufferer on stage 1 of the illness. Now, that’s not to say that looking good isn’t an option, and fighting the disease means tackling everyday existence head-on. But Love and Other Drugs seems confused as to how it wants to be taken, apart from the obvious polished-looking rom-com with two good-looking leads in Gyllenhaal and Hathaway. It simply misses the mark on sentimentality and seriousness of subject matter, coming across as a frivolous fling.

The film does take a long time to get going, too. There is a lot of toned and birthday-suited Gyllenhaal and Hathaway to get through – fans will undoubtedly be pleased to hear – as we witness their first odd meeting and subsequent entanglement. Gyllenhaal looks doe-eyed in Hathaway’s presence – set to melt hearts. Hathaway fires off her standard defensive, sarcastic retorts, before showing her vulnerable side that gets a little tedious after a while. It’s acting by numbers and barely offers anything fresh from either talent. And even when they finally decide they’re ‘sort of’ an item, the plot still feels a little hazy as to its intended direction, leaving a rather deflating feeling in the end. This could well be Zwick‘s erratic direction, though.

Love and Other Drugs starts out as a confident and slick dig at corporate life in the pharmaceutical game with some humorous and cheeky moments, thanks to Gyllenhaal’s steady performance as young salesman buck Jamie with the world at his feet. Enter Hathaway as gorgeous patient Maggie with encyclopaedia knowledge of every Parkinson’s symptom and drug on the market. This is where things start to get a little incredulous. In fact it would have been more believable if Jamie had tried pressing some of his drug wares on Maggie, but he falls hook, line and sinker for her – and the more abrasive she is, the more he chases. It helps that she wants unattached sex, but boy, is there a lot of carnal knowledge to get through before anything really interesting begins.

It does feel like watching two different films. The concept of corrupt medical staff seems like an intriguing one on its own, under the lure of free drugs and Viagra-plugging. This is the really interesting part of the whole story. Apart from Maggie looking tired and getting a few shakes, sporadically, the Parkinson’s gets a brief sentimental look-in near the end when the couple go on the road to find a ‘cure’ and end up at an unofficial convention for the disease. It’s obvious the film-makers want to highlight that any age can be affected but life goes on. However, the easy blend of comedy and heart-felt moments just doesn’t quite mix.

With Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs should be a rom-com match made in heaven, a sexy affair, considering both are fine actors in their own right. But although watchable at times because of the casting, the high that these two should inject fizzles out, once you’ve overindulged in their lust fest and tried in vain to work out what the purpose of it all is – and ‘love conquers all’ just isn’t enough in this case.

2/5 stars

By L G-K