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Amy Adams

Amy Adams…the ice goddess in her art gallery

“NOCTURNAL ANIMALS” My rating: B-

116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” is a fascinating failure.

But even if it doesn’t quite work, it remains so ambitious, so daring that it overshadows other films considered “successful” simply because they aim so much lower.

Ford, the celebrated fashion designer whose first feature directing effort was “A Single Man” back in 2009, wastes no time bitch-slapping his audience. Under the opening titles of “Nocturnal Animals” Ford gives us slo-mo footage of obese women dancing.  They’re naked except for marching band kepis and thigh-high drum majorette boots.

These images are part of the latest exhibit in a trendy LA art gallery operated by Susan (Amy Adams),  a cooly coiffed and clothed woman who lives in a multi-million-dollar minimalist glass house overlooking the city.

Susan is rich — she’d be richer, but her faithless hubby Hutton (Armie Hammer) has managed to blow a big chunk of their nest egg — and her inner life seems about as sterile as her modernist home. After all, what kind of person keeps a bowl of real artichokes on the counter of her spotless, soulless kitchen? It’s not like anyone’s going to grab one up for a quick snack.

“I feel guilty not to be happy,” she laments. Poor little rich girl.

Susan’s outwardly comfy, inwardly anguished world makes up one of three levels of reality explored in Ford’s movie.

Out of the blue she receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward, whom Susan hasn’t seen in 19 years. It’s a soon-to-be-published novel accompanied by a note that suggests Susan was at least in part the inspiration for the story.

Flattered, Susan takes advantage of a week without her husband (Hutton is off to New York with his latest girlfriend) to dive into Edward’s novel. The story that unfolds becomes “Nocturnal Animals'” second layer of reality.

In this book within a movie we find Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) driving across West Texas in the dead of night. They fall victim to a gang of young rednecks led by the scary Ray (an almost unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and soon the family members are fighting for their lives. Continue Reading »

Casey Affleck

Casey Affleck

“MANCHESTER BY THE SEA” My rating: A-

137 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Doesn’t life provide us with enough grief? Do we have to buy movie tickets to experience more of it on the big screen?

It’s an understandable sentiment … and completely wrong in the case of “Manchester by the Sea.”

Brilliantly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) and featuring a major-league lead performance from the ever-surprising Casey Affleck, this riveting, soul-wrenching feature is about how we deal — or don’t — with grief.

Yeah, it’s heavy. It’s also unexpectedly funny, deeply moving and almost unbearably wise when it comes to the labyrinthine workings of the human heart.

We first encounter Lee Chandler (Affleck) on the job at a Boston-area apartment complex. In return for handyman chores — hauling trash, blowing out drains — he’s allowed to live in a monkish cellar room. Lee is a prickly sort who often rubs tenants the wrong way. At night he drinks until it’s time to instigate a barroom brawl.

Clearly, something’s eating at this guy.

When word arrives that Lee’s older brother, Joe, has died of a heart attack, he reluctantly returns to the Massachusetts fishing village of his youth to settle affairs. There Lee discovers that he has been named as the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

He’s totally unprepared.

Lonergan’s screenplay is a sort of psychological mystery that alternates scenes of Lee in the present — struggling with the horny teen for whom he is now responsible, encountering faces from his youth — with his troubled past, depicted in flashbacks that drift in and out without warning.

In these scenes from Lee’s earlier life we see him working a fishing boat with his brother (Kyle Chandler) and get glimpses of his home life with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three small kids.

He’s friendly, even borderline jolly.

Clearly something traumatic occurred between then and now. Continue Reading »

eagle_74151933_82“THE EAGLE HUNTRESS”   My rating: B

87 minutes | MPAA rating: G

It has great cinematography. Deep connections between humans and animals. And a ton of female empowerment.

All good.

Still, “The Eagle Huntress” is troubling when it comes to documentary authenticity: Chunks of this “nonfiction” picture feel as if they were re-staged for the camera.

Set in the mountains and rolling plains of Mongolia, Otto Bell’s doc follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, the daughter of the nomadic herder Nurgaiv. Like countless generations before him, Nurgaiv puts food on his family’s table by capturing and training golden eagles that act like highly skilled hunting dogs.

It’s a father-to-son tradition that is about to get a swift kick in the keister. Aisholpan — with her doting father’s cooperation — is determined to own and train her own eagle. Moreover, she plans on competing in a sort of raptor rodeo that attracts participants from hundreds of miles.

So this sweet, totally inoffensive youngster is about to weather not only the rigors of eagle hunting but the disapproval of the patriarchal society into which she was born.

After an introductory segment that explains the eagle hunting tradition (“Star Wars” actress Daisy Ridley provides the narration) and some of the details of Aisholpan’s life (she attends a boarding school in a regional town and only gets home on the weekends) the film captures the efforts of Aisholpan and her father to descend down a cliff face on ropes to snatch a baby eaglet from its aerie.

The idea is to grab a young bird when it’s strong enough to survive outside the nest but not yet able to fly. (Though it’s not explained in the film, this was the first scene shot by Bell and his crew, who fortuitously visited Nurgaiv’s campsite on the very day the father and daughter were planning the adventure.)

This is followed by months of bonding and practice, a visit to the big eagle festival — where Aisholpan and her bird stun the competition — and on to a winter hunt that will prove once and for all whether this teenage girl has the right stuff. Continue Reading »

Sonia Braga

Sonia Braga

“AQUARIUS” My rating: B

140 minutes |MPAA rating: R

On one level, “Aquarius” is about growing old…or older, anyway.

Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film stars Sonia Braga, the Latin American sex symbol of the late ’70s and early ’80s, as a 65-year-old widow living in a Brazilian coastal city.

With its late-in-life-but-still-vibrant leading lady, “Aquarius” seems poised to fall into familiar territory, that of an older woman proving to herself and others that she’s still got some fire down below (see Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” or Pauline Garcia in the Chilean “Gloria”).

And the film works just fine on that level. It unhurriedly follows Braga’s character, Clara, through the ins and outs of her daily life  — drinks with the girls, time spent with children and grandkids, friendships with the other residents of her beachfront neighborhood…even a hot encounter with a male gigolo recommended by a gal pal.

But there’s a whole lot more going on.

On a second level the picture is what might be called a real estate thriller. Clara is the last remaining resident of a low-rise apartment condo — the Aquarius — whose units have been bought up by a big construction firm. The plan is to raze the old edifice and go with a sleek new skyscraper…except that Clara refuses to sell her condo. Continue Reading »

Samantha Robinson as "The Love Witch"

Samantha Robinson as “The Love Witch”

“THE LOVE WITCH” My rating: C+

120 minutes | No MPAA rating

Solidly ensconced in the so-bad-it’s-almost-good end of the movie spectrum, “The Love Witch” is a spoof of late ’70s exploitation cinema shot through with feminist philosophy.

Anna Biller’s film parodies cheap horror movies and cheap sex flicks. It features acting that is either very bad or spectacularly good at approximating bad acting.

At the same time, it has been painstakingly designed.  You can see that  from the first scene when the “love witch” of the title, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), pulls into a new town in a Mustang convertible whose paint job is perfectly matched by her lipstick, crimson dress and blood-red luggage.

Elaine is a whack job who uses black magic to find true love…although her efforts have been less than fruitful to date.  She murdered her husband with a homemade potion (she steeps her used tampons in urine). Now she’s come to a picturesque college town for a fresh beginning.

Of course things go south. She kills a  professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) with whom she shares a night of passion and bizarre brews, then goes after the straight-arrow and sexually under-satisfied husband (Robert Seeley) of one of her new friends. Post-Elaine, the poor schlub is a weeping, suicidal mess.

Even the homicide detective (Gian Keys) who comes snooping around isn’t immune to Elaine’s charms.

Men don’t do well in this world. Guys, according to Elaine’s philosophy, are “fragile and can be crushed if a woman asserts herself in any way.”

So she does everything she can to please her victims, to play to their childlike egos and fulfill their sexual fantasies.

There’s some wonderfully dopey stuff going on here, like a girls’ night out at a burlesque club, a tea house where the patrons and employees all show up in Victorian-era dress, and an erotically-charged Renaissance fair that is a cover for a coven of witches.

Not great, but a diverting goof.

| Robert W. Butler

Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney...patrolling an a post-apocalyptic wasteland

Shia LaBeouf, Jai Courtney…patrolling a post-apocalyptic wasteland

“MAN DOWN”  My rating: C

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s enough to admire in Dito Montiel’s “Man Down” that the film’s final reveal — a big fat slice of narrative cheese — feels like even more of a con job than it already is.

Montiel’s screenplay (with Adam G. Simon, who came up with the story) offers no fewer than six different “realities” for its Marine protagonist, Cpl. Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf).

The first of these realities unfolds in a post-apocalyptic near future. Here Gabriel and his Marine buddy and best friend Devin (Jai Courtney) pick their way through the ruins of an American city.  Bearded and dirty, they are looking for Gabriel’s young son John, who may be the captive of a group of feral survivors.

There are flashbacks to Gabriel’s peaceful home life with his wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and little John (Charlie Shotwell).  Gabriel will soon be shipping out, and he spends as much time as possible with his son.  They even come up with their own military-style code words for “I love you”:  Man Down.

Other passages are devoted to Gabriel and Devin’s basic training under the demanding Sergeant Miller (Tory Kittles), a sado-maso experience that will turn them into efficient fighting men.

One of the movie’s realities takes place in a dusty Marine outpost in Afghanistan where Gabriel is being counseled by Peyton (Gary Oldman), a military shrink.  It appears that Gabriel has undergone a  traumatic experience — and yet another “reality” depicts the day that Gabriel and Devin’s unit was ambushed by enemy fighters.

Continue Reading »

Warren Beatty

Alden Ehrenreich, Warren Beatty

“RULES DON’T APPLY”  My rating: C

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

If “Rules Don’t Apply” is a comedy, why aren’t we laughing?

If it’s a romance, why don’t we feel something?

If it’s a tragedy, why don’t we care?

Warren Beatty’s latest feature as writer/director (his fifth, and the first since “Bullworth” in 1998) might be charitably described as a highly polished question mark.

It’s good looking,  competently acted and mildly affable. Basically it’s two hours of narrative  noodling that never scores an emotional or intellectual point.

Ostensibly the film provides an opportunity for Beatty to tackle the character of real-life  billionaire Howard Hughes — though Beatty doesn’t make an appearance as the nutjob recluse until nearly 40 minutes into the movie.

“Rules…” is, at its most basic level, a love triangle involving Hughes and two of his employees.

Marla (Lily Collins), a virginal Virginia beauty queen, has come to late-‘50s Los Angeles  after being signed to an acting contract by the mysterious Mr. Hughes.  (In addition to his oil and aviation interests, Hughes is a Hollywood producer.)

Lily is but one of two dozen aspiring actresses stashed by Hughes in posh digs all over LaLa Land. These stars of tomorrow — or harem members , if you will — are given a weekly stipend, acting and dance classes, and are ferried around town by a small army of limousine drivers whose behavior is strictly proscribed (no canoodling with the girls, no talking about Mr. Hughes’ business, etc.).

Marla and her driver, Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), have enough in common — including a shared religiosity — that Marla’s hovering mom (Annette Bening, aka Mrs. Warren Beatty) warns her daughter against any attraction to the handsome young chauffeur.  Continue Reading »