Pretty On The Outside

Tom Ford’s second feature film is a gorgeous soap opera/neo-noir revenge story that revels in the repulsive ways of man and woman.

Tom Ford seems to revel in making ugliness beautiful and beauty horrifying. The fashion designer, who moonlights as a writer/director, can use beautiful music and gorgeous cinematography to make grotesque women dancing nude seem compelling. On the flip side of that, his cold writing and barren set pieces can make the lives of the rich and beautiful seem like sad deformities of once-hopeful ambition. Both ways work to his advantage, especially when he makes a southern revenge drama within a broken romance drama as juicy as Nocturnal Animals.

The main story follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful art gallery owner in the lap of LA luxury feeling adrift in her life. Her fancy home is nearly empty, her husband (Armie Hammer) is nothing more than a good looking +1 at parties, and her work leaves her uninspired. One day, she receives the manuscript for a book called Nocturnal Animals, something her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) used to call her. Sure enough, the book is written by Edward and dedicated to Susan herself. She starts reading this fictional book about Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) driving through Texas in the dead of night. The family run into a gang of unruly locals, led by smooth talking Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who harasses the family to cruel extremes. This horrible story makes Susan harken back to her relationship with Edward and what went wrong, while the novel tells Tony’s desire to vengeance with the help of a local detective (Michael Shannon). 

It’s amazing how well Ford juggles the three stories he has in Nocturnal Animals. They all have acceptable amounts of screentime, though the third story of Susan and Edward’s relationship seems rather rushed and come off more like bullet points of moments rather than developments. Regardless, Susan in real time and the events of the book balance out, never connecting in the literal sense but definitely inspired by Susan’s dark reality. Ford uses Edward as a vessel for American hope and optimism, then crushes it with Susan’s equally American drive for success and how she’ll jettison anything that’s slowing her down, even if it’s her school girl crush. He mirrors that in the fictional book, testing how far Tony would go to see justice done and whether that makes him a man defending his family’s honor or just as animalistic as the men who made him into a coward. What makes every punch of the movie land hard is the triple threat of Ford, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and composer Abel Korzeniowski. Ford weaves neo-noir wonders with McGarvey’s excellent shots of the dusty Texas plains and the icy LA art scene while Korzeniowski uses haunting strings to bring tension and drama that borders on camp but is utterly entertaining. It’s as if Ford has made the best (and meanest) soap opera ever, and that’s not a bad thing at all. 
Not to mention the charm coming from the stellar cast. Adams (on a hot streak with this following fall’s Arrival) revels in Susan’s shallow vapidness and despair. Underneath the couture dresses and eye shadow, Adams sneaks in genuine hurt behind her eyes when she realizes the failure behind her success. Even when she’s covered in glamour, Adams takes a sledgehammer to every character she does and breaks it down beautifully (especially in the film’s final scene). Gyllenhaal (no stranger to multiple personalities on screen) is great to watch as Tony, trying to comprehend his cowardice when he didn’t save his family and justifying the dirty deeds he must do for retribution. Gyllenhaal’s not breaking a sweat here, but he remains compelling throughout as a story motivator. Shannon and especially Taylor-Johnson both give chilling turns in their supporting roles that egg on the evil in Tony’s story. Shannon as the grisly detective and Taylor-Johnson as the smirking psychopath both act as extreme reflections of Tony’s decisions that scare him to death, showing that Ford sees no righteous choice.

Matter of fact, Ford doesn’t seem to see any good people in Nocturnal Animals. He seems to always find a dirty monster behind the high class and the average soul, and the lengths he goes to prove that point in his film is fantastic. Nocturnal Animals thrives in its mission to mate beauty and ugliness and see which one the audience sees more of. What did I see? Both, and I wanted more of each.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Punch Drunk Entertainment


It must be hard to make a movie about boxing, let alone an original one. Movies like Rocky and Raging Bull have practically mapped out the blueprint for boxing movies: show boxer, have him struggle, train for a big fight, win big fight, end movie. That’s probably why so few boxing movies are made, but that isn’t stopping Antoine Fuqua. The director of Training Day and last year’s surprise hit The Equalizer has teamed up with writer Kurt Sutter (creator of TV’s Sons of Anarchy) to bring the world another boxing movie. So the question is, how much entertainment can they pull out of something tried and true? Quite a bit, actually.

Southpaw follows Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the light-heavyweight champion of the boxing world, undefeated and nearly immune to punches. Soft-spoken and temperamental, Billy’s life is a dream come true (especially for him, an orphan who grew up rough in the Bronx). He lives luxuriously, shares his wealth with his longtime buddies and earns major money from his fights thanks to his manager Jordan Mains (rapper 50 Cent). But Billy’s inner-self is kept sane by his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and their daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Jordan wants Billy to sign a contract having him fight three times a year for $30 million total, but Maureen wants Billy to take some time off before his punch-drunk attitude gives him long-term consequences. Billy thinks it over as he and Maureen attend a charity dinner, which is also where a possible title contender (Miguel Gomez) happens to be. An altercation occurs (the contender says he’ll take Billy’s “bitch” and belt) and Maureen gets shot by one of the contender’s crew by accident. After she dies, Billy’s life crumbles all around him: he throws a fight, headbutts a referee, gets suspended, loses all his riches and Leila is taken away from him. With almost nothing to his name and life seemingly hopeless (no pun intended), Billy moves back to the hard streets of New York City and gets a job cleaning up a gym. He ends up getting the attention of the gym’s owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), a trainer who sees Billy down on his luck and wants to help him out. He trains Billy and builds his confidence, while Billy tries to rebuild a relationship with his daughter and his own life.

If you like boxing movies, you’ll probably really like Southpaw. It’s plot, tone and style is very common with recent boxing movies like The Fighter and other sports-based redemption stories. Billy’s tale is that of a rise-and-fall-and-rise again, and it’s all surprisingly fast. The pacing isn’t bad, but the events of the movie all seem to happen over a quick period of time. Billy rises from the ashes almost as quickly as he fell from grace, which was probably done to keep the attention of audience in the film’s 123 minute running time. Maybe if the movie was longer, Billy’s struggle could have more time to leave a better impact on the audience. Regardless, Kurt Sutter’s script is solid enough to keep the audience invested. He occasionally goes for cliches, but also manages to pull out some more darker scenes using Billy’s street-upbringing. Fuqua also knows how to stage boxing matches as well, using quick-cuts and a variation of close-ups and slowed-down wide shots. His close-ups are impressive, seeming like he put GoPro cameras on the gloves of the fighters so the audience can feel the impact of every jab.

Where the movie lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in performances. For the past four years, Jake Gyllenhaal has been on a quest to turn himself into a serious leading man. He’s been around for a while in great movies (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac), but he’s bounced around from romantic comedies (Love and Other Drugs), blockbuster action movies (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) and tepid drama (Brothers, Proof). But ever since 2011’s Source Code, Gyllenhaal has been on a career high with top-notch performances in Prisoners, Enemy and End of Watch, culminating with his first Oscar nomination in last year’s Nightcrawler. So does his performance in Billy Hope manage to knock out the creepy news vulture Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler? No, but damn it Gyllenhaal tries. He’s intense in the boxing scenes (at times literally getting beaten to a bloody pulp), but he sells the performance in the quieter moments. When Billy’s not shouting at his opponents with blood coming out of his head, he mumbles and slurs his speech. He’s quiet and clearly struggling to understand his crumbling life around him, with his support system gone and nothing to lift him up. Then again, it’d be a pretty hard blow to take if one lost Rachel McAdams. Her New York accent is believable and the chemistry she has with Gyllenhaal is endearing. When she’s killed off, it’s tragic for Billy and the audience. That’s the stamp McAdams leaves on the movie. Forest Whitaker is solid as the stern trainer bringing Billy back from the brink. It might seem mean to knock a child actor, but Oona Laurence seems out of place in Southpaw. She and Gyllenhaal have a scene where she says she hates him and wishes he died, and it seems the dialogue is too adult for her. Even as she’s screaming, crying and slapping Gyllenhaal in the face, it’s not entirely believable. 50 Cent’s character is also tossed to the side by the end of the movie, starting as the sleazy manager abandoning Billy for a more profitable fighter, but then he just fades into the background.

Besides some great performances and well staged boxing matches (plus a solid soundtrack overseen by Eminem, who was originally supposed to be Billy Hope), Southpaw is another (if not rushed) redemption sports movie. To his credit, Fuqua has put more heart in Southpaw than in any other movie he’s made in his career. Aside from the macho-atmosphere from boxing, Southpaw is driven by emotion (especially that of Jake Gyllenhaal). Even if the plot is something out of a copy machine, most of Southpaw is never phoned in. It’s a welcome shot of dramatic entertainment driven by real feeling instead of CGI.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars