NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

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Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

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On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

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The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

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The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence, Language, and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Phil Johnston

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis & Ian McShane

Sacha Baron Cohen seems to be a polarizing figure in comedy. You either love him or you don’t. While he made a huge splash with the 2006’s controversial hit BORAT, Cohen has continued to make raunchier than raunchy R-rated comedies that have received varying degrees of success among critics and the general public. THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is pretty much just another cinematic vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen to run hog-wild with over-the-top sex jokes, disgusting humor, and offensive one-liners. If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll enjoy this movie. I am a fan of that sort of thing and was very entertained for 83 minutes.

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Nobby and Sebastian are two brothers who were separated by adoption. Sebastian is a deadly secret agent and Nobby is a white trash soccer hooligan who has spent years searching for his baby brother. Fate just so happens to throw Nobby into Sebastian’s path during an assassination plot. This encounter results in Sebastian’s dangerous mission being compromised and MI6 believing that their best agent has gone rogue. Soon enough, the mismatched pair of brothers are on the run from terrorists and MI6 agents. That’s all I’ll say about the plot because it’s rather inconsequential and merely serves as an excuse for lots of crude humor…almost all of which is very funny.

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Sacha Baron Cohen has played many colorful characters during his career and Nobby is normal when compared to the likes of Ali G, Bruno, Borat, and Admiral General Aladeen. Nobby is just a white trash soccer hooligan who happens to have a secret agent for a brother. This sort of idiot sibling character has been done before, but Cohen still manages to make this role his own with great line delivery and sheer body language. Playing the straight man to Cohen is Mark Strong, who never once gives anything resembling a comedic performance in this film. He’s an eternally serious spy who becomes increasingly distressed by his brother’s stupidity. The chemistry between Strong and Cohen is the best thing in BROTHERS GRIMSBY. Watching these two very different performers play off each other provides some of the biggest laughs in the film.

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Though the two leading performances are fun, GRIMSBY’s supporting cast is a bit weak. None of these characters really have a purpose other than being plot devices or glorified cameos. Isla Fisher (as an agent) only exists to spout exposition. Ian McShane (another agent) barks orders. Rebel Wilson (as Nobby’s white trash girlfriend) is only in the film for a combined total of ten minutes. Penelope Cruz (playing a wealthy environmentalist) doesn’t exactly have a big part to play in the proceedings, even though we’re told otherwise. These side characters aren’t important though as this is mainly a two person show and the leading duo are more than up to the task of making us laugh our asses off at inappropriate jokes.

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GRIMSBY’s humor is beyond juvenile and downright repugnant at times, but it still made me laugh very loudly the whole way through. Sacha Baron Cohen (also serving as one of the three writers on this film) is still a master of taking simple jokes and pushing them to hilarious, uncomfortable extremes. There is plenty of gratuitous nudity and crudeness, but both of those come expected with any R-rated Cohen flick. He relies on gross-outs and shock humor…and just happens to be very funny at both. The promotional material has not given away the best parts of this movie either as they simply wouldn’t fit within the confines of a green band or a two-minute red band trailer. A scene involving an elephant made me laugh to the point where I had to wipe tears away from my eyes.

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The biggest problem that I have with THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is that it tries to incorporate emotional flashbacks of Nobby and Sebastian as children between ridiculously funny moments. Though these flashbacks gave additional information to these characters’ pasts and developed them a bit beyond one-note jokes, the tone didn’t meld with the rest of the over-the-top proceedings. The movie goes from having a gross-out fellatio joke to a sad scene of children separating. These tonal shifts just didn’t blend well together.

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As a whole, BROTHERS GRIMSBY will likely satisfy fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s extreme shock humor. GRIMSBY may not be on the same level of BORAT or BRUNO, but I’d rank it alongside THE DICTATOR as a good-but-not-great R-rated comedy. The side characters were bland and the flashbacks were distracting, but the chemistry between Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong as well as the extreme gross-out humor are the real reasons to watch this film. If you appreciate those latter qualities, then you’ll probably be entertained by this comedy that’s short, sweet, and to-the-point.

Grade: B

NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, some Action and Sexual Content

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman & Michael Caine

A good magic trick keeps you guessing as to how the magician created the illusion, while also keeping you intrigued and believing (even a tiny bit) in the unknown. A good movie aims for the same goals. While NOW YOU SEE ME does have a very cool twist ending that I didn’t see coming, it also neglects to make the whole film worthwhile by increasingly becoming even more farfetched as it goes along. Stretching belief is one thing, but treating your audience to one revelation after another in hopes that they won’t realize they are being misled into a rather mediocre movie isn’t really a magic trick that I’m altogether interested in.

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Four magicians all receive invitations to meet at one specific location from an unknown person. Together they become one of the biggest magic shows in the nation. With their new popularity also comes a plan that will begin in Las Vegas and end in New York with a series of intricately executed “magic tricks.” These tricks are the disguise of heists that steal from the wealthy and give to the poor. A male FBI agent and a female Interpol agent are paired together in order to stop the four thieves from executing their crimes, all while an ex-magician tries to uncover the group’s secrets to sell them for big bank. That’s pretty much the design of NOW YOU SEE ME, which is more like a giant trick wrapped up in the guise of a summer blockbuster.

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I’ve seen a couple of reviews stating that NOW YOU SEE ME is way better than OCEAN’S 11, 12, or 13. While I agree that pretty much anything is better than OCEAN’S 12. OCEAN’S 11 and 13 had something that NOW YOU SEE ME sorely lacks. They had characters you could root for and get behind. They were thieving criminals, but they were likable thieving criminals. We are given no character development whatsoever in this film. I couldn’t care less if they lived, died, got away, or rotted in jail. NOW YOU SEE ME gets so wound up in pure spectacle and a convoluted plot that it forgets to engage the viewer emotionally.

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Effects wise, the movie looks stunning and polished, but visuals only get you so much credit. Besides the characters not having any real development or arch, the cast never really delivers any performances that stand out. Woody Harrelson is unusually bland, while Jesse Eisenberg (who’s proved himself to be a phenomenal actor in the past) seems to be wrapped up in a smart-ass bad boy routine. Isla Fisher is nothing more than mere eye candy here and Mark Ruffalo seems to only play a frustrated and/or continually perplexed cop. Morgan Freeman’s character doesn’t add much, though they treat him like some sort of villain. Michael Caine is hilariously forgotten about halfway through the film too.

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NOW YOU SEE ME has one spectacular thing going for it. The twist ending is quite clever, but all of the other convoluted nonsense leading up to it doesn’t really make it fun for the audience to get there. A perfect movie, much like a good magic trick, must amaze and astound. It must leave the viewer wanting to watch it all over again. THE PRESTIGE is a fantastic example of this as a magic trick brought to the cinematic screen, but NOW YOU SEE ME feels like it’s tricked the viewer out of their valuable time, rather than leaving them with anything particularly great.

Grade: C

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