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Review: ‘Nocturnal Animals’

dfn-nocturnal_animals-poster-300Languid, heavy-handed and schematic, Nocturnal Animals reflects the artistic ambitions of writer/director Tom Ford.

Seven years after his first film, A Single Man, enjoyed modest acclaim for its stylish period setting and restrained thematic elements, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Colin Firth’s leading performance, Nocturnal Animals arrives with elevated expectations.

This time, Ford has adapted Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright that was first published in 1993. The bones of the novel remain in place, though Ford has made notable changes to reflect his personal vision.

Susan Morrow owns a struggling art gallery and is unhappily married to philandering businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer). Susan enjoys all the trappings of material success but is clearly dissatisfied with her life. One day she is surprised to receive a manuscript from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). She has not heard from him in the 19 years since they divorced; now he has completed a novel that will be published soon and wants her to be the first “outsider” to read it.

As Susan begins reading, the novel is dramatized on screen. Set in Texas, it revolves around Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) as he sets off on a road trip one night across West Texas (to Marfa) with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber).

They have a fateful encounter with three stereotypically horrible automotive hooligans (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo), leaving Tony to deal with the tragic aftermath, in tandem with wily police investigator Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). The dual storylines are eventually joined by a third, in which the present-day Susan is haunted by memories of her failed relationship with Edward.

The evident intention is for the three storylines to comment on and illuminate each other, though the connections are blatantly obvious and grow increasingly wearisome, and occasionally risible, because they’re so pointedly lacking any fresh insights. The contrast in visual styling is similarly obvious.

Susan’s moody, stylish life in the modern day is lit like a fashion magazine layout and deliberately paced. The potboiler theatrics of the novel are lit garishly and hopped up like a rabbit on speed. Susan’s recollections are filmed in a style indistinguishable from the present day, which is occasionally confusing, since Adams and Gyllenhaal can no longer pass for people in their early or mid-twenties.

Considering all three narratives together, what emerges is a heroic, if tragic, portrait of Edward/Tony and a punishing characterization of Susan, a sinner who is not granted forgiveness, either by herself or Edward/Tony or the universe. The underlying message is not terribly favorable for women, not for Susan, most obviously; not for Tony’s fictional wife and daughter, who are victimized viciously; and not even for women who are barely glimpsed, such as an art gallery assistant (Jena Malone) or Susan’s mother (Laura Linney), who is highly critical yet proves to be uncannily prophetic.

An unpleasant and turgid movie, Nocturnal Animals plods ever onward, eventually stopping, as opposed to reaching a conclusion. In this case, it’s very helpful for the end credits to begin rolling as a signal that one can leave the theater.

The film opens on Friday, November 18, at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, Landmark Magnolia, and AMC Northpark 15.

Review: ‘Everest’

Climbing one of the tallest mountains in the world is an inherently dangerous yet potentially exhilarating task. So is making a movie about a climbing expedition that turned disastrous back in 1996.

As Everest explains briefly at its outset, veteran New Zealand climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) developed a safe method to help less experienced individuals reach the top of mighty Mount Everest. For the first four years, no fatalities were suffered, in contrast with a historical ratio of one out of sixteen climbers dying prior to that. But the new method, and attendant publicity, also generated a huge uptick in the number of commercial expeditions. The unpredictable and often very dangerous weather patterns meant very narrow windows were open for ideal climbing conditions.

Into the Air, a book by Jon Krakauer, is probably the best known accout of what happened in 1996, but Everest screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy drew from multiple sources to craft a screenplay that, by necessity, fictionalizes the dialogue and individual events. Director Baltasar Kormakur takes a straightforward dramatic approach to the material, making it as intimate as possible by focusing on the men, and a few women, who figure into the story.

As the film begins, Hall says goodbye to his pregnant girlfriend (Keira Knightley) and heads to Nepal. Over a period of weeks, his team ascends to locations that are ever-increasing in altitude, allowing everyone to acclimate to the conditions. Hall’s expedition includes the fragile-looking Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the boisterous Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), the experienced Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and the writer Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), while his colleagues include fellow New Zealander Harold Harris (Martin Henderson), basecamp leader Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), and various sherpas.

That’s a lot of characters already! And there’s also Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), leader of another expedition; Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), Hall’s friend, who’s climbing on another mountain nearby; and Peach Weathers (Robin Wright), who’s back in Dallas and, along with Hall’s girlfriend, represents all the expedition family members.

Kormakur and the writers do a good job of setting all this up with relative dispatch while not rushing things, creating a pace that matches the slow ascent of the climbers. Director of photography Salvatore Totino, who’s often worked with Ron Howard, delivers a beautifully-lit and composed job, and the post-production crew merges Totino’s photography with an undoubted number of visual effects shots to create a movie that looks almost like a very striking nature documentary.

That also affects the narrative, however, as once the story reaches a certain point, it becomes bogged down in its firm refusal to sensationalize the material, reaching instead for melodramatic devices — sad, swelling music, and an awful lot of tears on brave faces — that only go so far. For much of its running time, Everest is a stirring story, and even if it falters, it’s still a compelling and cautionary tale of man’s limitations in the face of the overwhelming forces of nature.

The film opens today in 3D (Cinemark Legacy, Plano; B & B Wylie 12) and in 3D and IMAX (AMC Northpark 15, Cinemark 17, AMC Mesquite 30, AMC Firewheel 18 in Garland, AMC Stonebriar 24 in Frisco).