Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

A jilted husband uses the power of the pen to mess with his ex-wife’s mind in Nocturnal Animals, an engaging and dark-hearted film from director Tom Ford.

Amy Adams, on fire in 2016 even after you deduct points due to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays Susan Morrow, a bizarre art-gallery owner stuck in a rut. Her bland but gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer, also having a good year) is ambivalent toward her; she’s borderline broke, and generally unhappy.

She gets a manuscript in the mail from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He was a struggling writer while the two were together, but now he just might have written the novel that could get his career going. Susan agrees to read the advance copy—and the story within, to say the least, freaks her out.

The film’s screenplay, written by Ford and based on the novel by Austin Wright, takes a rather clever route: We see the story play out as Susan reads it, and, as many of us often do, Susan casts the main character in the novel, Tony Hastings, as somebody she knows: her ex-husband. So Gyllenhaal is essentially playing two roles in the film: Edward in flashbacks, and Tony, husband of Laura (Isla Fisher) and father to India (Ellie Bamber), in her visualization of the novel.

One of the great tricks of the movie is that it remains a mystery whether the events in the novel are based upon “real” occurrences, or are just symbolic representations of the cruelties Susan inflicted upon Edward when she left him. Also, we never really know if Edward is somebody who simply wrote a chilling thriller and wants his ex-wife’s honest opinion, or if he’s sending her a “message.”

Edward’s novel is a searing work involving a family, led by Tony, on a road trip in Texas. They get harassed on the highway by a group of thugs, but most notably Ray (a completely terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Things go really wrong, which allows for the entrance of a lawman character, Bobby Andes. That lawman just happens to be played by Michael Shannon, so now you know why this movie is so much damned fun to watch.

Well … it’s fun in that it’s a pleasure to see performers setting the screen ablaze with their work. It’s not so fun in that there are a lot of exposed nerves and brutal moments in this movie; it isn’t for the fainthearted. Ford and friends are trafficking in the dark side. All of the worst fears of husbands and wives are in play, and happy endings aren’t on anyone’s mind.

Gyllenhaal, who did a great job with dual roles in Enemy, excels as the jilted husband and helpless father. His characters go through seemingly every kind of torture a man can go through—and then some. You get the sense he worked himself up to a lot of stomach aches while making this film.

Adams portrays a once-virtuous woman made slightly vapid due to some arguably bad life choices. She still manages to create a character who ultimately breaks your heart. While Edward’s possibly vengeful actions might paint Susan in a bad light, Susan still winds up a sensitive, sympathetic character. That’s Amy Adams for you. She can pretty much pull off anything in front of a camera.

This is Tom Ford’s second film as a director after A Single Man, so he’s a solid 2-for-2. Nocturnal Animals is one of the year’s more unique mainstream films. It’s also a movie that might inspire you to take a less-rural road on that journey through Texas you’ve been planning.

Nocturnal Animals is playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

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About two decades ago, Contact ticked me off when Jodie Foster supposedly traveled to some distant place in the universe—merely to have a chat with her dead dad. It was a trite storytelling letdown.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival also approaches the subjects of aliens, parentage and everlasting love, but it’s a much, much better movie.

Villeneuve is emerging as one of the best visual and pacing directors in the medium today. Arrival follows Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the vastly underrated Enemy (2013) as another movie of definitive vision, style and grace. No doubt about it: This man knows how to make a movie.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics teacher crippled by visions of a daughter who died of a rare illness. She lives a life of seclusion; the only things she really does are teach her class and mope around her lakefront home. (Man, that must be one abnormally high-paying teacher’s gig.) During class, a bunch of phones go off; a student instructs her to turn on the TV; and—bam, that’s how she discovers the planet is seemingly getting visited by an alien force.

Strange giant pods have parked themselves all over the planet, and nobody knows the intent. A solemn military man (Forest Whitaker) shows up in Louise’s office and informs her that the world needs her. She has a sense of purpose again.

It isn’t long before she’s inside an alien ship trying to talk to the “Heptapods,” large elephant-like aliens with seven legs. She’s joined by a science officer played by a surprisingly low-key Jeremy Renner.

The aliens communicate visually with symbols that look like coffee-ring stains. They seem to say a few words that get parts of the world a little worried—and it looks like Earth might find itself at war. It’s up to Louise to decipher the code-like language and find out if the Heptapods want to harvest us, War of the Worlds-style, or give us a helping hand.

Adams could find herself in the Oscar race for this one. This is one of the year’s best performances thus far. (She’ll appear in another highly touted film, Nocturnal Animals, this month.) Louise doesn’t have many happy moments in this film, and other actresses could’ve made her a drag, but Adams makes her shine, even when she’s in despair. It’s some of Adams’ very best work.

Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is profound in a way similar to Interstellar: This is another science-fiction film taking a theme like universal love and making that aspect just as interesting as the gadgets and alien creatures. The movie, while challenging on a scientific level, definitely scores major emotional points.

The film was budgeted around $50 million, so it’s not a special-effects extravaganza. The scenes with the aliens are engrossing, but there’s nothing whiz-bang about them. Dare I say: The movie is rather laid back. I must give high props to cinematographer Bradford Young for shooting a movie that never seems anything short of very real. Those visuals are assisted by often Villeneuve collaborator Johann Johannsson’s excellent score.

The movie is drawing comparisons to films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, if you are looking for some sort of action pic, you will not find that with Arrival. It’s a movie that gives itself time to breathe, and while it does have a few action scenes, it is, for the most part, intellectual fare.

Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the Ridley Scott classic and another sci-fi effort. Based on his work with Arrival, I’m really looking forward to the Blade Runner sequel.

Arrival is playing at theaters across the valley.

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The end credits of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice give a thank-you shout-out to Frank Miller, author of The Dark Knight Returns. That’s the groundbreaking graphic novel that inspired the late-20th-century rebirth of Batman, influencing everything related since Tim Burton’s Batman.

Considering what transpires in the 2 1/2 hours before Miller’s name appears onscreen, Warner Bros. should be offering him an impassioned apology.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is definitive proof that director Zack Snyder should be banned from the DC universe. The man who gave us Sucker Punch has effectively knocked the wind out of two great comic-book heroes. This film is a crime against every geek who has ever picked up a graphic novel.

Hell, it’s also a crime against hard-core Ben Affleck fans. Affleck could be a fine Batman. Actually, he could be a great Batman. But, like George Clooney before him, he winds up looking quite ridiculous, running around in a messy movie in which his character simply doesn’t fit. A nice effort by Affleck to portray a nuanced, older, somewhat weary Bruce Wayne (in a badass suit!) is utterly wasted.

As for Henry Cavill’s Superman, I’m longing for those short-lived days of Brandon Routh as Kal-El. While it isn’t entirely his fault, Cavill’s Supes is officially a dud.

A sequel of sorts to the dreary Man of Steel (also directed by Snyder), Batman v Superman is a soulless step in the wrong direction. Snyder, who made a great graphic-novel movie with Watchmen, seems to have completely lost the ability to put a cohesive, exciting movie together.

The film meanders aimlessly, accompanied by an alternately sluggish and bombastic score by Hans Zimmer. Like Michael Bay before him, Snyder has become too reliant upon useless, unnecessary slo-mo. He follows these slo-mo scenes up with noisy CGI action that is often incoherent.

The movie commits many of the same sins as last year’s party-pooping Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s nothing but a setup—a setup for a big battle that everybody knows will have a lame ending (and, boy howdy, is the fight resolution lame). It’s also a setup for future superhero and Justice League movies. It’s just a big marketing ploy.

The first true Justice League movie is set to begin production soon. Yes, Batman v Superman is making big money, but it would behoove Warner Bros. to step back, take a breather and consider giving this franchise over to a more-capable director, like George Miller. Christ, even Bay would be an improvement.

Snyder wants to get a bunch of characters (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash) up to speed so we can get a Justice League movie that’s the equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers movies. He wants to get it done in one fell swoop, and it all feels forced and manipulative.

His film has no life, no pulse. It drags, drags, drags. By the time Batman and Superman are slugging it out, it’s just one element in a film that has way too many plot threads that aren’t getting proper attention.

It dawned on me while Batman and Superman were fighting that I didn’t really want to see these two incarnations of the characters fighting at all. It’s just kind of dumb. For a good, surreal Batman v Superman battle, read The Dark Knight Returns, or watch the animated movie adaptation that WB put out three years ago. The cartoon handles the battle in a much more convincing and logical way.

Subplots involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams, looking bored) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, embarrassing himself) are howlers. Luthor’s nefarious plot to make the superheroes fight and ultimately face off against Doomsday is preposterous and pointless. 

My geek heart has taken a kryptonite spear to the chest with Batman v Superman. Yes, Affleck is good, so it is not a total loss, but, please, get Zack Snyder away from the DC playground. He represents the complete absence of fun.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Tim Burton’s odd and fun Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the painter behind the “big eyes” portraits of the 1960s, and her loser husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), who took credit for her work.

The story begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and winding up in San Francisco, where she eventually runs into alleged artist Walter. They have a quick courtship and get married; before long, Walter is claiming her work as his own. The two eventually wind up in a legal battle, with Walter defending himself.

The movie oscillates back and forth between serious drama and outrageous comedy. The comedy angle definitely plays out in the courtroom scenes, where Waltz becomes a full-blown clown.

The look of the film has Burton’s characteristic exaggerated colors; the palette reminds at times of his Edward Scissorhands. Adams is mostly fine, but seems a bit lost at times, as if she’s not quite sure how Burton wants to tell the story. Waltz delivers a somewhat crazed performance that makes the film’s tone a bit uneven at times. However, the movie remains enjoyable.

Big Eyes is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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Director David O. Russell continues his impressive roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal.

Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast. Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great with a comb-over as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of 2013 as a con artist pretending to be British; she pulls it off quite nicely.

Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife, a role for which I thought she deserved an Oscar. The film scored nominations for Lawrence, Cooper, Bale and Adams among 10 total nominations—yet it didn’t take home a single award.

Also worth noting: Louis C.K. is hilarious as Cooper’s field boss. C.K. canceled a show for which I had tickets make this movie. I was pissed but, after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.

The film falls a little short of greatness due to the fact that it seems copied at times, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years. I keep forgetting that De Niro was once the greatest actor on planet Earth; with this film, and his terrific turn in Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro seems to have found a great director in Russell.

It’s a good time, but it ultimately feels a tad unoriginal.

Special Features: There’s a bunch of deleted and extended scenes, along with a making-of featurette. Not much to enjoy.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

David O. Russell continues his impressive directorial roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal. Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast.

Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great in a combover as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of the year as a con artist pretending to be British—and she pulls it off quite nicely. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife. You also get Louis C.K. as Cooper’s field boss. (He canceled a show for which I had tickets to make this movie. I was pissed then, but after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.)

The film falls a little short of greatness due to its sometimes carbon-copy feel, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years.

American Hustle is playing at theaters across the valley.

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There was no movie that I was anticipating more this year than this cinematic rebirth of Superman. I was so excited that I buried in my mind the fact that director Zack Snyder’s most-recent effort, Sucker Punch, was a pungent mess.

Man of Steel could do no wrong. Right?


Snyder went and turned Supes (Henry Cavill) into a whiner with mommy issues. The director was going for something akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, rather than the Richard Donner flicks that inspired Bryan Singer’s unjustly maligned Superman Returns.

General Zod, as played by Michael Shannon, is close to perfect. Conversely, Amy Adams is a total miss as Lois Lane, and Laurence Fishburne is awful as her boss, Perry White. Passing grades go to Kevin Costner as Superman’s earthly dad, and Russell Crowe as the Kryptonian papa. Diane Lane is also good as his Earth mommy.

This movie is absent of humor, joy and fun. I’m all for taking Superman to a darker place, but Snyder also takes him to a place that is significantly duller. I fear for the future of the Superman and Batman franchises with Snyder at the helm.

Special Features: There’s a feature in which Zack Snyder basically explains the whole movie; it’s a feature that goes beyond the scope of the usual audio commentary. In fact, it takes up most of the second disc you get in the package. You also get making-of docs. I liked the features more than the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Seven years ago, director Bryan Singer tried to re-launch Superman by casting a Christopher Reeve clone (Brandon Routh) and a long-dead Marlon Brando, while retaining that majestic John Williams theme. I liked Superman Returns, but it performed beneath expectations, and producers put Superman on ice.

With Man of Steel, Warner Bros. is reviving Superman by giving the son of Jor-El the Christopher Nolan treatment. Nolan doesn’t direct, but he does produce; David S. Goyer, who co-wrote Nolan’s Batman films, has penned the script.

The result? A dull Superman who whines about his parents a lot. Man of Steel has some impressive fireworks, but it severely lacks soul. It’s like a Superman/Transformersmovie.

I’ll say this: Henry Cavill is easily the best-looking Superman. I mean, this guy is GORGEOUS. Man of Steel will probably do good box office simply because people will want to spend many summer hours just gazing at this positively dreamy guy. Problem is, he’s duller than an ax after 10,000 whacks at a big, hard boulder.

Much of the blame for Cavill’s flat effort should go to director Zack Snyder. Snyder’s films aren’t generally noted for their emotional realism. His thirst for style usually outweighs the need for his performers to deliver anything of depth, unless you count Gerard Butler screaming “This is Sparta!” in 300.

While I liked the way Snyder delivered his comic adaptation of Watchmen, I started to fret about him helming a Superman movie after the dreadful Sucker Punch. I was afraid Superman would get lost in a sea of washed-out visuals, extreme speeds, and stripper-hookers. Thankfully, he left out the strippers-hookers, but all of his other directorial trademarks made the cut.

For instance, whenever Superman flies, he flies like a supersonic jet. The camera is often far away, and he’s just a little speck zipping around. When we see him up close, he’s bouncing around so much that we can’t really enjoy the visual of a man flying. It’s like a really bad Top Gun movie.

This is another origin story, and with Nolan in the mix, it’s an often somber one. The thing with Superman is that he’s supposed to be selfless. His primary concern is saving people’s clumsy asses, not wondering who his parents really are. Sure, he cares to a certain extent, but not to the extent that it derails his primary mission of protecting humanity.

This story that starts on Krypton, where Jor-El, Superman’s philosopher dad (played well by Russell Crowe), is witnessing the destruction of his planet. Before things go kaboom, he has a final confrontation with the deranged General Zod (Michael Shannon) and launches a ship containing his infant son.

Fans of Superman know that he winds up on a farm with earthly caretakers (played winningly by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The film goes in a new direction with the Clark Kent alter ego—and I am not crazy about that direction.

The supporting cast is generally strong, with Crowe and Costner giving their best work in years. Shannon, in a fierce and frightening performance, almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.

While Man of Steel isn’t great, or even good, it does have a highly memorable villain in Zod, the Krypton general determined to see his people live on. In fact, the film suffers whenever Zod isn’t onscreen. Shannon manages to pierce the dulling veil that is Snyder’s directing.

As Lois Lane, Amy Adams isn’t really a factor. The script calls for her to be humorless and dull in her own right. (It’s no wonder she and Superman fall for each other.) As her boss, editor Perry White, Laurence Fishburne proves to be a terrible choice. He’s in full, droning Morpheus mode.

I must also call out the filmmakers for their musical choices. I understand the impulse to separate from the original Superman franchise, but John Williams wrote a great theme, and it deserves to be heard whenever an actor puts on the blue tights. (Let it be noted that these blue tights don’t have the red underwear on the outside … SACRILEGE!) The new score by Hans Zimmer is far from memorable.

This film is attempt by Warner Bros. to have a superhero beyond Batman to compete with all of Marvel’s Avengers. However, Marvel has the upper hand, because most of Marvel's recent films contain charm, humor and worthy drama to go with their whiz-bang. Man of Steel, meanwhile, just has a guy who looks really good in tights, and a villain who far outmatches him in acting prowess. The result is a movie that falls miserably flat.

There’s a moment at the end of Man of Steel that left me curious. Perhaps Cavill will come out of his shell in later installments, and will actually make an emotional impression in the sequels.

As for those sequels, I’d like to see one without Snyder at the helm. He has clearly lost his touch.

Man of Steel opens Friday, June 14, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A cavalcade of stars shows up for this pretty, if meandering, adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel, On the Road.

Sam Riley (who was so damn good in Control) provides a decent center as Sal (essentially Kerouac). He finds himself on a long road trip that involves hand jobs from Kristen Stewart and him watching sex acts performed on Steve Buscemi. (Yikes!)

In short, this movie is a bit crazy, and its unpredictability keeps it interesting. Garrett Hedlund is solid as a character loosely based on Neal Cassady, and Stewart sheds her Bella image for a good, carefree performance. Others in the cast include Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

The movie is OK, but I was looking for a little more meat on the bone, considering the subject matter.

On the Road is now available On Demand.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing