Nocturnal Animals (2016): The Story Within the Story

Any follow-up to ‘A Single Man’ was bound to be challenging, with bar set so high. Expectations are a horrible thing to have. Ironically, Tom Ford puts together an intricate tale about exactly that: expectations and love and mistakes and payback. It is captivating thanks to the lead trio of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. It works visually in spite of the occasional clichés. But it’s not an even story and the mediocre writing cannot be forgiven. Implicitly, Nocturnal Animals taints itself with the muck of pretentiousness. Yucky muck.

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Susan, unhappily wrapped in her glamorous life as director/board member of an art gallery, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. It’s a book about a family being assaulted on a lonely country road by a bunch of aggressive do-nothings. Susan begins to read it just as her own ideal marriage cracks at a distance and we are enveloped by the story within the story. One, in the cold and sterile home/life Susan has built for herself, the other in the violent, passionate, conflicted Western-ish decor of Edward’s novel. The parallels between the two are as plentiful, as they are visceral. Which is the best thing that can be said about Nocturnal Animals.

Amy Adams is such a strong presence on screen. She is particularly adept at portraying frailty, the kind that works as an undercurrent more than a dominating trait (see Arrival for even more nuance). Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, atypically provides the ‘weak’ character, the dreamer, the one who is sensitive to a fault. It is in this study of what we might desire and how elusive it all is, how hard it is to find the right amount of something at any given time in another person that Nocturnal Animals strikes an honest chord. What carries the movie beyond the procedural ‘catch-the-bad-guys’ it sets up for itself, is an unpredictable, loose and enthralling Michael Shannon, who plays the law enforcement element. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t a half bad asshole either.

The problem is there are several filler characters as well, such as some of the party faces (even if they were mightily familiar, i.e. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough), Armie Hammer’s role as the distant husband, or Laura Linney’s domineering mother-figure. It’s particularly a problem because, to me, they are the ones supposed to be the nocturnal animals, the predators. And in this commentary on a social divide, the movie falls short, because all it does is point caricatures of fingers at it. The uninspired writing, including some awful and pedantic dialogues, kept taking me out of where I wanted to be, enjoying the drama. And some fairly random scares did little to help with it either. The movie just can’t strike a consistent tone, trying to be a lot of things at the same time and inevitably failing.

So yes, I was disappointed. Tom Ford might not have undermined his stylistic approach, as he still manages to iron over the elements that don’t work so well by applying his particular aesthetic. But if it were not for some of the performances on screen, it would be really hard to recommend Nocturnal Animals – which is pretty damning. Well, expectations and all considered.

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Afacerea Est: That’s How It’s Done (2016)

I still recall Igor Cobileanski’s first two shorts (“Cand se stinge lumina” and “Sasa, Grisa si Ion“, video links included) with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet and youtube when someone recommended them to me and, to this day, every time conversations turn to movies from Moldova, I chuckle. After missing out on the first feature film directed by Cobileanski, quite different from the darkly humorous tone of his shorts, Afacerea Est (English Title: Eastern Business) promised to be more of, let’s say it, his trademark style.

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A meek and naive music teacher Marian (‘intellectual’) is forced to team up with a harsh, rudimentary, yet world-wise fellow Petro (‘entrepreneur’) in order to settle a bizarre business deal involving horseshoes. Their simple trip to complete the transaction is rocked by the theft of Marian’s bag, which contained their documents and, more importantly, a wad of cash. So they’re off the train and hustling to reach the final destination, making money however they can – playing guitar and singing for donations, enlisting as helpers to a local politician or conning farmers during the peak of an Avian flu outbreak. And all of this, of course, for love – so that Marian can afford to wed his beloved, Veronica.

It’s a road trip/buddy comedy that works hard at portraying a reasonably faithful caricature of society in Moldova. Sometimes it’s overbearing how hard. The timing of events seems set in the mid 00s, but while technology has shaped the way some things work, the undertones are not as different as they should be. Judging by how the story unfolds and the themes poked at, there isn’t that much separating Romania from Moldova, only that the geopolitics exert different gravitational forces on the two.

The force holding the story of Marian and Petro together is that of deception. Everything almost everyone does is aimed at misleading someone in one way or another. What Cobileanski points out well is that we’re not faced with good and bad characters – although one might be inclined to look at Marian for the weak but positive hero of the tale, in contrast to Petro. Yet, both of them engage in the deceits and Cobileanski’s world is only segregated by size: small time crooks, big time crooks and very big time crooks. For all the hassle the protagonists go through, dealing with sums of money that appear significant, only upon meeting with their ‘client’ does scale begin to come into perspective.

The wild, wild East we’re being shown was pretty much the transition phase after the end of communism. It’s ‘doubleplus’ surreal set in Moldova, where the past and the present appear more intertwined. Cobileanski manages, at times, to really capture the irony and the foolishness of life in situational humour. Luckily, I was alone in the cinema and could laugh as hard as I felt like doing. However, there are also several scenes that come across quite flat or overly contrived, while language isn’t used as skillfully as a tool for irony. And not to nitpick, but even a couple of fools like Marian and Petro didn’t have to get off a train leading them to certain cash for a miserly stolen pouch.

All in all though, I’m glad that Afacerea Est is more of what Cobileanski promised with his first films. It’s not perfect, yet it’s good enough and presumably plays as a crazy adventure for someone not familiar with ‘the way things are done’ here.

***

Sour Grapes (2016): Schadenfreude

I don’t even drink wine, so my understanding of the collector’s impulse is bound to be limited. Nonetheless, the themes flowing through Sour Grapes, smoothly prepped in the movie equivalent of a decanter, provide a certain sparkle on the tongue, a deeply flavoured experience with a tinge of Schadenfreude. The latter is essential, as it frames the human impulse behind what is ultimately no more than an astute con.

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There’s a palpable story at the roots of this documentary: Rudy Kurniawan, a skinny, wise-beyond-his-years kind of fellow, appears on the international wine auctioning scene in the early/mid 2000s and becomes a big player at an impressive pace. If there’s one thing that’s universally known about the early/mid 2000s, it’s that they preceded the latter 2000s – hah, just kidding! But not really, for the decade started with the fake excess of the dot-com bubble and then flourished in the fake excess of the housing market bubble. Per chance (or not), Kurniawan’s trajectory does well to parallel these cautionary tales, only that its conclusion is brisk and there were few tears shed about the victims. As one usually does, when it comes to the rich losing out in their Bateman-esque games of self-affirmation and chest thumping.

The fascinating bit lies in the possibility of a fraud existing in a world so tightly strung by expert knowledge. A wine connoisseur has a special kind of fame attached to his or her ability to discern the exceptional from the good. It’s something acquired through years of sophisticated training and a lot of expensive wines. Additionally, as important sums of money are thrown around, it is also the kind of area ripe for pretense. Similarly to, perhaps, the market for art collectors, there will always be people who understand art, historically and aesthetically, and those who collect it for the sheer exercise, be it financial or egotistical. The same applies to wines.

It’s in this contrast that Sour Grapes comes alive. The story is told through a limited collection of archival footage of Kurniawan and present day interviews with people in the business: collectors, sommeliers, wine producers. It paints this canvas of wine as an ultimately simple and beautiful experience, pandering somewhat to Domain Ponsot’s lavishly poetic narrative. Lavish to the point of being hypocritical, even. And it also frames Kurniawan as this endearing character, much liked by those who bought his wines. There’s surprisingly little sourness to the movie, especially for so much money being involved. Yet, that also plays into this idea of the exclusive wine club, where people are so enlightened (and rich), that they can look beyond trifling deceptions worth millions.

So perhaps that’s part of what I didn’t quite like, the neatness of it all, the lack of further prodding. You also get a sense there’s a template for these meta-documentaries, where a deeply ironic situation is framed with lyrical prowess, only to sustain some unnecessary ambiguity about its central character(s). Kurniawan is guilty and a bunch of people were defrauded, even if he might have had to bear the brunt of it.

But there’s also a certain beauty to being caught in such a great deception, because the contrast is so stark. The story sells itself, so the point of the movie was to somehow capture it with the limited footage it had of its lead. Atlas and Rothwell came good and they also managed to leave any sardonic undertones as just that, undertones. Ultimately, even for someone with no taste for wine, I was excited by the end, having sat through this very particular tasting menu of intricate lies. The thought that nothing is quite black and white lingers in the knowledge that thousands of Kurniawan wine bottles are still in wine cellars around the world.

Some real, some fake – and the afterthought that one might not really want to know the truth.

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