Watch the opening sequence with both eyes open and that third eye unblinking. Dancing Venus of Willendorf-type marionettes in military dress become real, big women with thigh-high boots, and that becomes Celtic knots of highways seen on high. It's a series of moving still lifes, befogged and misted.
Then the exposition begins. Susan, a gallery owner, is saying good-bye to her husband, who is off with his doxy -- something Susan is beginning to cotton to -- when a package is delivered. Inside is a manuscript written by her first husband, Edward, and entitled Nocturnal Animals, his nickname for sleepless Susan, to whom he dedicated the book.
Susan toddles off to bed with a maybe-good, certainly tantalizing book to read. Whereupon the film becomes the book about a man and his wife on vacation in Texas, far from Susan's glittery world. There are a film chase, right out of the Sam Peckinpaw School of Domestic Terrorism and a book plot from the Rape Culture. Horrified, Susan slams the book shut with her blood-red fingernails. She becomes the woman abandoned in life and in art; she cannot slice the book out of her head, even as she meets with her people at the gallery to discuss art, not life.
Amy Adams plays Susan, suave and slick and terribly believable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Edward, the husband, and Tony, the protagonist of the novel -- and he never misses a heartbeat in either roles. They are supported finely by Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and a hair-sprayed Laura Linney as Susan's brittle mother.
Tom Ford has made a very scary movie, resplendent with his sense of decorum, of flashbacks among past and present, in novel and life, of color (especially reds), of bleeds and connectors from scene to scene. Nocturnal Animals offers film as crisp, well-cut, tautly sewn, and artfully made to perfection.
A film made by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud is bound to be stunning, eye-popping, gob-smacking. After all, les deux Jacques made the unforgettable films, Winged Migration and Ocean. But Seasons has a powerful, if subtle, message beyond the beauty and intimacy of the natural world.
One would think that the title of this excellent documentary refers to the four seasons, hallowed in song and story. It's not. Yes, it begins in winter, but the narrator mentions that winter lasted for 80,000 years, so it's soon obvious that Perrin and Cluzaud have other seasons in mind to document. Their seasons are eras, related to the geologic time table, to history, to time immemorial.
Their seasons cover interminable winters, welcome springs, droughting summers, and fallen autumns over millennia. Their seasons begin with flora and fauna, and not until the documentary is two-thirds complete, do human beings enter the landscape to despoil same.
The script by the Frenchmen is often poetic, but it does not intrude, not even to identify the specific names of the gorgeous orange-beaked bird, the one with the charcoal-colored feathers -- or the bovines or cervines or felines. The cameras, under the direction of Eric Guichard, look closely at fighting bears, the stacked stones of cairns, and at calving glaciers. They look shyly through green and yellow trees or over the wings of geese. And, in the end, when humans show up, the cameras record a wolf lick-kissing a babe, then the huts, and then the battlements built by humans.
Bruno Coulais' music offers pizzicato sounds on strings to accompany the bellows of elk or squeaks of hedgehogs. Seasons is very, very beautiful to look at, but do not get so mesmerized by the visions and miss the message. Seasons is more than pretty.
It begins at sea with sopranos la-laing into the sky. Two adult brothers and a boy on a boat, fishing -- really, they're word-tussling more than fishing, but it sets the scene. Next, Manchester by the Sea, a pretty danged realistic film, shows one of those men at work.
Lee Chandler, played stoically by Casey Affleck, is a janitor and handyman for four apartment buildings in Boston. He is sullen and sour, trying to deal with the derelict buildings and the demanding dwellers. He gets a telephone call announcing the death of his brother, the other man on the boat. Lee rushes home -- where all the secrets are. His brother had a few, including carefully outlined plans for Lee to assume the guardianship of his nephew, plans he had not shared with his brother. Home is also where Lee's ex-wife lives, pregnant, with her second husband. Home is where Lee's memories are, where his old buddies are, where the remnants of his life are.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote the story, revealing the secrets slowly. Lonergan, who also wrote You Can Count on Me, fills Manchester with the complexity of families but refuses to add unrealistic touches. Affleck embodies Lee's sadness, weighted by guilt and grief. Michelle Williams plays the small and complicated role of Lee's ex. Kyle Chandler handles the ghostly appearances of brother Joe. Lucas Hedges shines as the nephew with street smarts. Also in the rich cast are Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Tate Donovan.
Lonergan directed the film with long silences, befitting men who don't talk, and exploited the tension of the past. Lesley Barber's music contrasts those sopranos and classical music, hardly appropriate, with bar tunes sloshed in beer. Manchester by the Sea, while not a great film, is an honest lesson in grief.
One hundred years ago, in the 1916 film Shoes, directors Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley provided a primer in poignant storytelling, perfectly pacing the events to reveal the central character, Eva Meyer. Eva works as a five-and-dime store clerk who turns over her weekly salary to her mother who provides for a ne'er-do-well father and Eva's three younger sisters.
Adapting Stella Wynne Herron's short story published in "Collier's," Weber's screenplay emphasizes the effects of poverty and limited choices because of it. Even with Eva's shoes literally falling apart, the family can't spare the $3 needed to purchase a new pair, and so Eva moves every closer to prostituting herself with a dishonorable musician. As Eva, Mary MacLaren telegraphs subdued despair.
Straightforward and uncluttered, Shoes benefits from on-location shooting, one scene in Los Angeles' Pershing Square, another the front of Woolworth's on Broadway. A wealth of details fill every frame while remarkable effects, especially for 1916, enhance the story. The tinting is particularly beautiful, with a yellow tint throughout store and home scenes with blue tinting to signal night shots.
In addition, Weber superimposes dream footage into the upper left part of the frame; dissolves from the old, shabby to fancied, new shoes and back; and dissolves from a medium shot to a medium close-up to communicate Eva's emotions more effectively. Though the edges of some frames show the deterioration characteristic of nitrate film, fortunately, thanks to Milestone Film restoring the best quality possible, Shoes exists in this wonderful print, with an evocative music score by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson.
Made three years before Shoes, the 1913 Suspense stars director Lois Weber herself as a wife in danger. Isolated in her home, Weber is threatened by a tramp who breaks in. This quick, 10-minute film also showcases Weber's cinematic expertise, notable for Weber's inclusion of a triptych, remarkable close-ups, and a thrilling conclusion with cross-cutting among the husband and police racing to save the wife as the intruder approaches the upstairs room to which she has retreated.
The Midwest premiere of Shoes preceded by Suspense is at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Sunday, December 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Celebrating its one-hundred-year anniversary in a restored version, The Dumb Girl of Portici is silent filmmaking at its most impressive. Directors Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley turn a story of doomed love into a thrilling, energetic production, thanks primarily to the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova as title character Fenella who falls in love with the Duke d'Arcos.
Since Fenella is a humble, mute girl from a fishing village, the Duke's status dictates against him following his heart, pushing him to marry within his class in 17th century Naples. But after the Duke's seduction of Fenella, her furious brother Masaniello leads a brutal rebellion against the self-indulgent aristocracy levying unjust taxes to support their lavish lifestyle.
Stranded in New York because of WWI, Pavlova committed to the film, presenting an eloquent portrayal of Fenella. From the opening shots to the closing moments, Pavlova moves and dances exquisitely, both frolicking solo and within massive crowd scenes. Weber stages those celebrations of throngs of people and the revolt of the downtrodden with a visual flair with hundreds choreographed to move within as well as in and out of the set space. Though 1916 doesn't yet incorporate today's editing style, Weber does cut to medium shots and medium close-ups for emotional punctuation.
She knew the film business inside out, from at first acting, then writing, directing, and editing silent films. An extraordinary talent credited with technical innovations, Weber designed the lighting, cast the actors, then shot, developed and tinted the film. This restoration includes stunning, original tinting with especially striking red and blue tinted scenes. The new score by silent film composer John Sweeney reinforces and adds urgency to the action, all staged on extravagant sets. Details such as sculptures and jewelry comment implicitly on this world as much as the severed heads impaled on poles after the revolt in this masterfully executed, landmark epic.
The Midwest premiere of The Dumb Girl of Portici is at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Sunday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m.