“Nocturnal Animals”

You can’t beat two movies for the price of one. Especially when they’re within one, are gorgeous and dark, and have the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal. “Nocturnal Animals” is that movie.

In “Nocturnal Animals,” Gyllenhaal plays Edward. He’s a romantic writer who sends his ex-wife Susan (Amy Adams) a manuscript of his new novel. It’s a dark and violent novel, which the troubled Susan interprets as a threat on her life.

In “Nocturnal Animals,” Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, the novel’s protagonist. He finds himself in a brutal game of cat-and-mouse with a deranged serial killer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who murders Tony’s wife and daughter. A seasoned detective (Michael Shannon) takes pity on Tony and helps him seek revenge.

“Nocturnal Animals” is an ambitious, twisted, and beautiful psychological thriller from fashion designer Tom Ford. The movie has Ford’s name all over it, due to the glamorous costumes and mise-en-scene. Ford also demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the Southern Gothic and Film Noir genres within Tony’s story.

Tony’s story is unsettling to watch. We see a timid, naive family man go over the edge when his family is taken from him. Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is a villain from a Flannery O’Connor story. He’s trashy, yet charismatic. Shannon’s Detective Andes is the scene stealer. He’s a dying detective who no longer cares about the law, but rather his own justice.

Susan and Edward’s story is a tragic melodrama, reminiscent of “Blue Valentine.” We see they were a passionate young couple that tore themselves apart due to their egos and ambitions. Sadly, for a story about someone interpreting a book as a threat, there isn’t much intensity.

All of Susan’s reading scenes are redundant. She cringes, rubs her eyes together, and pours a drink. But she doesn’t once lock her door or buy a gun. The cinematography doesn’t even hint at any danger.

There are also a few solid supporting actors in Susan’s story, including Michael Sheen, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Jena Malone, but they all well-dressed exposition tools to help us understand Susan’s misery.

Gyllenhaal easily has the best performance, playing two different characters with things in common. Both Tony and Edward are handsome romantics, who lose everything they love and handle it in a dark manner.

Ford has an eye for detail, and it shows in both segments. If you pay close attention to Susan’s appearance, a parked car in the background of Edward and Susan’s main confrontation, and Edward’s back story, these are all carried over to Tony’s story. It’s subtle.

I admired “Nocturnal Animals” for its duality. Sure, it’s uneven, but that’s forgivable.

Grade (Tony’s story): A

Grade (Susan and Edward’s story): C

Grade (overall): B

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them”

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a combination of Harry Potter and Doctor Who in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” He’s also one of the coolest on-screen protagonists this year.

“Fantastic Beasts” takes place in 1926 and is a spin-off of the “Harry Potter” franchise. Scamander, an eccentric British magician, arrives in New York with a large briefcase that contains several creatures. He accidentally unleashes them through the city and must capture all of them before humans (or no-maj’s) learn of magic.

The most impressive aspect of “Fantastic Beasts” is how it manages to be its own movie without relying heavily on “Harry Potter” references. Sure, Dumbledore and Hogwartz are both mentioned, but the characters aren’t winking at the audience. Director David Yates (“Harry Potter” 5-8) maintains his aesthetics and style from his “HP” installments.

Light is used effectively to heighten characters’ moods and tension throughout the movie.It also compliments the film’s expressionistic cinematography and magical effects. The action sequences are fun, but the best action moments are the slapstick chases between Scamander and a Niffler.

“Fantastic Beasts” suffers from some pacing and tone issues that could have been avoided with a few simple rewrites. There are one too many villains and subplots that take the movie in several directions. One minute, it’s a political thriller, then a gangster movie, then finally a social commentary on child abuse. These scenes were distracting from Scamander’s story.

Dan Fogler takes a restrained turn as Scamander’s sidekick, Jacob Kawalski. He’s a funny and likable every-man, who feels he’s meant for something greater. He has some of the best scenes, but his story runs too long in the final act.

Redmayne and Fogler work well together and their characters are the best part. Scamander relates more to his creatures than other people while Jacob feels he’s meant for something greater. The duo’s chemistry and friendship help them overcome obstacles.

“Fantastic Beasts” is a fun movie. Much like last week’s “Arrival,” it’s another lighthearted movie with a positive message.

Grade: B+

“Arrival”

When you encounter another being (human or not), don’t aim a tank at them! “Arrival” is a topical reminder to stay together to solve a problem.

Linguist Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) class is interrupted by ringing phones, until one student asks to watch the news. We then learn that several large, mysterious space crafts have landed around the world and everyone wants to know why. US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) enlists Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to find answers before conflict escalates.

Much like “10 Cloverfield Lane” last March, “Arrival” is a film you want to watch knowing little about, so this review will be spoiler free. In short, “Arrival” is the most challenging film I’ve seen all year. It’s also beautiful, timely, and a strong contender for best of 2016.

There isn’t a shred of destruction or violence in “Arrival.” Director Denis Villeneuve, who recently directed the grim and brutal “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” trades in nihilism for optimism. Louise is a peaceful protagonist, compared to Villeneuve’s past on-screen protagonists, and her main tool is communication.

The film dives into the science of linguistics, and how it’s important to translate another language, observe tone, and understand the meaning before taking action. Adams delivers an expressive performance as the quirky linguist, arguing her point with military personnel.  Her best scenes are in the opening and closing acts, where we learn of her journey.

There’s a unique spin on Louise’s background story that I won’t get into, but it will demand a second viewing. Villeneuve has once again crafted a thought-provoking, gorgeous film that will leave you thinking for days; I’m confident in him directing the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel.

Grade: A+

“Doctor Strange”

Leave it to the peculiar and theatrical Benedict Cumberbatch to brilliantly play the equally peculiar and theatrical Doctor Strange. This guy rocks!

Stephen Strange is a brilliant-yet-arrogant surgeon, who effortlessly saves lives while dancing to jazz music. After a terrible accident cripples his hands and ends his career, he travels to Kamar-Taj to find a cure. He instead finds a new calling in mystic arts, wearing a powerful cape, and battling sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

“Doctor Strange” begins as a traditional origin story with a troubled protagonist finding his calling, but then it defies the formula. Don’t worry, folks. We get plenty of Doctor Strange after the 45-minute mark. Kudos to the writers for turning every plot prediction and cliche upside down.

Director Scott Derrickson, better known for horror titles such as “Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” brilliantly directs some innovative, quirky, and beautiful action sequences. They’re quite reminiscent of some of the best “Doctor Who” episodes and Sam Raimi’s work.

The style is great, but there is substance. Strange is a complex character with an overwhelming god complex. Transitioning from surgeon to wizard, he is eager to break all rules and learn all forms of magic to simply be number one. Think a sorcerer version of Tony Stark.

The supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofer as Strange’s mentor Mordo, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as the sassy Mystic Arts master Wong, and Rachel McAdams as Strange’s former lover Christine. They all do a great job, each balancing drama and deadpan comedy in their respective performances.

The biggest flaw is use of exposition. There are several scenes where characters deliver exposition-fueled monologues regarding the mythology. It’s forgivable because of the strong protagonist and visionary direction.

“Doctor Strange” is a huge surprise that’s worth seeing. I missed the 3D, but good thing that’s what the second viewing is for.

Grade: A

“Hacksaw Ridge”

“Jeez, Mel!” I wanted to say this during every gory death and religious metaphor in Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is the only soldier in history to enter battle unarmed. His superiors (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) think he’s a self-righteous coward, but Doss proves his worth, saving 75 soldiers in Okinawa. It’s based on a true story.

As a lifelong Mel Gibson fan, I can separate art from artist. He is an artist behind the camera. “Hacksaw Ridge” is directed old-fashioned and colorful in its cinematography. Not a single shot of shaky cam is in play, even during battle sequences.

The battle scenes are relentlessly brutal and have horrific attention to detail. Between maggots and rats feasting on corpses, brain matter splattering on another soldier’s face, and dozens of men burned alive by a flamethrower, Gibson doesn’t restrain himself (he did direct “Braveheart” after all).

Gibson is also unrestrained with religious metaphors and symbolic shots, but I can forgive this overkill because Doss was a religious man. Doss doesn’t shoot, stab, or punch anyone. He bandages them and ropes them out of battle, praying to save one more each time.

Andrew Garfield delivers a career-defining performance as Doss, making him likable, questionable, and compassionate. He makes Doss’s fears and beliefs believable, whether he gives a monologue about saving the world or saving an enemy soldier.

It’s bold to produce a war movie that is about conscientious objectors rather than pro-combat soldiers, but that’s what makes “Hacksaw Ridge” great. It’s not for the faint of heart and Gibson haters will boycott it. Regardless, I strongly urge film-goers to give this ambitious war epic a shot.

Grade: A

“Moonlight”

After watching the highly anticipated “Moonlight,” this film made me appreciate what I have.

“Moonlight” is told in a three-chapter structure, focusing on Chiron. He’s raised by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), faces daily confrontations with bullies who think he’s weak, and questions his sexual orientation.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins tells Chiron’s heartbreaking story at different points in his life. “i: Little” follows elementary school Chiron seeking a father figure in drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who questions his own path after meeting Chiron. “ii: Chiron” follows teenage Juan hitting his breaking point with bullies, his mother, and his deceitful first love. “iii: Black” follows adult criminal Chrion coming to terms with his past and himself.

“Moonlight” is a powerful, beautiful, and emotionally raw character study that takes on familiar themes of dysfunctional family, angst, and growing up. Though familiar, “Moonlight” is its own special film.

Chiron is played by three different actors in each chapter; Alex Hibbert plays kid Chiron (called Little by classmates), Ashton Sanders plays teen Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes plays adult Chiron. Each actor delivers an authentic performance with their own take on the layered character.

Each chapter is named after Chiron’s given name, and they all go for separate themes, differentiating them apart. The main connection is the ocean; Chiron has a key moment in all three segments involving the ocean, showing that is his sanctuary. It’s symbolic without being pretentious.

The supporting cast does magnificent work, particularly Ali and Harris. Ali portrays the thuggish Juan with compassion, while Harris plays the drugged-out Paula with sorrow, making them both complex characters.

After a string of bad action movies, cheap scares, and Lifetime-worthy tales of suicide, it’s refreshing to watch a film that challenged my comfort zone and intellect. “Moonlight” is a gem!

Grade: A