“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

“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+