Me, Popcorn and the Oscars: “Nocturnal Animals”, Tom Ford’s Sophmore Film is Not One to Miss This Season

Metaphorical, cyclical, hypnotizing, “Nocturnal Animals” is a deep and different tale of vengeance and obsession. It certainly isn’t perfect, and sometimes director Tom Ford misses, but he’s always clear as to where he’s shooting.

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*Obvious Spoiler Alert!*

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I will do a small recount on who is who in the movie, because it may be difficult to remember everyone by name. Again, if you haven’t watched the movie, stop reading, otherwise this might get confusing.

Susan: Protagonist in the real world.

Edward: Susan’s ex-husband.

Tony: Protagonist in Edward’s novel (played by the same actor, though).

Laura: Tony’s wife.

India: Tony and Laura’s daughter.

Ray: The rapist and killer of Laura and India.

Hutton: Susan’s new husband.

    The good things (what I liked)

  • The acting. The acting is this movie is outstanding. Not only are Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal extremely good, but every other actor in the movie shines (Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon and even Laura Linney, who appears in only one scene).
  • The cinematographic juxtaposition of the two stories is something I enjoyed very much. Aesthetically speaking, the two stories in the movie are complete opposites. One is in West Texas, rough, rural, dirty, desertic. The other is an almost-futuristic look at New York: full of contemporary art, glamorous and pompous dresses, and shallow relationships.

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  • It is extremely interesting how Edward writes a novel that, although plotwise is not like his life, symbolically, it is (or at leats, it was). We never meet Edward in the present (only through Susan’s flashbacks), but in a way, it is evident he sees Susan as Ray (the guy who raped and killed Laura and India). Susan, in the real world, left Edward and aborted his child, thus Edward was left wifeless and childless. This mirrors with Tony’s search for vengeance in the novel. The novel isn’t and shouldn’t be a mystery of if Tony’s family was murdered or not, but a reflection on the hole he was left with, which is the same hole Edward was left with in the real world. Probably because Edward couldn’t really get his vengeance in the real world, he had to write this novel. Although, not to spoil too much, but in the end, he kind of sort of does get  vengeance.
  • I liked the fact that we don’t see Edward directly. We see him through Susan’s perspective in her flashbacks, but never alone, and never in the present story.
  • The scene between Susan and her mother in a flashback is really interesting. We’ve seen Susan in the future, where she is cold and much like her mother, and then we see the flashback, and it’s interesting to see how she, at one point, hated being that.
  • The ending sequence. The movie is worth watching only because of Amy Adam’s last scene. Some of you might not understand why I say this, maybe you don’t think the same as I, but let me explain. Yes, it may be hard to cry, to scream, to smile, to blush, to seem crazy, to appear naked on screen, to make dialogues believable, and here she does nothing like that; in this last shot, probably only five seconds long, Susan doesn’t say a word, and doesn’t make any exaggerated or overly dramatic facial expression, however, Adams portrays total devastation and inner destruction. Edward destroys Susan by not showing up, and she sees finally how her life will never change, and how she chose this, and how she’ll never be happy. When casting Adams, director Tom Ford told her he wanted to know how her character feels, and this is why she said she accepted the role. And this is true throughout the movie. Most of the character’s turmoils are interior and rarely spoken to someone, so Adams had to do a lot of silent scenes where she is just reading and thinking. But in no scene does this show better than in this one (the picture below is not of that scene, though. I couldn’t find the right one).

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  • This movie is by Tom Ford, and guessing by the two films he’s done (A Single Man and this one, both spectacular), you’ll want to keep on eye on this one.
  • The beginning of the movie. The first five minutes or so are long shots of fat, old women dancing naked. Ultimately, it is explained that this is part of an Art Exhibition in Susan’s gallery, but this sequence gave me a lot to think about. The movie is deeply metaphorical, so I think of this sequence as a symbol for the movie, how we sometimes try to ignore, push down and set aside those things we don’t want to confront, both in society and in our personal lives.
  • Finally, the clothes are gorgeous, the makeup is impeccable, and Jeff Koons!!!!

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    The bad things (what I didn’t like)

  • Sometimes the characters are described too straightforwardly, and with only two or three characteristics (e.g. dreamer, weak, pragmatic, etc).
  • The ending of the novel is quite unsatisfying for my taste. Tony dying is a moralistic ending, in the sense that I feel it more as a way of saying “vengeance is never good” or “vengeance doesn’t bring happy endings”. Also, it is somewhat unbelievable the way he died, falling over his own gun.
  • Okay, so in a way, Ray’s character is somewhat overly dramatic, the acting is over-the-top, and he’s extremely two-dimensional. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Normally this is bad, but here I’m not so sure. I put it in the bad things because I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, and the good side had too many things. This is why it may be okay for Ray to be an exaggeratedly disgusting and evil character: probably, that’s how Edward sees Susan. He feels disgusted by her, and he has no compassion towards her, and being that Ray is partially a symbol for Susan, then maybe Edward didn’t want to humanize him and make him likable.d29da31c2293b3d5a550baa0af439d31
  • Some story lines were flat, for example, why did Ford need to introduce Susan’s daughter if she literally had no impact on the plot, and never came up back again after her thirty-seconds scene.
  • The film needed at least, twenty to forty more minutes, or some time distribution. At times, especially at the start of the movie and with the flashbacks, the pacing was too quick. The movie needed to take its time. The novel took too much time of the movie, and I think at times Ford forgot the main story was Susan’s and not Tony’s. There were three story lines (Susan’s in the present, Susan’s in the past and Tony’s), and this was too much. The flashbacks had a lot of time jumps that made that plot line move too quickly (for example, one day she met him, the next flashback she’s married, and then the next she’s already unhappy).
  • The whole relationship between Susan’s gay brother and his wife (yes, you read that right) was interesting, but because it was never developed or talked again after they’re introduced, it seemed flat and unnecessary. It seemed more an excuse to introduce some of Susan and Hutton’s problems than an actual insight into another relationship.

    Who would I (or wouldn’t I) recommend it to

I would recommend this movie to anyone who likes interesting, complex movies, centered more on characters than plot, and movies that you want to see again, just to see if you catch something else. Also, people who like to read, or watch movies with adapted screenplays.

    Best scene or dialogue (if there was any that stood out)

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  • As I said before, that final shot at Amy Adam’s face was enough to watch the whole thing, but besides that, probably the best scene is Susan’s conversation with her mother.
  • Also, the first scene of the novel, when Laura and India are kidnapped was excruciatingly painful to watch (in a good way, for a scene so dark that’s easy to watch, is not a good scene).

    Who stole the show?

Most people think Shannon stole the show, but personally, he wasn’t the best. For a white male critic, it is obvious why Tony’s story might be more interesting, and Shannon (or even Taylor-Johnson) might be a favorite, but for me, Amy Adams stole the show. She probably won’t get nominated for this, because she has also “Arrival”, and because she is in the weird place in between Lead and Supporting actress. She is the main character, but because the novel takes out so much time of the movie, she wasn’t always on screen.

    Do I predict this movie will have any actual nominations?

Some, but not many. Maybe some for a supporting role (Taylor-Johnson got nominated for a Golden Globe, but Shannon was more talked about, so who knows). Also, probably the adapted screenplay may get a nomination, director and costumes design would also not surprise me. But I don’t think it will win any of the big 5 (Movie, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay).

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    Overall thoughts

Metaphorical, cyclical, hypnotizing, “Nocturnal Animals” is a deep and different tale of vengeance and obsession. It certainly isn’t perfect, and sometimes director Tom Ford misses, but he’s always clear as to where he’s shooting.

    How many stars?

4/5

Joanne is Lady Gaga’s Best and Most Intimate Album To Date

Using pop as the base for all of her songs, she takes upon the task of infusing styles in almost every song. It is inevitable to find Gaga’s nostalgia and search for old, soulful sounds.

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Artistically speaking, Artpop had been Lady Gaga’s best solo album to date. Yet, Joanne managed to surpass Artpop in almost every way conceivable. Artpop’s hardest struggle was the one its author placed upon it: it was too self-conscious of wanting to be something great. Gaga was too focused on creating an aesthetic manifesto she forgot art is created in the detail, not in the overall idea; by not letting each song mature into itself, she created an album that was too ambitious for its own good.

I personally liked Artpop, I think it was a fun and enjoyable LP, definitely better than most of the mainstream albums of 2013. However, the idea of it was always better than the actual thing. I remember watching an interview of Gaga saying that she wanted to invert the Pop Art process, she wanted to put the art into the soup can, instead of the soup can onto the canvas, and when I heard that, I went and bought the album.

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Yes, the idea was intriguing, but there was just something lacking artistically in the album. The discourses she tackled had been handled before, and in much better ways; the sounds were interesting, but nothing too revolutionary; the lyrics were generally underwritten and the ideas undercooked. It had still great songs (Dope, Gypsy, Sexxx Dreams, Aura and G.U.Y. come to mind), but it was too all over the place to become the aesthetic manifesto it wanted to be.

And now, three years later, Gaga comes with Joanne, which is without a doubt her best album to date. Here, she does to pop what was done recently by Carly Rae Jepsen did with Emotion, what Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar did to R&B with Lemonade and To Pimp A Butterfly (respectively), or what Lana del Rey did to indie-pop with Honeymoon; and that is to use both old and new music and styles of narrative.

Using pop as the base for all of her songs, she takes upon the task of infusing styles in almost every song. It is inevitable to find Gaga’s nostalgia and search for old, soulful sounds. You can see the country influences often (A-Yo, John Wayne), the favorite blues (Hey Girl, Million Reasons), some rock (Perfect Illusion, Diamond Heart), classic rock-pop (Just Another Day), indie (Joanne), some hints of reggae and ska (Dancin’ In Circles) and some sweet traces of Jazz here and there (Come To Mama). Overall, this album feels intimate. You can imagine being in a bar at three a.m., with only a couple of people left there, and someone singing this album on stage. Some might be inspired to dance, some to kiss, some to cry, and somehow all those actions seem appropriate. Gaga seems to be singing personally to each listener. The tracks here feel more stripped-down, more controlled, more centered. By meticulously calculating and focusing on the details, the overall project turned out looking way better.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that she did it perfectly; sometimes I can’t believe something like Perfect Illusion can be on the same album as Come to Mama or Hey Girl. This will maybe make some people say that the songs from Joanne don’t completely fit with one another, or that the album doesn’t have a cohesive sound. And although they probably aren’t mistaken, I would beg those people to see this as something good on the album. I personally find it entertaining, interesting, endearing, and honestly, it seems that Gaga herself wanted it this way and that it wasn’t a mistake. Even if it’s chaotic in sound, I don’t think it has trouble with this, or that it’s all over the place, as I thought with Artpop (even though Artpop probably had a more controlled sound).

I know this may hurt the fans of Gaga’s earlier works like Poker Face or Bad Romance, more than the critics. This album is nothing like those times. It does have a couple of treats, if you’re looking for that sound, with A-Yo or Dancin’ in Circles, yet most of the songs here are more mature, and less the catchy-pop-songs most people fell in love with Gaga for. Personally, I like mature Gaga more, but I’m sure that has to do with taste.

To be honest, this album is not really a Lady Gaga album—as people generally read into that—but an album by Stefani Germanotta herself. She seems naked here. She presents herself as an artist. Her soul, mind, sweat and ideas seem to be transpiring through most songs, and even if hypothetically I hadn’t liked the album (which I did), I respect that from someone who wants to create art. And even more, if you are one of the biggest names in the industry.

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I see this move by Gaga as brave. She is totally alone and vulnerable and honest here. And she must’ve known that this was not what people would expect from her, but she still did it. She decided to stay true to herself and her aesthetic pursuit, rather than do another catchy-feel-good album.

Music and ideas, however, never seem to be Gaga’s problems. Although she has some of her most interesting sounds, best vocals (one should only listen to Joanne or Million Reasons or Angel down to see this) and most mature aesthetic propositions here, she has never failed on doing this on her previous albums. Her weakest side has always been her lyrics. She still falls on some clichés like “I’m not flawless, but I gotta diamond heart” or “Good as gold”; she is still writing cheesy lines like “Hey girl, hey girl, if you lose your way just know that I got you.”; her songs still have some eerie, pseudo-profound lyrics like “If I had a highway, I would run for the hills. If you could find a dry way, I’d forever be still”. And yet, she features some of her best and most authentic writing in this last album.

For example Joanne, the track she titled the album for; it is minimalistic and sweet, with heart-whelming lyrics like “Every part of my aching heart needs you more than the angels do”. This comes together perfectly with the melancholic vocals and the soft melody. Sinner’s Prayer also has a good moment or two, with quite a quotable chorus: “Hear my sinner’s prayer, I am what I am, and I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man but you”. Dancin’ In Circles is surprisingly well written too: “I close my eyes, take a breath, and I picture us in a place I can’t recognize. In the fire, I call your name out. Up full night trying to rub the pain out”. Leave it to Gaga to make a song about masturbation, and still give it some fun sounds and lyrics.

However, if I’d had to criticize all songs for lyrics, the two best songs, for my taste, have to be the raw, angry and brutal Angel Down, and the brilliantly fun but nostalgic Grigio Girls (probably my favorite song of the album in general). Angle Down is a song regarding gun-violence, specifically the incident with Trayvon Martin back in 2012. The song is emotional, effective and very powerful, and here Gaga has written one of her most important songs to date, not only musically, but socially: “Doesn’t everyone belong in the arms of the sacred? Why do we pretend we’re wrong? Has our young courage faded? Shots were fired on the street by the church where we used to meet. Angel down, angel down. Why do people just stand around?

On the completely opposite spectrum of things, we have Grigio Girls, a song about love between friends (some might say the song has some homoerotic traces in it, but there are no proof of that, and I prefer to see it as a friendship song, because there are way more songs about romance than there are about friends). This song has more simple lyrics, not as deep or raw as Angle Down, but there is something to Gaga singing “I was 23, she was 35, I was spiraling out, and she was so alive. A Texas girl real strong taught me this drunk song.” or “So we’ll turn on a bachelorette, dye Ashley’s hair red. And then we’ll have our sixth Spice Girl in this bitch” that gives it a perfect dose of intimacy and realness to it. You know this is her singing to someone specifically, not just another song inspired by someone that’s applicable to anyone. This person has a name, she knew Gaga, in a way (it is hinted) she saved Gaga, and she is grateful for this. Gaga recalls these times with great nostalgia, and by the end of the song, when the music has ended and it is just the voice of Gaga and women laughing, one can’t help but be a little caught up on the nostalgia too.

This is not to say that her lyrics are perfect—they are definitely are not—but well, neither are Bob Dylan’s and he just won the Nobel Prize in Literature, so.… Just kidding, but honestly, pure poetry is hard to be found in music, because of the rhythm and structure limitations, and yet, I feel as if Gaga has managed to write a satisfyingly well-written album, with great sounds and astonishing vocals. She will have to work on this, if she continues to go for this more artistic and mature audience, but she is moving in a good direction.

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Finally, although the themes of the album vary, I believe it all comes down to Lady Gaga’s love. Whether it is to herself (Diamond Heart), to her family (Joanne), to her fans (Come To Mama), to God (Million Reasons, in a way), to a one night stand or a merely sexual partner (John Wayne, Dancin’ In Circles), to a friend (Hey Girl, Grigio Girls), to her romantic interest (Just Another Day, Sinner’s Prayer), to humanity (Angel Down), and to music in general (just listen to it and you’ll know how much Gaga actually adores music, without having to write a song about it), the theme of love is ever-present. That is why this is probably Gaga’s most loving album yet. She has managed to approach the most common theme in pop culture—love—and yet, did so in an original and versatile way, turning it upside down, making it almost imperceptible.

Maybe that is what she tried to do with Artpop, but I have to say, she didn’t accomplish it until now. Why? Probably because of the trueness and nakedness of Joanne. I honestly feel that this album was created from those most organic and authentic thoughts that happen in those minutes or hours between coming drunk after a party, taking off your clothes, cleaning your face, staring at your body in the mirror, going to bed and actually falling asleep. Those minutes when you try to read and drift to thoughts; when you can be really, really horny; when you cry all on your own when you think of how the world will be tomorrow. That is how I imagine Gaga writing this album, and that is how I decide to listen to it.

–José Sebastián Romero