Tag Archives: Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I thought Tom Ford only made suits? Well, it seems the fashion icon can make a wicked movie too. Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s second film after 2009’s A Single Man, is a damn masterpiece of a thriller.

With an intriguing storytelling structure that features a story within a story and well-timed flashbacks, Nocturnal Animals revolves around the character Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who receives a novel manuscript dedicated to her entitled “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan seemingly has the perfect life, living in a luxury mansion in LA, mixing with the sophisticated crowd and married to the dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer), and yet she feels rather empty. When she reads the manuscript, we are transported into the world of the novel, in which Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Aussie Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip through Texas when they encounter a group of troublemakers led by Ray Marcus (played by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The film thus jumps back and forth between the real world and the fictional world, and as Susan begins to ponder the imagery and parallels in the manuscript — as well as Edward’s intentions in sending the novel to her — she also begins to have flashbacks that reveal why their marriage collapsed in the first place. It’s a rather complex narrative structure that somehow works thanks to Ford’s brilliant script and storytelling. What I found most amazing about it is that the impact of the story in the fictional world was never muted or lessened by the fact that we know it’s just a novel. To the contrary, it almost felt more real than the real world, which had a hollow, surreal edge to it.

In any case, Nocturnal Animals is a fantastically controlled piece of cinema. You could tell Ford knew exactly what he wanted and what he was doing, from the portrayal of the characters to the costumes to the beautiful cinematography of the Texan landscape and the parallel images in the two worlds. The tension in the fictional world is incredibly crafted and is one of the most harrowing and devastating cinematic ordeals I’ve ever sat through. It was an absolute gut punch that had me wondering what I would do in the same situation and has been haunting me even days after watching the movie.

Much of the credit should go to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Ray Marcus. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell it was him until nearly the very end of the film. From Kick-Ass to Savages to Godzilla to Avengers: Age of Ultron to now, he has proven himself to be one of the best chameleons of this generation, and it’s a travesty he was overlooked for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (though he did win a Golden Globe). Instead, the only Academy Award nomination Nocturnal Animals garnered was for Michael Shannon, who plays a detective in the fictional world. Yes, he’s very good in it, but I don’t think Shannon was any more deserving of a nomination than Adams or Gyllenhaal, both of whom delivered excellent and nuanced performances.

Kick-Ass (2010)
Savages (2012)
Godzilla (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Nocturnal Animals

There are 9 films nominated for Best Picture this year (out of a possible 10), and I think it’s a shame Nocturnal Animals isn’t part of that list. Apart from a narrative that expertly weaves multilayered stories together, edge-of-your-seat tension, and having a distinct visual flair and powerful performances, I also love how the film leaves a lot of room for interpretation all the way through to the end, which really makes you think about everything you’ve watched and what it could mean. It could have been so easy for Nocturnal Animals to fall into pretentious arty-farty territory, but what we ended up with instead was undoubtedly  one of the best films of the year.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014) (IMAX 3D)

godzilla2014_poster2

We generally tend to think blockbuster monster flicks aren’t going to be very good, and yet we always seem to expect a lot out of them. Well, the latest Hollywood rendition of the legendary Japanese lizard, Godzilla, was one of the my most anticipated movies of 2014, and I’m glad to report that it’s freaking awesome. It shits all over the 1998 Roland Emerich version (which was not as bad as historically remembered anyway) and is superior to last year’s Pacific Rim.  While it’s far from perfect, it more than lives up to the hype and demonstrates that monster movies can be good after all.

I haven’t seen any of the Japanese versions of Godzilla, but from what I understand, this version pays homage to the origins of the creature, born from the Japan’s collective consciousness in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Cleverly, story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein take that and fuses it with the more recent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to create a narrative that touches on both the past and the present.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers (and trust me, there is a plot, and there are surprises for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese franchise), but essentially the story focuses on the family of Kick-Ass (an unrecognisable, insanely buffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US soldier in the mould of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker (in that he diffuses bombs) and his wife (played by the non-anorexic Olsen sister, Elizabeth) and their young son. Kick-Ass grew up in Japan, where his parents Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche worked as supervisors of a nuclear power plant until an “accident” turned their lives upside down, and Cranston is still trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it 15 years on. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (who was so brilliant in Blue Jasmine) play a couple of scientists who have been researching Godzilla for decades.

British director Gareth Evans was a natural choice for Godzilla. He was a the helm of the successful 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters, which I personally thought was a little overrated but did an excellent job of bringing forth the human elements of the story along with excellent special effects (not surprising as he started out his career in visual effects). Monsters was made on a shoestring US$500,000, whereas for Godzilla Edwards had US$160 million to play around with. Usually indie directors struggle when transitioning to big-budget blockbusters, but to Edwards’ credit he ensured that Godzilla had a compelling, emotional human story to tell, without forgetting that it is still ultimately a monster flick where everyone wants to see a lot of carnage and devastation.

Speaking of Godzilla’s “human” story, kudos must go to Heisenberg, or Tim Whatley, or whatever you want to call him. He stole every scene he’s in and was the epicenter of the film’s emotional core. The characters weren’t exactly well-written, but I cared about them and the story when he was on screen, and it was his absence later on that caused the me to stop caring about the humans (in particular Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s relationship). It’s not that they were bad — to the contrary, actually — but they paled in comparison to Cranston’s now-mythical acting prowess and presence.

Fortunately, me losing interest in the human story coincided with Godzilla’s “in all his glory” appearance on the IMAX screen, which rendered everything else secondary. If you want to see Godzilla do what he does best, and that’s smashing shit up, then I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The sheer scale of the action was jaw dropping enough, but Edwards also infused the scenes with intelligence and creativity. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find and just enjoy the ride. (I’d pass on the 3D though — once again a complete waste of time and money)

How do the monster scenes compare to Pacific Rim? Favourably, in my opinion. Pacific Rim was more about live-action anime-style eye candy designed to provide a lot of euphoric “cool” and “yeah” moments, whereas Godzilla was more “grounded in reality”, so to speak. In contrast to the energetic vibrancy of Pacific Rim’s bright colour schemes, Godzilla is almost entirely grey and misty, but it matches the sombre and mysterious tone well.

What sets Godzilla apart from Pacific Rim and most other big Hollywood monster movies, however, is that Godzilla himself is a character rather than just an ugly prop wreaking havoc for no discernible cause. There is a purpose for Godzilla’s existence and a reason behind his actions, and I anticipate that a lot of people will be surprised by how the big fella is portrayed.

I don’t agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the film, which include that Godzilla is too fat. He’s not fat. He’s just big-boned. I also believe, contrary to some claims, that Godzilla received sufficient screen time. I actually think Edwards arranged it perfectly, giving us enough glimpses early on to whet our appetites, building up the suspense throughout the second act, and finally giving Godzilla to us unencumbered — free from blurriness, rapid cuts and obstructions — in the climax. It’s not how much time he has on screen anyway; it’s what you do with him when he’s there, and Godzilla had ample opportunity to demonstrate why the film was named after him.

Having said that, I do have some other criticisms of my own. First, while the overall pace of the film is good, there were times when the momentum sagged because Edwards was trying too hard to establish the characters. It was more or less the same problem I had with Monsters, but to a lesser extent. Secondly, apart from Kick-Ass and Heisenberg, no other human character actually does anything in the entire film. Olsen, for instance, was just the anxious wife who spends all her time doing little other than being really worried about her husband. Watanabe and Hawkins just sat around and observed, pretty much, and by the end I had forgotten that they were even in the film at all. The problem is not as egregious as it sounds because if I had a choice between resolving these characters’ stories and watching Godzilla doing Godzilla things, I’d always choose the latter. And my guess is that Edwards, upon realising that the film should not be much longer than 2 hours (it’s 123 minutes), went in the same direction.

Despite its flaws, Godzilla is frighteningly close to everything I could have hoped for. An intelligent premise that pays homage to the original and contemporary events, an all-star cast powered by the almighty Bryan Cranston, passable characters and dialogue, and most of all, riveting, eye-popping monster action with impeccable special effects. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

kick-ass-2-characters-poster-slice

The original Kick-Ass, released in 2010, was a breath of fresh air amid the cascade of superhero movies that continue to rain down upon us to this day. It was edgy, ultra-violent, and contained a lot of swearing, and it didn’t apologize for all the insanity one bit.

Three years later, the long-awaited sequel, Kick-Ass 2, attempts to relive that magic by continuing the story with roughly the same formula. It’s not a bad film if you enjoyed the first one, as the story is a natural progression from how it ended, and there are still lots of over-the-top violence and uncomfortable moments to satisfy your sick urges. That said, the freshness and edginess of the original are gone, and what we’re left with is just a pretty stock standard comic book movie that will satisfy some but leave others disappointed.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Kick-Ass, has decided to hang up his green suit and secret life of being a crime-fighting vigilante after the events of the first film, which culminated in the death of his mentor, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). Big Daddy’s daughter, the lovable Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), is still doing her thing, but she has been forced to pretend to be “normal” by attending Dave’s school under the guidance of her new guardian.

Kick-Ass then meets Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), who has set up a kind of Avengers initiative/support group for fellow vigilante crime-fighters, which finally makes Dave feel like he belongs. Meanwhile, Kick-Ass’s former partner in crime, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), continues his progression towards supervillain by renaming himself The Motherf*&#er and collecting a team of baddies to take down anyone that dares to stand in his way.

If you were writing a sequel to Kick-Ass, what I just summarized above would probably be the most obvious plot you could come up with. This is one of the reasons why Kick-Ass lacks the punch of the original.

Another reason is because Kick-Ass was full of dark humour, one brutal hit after another, whereas Kick-Ass 2 shifts away from that somewhat and towards a more conventional coming-of-age story, especially the arc about Hit-Girl trying to fit in with the school’s mean girls. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s just not as titillating. I didn’t like all the jokes in Kick-Ass, but I found it funny enough for the most part. Kick-Ass 2, on the other hand, had more lame jokes and was probably more “amusing” than genuinely funny.

When it comes to the fighting sequences, however, Kick-Ass 2 still delivers, complete with crazy blood splatters and thudding sound effects. It’s probably a little less stylized than the shocking violence from the original but there are a few cool comic-book sequences that will have fanboys spraying their shorts. A guaranteed crowd favourite would have to be the female Drago from the baddies gang, Mother Russia.

For all its flaws, I still had a good popcorn time with Kick-Ass 2, partly because I had low expectations given its lukewarm reception from critics. Hit-Girl is still very cool, even if Moretz looks a lot more grown up than she did three years ago, and Mintz-Plasse was surprisingly solid holding up the baddie end of the movie. Taylor-Johnson impressed me by managing to look like a high school dork again after his unrecognisable turn in last year’s Savages, though I felt like he lacked the charisma he had from the first film. If they do decide to make a third film (depending on the box office performance of this one), it will need to be drastically different for it to be worth it.

3.25 stars out of 5

ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)
ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)