Thursday, December 8, 2016

A professor loses her moorings

Isabelle Huppert portrays a philosophy professor whose life hits a bad patch.

She teaches philosophy, and has a stable marriage. Her two kids may not be following in her academic footsteps, but she loves them. Her former students think fondly of her. She's written books that have been well-received by her colleagues.

So what precisely does Nathalie Chazeaux have to complain about?

Ostensibly, nothing -- aside from the deep existential questions that occupy us all and may prove a bit more vexing for students of philosophy.

But in director Mia Hansen-Love's Things to Come, Nathalie undergoes a series of life-transforming events. Her stolid husband -- also a philosophy teacher -- announces he's "met someone." He's leaving her for another woman. Nathalie's publisher says that a seminal textbook she has written has gone stale. A former student (Roman Kolinka) should be following in her footsteps, but seems more interested in dropping out of academia to make cheese in the countryside. He's still reads philosophy; it's academia that has lost its allure.

You might think that Hansen-Love has served up a French version of the woman-on-the-verge-of-nervous-breakdown scenario. You'd be wrong -- partly because Hansen-Love wisely underplays her hand and partly because of Isabelle Huppert's intriguing performance as Nathalie.

Few actresses are as good as Huppert at keeping us off guard; she doesn't tip her hand about her character's thoughts. Don't be fooled, though, her character is thinking -- perhaps all the time.

Nathalie doesn't indulge in emotional outbursts, but that doesn't mean that she isn't capable of resolve. She's firm with her ex-husband (Andrew Marcon). She refuses to maintain any part of their marital facade. Why not go to the summer house they shared for many years? Why overdramatize, he asks? She's not about to pretend that nothing has happened.

Nathalie may not overdramatize, but she certainly internalizes. And she's clearly dealing with heavy weather, including the constant demands of an aging mother (Edith Scob), a woman whose beauty once made her the center of attention. Mom can't (or won't) adjust to the moment in life when she's fading from the scene.

Don't look for Huppert to go off the rails when the whiz-kids at her publishing house insist that her books be revised to include eye-catching graphics. But that doesn't mean you won't see Nathalie judging the abject superficiality of marketing minds that threaten to turn the book business into a joke.

Hansen-Love's approach may remind you of a filmmaker such as Eric Rohmer. I say that because Things To Come isn't a film about characters who are doing momentous things; it's a film about how these characters live -- with Huppert serving as our guide.

Nathalie's world may not be unbearably painful; but it's not satisfying, either. And that's a problem she'll carry into the future, the uncertainty of an acutely intelligent woman who'll probably stumble again as her life evolves.

A party you've attended before

Ever since the Hangover movies pushed the gross-out envelope to the breaking point, comedies have been trying to ascend ever higher rungs on the ladder of crudeness. So, it's hardly a surprise that Office Christmas Party -- a holiday formula job -- goes for gross-out gold. No stranger to lame comedies, Jason Bateman plays a computer exec who works at the Chicago branch of a computer company whose ruthless CEO (Jennifer Aniston) wants to impose massive layoffs. The CEO's brother (T.J. Miller) runs the company's Chicago branch as if it were an especially genial frat house. It falls to Miller's Clay and Bateman's Josh to find enough business to stave off a total shutdown. To accomplish their mission, they invite a potential major client (Courtney B. Vance) to the company Christmas party. Predictably, the party gets out of hand as directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory) try to jam a raft of supporting players (Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon and more) into the preposterously overstated mayhem. Olivia Munn has a larger role as a computer whiz and love interest for Bateman's character. I won't bore you (or myself) with a recital of the tasteless gags you'll find in Office Christmas Party -- from prostitution to cocaine to a pimp (Jillian Bell) with a personality disorder. The movie's employees work for a company called Zenotek Data Storage Systems, which made me wonder whether someone (the Russians?) hadn't hacked most of the laughs out of this collection of comic missteps. Only McKinnon, as the flatulent head of human services, brought a smile to my face, which most of the time was either in full or partial grimace.

Horror that's expressive -- and weird

It doesn't take long to realize why the artfully eerie Eyes of My Mother caused a bit of a stir at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. In many ways, Eyes of My Mother qualifies as a festival programmer's dream, a artfully made black-and-white debut film that takes place in an isolated farmhouse, site of lots of homegrown weirdness. Divided into three parts, this 76-minute hunk of horror focuses on various stages in the life of Francisca (played as a young woman by Kika Magalhaes, a woman who lives with the macabre. It's probably best that you don't know a lot about the movie before you see it, but I will tell you that director Nicolas Pesce introduces twists that are not for the squeamish. I say this even though the worst of the movie's psychologically twisted violence takes place off camera. If I tell you that in the early going, Francisca's mother (Diana Agostini) removes an eye from the severed head of a cow that she's deposited on her kitchen table, you'll get the idea. It's part of one of Mom's home-style lesson on vision. Creepy to the max, The Eyes of My Mother includes murder and torture -- all presented in an atmosphere that has been designed to immerse us in Francisca's impossibly isolated existence. I guess I'd sum things up this way: Pesce has the skills to unsettle, but he's applied them in a way that may appeal only to a narrow slice of even the audience for horror.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Living with an unbearable past

An outstanding Casey Affleck stars in Manchester by the Sea, a sad story about guilt and loss.

We're lucky that Kenneth Longergan makes movies.

I say that not because Lonergan's films (You Can Count on Me, Margaret and now Manchester by the Sea) qualify as cinematic wonders. Lonergan's work as a writer/director won't stir you with its visual brilliance or sweep you away with its epic scale. But that's precisely why Lonergan's character-driven work must be valued: He's one of a handful of contemporary filmmakers who make movies about real people -- non-glamorous, everyday folks who are engaged in life-defining struggles.

On its surface, Manchester by the Sea (the title sounds like you might find it atop a resort brochure) is an entirely conventional movie. An emotionally wounded man returns to his hometown after the death of his older brother. Gradually, he establishes a relationship with his teen-age nephew.

In most movies, that relationship would provide the movie's protagonist with a road to redemption. Our hero would reaffirm his belief in life, and we'd leave the theater feeling better about him and maybe about ourselves.

But Lonergan isn't interested in supporting anyone's fantasies. He knows that life doesn't always produce happily-ever-afters and that some wounds remain too raw ever to scar over. Those wounds may also be connected to a kind of integrity that refuses (perhaps for good reasons) to relinquish a horrible pain.

In Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan introduces us to Lee (Casey Affleck), a brooding, angry man who works as a janitor at a Boston apartment complex. Early on, Lee receives a phone call telling him that his brother (Kyle Chandler in flashback) is dying. Lee returns to his hometown of Manchester, Mass., and discovers that his brother has died, and he has been appointed guardian of Patrick, his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges).

Returning to the place he once called home, Lee is flooded with memories, some involving his brother and some involving his former wife (Michelle Williams). Seen in flashbacks, these moments from past arrive in the movie with the suddenness of uninvited guests. We also learn that Patrick's alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) abandoned her family.

We know from the outset that unspeakable tragedy haunts Lee. I won't tell you what it is. You don't need to be aware of the movie's big reveal to understand that Lee's life is mired in hopelessness. Angry eruptions lead to fistfights in bars. Half the time, his gaze is downcast. He has imprisoned himself in an inescapable jail, where the bars are made of guilt and shame.

I don't want to say much more about the plot, but you should know that every performance in Manchester by the Sea feels authentic, as does the environment that Lonergan creates.

This environment and Lonergan's commitment to it allows him to add humor -- even in his depiction of the tormented Lee. The banter between Lee and his nephew can be funny in the way of two guys jockeying for position.

There's much to discover here: The relationship between Lee and his late brother; Patrick's relationship with girls; the marriages of men and women who can't always conquer their demons; the inability of Patrick to connect with his apparently reformed mother.

Much has been written about the scene in which Lee meets his former wife in the streets. Yes, it's a tearjerker. Yes, it leaves you shaken. Yes, it hurts.

But there's another scene in which Lee tells Patrick about his inability to put the past behind him that's equally heartbreaking.

In its overall effect, Manchester by the Sea is a sad movie, but its sadness stems from careful depiction of the movie's characters and their experiences. Lonergan trusts us enough not to betray either, which is precisely why his film proves so memorable.


A powerful look at a shooting on campus

The documentary, Tower, takes us back to the day in 1966 when a lone gunman shot up the University of Texas.

In many American movies, the sound of gunfire has been exaggerated to the point of meaninglessness. Sitting through one violent set piece after another has numbed us to real-life impact of bullets.

This is not the case with the powerful new documentary Tower, which deals with the events of Aug. 1, 1966, a day on which former Marine Charles Whitman ascended the tower that overlooks a spacious concrete mall at the University of Texas. From his perch, Whitman began picking off students.

Before an Austin police officer killed Whitman, he had shot 49 people, killing 16 of them.

Director Keith Maitland's approach to the events of that August day involves rotoscope animation, archival footage and interviews with some of the people who lived through Whitman's attack. The resultant movie stands as one of the year's most powerful efforts.

Perhaps that sounds unlikely. How could a partially animated film, even one in which Whitman's victims discuss what happened to them, be so effective?

There are two reasons, I believe: The testimony of survivors (read by actors) and the sound of rifle shots echoing across the mall. Personal accounts of what happened that day are revealing and moving. Hearing shots echo across the mall enables us to feel the terror associated with every bullet -- not to mention the pain and shock of those who witnessed Whitman's slaughter.

And for once, the focus isn't on the shooter: Whitman receives virtually no attention. This approach makes sense because, at the time, the victims had no idea who was shooting at them. All they knew was that the unthinkable suddenly had become real.

We meet news reporters, police officers, and students -- all of whom were living through a scorching but uneventful day until Whitman opened fire.

The story of Claire Wilson stands out. The 18-year-old Wilson was shot while walking across the mall with her boyfriend. She was five months pregnant. Her boyfriend was killed, but Wilson survived while lying on the concrete on a 100-degree day. Her baby died in her womb.

It took an hour and a half before anyone ventured to help her -- and that leads us to an important realization: When terror strikes, people respond with a mixture of heroism and hesitation.

Tower offers no judgement about any of this: We understand that anyone who might have ventured out onto that mall to help Wilson instantly would become a target for Whitman.

Still, one young woman approached Wilson and played dead on the concrete. She bolstered Wilson's spirits. Eventually, a young man risked his life to help with the rescue.

The film also reminds us that events that we tend to view as discreet never really end -- certainly not for those who were involved. The emotional wounds of that horrific day in Texas run deep.

Credit Maitland with achieving something that few films ever accomplish: He makes us feel violence, not just observe it. He also makes us aware of the lingering agonies of those who remain to talk about it.

The events that are depicted in the movie took place half a century ago, yet Maitland keeps them as vivid as if they were happening now. That makes Tower not only impactful, but essential.

Nominations for Critics' Choice awards

Sick of voting and nominations? Me, too. But if you're a movie lover, you're probably bracing for more. We'll see a raft of year-end critics' awards, the Golden Globes and ultimately, Oscar. The Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations were announced Thursday. The winners will be announced at the Critics' Choice gala, which will be broadcast on A&E at 8 p.m. (ET) on Dec. 11.

Arrival and Moonlight led the BFCA field with 10 nominations each, followed by Manchester by the Sea, which earned eight nominations.

I'm a voting member of the BFCA. Each year, I offer the complete list of Association nominations as a way for you (and me) to begin gearing up for a year-end review.

You'll note that there's no category for best documentary. The BFCA already presented its award for best documentary to Ava DuVernay's 13th, a probing examination of race and America's prison system.


FILM NOMINATIONS FOR THE 22ND ANNUAL CRITICS’ CHOICE AWARDS
BEST PICTURE
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion
Loving
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight
Sully

BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Joel Edgerton – Loving
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Tom Hanks – Sully
Denzel Washington – Fences

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams – Arrival
Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie
Emma Stone – La La Land

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences
Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Janelle Monáe – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS
Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
Alex R. Hibbert – Moonlight
Lewis MacDougall – A Monster Calls
Madina Nalwanga – Queen of Katwe
Sunny Pawar - Lion
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
20th Century Women
Fences
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

BEST DIRECTOR
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival
Denzel Washington – Fences

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Barry Jenkins - Moonlight
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthimis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
Jeff Nichols – Loving
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Luke Davies – Lion
Tom Ford – Nocturnal Animals
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
Todd Komarnicki – Sully
Allison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
August Wilson – Fences

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Stéphane Fontaine – Jackie
James Laxton – Moonlight
Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals
Linus Sandgren – La La Land
Bradford Young – Arrival

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Arrival – Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte/André Valade
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Stuart Craig/James Hambidge, Anna Pinnock
Jackie – Jean Rabasse, Véronique Melery
La La Land – David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Live by Night – Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh

BEST EDITING
Tom Cross – La La Land
John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge
Blu Murray – Sully
Nat Sanders/Joi McMillon - Moonlight
Joe Walker – Arrival

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Colleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins
Madeline Fontaine – Jackie
Joanna Johnston – Allied
Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh – Love & Friendship
Mary Zophres – La La Land

BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hacksaw Ridge
Jackie
Star Trek Beyond

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
A Monster Calls
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Red Turtle
Trolls
Zootopia

BEST ACTION MOVIE
Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool
Doctor Strange
Hacksaw Ridge
Jason Bourne

BEST ACTOR IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Benedict Cumberbatch – Doctor Strange
Matt Damon – Jason Bourne
Chris Evans – Captain America: Civil War
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

BEST ACTRESS IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Gal Gadot – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Scarlett Johansson – Captain America: Civil War
Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad
Tilda Swinton – Doctor Strange

BEST COMEDY
Central Intelligence
Deadpool
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
Hail, Caesar!
The Nice Guys

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
Ryan Gosling – The Nice Guys
Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins
Dwayne Johnson – Central Intelligence
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
Kate Beckinsale – Love & Friendship
Sally Field – Hello, My Name Is Doris
Kate McKinnon – Ghostbusters
Hailee Steinfeld – The Edge of Seventeen
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

BEST SCI-FI/HORROR MOVIE
10 Cloverfield Lane
Arrival
Doctor Strange
Don’t Breathe
Star Trek Beyond
The Witch

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Elle
The Handmaiden
Julieta
Neruda
The Salesman
Toni Erdmann

BEST SONG
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
Can’t Stop the Feeling – Trolls
City of Stars – La La Land
Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street
How Far I’ll Go - Moana
The Rules Don’t Apply – Rules Don’t Apply

BEST SCORE
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
Micachu – Jackie
Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka – Lion

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Warren Beatty's look at Hollywood

Beatty's performance as Howard Hughes proves engagingly nutty.
Friday morning's Hollywood Reporter offered the paper's box-office predictions for the Thanksgiving weekend. Not surprisingly, Moana, the animated feature from Disney, was leading a small pack of new releases. The Hollywood Reporter headline went on to note that Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply had bombed. Rules, the Reporter said, might earn $2 million from 2,382 runs for five days, that after grossing what the paper called a "scant" $285,000 on Thursday.

I don't particularly care about box-office receipts nor do I equate such numbers with artistic success, but the headline left me feeling a little sad because it felt like an era might have ended.

Beatty, who's now 79, always will be associated some very good and even great movies: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), Reds (1981) and Bugsy (1991). He directed two of those movies, Reds and Heaven Can Wait.

Beatty, who made his big-screen debut in 1961's Splendor in the Grass, hasn't been involved in a ton of movies, but he nonetheless epitomizes a certain kind of stardom, some of it having to do with his reputation as one of Hollywood's most prolific lovers. That was then. Beatty has been married to actress Annette Bening for 24 years. They have four children.

Scheduling conflicts forced me to miss screenings of Rules Don't Apply, which Beatty directed. The screenplay is credited to Beatty and writer Bo Goldman, whose work includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Shoot the Moon (1982), and Scent of a Woman (1992).

I finally caught up with the movie, although some of my anticipation had been dampened by the generally unenthusiastic reviews that greeted the movie last Wednesday.

I don't know if Beatty has given us a glimpse of the real Howard Hughes, but he certainly has assembled a strangely engaging performance as a reclusive egotist and world-class eccentric.

Beatty also can be very funny as a tycoon who hems and haws as his mind leaps from one task to another. As he anticipates his next move, Hughes seems to give the present moment only half of his attention.

Is Hughes crazy or canny? Some of the movie involves Hughes's struggle to retain ownership of TWA airlines and to protect himself from charges that he'd lost his mind.

Hughes's indifference to others comes across in almost benign fashion: He can seem so entirely oblivious to the effect he's having on others; his cruelty can seem almost inadvertent.

But the movie isn't only about Howard Hughes. It also focuses on an aspiring starlet (Lily Collins) who arrives in Hollywood with her religious mother (Annette Bening). Collins's Marla Mabrey has been summoned by Hughes for a screen test. A devout Baptist, Marla's golly-gee world view couldn't be further from Hughes's. Hughes's chauffeur (Alden Ehrenreich) becomes Marla's guide through a Hollywood wonderland -- although she seems determined enough not need anyone's help.

Matthew Broderick portrays Hughes's main attendant, a loyal fellow who works to fulfill Hughes's wishes -- which can shift within a matter of seconds. Banana nut ice cream, bought in great quantities, becomes an obsession -- until suddenly it's not.

Ehrenreich's Frank sticks with Hughes, partly because he's hoping Hughes will back him in a real estate venture and partly because he falls for Marla. Hughes forbids his employees from having relationships with his aspiring starlets.

Of course, the rules don't apply to Hughes: He takes advantage of innocent young Marla, although without much by way of malice and foresight. And of course, the he turns his employees into toadies whom he routinely humiliates.

The movie includes a variety of small performances from such notables as Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen and Ed Harris, but none of them really matter.

So what to conclude about Rules Don't Apply? Well, I'd see it for Beatty's performance, which might qualify as one of the great screen curiosities, revealing while simultaneously being shrouded in shadows of secrecy.

I certainly understand why many have called Rules Don't Apply a flop, but if you want to see what Beatty has done with Hughes's story, you may not care. Fair to say that Rules Don't Apply is not of this moment, but it may not be of any other moment, either.

At its best, the movie has a nutty, absurdist quality that suggests that the only mistake greater than participating in business and entertainment -- or the business of entertainment -- would be to take much about it at face value.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A shortage of suspense cripples 'Allied'

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard can't create a searing war-torn romance.

Director Robert Zemeckis's spy-movie romance, Allied, gets many of its genre gestures right but shortchanges an essential ingredient: smart, sustained suspense.

Working from a screenplay by the usually spot-on Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke), Zemeckis creates a star-driven vehicle that relies on the charisma and attractiveness of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.

That and lots of spiffy looking vintage cars of the 1940s.

This approach might have worked had Zemeckis not been saddled with two mismatched performances. Opting for restraint, Pitt comes off as detached and wooden. Cotillard shows more life, but the two actors are unable to create a duet that burns its way into Hollywood's pantheon of great romances.

Beginning in Casablanca (a bow to another movie about a war-torn romance), Allied throws Pitt's Max Vatan into contact with another undercover operative, Cotillard's Marianne Beausejour.

The two are supposed to pose as husband and wife so that they can attend a party at which a Nazi ambassador will be assassinated. So far, so good.

In a car in the desert -- in the middle of swirling sandstorm no less -- Max and Marianne have sex. What was supposed to be sham marriage turns real.

We expect trouble because the movie contains plenty of early dialogue in which Max warns about the dangers of emotional involvement in operations that require a high degree of focus.

The post-assassination story shifts to London, where Max and Marianne have taken up residence. A year after Casablanca, Marianne gives birth to a baby girl during a German blitz of London, perhaps setting a new standard for what it means to have a war baby.

Allied adds twists, but marches along without generating the requisite ripples of intrigue. I'd tell you more, but I'm going to avoid spoilers.

If you see Allied, think of what a director such as Alfred Hitchcock might have done with a similar scenario. Actually, you don't have to think about it: You can watch Hitchcock's Notorious.

Knight's screenplay offers little by way of supporting characters. Jared Harris plays Max's commanding officer; Simon McBurney portrays the aggressively insensitive intelligence offer; and Lizzy Caplan appears as Max's sister.

No fair telling more, but know that Allied's inability to spring to vivid life makes you wonder whether this kind of old-fashioned romance hasn't been milked dry.

Zemeckis (Flight and The Walk) is known for his ingenious use of special effects, but he might be off his game in this often low-key effort.

I can't say I believed a minute of Allied, but from its captivating opening shot (Pitt parachuting into the desert) to its misguided sentimental epilogue (I won't say more), the well-crafted Allied is dressed for a success it never really achieves.

Style can't save 'Nocturnal Animals'

Despite high style and self-conscious stabs at meaning, this one leaves a bad aftertaste.

Director Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals mixes the self-consciously stylish look of art-house cinema (or what some think of as art house cinema) with the substance of a trashy noir thriller. To borrow from the recent presidential campaign, the movie can be viewed as an attempt to go low and high at the same time.

The bulk of Ford's movie centers on Susan (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles art gallery owner who spends most of this overly determined effort either reading or remembering -- and doing very little actual living.

The movie begins with a piece of performance art at Susan's purportedly sophisticated gallery. Wearing only majorette hats and boots, some very heavy women are seen dancing. The piece demands that we look at bodies that normally would remain hidden.

Whether Ford intends this fleshy romp as ironic commentary about the hollowness of the current art scene remains unclear. Maybe it's a bit of visual snark about Hollywood's tyranny of thinness. Your guess is as good as mine.

The most vivid part of the movie involves Ford's presentation of the brutal, exploitative story that Susan spends most of the movie reading.

This story within a story begins when Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist she hasn't seen since she upended their marriage 19 years earlier.

Dedicated to her, the book tells the story of a West Texas incident in which a hapless husband (also Gyllenhaal), a wife and their teen-age daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are harassed by redneck creeps on a lonely Texas highway. Mother and daughter don't fare well.

This part of the story eventually becomes a revenge tale in which Gyllenhaal's character joins forces with a local lawman (Michael Shannon) whose rasping cough turns out to be a case of terminal lung cancer.

Shannon's Bobby Andes urges the aggrieved husband toward vengeance, as the movie prattles on about whether Gyllenhaal's character has the stomach for taking matters into his own hands. Is he weak or is he a real man?

Other scenes immerse us in Susan's meaning-challenged life, an existence steeped in self-loathing -- albeit in upscale surroundings of a kind few of us ever actually encounter. Oh, how the rich do suffer.

Susan lives with her philandering second husband (Armie Hammer), a businessman who's going through a slump. He conveniently leaves LA for a trip to New York, which makes it possible for Susan to spend most of the movie reading in bed.

Ford's layered approach to narrative also charts the course of Susan's first marriage: Susan wants a life her aspiring novelist husband can't provide, thus proving that her mother (Laura Linney in cameo) was right to suggest that she find a stronger mate.

Shannon gives the movie's best performance, proving that he can be scary even when he's on the right side of the law.

Trapped in a purposeless world of art and glitz, Susan doesn't provide Adams with enough opportunity to vary her performance, and Gyllenhaal does what he can with dual roles, sweating through bouts of grief and existential desperation.

Ford (A Single Man) piles on the style as he traces noir gestures in the air, leaving little but a sour aftertaste as the movie dissolves into a muddled and disconcerting ether.