Brigsby Bear (McCary; 2017)

Kyle Mooney is both the star and writer (along with Kevin Costello) of Brigsby Bear, the film which was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is getting a good deal of buzz due to its creatively charming use of obviously very low budget visuals.  Mooney plays James, a man who for reasons I won’t go into has had a very stunted development, and who is obsessed with a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”, a show which teaches lessons from the alphabet and counting to advanced factorials, why you shouldn’t masturbate more than once a day, and how to respect the personal space of others.  When James can suddenly no longer watch his beloved “Brigsby Bear” once a week, he takes it upon himself to write and film the show’s finale.

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The first thing to say about Brigsby Bear is that it is utterly charming.  This movie does not have a metaphorical mean bone in its entire metaphorical body.  Even the subjects which could take on a very dark tone, of which there are quite a few, are handled with a light touch.  The story could take on many dark and twisted turns to add drama and heft, but it wisely never goes down any of those roads giving us instead a wink letting us know the writers are fully aware they could have handed us a very dark film and purposefully decided not to.

The genre of Brigsby Bear defies description as it is a little comedy, a little drama, sort of a coming of age movie in which the person coming of age is already an adult, sort of a family drama, but the element the many different facets of Brigsby Bear have in common is that is always optimistic.  No one is ever mean to anyone else in Brigsby Bear, even though you would think the subject matter is screaming out for someone to play the curmudgeon, and the only real conflict is in the people surrounding James disagreeing with each other how best to help James overcome his unusual past and join the rest of society.   It’s a friendly world full of friendly people, and that on its own may be the most unusual and creative thing about Brigsby Bear.

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That is also Brigsby Bear‘s greatest weakness.  While it is highly unusual to see a film made up almost entirely of nice people doing nice things, that doesn’t make for gripping drama.  The biggest conflicts to be seen here are the younger sister getting a little snitty that her brother is a weirdo and the psychiatrist insisting that James stop thinking about “Brigsby Bear”, even though we know that’s not going to happen.  While it’s an interesting exercise to see a film that relies almost entirely on charm over tension, an hour and forty minutes is a long time for what is essentially a well written sit-com episode.

The cast of Brigsby Bear is an excellent mix of actors we haven’t seen around much in too long a time.  Other than Kyle Mooney who is in nearly every scene of the film, we also have Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear as a police detective who left behind his dreams of being a theater actor a long time ago, Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as James’ parents, and even Andy Samberg poking his head in for what amounts to barely more than a cameo.  All do an excellent job at making us like them and communicating the “Always follow your dreams” message of the movie, but none really have a lot of meat to work with in the script, truth be told.  Again, everyone is great at being charming, but that’s all that is really asked of the cast.

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Final verdict:  Brigsby Bear with its seemingly endless supply of optimism and charm is a welcome diversion away from the standard Hollywood film, especially of late.  However, its lack of any sort of real conflict makes for an experience which does nothing more than make us smile at just how damn cute it is.  If you’re feeling especially down on people, Brigsby Bear may actually go a long way toward helping you out of that funk, and I expect that is largely the point of the film.  But, know that the only real adventure to be found here, is the adventure of seeing normal daily life from an unusual perspective.  Brigsby Bear does get a recommendation from me primarily because so many of us need some restoration of faith in humanity right now, but don’t expect this movie to be remembered long after it leaves theaters, it has the spark of creativity, but not the spark of greatness, unfortunately.

 

Nocturnal Animals (Ford; 2016)

Amy Adams is Susan Morrow, an art gallery director living in Los Angeles in Nocturnal Animals.  She is living a life many people think they aspire to with multiple penthouse apartments in multiple cities, a husband with a good career of his own and fashion model looks, admiration from the masses, but she feels empty and knows much of the image she projects is a sham.  One day she gets a package in the mail, and in this package is a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield played by Jake Gyllenhall) of 20 years earlier with a note asking her to read it and asking for her opinion.  Intrigued and nostalgic for her old life, she does so, and this story within a story along with the way she reacts to it is the crux of Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is a well crafted film.  The book within the movie is the more archetypal story with a narrative that builds and crescendos using the classical elements of drama, but Susan’s story as she reads the manuscript and interacts with her world is what gives the movie its real weight and meaning.  One piece of the film could not exist without the other even though they appear on the surface to be separate stories.  Part of me wonders if this is as much a crutch as a device since neither story really has a lot to offer on its own, it is at least a well concealed and used crutch.

The best part of Nocturnal Animals is most certainly the performances from its excellent cast of actors.  Amy Adams shows time and time again in everything she touches that she is truly a jewel in Hollywood’s crown and unarguably one of the greatest actors working today.  Jake Gyllenhall has to play double duty in two different roles in Nocturnal Animals, and one of those two is the largest role in the film, but Amy Adams gets top billing here despite that not just because she gives the best performance but because without her very sensitive and profound interpretation of the character of Susan this film would most likely fail.  Every performance on display is remarkable, and it is obvious that Ford is truly an “actors’ director”,  but Amy Adams stands out even amongst the other great work on display.

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Just rub it in that most of us in the cast never even got to work with her.

The visuals, and in particular the art direction, in Nocturnal Animals is sumptuous, and the one thing that rivals the acting for quality.  The movie takes place in two very different worlds, those being the wealthiest playgrounds of the Los Angeles elite power players and the poorest most remote areas of West Texas.   From the most lush of penthouses to the trashiest of trailers no detail was left untouched and the framing of each shot was also obviously thought through to most take advantage of the environment.  The director, Tom Ford, is known as much or more as a fashion designer as he is a film director, and his eye for detail is most certainly a heavy influence on his directorial style which very much shows in every visual element of Nocturnal Animals.

The success of Nocturnal Animals ultimately, though, falls on the weight of its themes.  It’s what this movie is all about as it makes so apparent, and in that area I cannot give better than a very mixed review.  Nocturnal Animals is through and through a revenge story, and while I can’t give any details about that revenge without spoiling a great deal, the ultimate message seems to be that all of us out there, no matter how well meaning, are rotten to the core and our rottenness spreads and infects even the most innocent and well intentioned eventually.  This message is wielded like a sledge hammer throughout the film, and particularly in its ending.  It’s a message that even though obvious is well stated, but ultimately, why is it a message worth stating?  First off, even if true, it’s something a great many already feel and don’t need to be told, but more importantly, the film gives no solution or advice, just condemnation and anger.  It’s ultimately a nihilistic, pessimistic piece of work.  It can be used as a form of catharsis for those, which would be nearly all of us, who felt they have been wronged by someone in their past but in a film as dark as this one I prefer at least an offer of some sort of solution or a story told in a way that makes us come to surprise revelations about our own nature rather than one that wields negative emotion as a broad sweeping cudgel.

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Investigating the scene where the broad sweeping cudgel was used.

There is a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, the wonderful performances most of all, but its lovingly detailed visuals and its intricacies of the story are also quite the pleasure to mull over, and almost demand this be a film you view more than once to take everything in.  However, your enjoyment will hinge on whether you can take the themes which are not just dark but downright mean and angry, but nevertheless the most integral part of understanding the story.  I recommend Nocturnal Animals to those who are Oscar junkies, as you will be seeing this movie mentioned in the nominations, and to those who need to vent pent up anger at someone who betrayed you in the past, but if you are a well adjusted casual movie goer, it’s a little harder to determine if this is one you should see.  I guess all I can say is if you find yourself drawn to story within a story plots and don’t worry too much about the positivity nor practicality of a movie’s message, then Nocturnal Animals is a movie for you, otherwise this is one to take in at your own risk.

Rating:  7.2 out of 10