Gyllenhaal plays unemployed Angeleno Louis Bloom, a marginal, big-eyed galoot, we first see stealing metal for cash. One night, he pulls his clunker off to the side of the freeway to gawk at a fiery crash. It’s one of those daily disasters that most commuters drive past and later watch on the local evening news. Bloom discovers the source of that TV footage: rogue stringers — called “nightcrawlers” — who roam the city, cameras in hand, after dark. It’s an “aha” moment.
Bloom steals a bike, and buys a camera and police scanner. He reinvents himself, selling his footage to a local TV news director named Nina (played terrifically by Rene Russo). And thus — in a twisted take on the American rags-to-riches story — a nightcrawler is born.
Written with a deft touch by Gilroy, who co-penned The Bourne Legacy for director-brother Tony (one of the film’s producers), the tightly-framed tale delves into the same voyeuristic themes as Blow-Up and Rear Window. We are watching footage of someone capturing footage of something forbidden yet thrilling.
Drawn to carnage like viewers of the nightly news, Bloom crosses the police tape, getting a narcotic thrill from his video safaris. And then he takes his nocturnal activities to a new and dangerous place, actually staging filmable tableaux, and, later, stumbling into an apparent home invasion. He becomes an active participant in the story rather than just a passive observer.
Fast-paced, character-driven and creepy (with appropriately lurid imagery from cinematographer Robert Elswit), Nightcrawler overturns familiar LAPD car-chase clichés, while still delivering a rush. We are drawn to Bloom’s voyeurism and repelled by his actions: a tension that builds to a sickening climax. We can’t look away.
“Suck it up, go with your gut.” That’s the advice Seattle late twentysomething Megan (Keira Knightley) gives to adolescent Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) at the end of Lynn Shelton’s most commercial movie yet, Laggies. Shelton herself has followed that mantra, pioneering a successful indie career by going with her gut. She’s a generous filmmaker, giving female characters dimension and detail without sacrificing the crispness of her men.
Shelton has created a cottage industry in Seattle making films that are cool, contemporary, and just a little bit angsty without being all tattooed-edgy. I loved the sibling issues raised, and the actresses engaged — Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt — in the prickly yet tender comedy Your Sister’s Sister. I sighed during the uneven masseuse dramedy Touchy Feely, also starring DeWitt, a yeasty bread that refused to rise. Everyone makes mistakes, though women directors often don’t get a second chance.
But Shelton, who directs both TV (the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat) and has three film scripts in development, sucked it up, undeterred. And along came the Sundance hit Laggies, slang for folks that are lagging behind but don’t have the true philosophical entropy of slackers. It’s a more temporary condition.
The comedy, which Shelton directed from Andrea Seigel’s sexy, sweet-natured screenplay, opens briskly. Megan escapes a claustrophobic wedding reception in which her sympathetic beau (Mark Webber) has just tried to kneel down and propose. He’s doing the right thing, but Megan instinctually recoils: How can it feel so wrong? Is that all there is, my friend? What happened to flat-out fun on the modern woman’s rush to career, love, marriage, and a baby carriage?
Whether you remember him as the guy who threw away the Batman franchise before comic books were king, or the comic genius of Beetlejuice, Keaton is the crazy spinning center of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman, which closed the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival and exited Venice with massive buzz that may be tough to sustain.
Keaton plays aging Hollywood has-been Riggan Thomson – see him remove his toupee to reveal a hairline that would politely be termed receding. The [oxymoron alert] self-absorbed actor is staging a Broadway comeback in his own pretentious adaptation of Raymond Carver short stories that Thomson also produced, directed and in which he stars. Thomson’s haunted by his past – he even hears voices – when he played a hooded, flying character named Birdman, with a very close resemblance to the Caped Crusader.
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is wholly intentional.
The premise gives the Mexico-born Inarritu (Babel) the chance to poke fun at the Hollywood blockbuster machine – digs are made at Robert Downey Jr. and other thespians-turned-superheroes for fat paychecks. Additionally, it creates a swirling backstage story of intrigue, infidelity and decadence with a dash of Latin American magic realism.
Norton and Keaton have a bright ensemble dancing around them: Emma Stone as Thomson’s world-weary fresh-out-of-rehab daughter; Naomi Watts as the play’s sexy but insecure female lead and Shiner’s doormat; and a relatively subdued Zach Galifianakis as Thomson’s lawyer/co-producer/enabler.
While I love all the smoke and mirrors, and Keaton’s herculean Oscar-bait comeback beside Norton’s ripping supporting performance, by the third act, I began losing traction. By the time Thomson throws a tear-down-his-dressing-room tantrum, along with a gratuitous girl-on-girl kiss, I began to wonder what was the there there? Where is this going and why?
As I found in Inarritu’s Babel, and then Biutiful, there is a brilliant talent hindered by an ‘I’m better than Hollywood’ smugness. He is, that’s true, but I want Inarritu to deliver all the way, to break every mold, to really take wing. He almost did this time.
The Media Forum’s General Producer Ekaterina “Katya” Mtsitouridze, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Variety Russia, told me she chose the movie with her gut. And, after seeing it a second time, I realized that I was emotionally gutted by the dysfunctional mother-son drama that is Canada’s pick for the Oscars in a way that few contemporary films deliver.
Bold, too, were the choices to screen two more Cannes favorites, both exploring gay themes despite considerable contemporary LGBT controversy in Russia. During the recent Olympics, the New Yorker‘s David Remnick reported “there reigns a disdainful and intimidating unanimity: homosexuals are a threat to morality, to the family, and to the state.”
But, in St. Petersburg, 440 miles NW of Moscow, Remnick’s blanket description did not cover the Russian premiere of Francois Ozon’s sophisticated and wry audience favorite The New Girlfriend. The charming French film about a woman’s intimate relationship with a cross-dressing widower played to an appreciative full house at the gracious art nouveau cinema Aurora on Nevsky Prospekt.
The New Girlfriend continues Ozon’s explorations of the many strange and beautiful ways men and women connect. The dramedy charts a growing bond between a bereaved young woman and her best friend’s widower – a situation complicated by the fact that the man has taken to wearing his late wife’s wardrobe. The filmmaker loves women – and overturning preconceptions about where masculine and feminine intercept – and this is among his best movies.
Another gala Russian premiere, the French Oscar selection, Saint Laurent, one of two biopics on the hedonistic gay designer Yves Saint Laurent encountered a bit more difficulty capturing the entire audience’s attention at its Saturday night showing at the Rodino Cinema Center. Whether this was because, after a late start and a 135 minute running time, it cut into the Saturday late-night dinner hour, or the images of rough trade and drug abuse and male genitalia offended some old-school audience members was unclear.
St. Petersburg audiences themselves can be a challenge. Cell phones are ubiquitous and it’s common for them to ring mid-film. A polite talker will get up and walk across the row before continuing the conversation – others simply stage whisper while the movie continues. Similarly, chatting during the movie is not all that unusual, with the young women next to me keeping a running commentary during Saint Laurent, including giggles at the racy bits.
When asked whether it was bold for SPIMF to spotlight these openly LGBT films in light of Vladimir Putin’s 2013 law classifying “homosexual propaganda” as pornography and a tide of legislation criminalizing homosexuality, the sophisticated Mtsitouridze laid down a definitive “no.” She characterized the law as antiquated, and continued, “My answer is: come be in Russia with us. Help us to be open and to change attitudes. Because our generation, we’re called the Perestroika Children, we had never any problems to say something with freedom of speech. And, for us, it’s shocking, these kinds of rules, which don’t change anything, actually, except the reputation of the country.”
SPIMF, which also included a market and industry panels as well as showcasing television pilots like Showtime’s upcoming The Affair with Dominic West and Maura Tierney and screening the little-seen 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch film Wreckers, is rooted in Mtsitouridze’s contagious idealism – and reflects the cultural sophistication of St. Petersburg. “It’s a very intelligent city, it’s an intellectual city,” said Mtsitouridze. “They have huge traditions of culture and half of the great Russian writers and musicians are from this city. I mean, past and today also. That’s why, again, I decided to do the Media Forum here but not in Moscow…We’re not going to go back to the Cold War. The internet has changed everything.”
Biopics have always been one of Oscar’s favorite genres: Consider A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Walk the Line, The Last King of Scotland and Milk. It may have been The King’s Speech that inspired this outpouring of veddy veddy English movie, but while the current crop is similar in genre, they are not the birds of one feather. The actors may play real-life public figures, but their approaches to their characters couldn’t be more different.
Redmayne, 32, fresh off awards buzz for his singing romantic hero in Les Miserables, takes on the brilliant yet physically challenged Hawking. He told Yahoo Movies that he believes biopics appeal to actors and audiences because of “the cult of celebrity…We see images of people like Hawking, or Turing, or Turner, and yet, because we are all human, we’re aware that it can’t be as simple as it looks on the surface. Biopics reveal what grounds these stellar individuals as human beings rather than just as achievers.”
In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking begins at Cambridge – also the actor’s alma mater — before illness sets in. On campus, Hawking romances the pretty scholar (Felicity Jones) who will become his wife. But very shortly, Hawking’s fingers have trouble grasping a pencil, he trips over his own feet – and it is one long spiral from cane to wheelchair as ALS changes the course of his life. Despite this, he still authors the bestseller The Brief History of Time. This performance could easily be compared to the one that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990.
Cumberbatch, 38, gives a complex emotional performance, where the intellectual’s scars are largely internal. The actor expresses every glimmer of feeling in his blue-green eyes, delivering brilliant line readings from a sharp script. He slayed me. The Emmy-winner best known for playing the TV’s sociopathic Sherlock Holmes takes on a figure less known in America than Hawkings, in a story with a less traditional arc.
Alan Turing, a brilliant and difficult puzzle-solver and Cambridge academic cracked the German Enigma code, playing a major part in defeating the Nazis in WWII. A homosexual, his greatest personal tragedy occurred in 1952 when Her Majesty’s government arrested him for the crime of gross indecency. Turing accepted chemical castration to avoid prison, only to commit suicide one year later. The bitter irony here is that his genius preserved democracy, but his own society failed him less than a decade later.
And then along comes Spall, 57, the classically trained character actor best known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter saga. (He also played Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech.) He brilliantly carries this Mike Leigh directed biopic of the Victorian landscape painter J.M.W.Turner. Spall has already won a Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal, an almost comic conglomeration of grunts, mutters, and grumbles roughly translated into English. While his Turner is far from eloquent or emotionally accessible – much less likeable – he is deeply human. Spall shows us a brilliant artist who creates transcendent work, even if his life is a patchwork of bullying and carnal urges and, now and then, genuine affection. Working in Leigh’s signature style, there is a feeling of improvisation to Spall’s performance, a looseness and spontaneity, as if the paint has hardly dried before they move on to the next scene.
God save her, the English monarch plays a role in all three features: Queen Victoria turns up at one of Turner’s art exhibitions only to fling insults at his canvases, Queen Elizabeth bestows an OBE on Hawking at the end of The Theory of Everything and, in 2013, she posthumously pardoned Turing from all charges of indecency.
Cumberbatch who, following rapturous reviews, will now be launched by The Weinstein Company on a Best Actor campaign, confided to Yahoo Movies: “The thing I’m interested in is that the buzz creates and generates an audience…I want a lot of people to understand Turing. Any attention that encourages people to get to know, understand and marvel and thank Alan Turing — at that whole strand of his all-too-brief life — is justification enough.”