Criticism, Movies

Review: Jake Gyllenhaal makes us crawl in tense noir ‘Nightcrawler’

No Comments 31 October 2014

Creepy Crawly Jake Gyllenhaal

Creepy Crawly Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal, having gotten the blockbuster-hero thing out of his system with 2010’s Prince of Persia, is clearly interested in exploring new acting challenges, as his turns in last year’s Prisoners and Enemy proved. In director Dan Gilroy’s sleek crime-thriller, Nightcrawler, the 33-year-old star has found a role in which he can act against his good looks and buff bod. He throws himself out there and falls — until something darker and deeper kicks in.

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.

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Criticism, Movies

Review: Keira Knightley Awakens Seattle in ‘Laggies’

No Comments 30 October 2014

Keira Knightley dresses down (and out).

Keira Knightley dresses down (and out).

“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?

Read More on IndieWire’s “Women and Hollywood” blog…

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’

No Comments 22 October 2014

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Winging it in the Cartoon Jungle

Welcome back, Michael Keaton.

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.

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Up in the Air, Senior Birdmen

Inarritu’s direction is fluid and dynamic, the dialog alternately funny and barbed, and Antonio Sanchez’s score jazzy and unexpected. The heat rises when Edward Norton enters the scene as the egomaniacal Broadway actor Mike Shiner, a last-minute replacement for Thomson’s injured co-star. The stage is set for a battle of super-charged egos played out in front of a full house. This inspires a fantastic scene where Shiner gets drunk on stage and humiliates Thomson. And, in another, Thomson gets locked out at the stage door and returns via the audience, clad only in his tighty whities and wet toupee to deliver his best line reading ever.

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.

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Criticism, Movies, Mystery

Gone, Baby, Gone: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike Kiss Deadly in David Fincher’s Killer Thriller

No Comments 04 October 2014

Pike's Peak with a side of Affleck

Pike’s Peak with a side of Affleck

There hasn’t been a soignée blonde so flat-out hate-able since Gwyneth bitched about the burdens of motherhood. Welcome to the A-list, Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike! The tall, slender, Oxford-educated actress who made her feature film debut in Die Another Day in 2002 would have made a great Hitchcock obsession, pecked by birds or poked in the shower.

Pike escapes playing go-to girlfriend roles (Jack Reacher opposite Tom Cruise) to rule as the title anti-heroine in David Fincher’s highly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s marriage-gone-wild thriller, which opened last Friday following its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Flynn, a former journalist, also scripted, tweaking an ending that never quite satisfied on the page.

For novel fans, there will be few surprises (read here for my review of the book on Goodreads: Amy Dunne (Pike), whose parents irksomely exploited her childhood in a profitable children’s book series titled Amazing Amy, disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck doing an Affleck). Nick, who has retreated with Amy to his Missouri hometown after they both lost their Manhattan writers’ jobs, is at first the bereaved and befuddled husband. And then, thanks to some helpful clues, and the doggedness of Detective Rhonda Boney (a tart Kim Dickens), the trail begins to point at imperfect Nick and suggest foul play.

Out, out damn spot for Pike's Appalling Amy.

Out, out damn spot for Pike’s Appalling Amy.

As Amy’s parents arrive from New York and generate a media frenzy to find their daughter as much as whip up flagging book sales, Nick begins to appear increasingly suspicious. Continue Reading

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Criticism, Movies

St. Petersburg Diary: “Lost” Benedict Cumberbatch Drama Surfaces in Russia

13 Comments 03 October 2014

Benedict Cumberbatch hoards family secrets in "Wreckers"

Benedict Cumberbatch hordes family secrets in “Wreckers”

Imagine my surprise to be in St. Petersburg and see a Benedict Cumberbatch movie about which I knew nothing. I discovered that Cumberbatch, now headed for an Oscar nomination in The Imitation Game, starred in Wreckers. The British independent film directed by first-time Director D. R. Hood premiered in the UK in 2011 after the star’s first season playing the title role in Sherlock and around the time of stand-out supporting roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and War Horse. Following its British release in 2011, in Japan in 2014 and on television in the Netherlands in 2012. the film never made it to the United States.

In the intimate drama that The Guardian called a “sure-footed debut,” Cumberbatch plays David, a teacher who moves from London with his beautiful young wife Dawn (Claire Foy) to the rural village where he grew up with his young brother, Nick (Endeavour‘s Shaun Evans). Bliss ensues — chickens are raised, eggs harvested, old farmhouse rehabbed — until Nick shows up unexpectedly. The Afghan vet has a full duffel bag of difficulties from sleepwalking to PTSD, not to mention a bundle of family secrets that David has neglected to tell his bride. Nick’s presence starts roiling up the family mud beneath the deceptively bucolic surface of village life.

Foy, Cumberbatch spark

Foy, Cumberbatch spark

Cumberbatch is in fine form, working without the net of uber-brilliance that defines his Sherlock or Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, or the superpowers of his Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. His David is relatively normal, a decent husband with just a few human-sized skeletons in his closet. He’s softer here, a man in love romantically and fraternally. His character is emotional, sexy, and a bit rough under his posh pretensions as he tries desperately to keep his past buried.

Wreckers is not remarkable solely as a star vehicle for Cumberbatch. Fans of BBC’s Endeavour, the prequel to the long-running series Inspector Morse, will appreciate Evans who is currently best known as the awkwardly charismatic Oxford detective.

And then, as David’s sensitive wife, there is Foy. Remember that name: the freckled English beauty that resembles Karen Allen or Margot Kidder’s going to be big. She has the role of Anne Boleyn in the upcoming BBC/HBO miniseries Wolf Hall slated for 2015. For anyone that’s read the Hilary Mantel historical bestseller on which it’s based, you know that is one major meaty role, the kind of wily regal female that made Lena Headey’s career in Game of Thrones

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The Theory of Everything
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