Response Journal: Nightcrawler (2014)

How to make it in America

A chilly satire about perverted entrepreneurship and the unscrupulous media, Nightcrawler is worthwhile. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a sociopathic self-starter who finds his calling with nocturnal freelance news photography. Eavesdropping on police scanners he speeds around Los Angeles’s hairpin highways and mountainsides to capture the bloody aftermaths of crashes, structure fires and homicides. He then sells the footage, the more shocking the better, to the highest bidding networks. With greasy hair, a suit pulled from a manikin at a department store for recluse pedophiles, and the grin and gait of a released mental patient, Gyllenhaal plays creepy surprisingly well. The character’s antisocial peculiarities manifest in the way Gyllenhaal speaks as if he’s reading an instructional brochure and turns every conversation into a negotiation: Bloom’s sexual advances toward a desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) fall somewhere between bartering and blackmail. The baroque cinematography and seedy production design combine to turn LA landmarks—Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park, and Hollywood Boulevard, et al—into stops along the River Styx as Bloom becomes the Beelzebub of ambush journalism, more aggressively chasing premium stock and attempting to establish a successful brand, which includes eliminating the competition (Bill Paxton) and exploiting a naïve intern (Riz Ahmed). Moreover writer-director Dan Gilroy blends various genre elements rather smoothly—in a car-chase Bloom films police on a high-speed pursuit; a suspense set-piece unfolds as he sneaks into a home, burglary in progress; gory images complement breakfast for morning-news consumers; and in an astonishing instance of black comedy Bloom explains good business practices to a dying gunshot victim. As a character study of a nighttime loner who descends into madness amid urban sprawl, the movie is like Taxi Driver for the Internet Age; but whereas Travis Bickle was a misguided romantic, Bloom is a coldblooded misanthrope whose unsavory ambitions make him closer to some machine-like metaphor for cutthroat capitalism than a breathing human being. Such simplistic characterization, dialogue that too explicitly conveys themes and James Newton Howard’s emotionally pushy score deprive the movie of the psychological illuminants of finer pulp filmmaking. In the end, though, I think Nightcrawler prefers the shadows and makes engaging enough the morbid cynicism it finds there.

Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Production design by Kevin Kavanaugh.

Response Journal: Birdman (2014)

Batman by way of Laurence Olivier

In Greek mythology, Icarus famously flew too close to the sun on wings made from wax then plummeted to his death once they melted. An obvious inspiration, Birdman makes mention of Icarus more than once, but I think the myth applies more to the director—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu—than to the movie. The running theme with his work is that his ambitions outmatch his abilities, and he always crashes midflight. A backstage musical (of sorts), Birdman cannily casts Michael Keaton as a washed-up movie star who headlined a popular superhero franchise in the nineties. To prove his worth as a serious thespian he adapts a Raymond Carver novel into a play to direct and star in himself. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play his impertinent costars, but since everything is intended as raucous Theater, the company also includes Zach Galifinackis as a stressed-out financier, Emma Stone as Keaton’s bratty assistant/daughter, Amy Ryan as his pensive ex-wife and Lindsay Duncan as Broadway’s haughtiest tastemaker. All are terrific, particularly Keaton as a wistfully self-deriding joke on his own diminishing celebrity and Norton as a genius prima donna so engrossed in performing that he’s forgotten how to experience reality. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably noteworthy, with fisheye close-ups that spotlight Keaton’s roadmap of wrinkles (likewise Stone’s lizard-face) and handheld long-takes that follow the characters through narrow corridors and into lonely dressing rooms. With invisible transitions borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rope, the editing conveys an illusion of impromptu seamlessness. Accompanied by a jazzy drum score, the overall aesthetic suits the world of high-strung actors, histrionic misbehavior and raging egos. For all that, the movie overexerts in the final third, taking off into befuddled flights of fancy and faltering to jejune storytelling, thus accomplishing little beyond entertaining bombast (especially compared to the other film this year set in a playhouse—Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur). While I enjoyed this Inarritu picture more than any other, an Inarritu picture it remains, so alas, Birdman concludes feeling long, disjointed and thematically ambivalent when not painfully obvious. Despite tremendous work, the cast and crew cannot rescue their director from soaring into the sun yet again, though it must be said, soaring is itself an astonishing feat.

Costarring Andrea Riseborough. Music by Antonio Sanchez.

Response Journal: Fury (2014)

“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee

If Fury director David Ayer is so convinced of war’s awfulness why does he also seem so damn fond of it? In the last days of World War II an American tank commander (Brad Pitt) leads a crew comprised of shallow genre stereotypes—a religious guy (Shia LaBeouf), an ethnic guy (Michael Pena), a vulgar guy (Jon Bernthal) and a new guy (Logan Lerman)—as they rumble through bombed-out Germany. Lerman’s hastened arc from a wan puking rookie to a hardened Nazi-killer extraordinaire provides some semblance of narrative structure, though all the characters are unlikable, appear closer to a band of pirates than a band of brothers and drop more mumbled platitudes than machine gun shells. The only good scene is when they confront a superior German tank and the two behemoths circle one-another in an armored combat waltz. The most ambitious sequence, however, occurs immediately before in an awkward attempt at quieter human drama when the men sit down for eggs and coffee with two petrified fraulein hostages. It’s heavy-handed at best and hateful at worst since the only aspect of humanity David Ayer really wants to explore is our entrails. Feebly aspiring to match the apocalyptic air of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame and the visceral carnage of Saving Private Ryan, Ayer’s picture is nothing besides dung-ugly exploitation with so much gratuitous violence (a man commits suicide to end the pain of burning alive, civilians hanged from power lines decorate the roadside, bulldozers shovel heaps of dismembered corpses into mass graves) and tastelessly morose production design (somber skies, fields chewed into muddy pits, wrecked smoking vehicles). Sure everything serves to remind that war is hell, but not all wars are the same and zero insights on this particular conflict are ever opined which dooms Fury to resolute bleak pointlessness. That description, while apt for many historical events, is one no movie should ever proudly advertise.

Costarring Jason Isaacs. Cinematography by Roman Vasyanov.

Response Journal: Venus In Fur (2014)

Getting into character

Roman Polanski is a wanted man, has been since 1977. Yet he continues to make movies, especially ones that echo his clandestine existence. A fascinating adaptation of a Tony-winning play, Venus In Fur features just two cast members and one location, a perfect setup for the filmmaker’s brand of intimate malevolence. In an antiquated theater in Paris, a director (Mathieu Amalric) has about quit auditioning actresses for his latest production, when in enters one final candidate (Emmanuelle Seigner), an overeager, mysterious blonde whose name coincidentally is the same as the character’s. She reads with him substituting as her scene partner. Soon the text’s sadomasochistic chamber drama manifests itself anew as line-readings blur and overlap with directorial notes and creative interjections. Polanski always enjoyed setting his scenarios in claustrophobic places, and Venus In Fur is confined not merely to the playhouse but almost entirely to its stage, where the filmmaker can posit his philosophy that nothing—not even art—can protect people from themselves. Essentially a play-within-a-play-within-a-film (not to mention the original literary source and the props left onstage from an ill-advised iteration of Stagecoach), the film’s layers of artifice seep insidiously every which way. Lacing Polanski’s customary apprehension with doses of sexuality and wry humor, Venus In Fur is simultaneously good theater and intoxicating cinema.

Music by Alexandre Desplat.  Screenplay by David Ives and Roman Polanski.

Response Journal: Boyhood (2014)

In search of lost time…

Had Marcel Proust been a filmmaker from Texas, he might’ve directed Boyhood. Like any painstaking modernist opus, Richard Linklater’s remarkable coming-of-age drama had a notorious development. It was shot annually with the same cast for twelve years. Though the concept has existed in similar forms (Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, to name one), none has in a single installment so acutely explored the spaces where life and art intersect. The story follows Mason (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane, the film’s other subject) as he ages on camera from a quizzical moppet to an artistic graduate, splitting time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). A dozen years of shifting fashions, fads, and Top-40 tunes repurpose Mason’s upbringing into a cultural artifact, a time capsule of America in the early 21st Century. His physical maturation (height, weight, hairstyle, clothing and inflection) indicates an ongoing spiritual conflict with social expectations and clueless authority figures. It’s clear his parents had children before they were even adults themselves. The conclusion insinuates not the end, but the dawn of many more transformative years. Boyhood shows that life, comprised of millions of character-shaping moments, is a continual process of growing up.

Editing by Sandra Adair.  Costarring Lorelei Linklater.

Response Journal: Night Moves (2014)

Crime and punishment; and organic vegetables.

Night Moves, director Kelly Reichardt’s unnerving eco-thriller, is more ominous than most horror movies. Three environmental terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) conspire to blow-up a hydro-electrical dam in Oregon. Sarsgaard is good as a mysterious former Marine; Fanning is great as a proselyte with the means and motivation for radicalism, but not the stomach; and Eisenberg stands out among them in a performance that rivals his Oscar-nominated one from The Social Network. His character, a subsistence-farmer named Josh, seethes from moment one with quiet fury and neurosis. In the aftermath, when the focus closes around him like prison walls, the movie becomes a character study of a creature so paranoid and desperate, so isolated and perpetually lost, and burning so painfully with ambivalent sorrow that he’s haunted by his own essential impotence. Reichardt uses her signature naturalistic severity throughout to set a tone of unrelenting anxiety. If her movie says little about the Green movement in general, it speaks volumes about the nature of violence with or without ostensible cause. Night Moves is an intense drama wherein young people who think they’re saving the world simply add more misery to it.

Editing by Kelly Reichardt.  Cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt.

Response Journal: Belle (2014)

The tragic mulatto gets her fairy tale.

Belle is an overly quixotic, occasionally pedantic, but engaging British costume-drama about marriage and bigotry in the 18th century. It recounts the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an aristocratic Naval officer (Matthew Goode). As a child, she moves from Caribbean slums to an English estate to be reared by her blueblood relatives (Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson). As an adult, despite her exotic beauty and large inheritance, she remains something of an outsider in England’s matchmaking high-society. Painted in rather broad strokes, director Amma Assante’s movie exhibits the literary affectations of a BBC miniseries. Her cast—especially Mbatha-Raw—likewise play histrionic when more subdued emotions would seem more authentic. The heroine’s marital uncertainty parallels the incipient abolitionist movement, prompting harangues ad nauseam on England’s shifting moral standards. Pontificating as it is, Assante’s optimism resonates because of its unabashed sincerity—a refreshing sentiment in our cynical age. Eventually, in the second half as the dual narratives dovetail, Belle gains momentum and delivers on its promise of time-honored middlebrow melodrama.

Costarring Sarah Gadon and Tom Felton.  Production design by Simon Bowles.