Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nightcrawler




Film: Nightcrawler

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) and Rene Russo (Thor)

Director: Dan Gilroy

U.S. Release: October 31st, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Thriller

Runtime: 117 minutes

*** Guest Review by Greg Rouleau

There’s something remarkably intriguing about Los Angeles at night.  From the beautiful skyscrapers of the downtown area, the Hollywood hills overlooking a sea of illumination, the vastness of the valley and the Pacific coast - cinematically, the “City of Angels” is a perfect backdrop for the genre of crime-thrillers.  As seen in Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral, to the recent indie Drive, there’s a pulse from the urban setting that is unmistakable.  There’s no doubt that long-time writer, Dan Gilroy, with his first foray into the directing chair, was inspired by this locale for his new film, Nightcrawler.  Gilroy’s directorial debut is a wildly entertaining thrill ride that takes its time building up to a fantastic climax in the streets of downtown LA, but the payoff is worth the price of admission alone.

Louis Bloom is a drifter trying to earn a few bucks by pawning some stolen fencing and manhole covers during a late night excursion.  During his night out he stumbles upon a freeway accident where a couple of brave cops are attempting to rescue a woman from a burning car.  Like most of us would, he can’t turn away from the gruesome scene and investigates further, but what ultimately fascinates him is the guerrilla videographer who shows up at the right time to grab some footage to sell to the morning news.  “If it bleeds – it leads”, says the journalist, played with the perfect combination of charisma and sleaze by Bill Paxton.  From that moment, Bloom becomes a dedicated “nightcrawler”, purchasing a video camera and learning the tricks of the trade as he goes, it then becomes a question of how far is he willing to go in order to get a jump on his competition? 



Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, and it’s not hyperbole to say that even with an already impressive résumé, Nightcrawler is his best performance to date.  Credit Gilroy, too, for crafting such a character on the page.  A role like this in the wrong hands can easily become clichéd.  There’s an eerie calm to the way Lou operates, and conviction behind his every word.  He’s so convincing that you can imagine trusting him one moment, and the next, fearing that he may be criminally deranged.  Gyllenhaal is entering a period in his career where he could’ve succumbed to leading roles in more mainstream films, but it’s characters like this that seem to catch his eye and we’re all the better for it.

Gyllenhaal isn’t alone in the captivating performances, however, Rene Russo – wife of Gilroy - who has largely been absent for a decade now, aside from a small role in the Thor franchise – is outstanding as Nina, the editor who desperately needs a boost to her station’s ratings, and builds a relationship with the enigmatic Bloom.  Then there’s Riz Ahmed, who is a breath of fresh air and delivers an outstanding turn as Rick, Bloom’s intern.  The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are often the film’s lightest moments.



Surprisingly, with a title like Nightcrawler and a premise that deals with underground crime journalism, there are quite a few laughs throughout.  Even if it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, humor seems to find its way into many scenes.  Although the occasional laugh is welcome, you wonder if Gilroy could’ve pushed the envelope a little more when it came to the disturbing subject matter.  Without spoiling anything, there’s a pivotal scene late in the film that you have to wonder if it was altered because it may have been a little too unsettling for some.  Then there’s light media satire that presents itself, when Nina pushes the ethics of her staff to show footage that flirts with breaking the law.

Despite Dan Gilroy not being a household name, there’s plenty of impressive direction on display here.  The performances across the board are impressive and his ability to build tension throughout is quite admirable.  He also handles the few action sequences with grace.  You can color me intrigued as to what his next project may be.  It’s that time of the year when movies helmed by prestigious filmmakers start making their way into theaters to generate Oscar buzz, but it’s also a period where moviegoers are in search of some thrills because of the Halloween season.  While Nightcrawler may be flying under the radar for some, it’s absolutely the perfect marriage of the two thanks to some dazzling direction and a steady stream of thrills.


Stars: 3 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: A-

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Recap Part 2


Yesterday kicked off my first of a two-part series recapping each and every film I managed to catch at this year's Philadelphia Film Festival (click here for Part 1). Here's a look at the final eight titles that I ended up viewing.


Imperial Dreams


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Malik Vitthal's Imperial Dreams stood out as one of the most powerful dramas of the festival. Leading actor John Boyega gives a towering performance as Bambi, a young aspiring writer recently released from prison who's set on taking care of him son and making it out of the dangerous projects in Watts, Los Angeles. Imperial Dreams does a remarkable job of capturing the turmoil that people endure while living in poverty and trying to branch out from a criminal lifestyle. 


Teacher of the Year


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Matt Letscher and Keegan-Michael Key star in the laugh-filled mockumentary, Teacher of the Year. After beloved teacher Mitch Carter (Letscher) wins the California Teacher of the Year award, he's immediately confronted with a lucrative offer that could pry him away from his one true passion. The film chronicles Carter and the rest of his wacky, off-beat faculty members who offer an interesting and hilarious perspective on the current state of public education.


Wild Canaries


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

As both the director and leading actor, Lawrence Michael Levine's caper comedy, Wild Canaries, proved to be a fun little affair. Despite a periodically irritating lead role from Sophia Takal, the film delivers laughs and intrigue. I previously enjoyed Levine's work in an old Philadelphia Film Festival selection, Detonator, and the multi-talented performer shows he can handle comedy with ease. After their elderly neighbor ends up dying mysteriously, Barri (Takal) and Noah (Levine) begin to suspect foul play and put their inexperienced detective skills to work.


The Guest


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

In the vein of absurd and off-the-wall 80s B-movies, the team behind the horror sensation You're Next returns with The Guest. If you can look past its plot holes and head-scratching story, the film is actually quite a fun thrill ride. Dan Stevens stars as David, a former soldier who ends up on the doorstep of one his fallen friend's family. Still grieving from their son's passing, the family welcomes David into their home as the mysterious stranger's back-story slowly begins to unfold.


The Last 5 Years


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

Anna Kendrick continues to show off her pipes in the upcoming off-broadway musical adaptation from Richard LaGravenese, The Last 5 Years. The film examines all of the details surrounding the deteriorated relationship between a blossoming writer named Jamie (played by Jeremy Jordan) and his struggling actress wife, Catchy (Kendrick), in a unique fashion. Almost told entirely through song, this non-chronological story features Cathy's perspective from the end of the relationship towards the beginning, and Jamie's interpretation from the start of their romance to the conclusion, where the interweaving meets in the middle to a bitter revelation.


It Follows


2 stars out of 4 - C+

As a huge fan of scary movies (especially this time of year), I was really looking forward to the originaly premised horror tale, It Follows. The film follows a 19 year old young woman named Jay (played by Maika Monroe) who engages in an innocent sexual encounter that delivers fatal consequences. After the seemingly romantic incident, Jay awakens tied up by her captor and he reveals the shocking details that he's passed a haunting presence onto her. This presence is a slow-walking apparition that will never stop following her until she sleeps with someone else and passes it on to them. The idea is completely terrifying and translates well to the big screen, but I just wish It Follows would have taken the story to a more expansive level.


Glass Chin


1 and a half stars out of 4 - C-

Noah Buschel's non-traditional boxing tale, Glass Chin, stars Corey Stoll as a former rising boxing star named Bud Gordon whose life has been whittled done to the bare minimum. Desperate for a way back into the New York limelight, Bud takes a job with a ruthless schemer (played by Billy Crudup) who quickly turns the tables on the former boxer. Unraveling at a crawling pace and insufficiently supported by a paper-thin story, Glass Chin can't even be saved by eerily effective supporting turns from Yul Vazquez and Billy Crudup.


Big Significant Things


1 star out of 4 - D

Although the praises had been high for the self-discovery comedy, Big Significant Things, albeit from a limited number of sources, I found Bryan Reisberg's debut feature to be a hollow story with only sporadic laughs. I have no criticisms of Harry Lloyd's performance as Craig, a man who lies to his girlfriend and takes a solo road trip down south while she's on the west coast scouting out homes for their upcoming cross-country move. However, Lloyd isn't given much substance to work with and despite his grandest efforts, Big Significant Things trudges along towards a pointless conclusion to a boring story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014 Philadelphia Film Festival Recap Part 1


After outlining my Best of the Festival Picks yesterday, I thought I'd give a brief recap of all the films I had a chance to enjoy over the past 2 weeks of movie watching. First, I already reviewed a few festival selections like LaggiesBirdman, St. Vincent, The Imitation Game, Wild, Escobar: Paradise Lost and The Good Lie. Here's a look at some other films I caught at the Philadelphia Film Festival:


The Mule


3 stars out of 4 - B

One of the most bizarre and incredible stories at this year's festival comes from the Aussie film, The Mule. Terrific performances from Angus Sampson (who also co-directs) and Hugo Weaving anchor a captivating movie experience. The Mule follows Ray Jenkins, a shy television repairman who agrees to help a friend smuggle heroin into Australia from Thailand. However, after acting suspicious at the airport, Ray is taken into police custody where he can be held for seven days. In a battle of wits and bodily control, Ray tries to refrain from having a bowel movement so he can avoid going to jail.


'71


3 stars out of 4 - B

Unwavering intensity could be found at this year's festival with Yann Demange's '71. Jack O'Connell continues his breakout year with another dominating turn as a soldier trapped beyond enemy lines. O'Connell captured the attention of moviegoers with the summer indie release, Starred Up, and many are forecasting him as a Best Actor contender as the star in Angelina Jolie's Christmas release, Unbroken. However, in this latest film O'Connell plays a British soldier left to fend for himself on the violent streets of Belfast in 1971. The tension is constant and the thrills are plentiful in a fine example of action-packed filmmaking.


Faults


3 stars out of 4 - B

One of the pleasant surprises was the debut feature from filmmaker Riley Stearns entitled Faults. Stearns tells a carefully crafted story about Ansel (played convincingly by character actor Leland Orser), a down on his luck self-labeled "expert on cults". But after Leland is approached by a set of parents who claim their daughter Claire is being brainwashed by a cult, his financial predicaments force him to accept the job of deprogramming the young woman. Equal parts dark comedy and intense thriller, Mary Elizabeth Winstead carries Faults to a beautifully executed finale. While the story unravels in a quasi-predictable fashion, nothing can prepare you for the tension-filled third act that Stearns is able to capture on screen. 


Clouds of Sils Maria


3 stars out of 4 - B

More so than ever before, this year's Philadelphia Film Festival delivered an inordinate amount of female-centered films. And while I was awfully skeptical of the aging-woman drama, Clouds of Sils Maria, I can say in all honesty that I was rather impressed by wonderful performances and a strong screenplay. Juliette Binoche stars as famed actress, Maria Enders, who is asked to perform in a modern-day revival of the play that ultimately sparked her career. Yet, as 20 years have passed since then, Maria is expected to take the role of the older and more vulnerable female character. Kristen Stewart gives a career best performance alongside the always talented Juliette Binoche in an extremely honest story. 


Gabriel


3 stars out of 4 - B

My movie-watching concluded on Saturday October 25th with Rory Culkin's exceptional performance in the unsettling drama, Gabriel (but don't call him that). Culkin stars in the title role as a recently-released mental illness patient desperate to reconnect with his first love. The audience is forced to sit idly by as the main character gradually drifts further and further from reality. Gabriel is an uneasy and fantastic examination of mental illness and its ability to control individuals.


Love, Rosie


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

One obvious crowd-pleaser from this year's festival was the romantic comedy, Love, Rosie. Lily Collins proves an adorable lead in the occasionally irritating story of lifelong best friends, Rosie and Alex, who have never acted on their impulses to take their relationship to the next level. While the story is delivered in a comical and charming way, Love, Rosie is a worthwhile rom-com that thankfully calls it quits before the audience decides to turn on the film.


Creep


2 and a half stars out of 4 - B-

As a huge fan of Mark Duplass as both an actor and filmmaker, I was very excited to catch his new horror comedy at the festival. Representing one of the finer found-footage horror stories I've seen, Creep revolves around a videographer named Aaron (played by director Patrick Brice) and the client who recruits him through a craigslist ad (Duplass). As the skin-crawling events unfold and the client's unorthodox behavior becomes unbearable, Creep begins to escalate to a whole other level. Duplass is spectacular and the finale is simply unforgettable. 



Monday, October 27, 2014

The Best of the Philadelphia Film Festival 2014


Now that the 23rd annual Philadelphia Film Festival has come and gone, I've decided to reflect on the 21 new films I watched (I saw Lynn Shelton's Laggies for a second time) and break down the best movies and performances that I experienced. Sadly, this was my first festival that didn't produce an "A" movie. However, that doesn't mean the lineup they assembled was awful because there was really only one "clunker" in all of the 21 new films I witnessed. So here they are, my selections for the Best of the Fest (not including Laggies, which ranks on my Best of Sundance list):


Best Supporting Actress

Honorable Mention: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) and Naomi Watts (Birdman)

#3. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

#2. Laura Dern (Wild)

and the winner is ...


Emma Stone (Birdman)


Best Supporting Actor

Honorable Mention: Yul Vazquez (Glass Chin), Karl T. Wright (Teacher of the Year) and Mark Duplass (Creep)

#3. Hugo Weaving (The Mule)

#2. Benicio Del Toro (Escobar: Paradise Lost)

and the winner is ...


Edward Norton (Birdman)


Best Actress

Honorable Mention: Lily Collins (Love, Rosie) and Anna Kendrick (The Last 5 Years)

#3. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Faults)

#2. Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)

and the winner is ...


Reese Witherspoon (Wild)


Best Actor

Honorable Mention: Rory Culkin (Gabriel), John Boyega (Imperial Dreams) and Angus Sampson (The Mule)

#3. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

#2. Bill Murray (St. Vincent)

and the winner is ...


Michael Keaton (Birdman)


Best Director

Honorable Mention: Yann Demange ('71), Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) and Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson (The Mule)

#3. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

#2. Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild)

and the winner is ...


Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)


Best Picture

Honorable Mention: Wild, Escobar: Paradise Lost, Clouds of Sils Maria'71 and Faults

#3. The Mule


and the winner is ...



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wild




Film: Wild

Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Mud) and Laura Dern (The Fault in Our Stars)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club)

U.S. Release: December 5th, 2014 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 115 minutes


This year's Closing Night selection at the Philadelphia Film Festival was Jean-Marc Vallee's latest effort, Wild. Vallee has quickly climbed the ranks as a premier filmmaker thanks to the overwhelming success of last year's Dallas Buyers Club, which went on to collect 3 Academy Awards during its memorable run. While Wild clearly doesn't have the same impact and staying-power as his previous work, Vallee once again delivers a soulful true story that stands tall enough on its own.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a divorcee whose life begins to spiral out of control following the loss of her best friend and mother (played by Laura Dern). Unable to regain her composure, Cheryl embarks on an 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail in order to confront her demons and correct her path. Yet, nothing can prepared her for the mental and physical anguish she's set to endure along the way.


It's become abundantly clear that Jean-Marc Vallee has a unique way of drawing the best possible performances out of his actors. After leading both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to their first Oscars, Vallee evokes yet another transcending performance from his leading star, Reese Witherspoon. And although she's already earned a Best Actress statue with 2005's Walk the Line, Witherspoon has never been better than she is right now, which should be enough to land her in Oscar contention once again. Wild is brilliantly acted on all accounts and supporting star Laura Dern is deserving of a mention as well. While Dern's chances at seeing some awards season recognition seem less likely, you can no longer count out a big-time performance in a Vallee picture. And speaking of the director, praises are due for the humble manor in which he approaches the subject matter. While Vallee has demonstrated that he's capable of tackling difficult directorial feats, he refuses to stroke his ego with flashy filming techniques and allows his talented cast to bring this tender true story to life.


Like the film's lead character, Cheryl Strayed, Wild is saddled with flaws as well. For a film dead-set on telling a heart-breaking story of a woman who falls into the darkest depths of despair and commits various unspeakable acts, Vallee only scratches the surface of these atrocities. Cheryl is clearly broken, but to make her pilgrimage of self-worth more effective the film would have been better suited addressing her origins in a more detailed way than the occasional flashback. Furthermore, there are a few artificial moments in Wild where the film is desperate to draw pity and sadness from the viewer rather than working hard enough to earn such feelings.

The fall and winter months always become infested with superbly acted roles in middling movies. While I feel Wild is a clear step above such a label, it certainly isn't the Oscar-level film many were hoping. Through Vallee's direction, Witherspoon gives a gutsy and authentic performance that allows this powerful story to trudge along every step of the journey.


Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Gambler (Red Band) and Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailers

December release The Gambler, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, has debuted its first Red Band teaser trailer. The remake of Karel Reisz's 1974 film of the same name stars Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor whose gambling addiction puts him in serious danger with some ruthless gangsters. Boasting a lengthy cast of prominent talents such as John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, there are plenty of reason for optimism with this Oscar-hopeful reboot.





The world held its collective breath at the first word of the Avengers: Age of Ultron teaser trailer. Following a stunning initial installment to the franchise, which grossed north of $1.5 billion worldwide, a darker and grittier sequel appears to be on the horizon. The team of superheroes will seemingly be divided by the ramifications of Ultron, a Tony Stark creation (in the movie not the comics) sporting advanced and evolving Artificial Intelligence that allows him to turn on these superheroes and become a menacing force. All of this could potentially pave the way for the "Civil War" storyline which has become the hottest rumor in geek-dom after word that Iron Man will be appearing in 2016's Captain America 3. No matter what the future holds, James Spader sounds freakishly intimidating as Ultron and excitement for the May 2015 release should continue to soar.