Tag: 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

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Jake Gyllenhaal gives an excellent performance as Lou Bloom, one of the most compelling on-screen manipulators I’ve seen in a long time.

Nightcrawler is a Schraderesque character study of a man far more dangerous than Travis Bickle. Like Bickle, Lou Bloom doesn’t like people, however Taxi Driver saw Bickle feel compassion for at least one person – Lou seems to have contempt for absolutely everyone. Lou’s interactions with other people have only one purpose – control. He is very opportunistic and has an unshakable confidence that isn’t hindered by the human inconveniences of nervousness and guilt.

Jake Gyllenhaal commands the long monologues of Dan Gilroy’s script, stealing every scene he’s in as the unnervingly brazen and enthusiastic Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for the role and it really worked, his gaunt face and glaring eyes do quite a lot of the acting for him. The performance carries the film and this will no doubt be recognised by the Academy next February.

In the film’s opening moments, Lou is a vagrant who is shown committing crimes both petty and, it’s suggested, not very petty at all. He’s in the desperate pursuit of a job, and when he meets someone who could be of benefit, Lou initiates his charm offensive and inundates them with a relentless barrage of articulate yet platitudinous language as if he’s reciting the effusive CV of a quixotic student.

Although his self-promotion is overbearing in the first few instances, Lou soon proves his skill in accruing large amounts of information and repeating it with the utmost conviction and credibility. Gyllenhaal must have relished delivering director Gilroy’s excellent script, his manner of speech reminded me of Patrick Bateman’s highly detailed monologues on everything from his morning routine to Huey Lewis and the News in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Despite both men’s articulacy, their diction feels recycled, and this is because it is – their sociopathy means they cannot form true, sincere relationships, but they can counterfeit them through their adroit ability of learning and imitating the necessary behaviour.

Quick wits and amorality are key skills for any successful paparazzo, so it is unsurprising that Lou Bloom thrives in the field. His first forays into professional prying are very funny. Inspired by a chance encounter with venerable camera man Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Lou buys a rudimentary camcorder and scours the myriad streets of Los Angeles, abruptly stopping next to the scene of a car accident and poking his camera right in people’s faces; when he’s challenged he proclaims with an uncommon doubtfulness –‘I’m fairly certain I’m allowed to do this!’ You soon see Bloom gain confidence as he pushes the boundaries further and further, making for tense, unpredictable viewing.

His audacity proves successful, snatching footage that’s nice and gory, impressing Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the blonde, brassy director of a local news channel. Despite an appearance and demeanour that suggests seasoned business acumen, Nina spends much of the film under the thumb of Lou.

After proving his worth, enjoying his growing control over Nina and soon realising how vital he is for the news agency’s spiking ratings, Lou proves that his manipulation can work, albeit it very unattractively, in courtship. Gilroy’s best monologue occurs when, over dinner with a reluctant Nina, Lou blackmails her into establishing a longstanding sexual agreement, using a business-like vernacular bereft of anything remotely romantic, erotic or sexual.

Like Gone Girl, Night Crawler is a satire of the yellow journalism peddled by television news, content that’s perhaps interesting for the public but not in the public interest, a distinction that is gleefully ignored in favour of lucrative scare-mongering and countless other immoralities. As the majority of the characters are under this satirical gaze, I found it hard to care when they fell victim to Lou’s vicious conniving, my apathy extending to even his long, suffering accomplice Rick (Riz Ahmed), who is too darn wet and insipid to get that emotionally invested in. None of this, I hasten to add, is a major detriment.

The film is attractively shot by Robert Elswit, much of whose striking work can be found in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson including There Will Be Blood (2007), Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Boogie Nights (1997), the latter’s sun-kissed, neon-lit aesthetic being most similar to Nightcrawler’s. Elswit’s work here is also likely to immediately draw comparisons with Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography in the beautifully slick Drive (2011). 

With a tense, unpredictable narrative that’s laced with strong satire and anchored by a great character and great performance, Nightcrawler is one the best films of 2014.

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Joe (2013)

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Nicolas Cage disappears into his role as the titular Joe in a film that’s thematically rather familiar but also a surprisingly realist piece of cinema.

The film follows the principal characters Joe (Nicolas Cage) and Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary is the only member of his degenerate family who is able to work and earn a living; he has been forced to become a responsible person by his vile, repulsive father Wade (Gary Poulter), a man who has abused his body so much and for so long that he can only speak in slurred, incoherent ramblings. I recently compiled a list of the 10 most hateful characters of cinema; I think Wade could quite easily be placed in it.

Joe is a recidivist who is haunted by his criminal history and continues to struggle with controlling his anger, it seems the only way he can stay out of trouble is by absorbing himself in his small landscaping company.

Joe leads a group of black workers, they clear wooded areas with these rather strange axes that waywardly squirt poison everywhere. Joe and Gary are brought together when the boy implores him to employ both himself and his father. Joe obliges and Gary proves to be a good worker, although the agreement is soon thwarted by his obnoxious father who is too polluted, weak and lazy to contribute to the team.

The cast of Joe’s workers and indeed the whole film is populated with actors who were seemingly taken from the street, their performances are completely natural and their language raw, colloquial and as a result sometimes completely incomprehensible! A few times I felt like an American watching Trainspotting, particularly during a row between the moronic Wade and a black worker, whose ebonics is the strongest I’ve ever heard.

Joe is a tough watch, there are characters that represent the very lowest form of human life, there’s seldom a room in the film that isn’t a filthy, cluttered mess. I didn’t expect it to be such a realist piece of cinema, its depiction of blue collar work and young Gary’s first foray into it is sure to resonate with anyone who’s had similar experiences, myself included.

Nicolas Cage doesn’t stick out at all, he effortlessly blends in with the surrounding cast of largely unknown actors. Like Leaving Las Vegas, Joe is an example of Cage moderating his idiosyncratic acting, which I like incidentally, and showcasing just how good he is.

Clear correlations can be made with Mud, a similarly themed film about a benevolent renegade forming a bond with Tye Sheridan’s conflicted teenage boy. Joe is the superior of the pair, although Mud boasted good performances from its leads, it was melodramatic and overrated. Tye Sheridan’s character Ellis in Mud, who is given far too much screen time, thought about love and human relationships in ways that 14-year-old boys just don’t – I didn’t believe in him. He also had a habit of vehemently punching people in the face that belied his prepubescent little frame. Joe’s Gary is a much better character, a measured boy who simply wants to make a living and prove to the men in his life that he’s no kid.

Mud lacked Joe’s gritty nastiness, it had treacly melodrama instead of stark reality. What they do share is the running theme of redemption, and in the case of Joe, I found its conclusion rather familiar and subsequently bathetic. Despite this, Joe succeeds in absorbing you in its masculine world and Nicolas Cage defies any naysayers by completely disappearing into his role as the titular rogue.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Stunning CGI and compelling allegory makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid instalment.

Unlike a lot of summer blockbusters, there isn’t much fun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film opens with a map sequence showing the spread of the Simian virus, it is a worryingly plausible and perhaps even prescient prelude to the film’s nihilistic 130 minutes.

Based in San Francisco, a group of virus resistant humans stumble upon the apes in a forest whilst locating a dam that’s vital for the city’s power supply. Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger happy human, wounds an ape upon the surprise encounter, setting relations off to a uneasy start. Caeser (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes,  eventually allows the humans to work on the dam on the strict condition that they surrender their weapons.

This collaboration makes Koba (Toby Kebbell) rather apprehensive. Koba, a bonobo, has suffered at the hands of humans, developing an intense hatred for them. While Caesar is wary of humans and acts very much in the interest of his fellows apes, he recognises the humans’ capacity for good, something that frustrates and disillusions Koba to the point of rebellion.

Immediately the film impresses with its motion capture, seldom am I compelled by CGI characters like I was by Caeser, Koba and the scores of other primates. The range of chimps, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos are effortlessly brought to life through superlative animation and great physical performances.

The Homo sapiens of the film are, on the other hand, somewhat unremarkable and one dimensional – they’re all disposable save for a few. However, both the humans and apes have members whose existence are purely narrative function, they each serve identical purposes, it’s a rather simple construct. Caeser, the hyper-intelligent Chimpanzee who is stern but fair with his colony and the humans he encounters, has a clear equivalent in Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the human leader who also favours peace and cooperation.

These two leaders are beacons of appeasement and democracy, however both sides are jeopardised by bigoted brutes. The aforementioned Carver and Koba assume these roles, both have a tendency for violence and prediliction for martial law, however Koba has a much more sinister influence in the colony. Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus, a senior member of the humans, is also a counterpart of Koba’s, however I found Carver to be more zealous in his contempt.

There is a slight narrative sag about half way through the film, however this break in momentum is swiftly fixed when the embittered, war-mongering  Koba orchestrates a full scale conflict with the humans. The film then becomes an interesting allegory for war, racism and genocide. With scenes of humans being herded into cages and brutal punishment for dissent amongst the ranks, clear correlations can be made between Koba’s colony and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s USSR and the slew of other hideous regimes of history.

Generally, the film is to be commended for its anthropomorphic balance. I liked how for the majority of the time the apes communicated using sign language as opposed to just English. Speaking English is biologically impossible for apes, however I’m willing to believe that this isn’t necessarily true in the film’s universe. What I’m not willing to believe is that Chimpanzees can shed tears, they can’t, it is a human function that’s unique among primates. Also, there are instances in which the apes, chiefly Caesar, bear facial expressions or engage in conversations that are just too human. Thankfully, the anthropomorphism is seldom sentimental.

Although character development is familiar and predictable, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately a spectacle packed nihilistic summer blockbuster about instinct, hierarchy, politics, racism and war.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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This film is not a glorification, it’s an observer rather than a judge.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a rather straight forward rise and fall story, it’s Scarface with even more excess but without the M16 with an underslung M303 grenade launcher.

Some have said that this film is a glorification rather than a satire, a three hour parade celebrating Jordan Belfort’s excess instead of a stern condemnation. Despite all the drugs, decadence and vulvas in the film, I don’t think the film glorifies him, and I don’t think it’s a biting satire either.

The film is an observer rather than a judge; it displays Belfort and his minions’ debauchery in a grand three-hour narrative with the energy and gusto of GoodFellas, letting the audience decide what they think of it all. If one leaves the theatre impressed or inspired by Belfort, that’s very much a reflection of them rather than the film.

There is a lot of bad behaviour going on in The Wolf of Wall Street, understandably too much for some people, but over the course of three hours I didn’t find it exasperating like some have. In fact, I think one would possess a certain amount of sanctimony to deny that there isn’t a degree of allure to Belfort’s lifestyle; an element of excess should be everyone’s life, whether it’s occasionally ordering the most expensive thing on the menu or at some point in your life owning a car that does 20 miles to the gallon, just because it makes you feel good.

Of course, that wouldn’t begin to be enough for Jordan Belfort. His ideas on money, relationships and life in general were quite awful during his years at the helm of Stratton Oakmont, his company that employed the ‘pump and dump’ scheme to rob scores of investors of their money. It is Belfort’s obsession with wealth, material goods and just winning that makes him quite a one-dimensionally unpleasant character. The nature of the character made me question the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio.

This is not to say DiCaprio is in bad form here, his performance is teeming with conviction. Leo is in his element during Belfort’s rousing, maniacal speeches to his employees; his frenetic energy reminded me of Evangelical preachers found in the southern states. Of course, there’s nothing remotely Christian to be found in Belfort’s fervent rhetoric, only sentences of remarkable crassness, immaturity and myopia – ‘Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser, good! Pick up the phone and start dialling! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!’ – ‘If anyone here thinks I’m superficial or materialistic, go get a job in fucking McDonald’s because that’s where you fucking belong.’

Despite DiCaprio’s committed performance, I’m not part of the indignant crowd who demand that he finally win the Oscar for best leading man, particularly with this year’s nominations. He’s had a great career so far, he’s worked with Hollywood’s most revered artists and has had a consistent stream good roles.  Although his performances regularly display his great dramatic range, the problem is his huge Hollywood profile means that I feel like I’m watching Leonardo DiCaprio rather than the character he is portraying. It’s the same with The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo is just too cute and popular to play someone like Jordan Belfort – the casting gives a certain amount of sheen to him. Also, DiCaprio didn’t adopt Belfort’s New York accent, which is a pity because Leo’s South African accent in Blood Diamond was impressive.

While there are flashes of gross vulgarity in DiCaprio’s performance, the real Jordan Belfort is worse. To his credit, he is a naturally adroit salesman, he ran a successful meat business in his early twenties, he could’ve probably made a substantial legitimate living with his innate entrepreneurialism. However he didn’t, and now he remarks in interviews and speeches that ‘making money is easy’, what he forgot to add is ‘…when you broke the law like I did’. I’m not preaching here, I’m just reminding the crowds he draws to his motivational speeches that this man’s immense wealth hinged completely and utterly on criminality.

The other reason why Scorsese’s Belfort isn’t hateful enough is because the repercussions and victims of Stratton Oakmont are never shown, and to give a properly three-dimensional depiction of Belfort’s story, they should have been. Scorsese and writer Terence Winter have followed Belfort’s memoir so closely that it’s quite a one-track narrative, perhaps they could have stepped back from the book and explored the extent of Stratton Oakmont’s damage.

So, it is clear that there isn’t a particularly complex figure at the centre of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s a misfire. This is more ‘Casino’/’The Departed’ Scorsese rather than ‘Taxi Driver’/’Goodfellas’/’Raging Bull’ Scorsese.

For me, the film’s terrific energy and vibrant aesthetics manage to carry its three-hour running time. Among this spirited, flashy spectacle are also some very amusing moments, particularly Matthew McConaughey’s great performance as Mark Hanna, a veteran stock broker who teaches an up-and-coming Belfort about his new profession, from ethics to the necessity of masturbation. What’s become one of the larger talking points of the film is the sequence where Belfort, overdosing on Quaaludes and in a state he calls the ‘cerebral palsy phase’, tries desperately to drive his Lamborghini Countach back to his enormous house.

Although the one-dimensional central character and its limited perspective means it is not Scorsese’s best film, The Wolf of Wall Street is an engrossing, sweeping rise and fall tale that is vibrant, funny and very striking.

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