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.

88%

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

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No matter how hard I try, I just cannot like this film in its entirety.

‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ is ultimately something of a snorefest; watch this with even a grain of lethargy and you’ll be lost. And that’s a shame, because there is much artistic merit to be found in the film. The killer Wang Chung soundtrack compliments stylish sequences throughout, and is especially effective when capturing the Los Angeles landscape. The opening montage is very striking both visually and aurally; the sequence showing Master’s counterfeiting procedure is also a pleasure to watch. Sadly though, the first twenty minutes and the closing credits of the film are the most interesting and engaging.

Surprisingly even its stylistic flair becomes tired, Wang Chung is overused and placed in sequences that just don’t require it. ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ could’ve been far tauter; it rouses you from your catatonic state only a few times with its surprising violence and of course that famous lengthy car chase.

The premise is simply Richard Chance’s (William L. Peterson) relentless pursuit of a murderous counterfeiter named Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe) who has killed Chance’s partner and ‘best friend for seven years’. Chance, whose safety is hindered in the haze of his own hubris, is prepared to do whatever it takes to put an end to masters, even if it means breaking the law he enforces. Peterson’s anti-hero is certainly clichéd; when presented with his new partner John Vukovich (John Pankow), he delivers the common ‘You know I work alone’ trope.

In its entirety, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ is a superficial, viewer-unfriendly production that just doesn’t engage its audience. The characters are unsubstantial, the plot is tediously bloated and hard to follow and its aesthetic redeeming features soon become tired over its 1hr 56 minutes. Not even its director William Friedkin could save it; it wouldn’t be until his collaboration with writer Tracy Letts 20 years later that he would return to the form of ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The French Connection’.

55%

Gangster Squad (2013)

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A dull, rehashed disappointment

I had read many damning reviews of ‘Gangster Squad’, however I was ready to accept it as mere pulp fiction, and during the opening 40 minutes or so, it seemed like I would be able to, but by the closing credits, I discovered it wasn’t even good enough for that.

The film tells the story, which is ‘inspired by real events’, of a covert group of tough police officers who endeavour to stop Mickey Cohen’s criminal activity encroaching on Los Angeles. Strangely, the film boasts a popular cast with the likes of Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte.

It establishes its characters and premise pleasingly enough, but ultimately it fails to deliver through a lack of humour, narrative baggage, clichés and a slew of boring stock characters. The film draws parallels with the infinitely superior ‘LA Confidential’, however there are more similarities with ‘The Expendables’, only without the laughs and nostalgia.

When it attempts to create even a slight portion of pathos, it’s baggy and dull; the film is bereft of any emotional weight whatsoever. The film operated more like a video game than a film, with its silly elaborate action scenes and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) feeling like the ‘boss’ villain rather than a human character. Actually, that comparison isn’t fair on the gaming industry; I have played and completed ‘Mafia II’, which has far more in the way of developed characters and narrative.

The film’s sole interest is period style; substance and veracity aren’t its top priorities. What occurs on screen is pure fantasy; the extent of its historical accuracy doesn’t go far beyond the fact that there was once indeed a man named ‘Mickey Cohen’ who wasn’t particularly nice.

The allure of 1940s Hollywood and its strong cast will bring ‘Gangster Squad’ to the attention of many people, however it is a formulaic, mediocre and superficial rehashing of films such as ‘Chinatown’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.

50%