Nightcrawler Review

            Ever since the debut of Breaking Bad we have seen numerous films and TV shows do the American Dream gone bad storyline.  Just last year alone we had three rather high profile films with this theme in The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers and The Wolf of Wall Street.  So after seeing this theme so many times so recently it is kind of unfair to come across Nightcrawler.  Nightcrawler is far from a bad film.  It’s well directed and has characters that have some interesting moments of development, but it never fails to escape the “been there, done that” feeling.  However, what really makes Nightcrawlerunable to come out of the shadow of so many similar films is that it is missing a key ingredient that so many of the greats in its genre have: some sense of humanity in the character that it wants you to invest yourself in.

            Nightcrawler follows Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who tries to make money in whatever way he can.  One night he comes across the obscure career of filming accidents and incidents in order to sell to local news stations, and with this discovery comes an addiction to be better at it than anyone else.  While Louis Bloom is an interesting character in concept, he’s a very difficult character to latch onto.  He never once shows any sort of decency and is rather one note.  It’s really hard to invest in a character such as this and as such the film is really difficult to find any sort of connection to.

            That’s a shame because Jake Gyllenhaal is doing great work with the character.  He’s clearly transformed his body for the role and brings an amount of intensity to the role that he has never displayed before.  Additionally, the film has a supporting cast that would have been very interesting in a film that wasn’t as pitch black as this was.  Rene Russo as an ambitious news producer and Riz Amed as a homeless man desperate for work are highlights, and the film might have been better off if they had one of those two characters as its main character.

            Despite failing to bring any humanity to the film with his script, Dan Gilroy does a tremendous job of shooting the film.  With help from cinematographer Robert Elswit, the Los Angeles that is present in this film can be quite mysterious and beautiful.  Gilroy also uses action sparingly to quite great effect.  When there is action, though, Gilroy shows that he knows what he is doing, especially with one last act car chase.

            Nightcrawler has a lot of great components, but it is a very difficult film to become invested in.


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Review

            In this man’s opinion, 2014 has been one of the best years in film in recent memory.  We have seen many films from numerous genres turn out to be creative successes.  I think we are reaching a Golden Age of cinematic storytelling.  With films like Under the Skin and Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a film that has felt so ahead of its time for so long, is starting to feel like a film with a cinematic storytelling style that comes from the present.  Another film from this year that has the ambition in its cinematic storytelling that 2001: A Space Odyssey has displayed for so long is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).  With an amazing cast and a storyline that is willing to take risks and even change genres, Birdman is one of the highlights of the year.

            Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows Riggan Thomson, an actor on the downside of his career ever since he left the Birdman superhero franchise which made him a star, as he tries to make a comeback with a Broadway play.  As numerous things go wrong in the lead up to the play’s opening (including Riggan’s own battle with insanity), Riggan must try hard to keep the play afloat.

            In its first two acts, Birdman is a very well done version of the typical performance anxiety film that we have seen so often in recent years (think The Wrestler, Black Swan and Whiplash for the better examples of this type of genre) with the added twist that most of the film is edited together into one take thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically fantastic work as the film’s director of photography.  This time allows the actors to showcase their skills as Edward Norton (in a scene-stealing performance as a literal scene stealer), Zach Galfianakis (who still finds time to be funny despite his role being more serious than his typical work), Naomi Watts (as a stressed out actress) and Emma Stone (who has a couple of great scenes as Riggan Thomson’s daughter) all shine.  The glue that holds these sequences together, though, is Michael Keaton who plays so well off of every actor in the film.

            The film really shines, though, in the film’s final act, which becomes much less of an ensemble piece and more of a study of insanity in today’s world.  This is easily one of the most out there sequences in film since 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence, and it can occasionally get too close to becoming a parody of itself (one small sequence is almost shot for shot from The Tree of Life).  However, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu somehow finds a way to navigate this film to a satisfying conclusion that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and discussion.

            Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is another gem to add to a great year for film.


Snowpiercer Review

            The environment has become a rather large political issue in recent years.  So it is no surprise to see numerous films and TV programs touch upon this subject.  One of this weekend’s film releases, Interstellar, even featured a plot that began with an environmental disaster even if that was just used as a springboard for other ideas and events.  It seems in this era of loud political partisanship that that is the way to go.  Just have an environmental issue be a springboard to other ideas, and that’s exactly what Snowpiercer did as well.  Snowpiercer comes across as an under polished film that becomes greater than its parts due to the questions it raises about humanity. 

            Snowpiercer takes place in a future where an environmental disaster has left Earth inhospitable.  The only remnants left of humanity live in a constantly in motion train known as the Snowpiercer.  Life on board the train is separated into a caste system based on what type of ticket a passenger purchased.  A desperate man in the poorest part of the train (Chris Evans) begins a plan to take control over the train and destroy the caste system forever.

            Director Bong Joon-ho (making his English language directorial debut) puts a lot on his plate, and at many times this film gets to be overstuffed.  The film raises questions on capitalism, human nature, a leader’s duty to his constituents and many other matters that could have filled a storyline worth multiple films.  At the same time Bong Joon-ho must construct an effective and action-packed thriller to wrap all of these questions in.  This is what the film is least effective at.  The action isn’t exactly polished.  It feels like it comes from your typical superhero film, just without the stakes being as well placed as those films tend to be. 

            Despite these faults I couldn’t help but still be intrigued by this film.  All of it leads to a satisfying yet shocking conclusion that gives you interesting answers (even if not concrete) to some of the questions it raises that feels unlike an information dump even if it really is.  It also helps that the film has a sturdy center in Chris Evans’ performance.  Evans does as good of a job as anyone could with Captain America, but it doesn’t exactly stretch his acting capabilities.  This performance shows that Evans is quite a talented actor as he is able to show a darker and more emotional side that leads to a killer monologue about his past.

            Snowpiercer is one of those few films that is able to become a great whole despite many weak parts.


Interstellar Review

            2001: A Space Odyssey is such an all-consuming work of cinema that so few films can actually stand on similar ground and not look minor.  Interstellar acknowledges 2001: A Space Odyssey constantly and yet it is able to come out from underneath that film’s shadow and work well enough as a companion piece of sorts.  Interstellar is the warmer and much messier cousin of 2001, but whereas 2001 likes to explore the idea of humanity from afar, Interstellar is a deep exploration of humanity.  Interstellar is about humanity to its core as it showcases our strengths and weaknesses, and it is through this that Interstellar is able to fill a viewer with a sense of hope that so very few films can.

            Interstellar takes place in a future where ecological events have left humanity on the brink.  After former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey in a powerful performance) discovers a gravitational anomaly after his daughter (Mackenzie Foy) speaks of ghosts trying to communicate with her.  The discovery leads Cooper on a mission to save humanity in the far reaches of space. 

            The film is directed by Christopher Nolan, and most of his filmography can be defined by the major theme at the center of the film.  For Interstellar, that theme is love.  If this film is to be believed (and for the most part it makes a very good case for itself), love is the thing that defines humanity and drives every single thing that humanity does.  Every good and bad decision that the characters make in this film comes out of love resulting in a complex depiction of love even if some of the dialogue is clunky and cheesy.  It’s also interesting how Nolan shows the faults within the concept of love as a human character “malfunctions” out of narcissism in an interesting and well-performed spin on the HAL 9000 character.  The film’s portrayal of humanity and love is so complete that the schizophrenic nature of the plot also adds to the idea that even the scientists at the heart of the film can’t completely understand these concepts.

            The one thing that really drives this theme of love home is the relationship between Cooper and his daughter.  It’s the heart of the film, and it’s a strong heart thanks to the constantly changing dynamics of the relationship and the performances from McConaughey, Foy and Jessica Chastain.  Unfortunately, I think Christopher Nolan goes a little too far to bring about a Hollywood ending for this relationship, and one that wasn’t even needed.  Nolan already shows a way in which these two characters find a moment of catharsis (which it seems is something all of Nolan’s main characters strive for throughout his filmography) by the film’s final moments so the pile on that comes about is really unnecessary.  It also doesn’t help that the film ends on a cliffhanger ending that has nothing to do with the main relationship and ultimately seems superfluous.

            Interstellar crash lands in the homestretch but it does so many things right (from the amazing IMAX-enhanced visuals to the down-to-earth performances) that it’s hard not to like this film.


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