Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wrestling with a difficult subject

Acting helps elevate weighty Foxcatcher.
Insular and insistently strange, Foxcatcher -- a new film from director Bennett Miller -- tells the twisted story of John E. du Pont, a super-rich heir to the massive du Pont fortune. I found Foxcatcher a difficult movie with which to connect, partly because of its willfully myopic approach to world about which most of us know very little.

In the mid-1980s, du Pont decided to make himself a force in the world of Olympic wrestling. He aspired to be a coach and leader of men in a sport that emphasized strength and agility -- neither of which he seemed to possess in any substantial quantity.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher -- the movie is named for du Pont's Pennsylvania estate -- is partly about the ways in which a deluded rich man tried to buy his way into a fantasy version of himself.

To date, Foxcatcher's biggest talking point has centered on Steve Carell, who plays du Pont, and who looks nothing like the Steve Carell we're familiar with from other movies.

Made unrecognizable by a large false nose, Carell talks in soft tones. The strange rhythms of his speech and his impenetrable affect make for a character who's blatantly unconcerned about what anyone thinks.

Perhaps that's the idea. Constantly degraded by his dominating mother (Vanessa Redgrave), du Pont -- a published ornithologist and noted philanthropist -- identifies himself as a patriot and wrestling enthusiast. He says his friends call him Eagle or Golden Eagle, but we can assume he picked those names himself. He doesn't seem to have any friends.

Du Pont is the kind of weird fellow whose money protects him from being tagged as a self-important nutcase. Sans his fortune, he might have been found mumbling to himself on a street corner.

In the early going, Miller (Capote and Moneyball) concentrates on the relationship between du Pont and gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).

Feeling neglected by an indifferent world, a nearly impoverished Schultz becomes an easy target for du Pont, who invites him to move onto his Pennsylvania estate and train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Du Pont also pursues -- and eventually corrals -- Schultz's brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), another gold medal winner and respected wrestling coach.

The relationship among the three men gives the movie a smoldering undertone that touches on sibling rivalry, absent fatherhood and perhaps even deeply repressed homosexuality. That's an outline more than a description: Foxcatcher opens a basket full of issues, some of which never are particularly well-defined.

Although he presents himself as a dumb jock, Mark seems to understand that he's latched onto a good thing. He's under the wing of someone who admires him and supports him financially. Du Pont also introduces Mark to dissolute pursuits (alcohol and cocaine) that, for a time, turn his head.

Although Dave is the most centered of all the characters, he, too, is caught in du Pont's web. He wants to provide his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids with a stable home, something neither he nor Mark had as kids. He likes living on du Pont's estate, where he's been given his own house.

All three actors dig deeply into their roles, although Tatum gives the most complex and tormented of all the performances. Don't bother reading that sentence again. It should not come as news to you that Tatum (Magic Mike) can act.

If you don't know how this story ends, I'm not about to tell you.

But I think Miller intends for us to play the movie back in our minds in ways that demand a re-evaluation of each performance in light of the movie's conclusion.

You'll notice that I haven't said much about wrestling. That's because Foxcatcher isn't really a sports movie; it's a study of three different men -- how they mingled and goaded one another.

And when we do see wrestling, it's clearly meant to be more than a sport. Near the movie's opening, Tatum and Ruffalo are seen grappling with each other in a training session. Although both actors appear to have gotten in shape for their roles, Tatum and Ruffalo seem less like athletes than animals, lumbering beasts locked in primal combat.

I found Foxcatcher a bit boring at times, possibly because it feels so sealed off from the natural flow of life. Its intensely observed scenes don't always have a payoff.

Despite the excellence of the acting and the obvious weightiness of Miller's approach, Foxcatcher left me wondering. Can a movie be based on a true story without ever feeling entirely real?

'Hunger Games' finale only half way there

A franchise inches toward its conclusion.
The decision to split the finale of The Hunger Games series into two parts leaves fans with little choice but to queue up for the penultimate offering, even if it's a bit of a placeholder.

In general, I've found the series to be reasonably good, an entertaining addition to the world of big-screen YA fiction that spills over to a broader audience.

Two previous movies have reinforced the notion that the story's main character -- Katniss Everdeen -- is indefatigable, rebellious and self-sacrificing.

Fair to say, too, that the gifted Jennifer Lawrence has made Katniss her own. At times, she even looks younger than her 24 years.

Lawrence, of course, returns for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1, a movie that takes a step toward concluding the whole business, though not a giant one. The movie feels like an obligatory -- and somewhat listless -- march toward the real finale, due next year.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) takes two hours to deliver a slightly unbalanced result: His film manages to be darker and more complex than its predecessors -- a look at issues involving propaganda and war -- but it's also less exciting.

Part 1deposits us in a post-games world in which the ruling Capitol is being threatened by rebels and in which many of the districts of the great empire have been reduced to rubble. The high-stakes drama that the games themselves imposed on previous movies has gone missing.

Although severely traumatized from the last episode, Katniss is asked to emerge again as Mockingjay, a much-admired warrior. She's supposed to provide inspiration for weary revolutionaries who are prone to intimidation by the imperious and markedly evil President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland with all the soft-spoken, sinister intent he can muster.

Burdened by doubt, Katniss is distraught that her friend and love interest (Josh Hutcherson's Peeta) is being held prisoner in The Capitol.

Worse yet, Peeta allows himself to be used. He's making TV spots encouraging the rebels to seek peace; i.e., to submit to the Capitol's exploitative authority.

The supporting cast is minimized in this episode. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee devises an ad campaign to boost rebel morale, and Julianne Moore's President Alma Coin makes stern speeches to the populace of District 13, an underground redoubt where even the Capitol's bombs are ineffective. As Haymitch Abernathy, a briefly seen Woody Harrelson seems to shown up between other jobs.

Even Elizabeth Banks' lively and pretentious Effie Trinket seems subdued in this most despairing of all the Hunger Games movies. Liam Hemsworth's Gale is around to advance the plot.

Although Part 1 ends in anguish, it spends too much time allowing Katniss to wander across the dystopian wreckage in this final chapter of author Suzanne Collins' much-read trilogy. Katniss isn't even a prime mover in the movie's last bit of action.

I wouldn't say that Part 1 has done irrevocable damage to the franchise, but it doesn't really satisfy. Like exhausted baseball fans, we're left to console ourselves with a familiar refrain: Wait until next year.

We wait. We hope.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A marriage full of challenges

Redmayne and Jones are terrific in this mature look at the marriage between Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde.
The Theory of Everything -- a look at the 26-year marriage between physicist Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde -- is based on Wilde's book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.

I begin there because those expecting a movie along the lines of Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time or a visual companion piece to any of Hawking's many bestsellers, probably will be disappointed.

Although the movie has taken the title of one of Hawking's books, it has less to do with theoretical physics than with a very untheoretical marriage that lasted quite a long time. Wilde knew that Hawking had contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) before she insisted on tying the knot.

When Wilde married Hawking in the 1960s, he had been given only a few years to live. He's now 72.

Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) makes a choice that opens his movie to a wider audience than those obsessed with cosmology.

Perhaps Marsh assumed, quite justifiably, that those who are deeply interested in questions such as whether time had a beginning would know where to look for more information. Hawking, by the way, changed his mind about that question during the course of his work.

Admittedly, The Theory of Everything might have been more interesting if Marsh had given us a bit more insight into Hawking's work, but the movie earns its stripes as an intriguing look at a difficult marriage, and it makes no attempt to canonize either Hawking or Wilde.

They remain human beings dealing with adversity, and if you bypass The Theory of Everything, you'll miss two of the year's finest performances: from Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife.

We meet Hawking at Cambridge in 1963. He's the kind of annoyingly bright graduate student who easily impresses his professor (David Thewlis) by breezing through problems that drive other students crazy.

Redmayne gives a physically demanding performance that must have become more taxing the more he was called upon to mimic the disease that deformed Hawking's body, put him in a wheel chair and eventually took his voice.

Hawking speaks with a computer-generated voice that, by now, has become familiar to those who've seen him -- and who hasn't?

Redmayne not only captures Hawking's physical disabilities, he infuses his performance with intelligence and wit. A half-smile that may result from disease also serves as a kind of metaphor for a situation in which Hawking seems to realize that biology has dealt him an absurd hand.

Jones' performance is every bit as good. When we meet her, she's a young woman studying medieval Spanish literature. Unlike Hawking, she believes in God. It's almost as if she intends to will her marriage to succeed.

As the story unfolds, Jane's decency never wavers, but she also begins to feel the inevitable resentments of a woman whose sacrifices have been doubled: She's a caretaker both for Hawking and for the couple's three children.

Unlike most of us who are prone to complaint, Jane has earned her frustration.

When Jane joins a church choir, she meets choir master Jonathan (Charlie Cox), an incredibly understanding fellow who becomes part of the Hawking family. Increasingly, he provides Jane with much needed emotional support and, ultimately, with love.

Marsh takes a non-judgmental approach to both Hawking and Jane, allowing them to be themselves without the intervention of an authorial voice to tell us where they're doing well and where they may have gone wrong.

So, yes, I'd have preferred a little more science and a good deal more stylistic daring to match the boldness of Hawking's thought, but The Theory of Everything deserves credit for taking a mature look at the evolution of a most unusual marriage between two most unusual people.

And the mysteries of marriage, as even the dimmest of us must know, remain resistant to scientific analysis.









A show business cautionary tale

Gugu Mbatha-Raw finds a star vehicle in Beyond the Lights.
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Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights mistakenly, I think, tries to pack a lot of issues into an essentially small frame: It's a fairy tale romance, a show-business cautionary tale and a look at how black women are marketed and sold by a sexually-obsessed music business.

Beyond the Lights isn't void of entertainment value -- and that may be part of its problem: It misses too many opportunites to dig deeply.

The movie focuses on the career of fictional pop star Noni -- played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, last seen in the historical drama Belle.

A British-born singer, Noni achieved her American breakthrough after teaming with a white American rapper named Kid Culprit (Colson "Machine Gun Kelly" Baker).

Not surprisingly, success hasn't brought Noni happiness. She's alienated from her authentic self, and pushed toward commercialism by her aggressively driven stage mother (Minnie Driver).

The movie sets the parameters of Noni's problem in an economical prologue. A young Noni (India Jean Jacques) participates in a talent contest in which she sings an a cappella version of Nina Simone's Blackbird.

Simone, the jazz singer who died in 2003, can be taken as the antithesis of a show-business sell-out.

An obvious victim of discrimination, Noni nabs second place. Not good enough, says Noni's oblivious white Mom, who -- in a pre-contest scene -- begs a black beautician for help with Noni's hair.

The movie then leaps into the present. Now a celebrity, a despairing Noni -- suffocating under a ton of exploitative packaging -- decides to leap from the balcony of her Los Angeles hotel room.

She's pulled back by a hunky LA cop (Nate Parker), who assures her that he sees past the razzle-dazzle. He knows who she is.

Although both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are compelling actors, I found it difficult to believe in their story-book romance.

Moreover, attempts to parallel Parker's story with Noni's throw the movie off course: He's a cop pushed toward politics by his father (Danny Glover). He, too, needs to reconnect with his real self.

There's also something inherently problematic about Prince-Bythewood's approach. It's not easy to show a hyper-sexualized Noni without feeding off some of the same energy that's being criticized.

Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) obtains a star-making performance from Mbatha-Raw, but it's tethered to an uninspired romance and to a movie that tries to offer the satisfaction of a familiar story arc along with fresh insights into celebrity, particularly as it concerns black women.

Perhaps because of its fractured ambitions, this movie about the need for Noni to find her real voice doesn't always feel as if it has found one of its own.



A journalist is imprisoned in Iran

Comic Jon Stewart makes a serious directorial debut with Rosewater.
Curiosity about the new movie Rosewater stems in part from its pedigree. Rosewater, which tells the story of a journalist who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran, marks the directorial debut of comic Jon Stewart.

No stranger to political commentary, Stewart drops his satirical edge, building his movie from quiet outrage about what happens when free expression is trampled and ideology replaces sanity.

Rosewater attacks this larger theme by focusing on the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian/Canadian journalist whose book, Then They Came for Me, became the bestseller that provided a basis for Stewart's movie.

Bahari's journey began with an assignment for Newsweek: When we meet him, he's covering the election between hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate who promised sweeping reforms.

In need of transportation, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) quickly establishes a relationship with a cab driver (Dimitri Leonidas) who subsequently introduces him to a group of reform-minded young people who believe Iran is on the brink of revolutionary change. Their enthusiasm is infectious; they can't wait for a new day.

It never dawned. Ahmadinejad won. The country's opposition claimed election fraud and protests broke out.

The fact that Bahari filmed a protest in which soldiers fired on protesters helped seal his fate. He was arrested and accused of being a spy. In 2009, Bahari spent 118 days in prison.

Once in Evin Prison, Bahari underwent interrogation, beatings and psychological torture, mostly (according to the movie) at the hands of one man (Kim Bodnia), an official who's eager to please his superiors by eliciting a confession from Bahari.

Bernal presents Bahari as a young journalist who can't quite believe that he's been caught in a position in which he must accept a reality that, to him, seems entirely absurd. At various points during his ordeal, he weakens.

Stewart, who filmed Rosewater in Jordan, uses real news footage to heighten the film's sense of immediacy and to give it breadth, but for the most part, Rosewater is a closed-in drama.

We follow Bahari as he moves from his spartan cell to the interrogation room, where he's often blindfolded.

Perhaps to open things up a bit, Stewart also includes scenes in which Bahari imagines that he's talking to his late father (Haluk Bilginer), a man who served time in the same prison during the Shah's repressive regime. These fantasy conversations help Bahari build strength for his ordeal.

Shohreh Aghdashloo plays Bahari's mother, and Claire Foy portrays his London-based, pregnant wife, but the central drama hinges on the relationship between Bahari and a tormenter who isn't always sure of himself and who, on at least one occasion, finds himself at odds with his boss.

Bahari calls his interrogator Rosewater because the man has a habit of sprinkling himself with cologne.

The film finds a brief touch of wit when Bahari tells his captor about the degenerate ways of the West, putting the man in the delicate position of wanting to hear more about the sexual decadence he's pledged to combat.

As Bahari fictionalizes about various forms of massage, he's provided with a rare -- if fleeting -- opportunity to exercise a measure of control over his tormenter.

Stewart's interest in the story stems from the fact that an appearance Bahari made on The Daily Show was part of the evidence used against him. Bahari was interviewed in Tehran by comic Jason Jones for a satirical Daily Show segment in which Jones posed as a spy.

International attention helped free Bahari, whose story may constitute only a footnote in the overall sweep of global oppression, but Stewart tells Bahari's story with urgency and authenticity.

In the process, he reminds us of what can happen when literalists take command of a culture; i.e., nothing good.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A forgettable, lightweight 'Laggies'

A young woman suspended in the limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
The fact that poor, college-educated Megan (Keira Knightley) feels at odds with her life as it's unfolding -- something I learned in the first few minutes of Laggies -- didn't strike me as especially compelling.

My predilections aside, it's Megan's generalized malaise that provides a backdrop for director Lynn Shelton's mildly amusing but ultimately negligible comedy.

Fearful of marriage to her devoted but drippy boyfriend (Mark Webber), unsure about a career path, and out of synch with her life-long friends, Megan refuses to be swept away by the felicities surrounding the impending wedding of one of her gal pals (Ellie Kemper).

What's a young woman to do? Pursue a career? Make wedding plans of her own? Fit into the group profile being carved out by friends who (thanks to mobile media) are in constant touch with one another?

Megan's answer is a good one: None of the above.

But Laggies is less an incisive character study than a medium-grade, Seattle-based comedy that's slightly elevated by a couple of its performances, notably from Sam Rockwell (as an attorney and the father of a teen-age daughter) and Chloe Grace Moretz (as that rebellious but ultimately good-hearted adolescent).

Sans her British accent, Knightley does her best to bring a bit of luster to a character who's essentially depressed.

Rather than allowing Laggies to find its own rhythm, Shelton relies on the awkward contrivances of Andrea Seigel's screenplay.

By chance, Megan runs into Moretz's Annika outside a convenience store. Annika implores Megan to buy liquor for her underage buddies. Megan does, one of the many questionable decisions she makes.

In need of a week of evasion from personal pressures, Megan crashes at Anika's house. She makes up a story that convinces Rockwell's Craig to let her stay.

An underused Gretchen Mol shows up as Anika's mother, a woman who left her husband to pursue a career as a lingerie model, thus turning Craig into a single dad.

It doesn't take much insight to guess that Megan, who already has accepted her boyfriend's proposal, is going to fall for glib but lonely Craig.Skipping over the real issue, Laggies winds up being a so-so romcom that left me in the position a critic least wants to occupy: I shrugged.

Music, heroin and fatherhood on the fringe

A look at the relationship between a musician and his daughter.
Jazz pianist Joe Albani, who went by the name of Joe Albany, died in 1988 at the age of 64. Albany spent most of his adult life as a musician and heroin addict, not always in that order.

No slouch wannabe, Albany established his reputation playing with such greats as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. That alone might have made for a good movie.

But Low Down, which only touches on Albany's jazz life, turns out to be another kind endeavor, one that focuses on Joe's faltering attempts at fatherhood.

Based on a memoir by his daughter, who also had a hand in writing the screenplay, Low Down introduces us to Albany during the 1970s.

At the time, he was living a marginal life in the kind of seedy Los Angeles dives that writer Charles Bukowski memorialized, single-room occupancy hotels where the clientele was sometimes too drunk or stoned to notice much of anything.

Director Jeff Preiss, who worked as the cinematographer on the Chet Baker documentary Let's Get Lost, tells the story through the eyes of Albany's 13-year-old daughter Amy (Elle Fanning).

Albany -- played by John Hawkes -- bobs in and out of the story, sometimes sober, sometimes not. At times, he allows heroin to disconnect him from music, yet we never doubt his seriousness as an artist.

Hawkes (The Sessions, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter's Bone) is too good an actor to serve up a series of junkie cliches. He gives us a father who's gentle and bright with his daughter and who's imbued with a kind of tolerance for himself and others.

Joe obviously has little idea about how to be a father, but he leaves no doubt that he loves his daughter, and Fanning does justice to a teen-ager who's trying not to be overwhelmed by her father's indulgences or by an alcoholic mother (Lena Headley), made viperous by booze and bitterness.

Obviously, Amy isn't living a normal teen life; she's exposed to prostitutes and to a strange but gentle fellow (Peter Dinklage) who lives in the basement of the dump where her dad crashes.

If there's a surprising performance here, it's given by Glenn Close, who plays Joe's mother and Amy's grandmother, a tough woman who chain smokes, takes no guff, and takes care of her granddaughter when her father can't. She appreciates her son's talent, but fears for him.

Fanning observes her father, his friends and the life he's fallen into with baffled curiosity, and Hawkes can feel almost airborne as Joe floats through some awfully dreary days.

The movie floats a bit as well; it's steeped in a kind of '70s filmmaking style in which the truth of every scene often takes precedence over any narrative arc.

I don't know what else to say to give you an idea about this movie, but it might help if I conjectured a bit. I think John Cassavetes would have liked and admired Low Down -- at least, I hope he would have.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A sometimes blurry 'Interstellar' vision

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen a worm hole?
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar provides us with reason to re-appreciate the genius of director Stanley Kubrick, who brilliantly opted to use minimal dialogue in his momentous and still glorious 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nolan, who wrote the screenplay for Interstellar with his brother Jonathan, includes some surprisingly opaque dialogue that -- at least momentarily -- deflates the grandeur of his deep-space enterprise.

Kubrick's genius consisted of not trying to explain everything. He allowed the mystery of his movie to match the incomprehensible vastness of space.

Nolan, on the other hand, offers dialogue that explains without always clarifying all of the movie's narrative lapses in what amounts to a strange and not quite digestible mixture of homespun virtue and theoretical physics.

It's one hell of a tall order, I suppose, trying to span the distance from dirt farms to black holes.

To be fair, it should be noted that along the way, Nolan creates images that give the movie a stunning, forceful presence -- no small achievement.

It's the conception behind the drama that sometimes falters. Nolan begins with yet another view of a depleted Earth. Agriculture is failing, population has diminished and breathable air is on schedule to run out.

Is there a way out of this dystopian trap?

Enter Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA pilot turned farmer, who finds his way to a secret NASA hideout where he's recruited by Dr. Brand, a renowned physicist played by a weary-looking Michael Caine.

Cooper's assignment: to fly the ship that will journey through a worm hole and beyond. It's part of an attempt to find a new galactic home for the dwindling populace of Earth.

To pursue this mission, Cooper -- a widower and father of two -- must leave his young kids (Mackenzie Foy and Timothee Chalamet) in the care of their grandfather (John Lithgow).

The explanation for how Cooper goes from farmer to space hero is not especially convincing, but it launches him on a voyage of salvation along with a crew that includes Anne Hathaway's Amelia, the daughter of Dr. Brand.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you that the scientists in Interstellar are operating under the assumption that an unspecified being (or beings) is providing humanity with an assist in its quest for survival.

After his acceptance speech at this year's Oscars, I wondered whether McConaughey already had traveled in space, but he brings a down-home Texas twang and lots of high-level fretting to the role of a man thrust into the position of trying, as a mere human, to do something usually reserved for superheroes; i.e., saving all of humanity.

If there's a truly compelling reason to see Interstellar, it centers on the grandiosity of Nolan's space vision, made significantly more powerful when seen in Imax. Nolan captures the vastness of space, and some of the action scenes involving docking maneuvers of space craft are suitably impressive.

Cooper's adventures keep him away from Earth for quite a while. So it's not surprising that somewhere toward the middle of the movie's two-hour and 49-minute span, Cooper's kids become adults, played by Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck.

Of the two, Chastain has the more important role because we're told that her character has a powerful love bond with her space-voyaging father. More about that later.

Nolan fills individual set pieces with tension, but the greater question (will mankind survive?) doesn't exactly keep us on the edge of our seats, and when the dialogue tries to incorporate scientific jargon, the outlines of Nolan's human drama tend to blur.

Those familiar with Nolan's blockbuster filmography (a couple of Batman movies and Inception) hardly will be surprised by the movie's ambition, but it's a bit odd that Interstellar tries to bring the whole business to its conclusion by telling us that love (in this case between father and daughter) has the potential to bridge the space/time continuum -- or something like that.

At times, Interstellar feels reminiscent of Kubrick, and at other times it feels almost Spielbergian, particularly in opening segments that take place in a future that has been made to resemble the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression.

I wore out on Hans Zimmer's creative but inescapable score, which provides both menace and cosmic inspiration. Zimmer hits highs, and then tries to repeat them.

One of those highs involves a Michael Caine recitation of Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, which serves as a kind of poetic bit of cheerleading, encouraging humanity to rage against the dying of the light -- which in this case reaches beyond individual death to the extinction of the entire species.

Nolan's gigantic exercise soars and sinks, even as its boosted by amazing sights: a planet on which ocean waves reach mountainous heights and a journey past a black hole, for example.

Some viewers may find that Nolan has infused Interstellar with palpable human longing. If you share that view, the movie may strike a deep chord with you.

Me? I can't think of a recent movie that gave thrills with one hand while eliciting groans with the other. You'll have to see Interstellar for yourself to determine on which side of the line you land.

I'm not sure you'll agree, but I thought Nolan's movie represented an outsized amalgam of unlikely bedfellows, the Beatles and Einstein. It goes something like this: All you need is love -- and quite possibly an advanced degree in physics.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

'Nightcrawler' holds us in its sway

He has a camera, but does he have a soul?

We know little about the background of Lou Bloom, the main character in director Dan Gilroy's disquieting new thriller, Nightcrawler.

An apparent loner, Lou lives in a modest Los Angeles apartment, where he spends lots of time on the Internet. His eyes have the unblinking stare of a surveillance camera in a convenience store. He's definitely weird.

Lou -- a gaunt-looking Jake Gyllenhaal in his best screen performance yet -- appears to have acquired his social skills and stilted speech patterns from a manual, something like "How to Talk to a Prospective Employer."

After a misguided attempt at landing a job, Lou happens upon an automobile accident where a freelance news crew is scurrying to obtain graphic footage.

It's love at first sight for Lou, who understands that he has found a calling that may allow him to abandon minor larceny and enter a world where his lack of inhibition will bring him great success.

In a twisted version of bromides such as "follow your bliss," Lou finds something he truly loves, filming other people's misery.

To launch his career, Lou obtains a cheap camera and a police scanner. He begins to ply his new trade -- at first to the derision of established freelancers such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Loder mocks Lou's amateur equipment and general lack of savvy.

But Lou persists, bringing his first footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director at a third-tier local station. Nina knows Lou isn't skilled, but she recognizes that he has the stomach to pursue the "money shot," the gory detail others might avoid.

No spring chicken, Nina's been around the TV block. She's entirely committed to the cliche often used to characterize TV news: "If it bleeds, it leads."

When Nina tells Lou how to approach his newfound craft, she offers this bit of gruesome advice: He should try for images that create the feeling of a screaming woman running down a street with her throat cut.

Fortunately, Nightcrawler isn't another lathered-up critique of the media, although it certainly takes its shots at TV's appetite for sensation-driven content.

No, Nightcrawler is more than an anti-media screed: It's a character study of a man who distorts what might normally be regarded as virtues until they disappear into a haze of amorality. Lou has a preternatural ability to focus and a ravenous hunger for absorbing information that he quickly puts to use.

Joining with cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Gilroy works from a dark and gleaming palette that avoids most of the usual LA visual cliches. Almost every shot is alive with the city's worst impulses.

Lou's nocturnal adventures -- some quite grisly -- unfold in near-hypnotic fashion: A shooting that leaves gaping holes in a victim, gruesome car wrecks and crime. Lots of crime. Lou specializes in the kind of brutal material customarily presented by news anchors with a caveat: "viewer discretion advised."

Along the way, Lou acquires an assistant (Riz Ahmed), whom he refers to as an employee.

In a bizarre comic scene, Lou promotes Ahmed's Rick from a $30-per-night intern to executive vice-president of what he regards as his burgeoning video news empire. Lou never acts as if he's running anything less than a big-time operation. Lou, of course, believes everything he says. He smiles, but never jokes.

Much of the movie's tension derives from wondering whether Lou is insanely ambitious or simply insane. At one point, he takes Nina to dinner. He's confident enough about his importance to her that he blackmails her into a sexual relationship. The nerd has become a predator.

When you play Nightcrawler back in your head, you may decide that it's guilty of wild exaggeration and that some of Lou's adventures defy plausibility. But when a movie holds you in its sway, as this one does, there's little point complaining.

Honore de Balzac told us that behind every great fortune, there's a great crime. Nightcrawler tells us that crimes great and small are often committed by those who, like Lou, believe in the absolute necessity of their actions.

Lou's a sociopathic creep, all right, but (heaven help us), he's a happy creep. A creep with a destiny.