Nightcrawler

 

TV news is a competitive business. Every station wants the big story. Some will pay good money to freelancers with video cameras for exclusive footage.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an L.A. ne’er-do-well who wants to go legit. As Nightcrawler begins, he sells fence (chain link) to a fence (guy who buys stolen goods) and asks the buyer for a job. When Lou happens upon a news photog (Bill Paxton) shooting video to sell to TV, he decides to try it himself.

Lou finds a willing buyer in Nina (Rene Russo), a news director at an L.A. station whose ratings need help. Lou continues to bring graphic footage to her and the ratings inch upward. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a TV industry half-joke, one with more than a grain of truth behind it. In the battle to titillate news viewers, Nina keeps asking for shocking video.

As the checks roll in, Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). He buys a new, faster car. He gets better monitoring equipment to listen in on police calls.

Lou is a scheming pragmatist who aggressively woos Nina with logical arguments and, of course, exclusive video. His online research tells him that she has had trouble keeping a job and that she will soon be up for renewal. She needs him.

Lou boldly goes into places he shouldn’t to get juicy footage. Eventually he goes too far. But even when he oversteps, he continues to bring the goods to Nina and her news team. She has few boundaries regarding what she’ll put on air and Lou responds. Nightcrawler may exaggerate the lengths TV stations will go to lure viewers, but not by much.

Gyllenhaal’s Lou is a likeable charmer. He’s a bit smarmy, not far removed from Leave It To Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. Even though he does things that are wrong, it’s easy to root for him. He’s also funny—though not always intentionally.

After last year’s excellent performance as a detective in Prisoners, Gyllenhaal follows with a completely different character and another memorable role. At age 33, he has already amassed a respectable acting resume. As he moves into more mature roles, I look forward watching him grow into a major film star.

It’s good to see Rene Russo back onscreen. Except for the Thor movies, she’s been absent for the last decade. At age 60, she brings appropriate intensity to her role as Nina.

I’m happy to report that rookie director Dan Gilroy (he also wrote the script) did not make Nightcrawler to rip into the TV news biz for its love of crime and gore. He accepts that as a given. Instead he focuses on bringing this interesting character and his story to the screen. Good jobs, Dan and Jake!

 

 

 

 

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Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

 

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is sad, funny, nostalgic and informative. But mostly, it’s sweet. Glen Campbell and his family show and tell how his Alzheimer’s has affected each of them.

As Keith Urban, one of many fellow musicians who offer comments, points out, much of our lives consist of memories. And when memory goes, a large part of our existence goes. Thankfully, for Glen Campbell, his abilities to play guitar and sing remain intact, although he cannot remember the words to his songs.

In I’ll Be Me, Glen and his wife Kim visit doctors at the Mayo Clinic. Results of brain scans are analyzed and explained. Drugs are prescribed and life goes on. For now.

The documentary begins in 2011 when Glen Campbell goes public with his diagnosis. It follows him and his entourage through a farewell tour that includes stops at iconic venues Ryman Auditorium (Nashville) and Carnegie Hall (New York). It’s not easy—not for Glen, nor his sidemen who include three of his kids.

At the Ryman, his teleprompter (with song lyrics) goes out and he is lost until it is restored. The family is concerned when he does the Leno show, but he turns in a successful performance. A tribute medley at the Grammy Awards show in early 2012 goes well. At gigs in late 2012, however, as his abilities decline, he has more difficulties. It’s not hard to respond emotionally to his ordeal.

Among the performers who offer comments about Glen Campbell and/or Alzheimer’s are Jimmy Webb, Brad Paisley, The Edge, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Blake Shelton and Kathy Mattea.

Most of the performances in the film from his farewell tour range from good to stellar. Most of his hits plus a few new songs are presented. Other highlights include a tour bus duet with daughter Ashley on Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues, several clips from Campbell’s TV career and home movies and videos from all stages of his life.

For baby boomers and some Gen-Xers, Campbell has been prominent showbiz figure for half a century, thanks to a string of pop-country hits and a weekly TV show. Performances in Vegas and Branson kept him working long after the hits stopped coming.

It was brave for Glen and his wife and family to make this film and show how Alzheimer’s affects an individual, as well as caregivers and other loved ones. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me brought tears to my eyes several times during its 1:44 or so run time. But it also made me appreciate the body of entertainment that Glen Campbell has delivered during his lifetime, especially these last concerts. I’m sad about what’s next, but happy that these performances were documented.

 

Birdman

Birdman delivers. It is an amazing thing to see. Michael Keaton’s terrific performance in the title role is likely to earn him an Oscar nomination. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who co-wrote the script) should receive awards, as well.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is a well-known movie star who played a character called Birdman in a series of films before he stepped away from the franchise. Now he is starring in and directing a Broadway play whose script he adapted. The movie covers the few days spanning the time from final rehearsals to opening night. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one with a dark, often subtle, wit.

Is Riggan crazy? Is his inner voice—the voice of Birdman— just the conscience we all have or is it the voice a mentally ill person hears? Does he really (within the movie) have super powers or is that just his imagination? Can he possibly be as insecure as he often seems? And there are more questions that are not clearly answered, questions that can’t be referenced here without being spoilers.

Other key players include Mike (Edward Norton) who is a last minute replacement in the play’s cast. He’s a pro and Riggan knows it, but Mike’s on-stage confidence and Broadway pedigree rub Riggan the wrong way. Naomi Watts is Lesley, another on-stage cast member. She and Mike have a past together. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is the 4th member of the play’s cast. His response when she tells him she’s pregnant reveals much about their relationship.

Samamtha (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter, just out of rehab. She confirms to her dad that, yes, he is no longer relevant. She chides him for not being on Twitter and Facebook, equating social media presence to existence.

Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the show’s producer, is a different role for Galifianakis. He plays a less wacky, more normal guy, though one with some funny lines.

Because of its technical style, long takes and unorthodox camera angles, Birdman is film that will be dissected and analyzed by film classes for decades. The Steadicam used extensively in filming Birdman earns back every cent producers paid for it.

If you see Birdman with a friend, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about after the show, such as: Who, besides Keaton, had the most award-worthy performance? (I’d say Norton.) Were things Mike said to Riggan based on jealousy of his notoriety or were they sage wisdom? (Both, I think.) Was Birdman‘s “continuous take” clever or tedious? (For me, mostly clever.)

More discussion topics: How about that soundtrack, provided mostly by a single drummer? (It magnified the tension, but I detest drum solos at concerts, so I got tired of it quickly.) Is the alternative title Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance really necessary? (No.) Was Riggan’s putdown of critics valid? (To a degree, yes.) What did you think of that ending? (No spoilers, so no input from me on this question.) We can talk after you see Birdman. And you must see it!

Fury

 

Fury is a beautifully constructed WWII movie. The story, the script, the characters, the acting, the tanks, the effects are all top-notch. But is it special? That’s the big question about Fury. It’s a truly entertaining film, and maybe that’s enough.

Fury is a tank, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt). He’s fought Germans in Africa, France and, now, on the Krauts’ home turf. The film is set in spring 1945, just weeks before the war’s end. Germany is reeling, but the bloody battles continue.

When any war movie introduces its characters, you know: some will die; some will survive. Wardaddy’s group includes the religious Swan (Shia LeBoeuf), Latino “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal).

The most interesting character in Fury is Norman, a callow youth played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a pencil pusher, just 8 weeks into his Army career, when he’s somehow assigned to Wardaddy’s crew. He is unprepared for witnessing death and certainly not ready to kill people.

A couple of battle scenes set up the final showdown. The faceoff between Fury (and other American tanks) against a bigger, stronger German tank depicts the intense effort of those inside the tank and the constant movement of the tanks for strategic positioning. (A note at the movie’s opening notes that American tanks did not quite measure up to German tanks.)

A sequence that follows the takeover of a German town shows Wardaddy and Norman enjoying a cordial visit with 2 German women. It’s a moment of quiet humanity amidst the horror of war. Later, the other 3 tank men crash the party and behave uncouthly until Wardaddy takes control.

When Fury is assigned to go it alone and defend a key rural intersection, they sit and wait for German activity. Norman scouts from a hillside and spots hundreds of Germans on their way for the film’s climactic battle, which is loud, intense and furious.

Writer/director David Ayer frames the film with memorable opening and closing shots and his overhead shots of the tank positioning are cleverly shot. In Fury, though most of the action occurs during daytime, the days are gray and dismal—appropriate for the grim business of war.

As Fury depicts it, war is hell. WWII, particularly so.

 

 

 

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a movie whose outcome you can predict as soon as it begins. Even though the destination may be preordained, the journey is fun, sweet and, at moments, poignant.

Bill Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeon who lives alone in a non-descript section of Brooklyn. Single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) make an auspicious arrival as Vincent’s new neighbors when their moving guys take out a tree limb and part of Vincent’s fence with their truck.

Maggie goes to work and Oliver goes to school. When Maggie has to work late, she hires Vincent to babysit the lad (who appears to be about 10 years old). While mom works, Vincent shares his world with Oliver, taking the kid to the horse track and a bar. He also introduces Oliver to pregnant stripper/hooker Daka (Naomi Watts with a bad Russian accent).

When Oliver is bullied at school, Vincent suggests a technique to take down his bigger intimidators. It works extremely well. (Charismatic Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is a priest who is one of Oliver’s teachers at school.)

As the movie proceeds, more of Vincent’s life is revealed and the grizzled old guy with a bad attitude is shown to have human emotions. He may not have a heart of gold, but at least he has a heart.

Bill Murray has been handed a role that’s perfect for him. His Vincent is not just a caricature, he’s a real guy, like you see on the street everyday. Murray should get awards consideration. But because he makes playing Vincent look so easy, he may be overlooked. The other performances are solid, but Murray carries the movie, so he is due the greater amount of acclaim.

First time director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi, a man with Missouri roots, has assembled a movie that’s funny but also brings real human emotion to the screen. You may not actually cry, but you’ll laugh. And you’ll ending up liking the key characters, too. (Stick around for the closing credits and Murray’s casual singing of Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm.”)

The Judge

 

The two Roberts are terrific in The Judge. The rest of the movie is pretty good, too!

An estrangement between a parent and child is a painful thing to observe and, for those who have that situation in their lives, the hurt lingers every day. In the case of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) and his father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the reasons for the resentments each carries appear, on surface, to be justified. But a series of events has the potential to result in healing of their emotional wounds.

Hank is a hot-shot Chicago defense attorney who learns that his mother has died. He returns to his small hometown in Indiana for the funeral and tense dealings with his father who has been the town’s judge for 42 years. On the evening following his wife’s funeral, the judge kills a man in a hit-and-run. As Hank prepares to return to Chicago, his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls to tell him that their dad has been charged with a crime.

The judge/dad/Joseph chooses as his lead attorney local yokel C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer who just happens to have a law degree. C.P’s shortcomings are quickly exposed and in short order, Hank takes over.

Courtroom scenes have famously provided opportunities for talented actors to strut their stuff and give memorable performances. The two Roberts do not miss their chances to bring their best. With Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor and Ken Howard as judge, father Joseph takes the witness stand and son Hank does his best to create doubt about his father’s part in the incident.

The Judge provides laughter among the tension. The jury selection process is fun and C.P.’s ritual of puking before each courtroom session lightens the mood.

During his time back in town, Hank, whose marriage in Chicago is troubled, reunites with old hometown girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga). The attraction is still there.

The Judge contains a particularly gorgeous shot, taken from a copter or a drone, that shows Hank at the wheel of his car before the camera pulls back to show a panorama of unending verdant farmland.

The Judge is longish, clocking in around 2:20. But the complicated relationship between the father and son merits the time spent for examination of past events and current circumstances that have brought them to this point in their lives. The two Roberts make The Judge a movie worth seeing.

 

Kill The Messenger

 

Jeremy Renner is a talented actor but I’m not a big fan. Sometimes it seems he’s trying too hard. Other times he appears to be the wrong person for a particular role. In Kill The Messenger, Renner is perfectly cast and he delivers one of his best performances.

Kill The Messenger is the story of real life investigative reporter Gary Webb (Renner) of the San Jose Mercury News. He is handed a grand jury transcript that leads him to a very big story. When he publishes the story, he is praised. But soon, holes in the story are discovered and his reporting is discredited.

His story, published in August 1996, connected the CIA to drug trafficking in the 1980’s. The drugs, in the form of highly addictive crack cocaine, earned money to buy guns for the Contras in Central America. The paper, a small fish in the national journalistic scene, is elated to break something big. The CIA immediately went to work discrediting the story.

Certain media outlets misinterpreted key elements of the story. Bigger newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times published accounts disputing what Webb had reported. The people at his own paper—editors Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt)—began to doubt that Webb’s sources were legit. The Mercury News bumped him down to working a suburban bureau.

Renner brings good energy to the role of this enthusiastic enterprise reporter who had the story of a lifetime fall into his hands. Renner’s Webb has the ability to get what he needs from all sorts of people, good and bad. He easily convinces his bosses to give him sufficient rope, resources and time to produce the story.

Shortly thereafter, they throw him under the bus and tell him of plans to publish a front-page letter to readers stepping back from the story. When the solid source he needs (Ray Liotta) steps forward, his editors have no interest in keeping the story in play.

Kill The Messenger does not cast doubt on Webb’s reporting and portrays him as a victim of a concerted effort to refute the work that his editors initially praised. It leaves certain questions unanswered: How much did the CIA have to do with Webb’s editors spiking his work? What did the CIA do to provoke the NY and LA Times and Washington Post to attack Webb’s reporting? What made key sources claim they’d never spoken to Webb?

I heartily recommend Kill The Messenger to all my friends who work in media, particularly the ink-stained wretches (affectionate term) at the Post-Dispatch and other print media. It’s great to see hard work and journalistic integrity get such generous onscreen treatment.

(One more thing: Don’t be late. The title sequence is excellent.)

 

 

 

Gone Girl

 

Gone Girl is one of the year’s best films. Unexpectedly strong performances from the leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are the centerpiece of the latest from consistently adept storyteller, director David Fincher.

Gillian Flynn adapted her own massively successful novel into a screenplay that reveals plot points gradually while giving shape and form to the complex personalities of Nick Dunne (Affleck) and his wife Amy (Pike).

Nick and Amy live in the river town of North Carthage, Missouri. (The film was shot on location in Cape Girardeau.) They moved from New York to Nick’s hometown to be with his mother as she faced breast cancer. Nick co-owns a bar in the town with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon).

On their anniversary, Amy disappears. Police find clues—including signs of a struggle–in the couples’ home, but no body. Because the home is a crime scene, Nick moves in with Margo. As often happens when a wife disappears, speculation about the husband’s guilt spreads. In Gone Girl, it ignites discussion on a Nancy Grace type TV show.

As the investigation proceeds, detective Boney (Kim Dickens) plays by the book to build a case but her sidekick officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) is eager to arrest Nick. When public opinion turns against him, Nick brings in attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to advise him. Meanwhile, as the search continues, Amy’s old boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) moves from the background to the foreground.

Among the supporting cast, Coon and Perry are strongest. Dickens delivers her dialogue in a truly authentic Southern accent. Harris is low key and coolly straightforward, almost distractingly so.

Apart from being a police procedural that causes a viewer to wonder about the outcome, Gone Girl paints a telling picture of a troubled marriage. Both husband and wife are shown to have character flaws. Their courtship and the early days of their marriage are shown via flashback. Amy’s diary entries, which she reads in voiceover, provide the audience with her takes on married life.

The soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is genius. Early on, the sounds are ethereal, dreamily romantic. But as things get serious, the music turns darker.

Clearly, Fincher has not only assembled talented individuals on and off camera, but also has obtained supreme efforts from all involved. The result is an excellent movie which, despite its nearly 2-and-a-half hour run time, never drags. See it and be careful what you say afterward. No spoilers.