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Nightcrawler (2014)

nightcrawlerposterThe surprise of Nightcrawler is that it works well on different levels: as a psychological descent with a deranged lead, as a media critique on sensationalism, and as a genre thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) gives a truly transfixing performance as Leo Bloom, an ambitious sociopath who will stop at nothing to become the best at what he does. It so happens he films accident and crime footage to sell to the local news stations, and he’s not beyond getting his hands dirty if it means a better camera angle or a better payday. The actor reportedly lost 30 pounds and he appears otherworldly, his lanky frame and gaunt face making his bulging eyes pop. There’s a hypnotic intensity to his performance and a darkly comic irony that he speaks almost entirely in business buzzwords and jargon. The film chronicles his rise to power and how he uses his leverage to manipulate the people around him. The media satire is a little heavy-handed but still makes its points, especially in an age of scandal and hysteria. Rene Russo is also great as the desperate and bloodthirsty news producer who is charmed by Bloom but then gets too far in. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony) has crafted a haunting central figure that is morally repulsive yet entirely engaging, especially with a career-best performance from Gyllenhaal. He’s a fascinating psychological case, even if he remains relatively the same character from the start. He makes every moment an opportunity in suspense. Gilroy has a natural sense for visuals and especially how to pace his tension, drawing it out with precision in the final act as Bloom’s arrangements cause disaster. The nighttime Los Angeles setting and swirling tension remind me of Michael Mann’s Collateral. This is a movie that sticks with you long after thanks especially to the power of Gyllenhaal.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vertical Limit (2000)

New heights are explored in the mountain climbing expedition that is Vertical Limit. A group of climbers must perform a rescue mission on the second highest mountain in the world or risk losing the lives of their friends and loved ones. With a set-up like this you would assume it would have a lot of great action. Well, yes and no.

Limit stars Bill Paxton (talented but has poor film choices) as the usual corporate villain, Chris O’Donnell (untalented with poor choices) as the tortured rock climbing hero, and Robin Tunney as the overly ambitious climbing sister to O’Donnell. This isn’t all the subplots though — oh no! We get a pair of wise cracking pot head brothers, a religious Pakistani serviceman, a military base, and a grizzled loner that everyone thinks is crazy until we finally realize he’s the best mountain man of them all. By the time it takes to establish all of these subplots, plus others I’ve failed to mention, we haven’t even gotten to the damn mountain yet. Rule #1 of a mountain climbing movie: Get on the bloody mountain within an hour of the movie starting!

The plot is overly cornball and excessively redundant. By the time you actually see the loner’s long lost wife frozen in a wall of ice and looking like a figurine from the Mattel Barbie catalog you will know the ends this film will go.

The experts of rock climbing are all young and seemingly frat house rejects. Why in every film must the experts in any field of scientific research be frat house party animals? How about some realism there and make them all middle aged balding white males. Well… I guess that would be less of a draw.

Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) has a great knack for establishing tight thrills and strong suspense. Campbell is clearly the strong point of this picture. When the action is running it’s plumb with excitement and great visceral visuals of the scenery. The only problem is that the action scenes are separated by long stretches of characters coughing or wheezing and terribly cheesy dialogue. If the story is technically built around the action sequences why do we have to devote so much time to it then? It’s a waste of Campbell, a true action talent.

Limit is rigid with expendable cut-outs designed to be its people. The characters are shoe-string and so is the plot but the action, when allowed to actually happen, is first rate. However, I do exclude a series of scenes where Tunney and Paxton are trapped in an ice cave that resembles more of your grocer’s freezer than a Himalayan peek. The 12 year-old behind me kicking my seat figured it all out good enough. I think that says enough.

Nate’s Grade: C-

U-571 (2000)

Think of every major movie where the action centered on a submarine — now add every cliche and a dash of boredom and U-571 is your dish.

The movie centers around the launch to retrieve the German coding during the later stages of WWII and the brave men and women who risked their lives and honor out of duty for their fellow man. This sounds like a great premise for a movie but why must it be fictionalized and steamed for mobile suspense when I’m sure there are many heart-pounding stories of courage that are true. You’d also think with every major cliche of the action world that U-571 would at least be able to stand to its feet for excitement but it’s quite easy to doze off on this underwater snoozer. The characters are all one-in-the-same that I had to identify them by haircut and height in order to know who was who at all times. And when some of them died it took me awhile to process which one it was.

U-571 is full of every old and new Hollywood convention itself that adds nothing to the story or enjoyment as a whole. The up and coming leader is advised he doesn’t “have the stuff to let a man go in order to save others” so let’s try and guess what position he will ultimately be put into. Why is the only black man in the movie a jive-talking chef and why does he jump at the controls and knows what to do INSTANTLY trouble’s afoot. I guess a nuclear submarine and engineering physics is so closely related to spices and stews. Of course everyone’s favorite bad guys (say it with me now together “Germans are always evil”) are in the middle and slaughter a whole group of sea-faring survivors just for the hell of it. Why do they do this? Because they’re Germans, and they have to be more evil so they kill innocent people.

U-571 isn’t a terrible movie, it does hold some credible acting and set designs to bring the look and feel of the 1940s to breathing life. The effects are well done but are sporadically used. Most of the tale takes place about trying to get past one Destroyer – just one. Two hours of this? U-571 may be a prelude to the summer, and if it is it’s going to be a long long movie season.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Simple Plan (1998)

Not as simple as one would be led to believe. A Simple Plan offers great ensemble performances, never-ending suspense, and great execution at telling its tragic fable–all the while making a statement as one of the best films of 1998.

The core and real punch of the picture comes from its two main characters linked by blood but not by much else. The trouble all begins when the bothers and a buddy come across a downed air plane in the forest. with $4 million inside. The idea arises that they should all keep the money and hide their secret from all others. Hank resists at first but the promise of the money draws him in to becoming apart of the plan.

You could say the film’s like a Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets Fargo but this gives disservice to director Sam Raimi. The man famous for splatterfest horror outings shows great maturity in pulling something off like this so well.

The acting is some of the finest of the year, well I guess it would be last year. Paxton gives his best performance of his career, and Billy Bob Thornton does for backwater townsfolk what DeNiro did for psychos. My favorite would have to be the Lady MacBeth wife of Hank, played chillingly by Bridget Fonda. Her moral high ground disappears at the sight of the money and she drastically turns into a brooding and malicious character. In bed she whispers plans for her husband to hide his tracks or set up his partners to take the fall. That’s where A Simple Plan turns into a devious game of each other suspicious of the next, and falling victim to their own greed. The money brings out all the true feelings each has for the other that had remained buried inside.

Add a haunting score by master maestro Danny Elfman and you have yourself one fine feature.

Nate’s Grade: A

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