Movie Review: “Nightcrawler”

Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Director
Dan Gilory

Though it isn’t your typical Halloween movie by any stretch of the imagination, Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema (perhaps most notably in Sidney Lumet’s 1977 Oscar-winning film “Network”), but “Nightcrawler” tells its debauched tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more frightening than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a truly exceptional thriller highlighted by a wickedly entrancing, career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

The actor stars as Louis Bloom, a petty thief who’s willing to put in the hard work and make a career for himself if someone will just give him a chance. As luck would have it, Louis finds his calling when he passes by a fatal car accident one night and notices the freelance cameramen filming it in all its bloody glory. These guys are like the storm chasers of the TV news world – driving around at night waiting for tragedy to strike so that they can catch the mayhem on camera and sell the footage to whichever news station is willing to pay the most. After trading some stolen loot to a pawn shop in exchange for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis hits the ground running, and before long, he sells his first video to Channel 6 news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a kindred spirit of sorts who favors ratings over ethics. Louis has no shame in the barbaric manner in which he captures these moments (to him, it’s just part of the job), and that makes him very unpredictable, because once he gets a taste of success, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot, even if that means crossing lines that aren’t meant to be crossed.

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Blu Tuesday: Wish I Was Here, Begin Again and Deliver Us from Evil

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Wish I Was Here”

WHAT: Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a struggling actor whose wife (Kate Hudson) is the sole breadwinner of the family, so when his father (Mandy Pantinkin) becomes sick and is no longer able to pay the children’s private school tuition, Aidan agrees to homeschool the kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). The problem is that Aidan has no idea what he’s doing, so instead, he takes them on a series of “field trips” meant to impart life lessons that help him rediscover his own identity in the process.

WHY: Hating Zach Braff was in fashion long before the actor/director launched a Kickstarter campaign for his long-awaited sophomore effort, but the way he went about funding his follow-up to “Garden State” really got under some people’s skin. While Braff may have been unfairly judged for the way he raised the money to make the film, it’s a wonder why he had to resort to crowdsourcing at all, because “Wish I Was Here” is a confident, funny and heartfelt tragicomedy that proves Braff is more than just a one-hit wonder. The “Scrubs” star does a solid job in the lead role, and Mandy Pantinkin and Joey King both deliver great supporting work, but it’s Kate Hudson who is the movie’s most pleasant surprise, turning in her finest performance since “Almost Famous.” The script is nothing special, even bordering on schmaltzy at times, but there’s an honesty to the material (especially the father-son relationship) that certain people will connect to more than others. “Wish I Was Here” is a much more grown-up film than “Garden State,” exploring a range of themes like morality, sacrifice, family and fatherhood, and although some might be handled in a slightly pandering manner, there’s an innate sweetness to the movie that compensates for its lack of subtlety.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes two audio commentaries (one with co-writer/director/star Zach Braff and co-writer Adam Braff, and another with Zach Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher and editor Myron Kerstein), as well as some deleted scenes, outtakes and a short behind-the-scenes featurette.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Begin Again”

WHAT: After being fired from the record label he helped found, music producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), stumbles into an open mic and discovers what he believes to be a hidden gem in British singer-songwriter named Greta (Keira Knightley). Determined to share her indisputable talent with the rest of the world, Dan convinces Greta to record an album with a live band in different locations across New York City in the hope that he can persuade his former business partner (Mos Def) to sign Greta to their label and rescue his job.

WHY: It’s incredible what can be achieved when you combine music with film, and John Carney exploited that perfect pairing with his musical drama “Once.” Eight years have passed since the small indie’s Cinderella story at the Academy Awards, and in that time, the Irish-born director made a couple movies in his native country that flopped. So while it may seem a tad desperate of Carney to mark his Hollywood debut with another music-driven relationship drama, he’s just playing to his strengths. The overall theme of “Begin Again” is certainly very familiar – like “Once,” it’s less about two people falling in love with each other than the music they make together – but the film is a decidedly more lighthearted affair. With that said, the soundtrack is just as good, featuring an infectious array of bluesy folk-pop songs performed by a surprisingly capable Keira Knightley. For as much as the movie depends on the music, however, it’s just as reliant on its two stars, who form such a delightful chemistry that it’s hard not to get caught up in their fairy tale. “Begin Again” doesn’t have the same magic of “Once,” but it’s a sweet crowd-pleaser highlighted by a pair of great performances and some catchy tunes.

EXTRAS: There’s a pretty decent making-of featurette and four music videos featuring songs from the film.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Deliver Us from Evil”

WHAT: New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) investigates a series of connected incidents involving a trio of Iraq War veterans. Though Sarchie initially believes that the men have gone crazy as a result of PTSD, he discovers that they may actually be demonically possessed when he teams up with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramirez) who specializes in exorcisms.

WHY: Here’s hoping that no one at Marvel Studios saw Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us from Evil,” because it hardly inspires confidence in his ability to tackle a project as challenging as “Doctor Strange.” Though this isn’t the first time that Derrickson has directed a movie about demonic possessions (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table apart from the decision to blend supernatural horror with a police procedural. Unfortunately, it’s not very scary or suspenseful, but actually quite boring due to a sluggish two-hour runtime that’s about 30 minutes too long. There’s no need for all the setup, especially when the two leads don’t even join forces until the hour mark. Even more grating, however, is the suggestion that any of this actually happened. The movie is reportedly based on the accounts of the real-life Sarchie, but like most exorcism stories, all of the supernatural events occurred either in his head or while he was alone. In other words, he’s just like every other nut job who believes in this stuff, only he wrote a book about it. Of course, even the most successful exorcism films (like “The Exorcist” and “The Conjuring”) are steeped in bullshit, but unlike “Deliver Us from Evil,” they found a way to be effective pieces of horror regardless of your beliefs.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Scott Derrickson, there are featurettes on the real-life Ralph Sarchie, the makeup effects designed for Sean Harris’ character and a behind-the-scenes look at making the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Starring
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu was part of the Mexican Invasion that took Hollywood by storm in the early naughts alongside such visionaries like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. But after his little-seen 2010 drama “Biutiful,” he went on an unexpected sabbatical that left many wondering if he’d ever return. Iñarritu spent the last four years licking his wounds over the mixed reception of that film (as well as globe-trotting Oscar bait “Babel”), but he’s officially back with what’s arguably his best movie to date: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a daring piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. The movie doesn’t always work – in fact, it’s sometimes as messy as the characters that inhabit it – but it’s also the type of magical cinematic experience that, just like fellow countryman Cuarón’s “Gravity,” you can only gaze in childlike wonder as it unfolds before you.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero called Birdman in a series of successful Hollywood blockbusters. Desperate to revive his career and earn a little credibility in the process, Riggan mounts an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan’s indebted co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends her boyfriend and theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement. There’s no denying that Mike is a talented actor, but his unconventional methods lead to a clash of egos between him and Riggan, and with only days to go until opening night, the whole production becomes in danger of shutting down before it even begins – especially if the cynical and malicious voice in Riggan’s head (a manifestation of his Birdman alter ego) has anything to say about it.

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Movie Review: “Ouija”

Starring
Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Douglas Smith, Darren Kagasoff, Lin Shaye
Director
Stiles White

With Halloween less than a week away, it’s nice to know that Hollywood wanted to give us one of the scariest, big budget films of the season. “Ouija” isn’t that movie, but the Stiles White’s directing debut could’ve and should’ve been.

Based on the popular Hasbro game, “Ouija” goes to its trusty trunk of horror movie clichés in a valiant way to cover up a mediocre script, a modicum of special effects and lack of a budget. Pretty, blond Debbie (Shelley Hennig) uses a Ouija board by herself and soon commits suicide. She does this despite knowing that one of the rules is never to Ouija solo. The other rules (discovered via flashback) is that you can’t use the Ouija in a graveyard and all convos must end in “Goodbye” on the board. And you thought the rules of “Fight Club” were weird.

Her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke of “Bates Motel”) leads a grief-stricken group consisting of her boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), her sister Sarah (Ana Coto), friend Isabelle (Bianca Santos) and Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) to find clues as to why Debbie offed herself. With little to go on, they decide to use the Ouija board for answers. (Except it’s never called a Ouija board, just “the board” or “spirit board,” despite the word “Ouija” being the first thing you see when they show it. Thanks, Hasbro.)

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Movie Review: “John Wick”

Starring
Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe
Directors
David Leitch & Chad Stahelski

“John Wick” is loud, as in ‘bring earplugs’ loud. It is muscle cars at full throttle, hailstorms of bullets, and shattered glass. There is an offbeat humor to it that vaguely recalls the wave of post-Tarantino crime movies of the ‘90s, but the story is a bone-straight, and therefore dull, revenge thriller. It is blood, death, and noise. There is “Keanu’s best since ‘The Matrix’” talk circling around this film. The very fact that that may be true is damning with faint praise.

Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who has just buried his terminally ill wife. He runs across some Russian thugs, who admire his car. They ask how much he wants for it. John tells them it’s not for sale. Later that night, the thugs break into John’s house, beat him up, steal the keys, and murder his puppy, a parting gift from his wife. The lead thug Iosef (Alfie Allen) is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the gangster John used to work for, and Viggo tells his son that he done screwed up good, as John’s nickname within the organization was The Boogeyman, and now The Boogeyman has lost literally everything that ever mattered to him.

If Wick worked for Iosef’s father, how is it that they have never met before, even accidentally? Even if Iosef doesn’t know of Wick, you have to think that Wick knows of Iosef, and might recognize his boss’ offspring when he sees them. It’s a lot to ask of the audience, and honestly, there is no movie otherwise. This is the part where Basil Exposition appears and tells us to just go with it. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.

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