Saturday, November 29, 2014

Movie Reviews: Nightcrawler, Deliver Us From Evil

directed by Dan Gilroy
Nightcrawler is an independent film by first time director Dan Gilroy (he wrote The Bourne Legacy) which is worth checking out. Have you ever been around someone who makes you truly uncomfortable? Do you know someone whose smile or laugh gives you the impression that they are doing so not because they actually find something funny but because they learned on their home planet Voltron that humans occasionally smile or laugh. So they're trying to blend in. They're imitating human emotions. Some people fake feelings better than others do. Such a person could be a sociopath. They don't really have very many human passions other than lust or the need to dominate but they can temporarily put on many sentiments just as you put on clothing every morning. But as clothing is not a part of you, human instincts are foreign to sociopaths. Sociopaths can use emotions to manipulate or trick people. The more skilled of them can, when necessary, give an impression of actually caring about people. But truly, they don't. People are just a means to whatever end they are seeking. The sociopath can take off whatever emotion she was using to delude you and move on to the next mark. Guilt, shame, regret and honor are all meaningless concepts to such people. Trying to explain such things to them or worse trying to make them experience them are a complete waste of time and could wind up with someone getting hurt. In my current career, I don't think I've ever known anyone truly like that. I might have when I was in financial sales. 

The higher I've moved up the food chain the more I find that many people closer to the top do not give a flying Fibber McGee about the folks below them. But honest to God true sociopaths? I think those are rare, at least at my relatively low level of authority. But Nightcrawler would have you believe that many of them are working in the news business. Los Angeles man Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is such a person. 
He is a smiling sociopath who only very rarely drops the mask to reveal the dark emptiness that's behind his cold eyes. Nightcrawler could be experienced as something of a satire. Louis has read/heard from online self-help classes or motivational gurus that a secret to success is to find the match between the set of things that you like to do and the set of things that you're actually good at doing. When you find that match you will then know what work you should do that will make you internally happy as well as possibly wealthy. Well so far Louis hasn't had any luck making that match. But things can change. When we first meet Louis he's a scrap metal thief who doesn't mind robbing security guards. An accident on the expressway catches his interest and also that of professional independent photographer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Loder answers a few questions from Louis but has little patience or time for someone he dismisses as weird. Well before long Louis has started showing up at crime scenes with an out-of-date camcorder. The other freelancers initially laugh at him as he's often late or irritates cops but Lou is persistent. Before too long the aggressively confident Louis has hired Rick (Riz Ahmed) as a low paid assistant. He's also started selling his video/photo work to an aging TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo-Dan Gilroy's wife) who oversees a low rated station and more specifically a low rated morning news show. Nina's already morally damaged. As she explains to the quick study Louis, she doesn't want stories about or images of poor or Black/Hispanic crime victims. Affluent white victims with non-white perpetrators are what she wants as news leads. In different ways both Nina and Loder underestimate Louis. They misread what he wants and how far he's prepared to go in order to get it. This is a man on a mission. Both Nina and Loder will be changed by their interactions with Louis.

This film proves that you can make an engaging, disturbing and quite professional looking movie for very little money ($8 million) as long as you have a good story and reuse a lot of the same vehicles, props, scenery and actors. I was impressed. Los Angeles at night can be quite scary. Nightcrawler reminded me in equal parts of American Psycho, Network, Taxi Driver and A Shock to The System. Louis is a man who hides large parts of himself from other people. This doesn't cause him any emotional problems because he is a sociopath. Nevertheless he has definite goals in both his career and personal life. H's not shy about reaching for the brass ring in either arena. He can spout forth any number of bland self-help bromides. It's unclear if Louis truly believes them or rather if he just wants the listener to believe that he believes them. Gyllenhaal apparently lost a lot of weight and muscle for this role. So the sense of purpose and authority that he exudes doesn't come from his musculature but from an intense blue-eyed stare. The weight loss made the eyes look even larger. The eyes constantly remind you that there is something a little off about Louis. Tread lightly around him. 
Gyllenhaal's subtlety and mastery of facial expressions is what makes Louis such a powerful and offsetting incarnation. One of the film's creepiest ugliest scenes occurs at a happy Mexican restaurant. The movie also touches on the dance of life and lust between men and women and how both genders can be both victim and victimizer.  How far would you go to protect your source of income? You might surprise yourself. Because the film does not give Louis any background the viewer is free to make up his or her own mind about what his past includes. The fact that he was so quick to suss out that Rick had previously turned tricks for male clients despite identifying as straight made me wonder if Louis' past included similar activities. I was actually supposed to see Fury but I am glad I saw this film instead. If this movie had a weakness it's that the other characters, with the possible exception of Nina, are not that detailed. But I think that's a feature, not a bug, of the film. Make no mistake. You will not be rooting for Louis in any real way. If you do you might have some unresolved issues. If you go into this movie expecting a likable protagonist, you are going to be disappointed I think. But if you appreciate good direction, a mostly sharp script and messages that can be interpreted in multiple ways according to your own moral true north, you MIGHT enjoy this film. As always YMMV. There is violence, both depicted and implied.

"What if the truth is not that I don't understand people but rather that I dislike them?"

Deliver Us From Evil
directed by Scott Derrickson
Ok, if you have been around the blog for a while you will know that I am a sucker for horror movies. Sometimes this can lead to seeing some really good films which I think people should check out. And sometimes this can lead to watching some pretty bad films which I think people should be warned against. Unfortunately Deliver Us From Evil falls into the latter category. This was a waste of my time and my money. Some directors, writers and producers are able to take a well-known hoary story and make chicken salad out of chickens*** while others just want to feed you the unadulterated chickens*** and make you believe that it tastes good. Well this film didn't taste good. I'm looking for the rubbing alcohol, mouthwash and hydrogen peroxide. 

To list all the stories and movies that this film ripped off was influenced by would take longer than I have to give as I promised myself not to dedicate more than three paragraphs telling you not to see it. Let's just say that from the opening this film felt very derivative and not in a good way either. We have a macho NYC cop Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) who doesn't really believe in the supernatural. There is a somewhat unorthodox Catholic priest Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who most definitely believes in the supernatural or more specifically that Evil with a capital "E" exists and is constantly trying to harm humanity. And finally we have the hapless group of soldiers who found something in Iraq which bore all sorts of warnings not to look at it or open it. Unfortunately since the soldiers don't speak the language common in Iraq 4000 years ago they do just that. 

Well you know the rest. The soldiers come back to the United States and something which isn't of this world comes back with them. Sarchie starts to look into some disturbing events involving some of the soldiers. Cheap jump scares, unexplained noises in Sarchie's daughter's room and other obvious "scary" scenes abound until a knock down drag out fight ensues with unclean spirits. Ho-hum. Other directors executed this story much better in Fallen or for that matter The Conjuring.  I thought this film failed to capture both the sense of wonder and of dread that would exist if someone, even someone who was already a devout Christian, received undeniable proof that there are supernatural entities of malign intent in this world. The film would have been more impressive if such entities had had a plan that didn't involve scaring or possibly killing a little girl as their main goal. I mean according to the stories these are creatures who were tossed out of Heaven untold eons ago during a rebellion and have been plotting revenge ever since. Maybe they should set their goals a little higher? The story was supposedly based in part on real life events.

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