At The Movies: Nightcrawler

The creepiest character appearing on film this Halloween isn’t some psycho with an axe or some evil doll or drooling zombie.

It’s Jake Gyllenhaal with a video camera.

Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a bug-eyed, cold and calculating misfit who finds his calling in the cut-throat world of video news in the new crime thriller “Nightcrawler.”

When we first encounter Bloom he’s selling stolen wire and metal to a construction manager. When he tries to sell himself as a possible new employee, the manager states that he doesn’t hire thieves.

hr_Nightcrawler_6Later that evening Bloom comes across an accident scene where he meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer who stalks the night hunting crimes and accidents to film for local television news.

Loder’s not interested in a new hire either so Bloom buys a video camera, hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed) and goes into business for himself. He finds an ally in Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at a low-rated Los Angeles television station. Nina feels Bloom has an eye for provocative shots and doesn’t care about the unscrupulous methods he often uses to get them.

Things get darker and darker as Bloom goes deeper and deeper into the world of crime/tabloid journalism. Things reach their height (or is it depth?) when Bloom arrives at a murder scene before the police and tries to turn the situation into a career-making event for himself.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, “Nightcrawler” is a bleak, dark, yet compelling work that paints another damning portrait of journalism (as if “Kill the Messenger” was not enough). Gilroy does an impressive job presenting this ugly, gritty slice of life on the streets of LA. It’s a slow burn with occasional dark humor that builds to a truly tense series of scenes near the end.

At the center of it all is Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives a terribly creepy, totally intriguing performance. Bloom is captivating and unnerving with his calm demeanor and confident lecturing and perpetually wide eyes.

“Nightcrawler” isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense but it’s plenty unsettling.

 

 

 

On Stage: Dirty Dancing

If you are a big fan of the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” then you will most likely have the time of your life (yes, I went there) at the stage version now playing at the Fox Theatre.

I was not a big fan of the movie. I believe the first and last time I saw it was in 1987. Didn’t hate it, it just wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t my wife’s thing either, so when the time came to catch the stage version I decided to bring along my friend Tina, who claims “Dirty Dancing” is one of her favorite films. She loves it so much she says she had a “Dirty Dancing” bicycle when she was 9 years old. I can’t even imagine what a “Dirty Dancing” bicycle would look like.

So in the spirit of fair play, I will offer my thoughts on the show, followed by Tina’s. But first, your standard synopsis:

Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) in the North American tour of DIRTY DANCING – THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Jillian Mueller (Baby) and Samuel Pergande (Johnny) in the North American tour of DIRTY DANCING – THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Set in the early 1960s, it is the story of Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jillian Mueller), a teenager spending summer vacation with her family at a resort. She has a fling with dance instructor Johnny Castle (Samuel Pergande) and many life lessons are learned among a rockin’ (for a 1987 movie set in 1963) soundtrack and many scenes of dirty, dirty dancing.

The stage version, which opened 10 years ago in Australia, is a faithful adaptation of the source material — or so my expert tells me. I don’t remember much about the movie after 27 years.

The show boasts a strong orchestra, talented singers and dancers and sharp choreography. The set design makes good use of video to cover a variety of ground.

It’s a solid show but it didn’t quite convert me to the Church of Dirty Dancing.

*******

 

And now a few words from one of its chief disciples:

If you loved the movie you’d love the musical. Wonderful singing and acting. I wanted to get up and dance with them. It looked like the actual people in the movie in appearance. Loved the dance numbers and it had some comedy in there.

Beautiful, beautiful, entertaining, riveting, exciting. Absolutely LOVED it.

– Tina J.

Dirty Dancing runs through November 2. http://www.fabulousfox.com/

At The Movies: Fury

There have been 204 movies made about World War II, according to ranker.com, which claims to have counted them all. The war may not have been a good experience for the Nazis but it’s proven quite profitable for Hollywood.

The latest to join the ranks is “Fury,” a movie about a five-man tank crew making its way across Germany as the war nears its end. It’s an often violent, sometimes odd film that paints a bloody picture of war and the toll it takes on the men who fight it.

Brad Pitt stars as U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collie. He’s been killing Nazis with his crew — Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf ),  Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — since the Africa campaign and now they’re on their way to Berlin in their Sherman tank named Fury.

fury_ver6The film opens shortly after the death of Wardaddy’s fifth crew member. His replacement is Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a young clerk/typist who would rather die than shoot another human being. Needless to say, Norman changes his tune after a few days on the front lines.

It’s April 1945 and while the Nazis are down to drafting women and children, they’re not giving up the fight just yet. Wardaddy is one of four tank commanders rolling through the German countryside.

It’s fairly standard war-movie stuff until the crew stops to rest in a small town. Wardaddy takes Norman into a house where they find two women. He has the older woman fix them a meal while suggesting Norman take the younger one into the bedroom. The rest of the crew show up drunk and rowdy as the others are about to eat dinner. It’s the most awkward, uncomfortable dinner scene since “August: Osage County.”

Eventually the boys get back on the battlefield where they have a run-in with a more advanced German tank and later get into a “300”-style last stand against overwhelming odds.

Written and directed by David Ayer, “Fury” features solid acting by its cast, gripping war scenes, stark imagery and a bloody, no-holds-barred final battle sequence. Not sure where it would rank in the 204 movies about the second world war, but probably somewhere in the top 100.

 

 

At The Movies: Kill The Messenger

This week I had to choose between the over-hyped “The Judge” starring Robert Downey Jr. or the under-hyped “Kill the Messenger” starring Jeremy Renner.

This was actually a no-brainer, because not only does Hawkeye always trump Iron Man in my world, but while I like Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner has yet to make a bad film that I’ve seen. Well, if you ignore “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

MV5BNDM5MDIxNzYyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDUzMTk4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Renner stars as Gary Webb, an investigative journalist for the  San Jose Mercury News looking for his big story. It falls in his lap when a woman calls him with accusations that the federal government is working with drug dealers. She somehow has a copy of grand jury testimony that appears to back up her claims.

Webb’s investigation takes him from a filthy jail in Nicaragua to the halls of Capitol Hill. His accusations are white-hot: During the Reagan administration the CIA supported the cocaine-smuggling efforts of  drug lords in Nicaragua and used the money to fund the Contras rebel army. Most of those drugs wound up in the United States where they contributed to the nation’s crack epidemic.

It was an explosive story and initially the mainstream media were all over it, putting Webb on television and praising his work. But Webb had no official sources at the CIA to confirm his story and no one at the agency was about to offer any support. Instead the CIA begins a smear campaign against Webb. Sadly, both the media and Webb’s own editors turn on him.

Based on a true story, “Kill the Messenger” is  directed by Michael Cuesta and based on the books “Dark Alliance” by Gary Webb and “Kill the Messenger” by Nick Schou. It’s a powerful, fascinating and tragic story with another rock-solid performance by Renner. Webb goes through the whole gamut of emotions in this story and Renner really brings those emotions home. He’s assisted by an excellent supporting cast that includes Oliver Platt, Barry Pepper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ray Liotta.

“Kill the Messenger” isn’t a documentary on the Iran-Contra scandal — the focus is primarily on Webb and what he goes through to get the story and all the forces that align against him once he refuses to let go of the story. The movie is far more a condemnation of the media than the CIA.

At The Movies: Gone Girl

“Gone Girl” is either the strangest, creepiest love story ever told, or the strangest, creepiest murder mystery ever told. Or both.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a writer from Missouri who moves to New York and doesn’t find success at writing but does meet the girl of his dreams, Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike). Amy’s parents are successful writers who took their daughter’s childhood and turned it into a series of books.

173646H1When Nick’s mother becomes terminally ill, the couple leave the Big Apple for a small town outside St. Louis (the movie was filmed in Cape Girardeau). Nick is happy to be home but Amy doesn’t feel like she fits in. They both lose their jobs in the recession and Amy uses her trust-fund money to buy a bar for Nick and his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) to run.

As the film opens, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. The thrill has long since gone out of the marriage. After visiting with Margo at the bar, Nick goes home to find his wife missing and an overturned coffee table in the living room.

The police are called in and a search for the missing Amy begins. To say anymore about the plot would be to say too much.

Directed by David Fincher and based on the novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), “Gone Girl” is a dark, twisted tale that fits right in with Fincher’s other works “Seven,” “Zodiac” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo.”

While there’s one scene of graphic violence, the movie builds its suspense in other ways. The smartly crafted story is stylishly shot and offers many twists and turns, few heroes and a lot of scarred individuals.

The film is expertly cast. Affleck and Pike are compelling in the lead roles with strong supporting performances by Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler Perry as Nick’s attorney, Coon as Nick’s sister and Kim Dickens as the detective trying to make sense of it all.

At 2.5 hours “Gone Girl” runs a bit long — the ending feels especially dragged out. And that ending is certain to spark debate and strong feelings on all sides.

For The Record: Guardians of the Galaxy – Awesome Mix Vol. 1

Music is often an integral part of a movie. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the comic book blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Marvel’s sci-fi/fantasy romp about five ragtag losers who team up to save the universe wasn’t supposed to become the No. 1 hit of the summer. Heck, most Marvel zombies don’t even care about Guardians of the Galaxy.

But then the commercials started to air. Some punk calling himself “Starlord” and dancing about to that long-forgotten ’70s hit “Hooked on a Feeling.” There was something about it… And the hits kept coming. Trailers showing spaceships fighting to “Spirit in the Sky.” By the time the film finally hit theaters everyone was ready for a good time. And as usual, Marvel delivered.

“GotG” had all the usual ingredients of a Marvel movie — compelling characters, humor, special effects, good versus evil — all that stuff. But it also had one other thing: a rollicking, rocking, smaltzy, terrible, infectious 1970s soundtrack. And the soundtrack isn’t just background noise. It’s as much a part of the story as in those other great sci-fi classics — “The Big Chill” or “Saturday Night Fever.”

ZBRK1acFor the Guardians-impaired, a brief recap: Young earthling Peter Quill is abducted by aliens. One of the few things he brings with him is a mixtape made by his dead mother. Twenty or so years later, Peter wanders the galaxy with his Walkman, getting into trouble while listening to his beloved cassette. The greatest mystery of “GotG” is not “How does that tree talk?” or “Why is that raccoon so smart?” but rather, “How has the Starlord managed to keep his tape and tape player up and running for all this time when he’s several light-years away from the nearest Radio Shack?”

Which brings us to the soundtrack album. A dozen tracks familiar to anyone within earshot of Top 40 radio in the 1970s. And to sum it up in two words: It’s terrible. Peter Quill’s mother had the worst taste of any fictional character whose mixtape I’ve come across. (Where’s Rob Gordon when you need him?) I mean, this was the 1970s — Led Zeppelin, Springsteen and Billy Joel were in their prime. The Who was recording “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.” Bob Dylan released “Blood on the Tracks.”

And what does Pete’s mother leave him as a musical legacy of Earth? Blue Swede, The Raspberries, Norman Greenbaum, 10cc, Rupert Holmes and Redbone.  Seriously? That’s like an episode of “One Hit Wonders” on VH-1. Of the 12 songs on this album, I only have one in my rather vast record collection (“Moonage Daydream” from David Bowie’s classic “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”).

And yet…and yet… when you put them all together in the context of the movie it really does become an awesome mix. I love listening to this stupid soundtrack with all these stupid songs that I would never listen to if I came across them on the radio but — for now — it works (Except for “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” — I will never like that piece of sap).

To prove my point, my wife picked this CD up for me at the library and listened to it on the way home.

“I didn’t care for it,” she says.

“Of course not. You haven’t seen the movie! That’s the only way these songs work, is if you have fond memories of the movie to connect them to.”

 

At The Movies: The Equalizer

There’s nothing remotely new about “The Equalizer.” Hollywood cranks out movies about quiet, unassuming men who turn out to be elite killing machines who go on bloody revenge sprees after being pushed to the limit on a regular basis.

In this latest version, Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming man who works at a faux-Home Depot. Robert can’t sleep at night so he spends the early morning hours reading in a diner. It is there that he frequently chats with Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute working for ruthless Russian thugs.

hr_The_Equalizer_11When Teri’s boss beats her to the point of hospitalization, Robert can stand by idly no more. He offers to pay off Teri’s boss for her freedom but he’s not interested. Robert proceeds to violently kill Teri’s boss and his half-dozen, heavily-armed guards.

Unfortunately, Teri was working for goons who were working for Russian mobster Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). When word gets to Moscow that one of Pushkin’s lieutenants was murdered, he sends his top man — Teddy (Marton Csokas) — to investigate.

Teddy is every bit as cunning and uncompromising as Robert. It will take all of Robert’s skills as a former intelligence officer to stay ahead of the mobsters and the corrupt cops working with them.

Based on a 1980s television series, “The Equalizer” deals out satisfying but graphically violent vigilante justice. Director Antoine Fuqua launches the film with a slow burn, spending what feels like a good bit of time leading us through Robert’s humdrum life. But when Robert finally gets down to business, the action and tension doesn’t let up.

It may be a familiar story but it’s worth watching for the strong performances by Washington and Csokas. The movie clocks in at a little over two hours but it feels longer. While it seemingly takes forever to get the action started, it also seems like it takes forever for the final action sequence to end.

This film is available in IMAX but I don’t know why. I didn’t notice anything about it that made it worthy of the big, big screen treatment.