Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nightcrawler (2014) ****

What would you do to get what you want? For Louis Bloom, the answer is, “Absolutely anything.” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou as a well-spoken, oily sociopath with no compunctions whatsoever. When we meet Lou, he is a low-life of indeterminate age, stealing scrap metal and hustling unsuccessfully to find a job. When he happens upon a flaming car-wreck, he sees a couple of guys filming the gore, and he learns about the world of freelance, TV news gathering. Lou scores himself a camcorder and a police scanner and starts hustling to the scenes of car wrecks and shootings to get footage that can be sold to the TV stations. It turns out that Lou has a talent for this sort of thing. With absolutely no scruples, he is willing to crowd paramedics, cross police lines, and sneak into houses to get the best footage. Lou gets so good at his trade that he starts beating the police to some of the scenes, and he starts down an increasingly darker path. First, he re-arranges things a little to frame a shot better. From there, the line between filming the news and creating the news starts to blur.

With his slicked-back hair and gaunt features, Gyllenhaal's Lou is a dead-ringer for Robert De Niro's character in “Cape Fear,” and just as sociopathic. Lou is articulate and driven, and it's rather a mystery why he is unemployed at the beginning of the film. We are given no background on the character, so we are left to assume that previous employers were as repulsed as we are by his sleaziness. Rene Russo's TV news director, Nina, isn't bothered by the sleaziness at all. She is a more polished version of Lou, willing to air anything, no matter how lurid, that will attract viewers. As she tells Louis, “Think of our news coverage as a screaming woman running down the street, with her throat slit.” Lou and Nina are a perfect match, and together they give viewers all the carnage they can handle. Like those “Parental Advisory” stickers that used to make records so attractive to teenagers, the news anchors' warnings that their footage “will be disturbing to some viewers” guarantee that no one will change the channel.

It took me a while to get around to watching “Nightcrawler” for some reason. I'm not sure what I thought it would be, but what it is is a tightly-crafted, modern Noir. The film explores the consequences of the public's thirst for increasingly graphic, violent content. Whatever the public demands, there will always be someone out there willing to get it for them.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 26, 2015

American Sniper (2014) *

It really isn't much fun reviewing movies that are middle-of-the-road. You either want to be gushing over how great a movie is or absolutely ripping it to shreds. The problem is that these days I don't have the patience to watch the really bad ones all the way through. Life's too short, and if I get 20 or 30 minutes into a movie and find that I hate it, I'm out.

I only lasted about 30 minutes into “American Sniper.” The film was so unutterably boring that I gave up at that point. Bradley Cooper plays war hero Chris Kyle, the legendary Navy SEAL sniper who holds the American record for confirmed kills, at about 150. The film flips back and forth between Kyle's time in Iraq and earlier events, including his hunting experiences as a boy, his rodeo days, being inspired to join the military by the bombings of American embassies, SEAL training, and so forth. This is presented in the blandest, corniest manner imaginable. The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, and its salt-of-the-earth depiction of Kyle suggests that director Clint Eastwood was too awed by Kyle's hero status to give us anything other than Kyle's own version of himself. That would be forgivable if the battle scenes were as gripping as those in, say, “The Hurt Locker,” but Kyle's sniper work is presented as rather workaday. The only scene I saw that had any sort of tension was the opening scene, where Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a woman and small boy who, with a grenade, are approaching a group of Marines.

That's just in the 30 minutes I watched. “American Sniper” might get really exciting in it's second or third acts. It was certainly a hit, especially among churchgoers, who flocked to theaters to see that rare bird, a Hollywood movie about someone who is openly Christian. Reviewers seemed to like it, but they couldn't agree on whether it is pro-war or anti-war. Me, I just think it's boring.

1 star out of 5

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) **

This final installation of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy represents one of the worst anticlimaxes I have seen in years. Make no mistake, the first two films in the series, “An Unexpected Journey” and “The Desolation of Smaug” had their share of faults. In attempting to stretch the single novel The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, Jackson had to put in a fair share of fluff. Action sequences get stretched out interminably, with a numbing array of special effects that morph from spectacular to boring as they drag on. It's the same with the battle scenes, in which orcs and goblins get killed by the thousands, yet the main characters never seem to get touched. In truth, the original “Lord of the Rings” series had this problem, too, but with them, the ratio of epic cool to cheesy was pretty high. That ratio is considerably lower in the first two “Hobbit” films, but those movies were still cool enough to keep me interested. In “The Battle of the Five Armies,” the cheese finally overtakes the cool.

The first two films established the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit who joins a company of dwarves who are trying to reclaim their ancestral, mountain fortress and treasure from a dragon named Smaug. Led by the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield, the group treks across Middle Earth, getting into various scrapes involving spiders, elves, orcs, trolls, and goblins. During one of these adventures, Bilbo gets his magical ring, which will go on to feature in the “Lord of the Rings” series. Despite his small size, Bilbo proves his worth, helping the dwarves get to their mountain. He sneaks in and confronts Smaug, enraging the dragon so much that the beast stirs from his pile of treasure for the first time in years.

This is where “The Battle of the Five Armies” picks up, with Smaug destroying the nearby Lake Town while Thorin and his dwarves slip into the mountain to regard their ancestral treasure. It's pretty ridiculous. The gold and precious stones are piled so high you could drown in them. According to the law of supply and demand, anything in such profusion can hardly be termed treasure. Nonetheless,Thorin gets infected with gold madness, jealous of every coin and stone as he feverishly searches the piles of loot for the main prize, the Arkenstone, the ancestral gemstone held by dwarfen kings. As he searches for his stone, he ignores the cold, hungry survivors from Lake Town massed outside his walls, and he forgets that he had promised them a share of the treasure. Then an elf army shows up, looking for a piece of the action, and Thorin has to send a call for dwarf backup. When a couple of orc armies join the fray, you have your five armies.

Epic battle, right? Meh. Including the “Lord of the Rings” films, this is Peter Jackson's sixth movie about Middle Earth, and he has mastered the art of CGI hordes clashing bloodlessly. From endless repetition, his spectacles have lost the power to hold my attention. As humans used swords to kill armored orcs twice their size by the hundreds, I grew bored. In the first two “Hobbit” films, there was just enough plot and character development to hold my attention. These things are lacking in “The Battle of the Five Armies,” leaving us with meaningless, endless action sequences.

Jackson himself admits on the DVD (detailed in this article)  that his “Hobbit” trilogy is basically a mess. It's a shame, because The Hobbit is a charming little piece of storytelling. If Jackson had simply turned the single book into a single film, and if he had maintained the lighter tone of the book rather than adopting the darker, apocalyptic tones of the “Lord of the Rings” series, we would be a happier audience.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Que Pena Tu Vida (What a Pity, Your Life) (2010) ***

I hadn't watched a movie from south of the border in a while, so I was psyched to see this pop up on Netflix with a few stars. This very serviceable, Chilean, romantic comedy turned out to be just what I was looking for.
Javier (Ariel Levy) is a callow, young dude whose life is falling apart. He is heartbroken from his breakup with the lovely Sofia, which we eventually learn was his own doing. He is also unemployed due to the economic crisis. The only people he can count on are his kooky mom and his high-school chum, Angela. These two bail him out time and again from various sticky situations, as he figures out how to quit feeling sorry for himself and get his act together.

Don't expect any surprises from “Que Pena Tu Vida.” Once you get oriented to which scenes are flashback and which are in the present, and figure out who is who, you pretty much know how the plot is going to go. It's a fun ride, anyway. The movie is funny and poignant, with solid, comic acting and beautiful shots of the city of Santiago, Chile. It's fine as a date movie or if you just want a laugh.

3 stars out of 5