Arts + Scene » Screens


Sharp noir and forgettable amnesiacs




NIGHTCRAWLER introduces the viewer to the world of independent Los Angeles news stringers: freelance cameramen with police scanners who prowl the darkened landscape in search of others' misfortune. They live and die by the motto "if it bleeds, it leads." There are, of course, overtones of indictment at work in Nightcrawler, both of the desperate media and the brainwashed masses who consume it. I prefer to take the movie on its own terms though, as a taut, well-crafted, character-driven film noir.

Our point of view on this cracked, antic milieu is Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), newest to the fold. When we meet Bloom, he's scraping together a living stealing and selling construction and industrial materials. Gaunt, charismatic and ambitious, he's also most likely a sociopath. Unable to get himself hired for any kind of steady, gainful employment — despite his flair for verbose self-promotion — Bloom gets a glimpse of possibility when he happens upon a single car accident on the freeway. He encounters veteran stringer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who gives him both the brush-off and the inspiration to go into business for himself. A quick trip to the beach and a pawnshop turns a stolen bicycle into a camcorder and a police scanner. His initial failures are offset enough by his successes to keep the venture afloat. Since Bloom doesn't sleep anyway, he's up all day deciphering police codes, learning the city and advertising for an assistant. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed): destitute, homeless, perhaps tragically naïve. Simultaneously, he cultivates an exclusive business arrangement with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), news director of the lowest rated station in the area. Their working relationship flourishes, with Bloom consistently scooping the other stringers, delivering titillating, graphic clips and boosting the station's ratings — at which point he starts to test the limits of his control. He begins to manipulate crime scenes and Romina in service of his own motives, and Nightcrawler becomes less of a procedural and more of a downbeat psychological thriller-noir.

The directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, the movie is a model of the writer's craft. Bloom's character and intent are revealed gradually, with building intensity. The scenario is plausible, but pleasantly amplified for effect. The images of Los Angeles by night are seedily gorgeous, thanks to rich but restrained work by director of photography Robert Elswit. The shootout/car chase set piece at the movie's climax is thrillingly staged and shot. The whole thing hinges on the lead performance, though, and Gyllenhaal gives a riveting one. As usual, he finds the bizarre honesty within Bloom's pathos, creating a character who feels sadly, frighteningly real.

Because we receive our information through Bloom, some of the action takes place at one remove, which undercuts the visceral thrill. The final result may feel a little unsatisfying as a result. Overall, though, the movie is well crafted enough and the lead performance is so compelling that such a minor complaint feels almost like nitpicking. R. 117m.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, while loaded with formidable acting talent, is so dull, so reliant on an "a-ha" moment its twist ending can't hope to deliver, that I cannot recommend it.

Nicole Kidman plays Christine Lucas who, in the wake of traumatic brain injury, has selectively lost her memory. That is, she wakes up every morning with no memory of her life after her early 20s. Her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), helps fill the gaps each day, only to start again the next morning. She's being treated, unbeknownst to Ben, by a mysterious Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong). The narrative consists of Christine very gradually reconstructing the events of her life leading up to her injury.

Writer-director Rowan Joffe, adapting S.J. Watson's novel, takes a slow-burn approach to the material that is, at first, pleasantly deliberate and off-putting. As Christine starts to get her foot in the door of her consciousness, though, Joffe starts to rush toward the finish. The movie loses whatever atmosphere and momentum it had gathered. The cast probably had a good time making the thing, and more power to them, but it didn't result in anything worth seeing. R. 92m.

— John J. Bennett


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THE BLUE ROOM. An adulterous relationship gets weird and maybe lethal in this French film based on a Georges Simenon novel. Mathieu Amalric stars and directs. R. 76m.

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ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. A luckless kid helps his family through their own comic rough patch. With Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. PG. 81m.

THE BOOK OF LIFE. Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna and Channing Tatum voice a Dia de los Muertos-themed, animated adventure with a story that's not as rich as its visuals. PG13. 118m.

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FURY. Director David Ayer's drama about the simple evil of war and the complex team of men who fight is his finest work to date, and one of the best films of the year. Starring Brad Pitt. R. 134m.

GONE GIRL. An engaging, entertaining and tightly controlled thriller with a fine ensemble cast and standout performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. R. 149m.

JOHN WICK. Keanu Reeves is the eponymous badass at war with his former bosses after thugs kill his dog. A fine, stylish action film with brilliant fight choreography and stunt work. R. 101m.

THE JUDGE. A flashy lawyer defends his estranged father, a small-town judge, in a murder trial. On-the-nose seriousness and sentimentality undermine solid work by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. R. 142m.

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OUIJA. It's going to be super disappointing if we find out somebody was pushing it. PG13. 90m.

ST. VINCENT. Bill Murray plays a grumpy neighbor turned mentor to a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in this sweet, well-observed story. Strong lead performances are worth the price of admission. PG13. 103m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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