NIGHTCRAWLER (2014, directed by Dan Gilroy, 117 minutes, U.S.)
THE GUEST (2014, directed by Adam Wingard, 99 minutes, U.S.)
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014, directed by Rowan Joffe, 92 minutes, U.K.)
HORNS (2013, directed by Alexandre Aja, 120 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC A new financial reality has hit Hollywood as the range of films they once made has seemingly tightened. Of course we know they’re funding gargantuan super hero films and CGI-driven blockbusters but further down the budget ladder are modest action films with middle-aged stars, relatively inexpensive youth comedies and low budget horror films. There is also apparently room for tightly budgeted medium-scale thrillers and at least four are opening at theaters this weekend. With the possible exception of director Dan Gilroy’s stylish debut Nightcrawler none are wholly original but there is room for a little creativity in each of these potential nail-biters.
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Nightcrawler is the most original of this bunch. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a character so shorn of backstory it is almost as if this soulless go-getter was a virgin birth from the loins of L.A. itself. When we meet him he is a real bottom feeder; in the opening scene he assaults a security guard who catches him stealing scrap from a construction site. Later he stumbles across the scene of an accident and watches while freelance videographer Joe Loder (a scruffy Bil Paxton) captures the bloody trauma to sell to the local nightly newscast. Something clicks in Bloom’s twisted mind and one cheap videocamera and one police scanner later he is off and running in a new ghoulish profession.
There is a sly critique of Capitalism within Nightcrawler’s province. I hate to be an armchair psychologist but Bloom seems to be a textbook example of a sociopath, with empty eyes and a stiff smile in the place where real emotions might dwell. Lacking basic human empathy turns out not to be an obstacle in modern business, in fact it turns out to be a huge advantage for Bloom. He begins peddling his footage to a poorly-rated night time newscast and Nina, (Rene Russo) the show’s producer, sees promise in the cameraman. She schools Bloom on what the show wants, specifically people of color committing crimes against middle class white folk, and she sends him out int the glowing streets of L.A. to find the footage.
It’s the footage captured by Nightcrawler‘s cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) that really gives this films is eerie, pulsing heart. Shot mostly at night, Elswit makes L.A. seem like the spooky, semi-barren landscape of a video game, with mayhem ready to burst out of every corner. While Gyllenhall never quite loses himself in his unblinking, Travis Bickle-like creation, the film’s specific sense of place grounds the proceedings and gives them a greater weight.
It is a grim world Bloom wanders upon but there is a good dose of black humor in the film as well. Bloom picks up an “intern” along the way (Riz Ahmed of the brilliant Four Lions) who he constantly lectures on business using the latest management catch phrases. The humor leavens the mood but don’t think for a minute that this film is going to go soft and give Bloom his comeuppance. As Bloom ventures further into the dark side of this job, rearranging the carnage for maximum effect, you might expect that the TV producers to rein him in but their moral bearings are as lost as Bloom’s. It’s a dark world portrayed in Nightcrawler and there is no sign of a sunrise in sight.
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The Guest is director Adam Wingard’s follow-up to the acclaimed 2011 horror film You’re Next and like that thriller it exposes Wingard’s love for the 80s slasher genre. It stars Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame as David, a soldier returning from war. His first stop back is to see the Peterson family, whose late son David befriended in the military. The mother Laura, still mourning the death of her son welcomes the outwardly reticent David to stay with the family although her husband and her two kids are a little hesitant to accept this overly accommodating stranger into their house. The audience knows something is up, aided by the soundtrack’s shift whenever David is alone. It’s the sound of a steady martial beat with one tone pinging arhythmically, like a loose bolt.
Each act of The Guest has the film wildly shifting its stylistic gears as it rolls through its mystery opening, an action film second act and a slasher film finale in its fleet 99 minutes. What this genre-jumping sacrifices in consistency it more than makes up in entertainment value. By the end we’re thrust into a chase through the high school’s haunted Halloween dance, allowing a backdrop of surreal sets to elevate the climax’s madness. Wingard seems most interested in resurrecting the favorite moments of his pet films (as well as a soundtrack of Goth-y 80s hits) but at least he does it with a fine sense of pacing and punch, all held together by a truly creepy performance by Brit Dan Stevens. The Guest might not have an original bone in its body but it does succeed in giving steady thrills at a fairly masterful level.
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a href=”http://www.phawker.com/?attachment_id=81185″ rel=”attachment wp-att-81185″>Everybody involved in Before I Go To Sleep seems like they are slumming way below their talent though without the wit and humor that might make you think that they are enjoying it. Shot like a CSI episode (and that’s a style now 14 years old) and plotted like a Lifetime “Women in Danger” movie, Before I Go to Sleep is the sort of hoary melodrama middle age actresses made in the 1950s. Nicole Kidman is Christine, a British housewife suffering with a stubborn case of amnesia. Every night for the last 14 years she has gone to sleep and forgotten everything she has known before. Every morning she wakes up her husband Mike (Colin Firth) has to patiently explain who he is and how she got this way. Christine meets a new doctor (Mark Strong) who tries to help her by giving her a video camera to record what she learns each day and from there she begins to build a memory of the assault that put her in this state.
As the days pile up, Christine begins remembering more and more but she can’t ascertain who is telling her the truth. Is it her doting husband or the intense doctor who seems to have romantic feelings for his patient? It seems pretty clear where this story is going early on and, like those Lifetime movies, Before I Go to Sleep is titillated with the idea that this perfect suburban home hides something dark. And also like those films, it is old time wifely values that save the day: here danger is dispatched by a good braining with the kitchen iron. It’s a bit of a kick seeing such committed actors as Firth and Kidman acting out a story that seems meant for a small-screen treatment with Valerie Bertinelli and Harry Hamlin but Before I Go to Sleep‘s pleasures are pretty minor. It’s a shame because director Rowan Joffe (son of The Killing Fields‘ director Roland Joffee) showed such promise in the beginning of his career as screenwriter of the beautifully bleak kitchen sink drama The Last Resort. It appears to be a past he has forgotten as well.
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Daniel Radcliffe is aiming at all those grown-up Harry Potter fans with his latest, the ill-conceived adaptation of Joe Hill’s bestseller, < Horns. Hill is Stephen King’s son (and a dead ringer for the old man) and with Horns he has fashioned a supernatural drama that shows the nut hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Radcliffe is Ig Perrish, suspected by everyone of his little northwestern Twin Peaks-type town of murdering his young girlfriend. Is it submerged guilt that makes him grow devil-style horns out of his head, and why is everyone suddenly telling him their, deepest, darkest, ugliest secrets?
Director Alexandre Aja has done some brilliant work with his unrelenting horror films (The Hills Have Eyes remake and the modern horror classic, High Tension) but he must be held responsible for a film that can’t settle on a proper tone. The film is moment-to-moment a dark satire, a teenage love story, a gruesome horror tale, and finally a religious fable. Luckily, Radcliffe flies above this mess, as does much of the young cast, including Max Minghella as his trustworthy best friend and Juno Temple (punk documentarian Julien Temple’s kid!) as the red-headed girl they both love. By the time angels sprout wings and fly to the rescue Horns has dropped the satire and I lost touch with my inner religiously-devout 12 year old girl and could no longer relate. Aja’s film is a God-awful mess but somehow you don’t hate it for being so wrong. And I haven’t lost faith that he might hit his directorial stride again someday.