‘Enter the Void’ is Mind-Blowing and Unique in a Way Few Movies Are

Enter the Void movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” his first feature length film since the highly controversial “Irreversible,” is one of the craziest and hypnotic cinematic experiences I have ever sat through. A hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors, some of which looked like they were taken from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” it’s a surreal out of body experience and the kind you do not see today in American cinema today. In a time of soulless remakes and films which shamelessly manipulate our emotions, this is a one of kind motion picture as it breaks boundaries to create something unlike anything we have seen before. Like Noe’s previous films, it is destined to have sharply polarized reactions. Some will admire it, and others will find it excruciating to sit through. As for myself, I was mesmerized from beginning to end, thankful I got to take in something not bound by your typical Hollywood formula.

Straight after the IFC Films logo appears, Noe propels us into this visionary experience by beginning with the end credits, just as he did with “Irreversible,” racing through them at warp speed. Watching this, I was reminded of what Homer Simpson said during the end credits of “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

Then the movie goes from there into the opening titles which themselves are exhilaratingly creative and makes you feel like you’re at a rave party in Tokyo. Crazy visuals done to the song “Freak” by LFO, they alone were worth the price of admission and got applause from the audience I saw it with at the Lamelle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

The word “enter” gets blasted onto the screen, and we then make it to the seamier side of Tokyo as seen through the eyes of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown). Just like in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” we see everything from his perspective as he talks with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) who lives with him in a small apartment, and as he smokes some Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which provides him with the ultimate high, filled with amazingly beautiful colors. During this time, we see Oscar is reading a book his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) gave him called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Alex describes the book as one person’s experience after death, and of how it eventually leads to rebirth. From there, you get a good idea of where “Enter the Void” is going as Oscar later gets shot dead by police while attempting to flush his drugs down the toilet.

At this point, “Enter the Void” becomes a literal out of body experience as Oscar dies and his soul, no longer caged in its human form, rises from his lifeless body. From there, he floats through the darker sections of Tokyo as he watches over his sister as she moves on with life, devastated she can no longer spend it with her dear brother. Throughout, Noe goes back and forth in time as we come to see the connection Oscar and Linda developed in their youth, and how their promise of always being together is strong even as tragedy threatens to tear them apart.

Many will probably see “Enter the Void” as being a pro-drug movie, but I will leave this up to you, the viewer to decide. This is a movie meant for an adult crowd anyway, not for pre-teens. With drug trips, or so I am told, you are lifted high into a state of euphoria which seems untouchable in our everyday lives, but you are also brought down to emotionally shattering lows you will be desperate to look away from, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from what you will soon wish you’d forget. Your mind may be freed up in this state, but don’t ever expect to have any control.

Look, I’m not saying drugs are right, but if we’re not taking something illegal and very dangerous, then we are probably relying on something pharmaceutical. Anyway, this is not a movie to get all political about.

When the movie veers into Oscar’s youth, we get to see the close relationship he and his sister have with their ever-loving parents, and the times we see them together are very sweet and captured with a strong sense of innocence. But this later turns out to be a setup for when the parents are killed in horrific fashion after a truck going in the wrong direction smashes into their car, killing them instantly. It’s impossible not to feel the shattered emotions of the children as their lives are irrevocably altered in ways which rob them of a childhood they deserved to have.

Noe does manage to counter many of the disturbing moments of the movie with scenes of innocence and sweetness, and this is an aspect of his filmmaking people don’t often give him credit for. In the midst of shocking scenes filmed in all their psychologically damaging glory, he does capture intimate moments between which I rarely seen in movies being released these days. This was even the case in “Irreversible” when we watched Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci frolicking with one another in their apartment, and the fact the two were married in real life at the time makes those scenes feel more emotionally honest as a result.

As with your typical Noe motion picture, “Enter the Void” is not the kind which can be easily recommended to those interested in mainstream fare. In fact, is as far from mainstream cinema as you can get these days, and those who are easily offended would do their best to keep a marathon-like distance away from it. There’s even a scene where we watch helplessly as Linda gets an abortion, and although I was afraid it would be a much harder to sit through than it was, it is bound shake up a lot of the audience members’ emotions.

The acting for the most part is good. Special praise goes to Paz de la Huerta whose character of Linda has to go through the film’s most viscerally emotional moments, and she portrays them without a hint of simply playing the emotion. I also liked Cyril Roy as Oscar’s mentor Alex and found him to be an enjoyable presence even in the film’s more damning  moments of despair. But let’s be honest here, this is a director’s movie more than anything else, and it is easy to believe this was Noe’s dream project for years. It’s a movie for visual and sound designers to go nuts on, and they must have had a blast trying to bring the director’s own psychedelic visions to the silver screen.

At two and a half hours long, “Enter The Void” does get a bit tedious at times. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I heard one guy say, “So at what point did you fall asleep? For some, this movie will be a lot longer than it should. The only time I got a bit restless was during the hotel orgy scene which overstays its welcome after not too long. Noe uses this scene to make clear the difference of having sex and making love, but he spends far too much energy filming this moment instead of just cutting down to its bare essence. I started to feel like Sean Young at the DGA awards when she told “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel to “get on with it.”

In spite of this, I was completely mesmerized by “Enter the Void” from start to finish as it took me on a cinematic journey far different than most I have sat through this past year. It will surely go down as one of the definitive love-it or hate-it movies of 2010, but I have no problem sticking up for what Noe has accomplished even if it became a bit overindulgent.

Personally, I’m glad we have directors like Gaspar Noe around because it feels like cinema worldwide is lacking filmmakers who take risks and challenge the conventional structure of your typical corporate product posing as a movie. We need more directors like him now because it has become increasingly understandable as to why many no longer go out to the movies like they once used to.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

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Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

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There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

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The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

Tony Farinella’s Top 10 Movies of 2018

2018 was not a great year for cinema, but the films that were good were really good.  The year started out strong, it died out in the middle, and finished good but not good enough.

Honorable Mentions for Really Good Movies:

“Game Night,” “Blockers,” “Assassination Nation,” “Paterno,” “Halloween,” “Never Goin’ Back,” “Creed 2,” “Widows,” “The Hate U Give,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “The Wife,” “What They Had,” “All the Money in the World,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Fahrenheit 11/9” and “Upgrade.”

Love Simon movie poster

10) “Love, Simon”

This flick came out in March, and it is truly a film which needed to be made.  It was directed incredibly well by Greg Berlanti.  Here is the thing about films which deal with someone being gay and not being sure how to tell their friends and family: these are stories that help others feel more comfortable about coming out. This film was funny, touching and incredibly moving.  The lead, Nick Robinson, shows the audience all of Simon’s conflicting emotions from coming out to his parents, played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner, as well as his group of friends. Katherine Langford from “13 Reasons Why” is terrific as his best friend, and Tony Hale is also great as the vice principal of the school.  The film deals with the subject in a sensitive but profound way.  At the end of the day, it is a love story filled with a big heart and a lot of humor.  If you missed it back in March 2018, now is the time to see it.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Love, Simon.”

 

A Quiet Place movie poster

9) “A Quiet Place”

As someone who tries to attend the cinema as often as possible, I know how hard it is to get an audience to keep quiet.  While watching this movie in a packed theater, it was total and complete silence.  It was a truly surreal and great moviegoing experience.   This was an April release and it did well at the box office and with critics.  It stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as a family that must survive during a time where, if there is any noise, monsters will appear and attack and kill you. Krasinski is also behind the camera on this one, and he shows some real talent as a filmmaker.  When the stakes are so high and no one can talk or make any noise, the tension is unnerving and unsettling in the best possible way.  The film also features two great performances from the two children: Millicent Simmonds (hearing impaired in real life) and Noah Jupe. It was great casting to find a young actress who was really deaf as it lends to the film’s authenticity.

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8) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

How in the world did this film get overlooked at the Oscars? How did it not even get a nomination?  This is something which will puzzle and bother me for quite a while.  This is a tremendous documentary and a great film.  Everyone remembers Mr. Rogers, and this film shows the impact he had on children and the world.  It also dives into other aspects of his life and leaves no stone unturned.  It is the kind of movie which makes you feel good, and we need more movies like it during these trying times.  Mr. Rogers was a special person, and this is a special film.  As the tagline on the poster says, “A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way.”  It will take you back to when you were a kid and grew up watching and responding to him.  He was never afraid to tackle tough subjects in a profound and thoughtful way, and his impact will forever be felt.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

BlackkKlansman movie poster

7) “BlacKkKlansman”

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a mind-blowing film which shows how Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to be part of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), his partner.   Stallworth does all of the voice work over the phone to convince David Duke (Topher Grace) he’s really white while Flip shows up to various meetings.  The usual Spike Lee humor is infused in the script as well, and it works because he is still taking the subject matter seriously.  Racism is still very much alive today, as they show this in the end credits, but Lee makes an entertaining true story come to life here.  Washington keeps proving he is an actor and not just Denzel’s son.  This is tough material, no question about it, but Lee has never been afraid to go there.  You have to go there in order for real change to occur.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “BlacKkKlansman.”

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6) “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s directorial debut took the world by storm in the summer of 2018.  My wife and I went out of our way to see it.  We have always been big supporters of independent cinema, and we were glad to see it and more than happy to make the drive.  Burnham is very much in touch with social media, and even though he is not a girl in eighth grade, he taps into what it feels like to be in that mindset and how terrifying it can feel.  It feels like the end of the world and all of this pressure is mounting on you. Elsie Fisher is the star of the show, and she’s so likable, funny and interesting, even though she does not see it.  In interviews, Burnham talked about how she was a shy girl trying to be confident in auditions, and this is exactly what he was looking for as everyone else was a confident girl trying to act shy.  The best scenes in the film are the ones with her and her father, played by Josh Hamilton. It is a great movie which more people need to discover now that it’s out on Blu-ray.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Eighth Grade.

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5) “Boy Erased”

The LGBTQ community got another great film in “Boy Erased.”  This was a November release which sadly did not perform well at the box office.  It was written and directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from the novel by Garrard Conley. The film deals with something called conversation therapy.  Those who perform this therapy believe they can turn someone who is homosexual into a straight man or woman.  Edgerton also plays the leader of this program, and he has some unusual methods to say the least. Lucas Hedges tells the story of Garrard Conley, although his character’s name in the film is Jared Eamons.  His parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and this is shockingly their first time working together.  Things are complicated because Jared’s father is a pastor, and his father believes this is the best way to handle this situation. The mother is not really on board with it, but she is sticking by her husband even though you sense her regret.  It is a haunting, scary and emotional film which deserves to be seen.  People are unaware places like these still exist in so many states. The only way they will not exist is if people pay attention and do something.  It is an eye-opening film which was criminally overlooked by moviegoers. Just because a film deals with tough subject matter, it does not mean audiences should not view it.  Film can educate and inform us.

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4) “First Reformed”

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is yet another great movie which audiences decided to turn away from at the box office.  I understand people enjoy their Marvel movies and their popcorn entertainment, but there are films which can create discussion.  That, to me, is the power of cinema.  The always terrific Ethan Hawke is a pastor named Toller at the First Reformed church.  One day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to his church and asks him to help out her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is worried about the state of the world, the planet and what we are doing to it.  Her husband wants to do something about it, has been arrested and he feels people are turning a blind eye to these major issues going on in the world.  Toller starts to believe in a lot of what he is being told by Michael and even questions his own faith and his church.  He has health problems and is not happy with how things are being run over at Abundant Life, which is part of First Reformed, by Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer ).  He is journaling everything and trying to process his feelings.  Toller also has some issues from his past which he has never gotten over as well.  This is an impactful movie which left me speechless.  It is a must-see.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “First Reformed.”

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3) “Blindspotting”

Another overlooked critical darling is “Blindspotting” which was written by long-time friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs plays Collin, a black man on parole trying to finish it out without any incidents.  This is incredibly difficult due to his friendship with Miles (Casal), a white-man living in Oakland who is always trying to act tough and intimidate people to get respect. Collin is just trying to keep to himself and do his job so he can be free from probation, but he’s finding this hard to do when he sees a young black man killed by a police officer.  He wants to say something, but he is worried about how it will impact his parole.  “Blindspotting” is a term where people look at something and they only see one thing and are missing another piece of the picture.  The chemistry between Diggs and Casal is totally natural, as to be expected, and they have a lot of humorous moments together.   That is the beauty of “Blindspotting,” and there are similar films talking about these things happening in the world right now. You can show the ugly side and bring it to people’s attention, but you can also have some humor in there as well.  It does not have to be all gloom and doom.  There is a lot of terrific music in the film and a lot of it is free style rapping which pertains to the plot.  As Collin says, “You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town.”

Green Book movie poster

2) “Green Book”

This is more than your average road trip buddy movie between two unlikely friends. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist who needs a driver to take him through the south. Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, needs some money and ends up taking the job as his driver.  Tony is not necessarily racist, but he does offer fried chicken to Don Shirley, as I imagine he is more ignorant than anything else.  Tony sees how white men are treating Mr. Shirley and is not happy about it.  He forms a kinship with him, especially after Shirley helps Tony write love letters to his wife, played by Linda Cardellini.  It is based on a true story, and the two leads knock it out of the park.  I have to give a slight edge to Mortensen’s performance, but that is only because he has the juicer lines and more material to work with compared to Ali.  Make no mistake about it, though, Ali is superb in this movie and he knows when to pick his scenes to knock it out of the park.  This is a moving picture which deals with race in a thoughtful and heartfelt way, and it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either.

A Star is Born movie poster

1) “A Star is Born”

If you are surprised by this selection, you have not heard me rave about this movie since I first watched it with my wife on opening night back in October. Bradley Cooper is a great director and he should have been given a nomination for Best Director.  I hope Lady Gaga wins Best Actress over Glenn Close.  This movie is about mental illness, fame, believing in yourself, putting yourself out there and so much more. Cooper is believable as a singer and Lady Gaga is believable as an actress.  The two have chemistry for days.  It’s a heartbreaking film which truly earns every tear from the audience.  The music is catchy, and it has a great soundtrack as well.  This is why I go to the movies and, as I said in my review, no film has affected me as much as since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  This is the best film of 2018, hands down.  If you don’t cry during it, you are made of stone.

Click here to check out Tony Farinella’s review of “A Star is Born.”

 

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Introduces Us To a Hero Unafraid to Be ‘The One’

Alita Battle Angel movie poster

Alita: Battle Angel” is a movie which is at once familiar but unique. It’s another post-apocalyptic film in which Earth has been laid waste by war and where humans survive any way they can, with or without the limbs they were born with. Hovering over them is a city in the sky much like the one in “Elysium” where the wealthy survivors live in what looks like infinite luxury. Yes, there are many familiar science-fiction elements at work here, but this movie still feels unique in the way it looks and how it is told. Just when I thought it would be the same old genre film which I have seen far too many times, I was surprised at how invigorating it was as it introduces us to a heroic female character who is not afraid to back down from a fight.

This movie brings together filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, and you can tell the pride and enthusiasm they had in bringing Yukito Kishiro’s manga series “Gunnm” to the big screen. With all the visual effects and 3D tools at their disposal, and this is the first 3D movie I have looked forward to watching in ages, they have created an imperfect but highly entertaining cyberpunk adventure which mixes live action and computer-generated imagery to brilliant effect just like in “Avatar.”

The year is 2563, and the Earth has been devastated by a war known as “The Fall.” As the movie begins, we see renowned scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through a junkyard in Iron City when he comes across a disembodied female cyborg. Her body is part of the trash thrown down from the wealthy sky city of Zalem, but what its residents didn’t take into account is this cyborg still has a fully intact human brain. Dyson ends up taking her back to his office and rebuilds her, and the next morning she wakes up with a new set of artificial limbs and a pair of eyes which look like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. From there, she goes on a journey of endless discovery which will show her enjoying the simple things and eventually embracing her true identity.

Just like with “Avatar,” it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel” as both worlds mix into one another in a wonderfully creative way. This movie also utilizes 3D in a way which reminds us how the extra dimension can make us feel like part of the action instead of just letting us sit back in our comfy seats. Hollywood really burned us out on 3D as it became nothing more than a gimmick and another way to take an extra dollar or two out of our pockets. But in the hands of Rodriguez and Cameron, filmmakers who have successfully mastered the extra dimension (the jury will excuse “Spy Kids 3-D”), it is a reminder of what an effective tool it can be when placed in the right hands.

Speaking of Rodriguez, this is easily the best movie he has made in a long time. His last few films like “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” had him repeating himself to tiresome effect, and I was begging him to try something new. His attempts to made good-bad movies completely missed the point of why such movies were enjoyable in the first place, and his many gifts were wasted as a result. But with “Alita: Battle Angel,” he gets his biggest budgeted movie yet, and you can feel his joy at playing around with tools he never got to play with before. The look of the movie is astonishing, and his filmmaking skills get reinvigorated as a result.

And, of course, you can feel Cameron’s influence over this project as he co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and his mastery of storytelling is on display here as he weaves in various themes dealing with pollution, corruption and endless greed to very strong effect. Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita’s love interest, is infinitely eager to buy his way into Zalem, but like John Leguizamo trying to get an apartment in Dennis Hopper’s luxury high-rise which sits high above a zombie-infested city in “Land of the Dead,” the odds will never be in his favor. The rich live in safety while the poor live in squalor and, just like in the real world we inhabit, the division between the haves and have nots is far too big.

And yes, Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter are on display as well. Ever since “Titanic,” he has shown a tin ear for dialogue, and hearing the villainous characters sputter out lines such as “looking for me” is dispiriting as I have heard this phrase far too many times. Also, the arcs of certain supporting characters are not resolved in a satisfying manner, and I had to look at the movie’s Wikipedia page to figure out exactly what happened to them. I still wait for the screenwriter of “Aliens” to reappear. Remember the classic line of dialogue Cameron came up with when Sigourney Weaver talked to Paul Reiser about the difference between bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials and human beings? It still stays with me:

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

As for the actors, they help breathe life into the computer-generated landscape. It’s great to see Christoph Waltz play someone other than a devious villain, and he makes his scientist character a deeply heartfelt man who is more complex than we were first led to believe at first. There’s also nice supporting work from Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali who lend their charisma to enigmatic roles. And it is nice to hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice as the enormous cyborg and assassin Grewishka as you can always count on him to create an ominous presence in a movie which calls for it.

But let’s face it, “Alita: Battle Angel” belongs to Rosa Salazar who portrays the title character. The actress, best known for her roles in “Parenthood” and “American Horror Story: Murder House,” gives this movie the heart and soul it deserves, and it was immense fun watching her discover the simple things in life to such a wonderfully enthusiastic degree. And when Alita embraces her role as a fierce warrior, Salazar sells it for all it is worth as she is not about to be held back by anyone. Without her, this movie would not have been anywhere as effective.

For a brief time, I thought this would be yet another movie where the main character struggles with whether or not they are “the one.” “Alita: Battle Angel,” however, is not interested in asking such time-wasting questions, and it did not take long at all for me to be fully engaged in her quest. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that.

“Alita: Battle Angel” ends on a note which serves as a set-up for a franchise filled with sequels. This will more than likely annoy many audience members as every other motion picture looks to be starting a franchise which serves to keep studio executives happy. Still, I found it to be a self-contained movie which never felt like an overlong advertisement for future installments. I am eager to see where Alita’s future adventures will take her, and I have a strong feeling we will find out before the first of several “Avatar” sequels are released. Heck, has filming on the first “Avatar” sequel even begun yet? Stop leaving us hanging Cameron!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘A Star is Born’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

Ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce you to Tony Farinella, a fellow film buff who will now be contributing articles to The Ultimate Rabbit. This is his first review for the website, and we look forward to reading many more from him.

A Star is Born Blu ray cover

Wow.

It is very rare that a film like “A Star is Born” comes along.  When the trailer was released, I must have watched it about fifty times.  When the soundtrack came out, I listened to it every single day and still do today.  Many people are often quick to judge when it comes to remakes, especially for one like “A Star is Born,” considering it has been done multiple times in the past.  However, this one is different and far and away the best version of the film to ever come along which is truly saying something.  It all starts with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  They are the straw that stirs this drink.

The word authentic is used a lot when it comes to the filmmaking process.  It was especially true when it came to “A Star is Born.”  In order for this film to be as effective and powerful as it ultimately ended up being, two things needed to happen.  Number one: Lady Gaga had to be believable as an actress.  She has acted before, but it has never been on this level.  Number two:  Bradley Cooper needed to be believable as a singer.  It can’t look like he’s lip syncing or just trying to fit in and not look out of his element.  He IS Jackson Maine in the same way Lady Gaga is Ally.

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When that happens, you have movie magic.  No film has affected me as much as 2018’s “A Star is Born” since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  There is something to be said about having a dream and having someone believe in you.  The story has been done before, but it is told in a way that brings something new to the table, especially with Bradley Cooper as the director.  He is the director and he is more than up to the task.  The music is incredible, catchy, and it truly brings the viewer into this musical world.

As far as the story, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has seen better days.  He is boozing at a very dangerous level and is also really into drugs.  He props himself up on stage, but he is not the man he used to be as a performer.  This frustrates his brother, played by Sam Elliott.  There is only so much he can take of Jackson being late or not taking things seriously.  However, when Jackson has a chance encounter with Ally (Lady Gaga), he sees something special in her.

All her life, people have told Ally they like the way she sounds but not the way she looks.  They talked about her nose and have criticized her.  Legendary comedian Andrew Dice Clay plays her father in a tremendous performance.  He’s a driver, and he talks about how Paul Anka once told him he had more natural talent than Frank Sinatra.  As his daughter tells him, she doesn’t have the same disease he has where he loves to hang out with celebrities and feel important.

With Ally and Jackson, both are the missing piece in each other’s lives.  Jackson tells her she has a voice, has something to say, and is the one who needs to say it.  Ally brings out the best in Jackson musically and as a person, even though he is still struggling with his demons.  When he runs into an old musical friend, played by another legendary comedian in Dave Chappelle, the friend tells him he looked like his old self up on stage with Ally.  However, as Ally’s star is rising, Jackson is starting to hit rock bottom.

People are taking notice of her because of Jackson, but Jackson can’t be left alone with his alcohol issues and his ability to self-destruct at any moment.  She’s becoming more of a pop star, but she isn’t really sure she likes it.  She tells her manager she doesn’t want to lose the part of her that is talented.  With fame, there comes a lot of wonderful and magical things, but it is very complicated for both Ally and Jackson.  They need to figure out how to handle it to save their relationship and also their careers.

A Star is Born photo 1

As mentioned earlier in the review, “A Star is Born” has tremendous songs, and they are performed live.  Because of this and of the way they are shot, it brings an intimacy to this film.  This is a very intimate film, make no mistake about it.  The love between Jackson and Ally feels incredibly real and raw.  The music is there without any frills.  It is just great music and it is not done in a way which sounds staged or phony.  This is as real as it gets in terms of moviemaking.  It is incredible what Bradley Cooper pulled off here as a director.

The third act is a tough one, as I’m sure many people are aware of by now, but it is also a hopeful act without giving too much away. The final performance and the way Lady Gaga looks into the camera, that is golden.  It does not get any better than that.  For this and so many other reasons, “A Star is Born” is my favorite film of 2018.  After watching it twice, once in the theater and once on Blu-Ray, I don’t think I have any tears left in me to cry, quite frankly.  Those tears were earned though, and this is what makes it such a special movie.

Lady Gaga has said this a number of times, and it is true: “You can have a hundred people in a room and all it takes is one to believe in you.”  This is a film that anyone with a dream of making it in a field they are passionate about needs to see and watch over and over again.  It is possible.  It is possible because of the love and support of another person and the belief in yourself.  :A Star is Born” isn’t just the best movie of 2018, it is also one of the most important films of the year as well.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “A Star is Born” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray Combo Pack, which comes with a digital copy as well.  You can also pick it up on DVD and 4K.

Audio and Video Info: The film comes presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The film looks magnificent on Blu-Ray and really pops and stands out.  The audio is also out of this world on the following formats: Dolby Atmos- TrueHD: English, DTS-HD MA, English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Español 5.1. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:  There is a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes special feature, which includes interviews with just about every major actor in the film including Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.  They talk about the process of getting this film made, how it took three years, and what it meant to all of them.  It is called “The Road to Stardom: Making A Star is Born.” Music Videos are included as well as songs and performances not seen in theaters.  All in all, there is some good stuff here, but I would have loved a commentary track and an even lengthier behind-the-scenes of the film, as I know a lot went into this. Depending on how this film does on Oscar Night, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they will be releasing it again with more special features.

Own “A Star is Born” on 4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray™ Combo Pack and DVD Special Edition on February 19

‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

 

‘Miss Bala’ is Far Too Average to Be the Least Bit Empowering

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Right now, 2019 is looking to be a year where I have gone from appreciating movies for what they are to instead wishing they were something better. I have already sat through M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” which started off promisingly, but ended up becoming a contrived mess which left me thinking of what it could and should have been. As much as I pride myself on analyzing movies for what they are, I couldn’t do this with “Glass” as it came with expectations impossible to ignore, and it self-destructed long before the infinitely frustrating conclusion.

Now we have another 2019 movie, “Miss Bala,” which proves to be just as frustrating if not more so. It has an intriguing premise of a young Latino woman caught up in a situation not of her making which has her playing both sides of the same coin to where she manipulates things to come out on top. But what results here is nothing more than a below average action thriller undone by cliched characters and a screenplay filled with contrived situations which willfully defy logic. A lot could have been done with this material, but the filmmakers have instead turned it into the equivalent of a subpar episode of “24.”

Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin” fame stars as Gloria, a makeup artist in Los Angeles who travels across the border to Tijuana to visit her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo), who is competing in a local beauty pageant. But during a party at a nightclub, their plans are suddenly thwarted when members of a drug cartel open fire and everyone runs for their lives. Suzu ends up disappearing and Gloria becomes desperate to find her, but this search leads to her getting kidnapped as she becomes a pawn of both drug dealers and the DEA.

Like I said, “Miss Bala” has a very intriguing premise which comes with a lot of promise. Like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” Gina Rodriguez plays a character who ends up in a situation not of her own making which leaves her looking guilty in the eyes of the world. What excited me was the anticipation of watching Gloria turn one side against the other as I was convinced she would do so in the most ingenious of ways. It’s fascinating to see a character go from being completely lost to gaining the upper hand once the instinct for survival kicks in.

Alas, “Miss Bala” is quickly undone by a screenplay which doesn’t do nearly enough to make Gloria’s transformation from a frightened civilian to a vengeful warrior emotionally fulfilling or believable. Writer Gareth Dunnett-Alcocer has constructed a kind of “connect-the-dots” screenplay which looks to take some characters and situations in interesting directions and instead resolves them in ways which feel far too pat and simplistic to where it’s like the filmmakers are telling us, “Remember who the good and bad guys are.”

As for the villains, they are a stereotypical bunch of drug cartel gang members who could occupy every other show on network television these days. The filmmakers attempt to balance things out by presenting us with DEA agents who prove to be as bad, but the moment where they turn against Gloria reeks of desperation as they can’t seem to decide what to do with characters who have not been developed in a satisfying way. Even worse, a certain character at the end is revealed to be an agent of another government agency, and it is one Gloria has even more of a reason to distrust than the DEA.

It’s a real shame because Rodriguez proves to be a formidable presence here as Gloria, and you can tell she put her heart and soul into this character as she fearlessly portrays the emotional turmoil of her character’s predicament from start to finish. Sadly, her transition from scared innocent to emboldened warrior never feels believable enough, but this is not necessarily her fault.

Aside from Rodriguez, you have Ismael Cruz Cordova playing an uber cool drug dealer and menace to society named Lino who takes pleasure in intimidating those he feels are beneath him. Part of me is getting sick of characters like these as they act so ridiculously confident even when there are numerous moments which make clear how foolish in who they trust. And just when Lino starts to get interesting, the character is rendered into a stereotypical bad guy through a storytelling device which feels tacked on only for the sake of tying things up quickly.

Anthony Mackie also shows up as another bad guy named Jimmy, but he is completely wasted here as he gives off the same thousand mile stares just like he did in “The Hate U Give.” And when he reappears in the movie’s last half to where we learn more about his character, I wanted to yell at the screen, “Seriously?”

“Miss Bala” was directed by Catherine Hardwicke who made one of the most unforgettable and emotionally visceral teen movies ever with “Thirteen.” I was hoping she would bring the same emotional urgency to this material, but perhaps she has softened her vision a bit too much in the wake of “Twilight” and “Red Riding Hood.” Hardwicke does direct some strong action sequences and she never lets the pace drag for a second, but she is unable to make this action thriller stand out from so many others like it.

I don’t know, maybe I am being a bit unfair to “Miss Bala” as it doesn’t aim to be a genre defying piece of cinema. But even as a simple B-movie with low aspirations, it never truly excites in the ways it wants to. Then again, perhaps I have been spoiled by portrayals of vicious gang members in movies like “Sicario” or “The Infiltrator” as they make the ones here look like paper-thin cartoon characters. For a motion picture looking to be a powerful piece of female empowerment, “Miss Bala” settles for something far less to where the finished project leaves not much of an aftertaste if any. Its ending has the promise of an ongoing franchise where Gloria will equate her skills with guns and deception with her love of makeup, I don’t think we will be seeing a follow-up to this one anytime soon.

It should be noted how this film is a remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name. I have not seen the original, but I did take the time to watch its trailer which shows it to be grittier and more interesting than what we got here. If nothing else, I hope this remake will get audiences more interested in the original, let alone make them aware of its existence. The critical acclaim which graced it is not about to be bestowed on this tepid version.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

‘Grandma’ Marks Lily Tomlin’s First Lead Role in a Movie in Decades

grandma movie poster

It’s a shock to realize ”Grandma” marks Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, her last being in 1988’s “Big Business” opposite Bette Midler. Tomlin has been such a prolific presence in just about all forms of entertainment, be it movies, television or the theater, and there’s no stopping her even in her 70’s. But her triumphant return to lead actress proves to be well worth the wait as this movie makes great use of her endless talents.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a poet who is as celebrated as she is misanthropic, but even she would say this about herself. We learn her longtime partner passed away some time ago, and she’s still trying to recover from this loss. As the movie starts, she breaks up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (the always wonderful Judy Greer), in a genuinely cruel and dismissive way. This should have us hating Elle from the get go, but we can see there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Shortly thereafter, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who informs her she’s pregnant by her no-good stoner boyfriend and wants to get an abortion. The procedure costs $600 dollars, and she has already set up an appointment at a local clinic. Elle, however, is broke and has no credit cards as she has long since cancelled them (I guess such a thing is possible in this day and age) and turned them into tree ornaments. As a result, Elle and Sage go on a road trip to get the money, and this involves Elle reconnecting with people from her past and Sage discovering how she has to stick up for herself from now on.

From a distance “Grandma” sounds like another road/buddy comedy which goes through the motions we have gotten all too familiar with, but this is not the case. The movie allows its main characters to go on a journey which will allow them to deal with life in ways far more productive than the ones they have utilized thus far. It is also filled with wonderfully down to earth and relatable characters, something I am always pleased to see in a time where local multiplexes remain dominated by superhero movies.

It is really gratifying to see Tomlin kick ass on the silver screen even after so many years. Her character of Elle is cantankerous to say the least, but Tomlin slowly lets you see what is tearing away at her soul as she is forced to deal with past events which have left her and others in a state of disrepair. As U2 once sang, she is stuck in a moment (several actually) that she can’t get out of.

As with any other role she has played throughout her long and justly celebrated career, Tomlin infuses Elle with a complexity and a good dose of humor which makes her irreplaceable in a movie like this. Her character is not one to mess with easily as she does not let anyone take her down without a fight. Just watch her handle her granddaughter’s no good boyfriend as he refuses to take any responsibility for anything he does in his life. It should be absolutely no surprise she does him in when he acts disrespectfully towards Sage.

Also, the fact Elle is gay truly becomes an afterthought after not too long. The realization of this should make us realize how far we have come as a society. We have become far more accepting as a culture of other peoples’ difference, and coming to see this feels like a huge relief.

Julia Garner ends up making quite the impression as Sage as her character also goes on a journey which takes her from being a very vulnerable individual to one stronger and far more prepared to defend herself in a world which can be infinitely unforgiving. Garner has appeared in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” and it’s great to watch her hold her own with Tomlin.

As for the other actors, it’s always a joy to see Judy Greer in anything, and she still looks infinitely lovely even as her character gets a number of insults hurled at her. Sam Elliott is excellent as Karl, a former lover of Elle’s who can barely hide the hurt he feels after being spurned by her years before. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter, Judy, and she is a powerhouse here as we see how Judy’s troubled upbringing has molded her into the obsessive-compulsive person she has long since become.

“Grandma” also marks one of the last screen performances of the late Elizabeth Pena before her death at far too young an age. Pena plays Carla, a restaurant owner who is somewhat interested in buying some books from Elle. It’s a shock to see Pena here because I felt like I had already seen the last of her on the silver screen, but there’s still a piece of her unforgettable talent for everyone to see. She was a great presence from one movie to the next, and she will be missed.

This movie was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and many of his movies like “About a Boy,” “In Good Company” and even “American Pie” deal with humanity at its most intimate. “Grandma” was made for under a million dollars, far less than what most independent films get made for these days, and this helps to make it Weitz’s most intimate movie yet. The characters and situations they experience feel real and not easily faked, and it’s always refreshing to see a movie where everything feels genuinely down to earth.

“Grandma” does deal with the very touchy subject of abortion, but it does so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent. Weitz isn’t out to make some big political statement on the subject, but he does acknowledge the fact it is legal and that people have their reasons for getting one. But this movie is not at all about abortion. It is really about the journey Elle and Sage take together and how it helps them to move on into the future. Whether you are talking about movies or real life, it is always about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

But yes, the main reason to see “Grandma” is for Tomlin who reminds us once again why she is one of the greatest comedians and actresses of all time. She dominates each scene she’s in and holds our attention for every second. There are many reasons why Tomlin has lasted as long as she has in show business, and her performance in “Grandma” is just the latest. I don’t care how old she is because there’s no stopping her, ever.

* * * ½ out of * * * *