‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

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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.

Sean Penn Shows How ‘The Gunman’ is Not Another ‘Taken’

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Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn moves into the action genre with “The Gunman,” a film from “Taken” director Pierre Morel. In the film, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces officer and military contractor who is intent on putting his violent past behind him after all the damage he has done. But in the process of helping an African village find clean water, three men attempt to kill him, and he suddenly finds himself on the run in an effort to clear his name. This ends up taking him from one country to another to where he is reunited with the love of his life as well as friends who have since gotten greedy with their business endeavors. In addition, Jim also has to deal with PTSD which may claim his life sooner than he thinks.

With Morel directing, it’s easy to assume “The Gunman” is another “Taken” but with Sean Penn instead of Liam Neeson. But the truth is “The Gunman” is much more of a character driven action movie, and Penn brings his usual intensity to it to where you have no reason to doubt he did his research. I got to hear Penn share his thoughts and feelings about this movie at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. One question on everybody’s mind was on the research Penn did on military snipers and what he learned about them.

Sean Penn: I think that what’s interesting to me is that there’s a disconnect between that which is trained as a facilitator or an implementer, or in this case an operator. The training is done in a way that’s depersonalizing all of that. Of course in our story, things get personalized as it happens in the real world. The experience of working as a facilitator in an emotionally detached way using things one has learned is not an unfamiliar thing to me. Using it to take life of course is not my story.

For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of “The Gunman” as Jim Terrier has to go from a depersonalized state of mind to being in a situation which keeps him from being emotionally detached. This is where the movie gets much of its intensity as Jim’s feelings are brought to the surface to where he cannot hide from them, and this threatens his life more than ever before.

I asked Penn how he was able to balance out the Jim’s depersonalization with his more emotionally naked one when those closest to him are threatened with death. His answer gave us all an idea of what really drew him to the material, and it also allowed him to make clear how “The Gunman” is much different from “Taken.”

Sean Penn: It’s an interesting movie in that regard because it’s a movie about a very conflicted man killing very bad men largely in service of himself. This is why when we have conversations about the Liam Neeson movies. Here you have a 6 foot 4 melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man, fighting strictly for his children. So, I don’t really see the comparison.”

The Gunman” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

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I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ben Younger Returns to the Director’s Chair with ‘Bleed for This’

Director Ben Younger on the set of BLEED FOR THIS.

Ben Younger made his directorial debut with “Boiler Room” in 2000, but “Bleed for This” marks his first directorial effort since “Prime,” and that film was released over a decade ago. After failing to get his Isle of Man racing movie off the ground, he withdrew for a time to Costa Rica where he became a pilot, cooked in a restaurant, and even raced professionally on motorcycles for a year. When it came to making “Bleed for This,” he originally approached it as a writing assignment and had no intention of directing it.

“Bleed for This” tells the true-life story of champion boxer Vinny Paz (played by Miles Teller) who, after winning a fight, is involved in a nasty car crash which leaves him with a broken neck. Many tell him his boxing career is over as a result, but Vinny is determined to repair the damage and get back in the ring. That he succeeded in doing so makes his comeback one of the greatest ever in sports history.

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While at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, Younger explained what finally made him want to tell this story.

Ben Younger: Simply because of the comeback. Vinny won 50 fights, I don’t know if you guys knew that. I’m sure to real boxing aficionados that would be an exciting thing. I’m not one of them. For me, it was all about the crash and the comeback. I started this as a writing assignment. I wasn’t supposed to direct this. I didn’t think I wanted to direct it. But once I realized there was a parallel between his story and mine… You guys know I took a long time off. I didn’t make a movie for 12 years which is kind of like having a broken neck.

So yes, “Bleed for This,” like every other movie released these days, is “based on a true story.” This term has long since lost its meaning as filmmakers tend to embellish the real-life events they are portraying to where they resemble something which feels canned and artificial. Younger, however, sought to pull back from this, and his explanation led to my question regarding certain things I figured filmmakers do their best to avoid.

BY: In every other way, we had to reverse embellishment. For example, that scene with Vinny lifting the bar? That happened five days after the Halo went on in real life. I couldn’t present that because no one would believe it. Same for Ciarán Hinds’ performance of Angelo (Vinny’s father). Angelo was such a colorful character that he bordered on a caricature of an Italian-American in New England. If I showed him as he was, you would say I was racist or we would’ve made a comedy.

Ben Kenber: It’s interesting because when it comes to East Coast people, I think a lot of us have a sort of a specific view which might seem clichéd in the way they are portrayed on-screen. How did you manage to keep it to where it felt like the actors and the accents felt natural and not clichéd?

BY: That was a fear. Boxing wise, there are so many clichés. Those I was like, we are going to avoid those, those are easier to avoid. But this is tougher because the actual accents can in themselves sound caricature like. So, we had a great dialect coach, Tom Jones (not the singer), a really talented guy, and we prayed and we were just careful and we really listened. I wasn’t looking at the monitors. I just stood next to the camera and just stared. You know when someone’s full of shit and when they’re someone they’re not, and you just can tell when they are getting it. Even if you don’t know the world, there’s just something if you really pay attention.

One thing which astonished me about “Bleed for This” was how several of the actors were unrecognizable in their roles. This is especially the case with Aaron Eckhart who plays Vinny’s coach Kevin Rooney, Ted Levine who plays boxing promoter Lou Duva, and Katey Sagal who portrays Vinny’s mother, Louise. One person even told me he didn’t realize it was Sagal in the role until her name came up during the end credits. I brought this up to Younger, and he responded with the following.

BY: That’s the nicest compliment you can pay an actor. They really want to disappear (into their roles). That’s more them than me, but thank you.

Another highlight of this interview was when Younger was asked which movie inspired him to become a filmmaker. His answer was not at all what anyone could have expected.

BY: No one’s ever asked me this question strangely, and I’ve been avoiding it for 16 years because I have to tell the truth. It is Steven Seagal’s “Above the Law.” It was his first movie, I was 16 years old, I cut school. I was going to a Yeshiva, like a Jewish seminary school, and I cut and I went and saw it. It was the first time I realized that someone made movies and that there were people behind it and some thought had gone into it. It was mostly that opening. There’s archival footage in the first 30 seconds. It’s footage of Seagal as a 19 or 20-year-old studying martial arts in the Far East cut together with the narrative they were doing which was about him being a CIA operative. The movie holds up. I see it probably once a year and it’s completely watchable.

Truth be told, Younger is correct. “Above the Law” featured Seagal in his prime, and it does still hold up. Some might see the movie as a guilty pleasure, but it really is not. It was also directed by Andrew Davis who would later direct Seagal in his biggest hit, “Under Siege,” and gave us the excellent cinematic adaptation of “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Everything Seagal did following “Under Siege” has proven to be pretty much abysmal.

It’s great to see Younger directing again, and he ended his time by saying he finally got the financing for his Isle of Man movie which is now heading into pre-production. Odds are we will not have to wait 15 years for it to reach the silver screen.

Bleed for This” is now playing in theaters. Whether you are a boxing fan or not, it is definitely worth checking out.

Miles Teller talks about Boxer Training and Wearing the Halo in ‘Bleed for This’

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Jake Gyllenhaal played one in “Southpaw,” Michael B. Jordan portrayed another in “Creed,” and now Miles Teller gets to put on his own set of gloves to play a boxer in “Bleed for This.” The biographical drama, directed by Ben Younger, focuses on Vinny Paz, a champion boxer from Rhode Island who became Super Middleweight champion of the world after defeating Gilbert Dele in the ring. Paz’s victory, however, is short-lived when he gets seriously injured in a nasty car accident. With his neck broken, his boxing career is assumed to be over by everyone, but he became determined to regain his title through a brutal rehabilitation regimen, and this led to one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

Teller recently sat down for an interview and talked at length about how he trained and prepared to play Paz in “Bleed for This.” He also discussed what it was like to wear the halo Paz opted to wear in an effort to repair his neck. The boxer’s doctors initially encouraged him to undergo spinal fusion which would have ensured his ability to walk again but also would have erased any chance of him getting back into the ring. Paz chose the halo instead, and it involved having a number of screws drilled into his head in order to ensure this apparatus would keep it in one place for months.

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Question: Did growing up in South Jersey help you with your accent?

Miles Teller: The Jersey accent is different. It’s just impossible to sound intelligent honestly, especially in South Jersey. The Northwest is just a specific kind of energy and people, and even though Rhode Island is totally different from New Jersey… I’ve just been around those guys, so I think it probably added something to the kind of relation that I found to Vinny.

Q: What was the most difficult thing that Vinny had as a person for you to get for the movie?

MT: The physicality was very tough. To get that look for me to just be able to have the conditioning to be able to shoot a boxing fight for a 16-hour day. The last two fights were back-to-back days. Each fight took one day which is unheard of. We shot the movie in 24 days. To even just look like a boxer… I had to shoot two movies in between, but that was eight months of just a very strict diet and working out. I lost 20 pounds and got down to 6% body fat for the first fight, but Vinny also moved up in weight and won the title of Lightweight and Super Middleweight, and we showed that. That’s also something very unique and special to Vinny’s legacy. He and Roberto Durán were the only two guys to win titles in those two weight classes specifically. So, I started at 160 and then I had to gain 15 pounds to get to 183 in like 2 ½ weeks. But once I had to gain weight, that was fun. It was just like Dunkin Donuts in Federal Hill. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Providence, but Federal Hill has amazing Italian food.

Q: But while you were eating a lot, you still had to be boxing.

MT: I got cast two and a half years ago. We filmed it two years ago. This was pre- “Whiplash.” I had never done anything like this where I just got to play like a man or a world champion boxer. Even when I was on set, if I had any time in between I was always doing something like push-ups or sit-ups because I knew I didn’t walk into this movie with this God-given talent of being in shape. They tell you just get a workout and diet, but I think I went anti that early in my career because I was just like, I don’t want to be that guy with the six pack and a tan who’s worried about his makeup and stuff.

Q: Did doing this movie help you to appreciate the nuances of boxing, or is that something you already had as a sports fan?

MT: I was a big MMA fan and I still am, but I started watching it when it was the WCE when I was in high school; I was 16 years old. And then with boxing, I always played the video games and I always watch certain guys like Tyson and Holyfield and Lennox Lewis; the heavyweights back then were the big draws. But once you start training in it, you realize it is very highly nuanced. I don’t see it as two guys in a blood sport. I see it as technique.

Q: The mind is very important to being a champion boxer? Strategy?

MT: Yeah, for sure, but that’s what they say: you have a game plan until you get hit in the face, and then it all goes away. We didn’t have a ton of time. I only had about five weeks in Los Angeles with my boxing trainer, and he was Sugar Ray Leonard’s trainer for 18 years. He was just a very high-level guy. The first fight in the movie against Roger Mayweather, I had five days to work with that boxer. The second boxer, we had a day and a half. And the third boxer, this dude Edmund Rodriguez, got in a fight, professionally, that he wasn’t supposed to. He told Ben (Younger, the director) he wasn’t going to fight, got in a fight, luckily knocked the dude out, didn’t get messed up, flew down, and I honestly only had maybe like a day with him.

Q: You also had to wear the halo in this movie. What was it like reading about that in the script and then wearing it for however long?

MT: For the beginning physical transformation, it was eight months of all that stuff that you hear. You can’t eat any bread or drink for that time. You’re just eating like a rabbit and hoping it all pays off. This guy dedicated like everything in his life to this, so it would’ve been very immature of me to slack off and mess with that. As far as the halo goes, that was highly uncomfortable. Again, you don’t like to complain because, for Vinny, it was screwed in his head. But for me, it wasn’t actually screwed in my head so we really had to make it as tight as possible because if the thing moves at all, then it doesn’t matter what you just did in that take. You only get so many takes, but it’s not usable because when it moves, people understand it’s not real. If this was like a big-budget studio film, I would have had a ton of fittings with it. I just did a firefighter movie and I had more fittings with my boots than I did for this thing. The girl just went to a hospital in Providence and got one from them, and then we put little rubber pieces on the end and just put it so far up my head that I could tell when it was in the right spot because I just had indentations on my head.

“Bleed for This” opens in theaters on Friday, November 18th.

Exclusive Video Interview with ‘Gleason’ Director Clay Tweel

Few movie going experiences in 2016 will be as hopeful or as emotionally draining as the documentary “Gleason.” It takes a good long look at the life of former NFL player Steve Gleason, a defensive back for the New Orleans Saints, who was best known for blocking a punt from the Atlanta Falcons on September 25, 2006. This game marked the first time the Saints had been back to their home stadium since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, so it made their welcome back celebration all the more thrilling.

In 2011, Steve was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gerig’s Disease, an incurable disease which slowly robs the body of all its motor functions and eventually leads to death. It was around that time that he also discovered his wife Michel was pregnant with their son, and this led him to start a video diary for their unborn child so that he could leave as much of who he is as a person to him before the disease takes its toll. While his situation is bleak, Steve still lives life to the fullest and is determined to be there for his wife and son no matter what.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the director of “Gleason,” Clay Tweel, while he was in Los Angeles. Tweel previously directed “Make Believe,” a documentary which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 LA Film Festival, and “Finders Keepers” which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance in 2015. For “Gleason,” Tweel had to go through 1,500 hours of footage to give us the documentary that is now arriving in theatres everywhere.  He explained how he managed to whittle down that footage, how “Gleason” compares to the film “The Theory of Everything” which also deals with ALS, and of how the health struggles of a family member and the late, great Muhammad Ali inspired him to get the director’s job for this.

Please check out the interview above, and please be sure to see “Gleason” when it arrives in theatres on July 29, 2016. You can also watch the trailer below and visit the website at www.gleasonmovie.com.