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Column Fri Oct 31 2014

Nightcrawler, Horns, Citizenfour, Before I Go To Sleep & Harmontown

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Nightcrawler

First-time writer-director Dan Gilroy (who has written films as varied as Freejack to The Fall to The Bourne Legacy) has made a movie that almost dares you to find something redeemable about its lead character. In Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily the best performance of his career) is a man made up by uncut ambition and drive, but he can't find an outlet for his level of dangerous energy. Then one day, he stumbles upon an accident, and within seconds a freelance camera crew is on the scene, capturing the raw blood and mayhem of the moment. Once the scene is under control, the crew packs up, and by that evening, their footage is bought, paid for and aired by a local TV news station in LA. It doesn't take Lou long to think that this "nightcrawling" might be a line of work he could pull off and be good at.

Over the course of the film, Gilroy lays out two very distinct but intertwined stories. One is, of course, Lou's path to learning the ropes of both getting to a crime scene before anyone else and getting paid handsomely for one's footage. His passion and talent for the job go well beyond the age-old TV news adage "If it bleeds, it leads." He's understands how much blood equals how much cash, and he's not above repositioning bodies and other manipulations to get better footage. And pretty soon, he's shooting alongside the professionals (including one played by Bill Paxton, who gives him a few tips early on, before Lou becomes actual competition) and getting paid regularly by one struggling local network, whose news division is run by Nina Romina (a great return to form by Rene Russo).

Along the way, Lou realizes that he'll need a right-hand man, but rather than hire someone with nose for news, he selects a rather malleable young lunkhead named Frank (Kevin Rahm), who is so happy that he has any money coming in, he doesn't question the ethics of Lou's behavior. Like any reputable sociopath, Lou's behavior escalates, and in one harrowing, sickening instance, he arrives at a multiple homicide before the police and is able to capture the criminals leaving right before he enters the house and films the carnage up close after an entire family has been wiped out. But Lou also becomes something of a master of negotiating with Romina, and includes as part of their deal that they go on dates together. She's so desperate for his footage, she agrees; and he's so delusional that he believes she might actually like him.

The film builds to an almost unreal series of scenes in which Lou actually manipulates circumstance so that he's front and center for a police shootout and high-speed chase, placing him about a half-step from actually committing the crimes himself. With his eyes almost popping out of his head with anticipation of the blood to come, Gyllenhaal accomplishes something here that is like nothing I've seen from any actor in recent years. His barely contained intensity boils to the surface and sometimes explodes at times and in way that are consistently unexpected. And while, Lou seems to be operating at one highly competitive level, it's when he seem to downshift and relax that he actually seems more dangerous. It's actually fascinating to watch an actor play a character to whom guilt is not a factor. He never wants to get caught, but it's certainly not because he thinks he's doing anything wrong. The police and the rules of conduct are obstacles, but not deterrents.

I've seen many films shot in Los Angeles. Some make it looks glorious, with impressive architecture and shining lights. But Nightcrawler cinematographer Robert Elswit does something completely different with this version of LA, with its sickly yellow street lights, over-saturated headlights, and gritty streets filled with low lifes. It works within the framework of the film, since Gilroy wants the city to appear to be a place where crime or other forms of bloodshed could happen at any moment, transforming this powerful piece of moviemaking into an exercise in tension and release and then more tension.

I said it last week as well about Jason Schwartzman's work in Listen Up Philip — you don't have to like your lead character to enjoy the hell out of a film, and Nightcrawler might be the best example of that in a very long time. You'll be disgusted and morally outraged by Lou's behavior and journalistic ethics, but you won't be able to avert your eyes for even a second while he's on screen setting the stage for some truly appalling behavior. On top of that, the film works as a fully-functional thriller with tension building exponentially as the story creeps on to its inevitable conclusion. Nightcrawler might be the closest a film comes to capturing the world we live in than you'd care to admit.

Horns

I don't always like the films of French horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake, Mirrors) but I like that he's making them and always attempting something different from what he's done before. Going for dark humor (as opposed to silly as he did with Piranha 3D) mixed with a bit of a tragic love story, Aja brings us Horns, the tale of young Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) who has been in love with Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) since they were children. And on the verge of finally asking for her hand in marriage, she breaks things off with him, and by the next morning she's found dead beneath the tree that was their special place.

Naturally, the police and everyone else suspect Ig, but with no evidence, the police can't arrest him. After days of drinking himself into a stupor every night out of depression and having gone to bed with Merrin's slutty friend (Kelli Garner), Ig awakes to find two small bumps on this forehead that soon grow into horns, which you'd think would indicate that Ig is guilty as sin (we don't know for quite some time whether he committed the murder or not). But the horns aren't just horns, to the point where most people don't even see or acknowledge them. Instead, they have a strange power over everyone, forcing them to tell the truth and reveal their deepest darkest secrets to Ig, whether he wants to hear them or not.

Ig's parents (James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan) admit that they've always considered Ig a fuckup of a son and even assume that he murdered Merrin. Garner's Glenna admits that her low self-esteem makes her agree to sleep with pretty much anyone who seems mildly interested in doing so. Even Ig's doctor is full of perverted secrets that make him incapable of attempting to surgically remove the horns. Knowing that Horns is screenwriter Keith Bunin's adaptation of a novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King's talented son), the plot makes a bit more sense, with the horns serving a more metaphorical purpose than anything else. It's as if the characters all recognize that they are in the presence of a hellspawn and that someone makes their ugliest truths spill out in front of him.

The cast is fleshed out with the likes of Joe Anderson as Ig's artist brother, David Morse as Merrin's grieving father, Heather Graham as a local waitress who served the couple their last meal, and Max Minghella as Lee, Ig's oldest and closest friends, serving as his lawyer, but beyond Radcliffe, no one really stands out as exceptional in Horns. In fact, a few (I'm looking at you, Graham) play things so over the top, you almost feel embarrassed for them.

But Radcliffe sells and saves the film from complete downfall. He's believable as both a heartbroken lover, a possible murderer, and a guy who slowly sees the usefulness of people being unable to lie to him. He has a naturalistic quality to his work here that salvages a great deal of every scene he's in. I should also call attention to the exceptional makeup work done by Greg Nicotero and his KNB EFX team. But beyond that, the way-too-long (a full two hours) Horns doesn't quite get enough right to fully recommend it, despite it being the closest thing to a traditional Halloween release you'll get this weekend. I hear the original Saw has been re-released this weekend; maybe check that out.

Citizenfour

The fact that this film exists at all is incredible, and it represents a rare instance where you're literally watching history unfold right in front of you (although some may say you're watching a crime or an act of treason being committed before your very eyes, but let's not split hairs). In fact, filmmaker Laura Poitras is smart enough to know that sometimes just letting your raw footage run unedited is the most dramatic way to tell a complicated and ethically questionable story.

Citizenfour tells (and more importantly shows) the tale of Edward Snowden, a man employed by the NSA, who stole documents and other files detailing massive covert surveillance programs by various governmental agencies, and delivered them to news agencies beginning with reporter Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian in June 2013. But almost as fascinating is that director Poitras began receiving encrypted emails in January 2013 from someone identifying themselves only as "Citizen Four" while she was working on a film about national security abuses after 9/11. The film's breathtaking moment occurs when Poitras and Greenwald meet with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, shades drawn, for the document handover and a briefing by Snowden about what exactly he was turning over.

And the viewer is immediately swept up in the drama. Each phone call to Snowden's room is cause for alarm, each knock at the door, an unexpected fire alarm test, a noise in the hallway, it all makes us jumpy and nervous that something will go wrong, even though we know Snowden's mission was successful. Of equal value and interest are the discussion between Snowden and Geenwald about by what means and how much information about his personal life will be disclosed. Greenwald would rather wait because he doesn't want to do the government's job for them by exposing the source of his news stories. At the same time, Snowden is well aware that his name is going to get out eventually, and he'd rather be control of the first information about him that gets out to the public.

I've heard Snowden called a lot of things in the last year and few months, but watching him in these hotel scenes, he seems collected, sensible and with a clear understanding of what he's doing and the repercussions that will follow both personally and in the media. Many of the documents reveal that telecommunications companies willingly gave over data and phone records to the intelligence community, making Snowden possibly the most important whistleblower in history (not forgetting, of course, that whistleblower laws were deemed not applicable in Snowden's case).

Snowden and his protectors attempt to figure out the next move, where he should go after Hong Kong is no longer safe, but even getting out of the hotel is an agonizing chore. And every step of his journey feels mysterious and dangerous. Citizenfour isn't especially compelling on a visual level, and it provides a fairly narrow window into this world and these events. But let's face it, that doesn't hurt it as a narrative, although the filmmaker's politics are pretty clear, almost distractingly so. Still, a stampede of bulls couldn't distract from how gripping and harrowing nearly every frame of this film is. Whether Snowden is a traitor or a patriot isn't really the discussion here; this is simply a document of monumental importance, and it's a story that is still playing out in history. I can't wait for the sequel. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Before I Go To Sleep

Sure, I'd be willing to take a look at a new film from the writer of such films as The American, 28 Weeks Later and an upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (to be directed by Ron Howard). Before I Go To Sleep is from first-time director Rowan Joffe (who adapted the screenplay from the novel by S.J. Watson), and it admittedly has an impressive cast and an intriguing premise.

A woman named Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up one morning and has no idea who the man in the bed next to her is, but all around the room and the house are messages and photos to her detailing who she is, and why she can't remember anything before her early 20s (we're told Christine is 40, which made me chuckle). Soon the man in her bed is up, and he tells her that he is her husband Ben (Colin Firth) and that she was in a terrible accident that erases her memory of the previous day every time she goes to sleep, and that this is routine they go through every day, as they have for many years.

But soon after her husband goes to work, Christine gets a call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who informs her that there's a camera in her closet that contains a couple weeks worth of video diaries that Christine has made herself so that she can have something resembling memories, but the videos open up a mystery about just about everyone in her life who still speaks to her. The film jumps back two weeks and slowly catches us up to the present, and during that time Christine has uncovered some things about her life, including a best friend (Anne-Marie Duff) and a lost child that her husband has hidden from her because, he says, whenever these things come up, they traumatize her. But now that she has a record of his lies, she begins to distrust him.

Before I Go To Sleep never really settles into its story; it just continues to unspool itself until we get dizzy from trying to remember what happened when and to whom and why and who's lying and who's telling the truth. By the end, I felt like I'd watched a 90-minute Plot, with no living, breathing characters at its core. What is her husband up to? What is the doctor up to? What is her friend up to? How did she actually get hurt? What happened to her child? And most importantly, who convinced Christine that she's 40? The actors around Kidman act suspicious when the script needs them to and comforting the rest of the time. And some of the film's big mysteries aren't that hard to figure out, and the ones that are, we stop caring about pretty early on because it's clear the film isn't going to give us actual clues to the truth, instead providing a big, unsatisfying reveal at the end to put us out of misery.

And much like other films about memory loss, naturally Christine's memories begin to return to her right when we need a vital piece of information and not a second before. Before I Go To Sleep is a movie that get more and more infuriating as it chugs along, and it's true waste of some talented folks on both sides of the camera. My only advice is go watch Memento if you're in the mood for a memory-loss movie done right, and leave this one alone.

Harmontown

Dan Harmon is perhaps the most well-known television series creator/showrunner since Joss Whedon, becoming even more famous after being fired by NBC from his own show "Community" for basically just being a pain in the ass for three critically praised seasons. Sometime in the midst of his first go-round with "Community," Harmon also launched the Harmontown podcast, always recorded in front of a live audience in Los Angeles, with his sidekick, comic actor Jeff B. Davis.

It becomes clear almost immediately that the audience is the key to understanding Harmon — he loves the attention, the adoration, the live laughter and applause, and what he thinks is something resembling love from the crowd. So when director Neil Berkeley (Beauty Is Embarrassing) enters the picture, Harmon has just been fired from "Community," things with his long-term girlfriend Erin McGathy are shaky, and he's decided he now has the time to take his podcast on the road as a touring combination of stand-up, therapy and rant, with the occasional special guest star. He also introduces the world to a Dungeons & Dragons-playing young man named Spencer Crittenden, who was not mentally built to become as popular as he did as a result of his appearances with Harmon, but he quickly figures it out.

Harmontown (the movie) does a great job of giving us a bit of Harmon's pre-"Community" backstory, including a priceless narrative by Sarah Silverman about how she was forced to fire him from "The Sarah Silverman Show," which he helped create, so that the show didn't get cancelled. But she only fired Harmon and not his longtime writing partner Rob Schrab, causing a rift between the old friends.

Harmon seems to exist, function and even thrive when he's in physical or emotional discomfort. While he's traveling from city to city on this tour, he's also dodging (or flat out avoiding) deadlines for new series at other networks for which he's trying to get pilots made. He says the most horrible things to those closest to him, perhaps testing their loyalty, or maybe out of boredom. But few things are more fascinating or awkward than watching Harmon on stage self-criticize and pick apart the fabric of his very being. He is never crueler than when he's peering into his own head, and director Berkeley is right there to capture every bitter, self-inflicted verbal wound.

Not to make the entire film seem like psychological torture — to the contrary, Harmontown is a constant source of entertainment and amusement, even in its darkest moments. The interviews with "Community" cast members are as enlightening as they are funny. Fans of the show have likely asked themselves, "Who comes up with this stuff?" And the answers are fairly easy to discover in the frames of this movie. Harmon is clearly afraid of nothing creatively; it's almost a wonder a network ever gave him a chance in the first place, let alone brought him back after "Community" and its fans endured a train wreck of a fourth season. And it's extremely sweet and heartening when his tour ends, Harmon is feeling exceedingly loved by both total strangers and girlfriend McGathy, and then he gets the call that NBC wants him back.

Harmontown doesn't so much attempt to explain the strange cult that is Harmon's obsessed fan base, but it gives us enough evidence to determine whether or not we think he's worthy of the label "cult hero." When he's on stage, delivering the comedic goods, there is little doubt that the man has a mind and creative spirit like no other. But it's also incredibly moving to consider the dark recesses where his brand of humor stems from. There is no sugarcoating going on here, nor is there any attempt to make Harmon look like a nicer guy than he clearly is. He's a cuddly teddy bear who still has his teeth and will bite you, especially if he loves you with all his heart. And the film captures that to perfection. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Dan Harmon and Harmontown director Neil Berkeley will be at the Music Box Theatre for an audience Q&A after the 2:30pm Saturday screening. Information and tickets can be found on the Music Box website. The 7:30pm Harmonstown podcast recording and film screening is already sold out, so get your tickets now.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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