Creepy ‘Crawler,’ Wild ‘Whiplash,’ Brainy ‘Birdman’

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By FS
Contributing Writer

 

 

 

 

 

“Nightcrawler”

 

Jake Gyllenhall – emaciated, and with bulging eyes – gives a flamboyantly fascinating performance as a sociopath who becomes a freelance photographer shooting graphically sensationalist footage for local news shows in “Nightcrawler” (wide release).

The film is a dark satire of what passes for journalism in contemporary television, a younger cousin to Paddy Chayefky’s classic “Network.”  It is also a sort of vampire movie, since Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is a sallow creature who never seems to sleep and who feeds on the carnage of car crashes and home invasions.

Its target is a pretty easy one – who doesn’t know that broadcast news is a cutthroat business in which the ratings are everything? – but it is slickly made, and Gyllenhaal’s turn makes for a chilling ride.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal in "Nightcrawler"
Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler”

“Force Majeure”

 

Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund mixes high drama with stinging satire in the remarkable “Force Majeure” (Angelika), which portrays the impact of a father’s apparent cowardice on his picture-perfect family during a ski vacation high in the Alps.

When he, his wife and their two small children seem to be imperiled by an approaching avalanche, the man runs off, leaving the rest to fend for themselves.  His wife will not let him forget what she sees as a betrayal, and the kids are terrified that divorce is imminent, while the man is compelled to reflect on what sort of man he is.

That all sounds dramatically powerful, and it is, but Ostlund inserts many shards of bleak humor into the mix.  The stunning locations add to the chilly emotional temperature of the film.

The result is definitely a “Force” to be reckoned with in next year’s Oscar race.

 

“Whiplash”

 

An abusive teacher-student relationship lies at the heart of “Whiplash” (Magnolia), in which Miles Teller plays a teen who wants to become the best jazz drummer in the world and J.K. Simmons the music conservatory guru who uses fierce, profane insults and brutal browbeating to compel him to perform at the highest level.

The script is fairly thin, and the melodramatic turns in the last reel are feeble.  But Teller and Simmons play their scenes together like a great jazz duet, and the effect is exhilarating.

 

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

 

Michael Keaton riffs brilliantly on his own persona as an actor whose career stalled after he abandoned a Hollywood superhero franchise and is now trying a comeback on Broadway in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (Magnolia).

To avoid a disaster onstage, the hapless protagonist hires a goofily perfectionist co-star (Edward Norton) whose wacky demands threaten to derail an already troubled production.

The picture moves at a white-hot pace, fueled not only by Keaton’s feverish performance but also by Emmanuel Lubezki’s bravura camerawork, calibrated to make it appear that the movie was shot in a single take.

Stuffed with insider show-biz jokes and weird plot turns, “Birdman” takes flight from the moment the lights go down and never lets up.

From left, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” -Photo courtesy of screenrant.com
From left, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
-Photo courtesy of screenrant.com

 

“Before I Go To Sleep”

 

Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth co-star in “Before I Go To Sleep” (wide release), a ludicrous attempt at a psychological thriller that is so lethargically paced it might cause you to doze off yourself.

Kidman plays a woman with dissociative amnesia – a condition that causes her to remember nothing from one day to the next.  Firth is her husband, who seems supportive but might have a sinister side.  As our heroine remembers more and more about her past, she comes to suspect that he is not quite the doting spouse he appears to be.

Mixing together “Memento” with “Gaslight” and similar tales of wives with potentially nefarious spouses, Rowan Joffé’s movie might have worked if it had been played with panache, but instead the pulpy material is treated with an earnestness that is positively deadly.

 

“John Wick”

 

Keanu Reeves is another star whose stardom has fizzled, but he too reboots his career with “John Wick” (wide release), playing a retired assassin who returns to his old trade when the cocky son of the Russian mobster he once worked for dares to break into his house, beat him up, steal his muscle car and – gasp! – kill his dog.

Plot-wise, there is not much to the movie – it is a standard-issue revenge story.  But it plays to the star’s strengths – for example, not requiring him to recite a lot of dialogue while emphasizing his brooding presence.  And the many action set-pieces are carefully choreographed and skillfully shot.  It also features some witty supporting turns from the likes of Ian McShane.

If “John Wick” does not offer much that is new, it does the familiar with surprising élan.

 

 

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