Breaking the Stone

In 2000, Ridley Scott proved a Sword and Sandal movie could be popular again with Gladiator. Thanks to an intelligent script, a stellar cast, and Russell Crowe’s best performance, it breathed life into a genre that had died in the 1960s. Now, with Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s set his sights on a genre that’s pretty much been gone for 55 years – the Biblical Epic. (I’ll ignore Darren Aronofsky’s Noah; if you’re wise, you’ll ignore it, too.) While it has its problems and doesn’t come close to Gladiator in power, Exodus: Gods and Kings does in the end manage to be a thrilling experience.

Scott has an uphill battle from the start simply because of the familiarity of the story. Gladiator dealt with a time and characters with which only history buffs were familiar, but the story of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is familiar to millions of people. It’s also been filmed multiple times, most famously by the man whose name is synonymous with biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille. For a couple of generations, The Ten Commandments set in their brains how God interacts with people: the finger of flame writing the commandments while a voice solemnly intones them, the plagues of the Egyptians, and of course Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. You could say that after that film, the images were engraved in stone.

Scott and the four screenwriters who worked on the script (Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian) do their best to shatter those images. They start the film with Moses (Christian Bale) already an adult and serving as a captain to his cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The current pharaoh, Seti (John Turturro), sends them into battle against the Hittites, though before they leave the High Priestess (Indira Varma) prophesizes that the one who leads will be saved by another, and that other with then lead. Sure enough, in the course of the battle Moses saves Ramses, though they decide to keep it a secret from Seti.

When complaints arise about the viceroy in charge of the stone quarries and brick-making operations for the constant construction projects, Seti orders Ramses to investigate, but Moses offers to go instead. There he finds Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) living like a king while brutalizing the Israelite slaves. Moses meets both Nun (Ben Kingsley) and his son Joshua (Aaron Paul) and, in a secret meeting, is told the story of his birth.

A weakness of the film is that Scott has assembled an incredible cast, but then doesn’t give them much to do. Along with those previously named, you have Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother, but she only gets one short scene. Paul’s introduction gives Joshua a slightly psychotic bent, but it’s not paid off. Better served is Maria Valverde as Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and her scenes with Bale sparkle.

Christian Bale is an intense actor, and he imbues Moses with dynamic power. He’s hamstrung, though, by the greatest weakness of the film, which is the character of Ramses. Edgerton is physically imposing, but overall the character comes off as mushy. The fireworks that exploded between Heston and Yul Brynner in DeMille’s film are lacking here, and it comes close to being a fatal flaw in the film.

Strangely enough, what saves the film is imagery. The personification of God in the film is fascinating, and gives Bale a strong character to play against in place of Ramses. Some may object to the depiction of the plagues as not being miraculous enough, though they are shown on a much more epic scale than in The Ten Commandments. However, the final plague is chilling in how it’s shown on the screen.

And then there’s the crossing of the Red Sea, the climax of the film. Scott gives it a rational explanation, though it doesn’t lessen the miraculous nature of the scene. The ending of the sequence makes Cecil B. DeMille’s work seem quaint and staid, though one aspect of it does strain belief to the breaking point.

Many reviews of Exodus: Gods and Kings have been brutal. Scott has been raked over the coals for his casting choices, especially a Welshman and an Aussie for the two main roles. In response, Scott has correctly pointed out he needed star power to get investors to pony up the 9-figure budget of the movie. For myself, I went into the theater anticipating I’d be disappointed, a leftover from having sat through Noah. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the film, but I give it credit for portraying the story in a realistic way rather than the stained glass sanctimony of The Ten Commandments

Up, Up, and Away!

Mexico has given three wonderful presents to the movie world: three incredibly inventive directors. Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) is a master of the modern fantasy and Alfonso Cuaron is a genius with visuals as seen in movies such as Gravity and Children of Men. The third member of the trinity, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is exceptional in observing the human condition and putting it on the screen in movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. He also gets Oscar-nominated performances from his actors in all of those movies. In Inarritu’s new movie Birdman, he borrows a bit from his two compatriots to make one of the most original and stunning movies in recent memory.  

The movie mostly takes place in and around the St. James Theater on Broadway in New York City, though in the first scene we realize it also lives in the realm of magical realism. This literary genre, which is very popular in Latin America, presents fantastic scenes or images but in a meticulously realistic style (as defined by Merriam-Webster).

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is an actor known for being the superhero Birdman in three hugely-successful movies in the early 1990s, but then he walked away from the franchise. Now he’s strapped for cash and is trying to re-energize his career by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Just before the first preview, Riggan realizes the other male actor in the four-role play is not going to work. The actor is promptly injured by a falling light, and Riggan is sure he mentally made it happen.

While Riggan and his lawyer/partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) suggest replacements – all of whom are busy doing superhero movies – the female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) interrupts with news that Mike (Edward Norton), one of the best Broadway actors, is available and wants to do the play. While Mike gives the play (and the box office) a shot of adrenalin, he can be a monster to work with. The only place where he’s real and honest is when he’s on stage.

In the midst of the stress of the show, Riggan hears Birdman in his head, commenting on his life in a Christian Bale growl. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), recently out of rehab, is working as his assistant, though she brings along a load of parental resentment. Riggan is also in a relationship with the other actress in the play, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who might be pregnant by him. On top of this, they can’t seem to get through a preview performance without a catastrophe happening on stage.

While there have been movies about the verities vicissitudes of staging a play, Inarritu supercharges the film by having it appear to take place in one long seamless take, even as it covers a couple of weeks of time. He and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki (who worked with Cuaron on Gravity) have the camera glide through the theater and its maze-like backstage corridors as if it’s a character observing what’s happening. It meant that the actors had to do scenes that could stretch in length to the ten-minute range – eternity for a film actor – while they had to hit their multiple marks throughout in a specific number of steps while they spouted paragraphs of dialogue perfectly. In addition, you have the magical elements of the story that blend smoothly with the reality on the screen. It’s like doing a perfect performance of “Swan Lake” on a tightrope.

Forget about any comparisons between Riggan in the movie and Michael Keaton’s experience with Tim Burton’s version of Batman twenty-five years ago. Keaton is fearless as an actor and has lost none of the volcanic energy that made him a star in Night Shift, his first film role back in 1982. The performance is transcendent and mesmerizing.

That performance is also matched and ably supported by Norton, Stone, and Watts. Norton and Stone have both done superhero movies themselves (The Incredible Hulk and the last two Spiderman movies respectively), and Watts came close with the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. It’s interesting too when the straightest role is done by Galifianakis. A pleasant discovery is Andrea Riseborough, who’s mostly worked in English movies like Happy-Go-Lucky and Made in Dagenham. She more than holds her own with all the others and is fascinating to watch. Rounding out the cast is Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) as Riggan’s former wife and Sam’s mother, and Lindsay Duncan as the reviewer for the Times.

The film’s score is almost all percussion, provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. The beat digs into your consciousness as you watch the film, giving the film its own heartbeat. In keeping with magic realism, a couple of times the camera pans past a drummer playing the music we hear in the scene.

Birdman is in limited release, so it may be hard to find a theater where it’s playing. It is well worth searching out, to revel in its originality as well as its commentary on the state of films today. Hopefully it will be nominated for a slew of awards in January and that will result in its wide release to multiplexes across the country. It deserves both the awards and the wide release.

Tanks? No, Tanks.

Writer/director David Ayer likes things gritty. With crime dramas like the original The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, and Dark Blue, scripts he wrote, and Harsh Times that he wrote and directed, he focused on the mean streets of South-Central LA and populated them with criminals and rogue cops who weren’t any better. He ended up making the excellent slice of police life End of Watch as an apology to cops for his earlier movies. His first produced screenplay, though, was U-571, a WWII story about a mission to capture the German Navy’s version of the Enigma code machine. It had Matthew McConaughey being schooled by hard-edge sub skipper Bill Paxton that to be ready to command a sub, he had to be ready to send men to their deaths. (The film was notable mostly for re-writing history, since it was a British mission that captured an Enigma machine.) Now Ayer returns to WWII with Fury.

Ayer is aiming for Saving Private Ryan significance, but instead he winds up in the neighborhood of The Dirty Dozen with a bit of Kelly’s Heroes thrown in, without the comedic element of those two movies. Fury tells the story of a Sherman tank crew that has almost made it intact all the way through the war. It’s now April,1945, and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany. The war will be over in a month. Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is in command of the tank called “Fury” with a crew of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). In an action just before the movie starts, the crew has its first casualty when the front machine-gunner is killed. The movie does show a fair amount of gore, so it can thank Ryan for its realistic portrayal of what can happen to a body in a battle, though strangely near the end of the movie death is shown with in the pristine version of war movies from the 1940s.

Into the crew is thrust a replacement with no training. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a clerk, fresh from boot camp, when he is detached from his unit to be the crew’s new gunner. It’s obvious Ayer wanted a Corporal Upham character, the role played by Jeremy Davis in Ryan, but does it in a way that strains credulity. The US Army didn’t skimp on training and would not have assigned someone like Ellison to a tank crew. They weren’t in the position of the Wehrmacht at the end of the war, having to draft schoolchildren and pensioners to fight. But Ayer wanted to show Ellison’s transformation under the almost psychotic “hard love” of Wardaddy from a callow youth into a trained killer.

There are some good parts of the movie. It does do a decent job showing how a tank crew works and gives a realistic feel for being in action in a tank. A scene where four Sherman tanks, which had notoriously light armor, take on a heavily armored German Panzer provides a view of battle strategy, and the cost involved. On the negative side are two scenes where POWs are summarily executed, which would have got those involved courtmartialed and sent to the stockade (where they could have been recruited for The Dirty Dozen). There’s also a scene that could have been a good emotional moment, similar to the pause before the final battle in Ryan, but Ayer’s heavy hand turns it into obvious manipulation. In the climactic battle, he also has a German toss a grenade with the longest fuse ever manufactured.

Pitt manages to make Wardaddy sympathetic, though the other characters are more caricatures and don’t really go below the surface bluster. Lerman plays a character who’s out of his depth, but that could also go for the actor. He did good work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but his role here is written as an archtype, not a realistic character.

Fury is the spiritual child of the B movies made during WWII, without their immediacy in relationship to the war. It doesn’t translate to a commentary on current warfare; if you want that, rent Lone Survivor or The Hurt Locker. So the real question that runs through your head while watching Fury is, why was this made?

Ayer may need to make another war movie, as an apology to servicemen this time.

Big Heart One

In 2004 Pixar took comic book superheroes and blended it with their trademark animation to make The Incredibles, which lived up to its name. The Brad Bird directed feature had plenty of thrills as well as the cockeyed humor the Pixar does so well. Now Walt Disney Animation, which has made a strong comeback with movies like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and last year’s mega-hit Frozen, has taken a step into the Marvel Universe with Big Hero 6. This time, they blend the story with the emotional resonance of Bambi and Beauty and the Beast.

Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live in the alternate universe city of San Fransokyo with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudoph). Yes, they’re orphans; this is a Disney flick. You could do a sub-classification for Disney Animation movies on whether the main character has lost one parent or two and almost all their movies would be listed on one side or the other. Hiro is a 14-year-old genius but is only interested in hustling at robot fights. Cass feels completely out of her depth with Hiro, so it’s up to Tadashi to play the parent. He takes Hiro to the university laboratory where he’s studying and introduces him to his lab mates: Fred (TJ Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Go Go (Jamie Chung). Hiro’s fascinated with their work, and is in awe of their professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), who created much of the technology Hiro uses in his robot. Tadashi also shows Hiro his creation, an inflatable medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

The visit fires Hiro’s drive, and he creates an incredible technology for a science competition where the prize is entrance into Callaghan’s class. The creation captures the attention of Alistar Krei (Alan Tudyk), the billionaire head of Krei Industries, who makes Hiro an offer on the spot. Callaghan denounces Krei as an opportunist who cuts corners to make money, and Hiro decides to reject the offer and take his place in the laboratory. But on the night of his triumph, a fire breaks out in the display hall and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan.

Hiro retreats to his room, but he discovers that Tadashi has stored Baymax there. Hiro thinks his work for the science competition was destroyed in the fire, but then he and Baymax follow a lead and discover a kabuki-masked villain duplicating Hiro’s work.  They try to report their encounter to the police, but the desk sergeant is less than impressed. Hiro realizes the masked man likely caused the fire that killed Tadashi, and decides that he must capture him. But to do that, Baymax needs a major upgrade.

As you’d expect with Disney, the animation is astounding, especially the busy street scenes. The characterizations are sharp and fun, in particular the four lab mates who reach out to Hiro after Tadashi’s death and get recruited into his plans, thus providing the 6 in the title. But what sets Big Hero 6 apart from many superhero stories is how it takes on such deep themes as the corrosiveness of revenge, the power of teamwork, and the cost of heroism. The movie uses its super powers to tug at your heart strings.

There are no songs in the film, so for parents who have listened to “Let It Go” a bazillion times, it’s safe to go back into the theater. The script (by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird) was adapted a Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Stephen Seagle, but completely reimagined might be a better way to describe what the writers accomplished. The comic book was more of a straightforward adventure in the X-Men vein, but in the film it’s the labmates’ scientific accomplishments that allow them to craft their superhero characters. The original also objectified women, but that is completely rejected in the film, amen and hallelujah! Baymax was more a normal robot, but the Baymax in the film is an absolutely brilliant creation. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a gift for blending both heavy action and heart-warming humor.

It is fascinating to see the blending of Marvel and Disney, two almost polar opposites in the animation realm, but it works beautifully. There’s even a direct nod at Marvel in the tag at the end of the credits that will warm nerd hearts.

Odyssey

It’s pretty much a given that Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar will be compared with Stanley Kubick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 46 years ago. It’s about the only film that comes close to Interstellar’s vision and scale. Nolan himself gives the earlier film a nod when he has a robot on the spaceship use its humor setting to make a wisecrack about how the astronaut can get back in through the pod door after being ejected into space. But the movie actually harkens back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus must make his long trip home to save his family and his kingdom.

Nolan sets Interstellar in an all-too-possible future. Overpopulation has caused countries to focus almost solely on growing food. They tell themselves they’re a caretaker generation, to get through the crisis, and then things will be better. At the same time the climate has turned toxic. Blight has destroyed wheat as a crop, and sorghum is dying off. Corn remains resilient, but drought threatens it. Dust storms even worse than the 1930s are now common enough that communities have installed warning sirens for when the clouds approach. To keep the people focused on farming, the government has re-written history and science textbooks to negate accomplishments – they now say that the Apollo landings were faked – while NASA is officially disbanded. They can’t afford to dream big dreams anymore.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a test-pilot engineer at the end for NASA, but now he too is a farmer, living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) and his two children, Tom (Timothy Chalamet) and Murph (MacKenzie Foy). Tom looks forward to being a farmer, but Murph is already showing she may eclipse her father’s brilliance at science. But it seems Murph is going through a phase because she claims there are ghosts in her room push books off her shelves. Rather than being scared, she analyzes the dropped books to find a pattern, believing the ghosts are trying to communicate with her.

Then in the aftermath of a dust storm, Cooper and Murph find an anomaly that sends them on a journey. They discover the remnants of NASA hidden in an old NORAD bunker. It’s now under the direction of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), who just goes by Brand. The professor gives Cooper a doomsday scenario for the planet that will happen within Murph’s generation. The only chance humanity has is to leave the Earth behind, and Cooper is the best pilot for the mission to find humanity a new home.

In 2001, the science is fairly bland and not really spelled out – just a cool light show at the end. Interstellar, on the other hand, is an illustrated primer on quantum physics, relativity, and holes of the worm or black variety. For instance, in the course of the mission Cooper hardly ages for a couple of reasons while back on earth Murph grows older than her father was when he left (the adult Murph is played by Jessica Chastain).

Also different than 2001, the humans in Interstellar are just that – human, with all our foibles and pettiness, even as we dream great dreams. It is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction films. There are lies and weakness and cowardice – the stuff that drama is made of – rather than the antiseptic world of the earlier film. It’s not just science fiction; it’s science friction, as all the elements collide.

The special effects look top-notch, though it’s interesting that Nolan kept much of the movie old school. He used actual film rather than digital cameras, and for the robot TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) many of its scenes are done with puppetry. Nolan collaborated with his brother Jonathan on the script, as he has in the past for Momento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. They were assisted by Kip Thorne (who has Executive Producer credit on the film) who is a famed astrophysicist who teaches at Cal Tech and is currently the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics. Thorne collaborated with the special effects crew on visualizing a worm hole.

The score by Hans Zimmer is effective, especially since Nolan told him he’d have to strip down the orchestration. He also didn’t provide Zimmer with the script, just a page of notes. However, Zimmer’s score underlines the emotional element of the scenes and increases the impact of the film.

The focus of the movie is Cooper and Murph, and the father-daughter relationship between McConaughey and Foy, then Chastain, has an emotional resonance and validity. Caine has done excellent work with Nolan through, and with their fifth film together that excellence continues. The rest of the cast – Hathaway, Lithgow, William Devane, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, and another major actor in a surprise appearance – inhabit their roles beautifully.

This is a major movie dealing with complex issues (it’s also 9 minutes longer than the original cut of 2001) but it is also a movie with heart and soul. 2001: A Space Odyssey played in some theaters for almost three years, supported by repeat visitors, some of whom enjoyed watching the special effects with the help of some chemical augmentation. Movie distribution has changed radically since those days, but this is a movie that deserves to be seen more than once, and then reflected upon.

It may only be science fiction for a few years.

To Kill The Boogeyman

Keanu Reeves won’t go down as a great movie actor, but he can be an effective one. He could have vanished after the two Bill and Ted movies, like his costar Alex Winter, but he remade himself as an action star in Point Break, Speed, and The Matrix, and he did character work in the little-seen A Scanner Darkly and was a romantic lead in The Lake House. But then there are the Matrix sequels, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and last year’s bomb 47 Ronin, all of which could have killed the careers of actors. Somehow Reeves keeps bouncing back, this time with his new movie John Wick.

It helps that the first-time director of Wick, David Leitch, was a stuntman who doubled for Reeves. He knows his actor and gives Reeves a chance to shine, and Reeves delivers. The movie’s plot itself is derivative, going back to John Boorman’s classic movie from almost 50 years ago, Point Blank (which was later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson).

Wick (Reeves) is a hitman who retired for love of his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan in a criminally short role). When she dies from an illness, he’s left to try to deal with his grief, though after her funeral a gift arrives for him from her as a way to overcome his mourning. Wick has a classic Mustang muscle car, and while out for a drive one day the car grabs the attention of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist). He tries to buy the car, but Wick refuses to sell.

That night Iosef and his posse break into Wick’s house. They beat Wick unconscious before they take the car, and they also destroy his gift from his wife. When he wakes up and finds what Iosef did, Wick is devastated. He learns Iosef’s identity from Aureilo (John Leguizamo) who runs the chop shop where Iosef tried to sell the car. Aureilo had recognized the car and refused to have any part of it. Tarasov use to employ Wick, and when he learns what his son has done he makes his displeasure very clear to Iosef. Iosef says sarcastically, “What is he, the boogeyman?” “No,” his father responds, “he’s the man you call when you want to kill a boogeyman.”

This movie could be classified as a thriller subgenre called “Crime Fantasy.” The crime bosses and assassins are wealthy and live upper-crust lives. They go about their business in tailored suits (dark colors only). They even have their own hotel, the Continental, on whose premises a strict safe zone is enforced. It’s also a world where there are no cops. One does show up early in John Wick, but he knows who John is and quickly leaves the scene. In a Crime Fantasy, style replaces substance, and John Wick does have plenty of style.

It also has plenty of violence. The first thing Tarasov does when he discovers he’s up against Wick is to send a large hit squad to Wick’s house to take him out. Needless to say, it’s Wick who is the only one left standing in the end. An example of the style of the movie is that Wick lives in a modernist home where many of the walls are windows, allowing the director to compose an exciting sequence. The old phrase might be re-written: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t shoot guns.

Reeves handles the dry wit of the role as well as he does the action as he fights his way through Tarasov’s army to exact his revenge. The supporting cast is outstanding, with Willem Dafoe as a fellow assassin who has an agenda of his own, Lance Reddick (“The Wire” “Fringe”) as the phlegmatic hotel manager at the Continental, and Ian McShane as the Continental’s owner and enforcer of its safe zone. There’s also Adrianne Palicki (currently on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) as an assassin who doesn’t mind bending the rules.

If you like the crime fantasy genre, John Wick is a good example of it and it has its pleasures. While Wick is gravely injured during the movie, it takes a lot to kill him. You could say the same for Keanu Reeves.

Local

In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network, a poison pen letter to network news that was also prescient in its predictions of where the medium was headed. In 1976 it was a satire; today it’s very close to history. A bit of the spirit of Network is present in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s first project that he’s also directed, Nightcrawler, which casts a jaundiced eye at local news. Rather than satire, Gilroy has crafted a creepy thriller. Like the proverbial train wreck, Nightcrawler is mesmerizing so you can’t turn away, even as it turns your stomach.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a walking/talking compendium of self-actualization programs. While he has huge dreams, he lives in a tiny studio apartment and watches TV by splicing into a neighbor’s satellite signal. He makes what money he has by stealing copper wire, manhole covers, and chain-link fence that he sells to scrap metal companies. By chance one night he happens upon an accident just after it occurs and watches as two CHP officers save a woman from a burning car. Within seconds a van pulls up and Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) hops out. Loder is a stinger for local LA news who chases down police radio calls to get footage that he then auctions off to the local outfits. Louis is entranced by Loder’s work and tries to talk himself into a job, though Loder shuts him down and races off to a new call.

While he has no experience, Louis has a singular focus on a goal and no restraints on doing whatever he can to accomplish it. He manages to hustle up a camera and a police scanner to set himself up as a stringer. At first he’s pathetically bad, but soon he get bloody footage of a carjacking victim. He takes it to Channel 6, where he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the overnight news editor. Nina buys the footage and gives Louis some suggestions on how to improve his work.

Louis becomes an exclusive stringer for Nina and Channel 6, which has been mired in last place in the ratings. He takes on an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to help with directions while driving and filming the stories. Louis isn’t above moving a body to make a shot more compelling, and as he becomes more successful he takes greater risks. His success causes friction with other stingers like Loder. But you really don’t want to get on Lou’s bad side.

Writer/director Gilroy is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote “The Subject was Roses” and “The Only Game in Town.” He’s recently had successes with Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia), Gilroy gives the viewer the best view of night-time Los Angeles since Collateral. The movie is a family affair, as Dan’s older brother Tony, a screenwriter and director himself (The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton; screenwriter for the other three Bourne movies), serves as a producer, and Dan’s twin brother John edited the movie. John had also edited Miracle and Michael Clayton, among others.

Another family connection is that for 22 years, Dan Gilroy has been married to Rene Russo. After an incredibly busy 1990s, Russo had only done a couple of minor projects in the 2000s. She came back as Thor’s mother in 2011, and got to kick some butt in Thor: The Dark World last year, but with Nightcrawler she’s back in the form she demonstrated in Outbreak, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are wonderful, especially as she slowly realizes she’s made a deal with the devil.

But the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal. He lost twenty pounds for the role so that Louis Bloom would physically look like a hungry predator. At first he’s the socially awkward hustler, but as the movie progresses you see the sociopath beneath. Yet you can’t look away. Gyllenhaal is an actor who took risks in early films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. After a one-time misstep with the failed big-budget Prince of Persia, he’s been on a roll with his roles, with solid work in Source Code, Prisoners, and End of Watch, among others. Nightcrawler shows the earlier risk taker is still there, and the result is mesmerizing.

As the local anchors in the movie often say when introducing Bloom’s footage, viewer discretion is advised. This is an intense and often bloody thriller. It’s also a fascinating character study as well as a cautionary tale. As Bloom points out in the course of the film, local news now devotes about 20 seconds on average to community news, politics, etc., but crime stories – preferably in nice neighborhoods where homeowners are threatened by outsiders – now command 5 minutes of every local news half-hour broadcast. Take out the commercials and that’s about a third of the available time.

Maybe it is time to turn away from the train wreck – if we still can.