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Monday, December 15, 2014

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1" (2014)

As much as “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” captivated me, I’m less than elated that Lionsgate has split the final novel of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy into two movies.  Watching “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is like watching half of a good movie. Worse, Lionsgate plans to make audiences wait for another year before they fold this franchise.  Of course, the “Harry Potter” and the “Twilight” franchises made a mint with this shrewd strategy, so it’s no surprise Lionsgate, the same studio that released the “Twilight” epics, would not pass up such an obvious opportunity.  As fastidious and well-made as “Mockingjay Part 1” remains, all “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence and scenarists Peter Craig of “The Town” and Danny Strong of “The Butler” have done is produce a potboiler that simmers more often than sizzles for two hours and three minutes.  Indeed, this qualifies as the shortest entry in “Hunger Games” franchise.  Comparatively, “The Hunger Games” clocked in at 142 minutes, while “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” edged it out at 146 minutes.  The way they’ve made “Mockingjay Part 1,” we see more of Katniss Everdeen and Plutarch Heavensbee than President Snow, Haymitch Abernathy, Gale Hawthorne, Effie Trinket, Finnick Odair, Caesar Flickerman, and Johanna Mason.  Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence spends more time shedding tears than shooting arrows.  Indeed, she shoots only one arrow in this installment.  Making the most of his handful of scenes, a gleefully wicked Donald Sutherland delivers the best line: “Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”
 
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” picks up the plot after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright of “Casino Royale”), and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “The Quiet Ones”) have been rescued.  Unfortunately, the treacherous Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman of “Doubt”) and the resistance have failed to liberate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of “Red Dawn”), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone of “Sucker Punch”) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson of “Manhaters”) in the aftermath. Meantime, Katniss and her traumatized companions are recuperating from their tribulations in District 13, but our heroine doesn’t know if Peeta managed to survive Panem's third Quarter Quell. If you haven’t seen “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” you may be at a disadvantage. Eventually, she learns that Peeta is alive, but he is being held in the Capitol by President Snow. Plutarch and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”) convince Katniss to serve as their standard-bearer for the rebellion. They need her “anger-driven defiance” desperately to shore up the sagging support among the other districts in the wake of District 12’s annihilation. Remember, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale Hawthorne all (Liam Hemsworth of “The Expendables 2”) grew up in District 12.
 
The action alternates between above ground and below ground. The above ground scenes where either Katniss or the rebels battle the enemy provide the most excitement. The scenes below ground in District 13’s deeply entrenched bunkers, where Katniss agonizes over poor Peeta’s ordeal, constitute classic, four-handkerchief, hand-wringing, chick flick fodder. Worse, the scenes involving the secret mission to snatch Peeta from under Snow’s nose yield only a modicum of suspense.  Nevertheless, as static as this sophomore sequel is, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” easily surpasses the half of the novel that it depicts without sacrificing much source material fidelity. 
 
Essentially, “Mockingjay Part 1” combines elements of a war movie with a love story.  The war story sequences generate fewer thrills than the tournament sequences in the two previous outings, while the scenes between a love-sick Katniss and a tortured Peeta are histrionic in every negative sense of the word.  Katniss wanders around and whines, while a visibly wretched Peeta looks woebegone and far away. These scenes are as dreary as the air-raid sequence is tedious.  The scenes of the lumberjacks scrambling up trees to avoid being massacred by President Snow’s trigger-happy soldiers and later the assault on the dam are sensational, but these scenes cannot compensate from the loquacious inactivity during the subterranean sequences.  The new characters that flesh out the action are fresh, but they lack charisma, while the regulars have been confined largely to the sidelines in cameos.  Of course, each will play a larger part in the second half. 
 
Mind you, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” looks terrific.  The producers have blown a bundle on every scene.  The destruction of the District 5 dam is nothing short of spectacular, with a chorus of suicidal heroes storming a gauntlet of soldiers to detonate crates of explosives. The concrete mountains of rubble, twisted metal, and skeletons galore in District 12 appear thoroughly convincing, too.  Philip Messina’s production designs, Larry Dias’ set decoration, and the art direction by Andrew Max Cahn, Lauren E. Polizzi, David Scheunemann, Steve Summersgill, and Dan Webster enhance the atmosphere and credibility of the film.  The sumptuous looking sets and slick production values, however, don’t offset the film’s sluggish pace. 
 
Basically, nothing groundbreaking happens in “Mockingjay Part 1.”  The best scenes occur in the final moments, while most everything else serves as expository filler.  Indeed, you know neither Katniss nor Peeta are in jeopardy.  In other words, neither are going to die, and what happens to Peeta is the equivalent of having a regular series character slip into a coma while the filmmakers pause the plot to conjure up suspense.  Altogether, neither Lawrence nor his scenarists have done anything in “Mockingjay Part I” other than delay the inevitable.  The hospital bombing sequence, the air raid scene, Katniss’ propaganda speeches to arouse the other districts as well as singing a song are dreary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a few good lines.  Unfortunately, when she isn’t decked out in her combat fatigues with a bow and arrow in her fists, she doesn’t cut the mustard.  Lawrence looks ridiculous in her baggy uniform, and Julianne Moore actually upstages her.  Hopefully, Lionsgate is saving the best for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.”

FILM REVIEW OF ''EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS" (2014)



Nobody has made a landmark Biblical movie since Mel Gibson helmed “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.  Mind you, contenders have cropped up, primarily “Noah” (2014) with Russell Crowe, but it amounted to little more than a pretender with its apocryphal allusions to the Books of Enoch with its stone angels.  “Son of God” doesn’t really qualify since its producers re-edited it from The History Channel miniseries “The Bible.”  Sadly, nothing about director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (** OUT OF ****) appears divinely inspired.  Scott, best known for lavish spectacles such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Prometheus,” has spent $140 million on this sprawling recreation of ancient Egypt.  Admittedly, Scott doesn’t qualify as a saint.  In a recent New York Times interview, Scott said about “Exodus,” “I’ve got it fairly well plotted out. I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” Not surprisingly, the secular screenplay credited to four scribes, among them “Tower Heist” duo Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, “The Constant Gardner’s” Jeffrey Caine, and “Schindler's List’s” Steven Zaillian, adopts a realistic rather than a scriptural slant to its subject matter.  Moses behaves more like Rambo rather than Charlton Heston, and our hero discovers with considerable chagrin that he isn’t an Egyptian. Comparatively, “Exodus” neither takes its cues from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 or 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments” nor Mel Gibson’s subtitled “Passion of the Christ.” Certainly, nobody would expect anything less from a luminary like Sir Ridley Scott, whose last two films—“The Counselor” and “Prometheus”--excited as much as mystified audiences. Traditional believers may judge “Exodus” a questionable expense. For example, when Moses initially encounters God on the side of a mountain after a mudslide, the former finds himself dealing with an eleven-year old boy who reads him the riot act.  Later, during a subsequent confrontation with this obnoxious urchin, Scott presents the interview from two perspectives. Again, Moses is conversing to a child.  Meanwhile, Joshua eavesdrops on Moses, but all Joshua sees is Moses addressing a rock with nobody present in either human or divine form. Sure, this resembles the movie “Fight Club” (1999) where narrator Edward Norton argues with Brad Pitt, who turns out all-along to have been nothing but Norton’s hallucination of himself. If this kind of nonsense doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy “Exodus,” but I think that depicting God as a petulant punk undermines the gravity of the film. 

Basically, “Exodus” duplicates virtually everything that DeMille showed in his two “Ten Commandments” outings.  The venerable saga concerns oppression and intolerance.  The Egyptians are proud and powerful, while the Jews are poor and powerless. Moses appears and pleads for the release of his people. Predictably, the Egyptians with their architectural enthusiasm for worshipping themselves with massive monuments balk at turning the Jews loose.  Ramses and Moses remain at odds until God intervenes with ten deadly plagues that make Ramses into a believer. The Egyptian ruler releases the Jews, and they head off for Canaan.  A vindictive Ramses has second thoughts and decides to pursue Moses and his minions. The big showdown occurs at the Red Sea where Moses waves his staff and the waters recede just long enough for his people to cross.  Along rampages Ramses with murder on his mind and his army, but he doesn’t arrive in time to take his toll.  Instead, the toll takes him.  This is the stuff of which Sunday school lessons are taught and most movies about the event have depicted. Scott takes exception to several things.  He doesn’t include the adolescent years when Moses and the future ruler Ramses were playmates.  When “Exodus” unfolds, Moses and Ramses are adults and rivals to the throne.  Of course, Ramses’ noble father Seti (John Turturro of “The Big Lebowski”) thinks that Moses has a better head on his shoulders than his petulant son and confides as much in Moses.  Unfortunately, Seti points out that he cannot appoint Moses over his son.  This relationship resembles a similar relationship in Ridley Scott’s earlier epic “Gladiator” (2000) when the dying Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) preferred Maximus (Russell Crowe) to his repellent son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) for the throne.  During a savage war with the Hittites in 1300, Moses displays his martial ardor and saves the once and future pharaoh from certain death in battle. Moses serves chiefly as Seti and Ramses’ advisor.  In other words, he does all the dirty work with which neither wishes to soil their hands and clashes with a corrupt Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) who reveals Moses’ genuine origins as a Jew. Moses goes into exile and bids farewell to Ramses. Ramses’ mother Tuya (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”) isn’t as content as her son to let Moses off as easily and sends a pair of fiendish assassins to finish him off.

“Batman Begins” star Christian Bale and “Star Wars” actor Joel Edgerton generate neither chemistry nor camaraderie respectively as a militant Moses and a ramrod-straight Ramses.  Scott and his scenarists want us to believe that these two grew up together in the same house, but they share little in the way of brotherly affection.  Bale’s Moses relies more on the sword than the staff, and this differentiates this cinematic interpretation from Charlton Heston’s Moses.  Scott surrounds these two with a robust supporting cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro. Sadly, they make only a minor impression.  Mendelsohn registers best as the slimy villain who gets his just comeuppance in the final reel.  The spectacular computer-generated imagery and the craggy scenery—lensed in Spain and the Canary Islands--qualify as top-drawer assets.  The film generates some unforgettable moments during the ten deadly plagues montage, particularly when the crocodiles crunch on fishermen. Clocking in at a leaden 150 minutes, the lackluster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” fares far better as a special effects extravaganza than a faith-based bonanza. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

FILM REVIEW OF "GUTSHOT STRAIGHT" (2014)



"CSI" regular George Eads plays a snake-bitten Las Vegas gambler with a knack for getting himself knee-deep in trouble in "Gutshot Straight" (* OUT OF ****) named Jack. Eads makes a convincing but hopeless nobody, and he looks nothing like the sympathetic crime scene investigator that he portrays on the CBS-TV television series. Instead, he portrays the kind of character who you'd neither want to meet nor hang out with because he is a loser. Happily, "Death and Cremation" director Justin Steele surrounds him with a veteran cast of familiar tough-guys, including Stephen Lang, Vinnie Jones, Steven Seagal, and Ted Levine, that give the action a modicum of substance. Steele imbues this brooding 85-minute melodrama about a charismatic loser with a creepy, mysterious film noir flavor.

Down and out, owing just about everybody in Sin City, Jack (George Eads) runs into an older guy, Duffy (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”), at a strip club who makes him an appetitizing proposition: "How'd you like to make some dollars, enough dollars to keep you at the adult table for a long, long time." Naturally, our misbegotten protagonist could use plenty of dough. Taking Jack home to his palatial residence, Duffy tries to persuade him to make love with his wife, May (AnnaLynne McCord of "The Transporter 2"), but the scrupulous Jack displays considerable reluctance. Apparently, Jack doesn't like being told what to do. A brief physical struggle ensues between Jack and Duffy while May watches from the pool. During the fracas, Jack shoves Duffy, and Duffy's head strikes an object and the impact kills him. Jack didn't plan to murder Duffy, and he is pretty upset at the accidental turn of events. May and he stuff Duffy's corpse into the trunk of a Maserati, and Jack wanders off the next day in the brutal heat of Vegas to sleep it off in his Volvo that he cannot get to crank up. Jack is such a woebegone guy with so many problems that it is easy to see why an actor would love to fill in the gaps and play him. Ultimately, he isn't the kind of character that an audience wants to commune with for the length of any movie.

Later, Jack encounters Duffy's scummy brother Lewis (Ted Levine of "Silence of the Lambs") who is a notorious loan shark. Lewis proudly shows Jack his prized possession—the car that May used secretly to dispose of Duffy's body—and we learn that Lewis is an obnoxious jerk, too. Interestingly, Lewis thinks that Duffy has gone away on a trip. A suspicious Jack leaves Lewis after Lewis mentions his name; Jack never told Lewis his name so he doesn't trust him. On his way out, Jack runs into May. She confides in Jack that she buried Duffy's body in the desert. Eventually, Lewis shows Jack a tablet that contains a video of Jack at Lewis' house. This is how Lewis knew Jack's name. Anyhow, Lewis knows everything about Jack, his mountain of gambling debt, and his estranged wife and daughter. Surprisingly, Lewis isn't put out that Jack had something to do with his brother's death. He wants him now to kill May, and he is prepared to use blackmail to get him to do it. May shows up at Jack's sleazy motel, and Jack assures her that he will take care of Lewis. We learn that Duffy was a terrible husband who basically kept May in a metaphorical cage and watched her constantly when he wasn't out drinking and whoring. Jack arranges a visit with Paulie (Steven Seagal of "Exit Wounds") through another disreputable man that he owes money, Carl (Vinnie Jones of "Snatch"), and Paulie agrees to help him. He hands Jack a revolver that fires backwards and tells him to give it to Lewis. Jack and Lewis tangle in a gritty fistfight while treacherous May observes the brawl. May gets the drop on Jack, and she tries to kill him. Naturally, the revovler backfires and blows her away. Afterward, Paulie kills Lewis, and they warn Jack to clear out of town.

Gutshot Straight" occurs primarily in Las Vegas casinos and at an exotic house with a swimming pool and flaming torches. As mesmerizing as the action is, nothing really happens in this pedestrian 85-minute melodrama stocked with despicable characters. Jack finds himself in trouble for a murder that he didn't mean to commit, and he flees to his friends that he owes money and gets them to polish off the villain. The action comes full circle. Although it contains polished production values, "Gutshot Straight" essentially qualifies as a potboiler. Stephen Lang and Ted Levine spend more time on screen than either Steven Seagal or Vinnie Jones. Seagal fans won't like it that the paunchy Seagal has what amounts to a cameo. The DVD commentary is interesting and contains insights into the production. This is a one-time watch it only movie.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

FILM REVIEW OF ''HORRIBLE BOSSES" (2011)



“Horrible Bosses” (*** OUT OF ****) is hilarious hokum from fade-in to fade-out.  Of course, this imaginative but complicated, R-rated comedy of errors about premeditated murder is not for everybody.  If you can tolerate neither profanity nor homicide, then this laugh-fest may not be appropriate fare.  Conversely, if you have or have had a boss who deserved a slow but tortuous death, “Horrible Bosses” could make your laugh rather than wallow in homicidal fantasies.  The biggest joke of “Horrible Bosses,” which lives up to its title, is that the heroes are hopelessly clueless.  Imagine a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” except the wannabe killers lack the nerve to go for the jugular.  At the same time, most Hollywood thrillers feature one chief villain, but “Horrible Bosses” boasts three.  Two are male, but one is female, while our protagonists are all men.  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman of “Juno”), Dale Arbus (Charlie Day of “Pacific Rim”), and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis of “Hall Pass”) suffer the agonies of the damned as they tangle hopelessly with their respective bosses, Dave Harkin (Kevin Spacey of “Superman Returns”), Dr. Julia Harris, D.D.S. (Jennifer Aniston of “Rock Star”), and Bobby Pellitt (Colin Farrell of “Miami Vice”).  Clearly the worst of the three, Harkin qualifies as a venomous sadist with a streak of misanthropy.  He takes special pleasure in ridiculing everybody without mercy.  At one point, he tells Nick, “Life is a marathon, and you cannot win a marathon without putting a few band-aids on your nipples, right?” Nick confides in his friends that working for Harken is like working for the Antichrist.  When he isn’t terrorizing poor Nick, Harken believes that his wife Rhonda (Julie Bowen of “Amy's Orgasm”) is having sex with everybody but him.  Incidentally, Rhonda is probably cuckolding Harken because she has bathroom sex with Kurt during Harken’s surprise birthday party.   

While Harken represents one kind of ignoble boss, Julia Harris embodies another version.  Aniston plays a sexy but unscrupulous dentist who takes advantage of her male dental assistant, Dale, because he is a sex offender.  Talk about weird stuff.  Dale was arrested while he was urinating on a playground in the middle of the night so he has to register himself as a sex offender.  Finding a job proved difficult for him until he entered Julia’s naughty world where she could dominate him.  She takes advantage of him repeatedly.  Initially, when he was a patient, she took incriminating photos of him in sexual positions with her while he was still under the effects of medication.  She uses these photos to blackmail him into becoming her sexual slave and he has to put up with her unwanted advances.  Meanwhile, Sudeikis deals with a total swine of a boss who is a cokehead.  Colin Farrell stretches the most as an actor here because he looks nothing like evil Bobby Pellitt.  Bobby hasn’t liked Kurt from the start because Kurt and Bobby’s father, Jack (Donald Sutherland of “M.A.S.H.”), were such close friends.  Jack had planned to pass the family business onto Kurt, but Jack died unexpectedly from a heart attack so Bobby inherited the business and drives Kurt up the wall. Bobby is such a cheapskate that he kept his father desk plate but put his name over his father's name!
After our woebegone protagonists have put up with far too much abuse from their horrid superiors, they find an African-American, Dean 'MF' Jones (Jamie Fox of “Miami Vice”), who is on parole.  One of the running jokes is the use of Dean’s profane nickname that our heroes use without a qualm. .Anyway, ‘MF’ refuses to commit the killings for them, but he agrees to serve as their murder consultant for $5000.  At the time, our foolish protagonists believed that ‘MF’ spent 10 years in the big house for murder.  One of the surprises of “Horrible Bosses” is that Dean wasn’t a murderer.  He went to a jail because the authorities caught him in a movie theater with a video camera recording a film!  Nevertheless, ‘MR’ tells our hapless trio: “Most killers are first-timers.  You wanna pull off a brilliant murder; you gotta act like it’s an accident.  Failed brakes, gas leaks, suicide.  You do it right, you ain’t even gotta be there when it goes down.”  Sounds like ‘MR’ saw the Charles Bronson hitman movie “The Mechanic” because the Bronson character staged each hit as if it were an accident.  Hendricks remains skeptical about MR’s advice: “Sounds like Scooby-Doo.  How are we supposed to fake three accidents?”  Our heroes are naturally disappointed by ‘MF’s lack of participation.  According to ‘MF,’ they must “stalk their prey.”  Second, he continues: “Gotta be smart.  Find out where they live, find out their habits.  What’s their hobbies?”  Nevertheless, ‘MR’ warns them if they have motives that the ‘popo’ will find them.  Nick points out, “We all have clear motives for killing our bosses, . . .so this is not gonna work.  This is garbage.”  ‘MF’ suggests they “kill each other’s bosses.”  This is when Kurt alludes to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.”  Dale hasn’t seen “Strangers on a Train,” but he has seen the Danny DeVito movie “Throw Momma from a Train.”  “We kill each other’s bosses, there’s no link to us,”  Kurt observes.  During this part of the process, comedy galore ensues, particularly while Hendricks and Buckman are in Dave Harken’s house, and dimwitted Dale sits parked outside the house, acting at their look-out.  Harken surprises the unsuspecting Dale after the latter has littered on his street and reprimands him for littering until he catches a whiff of the peanuts.  Harken collapses like a sack of potatoes, unconscious on the pavement.  Dale saves Dave’s life without realizing who Dave is.  Dave’s wife Rhonda happens to come along and rejoices at Dale’s timely intervention.  Naturally, the suspicious Harken suspects that Dale and Rhonda had arranged to meet each other for an exchange of sexual favors.  One of the funniest surprises involves the connection between Harken and Pellitt.  While Nick is maintaining surveillance at Pellitt’s residence, Harken shows up and shoots Pellitt several times and leaves without spotting Nick.  

Altogether, “Horrible Bosses” never stops spouting jokes. Indeed, things are a little extreme, but that is to be expected for a comedy.  Jason Bateman gets to play another schmuck and he is a past master at playing schmuck.  He wears a straight face and never lets on that he is in on the joke.  Meantime, each of the villains receives their just comeuppance.  Director Seth Gordon and his scenarists do an exemplary job of foreshadowing what occurs later.  Donald Sutherland’s cameo as Kurt's boss is too brief but it fits in with the timeline.  One other character, who appears to be around simply as a sick one-note joke, Kenny Sommerfeld (P.J. Bryne of “29 Palms”), actually figures prominently in Julia’s comeuppance.  The ending with Nick—as president of the company--meeting his new boss, Mr. Sherman (Bob Newhart), in the parking lot, is hysterically funny. “Horrible Bosses” is a funny movie.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

FILM REVIEW OF ''NIGHTCRAWLER" (2014)

“Bourne Legacy” screenwriter Dan Gilroy exposes the skullduggery behind tabloid TV journalism in “Nightcrawler” (*** OUT OF ****), a gritty, engrossing, but seldom surprising satire with savvy actor Jake Gyllenhaal cast as an unsavory stringer with a camcorder.  Hollywood has been producing exposés about the depths that shady journalists will plumb to land the big scoop.   Some of the best include “Five Star Final” (1931), the venerable “Citizen Kane” (1941), and “Ace in the Hole” (1951).   If you know anything about the history of yellow journalism, few things can top what one sleazy news reporter orchestrated during the execution of Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing Prison back in 1928.  Convicted of murdering her husband, Snyder was sentenced to die in the electric chair.   The New York Daily News hired amateur photographer Tom Howard to cover the execution, and Howard snapped a photo of Snyder quivering in the electric chair as 700 volts sizzled through her body.  Naturally, the infamous photo appeared a little fuzzy, but the Daily News ran the notorious picture on its front page.   Sales of the newspaper skyrocketed, and the Daily News ran the same electrifying photo again on its front page the following day.   Most of what occurs in “Nightcrawler” is tame compared with the stunt that the Daily News reporter pulled.   Indeed, little of it is as exciting as the real-life incidents that the movie’s technical advisors have encountered on a regular basis.   Nevertheless, this polished, fast-paced, pulp thriller about what an ambitious but unscrupulous journalist does to deliver the goods is often more amusing than audacious.   A gaunt-looking Gyllenhaal manages to be both charismatic and creepy as the anti-heroic protagonist, and he lets nothing interfere with his ignoble aspirations.  Rene Russo makes the most of her role as an over-the-hill Los Angeles television news director, while Bill Paxton scores in a peripheral role as a veteran nightcrawler who shows Gyllenhaal the ropes.  Although he doesn’t break new ground with “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy proves with his directorial debut that he can capably stage not only suspenseful shootouts and careening car chases, but also conjure up flawed but hypnotic characters in a morally skewered universe.
 
Initially, when we encounter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal of “End of Watch”) for the first time, he is a petty thief who will pinch anything.   He steals copper, cyclone fencing, wristwatches, and even tournament racing bikes.  Eventually, he discovers that money can made as a freelance crime videographer lensing scenes of blood-splattered murder and mayhem.  Since he resides in Los Angeles, where people die violently every day, Bloom decides to hock a trophy bike for a camcorder and a scanner.   No sooner does he try his hand at his new profession than he rubs shoulders with a professional stringer.   Joe Loder (the incomparable Bill Paxton of “Aliens”) cruises around in a souped-up minivan equipped with high-tech cameras and a sidekick to shoot those big scenes.   Loder has a computer editing console on-board so he can upload video to the highest bidder at the various competing TV stations around Los Angeles.   Loder admires Bloom’s determination and drive.  Bloom scoots around in crappy 1985 Tercel and wields a low-tech camcorder.  He sneaks inside a house where a homicide has taken place and reorganizes the crime scene so it appears more photogenic and then sells it to a TV station.   Later, the enterprising Bloom hires a homeless man, Rick (Riz Ahmed of “Centurion”), to serve as his navigator.   Whenever Bloom races off to a potential crime scene, Rick struggles to route his impatient employer along the fastest streets to the crime scene.   Bloom pays him $30 a day, but Rick is still pretty clueless about being a stringer.  Meanwhile, the unscrupulous but captivating Bloom has taken a shine to a dame, Nina Romina (Rene Russo of “Lethal Weapon 3”), who works at the lowest rated Los Angeles TV station.  "I want something people can't turn away from," she tells Bloom.   “If it bleeds, it leads,” she explains.  She avoids his amorous advances, but she praises his video.   At one point, to acquire better video of a corpse after a car crash, Bloom drags the body into the light.   At the station, Nina observes that Bloom has blood on his hands.   Indeed, Gilroy uses Romina to make a sarcastic comment about Bloom’s cynical nature, but Bloom has no qualms.  Ultimately, Bloom and Rick get so good at their game they beat the LAPD to a crime scene, and Bloom prowls the premises where three corpses lay sprawled in puddles of blood and photographs them.  He even shoots footage of the perpetrators fleeing.   Bloom orchestrates events so he can make big bucks off the crime as well as the eventual capture of the killers.
 
If you have read the Internet interview with Austin Raishbrook who served as the technical advisor for “Nightcrawler,” you have to wonder why Gilroy didn’t replicate more of Raishbrook’s exploits.  Some of the sights Raishbrook and his two brothers have seen would make you cringe.  When the Raishbrook brothers rush out to shoot video, they suit up in bulletproof vests and prepare for the worst.   Not only have they have been shot at, but also thugs have smashed their equipment.  Some of the chaos they have seen sounds surreal compared to the formulaic genre shenanigans Gilroy puts his characters through in this vivid R-rated urban epic.   Despite its shortage of surprises, “Nightcrawler” features some incredibly amoral characters and top-notch performances.  Bloom doesn’t care what it takes to obtain footage, even if it means either sacrificing an employee or eliminating the competition.  In this respect, “Nightcrawler” differs from most movies where the villains get their just comeuppance.   Louis Bloom is most certainly not a hero.   He qualifies as a vile, low-life, bottom-feeder, but “Nightcrawler” doesn’t punish him for his wicked ways.   Instead, he comes up smelling like roses no matter what he does and that is the singular thing that distinguishes the above-average “Nightcrawler” from most mainstream, standard-issue, Hollywood film releases.

FILM REVIEW OF ''DUMB AND DUMBER TO" (2014)

Twenty years have elapsed since Bobby & Peter Farrelly made their cinematic debut as co-directors on “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.  Although it wasn’t nearly as side-splitting as subsequent Farrelly fare, such as “Kingpin,” “There’s Something About Mary,” and “Me, Myself & Irene,” “Dumb and Dumber” acquainted audiences with the Farrellys’ politically-incorrect brand of lowest common denominator humor.  Not surprisingly, the “Dumb and Dumber” slapstick sequel “Dumb and Dumber To” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) constitutes nothing short of an assault on good taste.  The Farrellys conjured up a catalogue of rude, crude, and lewd jokes that made “Dumb and Dumber” a riotous outing as well as a smash box office hit, and the lunatic sequel serves up even more audacious antics.  If you abhor raunchy humor, you should avoid at all costs this anthology of gross-out gags, some so lowbrow that discretion discourages me from describing them in depth.  Reprising their roles as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, Carrey and Daniels wallow in a rib-tickling variety of pranks, concerning grotesque bodily functions, bared buttocks, and flatulence galore. Although the overall narrative concept isn’t as fresh as the original “Dumb and Dumber,” the farce is still clearly with Lloyd and Harry, and this impertinent comedy tops the original.  If you thought Lloyd and Harry were morons in “Dumb and Dumber,” they are twice as obtuse in this sequel. Not only does “Dumber and Dumber To” imitate its predecessor’s jokes and pratfalls, but it also delivers even more material to laugh and/or cringe at than the original.  One of my favorites is the peanut funnel gag.  In my day, somebody persuaded you to stick a funnel in your britches, place a quarter on your forehead, and then drop George Washington into the funnel three times to demonstrate your genius.  As you prepared for the third attempt, somebody would empty an icy Slush Puppy into the funnel and drench your drawers. 
 
Most sequels provide less-than-inspired links to their predecessors. Indeed, everybody knows Hollywood makes sequels primarily for the loot.  Reportedly, Jim Carrey found himself between places on the road when he caught the original “Dumb and Dumber” again on television.  So enamored was Carrey with the memory of the first film that he convinced Bobby and Peter Farrelly and Jeff Daniels to reunite for the belated sequel.  The link between the two movies is so absurd that you cannot help but burst your bladder laughing.  Essentially, “Dumb and Dumber To” adopts the same road trip narrative. This time around our harebrained heroes aren’t involved in a kidnapping. Instead, Harry has been taking care of poor Lloyd who has been a patient in the Baldy View Mental Hospital for the past twenty years.  Lloyd succumbed to depression because he couldn’t win over the girl of his dreams, Mary Swanson, in the original “Dumb and Dumber.” As it turns out, Lloyd faked his own depression, and Harry has been diligently changing Lloyd’s shorts and cleaning his buttocks for two decades.  Indeed, Lloyd has made Harry the butt of his own joke.  Lloyd stops faking his mental illness one day after Harry informs him that he must undergo a kidney transplant.  Incredibly, when Lloyd comes clean, Harry isn’t insulted by Lloyd’s deception.  Later, Harry learns that he may have been a father when he dated an old girlfriend, Fraida Felcher (a plump Kathleen Turner of “Serial Mom”), back in his high school days.  Fraida hands them a letter with her daughter’s address.  She put Penny (Rachel Melvin of “Zombeavers”), up for adoption years ago.  Fraida loans them a hearse to search for Penny, and these knuckleheads read the wrong address and wind up back where they started from at Frieda’s house. Eventually, they manage to find Penny, who has been raised by a brilliant scientist, Dr. Barnard Pinchelow (Stephen Tom of “Android Cop”), and his late wife. Dr. Pinchelow’s first wife has since died, and he has remarried.  Pinchelow’s second wife, Adele (Laurie Holden of “The Walking Dead”), plans to steal a package worth billions that he has entrusted to Penny to take to a science convention in El Paso, Texas, where she will deliver a speech about her father’s legacy.  Meanwhile, Adele is trying secretly to poison Pinchelow, with the help of Travis (Robert Riggle of “21 Jump Street”) their sinister grounds-keeper.  Penny, who is just as incompetent as our heroes, not only forgets her father’s package but also her cell phone.  Adele sends Lloyd and Harry after Penny to give her the mysterious package with Travis accompanying them.  As you can see, “Dumb and Dumber To” packs a lot of plot for a sophomoric comedy, and you have to connect quite a few dots in its complicated timeline. 
 
The crowning glory of “Dumb and Dumber To” is the pathetic idiocy of its protagonists.  The elastic-faced Carrey and the equally befuddled Daniels get away with a lot in this PG-13 epic.  Like the original “Dumb and Dumber,” Carrey and Daniels perform the same silly shenanigans without one upstaging the other.  Basically, they qualify as ‘The Two Stooges.’  Carrey still wears his coiffure clipped like Moe Howard of the original “Three Stooges,” as if a barber had put a bowl on his noggin and trimmed his locks around the edge.  Meanwhile, Daniels ruffles his hair and makes funny faces like Larry Fine, another “Three Stooges” alumnus. Not surprisingly, the Farrellys are lifelong “Three Stooges” fans, but their last film, a cinematic homage to “The Three Stooges,” didn’t live up to the insanity of the originals.  Nevertheless, “Dumb and Dumber To” ranks as their funniest farce since "The Heartbreak Kid” (2007) with Ben Stiller. Their hopeless buffoonery will prompt you want to take another look at the original. Don’t waste your time on the atrocious prequel “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.”  Despite its pervasive toilet humor, “Dumb and Dumber To” will make connoisseurs of crappy comedy flush with joy at its irreverent antics.