The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2017(2/18/2018)

Last year, for the first time, I went to see a screening of the five live action films nominated for the Academy Award that year.  A company called ShortsTV (formerly known as ShortsHD) has been putting these shorts into theaters every year for a while but that was the first time I went and I thought it was a moderately rewarding experience.  I don’t know that I want to make it an annual tradition but clearly I found it worthwhile enough to come again this year.  This roster of shorts was in many ways different from last year’s.  For one thing these shorts are a bit shorter, with all but one being around twenty minutes long where last year most were pushing the thirty minute mark.  These films also hued closer to the Anglosphere with four of the five nominated films being in English compared to last year’s set where all five of the films were from continental Europe.  Those films also often tended to be made by older filmmakers whereas three of the nominees this year appear to have started out as student films which rose above what is normally expected from such films.

Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

DeKalb Elementary

The first documentary in ShortsTV’s presentation is something of a topical standout as it deals with the issue of school shootings.  Inspired by an actual incident which happened in Atlanta (at a school called McNair Discovery Academy) the film shows a man with clear mental health issues walk into a school office and pull out an assault rifle.  From there we get a tense standoff as the man doesn’t simply proceed to open fire and the secretary begins to try talking him down.  Actress Tarra Riggs does a great job of bringing this secretary to life and making her sensitive courage believable and Bo Mitchell is also decent as the disturbed young man causing all the trouble.  The film was directed by a guy named Reed Van Dyke as his final thesis film while getting his MFA in film directing from UCLA and it does a good job of showing his skill at building tension and in painting portraits of characters with minimal exposition.  I’m not sure the film really has all that much to say about the topic of school shootings as this incident was not terribly representative of most active shooters (most of whom are not going to be made to stop with any amount of love and understanding) but it does remain a pretty solid portrait of a small act of heroism and is also notably the only of the four non-comedic shorts here that doesn’t bog itself down in title cards at the end.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: It’s most likely the frontrunner.  The film’s humanism combined with its tense nature will jump out to most voters immediately.  If it has any weakness it’s that it basically takes place in real time and doesn’t need to contend with the challenges of its short format the way some of the other films do.  That said, the fact that the Parkland shooting in Florida is in the news leading up to the voting period can only help this

 

The Silent Child

The second film on this docket is a film from the UK called The Silent Child focuses on issues of deafness and disability.  The film was not directed by a film student but buy a guy named Chris Overton, who appears to primarily be an actor rather than a director and has worked primarily in British television, and it was written by a woman named Rachel Shenton who was inspired to write it by the life of her deaf father.  The film looks at a teacher for the deaf who is hired to tutor a young deaf child before she goes to school, but it quickly becomes clear that her parents are not going to be overly amenable to some of these lessons.  This is the only of the five shorts here that is set over the course of months rather than days or minutes, and probably tells the most complete story of all of them.  In terms of pure storytelling I’d say that it’s the best one here but it does suffer a bit from being a bit didactic.  The family holding their deaf daughter back here can’t simply be slow to understand what’s best for their daughter, they also need to be yuppie assholes who cheat on each other and actively neglect their child and the teacher can’t simply be someone who understands these issues but must also be a saint-like tutor who seems to straight-up love this kid more than her parents.  Twenty minutes isn’t a long time but it is enough time to draw lines a little more realistically than that and the PSA like text that fills the screen at the end doesn’t help matters.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: Were it not for DeKalb Elementary I’d probably say this had the best shot.  There’s kind of a history of movies about kids doing well in this category and the way it builds empathy is clearly impressive.  Voters looking for something a little bit lighter but not too light would probably go for this one.

 

My Nephew Emmett

The one short this year that I’d really call a big of a misfire is this one, which recreates the last day in the life of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright.  This short, directed by NYU grad Kevin Wilson Jr, in some ways falls into the same trap as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it seems content to simply show an unfortunate incident in America’s racial history, more or less without comment beyond trying to put you in the middle of the victim’s terror.  Bigelow’s movie, however, was at least bringing attention to a moment that has been rather under-reported while this one is simply recounting a story that pretty much any remotely well educated person should be fairly familiar with.  The decision to tell the story from the uncle’s perspective, while useful in some ways, doesn’t exactly shine a particularly new light on the story either and we don’t get to know much about him outside of a surface level overview.  That said the kidnapping scene is really tense and disturbing and in some ways that does give the exercise some value.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: Probably low.  The film did win a Student Academy Award, which would seem to be a good sign, but DeKalb Elementary pretty clearly beats it as its own game of “suspenseful recreation of real events” and there are also plenty of other choices for those looking to reward movies about marginalized people.

 

The Eleven O’Clock

The fourth film here is in some ways the odd one out, firstly because it’s the only comedy here and secondly because it’s the shortest of the shorts, coming in at just 13 minutes.  The film was made by an Australian named Derin Seale, who is the son of the legendary cinematographer Jon Seale (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame).  This connection led him to get second unit work on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but he hardly has any other credits at all on IMDB so I’m guessing a lot of his work has been in the field of commercials or music videos.  This short looks at a two guys who are both claiming to be a psychiatrist who believes the other is a patient has a delusional belief that he’s the psychiatrist (this confusion is aided by the normal receptionist being gone that day) and a lot of “who’s on first” style confusion entails.   The big weakness of this is that, at the end of the day, it feels less like a film and more like a segment from a sketch comedy show.  In fact the basic concept appears to have been lifted from a 90s British sketch show called “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” but this version is sped up a lot and generally done with a bigger budget and has more going on.  It’s hard to dislike this short but it’s also hard to really get excited about it after its done.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances:  Low.  The film did win at the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), but I’m not sure how much competition it had there.  It’s always possible that the simple fact that this is an orange in a basket of apples will appear to a certain voter block but otherwise I’m not seeing a whole lot of reasons to vote for it.  The people dedicated enough to look into the short categories on their Oscar ballots seem like they’d be the types to take themselves a little more seriously than this.

 

Watu Wote (All of Us)

The final film in this program is the only of the five not in English and while it was made by German film students from the Hamburg Media School it set on the Kenya/Somali border and is in the Swahili and Somalian languages.  This border is apparently a very tense location with a great deal of conflict because of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab on Christian Kenyans and resulting animosity directed back on innocent Muslims by Christians as a result.  Specifically the film focuses on a Christian woman as she takes a bus trip through dangerous territory and clearly has a lot of hostility towards the Muslims on the bus.  It doesn’t take a lot of predictive powers to guess what happens to this bus, especially after the buses police escort fails to show up, and it also isn’t hard to guess what lesson this Christian woman will learn over the course of this experience.  The film’s rather banal moral that we all bleed when pricked is what holds the film back, but on the positive side it probably best production values of the five films here and an attack set-piece late in the film is one of the best moments of pure cinema across the five films.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Not great.  I guess this could be seen as a dark horse of sorts given its clear production value and relevance to modern times, but this just isn’t the most memorable short here and it’s also likely that the voters are going to be more interested in supporting home grown talent.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I think this roster of shorts is probably a little weaker than last year’s although it’s not a dramatic drop-off.  DeKalb Elementary is clearly the standout although it didn’t necessarily overwhelm me with greatness, although it might have stood out to me more if it had played last instead of first.  I’m still pretty inexperienced when it comes to modern short films in general so I’m really not sure how representative these are of short films in general or if there’s better work out there but so far after two years of watching Oscar nominated live action shorts I’m getting the impression that they tend to sit in this kind of B/B- range.

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Neruda(1/28/2017)

1-28-2017Neruda

It used to be, back in the days of Hollywood factory filmmaking, that film directors would routinely make at least a movie a year but more than likely more than one.  I think this was partly because directors came into the process later and left it earlier than they do now but it’s still impressive how fast they could crank out movies.  Today there are still directors capable of putting out two movies in a year, Clint Eastwood has been known to do it and so has Spielberg, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence.  Even rarer though is the act of putting out three essentially unrelated movies in a single year, which is what the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has managed to do by releasing his films The Club, Jackie, and Neruda all in the year of 2016.  Granted, this was largely the result of the vagaries of how foreign films get released in America.  IMDB would consider The Club a 2015 film because of its earlier Chilean release and Neruda only barely got in by getting a New York/L.A. release in late December, but from where I sit he did manage to get all of these movies in during a single year.  What’s more, every one of these movies is at the very least interesting.  The Club didn’t quite work for me but it had some interesting things to say about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I’m certainly on record as thinking Jackie (which was his English language debut) is one of the year’s best.  For Neruda he returns to Chile to tell the story about a very famous Chilean.

The film is set in 1948 and at this point Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a larger than life figure in Chile and a world famous poet and political activist in the country’s communist party.  It’s a tumultuous time in Chile as the recently elected Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has proven to not be the leftist figure that everyone had hoped when he was elected and it has become clear that everyone in the communist party would soon be in danger.  Neruda goes underground but continues making appearances among the Chilean counter-culture as he seeks a means of exiting the country.  Meanwhile, an police investigator named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) has been brought in by Videla and tasked with finding Neruda, a task that Peluchonneau has every intention to complete.  This will however prove difficult as Neruda is slippery and willing to taunt Peluchonneau at every turn.

I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the life and work of Pablo Neruda before seeing this movie.  I’m not proud of that, the man was a Nobel laureate and was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Gabriel García Márquez, so he certainly seems like someone an educated person should know about.  The film focuses less on his literary achievements than on his status as a political figure in Chile but either way it’s a pretty decent crash course in what he was like and what his stature was.  In playing the character Luis Gnecco certainly seems to have captured the look of Neruda, or at least what he seemed to look like in the photos I was able to google, then again I’m not wildly familiar with Gnecco as an actor so it’s hard to gauge how much of a transformation this is.  Either way the movie does a good job of showing the poet’s free spirited defiance and it’s fun to see him elude the authorities at every turn.  Audiences seeing the movie are likely meant to be well aware of the fact that Neruda does not get captured and the movie never tries to give the illusion that Peluchonneau is ever going to be a match for Neruda even when he occasionally seems to have the drop on him.

Where the movie started to lose me was in its second half where the movie introduces a meta element with the Gael García Bernal character which I don’t think is really as fascinating as it possibly could have been.  I’m not going to discuss it in much detail here but I’m still not exactly sure what was supposed to be real and unreal in it and I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that was supposed to be.  I do wonder if that business was a reference to something in Neruda’s literature or an actual documented element in his life that more familiar audiences would be better able to pick up on but for me it just felt a bit odd.  If it hasn’t been made clear so far, I think the fact that I’m not Chilean has me at a bit of a disadvantage with this movie, or perhaps more accurately my ignorance of early 20th Century Chilean history and the works of Pablo Neruda have me at a bit of a disadvantage.  That said, I don’t begrudge Larrain for having chosen not to dumb down his movie for people who don’t go into it with a whole lot of outside knowledge.  The fact that he made his one of his other films this year, Jackie, in a similarly uncompromising way is one of its strengths and I wonder if part of the chilly reception that it’s gotten is that audiences less educated in that story have left it a touch baffled.  However, I’m not going to entirely blame myself for the fact that this movie didn’t entirely impress me.  There are other issues in it like it’s rather bland and washed out photography and regardless of if I’m missing anything that ending still could have been handled better.   Either way I do think this is a worthy, if slightly disappointing entry in Larrain’s filmography and I look forward to his future work.

Nocturnal Animals(12/11/2016)

12-11-2016NocturnalAnimals

It’s not terribly common but there is something of a history of people becoming film directors after rising to prominence in other fields.  The most famous example would probably be the circle of film critics who would pick up cameras themselves and begin the French New Wave, but there are other examples as well like when Jean Cocteau transitioned from his literary achievement into filmmaking achievements or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s transition from the world of literature and public intellectualism to the world of cinema.  This sort of thing isn’t unheard of today either what with people like Julien Schnabel being able to transition from painting to filmmaking or (on the more lowbrow side of the spectrum) Rob Zombie being able to be both an active rock star and a fairly prolific film director.  However, one of the strangest of all the transitions into filmmaking was that of Tom Ford, who went from being a fashion designer famous enough to warrant having an entire Jay-Z song named after him to being a pretty successful film director when he made the 2009 film A Single Man.  That movie, about a gay man in the 1960s mourning the death of his lover, is not really a movie that’s been at the forefront of my mind since seeing it but I do remember being fairly impressed by it when I first saw it.  Ford’s sophomore effort was seemingly delayed as he focused on his day job, but after about seven years he has returned with a thriller of sorts called Nocturnal Animals.

The film focuses in on a woman named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who owns an art gallery and lives a life of cosmopolitan glamour and is married to a stable and attractive man named Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer).  Things are looking up for her until she received a package containing a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals” (a former nickname he had for her) and dedicated to her as well.  Intrigued she begins reading the novel, which is dramatized at length onscreen as she reads it.  This story within a story focuses on a man named Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is turned upside down when a group of rednecks led by a guy named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) runs him off the road and kidnaps his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) and leave him stranded in the West Texas desert to die.  This novel disturbs Susan to her core and starts to distract her from her day to day life and leaves her to reflect on where she went wrong in her first marriage and where she is today.

Nocturnal Animals certainly has a unique structure, the way it intercuts dramatizations of the novel with the “real” story actually reminded me a little of the “Tales of the Black Freighter” sections of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” both in terms of format and content.  In fact, the “fake” story might actually take up more screen time than the “real” story; at the very least it has more of a conventional beginning middle and end.  This “fake” narrative also has what is easily the highlight of the movie, a very tense scene in which the novel’s protagonist encounters a band of hillbillies and has a road rage incident escalate into violence in a way that really brings the viewer in on the protagonist’s general impotence in the face of this looming threat against his family.  That material is very effective, but from there this novel within a film starts to get more than a little hokey.  The revenge sections of this narrative are rather clichéd and filled with elements like generally unmotivated villains and police investigations that are rather ridiculous.  To some extent the film can be excused for some off moments here by the fact that it’s reflecting a narrative written by a fictional author of questionable talent ala the sections of the movie Adaptation that were supposedly penned by Donald Kaufman, but at a certain point the film is still spending a lot of time presenting this stuff.

What’s more, it seems a little odd that the Susan character would get this worked up about a book that kind of sucks.  Early in the movie I had assumed that the narrative being presented by the novel would much more closely mirror some pain in Susan and Edward’s past, but as the flashback narrative progresses it becomes clear that the split between the two of them was a lot more mundane and in some ways underwhelming than what the movie initially teased.  Clearly there are supposed to be parallels between the two stories as Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both but the wife and daughter characters are not played by either Amy Adams or the young woman who plays Susan’s daughter in one scene and no one else has a dual role either.  I suppose there are other parallels between the novel and the flashbacks in the vaguest of plot parallels what with both being about a meek man wronged, but if there are any other connections they kind of seem to be in Susan’s mind moreso than on the page and the similarities certainly don’t seem like they’re strong enough to cause her to lose sleep and start seeing creepy things in her day to day life.  If anything this novel mostly just makes its author seem kind of pathetic: a dude who after something like twenty years still hasn’t gotten over being dumped and is still engaging in vaguely stalkerish writing projects rather than moving on with his life.

I got some sense that the movie was trying to make some sort of statement about the “two Americas” that we saw emerge over the course of the recent election: that of urban sophistication and that or rural simplicity with neither depictions seeming true so much as proactively exaggerated.  In the “real” story we get a glimpse of Susan’s life in Los Angeles which is almost cartoonishly vapid and filled with people dressed in ridiculously garish clothing and people backstabbing each other right and left and all this is driven home by Susan’s mother who seems to view class with about as much nuance as Marie Antoinette.  On the other hand we see the rural world of the novel which is filled with random violence and resentment.  It is also almost certainly not a coincidence that the “real” story depicts a world that is largely female dominated while the story of the novel is highly masculine and filled with bravado, resentment, and metaphorical dick measuring contests.  There’s no way that this tension is accidental and yet the movie never really goes anywhere with any of this so much as it drops these observations and moves on without coming to any conclusions.

So, looking at the movie I’m not really sure what it wants to be exactly.  Its format seems to suggest it wants to be this unique and sort of meta-exploration of its character’s psychology but it also wants to be a satire about American class struggles and it also wants to be a kind of trashy revenge thriller and I’m not sure the movie really works on any of those levels.  Its strange structure and abrupt ending will probably baffle anyone expecting this to be work as a sort of beach-read style mystery but I also don’t really think the ideas are there for it to work as anything deeper.  Ultimately the movie is kind of a mess, but not a completely unsatisfying one.  Amy Adams is pretty good in the movie even if she seems a bit young for the role she’s playing and the film’s basic craft elements also function pretty well.  It certainly gave me a lot to dig through even though I ultimately didn’t really like what I found upon further reflection, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours watching a movie.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Our Little Sister(9/17/2016)

9-17-2016OurLittleSister

Japan, what happened to you?  During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s.  As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect.  One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years.  Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families.  In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style.  I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.

The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman.  Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs.  All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other.  They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture.  The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.

Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless.  In many ways it shouldn’t work.  It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable.  This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly.  Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well.  Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child.  Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.

Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious.  It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness.  It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy.  Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless.  I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career.  Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.

4.5

Nightcrawler(11/1/2014)

11-2-2014Nightcrawler

I almost never watch local newscasts, and frankly, I don’t understand why anyone does.  The amount of important and useful information on a half hour local news timeslot is minimal and the rest of the time is taken up by barf inducing puff pieces, weather reports I can just as easily get online, sports reporting which I can just as easily get on ESPN, commercials, and of course lurid crime reporting which rarely serves any actual public service and mostly just gets reported because it’s sensational.  I get that these newscasts are pandering to people’s base emotions, but if you want your heart warmed or want the crap scared out of you there would seem to be better places to go.  And yet, it still seems like a fairly lucrative business.  Every single local affiliate has four newscast a day, each of them substantially and stylistically identical to their competitor’s, and presumably draw a pretty big audience for all of them.   Obviously I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of local news though and the new movie Nightcrawler seems to be similarly disgusted by the state of local news in this country.

Nightcralwer concerns a young man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who starts the movie as a sleazy copper wire salvager who’s looking to get his foot in the door of one business or another.  One night he’s passing by a firey car crash at the side of the road and sees a pair of cameramen pull up next to it and start photographing the wreck.  After a brief meeting with one of the men he learns that these guys are freelance crime reporters who spend each night chasing police radio chatter to crime/accident scenes and then sells the footage to local news stations.  Inspired, he decides that this is the business for him and buys a cheap camera and police scanner.  He doesn’t start as a particularly talented photographer but he does soon begin to get salable footage, in part because he’s willing to cross ethical lines and put himself in danger in order to get the most sensational footage possible.  He sells this footage to a struggling news station and begins a business relationship with their desperate news director Nina (Rene Russo), who encourages him to get more and more lurid video.

I can’t say that I ever put a whole lot of thought into how the local news gets their video footage, but Nightcrawler does work pretty well as a sort of chronicle/expose of the process.  It turns out that it’s not an overly elaborate job: it mostly just requires a steady hand, a strong stomach, and a reckless willingness to break traffic laws.  The film’s procedural elements are pretty interesting just the same.  You see how Bloom prioritizes various police calls and rushes to the scene and then how he sells the footage after the fact to Nina.  Nina is herself a rather ruthless character who makes no bones about the fact that she profits off of sensationalism.  She explicitly tells Bloom that the stories that get the best ratings are the ones about crime happening in affluent neighborhoods, advancing a narrative about inner-city crime spreading into wealthy areas.  I don’t doubt for a second that this is an accurate description of local media’s priorities, but I also suspect that an actual media producer would have a little too much self-awareness to actually say something like that out loud.  Nina is in fact a rather satirical figure in a movie that is in its own dark and not overly comedic way a satire.

The fact that Nightcrawler involves a guy driving around Los Angeles at night will probably draw a lot of comparisons to Drive and Collateral, but the movie really has a lot more in common with a movie about a guy driving around New York at night: Taxi Driver.  Like Travis Bickle in that Scorsese classic, the main character here is a strange loner, and not the quirky misunderstood kind.  You can tell almost immediately that Bloom is basically a sociopath, but not the charming and manipulative kind.  He doesn’t seem to really understand other people or how they perceive him; instead he looks up career advice from self-help books and robotically quotes what he’s “supposed” to say to potential business partners almost verbatim.

When you first see Bloom quoting all these career advice manuals you think he’s kind of clueless, someone who doesn’t really understand what he’s saying and who will soon come to learn that all that stuff works in theory better than it does in practice.  However, the other shoe never really does drop on bloom.  In fact, the more successful he becomes the more you begin to wonder if maybe this guy does know what he’s doing, maybe it’s not him that’s evil, maybe all this amoral behavior actually is what all this capitalistic business dogma does call for.  Perhaps the movie has more to say about that dogma than it does about the character quoting it?  After all, we’re used to seeing the Gordon Gekkos and Jordan Belforts of the world say things like this, but their businesses are so complicated and abstract that you never really see the fallout and even if you did those guys have a knack for hiding their bullshit behind a veil of respectability.  This guy doesn’t.  We see in him a sort of naked Machiavellianism and I think the film works a lot better when it’s exposing this than when it makes its rather obvious points about the worthless crap that pollutes the local news.

Nightcrawler was directed by Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony Gilroy and of John Gilroy, who have producer and editor screenplays here) and as far as debut films go it’s fairly impressive.  I wouldn’t say that the style here is overly unique, but he knows how to shoot a scene and does a pretty good job of juggling the film’s dark but heightened tone.  I’m not so enamored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s work here, in part because I feel like he’s a little old for the part. The character is supposed to be a young guy looking for an entry in the workforce, which is a bit undercut when he’s being played by a thirty-three year old man.  Still, Gyllenhaal does do a pretty good job of making this intensely unlikeable character watchable, but it is still going to be pretty hard for a lot of audiences to accept a movie about a guy like this.  Frankly, I’m kind of surprised that this is getting a wide release at all given how biting it can be, but I’m glad it did.  This is a smart film that finds a unique way to make a point about certain truths about modern American society.

***1/2 out of Four

Neighbors(5/10/2014)

5-10-2014Neighbors

If you were to ask someone who the greatest action star of the 80s was they are almost certainly going to tell you it was Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Was it because Schwarzenegger was a great actor? No. Was it because he starred in truly great movies? Not really.  I’d argue the real secret to Schwarzenegger’s success was consistency.  While Stallone and Van Damme would often find themselves starring in absolute dreck in-between their hits, Schwarzenegger was able to establish a certain level of quality control throughout his career.  When you went to a Schwarzenegger movie you could be pretty confident that it would at least be as good as The Running Man.  I’d argue that, in the world of comedy, Seth Rogen has managed to do something similar since his emergence in 2007’s Knocked Up: unlike the Adam Sandlers and Will Ferrells of the world he’s managed to maintain a pretty consistent streak of solid films.  To date his only real out-and-out failures have been The Green Hornet (which was a misguided attempt to venture outside of his usual comfort zone) and The Guilt Trip (which seen by so few people that it couldn’t really affect his reputation ).  It’s because Rogen has been such a reliable performer that I found myself seeing his latest comedy, Neighbors, even though its trailer did nothing for me and its premise seemed a bit off.

In Neighbors Seth Rogen is paired with Rose Byrne as one half of a young married couple with an infant daughter.  They’ve recently moved into a home in a quiet neighborhood and while they’ve settled down they aren’t quite ready to put their partying ways behind them.  While they may still view themselves as young and hip, their tolerance is quickly put to the test when the house next door to them is purchased by a group of college students and converted into a fraternity house.  Initially the young couple tries to act cool around the frat guys, but it quickly becomes clear that no amount of politeness is going to prevent the party animals next door to quiet down and stop littering in their proximity.  Quickly a feud forms between the two parents and the fraternity’s leaders (Zac Efron and Dave Franco), which escalates into elaborate pranks going both ways as one side tries to rid themselves of the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking to realize that this basic premise is pretty contrived.  For one thing, the movie seems to take place in a town that doesn’t have any zoning laws.  I’m sure there have been cases where fraternity houses have been placed in residential neighborhoods and have caused strife, but I’d think there would be some measures in place already to prevent scenarios like that.  Additionally, the movie tries to very quickly eliminate sensible solutions to the problem like calling the police or rallying other neighbors to their cause in ways that stretch credulity.  That’s not really a huge deal, sometimes you need to just go along with things like this in order to get a movie going, but if you’re going to do something like that there better be a whole lot of laughs to make up for it and frankly I think this movie is a little bit deficient in that regard.

If the film falls short it probably isn’t for lack of talent.  Seth Rogen is mostly performing up to his usual high standard and here he does a pretty good job of (slightly) maturing his usual man-child slacker character.  Rose Byrne also does a pretty decent job of holding her own in this usually very male dominated genre.  On the frat side of the rivalry are actors like Christopher Mintz-Plasse (of Superbad fame) and Dave Franco (who’s really careening toward typecast territory), and they both do serviceable jobs in their roles.  The real question mark going in was Zac Efron, who’s been increasingly trying to enter the world of R-rated comedy now that prepubescent girls aren’t swooning over him anymore.  I’d say that he’s mostly alright here and doesn’t detract too much, but you can tell that he isn’t a comedy professional and there probably are other actors who could have added more to the movie.

At the core of Neighbors is a pretty solid set-up for a raunchy comedy.  The generational strife of the story is well set-up and in spite of a handful of hiccups along the way, the movie actually does come together by its end.  It’s because the film has a decent foundation that it’s that much more disappointing.  The jokes here just aren’t good enough. I chuckled here and there but this just didn’t elicit the same kind of belly laughs that comparable movies like This is the End and 21 Jump Street did.  That said, the elements that make the movie disappointing also bring it some redemption.  There was enough going for the film that I was mostly able to enjoy watching it even if it didn’t really have me in stiches.

**1/2 out of Four