Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employs as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, its only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent-length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Apollo 13 (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #4

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th June 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd September 1995
First Seen: cinema, 1995

Stars
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan)
Bill Paxton (Tombstone, Twister)
Kevin Bacon (Footloose, The Woodsman)
Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes)
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Truman Show)

Director
Ron Howard (Willow, A Beautiful Mind)

Screenwriter
William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers)
Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within)

Based on
Lost Moon, a true-story book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger.

The Story
The third manned mission to land on the Moon launches to little public interest… but that all changes when an accident cripples the spacecraft. Not only will the three astronauts on board not be landing on the Moon, but they might not be able to make it back to Earth…

Our Hero
Everybody — from the three men who may die in space, to the spurned astronaut who locks himself in the simulator to find a solution, to the dozens of mission commanders and tech guys who work round the clock to keep the astronauts alive and bring them home.

Best Supporting Character
The whole cast are pretty great, but Ed Harris really earnt his Oscar nomination as the commander in Mission Control, Gene Kranz. (See also: memorable quote, below.)

Memorable Quote
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Memorable Scene
After surviving days in space on dwindling power, slingshotting the craft round the moon, and adjusting course last-minute to actually aim at Earth, the crippled remains of Apollo 13 enter the atmosphere. There will be three minutes of radio silence before they know if the astronauts have survived reentry. Everyone watches and waits. Silence. Three minutes is reached. Silence. Three minutes thirty seconds passes… In the command center, at the astronauts’ home, at Jay Lovell’s school, everyone waits. Four minutes passes… Goodness, it’s shamelessly manipulative filmmaking, but if your hair isn’t on end and you aren’t practically on your feet cheering with everyone else, you truly are immune.

Technical Wizardry
Gravity used a shedload of groundbreaking tech and computer graphics to simulate zero-G. 20 years earlier, Apollo 13 wasn’t so lucky, so how did they do it? In part, for real. Sets were built inside NASA’s (in)famous ‘Vomit Comet’, an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts an experience of zero-G, but only for 23 seconds at a time. With such a small window, shots to be achieved were carefully planned out, and cast and crew endured over 500 arcs in 13 days to film the necessary footage.

Truly Special Effect
The lift-off sequence, a combination of models and CGI without a single frame of stock footage, is iconic. For me, at least, the shot tracking down the side of the craft as the supports pull away is as indelible an image of an Apollo launch as any documentary footage.

Letting the Side Down
Two decades on, some of the CG effects (especially on Earth) are beginning to show their age. (The model work still looks grand, though.)

Making of
According to Ron Howard in a 20th anniversary interview, Tom Hanks was cast because they thought he was the actor the world would most want to save.

Next time…
The film was followed by 12-part HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the entire story of the US’s quest to put a man on the moon, from the creation of NASA to the end of the Apollo programme. It’s really good.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Film Editing)
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Original Score)
2 BAFTAs (Special Effects, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure Film)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“In the end, this failed mission seems like the most impressive achievement of the entire space program: a triumph not of planning but of inspired improvisation.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“filmmakers combined elements most go to the movies for — drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, and tug of the heart. After reading Lost Moon I’ve come to appreciate the William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert screenplay the more. Given the archival detail Lovell and Kluger documented, getting a good portion of it into a 140-minute movie was its own remarkable feat.” — le0pard13, It Rains… You Get Wet

Verdict

What could have been one of the US space program’s greatest tragedies turned out to be one of its greatest successes, a sensation that is conveyed by Ron Howard’s thrilling rendition of events. The film is too emotionally manipulative for some palates, but by and large it works magnificently for me. Bonus points are earnt for rejecting sycophancy in favour of depicting the people involved as human beings who endured and triumphed in extraordinary circumstances.

#5 will be… reached at 88mph.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aka Live. Die. Repeat.

2014 #102
Doug Liman | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Edge of TomorrowOf late there seems to have been a glut of sci-fi films with highly generic, near-meaningless titles — Oblivion, Elysium, Source Code, even Gravity, and so on. The latest of these is Edge of Tomorrow, based on the novel All You Need is Kill (you can see why they wanted a change), which the distributor had so little confidence in that even during its theatrical ad campaign they tried to sell it as simply Edge, and for the home ent release have mounted a semi-successful campaign to rebrand it as Live. Die. Repeat. — ironically, the most memorable and appropriate title of the lot.

Tom Cruise’s second sci-fi action film about alien invasion and a form of repetition in as many years (after 2013’s Oblivion, which I watched earlier this year), this one sees him cast as a coward in a multi-national defence force set up to combat an alien menace that has conquered mainland Europe. Following a hard-won victory against the aliens at Verdun, the force are planning a D-Day-style mass attack, and Cruise gets co-opted into fighting on the frontline against his will. During the assault, something happens that causes the day to ‘reboot’, and Cruise finds himself living the same day over and over again.

Or, to put it another way, it’s Groundhog Day with shoot-the-aliens bits.

It’s easy to be cynical about Edge of Tomorrow — it’s a mega-budgeted Tom Cruise actioner that sounds like a semi-rip-off of several other movies and was perceived as a flop (it wasn’t, at all) that no one knew how to sell. In fact, it’s a very entertaining movie — Cowardly Cruisesuitably exciting, surprisingly funny, and actually quite clever. It’s also boldly standalone. OK, so it’s an adaptation, but the book is hardly a Hunger Games-style huge literary hit. Producing the film surely isn’t an attempt to turn a print success into a cinematic one, nor is it trying to launch a new franchise — indeed, it’d have to really jump through hoops to even attempt a sequel. No, this is that quite-rare thing now: an original, one-off, blockbuster.

That key ‘original’ element, the repetition (‘original’ in quotes because, yes, it’s from Groundhog Day), is used to good effect, playing variations on things we know but also keeping others secret so as to afford surprises later on. Then, just when you’re beginning to think, “oh God, here we go again”, it moves the story along — after all, just because a day’s repeating doesn’t mean you have to keep going to the same places during it. This leads to the filmmakers sort of playing a clever game with the viewers: just because we’re seeing something happen for the first time doesn’t mean the characters are. Neat.

Are there logic holes? Undoubtedly — it’s a time travel movie. How fundamental are they? Depending on your level of sensitivity, you’ll be bothered by somewhere between “hardly any” and “none” during the film itself. It’s made as blockbuster entertainment, and it works as such. Hello.Reflect too heavily and some bits may begin to crumble more but, for me, not too severely.

The weakest part, sadly, is the climax. It’s alright in itself, but (as Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes cover so eloquently), it doesn’t feel quite right. (Vague spoilers follow.) Abandoning your movie’s defining high concept in order to up the stakes for the finale is a cop-out. Instead, it needs a new twist on the concept that also ups the stakes. That’s harder to come up with, which is probably why they haven’t bothered, but what we do get reduces a clever and borderline-innovative movie to a rote race-against-time overwhelming-odds shoot-out.

As for the post-climax ending, which some have complained isn’t dark or gritty enough… Were those people watching the same movie as me? “Dark and gritty” has its place, and there’s certainly a few ‘nasty’ bits earlier in the film, but the overall level of action and humour is more mass-market. That’s not a criticism, just an observation — this is not actually a dark-and-gritty movie that demands a dark-and-gritty ending. The final scenes fit tonally with the rest of the film. I liked that.

Edge of... a fieldEdge of Tomorrow isn’t an unqualified success, but more than enough of it works to make for a well-above-average modern blockbuster. Excellent action sequences, plenty of amusing asides, and a couple of solid sci-fi concepts to chew on combine to render it quality entertainment. Bonus points for being a true original in a sea of remakes, sequels and spin-offs.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.