Friday, December 26, 2014

The Immigrant review

We all came here on boats, whether they be real or metaphorical. All of us, at one time or another, have known desperation. Defeat. Hunger. Pain. They are universal human emotions everyone can relate to on some level. Some have just experienced them on higher levels. We have all had family members leave us, but how many of us were there as they were taken, violently, away? James Gray's newest film, The Immigrant, understands hopeless desperation like few other motion pictures. It tells the story of Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cottilard), an poor woman from Poland who immigrates to America with her sister. Upon arrival, Ewa's sister is stripped away from her for tuberculosis treatment. A shadowy manipulative man named Bruno picks Ewa out from the crowd. He promises help for her and her sister. The spider has caught the fly. He is a pimp, and Ewa is his next prospect. Thus begins the epic dirge that is The Immigrant. A melancholy meditation on the American dream and everything that comes with it. Gray has learned from the great filmmakers of his past. Hints of early Coppola and Elia Kazan, even Scorsese are visible here. It is easy to tell how committed he is to make a solemn and sobering film that one of the names mentioned would have made in their prime. It seems like he is trying to make The Great American Film. Something to be looked back upon in wonder. It's his stoic commitment to that that is his downfall. The film sometimes comes across as stuffy and dreadfully solemn. Luckily, it recovers quickly. There are enough moments of gorgeous imagery and terrific performances to get past the shakier parts. But when it all works, it really works. Gray uses close-ups the way David Lean used wide landscape shots of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Cotillard's face fills the screen and her utter weariness becomes more than apparent. Things that some less talented filmmakers would have communicated in lengthy monologues or numerous and complicated scenes Gray instead communicates in a single shot of a character's face. Joaquin Phoenix's character is possibly the most complex in the entire film ranging from wicked to remorseful and even pitiful. All of this is made known in a few simple close-ups. This all made possible by the massively talented actors working in the film. Gray loves the foggy wide shots of Ellis Island, but where he really flourishes are in the smaller and more emotional scenes. The always great Jeremy Renner gives a wonderfully understated performance and adds multitudes to these scenes. The Immigrant is a film of bold and sobering ideas. Showing the painful trek someone goes through to find a better life. Prostitution and lies are simply a price to pay for freedom. Freedom, barely visible through insomnia-puffed eyes, that seems so close yet remains always out of reach. That fiery knot in the pit of the stomach that urges to push onward. It does not always pay off. The boats sometimes have holes. Behind the facade, lies the true meaning of the American Dream. It is not pretty. America is truly a place of opportunity. The ways in which we achieve that opportunity may not be as simple and easy as one would initially think. The Immigrant, like The Godfather Part II and many of its predecessors, understands this, for better or for worse. Not it is only up to us to understand it. The flag is in tatters yet, it still rises. It still rises. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nightcrawler review

Blinding neon light and thick smog choke Los Angeles. People drive along the endless labyrinth of roads and interstates to get where they are going. The destination is not important. Not now. They are oblivious to the fate that has already befell them. A bump in the road, an extra drink at dinner, a reckless teenager coming home from a house party. The sparks are visible, the screaming cuts through the thick night air, the steel on the iron horse grows hot. The car flips. All they see is red covering asphalt. How did this happen? A light shines from somewhere above, they look up. Am I dying? A face. Gaunt, focused, horrifying. Whatever it is it cannot be human. It's red eyes glare down at them like two coins made of molten lead. It is the face of the devil, and it is the hour of judgement. "If you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life." This devil is Louis  Bloom, the main character of Dan Gilroy's debut film, Nightcrawler. A type of  cameraman who films disasters as they happen and sells the footage to television stations. He is determined and fierce. Focus like a laser beam. Bloom has the feral look and inherent loneliness of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but he has the sickening drive and sociopathic tendencies of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Bloom is a hard working maniac fueled by some severely perverted ideas and a need to annihilate the competition. He's Michael Corleone with a camcorder. A malicious grim reaper stalking the streets of LA. Where there is trouble, Lou Bloom is there. With Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy has crafted a slick, cynical, and over-the-top satire that parallels films like Network. It is massively entertaining, emanating a kinetic energy that keeps a viewer totally sucked in. It's frightening and powerful. Most of the film's muscle comes from Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the crazed protagonist. Gyllenhaal has been steadily rising as an actor in recent years, being the standout in films like End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy, and many others. Nightcrawler may be his best yet. Hell, I would even go as far as to say he gives the very best performance of the year. Bug eyed, emaciated, and greasy, Gyllenhaal creates a palpable persona totally his own. He owns the movie like no other actor could. Nightcrawler is a very good movie in many ways, but Gyllenhaal looms over everything like some kind of freakish God, truly inhabiting the role. He is so transcendent here, it's much easier to forgot the movies flaws, which it has a few of. This is Gilroy's first movie, and you can see him occasionally struggling. As I mentioned above, Nightcrawler is a film of many influences. At times, you can see Gilroy leaning too much on them for support. There were a few scenes that seemed directly taken out of Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood. It's hard to ignore, and does hinder the film at times. Gilroy is working with a few themes here. Media and how we as a society treat it, the bastardization of the American Dream, and greed. He does struggle to really go in depth with some of them, and the movie definitely could have benefited from some more fleshing out. Yet, I still cannot deny how crazy, entertaining, and energetic the film is. Robert Elswit does a fantastic job with the cinematography here. The movie looks great, and there are some landscape shots of LA that are downright haunting. Oscar worthy stuff. It's a wonderfully creepy tapestry of neo-noir and character study. Gilroy has made a good film here. Gyllenhaal has made a great one. Nightcrawler portrays a dark, morally ambiguous, pre-apocalyptic world of greed and evil. It is a fear-inducing world much too close to our own. And one I wouldn't mind visiting again.