Thursday, November 20, 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.
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.