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Southpaw is one of the better boxing movies I’ve seen in recent years. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself as Billy Hope, a boxer at the top of the world with a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Oona Laurence). He loses everything, Rocky V-style, and must fight for redemption and the custody of his child.

Forest Whitaker plays Billy’s unorthodox trainer; it’s reminiscent of the role Burgess Meredith played in the Rocky films. Yes, I’m comparing this movie to Rocky in many ways, because it is clear director Antoine Fuqua drew much of his inspiration from that series.

Gyllenhaal put himself through a rigorous training process to become a convincing fighter, and he certainly looks the part in the ring. Outside of the ring, Billy mumbles a lot, which makes sense considering the number of blows he’s taken to the head. It’s a typically great performance from Gyllenhaal, who rises above the moments where the script becomes a little too conventional.

Laurence, who reminds of a young Natalie Wood, does strong work as the daughter who has to put up with a dad who can’t seem to get his act together.

Southpaw is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Louis Bloom is the very definition of serpentine in Nightcrawler, a scathing look at TV news and the lengths producers and stringers will go to for ratings and a payday.

Stealing wire fences and manhole covers for a living, and desperate for some real work, Bloom (Gyllenhaal) happens upon a car accident where an invasive cameraman is filming bloody footage for a quick buck. Bloom—an isolated man who spends his days studying the Internet—pawns a stolen bike, gets himself a crappy video camera and a scanner, and thrusts himself into the business of crime-footage videography.

He starts small, grabbing footage at auto wrecks and butting heads with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a seasoned videographer who doesn’t like newbies treading on his territory. Louis eventually finds himself in the presence of Nina (Rene Russo), a bloodthirsty TV-news producer struggling to find her way on a low-rated station; she pays Louis a couple hundred bucks for his bloody footage. Against the wishes of her co-producers, Nina leads with Bloom’s video on the morning news, and an unholy alliance begins.

Bloom hires an assistant in Rick (Riz Ahmed of Four Lions), who clumsily navigates as they race through the streets of Los Angeles looking for carnage. Things escalate from filming car crashes and fires, to filming shooting aftermaths and other crime scenes. When things start to slow down, Louis becomes unrelenting in his attempts to find stories. In short, there is nothing he won’t do to get the footage. Nothing.

He’ll move bodies to frame a better shot. He’ll withhold footage from the cops after entering a residence to film murder victims. None of these actions, however, compares to what he will do in the event that an employee tries to negotiate for a raise. He’s a far cry from the puzzle-solving, earnest news investigator Gyllenhaal played in Zodiac. He represents the complete degradation of media from something sensationalistic into something that is pure evil.

Russo’s Nina is, in many ways, as psychotic as Louis. She is reckless, encouraging Louis to dig deeper and pushing him into more deranged territory. Russo hasn’t been this good in years.

Paxton, who used to specialize in wild-man, gritty roles before Twister and Titanic, relishes the chance to get down and dirty again. He only has a few scenes in the film, but those scenes are true standouts. Ahmed gives the sidekick role plenty of dimension. He gets the laughs when they are supposed to come—but he also manages to create a frightening tension in his showdowns with Gyllenhaal.

This is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who also penned the screenplay. Gilroy clearly doesn’t have a positive opinion of the broadcast-news machine. The folks putting together the news in this movie are something akin to cannibals and vampires waiting in the dark for a vein to be severed. Louis is a genuine movie monster.

Gyllenhaal lost a bunch of weight to play the greasy Louis, and he achieves a physical creepiness that matches nicely with his character’s infected soul. Louis is darkly funny, especially when he berates Rick or blackmails Nina. He’s also sinister and deeply scary in a very Travis Bickle/Taxi Driver sort of way. Gyllenhaal is excellent here; this is his second great 2014 performance after playing twins in Enemy. The guy is really stretching out.

According to Nightcrawler, gone are the days of dignified anchormen and heroic news gatherers. The tie-wearing talking heads and scrappy field reporters have been replaced by bloodsuckers and sycophants, with the likes of Louis Bloom leading the sick charge.

Nightcrawler is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Enemy features an awesome performance from a great actor playing somebody who might be a little sick in the head.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a college-history professor who reeks of insecurity and has a guilty vibe about him. He has a beautiful girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent) with whom he seems to be having a few sexual problems. He’s having bad dreams in which the arachnids show up, and he seems depressed most of his waking hours.

When Adam watches a movie in an effort to cheer up, he spies what appears to be himself playing a bellboy. Weird. A little research reveals that the bellboy is Anthony (also played by Gyllenhaal), a bit-part actor who is Adam’s doppelganger.

Anthony is married to Helen (Sarah Gadon), and while full details aren’t given, it seems as if Anthony has been unfaithful in the past. Unlike the confused and sad Adam, Anthony is very regimental and bold.

Denis Villeneuve’s film is far superior to Prisoners (in which Gyllenhaal co-starred), a film that started strong and spun out of control. Enemy remains morally and thematically twisted throughout.

While the DVD isn’t due until June for this one, you can download it via iTunes, and get a making-of documentary along with it. Oddly enough, even though it is available for purchase on Amazon.com and iTunes as a download, no Blu-ray release has been set yet—only DVD. This is just another sign of the changing landscape in home video releases.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For a good part of its running time, Prisoners seems as if it could be one of 2013’s best pictures. It has a good premise and a shocking middle.

Alas, the film falls apart a bit at the end, with a finale as stupid as the rest of the film is gripping.

Hugh Jackman delivers a fierce performance as Keller Dover, a survivalist who goes into vigilante mode after his daughter and her friend are kidnapped. When a semi-irritable detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) apprehends a mentally challenged suspect (Paul Dano), Dover and the detective go head-to-head on how to deal with him. When the suspect is set free, Dover captures and tortures him.

These parts of the film are solid, showing the lengths a parent could go to in order to find a missing child. As for the film’s mystery element: That’s where things fall apart. It strains so hard to be clever that it becomes ridiculous by the time credits roll.

Gyllenhaal is quite good here, even when the screenplay lets him down. The same goes for Jackman and his justifiably maniacal turn. He’s a sharp actor, and he makes the goofy ending watchable. Supporting performances from Maria Bello and Terrence Howard are decent.

The movie was shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, so it looks good. Prisoners is worth seeing for the most part, but it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Special Features: You only get a couple of short behind-the-scenes features.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Prisoners, the new kidnapping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is one of those movies that is impressive while being watched—but it loses some of its power upon reflection.

By the time I got to my car after the screening, my head started going “Wait a minute … that part didn’t make much sense, now did it?”

I enjoyed the film on many levels. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, and the time went by fairly quickly. The two leads are at the top of their games, and you just can’t go wrong with the visuals when Roger Deakins is working the camera.

But somewhere around the third act, the kidnapping-mystery element starts going a little haywire. Director Denis Villeneuve and his writer, Aaron Guzikowski, are so determined to trip viewers up that the movie traipses over to the ridiculous side. This doesn’t derail the film, but it downgrades it a bit.

Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace, (Maria Bello), are having a Thanksgiving get-together with friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when both of the couples’ daughters go missing. Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) saw a messed-up looking RV near the house earlier in the day, and he reports it.

Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called away from his Thanksgiving dinner at a greasy spoon when the RV is spotted. They arrest Alex Jones (a freaky Paul Dano), a man with an IQ of a 10-year-old, on suspicion of kidnapping.

Loki does his best to get info out of Alex, to no avail. The suspect is released due to a lack of evidence—and Keller goes ballistic. He takes matters into his own hands, resulting in Keller kidnapping Alex—and leading to some rather harsh torture scenes. Dano spends much of the film under heavy gore makeup.

Up until this point, Prisoners is a movie that focuses on the dilemma of what lengths a parent would go to in order to find a child. Keller brings Franklin to the torture chamber, and the two put Alex through hell. The victim keeps dropping possible hints, with no real solid info—so the torture amplifies. It’s brutal, and credit goes to all three actors for convincingly conveying the humiliation, fear, regret and sadism that must go with such a situation.

Det. Loki is in what sometimes feels like another movie; he’s trying to solve the kidnapping while stumbling upon other crimes along the way. Around the time he was uncovering bloody storage bins full of snakes, the movie started losing a bit of its cohesiveness. Still, Gyllenhaal is rock-solid as Loki, a quiet man laced with a bad temper that gets him and others into trouble.

The film is set in an often gloomy, gray, rainy Pennsylvania where everything looks plain and safe—but dark things are happening in those old houses. Villeneuve and Deakins use this setting to maximum effect, and the film is always interesting visually. (Film geeks know that Deakins is the go-to cinematographer for the Coen brothers.)

The film successfully keeps viewers guessing as to the identity of the kidnapper/kidnappers until late in the film. Everybody in the cast behaves suspiciously enough at one point or another, meaning almost nobody can be dismissed as a possibility.

This ambiguity hurts the film in many ways, as the film strays from a core moral message and becomes a preposterous whodunit. The eventual revelation struck me as a letdown—perhaps even a copout.

Stretches of this film will draw comparisons to the 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Unfortunately, stretches can also be compared to the crappy 1993 American remake of The Vanishing in which Jeff Bridges took a shovel to the mouth. At least Prisoners has a great final moment, so it ends on a good note.

The film contains some of the year’s best acting and best visuals, and it maintains a fierce intensity for much of its running time. That said, I can’t deny its flaws. With a slight rewrite and tighter editing, this could’ve been one of the year’s best pictures. 

Prisoners is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

This riveting cop thriller, released on DVD and Blu-Ray today (Tuesday, Jan. 22), features strong work from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as Los Angeles cops who get themselves in a lot of trouble with a drug cartel.

End of Watch was written and directed by David Ayer, who is no stranger to cop dramas. He wrote Training Day and directed Street Kings, another film about the LAPD. He also directed Christian Bale—quite well, I might add—in Harsh Times. End of Watch proves to be his greatest achievement to date.

I was a little worried this was going to be a found-footage film (a genre I have come to hate) when Gyllenhaal’s character started filming stuff for a project. A little bit of his footage works its way into the film, but this is mostly a straightforward narrative without that particular gimmick.

The supporting cast includes Anna Kendrick as Janet, Gyllenhaal’s gal pal, while America Ferrera is good as a fellow officer. There’s also Frank Grillo, so good in last year’s The Grey, as another officer.

Universal tried to build some Oscar buzz for Gyllenhaal and Peña, but the effort failed to get them any nominations. The campaign made sense, though, because these guys elevate End of Watch beyond a decent thriller, making it into something quite memorable.

Up next for Ayer? A movie called Ten, another drug-cartel/cop thriller starring some dude named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looks like Ayer is sticking close to home with his topics in the future.

Special Features: Ayer provides a good commentary. You also get five behind-the-scenes featurettes and some deleted scenes. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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