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Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Nightcrawler

Lewis Bloom is a hard worker. He's persistent and punctual, and maybe the quickest learner you'll ever meet. His personality can be a little intense at times, but there's more than a little charm in his quick wit and business savvy. He is quite possibly the ultimate employee, the expert interviewee.

He is also morally repugnant, slimy, and quite possibly wanted by the police for questioning...but you can't look away.

This weekend sees the long awaited release of Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Gilroy also wrote the screenplay, as he's done for such films as The Bourne Legacy and Real Steel

Nightcrawler follows the above mentioned Lewis Bloom for a short period of his life in Los Angeles. He's extremely intelligent and willing to work, but finds himself stealing scrap metal for a living until he finds a new calling, that of nightcrawling, which entails chasing down crime scenes with a camera and selling the footage to the highest bidding news station. Over time, this odd job begins to pay off with Bloom's intense tenacity, but to get the really good stuff, he and his semi-homeless employee Rick (Riz Ahmed) have to get into increasingly dangerous and ethically compromising positions–which doesn't seem to bother Bloom in the least.

Gyllenhaal pulls off nothing short of a career best here. He plays Bloom with such unending confidence and purpose that it's impossible not to find yourself utterly fascinated with the man. There will no doubt be comparison's to Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, but there's something even more uncomfortably attractive about Gyllenhaal's charismatic performance. He's equal parts inspiring and frighteningly sociopathic, and while a lot of that comes from the tight script, Gyllenhaal's performance is what I'm certain will make Nightcrawler a cult classic.

Gilroy has created an extreme, but not wholly unbelievable take on modern life. To get any job now, you have to be impossibly qualified: you can't just be skilled at one thing, and you often have to work for free or next to nothing for long periods of time before being trusted with anything serious. Bloom is the epitome of what is expected at most job interviews: he's got all the right answers, straight from all the online courses he's taken, and while he's willing to start at the bottom and work hard, he'll seize an opportunity by the throat when he gets the chance. It's incredibly captivating to watch, and the fact that we don't get a narration or any kind of history on Bloom makes him all the more interesting.

In addition to the performance, direction, and writing, the film is pretty impressive from a technical perspective as well. The cinematography by Robert Elswit, known for shooting most of P.T. Anderson's movies among many others, is creepy and unique, capturing a side L.A. and a tone that just doesn't feel quite right. The editing by John Gilroy (Dan's twin brother, interestingly) is sharp; along with Bloom's enthusiasm, the fast-paced cuts create an excitement and tension that place you right in the middle of the disturbing action. James Newton Howard's score, while sometimes a little too action-movie-esque (especially the end credit song), uses its surreal ambiences not unlike Drive's score to contrast nicely with the sometimes horrific visuals.

Which actually ties in with one of the more interesting things about Nightcrawler: it doesn't seem to judge it's protagonist. For the most part, the framing does not look down on Bloom, and the script often only hints at some of the more truly immoral acts, letting your imagination fill in the gruesome gaps. The music, too, mostly avoids darkly dramatic themes; it seems to be scoring Bloom's inner life rather than our view of him, which lends his victories a sense of glory and inspiration. In many ways, the film is a biting and extreme satire on the kind of news we want to see, despite our protestations: as Nina, the news director (played expertly by Rene Russo) says, "Picture our ideal story as this: a wealthy white woman running down the street screaming with her throat cut." In this sense, Bloom is only a product of our time, the inevitable and perfect end to the world we've created, so it only makes sense that the film not judge him for his actions. 

Nightcrawler is not a timeless masterpiece, but it may be a masterpiece for our time. Gilroy expertly draws the audience into this unconventional story, and Gyllenhaal's performance is one that will be studied and talked about for years to come. There's a real connection to the current state of affairs that instantly makes Lewis Bloom interesting–there are many out there desperate to get a job or stuck in a low paying one despite their qualifications–but the character himself is absolutely absorbing. If you aren't totally engrossed trying to unravel the mysterious Bloom, the masterful storytelling and compelling narrative will keep you glued to the screen, waiting and watching as things get worse–or better, if you're Lewis Bloom.

Verdict: For Immediate Consumption!
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GeekRex Horror Essentials: Haunting Films

Halloween is fast approaching, and the mood for horror movies has been struck. If you're looking for something scary to watch, look no further: all month we'll be giving our list of essentials horror movies in a given subgenre! This time: Haunting Films!

Kyle's Pick
The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

A pretty typical pick if there ever was one, but, its hard to argue with one of the most influential horror films of all time from one of the greatest directors the world has ever seen. With The Shining, Kubrick took Stephen King's ghostly parable for alcoholism and turned it transcendent, making the haunted house film by which all other films in the sub-genre are judged by. From Jack Nicholson at his most unhinged, to the numerous and seemingly random imagery, The Shining is as good as this kind of thing gets. This is the kind of film that's held in such high esteem, no one can even agree what, if any, its underlying themes are (just watch the documentary Room 237 on Netflix for about 10 minutes and you'll get the gist). Side-note, I'll almost went with the Japanese film HAUSU, but I refused to let this list go Shining-less.

Hannah's Pick
The Ring (2002)
Directed by Gore Verbisnki 

The Ring is my quintessential "When was the last time I saw a movie that was really scary? Probably not since..." movie. With an awesome performance from Naomi Watts, The Ring is a surprisingly not-dated story for a movie that centers around a haunted VHS tape. This is also a movie that doesn't solely rely on cheap tricks, excessive gore, or loud noises/music cues to make the audience jump. It aims instead for the psychological horror and the dread of anticipation. The scary moments are well-paced, never rushed, and the fairly simple special effects make for a fairly horrifying ghost. 
Cal's Pick
The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton

A young woman applies to a position as governess for two precocious young children living in a country manor. She has no qualifications other than her love of children, but her warmth wins their uncle over and she is hired. But when she learns that the previous governess was in an abusive, ultimately-fatal sexual relationship with the now-deceased valet, she begins to suspect that the children were corrupted - or, in a hellish twist, possessed by their ghosts. The Innocents is one of the great, under-seen horror films, and one of the few haunting movies that genuinely works both as a tale of supernatural devastation and as a view of one woman's descent into madness. Grounded by a bravura performance from the late, much-missed Deborah Kerr and with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, this is one you can't miss.

Shane's Pick
The Conjuring (2013)
Directed by James Wan

Okay, I'm probably the only person here at GeekRex who liked this movie, but The Conjuring was a great surprise when the horror genre currently has a lot of weak spots among wide releases.  Creating a series of paranormal horror films around the real life cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren is a great idea, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the parts excellently.  Some great old and new haunted house scares abound in this film.

Harper's Pick
The Changeling (1980)
Directed by Peter Medak

Not terribly well known, but on top of it being scary as all get out, it's a fascinating study of tragedy and it's long-term consequences. George C. Scott tries to settle in a new house after the accidental death of his family, but the house seems to be haunted by a childlike entity, one whose history is slowly uncovered after a deeply disturbing seance scene. 
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Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

Young adulthood is a series of milestones. Hell, life is a series of milestones, but rarely do they come fast or make much of an impression. Some are good, some are bad, but all of them are formative, and all of them are shared. Kat, the protagonist of Gregg Araki's coming-of-age drama White Bird in a Blizzard, hit two big milestones at roughly the same time in high school. First, she met the beautiful-but-dim-witted boy next door, struck up a reluctant friendship based purely on how good he looked without a shirt, and promptly lost her virginity to him. It awakened an insatiable appetite in her, albeit one not shared by her distant new boyfriend. Second, almost immediately after losing her virginity, her mother simply... disappeared. No one knows how, or why, just that Kat's life is now different, forever. The crux of the film is not an investigation into the disappearance; rather, White Bird in a Blizzard is a look at how that disappearance affected Kat.

Or at least, the best parts of White Bird in a Blizzard are about how that appearance affected Kat. The story fractures from there, as we meet Kat's friends and family, learn about her relationship with her boyfriend, see how she interacts with an older police officer (Thomas Jane) in charge of her mother's case... on a scene-by-scene basis, there's a lot of great stuff here, but very little of it hangs together naturally. The voiceovers and climax suggest that we're supposed to be taking the mystery seriously; the fact that it's not present at any other point in the film in a meaningful way suggests that we are not.

If White Bird in a Blizzard works - and I would argue that, by and large, it does...ish - it works because of star Shailene Woodley. Woodley has been making moves towards bigger roles with Divergent, as Jennifer Lawrence did with The Hunger Games, but Woodley is a more vulnerable, self-assured screen presence who feels far more comfortable anchoring a drama than trying to rein in an action movie. Kat is earthy, sensual, and lost, a role Woodley was born to play, and the movie comes alive when it starts to dig into her character.

If Woodley's earthy realism is one side of the coin that is White Bird's view on femininity, Eva Green - playing her mother - is the other. Eve is a disaffected housewife who married young and regretted it for the rest of her life, but never really knew how to free herself from the trap she made, and it's fascinating watching the struggle to balance her sexual needs with the expectations of a good housewife. Green is having a blast, giving the same sort of exaggerated performance that made her stand out so well in 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, but, well, White Bird in a Blizzard is not those movies. It has a stronger cast, a more assured aesthetic, so Green's exaggerated madness plays more as shrill than tortured, particularly when put against Woodley, or against her meek husband

It is the conflict between those two different performances that gives the film its charge... and, ultimately, tears it apart. Weird as it sounds, I have a hard time imagining a family setting in which the manic Eve, the grounded Kat, and the borderline-comatose Brock (Meloni) coexisted. I have a hard time imagining a universe where all three of them could coexist. Araki and his cast are walking a tightrope across a chasm of tonal whiplash, and I suspect every viewer will have a very different reaction to that attempt. But how much of this is filmed through a subjective camera - that is, how much of this is Kat exaggerating the traits of her family the way people sometimes will? 

Adapted from a 1999 novel by poet Laura Kasischke, White Bird in a Blizzard might be too mellow for the thriller crowd and too dark for the YA crowd. It lacks the gut-punch emotional power of last year's Woodley-starring young adult drama, The Spectacular Now, but I don't think Kasischke and Araki are really going for power here. In a way, White Bird in a Blizzard is at once a character study and an examination of evolving gender roles, both male and female, and I think a lot of the structural loopiness can be attributed to the fact that, on both fronts, this is undeniably Kat's movie. She's not a detective, not a hero; she's a young girl struggling to define her sexuality - not a topic we see often in stories about young women, though that's changing - while she copes with the loss of her mother. We may pick up on her mother's fate (indeed, the movie actively jokes about this), but it never bothered me to see Kat failing to notice the obvious clues.

I really struggled to write this review, if I'm being completely honest. White Bird in a Blizzard is a big, sloppy movie, alternately fun and dour, earthy and over-the-top. But, as I try to wrap all these thoughts up, I have to say: Whatever else White Bird in a Blizzard may be, it's not a movie easily forgotten - nor is it a movie lazily made. In the three weeks since I saw it, it has returned to my mind regularly as I puzzle over what Araki and Kasischke were trying to say. I still don't know they were successful in finding something to say or even if this is a terribly good movie, but I do know this: I'll be revisiting it again soon.

White Bird in a Blizzard opens today at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, Georgia, and is rolling out to limited theaters across the nation. It is also available to rent On Demand and on streaming services like Amazon Instant Video.
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Now Screaming on Netflix Instant

Last Fourth of July, we here at Geek Rex decided to help you find a great movie to watch with friends by suggesting some fantastic, holiday-appropriate films you could easily stream online. And what holiday, my friends, lends itself better towards turning off all the lights, sitting down with a friend or two, and turning on a movie than Halloween?

We've been going over some of our favorite horror movies of all time in a series of articles, but not all of those are easily available streaming - though that doesn't mean you shouldn't hunt them all down, of course! So, with that said, here are some excellent horror films to sit down with this Halloween weekend.

You're Next (2013)
Directed by Adam Wingard

The 'home invasion' horror movie isn't a genre with a lot of classics on its list, but this fun, crowd-pleasing entry is fantastic with a group of friends. Erin is attending her boyfriend Crispin's family reunion out in a remote mansion (... this isn't the last 'remote mansion' on this list) when proceedings are rudely interrupted  by a group of masked murderers hunting down the family members one by one. They thought this would be an easy kill, but Erin is, it turns out, the daughter of Outback Survivalists, and she has a trick or two up her sleeves. You're Next is a ton of fun, but it's also a great inversion of horror's 'Final Girl' trope, giving us a character who plans for the worst and isn't afraid to get her hands dirty in a fight.

Absentia (2011)
Directed by Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan's 2011 indie horror Absentia has something few other modern horror movies have: A sense of subtlety. Tricia's husband vanished 7 years ago, and she is finally ready to have him declared dead in absentia, without a body. But after an eerie encounter with a man in a tunnel, things start to get weird in her life... and then her husband shows up, bloody and bare-foot, at her door. Flanagan's story is creepy before then, but as he quietly builds a background mythology into where Daniel disappeared to, the supernatural ramps up in creepy, unexpected ways. To say too much would spoil what is a surprisingly thoughtful little horror film, but I can definitely recommend it.

Directed by Ti West

Ti West made his name with this moody, slow-burn horror movie that plays on the 'Satanic Panic' films of the early 1980s. College student Samantha needs some extra cash to pay the security deposit on an apartment she badly wants, which prompts her to take a babysitting job in a remote mansion. West plays with our expectations expertly, building tension slowly but surely and never giving us the comfort of a jump scare to dissipate it. And if you liked that, check you can follow it up with West's next two features, 2011's ghost story The Innkeepers and 2014's killer cult flick The Sacrament

Directed by Charles B. Pierce

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an undeniably sloppy film, but it's also an odd, fun, fascinating one, a horror movie that is part Zodiac, part Halloween. The movie, ostensibly based on a true story, takes place in Texarkana, a town on the border between Texas and Arkansas, and it tracks a series of brutal serial murders that rocked the town in the late 1940s. Like Zodiac, the bulk of the film is about the town's police trying to hunt down this killer; like the slasher flicks that would follow, the film get its illicit thrills watching a masked madman chase down and try to kill nubile young teenagers. The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a weird, goofy comedic streak that doesn't really fit, but it's still an interesting film... and one that is getting a highly-praised remake this year.

Directed by Roman Polanski

Rosemary's Baby is one of the best horror movies ever made. Rosemary and her husband move into a new apartment together. They make friends with the kindly old neighbors, her husband's career starts moving forward, and after a nightmarish evening being raped by Satan, Rosemary finds herself pregnant. But was she really offered up to the devil? Or is it just the stress of a new place, pregnancy, etc... making her imagine things, as she is constantly reassured by every man around her. Rosemary's Baby is gorgeous, creepy, and thoughtful, the kind of horror movie that doesn't make you jump, but sticks in the back of your head for days after viewing.
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CBS' 'Supergirl' Adding Jimmy Olsen And More

We learned yesterday that the upcoming superheroine series on CBS, Supergirl, would focus on her life with the Danvers family and would exist in a world without Superman. Now from TVLine, we understand the series is casting further Metropolis regulars:

CAT GRANT | The project is eyeing females in their 40s, open ethnicity, to play the fonder of CatCo, a media conglomerate that Cat built from the ground up. Kara (Supergirl’s mild-mannered alter ego) will work as a personal assistant to Cat, who is described as “J.Lo by way of Anna Wintour.”
JAMES OLSEN | In his late 20s/early 30s, open ethnicity, James is a smart, worldly and (duh) attractive photographer for CatCo. Though an alpha male, his salt of the earth nature elicits a huge ol’ crush from Kara.
WINSLOW ‘WYNN’ SCHOTT | This twenty-something tech whiz/Comic-Con stalwart toils for CatCo as a programmer, unaware of his own potential. Wholly unaware of her secret, he carries a torch for Kara, whom he lives next door to.
HANK HENSHAW | As an upstart CIA agent, Hank grew obsessed with intergalactic intel. Now in his 40s and lording over the DEO (Department of Extra-Normal Operations), he is on high alert when Supergirl reveals herself, worried that her otherworldly abilities pose a threat to humankind.
The latter two eventually become the villains Toyman and Cyborg Superman respectively in Superman canon, though it'll be interesting to see how they're handled here.
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Marvel Showcases The Return Of AvX

Post-Civil War, Avengers vs X-Men was Marvel's most successful cross-over event from a pure sales perspective. As a part of Marvel's big Summer 2015 teasers, re-visiting this one so soon kinda borders on the ludicrous, but with Skottie Young art? Why not?

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Review: American Horror Story: "Edward Mordrake pt. 2"

Last week’s episode of American Horror Story left the audience wondering who the ghost of Edward Mordrake would take back to the other side with him. Part II begins exactly where Part I left off. Mordrake goes from tent to tent, forcing each character tell him about their “darkest hour.” One by one, the members of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities tell their story and describe how they ended up in the freak show. Most have very sad stories, and almost all of them were cast aside by society because of their differences. They only found their true families when they met Elsa.

When Mordrake confronts Elsa herself, she once again hides behind her ago, convincing herself he’s there because he was so taken by her performance. But he quickly shatters her dreams when he tells Elsa what he’s really there to do, calling her both delusional and ignorant. Mordrake’s family of freakish ghosts attacks Elsa, removing her fake legs, which have hardly been addressed all season. By doing this, he again puts her in her most vulnerable position. She is forced to tell Mordrake about her sordid past as a high-class dominatrix in tumultuous 1932 Berlin, providing flashbacks of Elsa’s past life and eventually revealing the horrific manner in which she lost both of her legs. Her story is truly captured when she professes that, in life, everyone “trades away [their] humility, trick by trick.”

While Elsa is baring her soul to a ghost, Jimmy and Esmeralda cross paths with Twisty and Dandy’s captives, providing an opportunity for an outcast to become a hero. The two follow Twisty back to his bus but they’re quickly caught and captured. Dandy and Twisty attempt to put on a “freak show” of their own, using Esmeralda as an unwilling magician’s assistant, but the performance draws Mordrake’s ghost away from Elsa and toward Twisty.

Mordrake orders Twisty to take off his mask, revealing a terrifying sight. He’s unable to speak, but Mordrake gives him the ability so he can tell his tale. As it turns out, Twisty wasn’t always so twisted. He used to be a kind children’s clown with some sort of social disability. When he does speak for the first time in the season, it sounds more like the voice of a scared child than a murderer. He explains that the freaks at the carnival tormented him, calling the meek and sheltered clown a pedophile and scaring him away from the camp.

“Word travels around in the carnie circuit,” Twisty explains. He returned home to Jupiter to find that his mother had died, and says he had an idea to “turn the garbage into gold” by continuing to make children smile with his solo clown act. But his towering figure and social disabilities scare children and adults alike.

Twisty was attempting to make his captives happy and save them from their strict parents. His story “caused the demon to weep,” and Mordrake expresses his deep sorrow upon hearing the clown’s story, bringing up the point that out of all the souls he’d met who had done wrong, Twisty was the only one who truly couldn’t recognize his mistakes. Mordrake has finally found a worthy new member for his family.

Cops arrive and interview Jimmy and Esmeralda, but the beautiful fortuneteller explains to them that Jimmy was the real hero. The episode ends on a hopeful note, with members of the town coming to shake Jimmy’s hand and praise him for saving their children. Esmeralda’s partner arrives at the Freak Show, posing as a Hollywood talent scout, and Dandy takes on a completely new persona after the shocking turn of events. This episode carried on its themes of exposure and transformation on Halloween, when the spirit world and the physical world come together. This two-parter may have ended on a happy note, with the townspeople and the freaks all coming together, but given AHS’ track record, the happy ending won’t last long. The writers once again leave the audience both hopeful and terrified for the characters’ futures. 

Review by Kendall Harris
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