Nightcrawler: the ultimate entrepreneur?

Dr. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet, due to the close match between the personality traits of sociopaths and the unusual demands of high-powered jobs.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

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Jake Gyllenhaal has had an interesting career so far. He’s made good choices and played interesting parts. But then, you could argue he started out in Donnie Darko, so he hit the ground running.

With Nightcrawler he’s gone up another level. Some critics have compared his performance to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. In terms of his character’s detachment from society it probably is on that level, but in other ways it’s far more compelling (and brought right up to date for modern-day society).

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom who, when we first meet him, is a bit of a thief and a hustler. He is clearly a driven and articulate individual, but he has no purpose. Then one night he sees a car wreck on the highway and, as the police help the victim, he watches with fascination as a couple of guys race up in a van and film the whole thing. He’s instantly hooked and has found his calling.

Nightcrawler

Like all good predators they lure you into a false sense of security and allow you to get close, but by the time you realise what their game is it’s too late. This is when Lou is at his scariest. For the most part he seems normal, albeit a bit odd, until he needs something from you. He’ll then persuade, reason and negotiate until, when all else fails, he threatens. And he means it.

At one point he says ‘I like to think that when people meet me they’re having the worst day of their lives.’ This applies not only to victims of crime that he films, but almost anyone he meets. If you’ve just met Lou, your day is about to get a hell of a lot worse. This is none more evident than the manner in which he treats his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), who gets a seriously rough ride throughout, to put it mildly.

Writer and director Dan Gilroy (making his directorial debut) has, in Lou Bloom, created a chillingly realistic portrayal of a man that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He spends much of his time talking about his company and business strategy, spouting corporate jargon as if he vehemently believes it.

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However, the situations in which he finds himself – in an effort to capture the perfect shot – are ludicrous and highly disturbing to anyone who has even a questionable moral compass and ounce of humanity. For Lou, he is a predator in the purest sense. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf would be the perfect theme song to this film.

Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s attention to character detail is masterful – from his cautious, fight-or-flight body language as he approaches a crime scene to the way his eyes seem to get bigger and light up in the darkness of the LA night if he senses a story is at hand.

Nightcrawler is the sort of film you go into with little expectation. At times it’s horrific and thrilling, but most of all it’s captivating. Much like the car wrecks and violent crime that Lou films, we can’t take our eyes off him as a character.

You can see where the film is largely going, but the inexorable, creeping sense of dread that it instils in you on the journey is something from which you cannot escape. And nor do you want to, in a twisted sort of way.

The Guest: introducing the English Ryan Gosling

The latest Downton Abbey export to head to Hollywood is Dan Stevens. I don’t watch the show, but I hear his character is a nice guy who’s good at seducing the ladies.

dan

Now actors often like to break the mould when it comes to roles – to avoid being typecast and all that. So if people think you’re a nice guy, what do you do? Turn it on its head, subvert people’s expectations of you.

And so we have The Guest, a film which starts with Stevens’ soldier, David, introducing himself to a grieving mother, saying he served with her son in the army. Naturally she invites him in, keen to learn more. After all, he’s such a nice young man. He called her ma’am for a start.

maika

The Guest is an interesting sort of thriller, and a lot of it is down to Stevens’ performance. You need someone who can be warm and likeable then, in an instant, be utterly frightening in a stone-cold psycho way. In that respect Stevens does well.

It helps having piercing blue eyes of course (a must if you’re going to make it as a leading man in Hollywood), and he uses them to his advantage. He’s got good screen presence too and conveys a convincing sense of coiled menace – the sort you might expect a special forces soldier to have.

THE GUEST

So… If you have a scary guest in your house you’ll need someone to question why the hell he’s there (particularly when the rest of the family think he’s lovely). Step forward suspicious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, looking and acting considerably more grown up since last year’s Labor Day).

Another interesting point to note with this film is that it keeps you guessing. You’re never entirely sure of David’s motives – at least for the first half of the movie – and he switches effortlessly between nice guy and bad guy. Part Jason Bourne, part Ryan Gosling a la Crazy Stupid Love.

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The final act has teen slasher franchise Scream written all over it – or perhaps other references, given the ’80s-tinged soundtrack (there’s shades of Drive, Hanna and Alice In Wonderland in this film with the lurid, neon colours and fairytale horror feel). However it carries it off with panache and a loving nod to the time of year with the Halloween setting.

So if you’re looking for an engaging thriller with a few scares, a cool soundtrack and England’s answer to Ryan Gosling, look no further than The Guest. Incidentally, a good date movie too.

The Following season two: Bacon and Purefoy back with a slice and a stab

203-003-the-following-trust-me-photos-lightbox-tbdSo… it seems The Following is back. A bit of a surprise hit when it aired last year so no big shock that it’s got another season. If you missed it first time round, the show largely focuses on two characters: wounded (physically and emotionally), brooding former FBI guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the charismatic and learned lecturer-turned-serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

The cat and mouse game these two play is what makes this work. Ok, the script is decent and intriguing, suspenseful even. But for me, the secret lies in the casting and the characters. We often know where the story is going but it’s a fun ride getting there.

Whether it’s big or small screen, Americans adore a bad guy played by a Brit. And in Purefoy’s Carroll they’ve got just that; as his cult ‘following’ of wannabe killers grows, you feel yourself drawn into his orbit – you believe people would follow Carroll and want to please him.

To his credit, Purefoy doesn’t overplay it, but gives Carroll real believability as a cult leader. The way he actually kills people is like some sort of visceral and cathartic release, almost sexual at times. 202-007-the-following-for-joe-photos-lightbox-tbdYou can imagine Family Guy’s Stewie describing him as ‘deliciously evil’.

And then there’s Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy. Wounded by Carroll in a previous encounter, he now has a bum ticker and, as a former FBI man, he plays fast and loose with the law to catch Carroll. Oh, and he drinks, making him your all-round, typical flawed antihero.

Funnily enough, I see both Carroll and Hardy as protagonists, they’re both so interesting you want them both to come out of it with a measure of success. Or, to put it in other terms, you want them to go round and round each other forever, much like Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight or De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, that’s the setup. And, without ruining season one for those that haven’t seen it, Hardy and Carroll scrap it out to the bitter end in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. I say satisfying because, whilst it brought the series to a nice close, it left it open for a follow up.

With season two events pick up a year on, Carroll has gone into hiding and Hardy is getting on with his life. He’s stopped drinking, he’s hosting dinner parties. In short, he’s becoming well adjusted… to a degree.sam-photos-lightbox-tbd

Then bam, stabbings and murders galore. Carroll’s followers celebrating the anniversary of his ‘death’ at the end of season one (it’s no spoiler to say this, of course the main bad guy survives for a second season!), go on a killing spree on the subway shouting ‘Carroll lives. Ryan Hardy can’t stop him!’ Then, slowly but surely, little factions of his followers begin to emerge.

One of Carroll’s original followers, Emma, returns sporting a new punk rock haircut. We’ve also got a new love interest for Ryan Hardy in the form of art dealer Lily Gray (Danish beauty, Connie Nielsen), a character who will no doubt have a hidden agenda or two (the internet is already awash with theories, time will tell).

But most interestingly we’re introduced to a pair of twins: handsome, well dressed lads (both played by Sam Underwood) that put you in mind of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Underwood is an interesting actor (another evil Brit!), already carving out a career playing characters with a dark side (see his work in Dexter and Homeland). The twins pay homage to Carroll in a series of elaborate and poetic murders that set things up nicely in terms of intrigue and a wild card element for the season.

And all that in the first two episodes. It’s nice to have the show back.

Utopia: Conspiracy thriller packs a punch

utopiaAs I’d heard good things about Channel 4’s new mini-series, I settled down to watch with trepidation and was rather impressed. The plot focuses around an online forum group for fans of a cult graphic novel The Utopia Experiments: a novel that allegedly predicts future events.

They are brought together after one of them discovers a sequel to the novel. Something thought to not exist. Unfortunately this brings them to the attention of two evil chaps hell-bent on retrieving the sequel’s manuscript and killing the group and anyone associated with it, often in a chilling fashion.

utopia2Where is Jessica Hyde?

This mini-series is pitched as a slow-burn thriller and I’d say that’s an apt description. It gradually weaves various story strands together and we get introduced to characters slowly and confidently, learning a little about them in each scene.

As well as the forum group, there’s also a sub-plot involving a government health minister, which looks likely to connect with the main story further down the line and has intrigue written all over it.

Why a spoon? Because it’s dull, it’ll hurt more

In terms of critical reception, much will be made of the violence. Considering this is TV, it’s incredibly well-shot and cinematic, with a compelling cast including Kill List alumni Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley. If you’ve seen that film you’ll have an idea of the tone.

Without giving too much away I’ll just say there’s a few stand-out, Tarantino-esque scenes that really do pack a punch. That said, it’s not violence all the way – indeed, the characters are built up well and the plot is intriguing and compelling.

wilson wilsonMaster of suspense

One of the things the show does well is not reveal its hand too quickly. Vitally important – for something pitching itself as a slow-burn thriller – to keep in mind. Obvious you may say, but it’s been ignored before.

As an audience, we like to be kept guessing. Not too much, but enough to keep us hooked. Based on the first episode I think they’ve got the balance right. Let’s hope, if it’s maintained for the duration, the results could be something quite special.

[Interesting links]
Guardian blog: Utopia review | How long before they find you? The Utopia Inquiry

Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

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I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

The Hollywood option
Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Secret State – proper thriller or nothing new?

Talk about a mixed reaction to the first episode of Channel 4’s four-part political conspiracy thriller Secret State. Some critics think it’s pretty good, others have torn it apart.

Me? I sit somewhere in the middle, probably more on the positive side. Despite the plot being a little predictable at times, it’s well shot and Gabriel Byrne (Deputy Prime Minister) is a compelling lead, with a solid supporting cast including: Charles Dance (Chief Whip with dark motives?), Gina McKee (suspiciously well informed reporter), Douglas Hodge (alcoholic ex-MI5 chief turned private investigator).

Setting the scene
Based on the book A Very British Coup, the story begins in the aftermath of an explosion at a US petrochemical site in Teeside, which results in the death of 19 people. After securing compensation for the families whose loved ones died in the explosion, the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes on a flight back from the US and he dies.

Dawkins (Byrne) reluctantly assumes leadership and promises justice for the victims’ families. As he pressures the petrochemical company to make good on their compensation promise, he begins to make discoveries of a conspiratorial nature that lie at the heart of Government.

channel 4 thrillerSuspicion abound!
Within the first 20 minutes or so, it becomes abundantly clear that nearly every major character has hidden/murky motives. We’d expect nothing less from a conspiracy thriller right?

It does feel that plot points are contrived at times. Characters like McKee’s reporter pop up at key moments with teasing information to divulge.

Everyone appears to be watching everyone – GCHQ are listening intently to the PM, the order coming from someone ‘very senior’. My money is on Chief Whip (Dance) who’s clearly up to something – he always is. His gravestone should read, ‘Born to scheme’. Ahem, let’s move on.

I understand why people expect thrillers to deliver on every level these days, they’re up against wise, old dogs – State of Play, Edge of Darkness – and keen, new youngsters – Homeland.

A proper PM
Ladies love a bit of Byrne right? He’s great casting. Calm, decisive, authoritative, charismatic, knowledgeable – everything you’d expect from a leader. You get the sense he’s on the back-foot initially, but his Irish fire will kick in and he’ll tear into those that oppose him. At least, that’s my hope.

Numerous references get made to his military background. It would be great to see him bring righteousness to the political arena. A biblical PM, delivering great vengeance and furious anger against his conspirators, Pulp Fiction style. Too much?

The long game
In terms of the London setting and production values, it’s visually impressive. Great shots of Whitehall and the corridors of power. The score is suitably tense, although perhaps stolen from the Bourne films?

I imagine many characters will reveal their true motives as things progress. Despite some shortfalls in terms of giving the audience too many ‘standard conspiracy’ elements, it’s worth sticking with this show. It’s only a four-parter, so probably best judging at the end.

I’ve seen two episodes and it’s shaping up well. Not an instant classic, but worth your time. If nothing else than to imagine what it’d be like if Byrne was PM. Now that would be thrilling.

The Hour series 2: First episode review

I assume, if you’re reading this, you were a fan of the original series. If not, allow me to bring you up to speed. Released in 2011 The Hour was a drama miniseries set in a BBC newsroom studios in the 1950s, starring Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai.

The premise began with ambitious, young producer Bel (Garai) being tasked by her boss to helm a new, cutting-edge news show. Her reporter and friend, Freddie (Whishaw), was brought on board to run the domestic news side of the show, with charismatic Hector (West) as anchor in front of camera. Series one took place against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, with a murder mystery/spy story that built throughout to a tense, dramatic conclusion.

west garai whishawCanny casting
In terms of the three leads, Whishaw is going from strength to strength, currently seen as Q in the new Bond, Skyfall. He also has a significant role in the highly anticipated epic film, Cloud Atlas. Garai is a young, talented, up-and-coming actress, prolific on both stage and screen.

Notably she’s starred in TV miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White with Chris O’Dowd – and been in films Atonement and One Day. West is best known as McNulty from critically acclaimed TV show The Wire and film 300.

Superlative scripting
I must admit, I’d completely forgotten about series two until I spotted an advert the day before it started. Lucky for me, because I thoroughly enjoyed the first series. The three leads had some great lines, courtesy of a strong script by Abi Morgan – who also wrote the screenplay for films Shame and The Iron Lady. Indeed, this show was nominated for Best Miniseries – as well as two other awards – at the Golden Globes.

It’s also worth noting that it’s incorrectly been described – mostly by the press – as the British Mad Men. Other than the period setting, that’s it in terms of similarities. It’s a completely different beast. Just so you know what you’re getting into.

peter capaldiSeries two: Episode one – the plot
So it was with excitement that I settled down to watch the new series. It takes place a year after events at the end of series one, with Bel struggling to keep the show running. The episode starts with new Head of News, Randall Brown (the brilliant Peter Capaldi), and takes place in a Britain consumed by fear of nuclear attack by Soviet Russia. In order to compete with a rival show Randall brings Freddie back, which unsettles Bel. At the same time Hector receives a tip-off for a story that could outdo their rivals.

Didn’t they do well?
Sorry for going all Brucie bonus on you there, but it was a good first episode, hitting the beats in terms of bringing us up-to-date on the newsroom and various staff changes. This included introduction of Capaldi, who slipped effortlessly into the show, stealing most scenes with fantastically delivered lines. As an actor he seems to personify authority and quiet, bottled rage, kept at bay with a calm, almost Zen exterior. That’s probably why he was so good in political satire TV show The Thick of It, although he’s understandably more restrained here.

His character also hints at an ulterior motive for joining the newsroom, something brought up by reporter Lix Storm. So I imagine there’s a lot more to see from the mysterious Randall.

Whishaw’s character, Freddie, gets a brilliantly scripted introduction. As an audience anticipating his entrance, we’re kept waiting for half the episode. He then returns to the studio, sauntering into a news briefing like he’d never left,  sporting a bohemian beard and a sharp, new suit. This has significant impact on Bel; the range of emotions that flit across Garai’s face in this scene are worth watching. I’ve been a massive fan of hers since The Crimson Petal and the White. Her chemistry with Freddie picks up pretty quickly until near the end of the episode, when she makes a discovery.

Meanwhile West’s character, Hector, has let the success go to his head and is on fine, smug form: drinking, late for work, flirting and bedding glamorous women. This sows the seeds (no pun intended) for a story strand involving a mystery woman (played by Hannah Tointon), series 2 domonic westwho will most likely need the help of the intrepid news team. This plot feels a little similar to the start of the first series, a mystery woman in danger. I’m sure it will take on a life of its own quickly enough.

A final point, the tone of the show – including some great use of music during scenes – has continued much where it left off from the first series. This is important. Whilst it’s great to evolve and develop characters, it’s important not to lose sight of the appeal of the original. Factors that made it so compelling first time round I’ve covered: great cast, strong script and characters, suspense, intrigue, great period detail, sublime soundtrack.

Let’s raise an Old Fashioned to – what I predict will be – an intriguing series!