In noirish ‘Clouds,’ Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart shine

At a recent press screening, several of my fellow critics and I were lamenting the lack of good movies released so far this year. It’s about time for some titles worth touting.

Clouds of Sils Maria poster with JB KSThe one standout, most of us agreed, is French writer/director Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a drama with neo-noir elements (set in Sils Maria, Switzerland) that revolves around a high-profile actress, exuding poise and sophistication, named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche).

Maria’s enviable career comes full circle when she is talked into making the ultimate encore: She will return to the play that spurred her success 20 years before, though this time she will star as the older women whose life is falling apart. Cast as the luscious ingénue in this rendition is a Hollywood bad girl struggling to steer clear of the tabloids and be taken seriously as an actress (Chloë Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart co-stars as Maria’s smart, cynical and chicly bespectacled assistant, Valentine.

We are introduced to Maria and Valentine on a train as it solemnly chugs though gorgeous mountain country and the story of these two women, a generation apart, unfolds like a long journey — freeing and claustrophobic, intimate and impersonal, predestined yet random and mysterious. We see the boundaries of their intense relationship stretch, fray and then suddenly, frighteningly vanish.

“Clouds of Sils Maria,” beautifully shot, impeccably cast and confidently directed, has deservedly garnered much praise, especially for the superb performances from leads Binoche and Stewart. (Never having seen “Twilight,” I am now a big Stewart fan).

Suspenseful and sly, wistful and resonant, “Clouds” should not be missed.

Ex Machina posterMeanwhile, many reviewers have been impressed with first-time director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (Garland also wrote the script). This sleek sci-fi thriller is crisply smart, coolly shot with a chilly color palette and well acted. In fact, I failed to recognize Oscar Isaac as the mad but muted scientist. Domhnall Gleeson plays a young techie who wins the chance to assess the emotional intelligence of a sexy female robot — a truly heartless femme fatale (Alicia Vikander). It sounds good and looks great but somehow the film overall felt slightly shallow and short on ideas.

Similarly, “True Story,” fails to live up to its potential, despite grisly real-life details. James Franco plays Christian Longo, an Oregon man who received the death sentence in 2003 for murdering his family. While on the run in Mexico, Longo impersonated a journalist named Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill). In need of a career boost after being fired by the New York Times for making up one of the interviewees in a magazine story, Finkel agreed to write about Longo and later published a memoir about his experience.

True Story posterFranco and Hill are compelling as is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend. But director and co-writer Rupert Goold loses his way and the storytelling soon becomes murky.

Also, it’s a bit hard to take “True Story” seriously when it depicts the New York Times newsroom as a place where reporters raucously drink beer and play poker after submitting their stories. (Or maybe it’s just hard to take James Franco seriously after the fiasco that was “Child of God”). But it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen it and nothing much of the movie has stuck with me. Still, there are worse ways to kill two hours.

Also drawing mixed but mostly good reviews is Levan Gabriadze’s debut feature “Unfriended,” a horror flick that takes place entirely on the small screen, ie Skype and Facebook. Shelley Hennig leads a cast of high-school friends who are harassed by a mysterious cyber-stalker. It’s a clever gimmick and the acting’s good, but other than that, “Unfriended” tells a same-old same-old story about the secrets and betrayals of teen friendships and romance.

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‘The Long Goodbye’ is a highlight of Altman at the Aero

On Friday, March 20, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will present “The Long Goodbye” (1973, Robert Altman) as part of a weekend tribute to this stellar director. This event is free to all current American Cinematheque members, with regular pricing for non-members. There will be an introduction by Kathryn Altman, who will sign her book Altman in the lobby at 6:30 p.m. The movie is at 7:30 p.m.

The Long Goodbye/1973/United Artists/112 min.

One of the best films of the ’70s or an ugly, boring travesty of a well respected detective novel?

Elliott Gould and Nina Van Pallandt in “The Long Goodbye.”

Decide for yourself as you watch Robert Altman’s 1973 movie of “The Long Goodbye,” by Raymond Chandler. The film, starring Elliott Gould as private investigator Philip Marlowe, divided critics, earning the above-mentioned rave from Time Out and the snooty slam from Leslie Halliwell.

It was primarily Gould’s free-wheeling interpretation of the beloved PI that drew ire. Charles Champlin called him an “untidy, unshaven, semi-literate dimwit slob.”

An entertaining yarn, soaked in ’70s atmosphere, the movie captures the sunny, scruffy, solipsistic mood and look of Malibu, Calif., at the start of the Me Decade. Marlowe’s next door neighbors, for example, are pot-brownie-baking, clothing-optional candlemakers. We only see them from a distance but in a way they are timeless party girls, a ’70s version of “The Girls Next Door.”

And “The Long Goodbye” stretches the vocabulary of film noir. As Foster Hirsch, author of “Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo Noir,” writes: “For all its self-indulgence and contradiction – the film both satirizes and seeks acceptance as a cool, contemporary L.A. mystery story – Altman’s ‘new age’ noir suggested the genre’s elasticity at a time when it was considered passé. Produced before nouveau noir had taken root, ‘The Long Goodbye’ anticipates the full-force genre revival of the 1980s and 1990s.”

We meet Marlowe late one night as he’s trying to round up food for his hungry cat (Morris the Cat in the role that launched him to stardom). The story spices up when Marlowe’s friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) asks him, after a marital spat, to drive him to Tijuana.

Marlowe doesn’t have much else going on (besides cat care, of course) and so they make the trip; Marlowe heads back on his own to find that Lennox’s wife is dead. The police press Marlowe for info on Terry’s whereabouts, hoping that a little jail time will jog his memory (David Carradine plays Marlowe’s cellmate). They ease up after Terry Lennox commits suicide, having first written a letter confessing to the murder.

Marlowe’s not buying the suicide, but turns his attention to a new client. The sun-kissed and sophisticated Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) wants Marlowe to find her missing hubby Roger Wade, a boozy writer, (played by the wonderful Sterling Hayden, a veteran of film noirs like “Asphalt Jungle” and “The Killing”).

Searching for Roger isn’t all that challenging, but Marlowe has his hands full with a visit from psychopathic gangster Marty Augustine (director Mark Rydell) and his hoods (including young Arnold Schwarzenegger). They’re sniffing around for a load of cash that Terry Lennox was supposed to deliver to Mexico. Surprise, surprise, the cash never made it. So the surly, anti-social Marlowe plods on toward the truth, trying not to get any sand on the shag carpets. [Read more…]

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Three neo-noirs open and a legendary blonde gets her day

Gena Rowlands makes her mark with the help of her son Nick Cassavetes (right).

Gena Rowlands makes her mark with the help of her son Nick Cassavetes (right).

Veteran actress Gena Rowlands knows that life is messy. She made her mark playing difficult, disturbed and complex women in films such as “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Faces” and “Gloria,” all made with her husband, the groundbreaking writer/director/actor John Cassavetes. (All three films garnered Oscar noms.)

But Rowlands, 84, recently dealt with a happy mess when she planted her hands and feet in wet cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX, formerly known as Grauman’s Chinese.

“I want to tell you one thing and I want you to listen,” she told the crowd at the ceremony last Friday. “If I get stuck in that cement, I expect all of you to help me out of it.”

Six Dance Lessons posterJoking aside, it’s hard to imagine Rowlands, with her gravelly voice, graceful posture and piercing blue eyes, needing help of any kind. To be sure, she’s delightful to watch in her latest vehicle, a comedy/drama called “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.”

Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and written by Richard Alfieri (from his hit play of the same name), the movie introduces us to two lonely-hearts: Rowlands as a bored widow named Lily with time on her hands and no one to twirl her around the ballroom, and Cheyenne Jackson as Michael, a snippy gay dance teacher with attitude and arrogance to spare. It’s familiar territory: the oddballs with nothing in common who clash at first, then find true camaraderie and lasting affection.

Somehow, it’s a tad hard to buy that the stunningly gorgeous Michael is really that hard up for guys to date. (On stage, David Hyde Pierce played Michael, opposite Uta Hagen.) And there are more than a few manufactured moments. But this is a fluffy, crowd-pleasing, feel-good flick.

At a recent press day, Rowlands said she welcomed the chance to play the role, given the paucity of good parts for older women. “They’ve been done sort of an injustice,” she said. “Older people are the ones who have been places and seen things and have insight.”

Rowlands’ crisp and independent Lily likely will resonate with viewers. “She just wasn’t going to take it. She just wasn’t going to be miserable,” said Rowlands. “She was going to have some fun.”

And Rowlands said she voiced her opinion about Lily’s sexy dancing dress, making sure it looked as tasteful as possible. As she put it: “I have not made a reputation on my bosom!”

Inherent Vice posterThe much-anticipated “Inherent Vice” (director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of Los Angeles in 1970) stands as an exemplar of the neo-noir canon.

As pothead private eye Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix is grubby, raunchy and amusing throughout. Doc agrees to help his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) after she confides to him that her current lover’s life could be in danger. Doc’s snooping sets off a gloriously Byzantine plot in the tradition of “The Big Sleep,” “Out of the Past,” “D.O.A,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Big Lebowski.”

Doc encounters an assortment of mostly corrupt malcontents, including Josh Brolin as a brutish cop, Owen Wilson as an airheaded surf musician, Jena Malone as his wry wife, Reese Witherspoon as a cynical district attorney not averse to puffing a joint, Benicio Del Toro as Doc’s hip lawyer, and Martin Short as an evil dentist.

Anderson provides assured direction as well as a script that is both slick and at times touching. “Inherent Vice” is a head-banging cinematic ride. It’s hard, however, to escape the feeling that this trippy, 148-minute excursion to hippiedom could be a little more entertaining, a little funnier than it is. Anderson puts his top-tier cast in comic situations and there are laughs, to be sure, just not quite enough to energize the material as a whole.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper posterIn “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” documentarian Nick Broomfield tells a riveting crime story of haunting sadness and infuriating injustice. But given that the crimes – the murders of at least 10 women, some of whom were prostitutes – took place in South Central Los Angeles it’s hardly surprising, according to London-born Broomfield, who describes Los Angeles as operating under apartheid.

Certainly, it is staggering to consider that the murders took place over a period of 22 years with apparently little effort by police to follow clues, connect the cases or alert the community to the potential danger. LA Weekly reporter Christine Pelisek broke the story in 2007. In 2010, a mechanic named Lonnie Franklin, now 62, was arrested and is awaiting trial.

The LAPD would not participate in Broomfield’s film so arguably there may be gaps or questions about the events. But one thing’s for sure: Watching Broomfield’s recounting of the facts will make your blood boil.

The Captive posterFrom its opening scene, “The Captive,” loosely based on an actual case in Ontario, Canada, declares itself an unconventional thriller. That’s not surprising given that it’s directed and co-written by unconventional filmmaker Atom Egoyan (“Where the Truth Lies,” “The Sweet Hereafter”).

The titular captive is a girl named Cass (Alexia Fast) who is abducted and held prisoner for close to a decade by an uber-creepy rich guy (Kevin Durand). Her parents, Mireille Enos and Ryan Reynolds, struggle to maintain hope that Cass is still alive; meanwhile their marriage is in tatters. Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman are the cops trying to crack the case.

Some elements of “The Captive” are praiseworthy: the stark cinematography full of isolated, foreboding winterscapes; the weird, unnerving atmosphere; the raw performances. But the story feels ill conceived and randomly plotted, leading to a particularly hackneyed and hard-to-buy turn for Dawson’s tough, streetwise character. Unfortunately, the non-linear narrative doesn’t so much unfold as flop around, sometimes annoyingly, serving to create tedium more than tension.

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The Film Noir File: Crawford at her craziest in ‘Possessed’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week


Van Heflin is immune to Joan Crawford’s charm in “Possessed.” What nerve!

Van Heflin is immune to Joan Crawford’s charm in “Possessed.” What nerve!

(1947, Curtis Bernhardt). Thursday, Nov. 20. 4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.) With Joan Crawford, Van Heflin and Raymond Massey. Read the full review here.

Thursday, Nov. 20

2:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m.): “A Stolen Life” (1946, Curtis Bernhardt). Two Bette Davises, both in love with Glenn Ford, create mass confusion when one of them (his wife) dies and the other (her sister) substitutes herself. A double-role tour-de-force, which two-faced Bette tried again in 1964‘s “Dead Ringer.” With Walter Brennan, Dane Clark and Charlie Ruggles.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). With Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. Reviewed in FNB on Oct. 23, 2014.

Friday, Nov. 21

Dennis Weaver goes from frustrated to freaked out in “Duel.”

Dennis Weaver goes from frustrated to freaked out in “Duel.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Duel” (1971, Steven Spielberg). “Jaws” made Steven Spielberg famous, but it was the earlier made-for-TV movie “Duel” that first showed he could scare the pants off any decently susceptible audience. Based on a Richard Matheson story, this brilliantly made, terrifying action movie pits an increasingly exasperated and then frightened motorist (Dennis Weaver) against an oncoming truck driven by a faceless trucker. A huge smoke-belching behemoth of a truck keeps pursuing him, apparently trying, for no reason he can fathom, to run him off the road and kill him. A real shocker.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Scarecrow” (1973, Jerry Schatzberg). With Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Dorothy Tristan). Reviewed in FNB on May 6, 2013.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “The Last Detail” (1973, Hal Ashby). With Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Reviewed in FNB on Feb. 20, 2013.

Sunday, Nov. 23

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles). With Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore and the Mercury Players. Reviewed in FNB on July 13, 2012.

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone and Elisha Cook, Jr.

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Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ noir as they come, plays Saturday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica

The Shining/1980/Warner Bros./144 min.

By Mike Wilmington

The Shining poster Jack Nicholson“Heeeere’s JOHNNNY!!!!” screams the ferociously demented-looking hotel caretaker Jack Torrance as he axes open a door to get at his terrified wife Wendy and their child Danny, in the frightening final scenes of “The Shining“ – Stanley Kubrick’s flawed yet unforgettable 1980 film of what may be Stephen King’s best novel.

“The Shining” is revived on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre.

In the movie, Jack (played to the hilt by Jack Nicholson) is snowbound with his family (played by Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd) in the mountainous and isolated Overlook Lodge. It’s a vast spooky place, decorated with somber Native American motifs and infested with a creepy set of ghosts, including a sardonic bartender and a lecherous nude old lady and the previous caretaker who murdered his own family long ago in these same eerie corridors and rooms.

Wendy and Danny have watched Jack going crazier and crazier. Now, Mad Jack has hit his frenzied peak  and there‘s no one at Overlook to stop his axe-swinging rampage.

“The Shining” is not only based on King‘s best novel; it‘s probably the best movie ever adapted from any of King’s books. Even so, it’s flawed, and King was right to be somewhat disappointed with it. Here’s the problem: Kubrick and his fellow screenwriter, novelist Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) wrote Jack as crazy as a loon the moment he stepped into the Overlook (and even before).

King, more movingly, wrote his main character as a sympathetic but haunted alcoholic and failed novelist who loved his family and gradually sank into madness, fighting, as the ghosts and demons took over. In retrospect, Kubrick probably should have hired King as his co-writer rather than Johnson. The original story would have made a better movie and an even better role for Nicholson.

That said, “The Shining” is still one hell of a show, noir as they come, and one of the most horrifyingly visual of all classic American horror movies.

The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica.

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‘Foxcatcher’ draws us in with riveting acting but denies dramatic satisfaction

Alert: This review contains a spoiler.

Foxcatcher posterFoxcatcher/2014/Sony Pictures Classics/134 min.

“I’ve been looking for a father my whole life and I finally found him in John du Pont,” says Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz in “Foxcatcher.”

The movie is based on the real-life saga of the ultra-wealthy du Pont (Steve Carell) and his working relationship with Mark Schultz and his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won Olympic gold medals in 1984.

With the apparent aim of coaching wrestlers for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont invites Mark to train on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. But du Pont has little talent for coaching and it’s clear he wants to be more than a father figure to his protégée.

When Dave joins his brother at Foxcatcher, Mark is pushed aside and becomes alienated. Du Pont sours on his coaching plans and ultimately commits murder.

Director Bennett Miller (“Capote” and “Moneyball”) won the Best Director prize for “Foxcatcher” at the Cannes Film Fest. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman wrote the script. The film strikes a grim and chilling mood, and Miller elicits memorable performances. From his pasty skin to his hunched gait to his clipped, halted speech, Carell perfectly conveys the menacing arrogance and internal emptiness that apparently defined du Pont’s personality. Ruffalo and Tatum are excellent as well.

But the film is strangely lopsided. Though it creates intensely compelling portraits on the surface, it shies away from examining the characters, especially du Pont, in real depth (once the triangle grows strained, Mark is essentially sidelined) and avoids any probing of du Pont’s interior life or motive for a cold-blooded killing.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as creepy John du Pont.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as creepy John du Pont.

That was a conscious decision, said Miller at a recent press conference in Beverly Hills. “[The film] resists the temptation of concluding anything, of putting labels on what this complex is. It purposely denies you the satisfaction of saying that’s what it was and to let you stop thinking about it. There was no conclusion in real life.”

At du Pont’s trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense suggested a motive for the crime. A jury rejected du Pont’s request to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was found guilty but mentally ill.

Carell said du Pont’s longtime sadness and loneliness influenced his portrayal. “I never approached him as a villain,” he said at the press conference.

And though Carell is compelling to the point of being almost unrecognizable as this awkward creepy loner, the fact remains that du Pont was indeed a villain, in more than ways than one. Completely sidestepping this essential component of the story dilutes the overall impact.

That said, “Foxcatcher” is worth seeing, especially given the Oscar buzz around the actors. “It’s very rewarding that it is resonating with people,” Carell said. “It was challenging, exciting and exhilarating.”

“Foxcatcher” opens in theaters today.

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Film noir features prominently at AFI FEST 2014

A Most Violent Year poster largeWe at FNB are eagerly awaiting the start of AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi.

The terrific slate of shows runs Nov. 6-13 in Hollywood. The fest opens and closes with neo-noir titles that are generating Oscar buzz. “A Most Violent Year,” starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo, will kick things off. Set in 1981 in New York City, the film tells the story of an immigrant struggling to survive amid intense crime and danger. “A Most Violent Year” is directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”).

Inherent Vice posterThere will be two screenings on Sat., Nov. 8., of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature: an adaptation of “Inherent Vice” by novelist Thomas Pynchon. Joaquin Phoenix stars as P.I. Doc Sportello in 1970-ish Los Angeles. We’re in. Phoenix leads a stellar cast including Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short.

On Monday, Nov. 10, “The Gambler” is the gala screening. In this remake of the 1974 James Caan film, Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor immersed in the watch-your-back world of underground gambling. English director Rupert Wyatt (“The Escapist” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) joins forces with Boston-born writer William Monahan (“The Departed”).

Foxcatcher,” the closing night movie, is based on the real-life saga of ’80s Olympic wrestling champs Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) and their uneasy working relationship with ultra-wealthy wrestling hobbyist/“coach” John du Pont (Steve Carell). Things go from tense to deadly in this spare and thoughtful drama, for which Bennett Miller took home the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Fest. (His previous work includes “Capote” and “Moneyball.”) We caught this at a press screening last night – it is very chilling and very well done. From his pasty skin to his zombie rasp that passes for a voice, Carell perfectly conveys the menacing imperiousness and internal emptiness that apparently defined du Pont’s personality. Ruffalo and Tatum are excellent as well.

sophia-loren-afi-tribute[1]These are just a few of the film-noir offerings and there is much more going on, such as the Sophia Loren tribute on Nov. 12. Who doesn’t love this supremely talented and stunningly beautiful actress?

The complete AFI FEST program includes 118 films (73 features, 45 shorts), representing 39 countries. There are 29 films directed/co-directed by women, 16 documentaries and 17 animated films.  The breakdown by section is: Galas/Tributes (6), Special Screenings (8), American Independents (8), New Auteurs (10), World Cinema (29), Midnight (4), Breakthrough (4), Conversations (4), Cinema’s Legacy (4) and Short Films (45), and includes 9 official Foreign Language Film Oscar® submissions.

Free tickets are available:

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‘Nightcrawler’ teaches how to creep up the career ladder

Nightcrawler posterNightcrawler/2014/Bold Films, Open Road Films/117 min.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is a slick, suspenseful neo-noir satire on “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” journalism and the bleak reality of big-city survival.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a Los Angeles loner whose “resume” is an odd blend of scavenging, thievery and clumsy self-promotion. While selling stolen goods to get by, he eagerly seeks a more upright job. But parroting cheesy memes he’s learned in online business classes to potential employers doesn’t compensate for his blatant dishonesty.

Then his late-night carousing leads him to a potential goldmine and an actual career path. He discovers that he can shoot video of crime scenes and sell it to local TV news stations. His camera might be cheap but he has the requisite ruthlessness and unflagging energy to join the ranks of freelance videographers who race against dawn, on deadline, from one crime scene to the next.

Equally ruthless is Nina Romina (Rene Russo), station manager of KWLA. Sharp-tongued and steely, Nina serves as Louis’ mentor; he helps her spike ratings and protect her job. Louis appears to have a crush on Nina and an awkward pseudo-romance ensues.

Having zero ethics and finding no shortage of wrong-doing around town, Louis has enough work to hire a gopher (Riz Ahmed). As the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Louis crosses the line to become what he might call a “hands-on entrepreneur” and what anyone else would call a criminal.

Where the film arguably missteps is in failing to humanize Louis (though maybe that’s not Gilroy’s goal). There’s no descent into craziness – Louis is unhinged from the first scene. Also, the budding “romance” is dropped too soon. It would have added a layer to both of their characters had Gilroy explored that subplot in more detail.

Nevertheless, “Nightcrawler” engages throughout, thanks to fierce performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo, crisp writing and direction from Gilroy and stunning cinematography from Robert Elswit.

 “Nightcrawler” opens in theaters today.

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Moody and hypnotic, ‘Force Majeure’ breathes new life into a tired trope

Force Majeure posterForce Majeure/2014/Magnolia Pictures/118 min.

It’s a question as old as the hills (or, in this case, the Alps): Can you ever really know a person? In “Force Majeure,” a domestic noir, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund probes the surface of a couple’s relationship, on a skiing holiday with their kids in the majestic French mountains. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a handsome workaholic; his lovely wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) sometimes compete with his i-phone for his attention.

When an avalanche hits, Tomas’ instinct is to take off on his own, rather than protect his family. Later, he denies and minimizes his behavior. But Ebba is devastated by what happened and she won’t let it go. The children distance themselves from their parents.

Östlund creates strange, jarring tension driven by a primal betrayal unfolding in unfamiliar territory. Tomas and Ebba are claustrophobic and quarrelsome at the ski lodge; exposed and vulnerable when they hit the slopes. Time drags, they bicker in front of strangers, drink too much booze and pretend all is well in front of the kids.

Moody and hypnotic, “Force Majeure” scored big at the Cannes Film Fest where it won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard.  The characters are rendered with piercing honesty as Östlund takes his time to tell the story. It’s a good, well acted yarn, pretty and ponderous, despite a few contrivances.

My one gripe: the film ends on a random note that doesn’t play particularly well.

“Force Majeure” opens in theaters today.

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Film Noir File: Have a Happy, Haunting Halloween with Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). Saturday, Oct. 25. 5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.)

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

A smug, snobbish, stylishly beautiful, and very, very blonde San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) chases a cocky lawyer she’s just met named Mitch (Rod Taylor), to his family home in scenic Bodega Bay, to mock him with a gift of love birds in a cage. Once they’ve reconnected, Mitch and Melanie commence on what first seems a typical Hollywood movie romance, with typical Hitchcockian mother problems (Jessica Tandy). And there’s another woman – Mitch’s old flame, a gorgeous brunette schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette).

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the uncaged wild birds of Bodega Bay – crows, sparrows, sea gulls – start massing into murderous flocks or going on solitary raids, attacking Melanie and everyone else. As the attacks escalate in fury, their hapless human targets become immersed in an avian nightmare from the sky where no one is safe.

Perhaps most terrifying is the famous scene when Melanie sits on a bench outside the school to pick up Mitch’s kids, while, in the schoolroom, the children chant a doggerel nursery rhyme and behind Melanie masses of crows gather and perch, waiting quietly on the schoolyard jungle gym. Chaos ensues, with typical Hitchcockian invention and panache.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Back in 1963, critics, especially the more intellectual ones, generally attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it and that is the verdict that has lasted. The source of Evan Hunter’s screenplay was a novelette by Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca”). The crisp and crystalline color cinematography is by Hitch regular Robert Burks and the menacing, shrieking bird sounds were created by Hitch’s masterly composer, Bernard Herrmann. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, Oct. 25: Horror Day

Sweeney Todd poster 19822 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1982, Terry Hughes & Harold Price). A film of the celebrated Harold Prince Broadway staging of Stephen Sondheim’s very dark musical play about the notorious killer-barber Sweeney Todd. With Angela Lansbury and George Hearn from the original stage cast.

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Mad Love” (1935, Karl Freund). The most stylish film version of novelist Maurice Renard’s eerie horror tale “The Hands of Orlac,” in which a murderer’s hands are grafted onto the wrists of a famed concert pianist and amputee (Colin Clive) by a mad doctor (Peter Lorre), with an unspeakable yen for the pianist’s wife (Frances Drake). This one has a brilliantly maniacal performance by Lorre, and it’s a masterpiece of noir photography by German expressionist cameraman-turned-Hollywood-director Freund and his great cinematographer Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane“). With Sara Haden and Edward Brophy.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). With Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The second great American horror movie of 1963. (See “The Birds” above.)

Sunday, Oct. 26

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): In a Lonely Place(1950, Nicholas Ray). With Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Frank Lovejoy.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941, Victor Fleming). The often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson thriller about the good doctor whose potion turns him into a bad man. Spencer Tracys Jekyll-Hyde is much more realistically and psychologically played than the classic hammery of predecessors John Barrymore and the Oscar-winning Fredric March. Tracy does him with less extreme makeup, as a brilliant, sensitive but tormented Victorian Britisher beset with repressions and secret desires that explode into evil with the creation of Hyde. Fleming directed this movie near his “Gone with the Wind”-“Wizard of Oz” heyday and, though it’s a bit slow in the beginning, the last 30 minutes are a noir triumph. The excellent supporting cast includes Ingrid Bergman (as Hyde’s terrorized sex victim Ivy), Lana Turner, Donald Crisp and C. Aubrey Smith. (Off-screen, Bergman reportedly had affairs with Fleming and Tracy.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel and Vera Clouzot.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor). With Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury. Reviewed in FNB on August 26, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 27: Jack Carson Day

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden.

Tuesday, Oct. 28

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Nosferatu” (1922, F. W. Murnau). Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest German films – and one of the greatest horror movies – of all time: F. W. Murnau’s hypnotic, brilliantly visual, unacknowledged adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic “Dracula.” Murnau’s Nosferatu, the mysterious Max Schreck, is one of the eeriest, creepiest, most frightening horror film monsters ever. He really looks as if he’d just crawled up out of a grave to kill you and drink your blood. And if you want a quick one-stop lesson in German film expressionism, here is a consummate example. (German silent, with intertitles and music score.)

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