Jake Gyllenhaal in NightcrawlerNIGHTCRAWLER

Writer/director Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is the tale of an obsessive creep who becomes a dedicated entrepreneur in the field of exploitation journalism, and it stars Jake Gyllenhaal. Hoo boy does it star Jake Gyllenhaal. Two days after seeing the film, I'm still not sure what it was aiming to be: a scuzzy urban thriller? A dark comedy? A withering social critique in the vein of Network? All of the above? But what it winds up being is nearly two full hours of The Jake Gyllenhaal Show, a movie that would barely exist if not for the feral, ferociously busy performance of its lead. In this particular case, not existing wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world.

It always feels churlish to complain when a generally sensational actor gives a portrayal this obviously impassioned and deeply thought out; no one who sees Nightcrawler could doubt Gyllenhaal's commitment to the role or fail to find him at least occasionally effective, and he's clearly giving the performance Gilroy wants. Yet a performance, and a stunt performance at that, is all we get. With his arsenal of eccentricities and deliberately off-putting line readings, all of them intensified by his newly gaunt frame and sunken eyes, Gyllenhaal is so showy that he unwittingly calls attention to the phoniness of everything around him. Enjoyable as the actor's technical precision can be here, you don't for a minute believe in this nutjob with the psychotic stare and lacquered grin, just as you can't believe that the film's other characters don't call 9-1-1 within their first seconds of meeting the guy. Sadly, for Nightcrawler's narrative to work, everyone who meets Gyllenhaal's burgeoning videographer Leo Bloom has to be a complete idiot. And surrounding a dyed-in-the-wool loon with a collection of dimwits isn't the road to a successful thriller or social critique - though it might've made a good comedy had Gilroy more strongly suggested that he found his material funny.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in NightcrawlerNightcrawler's plot finds the petty thief Leo quickly (really quickly) launching into a career documenting accidents and atrocities for the morning news, and becoming the de facto meal ticket for unscrupulous producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo). I'm pretty certain we're meant to be horrified by Leo's escalating inhumanity - at one point, he hauls a splayed traffic-accident victim under a streetlamp so he can get a better shot of the body - and by Nina's anything-for-ratings soullessness. But while I'm sure there are examples to the contrary, it's awfully difficult to be horrified by cartoons. Gilroy provides Leo with so many self-consciously loopy bits of business (sitting cross-legged on the roof of his car, laughing five seconds late to a punchline in an old Danny Kaye movie) and such intentionally awkward verbiage ("You're from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania") that Gyllenhaal is almost forced to compound the issue by overworking his weirdness. And it's only Russo's natural intelligence and gravity that keep you, for a while, from noticing how criminally stupid Nina must be to be taken in by this chronically smiling, vaguely threatening figure. Consequently, the pair's relationship never plays as anything more than a screenwriter's conceit, and the conceit itself never plays as anything more than old news. "Journalists" untroubled by morality will do anything for a story (and money), and producers untroubled by ethics will do anything for a hit show (and money). Would you like to yell "Stop the presses!" or should I?

There are some strong set pieces. Though it's too glibly scripted, Gyllenhaal and Russo share an exquisitely uncomfortable dinner date in which Leo coerces Nina to sleep with him for further access to his footage, and the sequence in which Nina, speaking on headset, orchestrates the on-air conversation between the morning-show hosts watching Leo's sensationalistic piece has real-life edge; it might be the sharpest, most believable behind-the-scenes glimpse of its kind since Broadcast News. And while their characters are no less contrived than the film's leads, fine impressions are made by Bill Paxton as Leo's fellow gutter journalist (the only other one in L.A., apparently) and especially Riz Ahmed as Leo's endearingly naïve assistant. Yet while Nightcrawler is entertaining every once in a while, it still left me hungry for a more thorough, less phony exploration of the depths of TMZ-style reporting - even if it also left me feeling completely sated regarding the amount of Jake Gyllenhaal I'm getting in my cinematic diet.

 

Nicole Kidman in Before I Go to SleepBEFORE I GO TO SLEEP

Early in the psychological thriller Before I Go to Sleep - which details the mystery of a woman's 16-year, Memento-like memory loss - a psychiatrist played by Mark Strong tells Nicole Kidman's amnesiac Christine that she's been "suffering from repeated blows to the head." At several junctures throughout the film, you may wonder if writer/director Rowan Joffe was suffering from the same ailment. A mostly dopey and ludicrous outing with some truly staggering contrivances, this adaptation of S.J. Watson's potboiler descends into abject silliness more times than any film could survive, and it ends with a horribly unpleasant and brutal confrontation that erases all of the aiming-for-stylish goings-on that preceded it. (There's also the question of why Christine's malady has seemingly affected her hearing and peripheral vision; on two separate occasions, she's nearly plowed over when she absentmindedly walks in the path of a speeding vehicle.)

Yet until the irredeemable ugliness of its finale, Joffe's genre lark is harmless enough. Though she spends far too much of the movie red-eyed and miserable, Kidman handles her scenes of anguish and fright with solid professionalism, and there's some fun in the casting of Strong and, as Kidman's husband, Colin Firth. (Strong has played so many vicious bastards on-screen that he's instantly untrustworthy, and Firth has played so many reserved yet guileless sweeties on-screen that he's instantly untrustworthy.) Plus, there are a couple of juicy twists, particularly those regarding the state of Christine's marital union, that help make up for the goofier ones; Before I Go to Sleep may not be Memento, but it's not the grim experience of 50 First Dates, either. Ideally, Joffe's movie is probably best left as a future home-viewing option when you're not feeling especially picky, at which point you can more readily enjoy howler dialogue such as Strong's assessment to his patient: "You store memories for a day, and then when you go to sleep, it'll all be erased. You're in your early 20s again." Yup. That's exactly what my early 20s were like.

 

James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan in The Best of MeTHE BEST OF ME

The Best of Me, a romantic weepie based on Nicholas Sparks' 2011 novel, debuted a couple weekends ago. A plethora of other cineplex openings and a busier-than-usual personal schedule kept me from seeing the movie earlier, and it looked like the sort of thing I could easily skip. But I had a few open hours this past week, so I figured I'd give Sparks' latest a shot - and besides, why waste my annual chance to make fun of the author's signature blend of wistful melancholy, hungry embraces in the rain, and moss-covered Southern locales in which no one on-screen bothers with a Southern dialect? (Noticing that former Major Dad star Gerald McRaney had a supporting role, I also had a tailor-made "Major Dud" joke locked and loaded.) Sadly for me, though, director Michael Hoffman's tearjerker - which is kind of like The Notebook with less intimidating performers and no Alzheimer's - isn't much worth the energy required to poke fun at it.

Another of Sparks' earnest, shameless attempts at A Love Story for the Ages, this one details the initially awkward reunion between star-crossed lovers Amanda and Dawson (Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden), opposing-sides-of-the-tracks soulmates who haven't seen one another since their doomed romance as high-school sweethearts (played, in extensive flashbacks, by Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey). The only sustaining drama in the film comes from the question, prolonged for what feels like forever, of why these two ever parted in the first place, and when the answer does come, its melodramatic ludicrousness provides one of our only opportunities for derisive chuckles. (Another comes in the film's first 1992 flashback, with its high-school mise-en-scène - Letterman jackets! Poodle skirts! A classic convertible with the top rolled down! - more accurately suggesting 1952.) Mostly, though, The Best of Me is a nicely photographed, perfectly respectable bore, with its able cast careful not to let any actual personality spill onto the traditionally enervated romantic hooey about fate and luck that Sparks worshipers adore. Happily, the actors don't always succeed, and I loved the moment in which Monaghan, sounding legitimately pissed, chided Marsden for having the nerve to get better-looking after two decades away. And I enjoyed McRaney whenever his sensible grump appeared, even though the character's only real narrative purpose is to wind up Major Dead. Ha! Nailed it.

 

Galapagos 3D: Nature's WonderlandGALAPAGOS 3D: NATURE'S WONDERLAND and THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN

Figuring I had a wider window of time in which to view it, I also came two weeks late to the party for the Putnam Museum's Galapagos 3D: Nature's Wonderland. But I'd recommend not delaying your movie-going experience as long as I did mine, because director Martin Williams' 40-minute edu-doc is quite fantastic, and not at all the beautiful yet generic travelogue its title implies. Sure, there are expectedly breathtaking shots of the Pacific archipelago on display, along with somewhat dry (albeit informative) commentary by narrator Jeff Corwin on how this collection of islands and islets came into existence. What makes Williams' film utterly spellbinding, however, and sometimes awfully funny, is its focus on the astonishing evolutions of the Galapagos' animal and bird populations over millions of years of island life. We're shown the iguanas that had to become swimmers to find food, and the lava heron whose environment led to a natural change in its pigment, and the cormorant fowl whose wings stopped growing because there was nowhere to fly to; in its exploration of the islands' indigenous creatures, Galapagos 3D offers one delightful, fascinating surprise after another. (I could've watched the giggly scenes of waved albatrosses dancing with one another, and marine iguanas blowing salty snot out of their noses, for hours on end without complaint, and was endlessly transfixed by the steady gazes of the giant tortoises that weigh a quarter-ton each and can live up to 150 years.) A visual marvel that's also a satisfying feast for the brain, the Putnam's latest is a kind of celluloid paradise, complete with penguins and whale sharks and blue-footed boobies, the latter of which are birds that can make spectacularly propulsive dives into the ocean because, as Corwin tells us, "boobies have special air sacs that cushion the impact." That's what he said.

The great time I had at Galapagos 3D inspired me to also catch up with The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, directors Daniel Geller's and Dayla Goldfine's documentary (currently streaming on Netflix) released in larger markets this past spring. Unlike the Putnam offering, which is completely human-free, this one deals with the Galapagos' two-legged denizens - or rather, a small group of them that made its way to the island of Floreana in the early 1930s. Also unlike the Putnam doc, there isn't a creature on-screen that, personally, you'd want to spend more than five minutes alone with. A spectacularly dishy tale of true-life megalomania, misanthropy, and possible murder, the film opens with German settlers (and adulterous lovers) Heinz Wittmer and Dore Strauch landing in the Galapagos hoping to have found an island paradise away from the pressures of modern civilization. But as the title suggests, they're soon joined by a snake, or rather a bunch of them - fellow immigrants, including a haughty baroness, who disrupt the pair's plan for a perfect life and quickly turn their bucolic existence into a slightly more cultured gloss on Lord of the Flies.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to EdenThere are some less-than-beguiling narrative detours and a few too many present-day reminiscences by the initial settlers' relatives, none of whom add much in the way of information or personality. But with the majority of The Galapagos Affair's twisted tale told through the islanders' correspondence - missives amusingly read by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, and How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor - there's a giddy schadenfreude to the proceedings, along with amazing archival footage of the Galapagos inhabitants showing off for the camera in the midst of their turmoil. (We're also treated to what feels like the entire short film of The Empress of Floreana, a hilariously campy island production engineered by the baroness, who longed to star in her own pirate movie.) With its strange romantic entanglements, mysterious disappearances, and subtly-delivered hysteria - Blanchett reads Stauch's certainty that "there is an atmosphere of gathering evil closing in upon the island" - The Galapagos Affair is a terrifically gripping doc. I'd argue that you might even enjoy it more if you precede your viewing with a trip to Galapagos 3D. Look! Albatrosses! Cormorants! Tortoises! Alas, if you want boobies, you'll have to go to the Putnam. And that's doubtless the last time I, or anyone, will ever write that sentence.

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