"Everything is as it should be."

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Peterloo: A Review


My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A noble failure of a film, but a failure nonetheless. The cinematography of the film is, for the most part, exquisite, and cinephiles into that sort of thing should go see the movie in theatres, but ultimately for most everybody else the film is a misfire.

Peterloo, written and directed by British auteur Mike Leigh, tells the story of the events that culminated in the Peterloo massacre of 1819 in Manchester, England. The film’s ensemble cast includes Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake and Pearce Quigley among many others.

Mike Leigh is well-known as being a master of realist, character-driven, intimate dramas such as Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies, and Naked, whose use of prolonged rehearsal periods, which emphasize improvisation in order to develop character and narrative, is his signature directing style that often leads to stellar work from his actors. Peterloo is a bit of a different beast from his previous work though, as it is a historical drama that must accurately capture the grand sweep of history while accounting for the impact of that history upon regular folks.

While Peterloo is a politically profound story for our times, the film suffers from a lack of both narrative coherence and character cohesion, and ultimately is never as good as it needs to be. Leigh’s direction on Peterloo lacks vigor and specificity and thus the film’s deliberate pace leads to aimless wandering and pronounced lags for numerous periods of time. The biggest problem of all though may be the fact that the film’s climax is poorly crafted and dramatically underwhelming and instead of being a crescendo it feels more like stumble across the finish line.

On the bright side, the film’s cinematographer, Dick Pope (A Mickey Award winner for his work on Leigh’s Mr. Turner), does stellar work for the majority of the film. His interior shots are so exquisitely lit and framed they are as beautiful and texturally rich as any Vermeer or Rembrandt, and could hang in any museum in the world. Added to this are Pope’s expansive shots of nature that pop with a crisp and delicious color, most notably a lush green, that are spectacular to behold. Pope’s framing and use of color, shadow and light throughout the first three acts of the film is sublime, but in the climactic battle scenes, Pope’s and Leigh’s work falls flat and is shockingly second rate.

The staging and blocking of the actors and camera in the big climactic “riot” scene reveals both Dick Pope and Mike Leigh to be out of their element. These action sequences are clumsy, cluttered and so poorly executed that they sink any chances the film had to be worthwhile. It is asking a lot for a director and his cinematographer to be so versatile as to pull off such varying shots as intimate interiors and dynamic battle sequences, but this is what the story required and Leigh and Pope failed to fully deliver.

The cast of the film are all fine, but the film’s failure to generate any dramatic momentum leads to the cast’s work being lost in the shuffle. Rory Kinnear, who plays the rebel dandy Henry Hunt, gives his usual top-notch performance. Kinnear’s Hunt is both magnetic and narcissistic, and his complexities make the moral and political Manichaeism of the film more nuanced and compelling.

Maxine Peak also gives a solid performance as Nellie, the cynical and skeptical wife and mother whose working class family gets caught up in the protest. Peak’s weathered face tells a story all its own about the injustice and unfairness of life in England in the 1800’s.

What frustrated me the most about Peterloo’s cinematic and dramatic failure was that it is such a vital story for our time. Peterloo focuses on the systemic exploitation of working people by ruling aristocrats, who view “regular” people as nothing but serfs to be exploited for profit or as cannon fodder in war for empire and resources.

The same underlying structural problems of government, economic and social injustice highlighted in Peterloo are the same problems that torment us now. The modern-day ruling elite, just like the English elite in Peterloo’s time, still squeeze regular people for everything they’ve got and yet are perpetually immune from any consequences from their actions. And when the modern day proletariat push back or organize against the injustice of our system, the Aristocrats crush them now just as effectively as they did in Manchester in 1819.

The totalitarian, corporate police state in America is more subtle in its brutality than the one on display at the climax of Peterloo…but not by much…just ask the Yellow Vests in France who have lost eyes and fingers to the rubber bullets of the police. The same structural weapons used back in the 1800’s, debt, fear and intimidation are used today to keep the populace either paralyzed, placid or pliant. The brute force of government, in the form of the police, are used by the elite like a moat, to impose law and order upon the oppressed and to keep them at a distance. The law is the ruling class’s cudgel not to maintain order but rather to maintain “The order”…you know “The order”…the one where they are on top and the rest of us scrap and claw to eat their crumbs at the bottom. Any true challenges to “The order” result first in character assassination, followed by physical violence, prison or both if necessary. For an example of the Establishment’s playbook regarding threats see Assange, Julian.

The lesson of Peterloo is this, the system is rigged and the ruling class despise us, so we must decide to either live as their slaves by maintaining the status quo or arm ourselves and fight for our freedom. Sadly, the dramatically anemic Peterloo is not compelling enough to attract or maintain America audiences who desperately need to learn the vital lessons the movie teaches. At the end of the day, the cold, hard reality is that we are all Soma-addicted sheep being led to the slaughter and we have grown accustomed to authoritarian boots in our face.

In conclusion, Peterloo is a noble effort but a decided failure. Mike Leigh seems to have bitten off more than he can chew by trying to tackle this complex historical narrative. If you are a cinephile who has a distinct love for great cinematography, then I recommend you see Peterloo in the theatre, but everyone else should skip it because, sadly, it simply is not captivating enough to spend your hard earned money and sparse free time upon.


Nightcrawler : A Review


Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a socially awkward, morally challenged and fiercely ambitious man who stumbles into a career as a freelance videographer in the seedy world of local television news in Los Angeles.

I had not heard much about Nightcrawler prior to seeing it. I had seen some commercials for it, but hadn't heard very much word of mouth about it. In fact, I thought the film had already come and gone by the time I indifferently sat down to watch it. After seeing it, I am baffled as to why this film hasn't made more of a splash and gotten more buzz around it. I thought it was among the best films of the year.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, and gives one of the performances of the year and undoubtedly one of the best of his career. Gyllenhaal makes Lou Bloom a distinct and exact character, from his unblinking, owl-like eyes, to his unique speech patterns and his disturbingly persistent optimism. Lou Bloom has an uncomfortably intense focus, and will overcome any and all obstacles to achieve his goal, whether that be to get the best video footage, the best story, the most money or sex with the woman he wants. Lou is as bereft of a moral compass as he is of a social one, making him both repulsive yet almost hypnotically irresistible. Gyllenhaal has constructed a gripping character, one that is consistently specific in intention and precise in detail. Gyllenhaal has always done much better in roles that would be defined as 'character roles' as opposed to movie star roles. I hope his excellent work in Nightcrawler is an indication that Gyllenhaal will decide to do more character work in the future and less movie star work.

When we first see Lou Bloom, he is a two-bit thief, stealing metal from construction sights and wristwatches from the guard he overpowers who is protecting that construction sight, an early indication that while he may not look like the typical predator, he most definitely is one, and an audacious one at that. But when, by happenstance, Lou comes across freelance videographers covering a car crash on the freeway, he gets hooked by the intrigue and excitement of that business and decides to dive into it headfirst. His greatest assets as a freelance videographer are his astonishing lack of any ethics, scruples or human compassion, his audacious ambition and his unabashed zeal for the job. Due to these characteristics, Bloom excels in his work and quickly climbs the ladder all the way to the top of the local television freelance videographer world. 

Renee Russo and Riz Ahmed do exemplary work in supporting roles. Russo plays Nina Romina, a producer of a late night local news program who, night after night, Lou Bloom pitches to buy his work. She tells him that "if it bleeds, it leads", so Bloom quickly sets out to shoot the most gruesome footage he can, and builds a professional, and uneasily forced unprofessional, relationship with Romina. Russo brings a world weary savvy and desperation to her character. Romina is, in her own way, a predator as well, feeding on and manipulating the misery in the world to her advantage. She, like many, underestimates Lou Bloom, and her shock when she realizes that she is not the hunter in regards to Bloom, but they prey, is subtly and effectively played.

Riz Ahmed plays Lou Bloom's aptly named videographer 'intern' Rick Carey, a down on his luck, sometimes homeless guy trying to make his way in a rough world. We see Carey be a victim of Bloom's overpowering confidence at first, but then he learns from watching Bloom, and by the time he turns the tables on Bloom we see that he believes he is no longer the fledgling, but is ready to leave the nest. Carey though, as his name suggests, "cares", and proves he doesn't have the heart, or rather, he has too much heart, to be able to beat Lou at his own ruthless game. Ahmed brings a tangible, genuine sensitivity to his character, and his work brings to life a character that could have really been an afterthought in the hands of a less thoughtful actor.

Director Dan Gilroy has been a working screenwriter for years, and Nightcrawler is his first time directing. It is a dynamic debut to say the least. What Gilroy does best is let Gyllenhaal's work drive the narrative, and to neither rush, nor weigh down the story. Gilroy's pacing is pitch-perfect, and there is never a feeling of distraction or wandering in the storytelling. 

Another artist of note working on Nightcrawler is cinematographer Robert Elswit. Elswit's work is simply stellar. The film looks absolutely spectacular. The visuals are striking, and tell a great deal of the story of Lou Bloom, and in turn Los Angeles, all on their own. I am willing to bet that if you watched Nightcrawler with the sound off, you would get just as impressively compelling a film as you did with the sound on. Elswit gives the Los Angeles night a texture and vibrancy that is an essential part of the storytelling, and is as indispensable as Gyllenhaal's performance to the success of the film.

Another pivotal character in Nightcrawler is the city of Los Angeles itself. Gilroy and Elswit shoot from locations in the least cinematically seen parts of the city. They find hidden and mundane little corners of Los Angeles and give them life in an optically striking and dramatically forceful way. In the real world, Los Angeles is a strange city. During the day it is the land of milk and honey, filled with beautiful people and sunshine and brightness. But then the sun falls, and darkness rises. Nighttime in Los Angeles is a dark and uneasy place. The L.A. night is the place where Jim Morrison's The Lizard King reigned supreme, and the Charles Manson's and Richard Ramirez's of the world plied their trade. The L.A. night is the shadow world and it is as dark as the day is light. Gilroy and Elswit perfectly capture and bring this palpable, looming sense of menace to life in Nightcrawler, better than any films in recent memory.

Finally, Nightcrawler is also about the the insidious world of television news. To watch Lou 'bloom' from an amoral low-life thief into an amoral local news freelance video kingpin is as entertaining as it is insightful. Bloom is a fringe character in the world. He is from the most northern outskirts of the San Fernando valley, as far away from Los Angeles as you can be and still say you are from Los Angeles. He has no education but has studied self improvement from the farthest edge of the internet. Thanks to this makeshift schooling, and his predatory instincts, Lou learns the L.A. appearance game quickly, and goes from driving a run down clunker to driving a souped up Mustang in no time. Lou Bloom is symbolic of the charlatan at the heart of all television news personalities, in that he is an empty vessel, comprised of all style and no substance. The real trick in the television news business is to have your style make you appear to have substance, and to have your lack of substance become your trademark style. Bloom, like all top predators, quickly adapts to this. Television news is as far out on the periphery to serious substantial journalism as Lou Bloom's hometown on the northern most reaches of the San Fernando valley is to Los Angeles. The film shows how manufactured and contrived the news is in order to manipulate the public, if for no other reason than to keep them watching and the advertising revenues coming in. Spend even a few minutes watching the empty-headed toxicity on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News and you will quickly realize that national news is just as corrosive and corrupt as the version of local news presented in Nightcrawler. The pernicious and noxious nature of television news is obvious and undeniable to anyone paying even the remotest bit of attention, and Nightcrawler skillfully does us a service in bringing that reality of the newsroom to life.

In conclusion, Nightcrawler is a very layered, riveting and original debut film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, boasting a great performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and stunning visuals from cinematographer Robert Elswit. It is, in my opinion, one of the most finely crafted and most entertaining films of the year, and it is most certainly worth your time.

© 2015