THE BLOG
09/09/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

At TIFF 2014 the 'Wow' Is In the Ensemble

So here's the sign of a classy celebrity. You're at the hot-ticket party of the Toronto Film Film Fest - the Sony Pictures Classics dinner in tony Yorkville - always a fest highlight. And this dude extends his hand and says, "Hi, I'm Mark Ruffalo." He presumes nothing and moreover appears sincerely interested in who you might be - or else does a damn fine impersonation. That this moment gave me so much pleasure is a good indication of the spirit of these fests, where the desperately flailing movie business conditions most people to ration out the politesse very stingily indeed.

Also, by Day 5 in film festival land people get a little crazy. The other evening I yelled at someone to move out of my way. Except the person turned out to be me, reflected in the black glass door of the Princess of Wales Ladies.

And by Day 5 I've picked up complaints that this year's TIFF lacks a Wow! factor (like last year's "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave.") To me the ensemble of films in this fest is the Wow! Given the range and variety of the lineup, to pass from one screening to the next is to circumnavigate the globe. French art films such as "Eden" by Mia Hansen-Love, rub shoulders with quality commercial productions, such as TWC's "The Imitation Game," begging for Oscar attention, along with more niche films like "Night Crawler" and an Iranian gem about the Green Revolution, "Red Rose." My only complaint is that almost every film overstays its welcome. Where are the longueurs police? I mean, come on, these are no longer the days of "War and Peace" and "Bleak House."

Marking the directing debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, "Night Crawler" proves a marvelous showcase for the talent of Jake Gyllenhaal in a fully invested performance. Borderline psychotic, his character of Louis Bloom - and why do I not like that his name's Jewish? - is a criminal low-life whom we first see in action mugging a guy in a secured area and relieving him of his watch. During his rambles through L.A.'s underbelly, Bloom stumbles on a career of supplying gory video of accidents and murders to a low-rated TV station ("If it bleeds it leads"). That Bloom is ruthless, amoral, and disciplined allows him to rise like scrum to the top of this swamp. It's a parodic version of the American success story.

Gyllenhaal reportedly lost thirty pounds for the role, perhaps besting Christian Bale and Matthew M. He wanted, he's said in interviews, to look hungry, and in fact, in "Night" he resembles some famished nocturnal creature with huge staring eyes that you might find hanging off a tree.

Gilroy uncorks sly humor from Bloom's tendency to drop motivation speak -- which he learned from an online business course -- on both his boss at the TV station (a wonderfully brassy Renee Russo) and his sole employee, Rahmin Assiz. When a competing night crawler suggests they join forces, Bloom replies "Working for myself is more in line with my career goals." Here's a man who has no authentic language, just the inspirational pep talks on How to Succeed that he's absorbed off the internet.

"Night" is plenty provocative for its dark, cynical take on American culture. I think Gilroy intends Bloom not only as a perverse, values-free version of Horatio Alger and our fixation on success - he could be a smalltime gonzo version of America's white collar corporate criminals, who talk the same talk.

Perhaps the real star of the film, though, is DP Robert Elswit. Truly, you could watch "Night" for the cinematography alone. From the opening credits Elswit creates a mesmerizing L.A. urban nocturne, a string of images worthy of hanging in a museum. Electric blue is his signature color, and he also likes garish yellow moons and speeding cars wearing bonnets of light. Elswit can make even a red and yellow Shell Station a thing of beauty.