Friday, October 31, 2014

BIRDMAN: A Work Of Bizarre Genius That Will Blow Audiences Away

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much buzzed about fifth film BIRDMAN may be a comedy, but it’s as dark, layered, and intense as his dramas AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL, and BIUTIFUL.

It’s a stunning, magnificent motion picture – one of the year’s best films - that’s bubbling with energy as it juggles a slew of themes, along with excellently edgy performances, and tireless camerawork.

All this and it’s also a major comeback for Michael Keaton, in his first lead role in ages, as an actor who formerly starred in a superhero franchise who’s staging a comeback – how’s that for meta for the former Batman star?

Keaton’s character, Riggan Thompson, wants to prove himself, do “something that matters,” by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production, his adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The film, gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (GRAVITY, THE TREE OF LIFE, CHILDREN OF MEN), is structured like one long take – a continuous uncut flow that immediately catches you in its sweep. You’ll really get to know the hallways, dressing rooms, and all of the backstage nooks and crannies of Broadway’s St. James Theatre where it largely takes place.

The narrative is mostly from Keaton’s point of view – a sweaty, stressed out head space that’s bordering on insanity as he often hears the gravelly voice of his alter ego, Birdman, saying stuff like “You were a movie star, remember?”

Others snaking in and out of the storyline include Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter/assistant fresh from rehab, Zach Galifianakis as Keaton’s agent/lawyer/best friend, Amy Ryan as Keaton’s ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as Keaton’s possibly pregnant girlfriend/co-star, Naomi Watts (also currently appearing in ST. VINCENT) as the lead actress in the play, and Edward Norton as a hotshot stage actor, who’s a last minute replacement after a loose lamp injures the original lead.

The Birdman voice in Keaton’s head claims he made the light fall, because he’s not really just a Hollywood has-been, he has telekinetic powers and can fly – of course, only in his mind, but the film has a lot of fun going with this surreal mind frame.

The sequences concerning the disastrous previews of the play are amusingly nerve wracking - one stage-set scene involving Norton getting a hard on in bed with Watts is a hilarious highlight. At another performance, during the same act, Keaton gets locked out of the theater with his bathrobe caught in the door. In only his underwear, he runs through Times Square through the crowds of theatre goers, fan boys, tourists, and assorted New Yorkers and becomes a viral sensation.

It’s a funny statement on our fame obsessed culture, one that sharpens when a cruel critic (an acidic Lindsay Duncan) tells Keaton: “You’re a celebrity, not an actor.”

Duncan’s not the only one who takes Keaton down – Stone rags on her dad for being out of touch: “You hate bloggers, you mock Twitter, you don't even have a Facebook page!”

Norton’s talented yet arrogant Mike Shiner threatens to steal the show from Keaton, but the actors’ scenes together show them matching each other’s intensity – both deserve Oscar nominations, or whatever awards season action they surely will receive.

Only Keaton’s inner Birdman seems to be there to build him up.

Iñárritu, who co-wrote the film with Nicolás Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., who collaborated with him on BIUTIFUL and first-time screenwriter Armando Bo keeps the visceral momentum going through the film’s two-hour running time. It never dragged or went off point, and when I wasn’t laughing, a wicked smile was curled up on my face. When Keaton’s delusional state takes over in the last third, with superhero special effects and crazy imagery such as a ginormous squawking bird-creature towering over the city, it’s a twisted Terry Gilliam-eque delight.

Keaton’s Riggan Thompson may be covered in flop sweat, but he’s got a smash on his hands here. BIRDMAN is a work of bizarre genius that will blow audiences away.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Keanu Reeves Racks Up Tons Of Deaths And Surprisingly Laughs As JOHN WICK

Now playing at a multiplex near you...

(Dirs. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, 2014)

About a third of the way into this film, there’s a phone conversation between John Leguizamo as a chop shop operator and Michael Nyqvist as a big-time Russian crime boss. Nyqvist sternly asks Lequizamo, “Why did you strike my son?” and he answers: “Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” After a very pregnant pause, Nyqvist responds “Oh.”

Up to that point, JOHN WICK had been a dark action thriller, but with the big laugh that bit received it became a dark action comedy, especially to a guy in the row behind me at the screening I attended, who loudly guffawed throughout. He wasn’t alone as the audience laughed lot during the movie, so much so that I wasn’t sure how much of what they found funny was intentional or not.

Basically, this is another in a line of indestructible badass movies, in which an established actor portrays a highly skilled, trained killer who can take down legions of attackers. It’s a formula that’s given Liam Neeson a lot of work lately, and gave Denzel Washington a recent hit in THE EQUALIZER, so now Keanu Reeves tries on the tropes of the genre.

The directorial debut of veteran stuntman David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (a former stunt double for Reeves), JOHN WICK doesn’t have much in the way of plot, but it’s a stylishly violent experience that contains a Hell of a lot of amusement.

When the film begins, Reeves, a retired hit-man for the mob, is mourning the death of his wife, who we see played by Bridget Moynahan in flashbacks). Her parting gift for her husband is a cute floppy eared beagle so that he can have something to love. So when a group of lowlife thugs led by a suitably skuzzy Alfie Allen, as the aforementioned crime boss’s son, breaks into Reeves’ house, kills his beloved pet, and steals his classic Mustang muscle car, obviously there’s going to be hell to pay.

With a sledgehammer Reeves digs up his buried arsenal of weapons, and ventures into New York City, to track down Allen and his entourage. Reeves checks into The Continental, something of a surreal specialty hotel for hitmen, where we get an inkling of his old life via past acquaintances like Adrianne Palicki as a hot hitwoman, The Wire’s Lance Riddick as the smirking hotel manager, and Ian McShane as the hotel’s smug owner.

Fearing his son’s life, Nyqvist takes out a contract on Reeves that’s accepted by Willem Dafoe, as another highly skilled and incredibly confident assassin, and the hunt is on.

Chasing Allen through an exotic bathhouse, a Neon-lit club, and a church that's a money-laundering front, Reeves racks up a high body count on his quest for revenge with many foes getting their brains blown out immediately, but every now and then there’s somebody who’s harder to take out so fierce fist fights to the death result. Of course, there’s tons of property damage too.

Some of the tussles get tiresome, but the pace keeps it moving along with vivid visual stamina, though I must note that Jonathan Sela’s grey-toned cinematography looked a bit dingy at times.

These days it seems you can’t be too old to be an action star, and since the 50-year old Reeves looks like a spring chicken compared to some of his action genre contemporaries he breathes some fresh air into the familiar framework. Sure, he’s not one of the all-time acting greats but he projects an iconic presence that helps make JOHN WICK one of the better, and funnier, indestructible badass films of recent vintage.

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Bill Murray Brings The Mirth To The Likable Throwaway ST. VINCENT

Now playing at both art houses and multiplexes:

ST. VINCENT (Dir. Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Bill Murray’s Vincent MacKenna is the latest in a long line of lovable losers that the actor has portrayed stretching back to his time as a Not Ready For Prime Time Player on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s. 

Vincent, a schlubby Brooklynite, is a boozing, gambling, politically incorrect curmudgeon, with an Irish-tinged accent who regularly sleeps with a pregnant prostitute, played by Naomi Watts. The character is a bit older than Murray himself – by 4 years, enough to make him a Vietnam vet, which we see in fleeting glimpses of old photos that look like repurposed stills from STRIPES.

The film, which is a bit schlubby itself, concerns Murray befriending his 12-year old neighbor, played by the predictably precocious yet still winsome Jaeden Lieberher. The kid’s mother, a much more subdued than usual Melissa McCarthy, is recently divorced and overworked as a hospital tech so she hires Murray to look after her son. This is indeed a very questionable decision, but what’s a stressed-out single mother in an indie comedy to do?

Of course, Murray teaches the nerdy Lieberher how to fight, takes him along on his daily trips to the race track, and favorite bar and strip club, while they form an unlikely bond. However, in the overly familiar world of this movie, it’s a completely likely bond.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi in his feature length film debut is working very much in the vein of ABOUT A BOY, BAD SANTA, BAD GRANDPA, GRAND TORINO, and even UP – you know, movies in which a curmudgeon finds redemption via a relationship with a needy kid.

That’s not to say that ST. VINCENT isn’t an entertaining and likable experience. It’s great to see Murray in a much juicier starring role than his last lead (in 2012’s HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON), and his tossed off delivery of such lines as “call a plumber” when Watts tells him her water broke is consistently amusing.

Lieberher’s career as a child actor is off to a good start here as he works well and has a good believable chemistry with Murray and McCarthy. It’s great as well to see McCarthy playing a reasonable, real person and not another over-the-top comic concoction (*cough* TAMMY).

Watts’ Russian hooker character is initially pretty broad, but gets more and more depth as the film goes on. Her accent isn’t very convincing, but since Murray’s accent itself slips in several instances, it’s not really an issue.

The rest of the supporting cast is well chosen, especially Chris O’Dowd as a deadpan Catholic school teacher, and a subtly menacing Terrence Howard as Murray’s bookie. 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit also appears as McCarthy’s ex-husband, but I don’t recall if he even said anything significant.

ST. VINCENT’s soundtrack is cool too. Two catchy songs, “Everyone Hides,” and “Why Why Why,” by Wilco founder/front man Jeff Tweedy’s solo project Tweedy are prominently featured, along with apt tracks by Jefferson Airplane, The Webs, and The National. One of the film’s highlights has Murray singing along to the Bob Dylan classic “Shelter From the Storm” while tending to his yard, but not in a Nick the Lounge Singer way at all.

Millennials may think of the art rock musician, St. Vincent (who headlined the Hopscotch festival here in Raleigh last September), but the title refers to the premise of Lieberher being assigned a school project about modern saints in which he picks Murray’s Vincent to profile. This involves a very standard ending involving Murray getting applause by a packed church after the build up by quite a snazzy power-point presentation Lieberher somehow put together.

There’s an article in the latest Rolling Stone about how cool Murray is because he’s so beloved that he can get away with almost anything. And yeah, it does look like the man is living it up from the reports of party crashing, photo bombing, and other assorted shenanigans I seem to hear about daily, so much so that his film career feels secondary to his life just “Being Bill Murray” (the title of Gavin Edward’s RS piece).

So a film like this is a fine albeit formulaic showcase for Murray, but it’s nowhere near a great movie. It’s a likable throwaway best for a matinee. The late, great movie critic Gene Siskel often said when evaluating movies: “I ask myself if I would enjoy myself more watching a documentary of the same actors having dinner.”

The answer for ST. VINCENT in that regard is definitely that a documentary of Murray and his co-stars dining would be much better than this. A documentary about following Murray around for a while, a week, a month, a year, whatever, would also blow this away I bet. Somebody should get on that.

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