Movie Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Starring
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu was part of the Mexican Invasion that took Hollywood by storm in the early naughts alongside such visionaries like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. But after his little-seen 2010 drama “Biutiful,” he went on an unexpected sabbatical that left many wondering if he’d ever return. Iñarritu spent the last four years licking his wounds over the mixed reception of that film (as well as globe-trotting Oscar bait “Babel”), but he’s officially back with what’s arguably his best movie to date: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a daring piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. The movie doesn’t always work – in fact, it’s sometimes as messy as the characters that inhabit it – but it’s also the type of magical cinematic experience that, just like fellow countryman Cuarón’s “Gravity,” you can only gaze in childlike wonder as it unfolds before you.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero called Birdman in a series of successful Hollywood blockbusters. Desperate to revive his career and earn a little credibility in the process, Riggan mounts an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan’s indebted co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends her boyfriend and theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement. There’s no denying that Mike is a talented actor, but his unconventional methods lead to a clash of egos between him and Riggan, and with only days to go until opening night, the whole production becomes in danger of shutting down before it even begins – especially if the cynical and malicious voice in Riggan’s head (a manifestation of his Birdman alter ego) has anything to say about it.

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Movie Review: “Ouija”

Starring
Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Douglas Smith, Darren Kagasoff, Lin Shaye
Director
Stiles White

With Halloween less than a week away, it’s nice to know that Hollywood wanted to give us one of the scariest, big budget films of the season. “Ouija” isn’t that movie, but the Stiles White’s directing debut could’ve and should’ve been.

Based on the popular Hasbro game, “Ouija” goes to its trusty trunk of horror movie clichés in a valiant way to cover up a mediocre script, a modicum of special effects and lack of a budget. Pretty, blond Debbie (Shelley Hennig) uses a Ouija board by herself and soon commits suicide. She does this despite knowing that one of the rules is never to Ouija solo. The other rules (discovered via flashback) is that you can’t use the Ouija in a graveyard and all convos must end in “Goodbye” on the board. And you thought the rules of “Fight Club” were weird.

Her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke of “Bates Motel”) leads a grief-stricken group consisting of her boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), her sister Sarah (Ana Coto), friend Isabelle (Bianca Santos) and Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) to find clues as to why Debbie offed herself. With little to go on, they decide to use the Ouija board for answers. (Except it’s never called a Ouija board, just “the board” or “spirit board,” despite the word “Ouija” being the first thing you see when they show it. Thanks, Hasbro.)

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Movie Review: “John Wick”

Starring
Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe
Directors
David Leitch & Chad Stahelski

“John Wick” is loud, as in ‘bring earplugs’ loud. It is muscle cars at full throttle, hailstorms of bullets, and shattered glass. There is an offbeat humor to it that vaguely recalls the wave of post-Tarantino crime movies of the ‘90s, but the story is a bone-straight, and therefore dull, revenge thriller. It is blood, death, and noise. There is “Keanu’s best since ‘The Matrix’” talk circling around this film. The very fact that that may be true is damning with faint praise.

Keanu Reeves plays the title character, a retired hitman who has just buried his terminally ill wife. He runs across some Russian thugs, who admire his car. They ask how much he wants for it. John tells them it’s not for sale. Later that night, the thugs break into John’s house, beat him up, steal the keys, and murder his puppy, a parting gift from his wife. The lead thug Iosef (Alfie Allen) is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the gangster John used to work for, and Viggo tells his son that he done screwed up good, as John’s nickname within the organization was The Boogeyman, and now The Boogeyman has lost literally everything that ever mattered to him.

If Wick worked for Iosef’s father, how is it that they have never met before, even accidentally? Even if Iosef doesn’t know of Wick, you have to think that Wick knows of Iosef, and might recognize his boss’ offspring when he sees them. It’s a lot to ask of the audience, and honestly, there is no movie otherwise. This is the part where Basil Exposition appears and tells us to just go with it. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.

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Blu Tuesday: Snowpiercer, Sex Tape and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Snowpiercer”

WHAT: The year is 2031 AD, and after a failed global-warming experiment has frozen the planet, killing off nearly all life in the process, the lucky few survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually travels around the globe. With a class system in place that divides the population by train car, lower-class passenger Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a rebellion against the oppressors in an attempt to take control of the engine and the fates of his fellow people.

WHY: Fans of Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host”) have been awaiting his English-language debut for quite some time, and that wait was extended even longer when The Weinstein Company delayed its U.S. release over a dispute about the film’s original cut. In the end, Bong was successful in protecting his vision, which is a major victory for both the filmmaker and his would-be audience, especially for a movie as refreshingly unique as “Snowpiercer.” Though it’s not the sci-fi masterpiece that many have lauded it as, the film is one of the better post-apocalyptic thrillers in recent memory. A lot of that credit actually goes to the creators of the French graphic novel on which its based, but Bong brings plenty to the table as well, including some gorgeous visuals and the casting of frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho in a vital role. Chris Evans also turns in a solid performance as the de facto leader of the lower class rebels, while Tilda Swinton steals the show with an amusingly quirky turn as the right-hand woman of the train’s mysterious engineer. The blending of art house sensibilities with mainstream appeal makes for a really intriguing finished product, but the ending is so disappointing that it undermines the ambition and imagination of everything that precedes it.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by film critics like Scott Weinberg, James Rocchi and Jen Yamato, a documentary about the making of the movie, additional featurettes on the production process, an interview with Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, a behind-the-scenes look at the promotional tour, concept art galleries and an animated prologue.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sex Tape”

WHAT: Desperate to add a little spice back into their life, married couple Jay (Jason Segel) and Annie (Cameron Diaz) decide to make a sex tape trying out every position from “The Joy of Sex.” But when they wake up the next day to discover that the video was accidentally uploaded to the iPads that Jay gifted to various family and friends, they go on a frantic search to track them all down before anyone has a chance to see it.

WHY:Sex Tape” is an infuriating movie to watch, especially if you don’t like characters that have no common sense. Despite being one giant commercial for the iPad (at one point, Segel’s character even declares how well constructed it is), it doesn’t understand the technology behind the device. Anyone with a basic knowledge of smartphones, tablets and the Cloud knows that Jay’s videos wouldn’t automatically sync to the other iPads unless they were still connected to his Apple account, but there’s absolutely no reason the recipients would do this, because it would essentially render their devices useless. Worse yet, the identity of the mysterious “villain” blackmailing Jay and Annie is an absolute joke, threatening them with putting the video on a popular internet porn site unless they pay a hefty bounty. Jay could just call the website and have them take it down, but they chose a much more excessive method because it seems funnier, even though it’s really not. Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel fail to display a fraction of the chemistry that they had in “Bad Teacher,” and although there are some amusing comments on parenthood in the opening act, once the hunt for the sex tape kicks into gear, the film nosedives quicker than a kamikaze fighter pilot.

EXTRAS: In addition to a selection of deleted scenes, alternate takes and bloopers, there’s a featurette on the chemistry between director Jake Kasdan and his two leads, as well as a discussion with psychotherapist Dr. Jenn Berman about the film.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “Fury”

Starring
Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Pena
Director
David Ayer

Dayid Ayer has always made macho movies; it’s evident even in his early screenplays for films like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Training Day.” But once he stepped behind the camera, Ayer’s proclivity for telling stories about manly men doing manly things became somewhat of a trademark for the filmmaker, one that he wears like a badge of honor in his latest movie, “Fury.” Although it’s nice to see Ayer taking a much-needed break from the crime thrillers that have dominated his career since the beginning, “Fury” also represents a more mature piece of work for him, showcasing his growth as a storyteller without abandoning the gritty style that sets the film apart from the countless others in the genre.

The movie takes place in April 1945, and while World War II has all but ended, the fanatical German resistance continues to fight, forcing women and children to pick up arms and hanging those who refuse. The U.S. military is suffering as well, but with an end in sight, they make their final push through Germany to wipe out the remaining Nazis. At the front of the lines is Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), a seasoned tank veteran who’s been fighting with the same crew – including Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) – since North Africa. But when their assistant driver is killed, clerk typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is ordered to replace him, despite having no experience on the battlefield, let alone inside a tank.

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