Sunday, November 30, 2014

Quick Looks:

Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

     Some could easily call Birdman--directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, creator of thought-provoking woks like Amores perros and 21 Grams--a stunt: over half of the film (seemingly) consists of one single tracking shot with no noticeable camera cuts. But it's much more than just cool camera work. Starring Michael Keaton in one of the best performances of the year, Birdman's plot revolves around Riggan Thompson (Keaton), a has-been Hollywood actor who once started the modern trend of superhero films with the Birdman Trilogy. Now, everyone thinks he is a joke: the public, his family...even himself. To try and do something meaningful, Riggan attempts to act, direct and adapt a Broadway play based upon a Raymond Carver story. Inarritu's direction works perfectly in these claustrophobic and confined spaces, tracking different actors in the play from dressing room to stage with time lapses and day changes seamlessly intertwined with the great set and locations. Familiar actors show up: Edward Norton is awesome as Mike, an actor with immense talent and a tendency to be a dick. And Emma Stone is transfixing as Riggan's out-of-rehab daughter. But it's Keaton that is a wonder: even when the film threatens to dive a little too deeply into a meta surrealism, our former Batman grounds Birdman with a wide array of perfect human emotions. His performance allows Birdman to fly as one of the year's best.    (A-)

Still Alice

     With Still Alice, we have another film that is completely defined by its starring actor's performance: this time it's Julianne Moore, who portrays Alice, an incredibly smart and successful Linguistics professor who begins showing signs of mental decline--she's forgetting the occasional word, various thoughts, and even gets lost jogging on the college campus that she has called home for years. When she eventually goes to the doctor, she gets some of the worst news possible: at age 50, she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and it's rapidly progressing. Still Alice is not  fun weekend movie entertainment--though Alice's decline is full of dignity, the film is still incredibly sad and heartbreaking, and Moore is such a good actress (like Keaton in Birdman, it may be her best performance ever) that you feel every lost thought, every grasp at a fading word as a punch straight to the gut. This is the type of story that easily could be lost in too much Lifetime-esque sentimentality, but the directors wisely keep it simple, focusing on Alice and her family and the toll the the harsh disease takes on the entire clan. Moore's performance is so astonishing because you can almost see her strip herself away from scene to scene, regressing from an incredibly charismatic speaker to a woman who has lost the most important aspects to her own identity--her thoughts and words.     (B+)

The Babadook

    The Babadook--a low-budget Australian horror film--is a satisfying and creepy entry into the supernatural hiding-in-the-closet monster movie. Some of it is pretty standard: there are possessions, typical "boo" moments and a creepy villain that looks like a top-hat-wearing ugly thing with sharp fingers, like Freddy Kruger's uncle. But unlike most corny, PG-13 American-made creepy-kid films, The Babadook deals with real issues of loss and grief. It makes the horror all the more real. Amelia's husband died tragically as they were going to to hospital to deliver their first child, and now years later, her son Samuel is having troubles at home and school, lashing out against nearly everyone. One night, he has mum read a mysterious pop-up book from the shelf called Mr. Babadook, and strange events begin occurring in their dark and dreary home. It follows a path that is predictable, but it has enough innovative moments and good performances by Amelia and Samuel to stand above American versions of similar stories.     (B)

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