Now Playing: ‘Birdman’ Goes Mega-Meta

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton in 'Birdman' (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton square off in ‘Birdman’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays a onetime action-hero star whose grip on reality becomes a touch, well, fragile after his career falls on hard times and he tries mounting a Broadway play with a hot-shot theater actor (Edward Norton) to prove his relevance.

film-birdman-poster-200Birdman opens this week in limited, stoke-the-Oscars release; it’ll go wider around the country later in the fall. My review is at PopMatters:

Part backstage melodrama and part screed in the name of art, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nearly as frazzled as its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Back in the pre-Marvel movie era of the ‘90s, Riggan was the winged superhero Birdman. He made three movies that grossed billions and then chucked it all away. And, like many other actors blessed with the role of a lifetime, he is both embarrassed by his legacy and eager to regain its mantle of fame….

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘The Judge’

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in 'The Judge' (Warner Bros.)

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’ (Warner Bros.)

In The Judge—aka the movie that most people will assume was based on a John Grisham novel but wasn’t—Robert Downey Jr. plays one of those smart-ass big-city lawyers who has to finally use his sleazy skills for good when he is forced to defend his father (Robert Duvall) on a murder charge.

The Judge is playing now in wide release. My review is at PopMatters:

The Judge offers little that feels like an original movie. It has actors and dialogue, conflict and locations, but it’s so vaguely familiar at every turn that watching it is like trying to decipher a blurred Xerox copy…

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: A Johnny Cash of the Soul in ‘Calvary’

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in 'Calvary' (Fox Searchlight)

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson in ‘Calvary’ (Fox Searchlight)

Back in 2011, Brendan Gleeson played a cynical, caustic cop on the remote western coast of Ireland for John Michael McDonagh’s crackling black comedy The Guard. In Calvary, the two reteam for another dark-hued story about violence, morality, and modern depravity. There’s gags aplenty, but this is no comedy.

Calvary is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

In Calvary, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) begins the worst and possibly last week of his life when he’s threatened in the confessional. An anonymous penitent tells James that he was repeatedly raped by a priest starting at the age of seven. That priest is now dead, but the man wants to a kill a priest anyway. He prefers his victim be a good and innocent priest, like Father James, because that would make people pay attention. James has a week to live. “Killing a priest on a Sunday,” the voice muses with the jangled amusement of the insane. “Now that’d be something.”…

You can see the trailer here:

Screening Room: ‘The Exorcist’ and True Evil

Turns out that besides being a young preacher, scourge of the empowered classes, and essayist whose words could scorch the hair right off your head, James Baldwin was also a crack film critic, when he wanted to be.

devilfindswork1In The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pulls out a choice quote of Baldwin’s from his mostly ignored 1976 book The Devil Finds Work. Here, he writes about one of the decade’s two most influential horror films (the other being Halloween, just as trashy but not given as much critical deference at the time):

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

It’s one of the reasons people hate critics, and why at least some critics (of a level with Baldwin) can actually be construed as necessary to the culture. Few people want to think about the evil that surrounds them every day; they’d rather go to the cinema and be treated the indulgent thrills of imaginary threats (demons, and the like).

The critic who reminds us of our short-sightedness is rarely rewarded for doing so.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Academy Awards Edition

MERYL STREEP and JULIA ROBERTS star in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

The Oscar-nominated ‘August: Osage County’ – #13 of the year’s top 25 films covered in ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2013′

The best approach to take to tonight’s blitzkrieg of hype, blather, nonsense, tears, bad jokes, and long strange stretches of awkward silences—we’re speaking, of course, of the 86th Academy Awards—might be that proffered by Anthony Lane:

Whether Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConaughey, or neither of them, will be crowned Best Actor is a matter of such brazen unimportance that we have gone crazy trying to call it.

Brazen unimportance, indeed. That being said, it was a fantastic year for film. And if it takes a gargantuan mediapocalypse like tonight’s Oscars broadcast to bring attention to some of those films, if sending actors strutting down a red carpet and answering the same questions they’ve been answering for six months now will get another few thousand people to seek out August: Osage County, then so be it.

Eyes_Wide_Open_2013-_Cover_for_KindleI covered many of the Oscar-nominated films in this year’s edition of my annual film guide, Eyes Wide Open — it’s available in paperback or more instantaneously in ebook from. Here’s a quick rundown of the Oscar-nominated films included in the book and where they ranked in my lists:

  • 12 Years a Slave (Best Picture, Actor, Actor-supporting, Actress-supporting, Costume Design, Director, Editing, Production Design, Adapted Screenplay) — #2:Steve McQueen’s blistering adaptation of Solomon Northup’s pre-Civil War memoir about being kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana is memorably horrific and heroic in equal measures.
  • Gravity (Best Picture, Actress, Cinematography, Editing, Director, Original Score, Sound Editing Production Design, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects) — #3: “Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning outer-orbit thriller hinges on the parallel between a character’s personal isolation and the terrifying physical isolation of space.”
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (Best Picture / Actor / Actor-Supporting / Director / Adapted Screenplay) — “An overly slick comedy with painted-on cynicism.”
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (Best Cinematography / Sound Mixing) — #9: “The Coen brothers are caught between their Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? modes in this wintry dream-odyssey of a deadpan comedy swaddled in gorgeous music.”
  • August: Osage County (Actor, Actress) — #13: “A saga of family and dysfunction—cleanly truncated by Tracey Letts from his 3-hour-plus Pulitzer Prize-winning play—whose dark, acid humor never undercuts the recurring tragedy glowering underneath.”
  • Frozen (Best Animated Feature) — Honorable Mention: “Disney’s impeccably animated return-to-form is both Broadway-ready musical and sweetly inspirational sibling melodrama where for once the choice for the heroine isn’t which man to choose.”
'Much Ado About Nothing' -

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – No Oscar nominations but #18 of the year’s top 25 films covered in ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2013′

Lastly, here’s a few of the films most deserving of gold statuettes that were most egregiously overlooked but made it into Eyes Wide Open:

  • Stories We Tell — #1: “Sarah Polley’s fractured family history is a beautiful and thoughtful story about how our pasts don’t just happen, they’re created.”
  • Upstream Color — #8: “A metaphysical love story that baffles and excites in almost equal measures.”
  • Much Ado About Nothing — #18: “Joss Whedon’s minty-fresh adaptation turns his team of quick-witted TV actors on Shakespeare’s most durable comedy and comes up a winner.”

Last word on the Oscars, as often makes sense, to Anthony Lane:

We are already looking forward to looking back in anger at the awards that confounded our hunches, at our loss of the office sweepstake, at the stop-start tears, the sagging jokes, and the normally rational women who choose, for one night only, to dress like exploded cupcakes.

New in Theaters: ‘Child’s Pose’

Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in 'Child's Pose'

Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in ‘Child’s Pose’

childspose-poster

Winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Child’s Pose is playing now in limited release, and is worth seeking out. My review is at Film Racket:

“A mother’s love” has rarely felt more dagger-like or malevolent than in the chilling morality thriller Child’s Pose. Part anatomy of a villain and part crime procedural, Calin Peter Netzer’s film follows what happens after a domineering upper-class Bucharest mother finds out her coddled son has been accused of running down and killing a young boy from the outskirts of town. It’s another in a series of European films (Italy’s The Great Beauty, in particular) that have served as X-rays of societies riddled with corruption like mold veined through a hunk of old cheese. What makes Child’s Pose even more affecting is that many of its characters come off as spiritually corrupt as the society at large. And the rot comes from the top…

Here is the trailer:

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2013′

'Upstream Color': One of the year's best movies that didn't make it onto the Oscar shortlist

‘Upstream Color': One of the year’s great movies that didn’t make it onto the Oscar shortlist

Just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards but way too late for the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and just about every movie awards ceremony that means anything, here comes the newest iteration of my now-annual Best-Of and Worst-Of compilation: Eyes Wide Open 2013: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst).

Eyes_Wide_Open_2013-_Cover_for_KindleThe title should be basically self-explanatory, but here’s the gist of it: I pulled together what I thought were the 25 best films from 2013—trying best as I could to cover the gamut from the awards magnets that actually deserved the accolades like 12 Years a Slave to lesser-seen fare like Stories We TellUpstream Color, and A Touch of Sin. I also threw in some other odds and ends like notable DVD reviews, shorter appreciations of great movies that didn’t get into the top 25, great quotes, and of course, the year’s 5 worst films.

2013 was a good year all in all, so the 25 best was much harder to compile than the 5 worst. A nice surprise, for once.

You can buy the book now either in handy-dandy ebook formats here and here. There’s also a paperback edition available here.