Continuing to play catch-up, my latest review is Oscar-contender: Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor on the wrong-side of his career. Decades removed from being an A-Lister with a big budget Hollywood franchise, Riggan finds himself trying to re-establish his career by trying to self-finance a Broadway adaptation of 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'. Trying to write, direct and star in the play, though, begins to take its toll on Riggan's professional and personal life.

Riggan's daughter, Sam, (Emma Stone) fresh from rehab takes a job as Riggan's assistant in an attempt to help make Riggan's passion project a reality. Troubles arise when Riggan and his lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) decide to hire method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) for the lead role of his play. Mike's ex, Lesley (Naomi Watts) co-stars in the play and their relationship is still a fresh wound which causes problems during rehearsals. Mike and Sam then begin to flirt which strains Riggan's already fragile psyche.

While trying to ensure he creates the best play he can, Riggan is tortured by Birdman, his inner voice, Birdman constantly reminds Riggan about his time when he was the envy of Hollywood. Egging Riggan on about how he should return to his roots as a Hollywood actor and give up the new life he is trying to start. All of these characters and problems begin to come to a head as Riggan struggles to get his play ready for opening night.

An idea that could be inspired by Michael Keaton's career, Birdman provides a perfect vehicle for himself and all actors within the film. Birdman is dripping with self-indulgence, yet each actor steps up and brings their A-game to elevate the film above its own self-important ideas. Michael Keaton allows the camera to show a man who's life has taken its toll on him. When not hiding behind the wigs used for his play, Michael Keaton is able to play Riggan as a man who understands that his life is not what he would want it to be, yet gives optimism that he may be able to save himself, or at least, what is left of his family.

Equally good is Edward Norton's Mike, who steals every scene he is in. Mike wants to be the best actor he can, and will go to any lengths allowed to be the actor he is. Funny, yet uncompromising, Mike and Riggan butt heads about what is best for the play. The interactions between both actors provide some of the best scenes in the film.

The star, though, is still Michael Keaton. For all the showy scenes in the film, the scene that works best comes when Riggan and his ex-wife, Sylvia, (Amy Ryan) discuss what Riggan has missed in his life by putting his career first. Michael Keaton completely owns the scene and shows how vulnerable Riggan is. The scene is Oscar-bat, for sure, but Michael Keaton uses his acting skills to really invest the audience in seeing that Riggan is a sad man and wants you to root for Riggan in an attempt to regain his life. Definitely one of the best scenes of the year.

Birdman is a true tour de force, filmed with the appearance of one-take by director Alejandro G. Innarritu. The acting, directing and screenplay are all top notch with the exception of the final scene. The film builds towards opening night and delivers in all ways one would expect. My issue comes after opening night. I will not go into specifics, but my feel is that Birdman should have ended with opening night as it feels like the logical conclusion. The last scene, though good in its own right, does not jive with the film that came before it. A slight letdown in an otherwise great film.

With great acting and directing, Birdman is my favorite film of 2014 and hopefully gets the recognition is deserves from the Academy.



John Wick

Sometimes, simple is better.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former assassin for the Russian mob who has just lost his wife, Helen, (Bridget Moynahan) to an illness. While grieving Helen's loss, John is surprised with a letter and a dog sent from Helen. Helen provided the dog as a gift to John for something to watch over and to help move forward with his life. After a chance meeting with a group of Russian men, John's dog is killed and his prized car is stolen from him. As these were the last things in his life that mattered, John plots out a course of revenge. Really, that's the gist of the plot.

Though the plot may sound silly, its not as lightweight as it might seem from the outset. Connecting with members from his past including: chop-shop owner Aurelio, (John Leguizamo) John's mentor Marcus, (Willem Dafoe) and Winston, (Ian McShane) who owns a hotel that houses assassins, John is able to use skills in an attempt to enforce his brand of justice on Iosef, (Alfie Allen) and the other Russian men involved that took away everything John had. Complicating matters is Iosef's father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) who John had worked for previously. Viggo is torn between understanding John's plight and still trying to protect his son.

The film follows a simple structure of John going from place to place, mayhem happens and we repeat. This is not a bad thing, though, as John Wick has energy to spare and a solid script written by Derek Kolstad that keeps the film from not dwelling too long in one place. John Wick takes the audience into a world where assassins rule the landscape and are never affected by others around them. Everything from a hotel that caters to assassins to a clean-up service that disposes of victims within the drop of a hat add nice, if unrealistic, touches to this assassins version of New York City.

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch infuse the film with vibrant uses of color and well-choreographed kung-fu sequences to keep the film feeling fresh. Plenty of guns (especially head-shots) are in store, but the directors do enjoy mixing up the film and its action so that the film doesn't feel too repetitive. Even though you have probably seen this film a hundred times before; including knowing who will live and die, the ride and simple structure proves enjoyable for those yearning for a more simplistic film experience.

John Wick certainly wont win any awards, but its not trying to. The film is simple, but elevated by an enjoyable cast and solid directing. As an entertaining film experience, John Wick should satisfy most people who yearn for a solid action film.


The Judge

Living in the shadow of his father, Judge Joseph Palmer, (Robert Duvall) estranged son and hot-shot lawyer, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) returns to his hometown to help bury his mother. While here, Joseph and Hank struggle to keep their dislike for each other to keep from boiling over. After the funeral, Joseph is accused of striking and killing a person with his car who he had, earlier in life, shown a great disdain for. Hank decides to try and help fight for Joseph's innocence as prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) pushes for Joseph to be charged for murder.

A passion project for Robert Downey Jr, as he is the star and his production team helped get the film made, The Judge tries to balance a film that wants to be equal parts dysfunctional family comedy and court room drama. Director David Dobkin struggles to maintain a solid balance in the film; resulting in a movie that never really knows what it wants to be. The only thing The Judge know what it wants is for every nearly every scene to be blown out with light as if they hired a second-rate Robert Richardson (sorry, Janusz Kaminski).

Hank is what you would expect Robert Downey Jr. to be playing, as of late. He is brash and fast-talking (is there any other lawyer in film?) while Joseph is stern and cold to Hank. Hank's brothers Glen and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) are much closer to Joseph, having stayed in town while Hank left and went to law school. The strained relationship between Joseph and Hank fuels most of the film's verbal dynamics, yet comes off as more forced than a natural relationship.

While in town, Hank is going through a divorce and tries to rekindle a past romance with Sam, (Vera Farmiga) who owns the local diner. The constitutes an added subplot, along with Sam's daughter (another subplot) that feels shoehorned into the story to try and make Hank sympathetic, yet antagonistic at the same time. Sam comes and goes from the film as the screenplay needs and never pulls you in as it should.

The meat of the film comes from Hank and Joseph trying to reconcile their past differences in an attempt for Hank to adequately defend Joseph of the charges levied against him. Along with the previously-mentioned cliches in the film, Joseph also might be suffering from an illness that can cause him to forget pieces of information in his life (including whether or not he killed a person).

The Judge has the right ingredients for a solid film, but the paint-by-numbers screenplay sinks it. Every idea in The Judge rings false and never allows one to invest with the characters or story. Instead the film forcefully tugs on the heartstrings of the audience when they want you to cry or tickle your funny bone when they want you to laugh. The Judge tries to manipulate the audience into feeling what you should feel instead of just letting the film naturally flow and letting the audience share the film's emotions naturally.




Nicolas Cage returns to a more form of subtle acting in 2013's Joe.

Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a former troublemaker turned solid citizen who specializes in the killing of trees. One day while working with his crew, Gary (Tye Sheridan) arrives and asks Joe if he could offer his and his father Wade's (Gary Poulter) services. Joe agrees; noticing that Gary has a strong worth ethic while Wade does not pull his weight. Releasing both from their job duties, Joe observes Wade being physical towards Gary. Not wanting to return to his troublemaking lifestyle, Joe allows the situation to take its course and continues on with his life.

While away from Joe, Wade lives his life through a bottle and has no care for Gary or his well-being. Wade routinely beats Gary while in a drunken stupor and steals any money that Gary has earned on his own. During one of Wade's drunken days, Gary comes across Willie, (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who has already had more than one encounter with Joe. Unbeknownst to all, Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie set forth actions in which all of their lives are destined to collide with one another.

Taking place in the South, director David Gordon Green fills the film with local atmosphere and immerses the audience into a world that seems all too real. Looking up information about the film after watching it, I read that David Gordon Green mixed the acting with actors and local persons to give the film a feeling of authenticity. This is a strong point in the film, as the hired locals mesh well with the established actors to almost give the film a feel of a documentary. This stands most true to Gary Poulter's Wade, who plays a homeless drunk. Reading further about the film, it seems that Poulter's portrayal of Wade did not appear to differentiate much from his true personality.

Nicolas Cage plays Joe as a man trying to keep his anger contained, which works well. With the exception of a running joke about a dog being an asshole, Cage keeps his usually campy self away from the film and provides a nuanced performance. Tye Sheridan's Gary leans more the opposite way of Joe, yet is still a very good performance. Joe sees Gary as an almost younger version of himself and decides to take the kid under his wing to allow Gary to do right where Joe had gone wrong in life.

The screenplay, adapted from the book of the same name, is where I had some trouble with the film. Parts of the film seem to meander without much purpose, including a long time to get to the point the story is trying to make. The character of Willie seems to be added in for extra tension, but the character feels extraneous and doesn't need to be in the film. As we slowly approach the very predictable climax, all the characters come together exactly how the viewer would expect with the film concluding in a rather anti-climactic fashion.

Solid performances from most of the cast help carry the film where the screenplay fails it. It's nice to see Nicolas Cage return to true acting and Tye Sheridan shows that he could have a very solid future in film.