Short Takes: Birdman, Nightcrawler & St. Vincent

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Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is a stale, one-note show biz satire with an ambitious and occasionally dazzling formal design. Led by a manic performance by Michael Keaton as a washed-up super hero movie star attempting a comeback on the stage, Birdman weaves in and out of his Raymond Carver adaptation with a string of impressively executed tracking shots.

Birdman is more about executing and fusing those long takes than about saying anything exciting or fresh about theater or performance, though.  Iñárritu’s images are sleek but ultimately bland and empty, and the story about a middle-aged man reclaiming his glory is too.  Keaton’s performance as Riggan is the loudest, but I was moved more by Andrea Riseborough as his co-star and Lindsay Duncan as a bitter New York Times theater critic.  The two actresses have an irrepressible screen presence, and they quietly steal scenes from the self-parodying turns by Keaton and Edward Norton.  Grade: D+

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Nightcrawler – Jake Gyllenhaal’s deeply disturbed performance is the most consistently great thing about Nightcrawler, a movie that never quite descends deep enough into its own hell to match him. His Lou Bloom shows us what Patrick Bateman would have been like as a freelance crime reporter, his crazed eyes and beaming grin following police scanners from one car crash to the next.

Nightcrawler doesn’t have enough ideological fury or incisive wit to warrant comparisons to great TV news films like Network or Broadcast News.  Moments that seem intended to be darkly funny, like news anchors trying to describe footage of a triple murder in ways that will intentionally scare people, aren’t because the movie can’t decide if it wants to play it straight or not.

There are characters that are meant to mock, like the news director (Rene Russo) who specifically asks for crime stories where people of color target white people in the suburbs. The problem is, director Dan Gilroy’s script lacks subtlety; it does too much telling and not enough showing.  Russo’s character says that horrendous thing to Bloom, and then it goes away until she says something similar to show how the media is forcing the narrative. Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative is quite forced as well.  It’s sloppily divided between Bloom’s grotesque start-up business philosophy and the desperate, low-ranking L.A. TV station that feeds it.   Grade: C-

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St. Vincent – I expect Harvey Weinstein to push hard for Bill Murray as awards season slowly descends upon us.  That’s not to say St. Vincent is really any good, but if Murray won an Oscar for it I wouldn’t be upset.  His accent is inconsistent and he’s been way better in other movies, but if this ends up being his Big Shot I wouldn’t mind seeing a wry, slightly apathetic acceptance speech.  Director Theodore Melfi lavishes attention on Murray more than anything else, and he carries the movie even though there are other talented actors who could have helped him.

St. Vincent feels like a stale spin-off of Gran Torino, showing a cranky, cruel veteran named Vincent (Murray) rediscovering his humanity through his relationship with his neighbors.  He reluctantly watches the boy next door (Jaeden Lieberher) while his single mother (Melissa McCarthy) works at a hospital, taking him to bet at the race track and introducing him to the pregnant prostitute (a horribly misused Naomi Watts) who he frequents.  St. Vincent is a profoundly misogynistic film, not just in the predictable way it treats Watts’ character but in the way it condescends to McCarthy’s as well.  It is so invested in making its title character the saint that it cheaply discards all the others.  Grade: D

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One thought on “Short Takes: Birdman, Nightcrawler & St. Vincent

  1. Pingback: Our Favorite Performances of 2014 | CyniCritics

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