Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Talky, pretentious and filled with existential angst when the characters aren’t preoccupied with spitting curses, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (Fox Searchlight) is visually dazzling.

Morally, though, it’s dead weight.

This black comedy reflects on the nature of fame — specifically, the warping power of movie fame gained by playing big-budget comic-book heroes. It occasionally circles this theme, but provides no resolution. Gloom, anxiety and complete self-absorption supplant responsible behaviour — with no evident consequences.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who has achieved worldwide fame playing an action hero called Birdman in a series of films. This, of course, parallels Keaton’s own experience as the star of two Batman pictures released in the late 1980s and early ’90s. We are constantly reminded that Thomson’s turn as Birdman represented a soul-deadening artistic sellout.

With much of his money now drained away, Thomson is attempting to redefine himself as a serious actor. He has adapted — and is directing and starring in — a work by famed short-story writer Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” As the movie opens, the show is in previews on Broadway.

The preview performances mostly go wrong, launching a series of in-jokes for theatre buffs. Things go from bad to worse when, after a rehearsal mishap, Thomson hires intense performer Mike (Edward Norton), who undermines him at every opportunity.

Riggan’s Birdman alter ego haunts him in voiceovers, taunting him about his earlier celebrity and deriding his effort to become a grounded actor. That Riggan’s movie powers derived entirely from special effects never appears in these discussions.

Riggan understands so little about Carver’s story that he ends the play with an on-stage gun suicide he wrote himself. This delights the uncaring, whooping audiences in need of spectacle, while guaranteeing he’ll get a hostile review from The New York Times.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu and his co-writers, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, fill most of the film with bitter speeches. Riggan’s daughter and assistant Sam (Emma Stone) gets to deliver one of the strongest of them: “You’re doing this because, like the rest of us, you’re scared you don’t matter! And guess what — you don’t matter! Get used to it!”

Riggan has his supportive current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) in the cast and sometimes receives terse counselling from producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). But most of his best advice comes from his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who consoles him with, “It’s what you always do. You mistake love for admiration.”

One’s reaction to the movie becomes, then, strictly a matter of taste. If you savour vinegar — as in, bucket after bucket of it — you’ll have little trouble enduring this. Otherwise, it’s a sad, bilious journey.

The film contains fleeting rear nudity, much sexual humour, including a crude sight gag, frequent profanity and pervasive crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

John Wick
By John P. McCarthy
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Keanu Reeves is best known for playing a messianic figure in the “Matrix” trilogy, a police officer on a runaway bus in “Speed,” an FBI agent who surfs in “Point Break” and, early in his career, a knuckleheaded teen in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

If there is one word to describe his screen persona, it’s laconic. Reeves tends not to play hyper-articulate characters, and imaginative line readings are not a hallmark of his performances.

He’s more apt to portray strong, silent types — men of action who, if judged by their outward appearance and the way they sound, are easily written off as slackers. Yet they get the job done and project enough vulnerability to invite audience sympathy.

Starring as the eponymous antihero of the action thriller “John Wick” (Summit), Reeves stays true to form, up to a point. Wick is a man of few words and efficacious. But since his chief talent is for killing, he’s incapable of evoking sufficient compassion. The result is that Reeves seems as capable as ever, but much more inert emotionally.

Pseudo-stylish and extremely violent, the movie itself plays like a long commercial for a fancy imported beer. A significant amount of casual, tongue-in-cheek humour is generated by the characters’ reactions to Wick’s lethal prowess — enough to lighten the proceedings a bit, though not nearly enough to wash away the blood or offset the high body count.

A notoriously brutal and persistent hit man, John Wick has had the rare experience of being allowed to withdraw from the New York crime scene and lead a so-called “normal” life in suburban New Jersey. But following the death of his wife from unnamed natural causes, he’s drawn back in when a young thug steals his prized 1969 Ford Mustang and kills the puppy his spouse left him to help with the grieving process.

The rash hoodlum turns out to be Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of Russian crime czar Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), a former associate of Wick’s. Although he doesn’t put it in so many words, there’s little doubt Wick will exact revenge. Aghast at having woken such a potent foe, Viggo goes on the offensive and provides an endless supply of black-suited henchman to be dispatched.

In a series of repetitive sequences, Wick eliminates everyone in his way, frequently by shooting them in the head at point-blank range or snapping their necks. His friend and fellow hit man, Marcus (Willem Dafoe), gets drawn into the mayhem, as does a female assassin called Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki).

Making his directorial debut, longtime stunt co-ordinator Chad Stahelski doesn’t choreograph the action with any appreciable verve. The noir atmosphere he aims for is neither original nor convincingly rendered. Dressing everyone in three-piece suits and making use of dim lighting doesn’t cut it. The effort to present a criminal underworld governed by a strict code of behaviour — and in which all the nefarious players lodge at the same chic Manhattan hotel — is faintly ludicrous and decidedly unglamorous.

Wick knows how evil he is and, while not completely without remorse, never pretends to be civilized or morally redeemable. That doesn’t make him less culpable or his murderous behaviour any easier to watch, however. It only renders the movie drearily inevitable.

Likewise, asking — as numerous characters do — whether Wick has come out of retirement permanently and whether it’s even possible to ever extricate oneself from this milieu, is idle speculation. The only certainty is that Reeves’ latest screen venture is eminently avoidable.

The film contains pervasive bloody violence involving guns, knives, martial-arts combat and the brutal treatment of a priest, possible euthanasia, animal cruelty, drug use, an irreverent depiction of a Catholic church, at least one instance of profanity as well as frequent rough and some crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Like some who play the “game” from which it takes its title, the folks behind “Ouija” (Universal) want to have it both ways: It’s all about harmless fun, of course. But what if it’s not?

A half-baked cautionary tale that nonetheless serves as extended product placement for the Hasbro version of the device, director and co-writer Stiles White’s muddled chiller is an amateurish effort that delivers few jolts and little entertainment. Its ambiguous portrayal of a spiritually dangerous pastime, moreover, makes the film totally unsuitable for impressionable viewers.

When seemingly happy teen Debbie (Shelley Hennig) mysteriously hangs herself, her best pal Laine (Olivia Cooke) and her boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) are left with a host of troubling questions. So they ill-advisedly try to communicate with Debbie using an Ouija board the deceased girl had recently unearthed in her attic.

As the audience already knows, and as some who haven’t even seen the movie can easily guess, a malevolent spirit summoned up by this item was the cause of Debbie’s untimely demise. Thus, by consulting it, Laine, Pete and those rounding out the seance — Laine’s younger sister, Sarah (Ana Coto), her school chum Isabelle (Bianca Santos) and her sweetheart, Trevor (Daren Kagasoff) — have all landed themselves in the supernatural soup.

Extricating themselves involves finding out about the unwholesome family who once lived in Debbie’s house, making more than one visit to an asylum for the insane and crawling around in a dark basement. While White and his script collaborator Juliet Snowden are thus busily lurching from one genre standby to the next, characters are rapidly being felled — one of them, at least, in a manner that’s quite nasty to watch.

The ultimate impact on moviegoers? Well, there is another way to spell “board.”

The film contains occult themes, brief but harsh violence, a suicide, a couple of crude terms and some mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Dramas about any form of addiction customarily exist in a tight moral universe. There are clearly limned ideas of right and wrong. Always, misdeeds bring harsh consequences.

“Addicted” (Lionsgate) keeps to that structure only briefly.

Since the film is based on the first in a series of erotic novels by Kristina Laferne Roberts — who goes by the pen name Zane — and the craving at issue is thus for sex, gaudy, elaborately choreographed bedroom activity soon takes over. From there on, the proceedings might be said to occupy that nether-nether land between soft-core pornography and a big-screen soap opera on the scale of Tyler Perry’s “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counsellor.”

So, no moral lessons here except for the brief interjections of a therapist, Dr. Spencer (Tasha Smith). She’s treating Zoe (Sharon Leal), a married mother of two who unspools sad stories about how she can never get a man to satisfy her, and is descending into sex addiction.

Director Bille Woodruff and screenwriters Christina Welsh and Ernie Barbarash emphasize considerable undulating in expensive negligees, unusually long shower times and gratuitous peeks at male backsides.

Despite a stable marriage to architect Jason (Boris Kodjoe) and the positive influence of her mother, Nina (Maria Howell), who helps run their Atlanta household, visual artists’ manager Zoe can’t shake the feeling she’s been missing out. Her husband has been her only man ever since high school.

First, there are secretive visits to online pornography, then a fling with sensuous painter Quinton (William Levy), who tells her, “I just love to watch the way your lips move.” That ratchets up to acrobatic, drug-fuelled casual sex at clubs with Corey (Tyson Beckford). Zoe’s time with her family plummets, and her obsession damages opportunities to expand her business.

There must be a cause to all this, right? Something perhaps from childhood? And who will finally intervene?

Well, it’s not a movie intended to leave anyone thinking, “What have we learned?”

The film contains strong sexual content — including graphically portrayed adultery, aberrant behaviour and upper female and rear nudity — frequent rough language and much sexual banter. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — The free-for-all world of local TV news reporting provides the backdrop for the strikingly creepy character study “Nightcrawler” (Open Road).

Though it showcases a memorable — if unsettling — performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s drama also features a gritty urban atmosphere pervaded by an air of moral nihilism. It thus calls for thoughtful assessment by mature, well-grounded viewers.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a borderline-autistic Los Angeles loner scratching out a bare-bones existence through the non-violent theft of items like scrap metal or an unattended racing bike.

Accidently exposed to the work of the breed of ambulance-chasing cameramen whose disdainful nickname gives the film its title, Bloom takes up the seamy craft — and discovers that he’s quite good at it. Mainly, that’s due to the fact that he displays a total disregard for any semblance of ethical standards. The more gruesome the images he can intrusively videotape at the site of a car wreck or on the scene of a violent crime, the better.

In fact, Bloom’s indifference to the suffering he captures brings him so much success that Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of the show to which he markets his sensationalist wares, becomes dependent on his output to maintain ratings — and thereby keep her job. Since Bloom is attracted to the considerably older Nina, the power he wields over her leads to some queasy exchanges in the dialogue.

With his fortunes in the ascent, Bloom hires homeless drifter Rick (Riz Ahmed) to serve as his assistant and sidekick. But his proximity to Bloom eventually reveals to Rick just how dark the hidden depths of his employer’s obvious eccentricity are, an insight that leaves him not only repelled but alarmed.

Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is mesmerizingly off-kilter, utterly tone deaf to the social cues of those around him and delusionally pretentious. Addicted to the kind of bromides that might be overheard at a particularly woeful team-building retreat, he is nonetheless genuinely driven to succeed, and to do so at any cost.

Via Bloom’s disturbing antics, Gilroy adeptly satirizes both yellow journalism and the public hunger for tabloid images that fuels its excesses. But as Bloom’s initial moral sketchiness leads on to more sinister wrongdoing, distance and discernment are required to resist treating his descent as a giddy vicarious ride into amorality.

The film contains considerable, often gory violence, several uses of profanity, brief but coarse references to sexuality and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2014 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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