Birdman. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. For all the hype that Birdman has received during this awards season, the film falls short of deserving such widespread acclaim. When a movie is so highly praised across the board, you really want to like it more than you do and maybe you throw the word “masterpiece” around a few times, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I got tired of the self-satisfied gimmickry of it almost immediately. Looking back, I suppose there were some positive aspects of Birdman: Edward Norton’s performance (an excellent Method actor portrays an excellent Method actor… excellently!), Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis (better work than I expected from either of them, particularly Stone), Lindsay Duncan as an extra vicious theater critic (not a surprise; she’s always a pro). I guess Michael Keaton gave a good performance – certainly a layered one, given the play-within-the-film and the “Birdman” figure from the character’s past – and it has been nice to see him back in the spotlight, but come this Sunday I would be more comfortable with Eddie Redmayne winning the Oscar. Keaton has an inherent likeability that makes me want to root for him, but I don’t think it’s quite enough for the #1 spot in the competition. And I would not give Birdman any reward for the screenplay, which has dialogue that sounds far too “written” (especially coming from Andrea Riseborough, whose character felt very stilted to me) and a story that feels like All About Eve for dummies. I’m guessing that most people who think Birdman is so “amazing” and “original” just haven’t seen the great film stories that made the same points first, only better. (An actor trying to make a comeback after many years might be neurotic? Gee, what a surprise.) One must wonder: where oh where is our George Sanders today?
Girlhood. Directed by Céline Sciamma. This drama about the difficult lives led by black teenage girls in the suburbs of Paris has very fine performances by the protagonist and her three friends (the excellent Karidja Touré as Marieme/”Vic” and Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Mariétou Touré) and some really good cinematography by Crystel Fournier. The standout scene is, as many other reviewers will note, the cathartic “Diamonds” scene, in which Marieme lets loose and dances with her friends. The film’s soundtrack makes terrific use of pop music, another example being the use of Brooklyn synthpop duo Light Asylum’s song “Dark Allies” in the film’s opening scene. I would point out, though, that the film feels too long. Sciamma makes a habit out of using ellipses, and there are a couple of times in the last third of the film when I wondered whether the black screen separating two scenes actually meant it was the end. Girlhood is very good and it brings up issues about race, sex/gender and class that ought to be made mainstream. If there had been a tighter script (I’ve read that Sciamma likes improvisation) and maybe fewer plot points, the film could have been more successful. You should still see Girlhood, though. There are probably very few – if any – other films like it.
The Rover. Directed by David Michôd. If you thought Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was unpleasant, wait until you get a load of this nasty story set in a post-apocalypse version of the Australian outback. There is very little to like here. Guy Pearce has one of his better leading roles in recent years as a man on a bloody and desperate mission to have his stolen car returned to him, but other than that and some interesting cinematography by Natasha Braier, I don’t recommend the film. Every now and then there’s some good acting by female characters (Gillian Jones, Susan Prior) but they leave the picture as quickly as they enter it. Robert Pattinson was tolerable – considering the usual standard of his acting – as the slow-witted brother of one of the guys who absconded with Pearce’s vehicle. There’s one really amusing moment when Pattinson is sitting in another car (not Pearce’s) and listening to a pop song (“Pretty Girl Rock” by Keri Hilson), a seemingly random and endearing scene, but otherwise the movie is just too relentlessly dreary for me. I have no intentions of ever seeing it again.
Two Days, One Night. Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. I already had a little bit of familiarity with the Dardenne brothers’ style since I watched part of La Promesse (1996) in a class I took last spring. I find their documentary-like style intriguing and they get a great, emotionally-charged performance out of Marion Cotillard, recent recipient of an Oscar nomination for her work here as a woman fighting to keep her job. It is a performance which completely anchors the film; the other actors are good, and Fabrizio Rongione is decent as Cotillard’s husband, but it’s unquestionably Cotillard’s show all the way. The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas audience was weird during the film screening – two men rambling on before the film like the snob from Annie Hall, a woman afterward complaining that “that was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” – but I say it is absolutely worth seeing for Cotillard’s performance. I like the realism and the slice-of-life element. Two Days, One Night is not as loud or in-your-face as some of the other big movies of 2014, but I think Cotillard’s performance resonates, especially for those (particularly women) who have had to deal with depression.
What We Do in the Shadows. Directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. This is a likeable and funny take on the vampire genre, though slight on story and development, perhaps owing to the improvised nature of the film’s production. I have appreciated Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s work for many years, ever since June 2007 (the debut of “Flight of the Conchords” on HBO and the theatrical release of Waititi’s film Eagle vs Shark, which stars Clement) and I enjoyed both of their performances here. Even better, however, were the performances by Jonathan Brugh as Deacon, another of the vampires living in their house, and Stuart Rutherford as Stu, a human who becomes a part of the immortals’ small circle of friends. Rhys Darby also appears as Anton, a local werewolf, but he doesn’t have much to do. Maybe with fewer main characters there could have been a greater emphasis on character development. Overall I felt that Clement’s character didn’t have enough to do or perhaps the things he got to do weren’t substantial enough, not living up to the potential of the character. I like the ending of the film, but it doesn’t make up for the way the film loses steam at the anticlimactic “Unholy Masquerade” ball for Wellington’s undead community. Still, if you’re a fan of Clement, Waititi or New Zealand filmmaking in general, you should check out the film. You’ll get at least a few chuckles out of it – a warning to the squeamish, though: it’s got a few very bloody scenes – and thanks to crowdfunding website Kickstarter, the film is going to be opening at select theaters all over the US of A.