BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I've been an admirer, if a casual, distanced one, of director Alejandro González Iñárritu since his feature debut, Amores Perros (2000). His visual style and penchant for visceral, multi-arced storytelling are undeniable. Much of his work though, heady and heavy as it is, lacks the humor and irony that I feed on to survive. As I age, I find returning to Babel (2006) or Biutiful (2010) ever less likely for entertainment. Not so with Birdman, wherein Iñárritu orchestrates a compelling marriage of style, difficult narrative stuff, fantasy and high comedy.
Actor Riggan Tompson (Michael Keaton), having made his name with a titular superhero franchise, has now burnt his bridges to it. He has decided to redefine himself, to the public, the critics and himself, as a serious dramaturge. Thanks to his best friend, attorney and producing partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis), financing and a venue have been secured to mount Riggan's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. (Minor Humboldt connection there, for those keeping score.) Days before previews are set to begin, the production is in crisis. One of the lead actors just can't seem to get it right. This infuriates Riggan, who may or may not use telekinesis to injure said actor severely enough that he must be replaced. The replacement: Mike (Edward Norton), a fixture of the Great White Way, supremely talented thespian and all around megalomaniac. Mike is romantically involved, not without complications, with co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), for whom the play represents a new career high. Mike may also have designs on Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh from rehab. The fourth co-star in the play, Laura (Andrea Risborough), might be pregnant with Riggan's child. Threats of a lawsuit, insufficient funding and the New York Times' drama reviewer loom over the production like thunderheads. Meanwhile, Riggan receives frequent counsel from his gravelly-voiced Birdman alter ego, who advises him to hang it up and slink back to Hollywood for another sequel.
Played straight, this could work perfectly well as a behind-the-scenes comedic drama about the theater, but also about life and all of its continuing crises. Iñárritu, the cast, crew and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo elevate the material into something greater, more complex and more fun than that. Using dazzlingly, deceptively technical camera and editing techniques, Iñárritu creates a seamless narrative continuum moving through time and space. In another context, or executed imperfectly, it wouldn't play at all, coming off like a show-offy trick. Here, though, it feels exactly right, as though the movie couldn't possibly exist in any other form. There are moments when the meta-weirdness might overwhelm some viewers, but those moments are in service of such an accomplished, fully realized, entertaining work that they are forgiven and even applauded in hindsight. (If this description seems vague, I apologize, but it is intentional. I had little idea what to expect, visually, from Birdman, and it came as a satisfying surprise I'd hate to ruin.)
The performances here are complex, demanding and imminently watchable. Norton seems to take great joy in playing the narcissistic cad; Watts is rangy and honest; Galifianakis gives Jake depth beyond simple line readings. The movie, though, belongs to Keaton. As my wife aptly pointed out, it's questionable whether the whole thing would even work without him and the cultural cargo the former Batman brings. Parallel backstory notwithstanding, he once again proves that he's got the goods, ranging from the high comedy that made him famous in the first place — Night Shift (1982) is one of my particular favorites — to the weird gravitas that made his Batman so effective, to raw, exposed late-middle age regret so authentic it actually hurts to watch. R. 120m.
DUMB AND DUMBER TO. I am old enough to have seen Dumb and Dumber (1994) in the theater, and young enough to still remember it fondly. I haven't revisited it in the intervening decades, but the Farrelly brothers comedies of that period, from Kingpin (1996) and There's Something About Mary (1998) to Me, Myself and Irene (2000), hold up pretty well. This, though, will not.
Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey), having spent 20 years in a fake catatonic state as a prank on hapless Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), has decided the joke's gone on long enough. He "wakes up," allowing an opportunity for a real zinger of a pulling-out-the-catheter gag. Harry re-introduces Lloyd to their life, which has changed precious little in two decades. Harry had to take a roommate who, in a one-note joke, turns out to be a Breaking Bad-style meth cook. And, oh yeah, Harry needs a kidney transplant, so it's off on another even more loosely connected series of cross-country incidents.
It's not worth getting into the details. See it if you feel so compelled (a lot of other people have), but know that I was willing to meet this thing on its own terms, and in short order it nearly put me to sleep. PG13. 109m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is back as the poster girl for revolution in this, the penultimate installment of the YA dystopian adventure franchise. PG13. 116m.
BEYOND THE LIGHTS. Depressed pop star and a cop fall in love. PG13. 116m.
BIG HERO 6. A boy and his inflatable robot are out save San Fransokyo with Disney-Marvel-level color and slickness. PG. 108m.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. African-American college students stir things up at an Ivy-League school in this "post-racial" satire. R. 108m.
FURY. Director David Ayer's fine drama about the simple evil of war and the complex team of men who fight. Starring Brad Pitt. R. 134m.
GONE GIRL. An engaging and tightly controlled thriller with standout performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. R. 149m.
INTERSTELLAR. A beautiful, ambitious movie experience about a pair of astronauts (Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway) searching for habitable planets. PG13. 169m.
JOHN WICK. Keanu Reeves is the eponymous badass avenging his dog. Stylish action with brilliant choreography and stunts. R. 101m.
NIGHTCRAWLER. A taut, well-crafted, character-driven film noir with Jake Gyllenhaal as a shady freelance news photographer. R. 117m.
OUIJA. Maybe just play Trivial Pursuit. PG13. 90m.
ST. VINCENT. Bill Murray plays a grumpy neighbor turned mentor in this sweet, well-observed and well-acted story. PG13. 103m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill