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It’s a big week for dynamic Oscar hopefuls on the release calendar this week.  Between Whiplash, Birdman and Nightcrawler you have a Tomatometer average of 93 percent, so we’re dealing with a plethora of options almost unanimously beloved by critics. Which then, should you lay down your hard-earned scratch for this weekend at the box […]

It’s a big week for dynamic Oscar hopefuls on the release calendar this week.  Between Whiplash, Birdman and Nightcrawler you have a Tomatometer average of 93 percent, so we’re dealing with a plethora of options almost unanimously beloved by critics. Which then, should you lay down your hard-earned scratch for this weekend at the box office?

WHIPLASH

 A toe-tapping genre-defying story that manages to be crowd-pleasing and disturbing at the same time, Whiplash is easily one of the years very best. Telling the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a young hopeful enrolled at a prestigious music conservatory who seeks greatness, and the ruthless instructor (J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to bring that virtuosity of his students. Having previously proven such an affable screen presence in work like The Spectacular Now, Teller drains the charm from this performance, instead opting for a single-minded obsession in Andrew that drains his personality save for moments when he’s getting down to the bloody (this films makes the physical and emotional violence of musical performance startlingly tactile) business of honing his talent. There’s more than a little of Full Metal Jacket’s unforgettable R. Lee Ermey in J.K. Simmons’ performance as the music instructor-as-force-of-nature Fletcher here, barking insults and spewing invective that cuts to the core of these young men with only brief moments of recognizable humanity peeking through amidst these raging emotional storms. They play off of each other magnificently, with Simmons operating as the flint trying to spark the bomb that we see roiling just under Teller’s surface.

As persuasive as the two leads are in selling this mentor/pupil relationship, writer/director Damien Chazelle (fleshing out a short film of the same name) is just as much the star of the proceedings, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the screen in creating a cinematic language that matches the frenetic quality of the performance on screen. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the film’s electric conclusion, where Chazelle pulls out all the stops in making this final bit of performance as cinematically transcendent as humanly possible. Also laudable is the way the film stays two steps ahead of you throughout, providing the thrills and entertainment you expect in a movie of this nature but never giving it to you in quite the manner you expect.  From performance to script to direction, Whiplash is one of the years very best. There’s much to be said about the film’s perspective on greatness and the cost of achieving it (you’re compelled to applaud but feel aghast at doing so, an interesting dynamic), but I’d much prefer for the film to unveil itself just as surprisingly to you as it did for me so I’ll simply say this is a must-see film.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

I was very intrigued to see how Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would handle the high-wire act of dark comedy in Birdman – having only previously made hay with sprawling dramas about how we’re all interconnected yet still prove unable to communicate, how would he handle the story of washed up Hollywood actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and his attempt at reinvention through adapting, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway amidst an emotional breakdown? The film’s full title (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)) should’ve provided a hint – ponderously, with a self-satisfaction and inflated sense of importance that is no way earned by its empty platitudes. The problem lies in the stylistic conceit – Inarritu has conceived of Birdman as a film in which the majority appears to transpire over the course of one shot.  One can see how this would appeal to a filmmaker as dynamically talented as Inarritu, turning the work he’s doing into a puzzle to be solved, but it doesn’t serve the story being told at all. In the early going (and one key late moment) there is a rhythmic energy generated by creating the ‘one take’ effect, but for long stretches of the film it only provides us an opportunity to look at our character’s backs as they walk down hallways, keeping us at arm’s length from forging any connection with these outsized caricatures. Even more problematically, the film wants to root us in Riggan’s subjective mind frame but keeps spiraling the story away from him to the rest of the cast, a decision that ultimately robs Inarritu’s directorial choice of any meaning whatsoever.

Fortunately, whenever the film is about to spiral out of control Michael Keaton is like gravity, keeping everything grounded. It’s been a long time since Keaton has gotten a major role in a Hollywood release (as much I enjoy his TLC-quoting police captain in The Other Guys, I hardly think that qualifies) and he reminds us of what an immense talent he is here. Able to convey hilarity and sadness often in the same moment, he manages to transcend all of the trickery and cynicism Inarritu brings to the table here and provide the film with some much-needed emotional ballast amidst the chaos. Equally adept at handling the material is Edward Norton as the troubled thespian brought in to help save their production. The scenes between these two crackle with electricity, two great actors tearing into this heightened reality with relish, its only unfortunate that we aren’t given more time between the two. Andrea Riseborough also makes the most of her scant time as Riggan’s fiery co-star/lover, unfortunately the same can’t be said for Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, a recovering drug addict who is now employed as his assistant. This isn’t to say her performance is bad by any means, but she’s providing an emotional volatility and honesty that the film she’s in doesn’t have time for.  The film spends so much time being cynical about celebrity, Hollywood and public perception that it forgets to have anything of substance to say beyond that. In the end, it’s as much empty spectacle as the movie blockbusters it’s taking aim at. Next time Inarritu should choose to enact an audacious vision, he should stop and make sure there’s an equally audacious point behind it.

NIGHTCRAWLER

As a sort of middle ground between the previous two options you have Nightcrawler, a movie that (like Birdman) rests heavily on the shoulders of an immense lead performance. Here it’s Jake Gyllenhaal, gaunt and wide-eyed as Lou Bloom, an obsessively driven young man (like Whiplash) who finds his niche in capturing film footage of car accidents, homicides and other visceral nighttime happenings for local news stations. First-time director Ton Gilroy (whose previous writing credits include Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy) succeeds in crafting a sleek portrait of the LA nightscape, but has a little bit of trouble as a writer navigating the themes of voyeurism and media culpability in said voyeurism in a way that reflects the film’s style. The film approaches these topics with a straightforward quality unbecoming of its seductive visual palette and editing style, like a red-blooded Sam Fuller script directed with the effervescent cool of Michael Mann’s Collateral. This becomes most obvious in scenes involving Leo interacting with Rene Russo’s TV news veteran Nina, where I was half-expecting a “Listen kid, if it bleeds it leads!” to butt in at any moment and make the themes are stark as possible.

But it’s a minor complaint in the face of such a virtuosic lead performance. Leo Bloom is like a feral child who, instead of being raised by wolves, was brought up by the empty bromides of self-help gurus and online business courses. He’s single-minded in his pursuit of upward mobility, and it’s clear that this desire supersedes any need for human contact or emotion that isn’t purely utilitarian (at one point, he very pointedly asks, “What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?”) A star-baby forged in the burning sun of our TMZ generation. And much like Whiplash, the film moves in ways you can’t expect – such a treat amidst a movie season where plot points and conclusions are so telegraphed they arrive by Pony Express – culminating in a breathtaking chase sequence that brings everything the film has to say to life in visceral, cinematic terms. And what’s more the film is wildly funny in exposing this underbelly on the screen, with Leo Bloom’s actions often causing you to choke back equal gasps and laughs. Gilroy has created a gorgeous neo-noir here, with Gyllenhaal helping to elevate it to year-best quality with an unforgettable performance.

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