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A technical tour de force.

When I first read the thumbnail on this one--washed-up Hollywood action hero seeks redemption by staging serious play, with most scenes transpiring backstage at a Broadway theatre--I thought, what a boring excuse for a bit of meta navel-gazing that will interest no one outside the profession. Couldn't have been more wrong.

Aside from its annoyingly punctuated full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) inspires renewed faith in what we used to go to the movies for--original storytelling, enveloping escape, heart-stopping camera work and enough "wait, what's going on here?" to keep us intrigued from beginning to end.

Shot in just 30 days at the St. James Theatre off Times Square in New York, Birdman is by turns intimate, surreal and darkly funny, also boasting the remarkable visual effect of appearing to have been shot in one continuous take.

Plus, you'll get your lifetime-guaranteed fill of eyeballing Michael Keaton in tighty whities (and Edward Norton in a splashier option).

Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, who recently turned down the chance to play costumed movie superhero Birdman a third time in favour of a riskier, less lucrative but more prestigious project: directing and starring in a stage version of a Raymond Carver short story.

When a co-star gets injured just before previews, another boldface name whose talent is exceeded only by his conceit, Mike Shiner (a perfectly cast Edward Norton), cruises in as a last-minute replacement. As Mike begins to upset applecarts with his Method acting and unsolicited suggestions, Riggan also wrestles with his just-out--of-rehab assistant/daughter Sam (the delightful Emma Stone).

Best pal/producer Jake (a newly svelte, underused Zach Galifianakis) repeatedly talks panicked, depressed Riggan off the ledge. A haughty crabapple of a New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan) threatens to burn him down before the show has even opened. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as the play's insecure women stars and Amy Ryan as Riggan's compassionate ex all add interesting side drama.

Keaton (who played another superhero, Batman, twice) is a polarizer; people seem to love or hate him. Whatever your view, it's tough to dispute the new layered depths he brings to Riggan, who goes on periodic flights of fancy high above the streets of New York, inhabited by his alter ego/cynical conscience, Birdman.

Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful) gracefully weaves these magical-realism interludes between the more grounded activity in the dressing rooms and musty halls of the St. James.

Another trademark of Inarritu, who was once a DJ in Mexico City, is his exceptional ear for music that enriches a film's sensory impact without distracting from the action. In this case, it's an almost entirely percussive score composed by Grammy-winning jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.

BIRDMAN

Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Running time: 119 mins

Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence *****

A single uniformed cop shows up in the hitman-out-for-revenge thriller John Wick. He sees blood on the title character's face and hands.

"Evening John," he says, all friendly even though there have been "some noise complaints." Then he leans over to see inside the man's Architectural Digest home and spies a body.

"You, uh, working again?"

A non-denial denial.

"I'll uh, leave you TO it then."

That's the world screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have created. There's a fraternity (and sorority) of hitmen and women. They all stay at the swank Continental Hotel when visiting Manhattan. The silky and discreet concierge (Lance Reddick, perfect) knows them by name and anticipates their every need. The owner (Ian McShane, spot-on) keeps them up to code.

And everybody who sees John Wick wants to "leave you TO it, then."

The hitwoman (Adrianne Palicki) and men pay for everything with single gold coins--contracts, the services of a mob surgeon or the "cleaner" crew which hauls away the bodies and wipes up the blood.

And there's a lot of it. Because John Wick is another one of those guys with "particular skills" the movies seem overrun with these days.

Keanu Reeves is Wick, whom we meet--bloodied--as he crashes an SUV into a loading dock. A five minute, almost dialogue-free flashback shows us the love of his life (Bridget Moynahan) and her untimely death. Condolences come from the only colleague (Willem Dafoe) to show up at her funeral.

Everybody knows John Wick. As in a Western, a bloody-minded young punk (Alfie Allen) messes with the "retired" man of violence. As in a Western, the punk crosses the link when he "shuts up" Wick's puppy.

And anybody who ever saw a John Wayne movie knows what happens when you mess with a man's dog.

Mayhem ensues, which is fitting because one of the supporting players is Dean Winters, a certain insurance company's "Mr. Mayhem," cast here as the sidekick to an alarmingly good, wonderfully expressive villain.

Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has his best Hollywood role, as Viggo, the Russian mobster who son just crossed the wrong ex-employee.

"I once saw him kill EIGHT men in a bar ... with only a PENCIL!"

"Babay," Viggo calls Wick. Not just "The Bogeyman," but "the guy you call to KILL the bogeyman."

What ensues is pure, unadulterated slaughter, delivered in a style similar to Luc "The Transporter" Besson's action films, with a touch of John "The Killer" Woo. Reeves is a bit rough in a few moments where he has to make a speech, but convincingly enraged in others. And fight choreographer Jonathan Eusebio makes great use of him in action. Watch how Reeves holds a gun--two hands, head-high, elbows bent. Notice how he flicks through every clip-change, how he finishes off a mobster with a cursory head-shot. The fights grow bloodier and more personal as the vengeance is dealt.

As fodder for fiction, this is strictly C-movie material. But Reeves animates the action and the filmmakers surround him with wonderful co-stars; the quietly menacing McShane, the chop shop operator (John Leguizamo), thedapper "cleaner" (David Patrick Kelly of The Warriors) and the spitting, hissing Nyqvist. Listen to the way the Swede sputters about having his treasure hoard trashed.

"Peee-RICE-LESS!"

Swedes playing Russians make the best bad guys. Everybody knows that, just as surely as everybody in this world knows John Wick and the slaughter that's coming. Because everybody knows that you don't mess with a hitman's dog.

JOHN WICK

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Bridget Moynahan, Willem Dafoe

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Running time: 100 mins

Rating: R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use

***
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Title Annotation:movies; 'Birdman' and 'John Wick'
Author:Tillotson, Kristin; Moore, Roger
Publication:Investigate HIS
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Dec 1, 2015
Words:1100
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