Julian's Judgment: Birdman

The Movie Summary:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and a few other people in an ensemble cast which follows Keaton's character Riggan Thomson as he tries to find relevancy as a writer/director/actor on Broadway after being washed up action star for an untold number of years.

Birdman constantly reminds Thomson he can achieve that fame once again through one easy trick, but he's set out to prove his vivid hallucinations wrong with dramatic flair and hilarious wit.

The Judgment:

The whole movie has tight acting, direction, staging, editing and narrative. Some of the actors seem to play an exaggerated version of themselves, from Keaton who hasn't had a major role since Batman playing a character trying to be relevant once again, to Norton who's an actor's actor, being a belligerent hard nose prick to his supporting cast members. These two are especially caricatures of the typical character actors you expect to see in a play/film on Broadway - always plotting their respective resurgences to obtain an importance they no longer possess. 

Very few films turn the cinema experience itself into a provocative character, but Birdman does so seamlessly, especially aided by its micro-editing and long and intense tracking shots.

The Ensemble:

The supporting actors are great as well - Emma Stone and Zack Giraffe play their bit roles perfectly and with enough depth and wit that you they contribute to the story. All the characters feel relevant and important to the overall story, including the the ambient jazz drummer that appears randomly throughout the film - a rare quality for an ensemble cast.

The "negatives"

If you're the few viewers who do not get the film, just remember that its by and large a dark comedy, and should be viewed through a sardonic lens - otherwise you'll do yourself a disservice by not understanding what's going on, or why what they're saying makes perfect sense while being completely cutting and bitter about the audience and the industry at large.

Last Words:

Like Whiplash, I consider Birdman an outstanding piece of cinema worthy of future viewing. Re-watching, of course, to appreciate the fantastic crew and cast that was capable of adding the sum of its parts to unity.

Grade: A

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Julian's Judgment: Nightcrawler

The Movie Summary:

Nightcrawler (2014), a neo-noir crime thriller written and directed by Dan Gilroy in his director debut, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and a few other people (Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton).

I don't want to spoil the movie by giving away too much of a synopsis, as I went into this movie completely surprised about the subject matter - for the best!

The Judgment:

Like most neo-noirs, Nightcrawler takes a twist on the noir/thriller genre so modern audiences can enjoy something different from the usual bag of tricks. Story wise, the movie surprised me. I assumed by the movie poster this would be a Drive rip-off, but Nightcrawler explores its own story and subject matter with sadistic delight. Where Drive has a loose narrative and artsy feel, Nightcrawler is more narrative driven and visually straightforward approach.

Technically speaking, most of the film takes place during the night, similar to Collateral, which poses lighting and view-ability challenges (I bring this up because for some reason, the night sequences in Tusk were barely visible on screen). The visually appealing 'look' coupled with well developed characters and enticing story can pay off at the box office (which it did, at moderately slim budget of ~8.5 million, Nightcrawler made ~40 million).

Throughout the second half I couldn't figure out the plot's direction (in a good way!) and felt exceedingly disturbed during the movie's last act (also in a good way!).

Why Jake Gyllenhaal Made This Movie Great:

Gyllenhaal plays psychopathic Lou Bloom with an amazing performance similar in magnitude to his work in Prisoners, Zodiac and Jarhead. Bloom always appears plotting, conniving and downright deceitful as he makes his way to the top of his field. Watching Gyllenhaal put his all into this character demonstrates how passionate he is for this film. To prepare for Bloom, Gyllenhaal states in an interview I watched that he purposely stayed awake late into the night to develop his 'wolf' like persona, and immerse himself into the seedy nighttime of L.A's concrete jungle. The supporting cast does great as well, with Russo's morally ambiguity, Ahmed's desperate need for self-preservation, and Paxton's competitive nature which inadvertently motivates Gyllenhaal's character to reach the top of his craft.

The Negatives:

The soundtrack was the only let down leaving more to be desired (compared to Drive), but it's a minor issue that doesn't subtract from the overall atmosphere created by the rest of the movie.

Last Words:

If you're not into dark-crime-thriller-dramas than you probably won't like how this makes you feel. After the film ended, several questions popped into my mind about the events and choices by Gyllenhaal's character, a rare movie that has you think a little even after it finishes - wow!

Now go watch Nightcrawler and formulate your own opinion.

Grade: A

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Julian's Judgment: Whiplash

The Movie Summary:

Whiplash (2014), written and directed by Damien Chazelle, stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). You should know who J. K. Simmons is from Spider Man and the Legend of Korra, but if you don't recognize Teller, he also stars in the Spectacular Now and Divergent (both alongside Shailene Woodley).

The Judgment:

This was the best movie I saw last year. The. Best. Nothing came close, and I saw Gone Girl, Birdman, American Sniper, etc. Everything about this movie has an supreme level of craft and expertise that I rarely see in movies these days

And I'll explain why.

What Makes Whiplash the Best Movie of 2014:

From beginning to end Whiplash understands how to take the basic direction, editing, acting, staging, cinematography - pretty much everything - and pump the most out of each scene for the most cinematic and dramatic effect. Teller does exceptionally well playing a drummer, and it begs the question whether he can actually drum, since the movie conceals his drumming ability so well that I'm convinced he's the one drumming and not some external overlaid sound mix.

This was the best movie I saw last year. ... Nothing came close.

Then there's J.K. Simmons acting accelerated by Chazelle's intense script and direction. Simmons presence and intensity can be felt in every scene and he essentially steals the show each and every time. Chazelle's direction calls to mind David O. Russell in Silver Linings Playbook, if you liked that movie, you'll love Whiplash.

What makes Whiplash exceptionally great, and separates it from the generic AAA movies that populate the rest of the Academy Award nominations comes down to the subject matter and what Chazelle is able to pump out of it. Music movies generally piss me off because they play out like cliche sports drama with the same stupid message of "try your best and you will win!" without showing any of the struggle and practicing that's required to actually achieve greatness.

Whiplash actually shows you how Neiman navigates all the obstacles presented to him, and throws in extra dramatic flair to keep you on the edge of your seat, shaking in anticipation for what will happen next and if he'll actually overcome whatever adversity which plagues him. Furthermore, the character development of Neiman and Fletcher shows how great, simple writing propelled by intense direction can yield the most intense character driven drama I've seen since in a while. Watching these two characters play off each other was a real visual treat worth seeing over and over again.

The Negatives:

Some viewers may criticize the movie as being too intense and therefore unrealistic, but I cut slack for movies that play up the unrealism as long as it comes across as believable enough in some perturbed version of the world. Also, if you're a music person (I'm not) you may pick apart details of the movie that normal people without a musical background may see, which may take you out of the film.

Regardless, from someone not musically adept, those shouldn't matter as much when compared to the acting, editing, script, direction that I look for whenever I watch a movie.

Last Words:

In that mindset, this takes all the things a movie can do, and does them exceptionally well. The Academy should buck the trend of picking established directors and their movies for best picture, and select this amazing movie instead of the usual play-it-safe bland crap (*cough* Argo *cough*).

Grade: A

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