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Birdman, Whiplash and St. Vincent top a full slate of new films now playing

And watch a refugee from Downton Abbey land as The Guest in New Mexico.

A very busy week for new movies including some award worthy titles, Halloween festivals at both The Rio and VanCity Theatres and the filmed-in-B.C. production starring the guy who played Harry Potter. Oh, and Marc Emery too.

Here’s the list:

Birdman:  4 stars

Whiplash:  4

St. Vincent:  3 ½

The Guest:  3 ½

Citizen Marc:  3

John Wick:  2

These Final Hours:  2 ½

Ouija:  --

BIRD MAN or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE: No I don’t know what the subhead means but the studio insists it is part of the title. In the film it’s a newspaper headline. It makes little sense but fits in perfectly with the oddball spirit of this spirited black comedy that muses excitedly about fame, self-respect, celebrity and art. It’s at times hilarious, poignant and perplexing. You get small doses of magic realism and big doses of backstage angst in one man’s attempt to revive his career and gain respect.

 

In an inspired in-joke, Michael Keaton, who twice played Batman in the movies, plays the star of three Birdman movies. He’s now terrified he’s a has-been and tries a comeback with a Broadway play he’s written, is directing and stars in. Whatever self-doubts he doesn’t admit himself others freely rattle off, including his daughter (Emma Stone) who says he doesn’t exist because he’s not on social media, a vicious critic who says he’s not an artist but a celebrity, and his Birdman character who both needles and praises him. Edward Norton is a preening method actor who all but takes over the play, Naomi  Watts is a nervous leading lady and Zach Galifianakis is an easily-alarmed producer. Great cast, very clever writing and two novel turns. A solo drummer provides most of the soundtrack music and a very mobile camera makes the whole film look like one continuous and inviting sequence. The director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is best known for Babel. (5th Avenue) 4 out of 5

WHIPLASH:  This film is emphatic. Everything in it is stated strongly, clearly and tersely. The result is an unusually powerful film about an everyday occurrence: a teacher’s attempt to push a student to up his game. This time it’s at a music school, where a young drummer (Miles Teller) aspires to be another Buddy Rich. His instructor (J.K. Simmons) is a jazz musician himself and has no tolerance for half efforts. The most dangerous words on earth, he says, are “Good job.”

 

He uses insults, racial and homophobic slurs and yelling exasperation when a player is off key and doesn’t know it or “rushing or dragging” a tempo. His shouting rebukes are almost painful to watch. I had a chance at VIFF to ask the director, Damien Chazelle, if he didn’t think those scenes were excessive. He said no, they’re based on music teachers he has had. The story here goes to quite an extreme and we’re breathlessly waiting to see if the instructor will ever soften up. Or if the drummer will break first. Simmons, who you saw as the father in Juno or more relevantly as Spider-Man’s gruff editor, deserves an Oscar nomination this time for the vigor of his performance. Teller sweats and bleeds under his pressure. It’s a thrilling confrontation to watch. (5th Avenue)  4 out of 5

ST. VINCENT: You can see early on exactly where this film is going. Doesn’t matter. Getting there is great fun and full of heart. Bill Murray plays an aging slacker (cranky, drinks, gambles, patronizes a Russian hooker (Naomi Watts, in a second role this week). Then a single-mom (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). She pays Bill to watch him after school because she can’t leave work. Bill needs the money to pay his gambling debts. An uneasy association starts up and warms up on excursions to bars, strip clubs and race tracks. Or through facing down bullies or just chores around the house.

 

You know there will be complaints and they do come. Less expected is Chris O’Dowd’s class assignment at the Catholic school where he is a priest. Each child is to research a modern-day saint. Who do you suppose Oliver will choose and present at a tear-provoking assembly? Yup, him. No surprise but a well-acted, feel-good movie with easy laughs about a curmudgeon and a young charmer. (5th Avenue, International Village and suburban theatres) 3 ½ out of 5

THE GUEST:  He was dead in a ditch at the end of Downton Abbey’s third season. Now Dan Stevens resurfaces as a U.S. soldier in this sleek, highly engrossing thriller set in New Mexico. He drops in on the family of a deceased army buddy, gets himself invited to stay for a few days and charms mom, dad, and their young son but not their teenage daughter. She, played by a very natural Maika Monroe, has doubts that she can’t quite explain, despite also feeling a tingle of attraction.

 

More in New Movies

Widows of criminals doing it for themselves, the seed of modern politics and the perils of war reporting

Also an ingenious take on the migrant crisis, and a second appreciation this year of Ingmar Bergman that adds to what we already know from the first

Melissa’s forgeries, Rami’s dead-on Freddie Mercury and a cult classic re-imagined

Also: a bit of opera (real with Maria Callas and fictional in Bel Canto) and an ode to BC’s chief geographical feature in This Mountain Life
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