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Movie reviews: 'Birdman,' 'John Wick'

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"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" (R) ***1/2

Twenty-five years after he vaulted to superstardom as an unlikely superhero in Tim Burton's "Batman," Michael Keaton's career soars to new heights in "Birdman" – a dizzying character drama that examines a scenario probably not unfamiliar to Keaton in real life as he tried to break from the mold of the Caped Crusader in the early 1990s.

Keaton embodies Riggan Thompson, a struggling film star who hit the skids after starring in three blockbuster "Birdman" movies more than two decades before. His salvation lies in a Broadway play, an all-or-nothing comeback piece in which he stars, directs and produces.

Before the show goes on, however, Riggan has to confront a nasty nest full of problems, including personal issues surrounding the grown-up daughter (Emma Stone) he never really knew; a cast of helplessly neurotic actors including an arrogant Broadway star (Ed Norton) who does his best to sabotage the previews of the play at every turn; and a highfalutin theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) whose all-powerful reviews can either give life to or quickly kill every production that dares to tread the boards on the Great White Way.

Hovering above the potential disaster-in-the-making, though, is Riggan's Birdman alter-ego, which has become such a part of the actor's life that he appears to take on the character's mystical powers at times, and is often haunted by the superhero's gravelly voice. Posing for pictures with fans and slumming through interviews with reporters who really only care if there will be a fourth "Birdman" movie, Riggan knows he will only truly be set free if he can stage a performance to kill off his blue-feathered character once and for all.

Co-written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," "21 Grams"), "Birdman" is clearly not a film for everybody. It has a lot of art house ambitions, and chief among them is what may be the longest tracking shot in movie history, where the scene free-flows without an edit for nearly the entire movie. From a technical standpoint, it's clear that Iñárritu didn't shoot the film all at once (he smartly employs seamless transitions to different settings and character interactions), but he still has to be commended for one of the most creatively shot films in recent memory. On top of that, "Birdman" is made distinct by its bizarre but effective soundtrack, mostly made up of sporadic drum cadences.

No amount of weirdness, however, can overshadow Keaton's brilliant performance in "Birdman," which may be the best in the comedic actor's illustrious career. Keaton, of course, has done drama before, but this is by far the most complex (read: emotionally messed-up) character he's ever played, and there's no doubt his name will be mentioned early and often this movie awards season. The same goes for Norton (who, ironically, had a controversial one-movie gig as the Incredible Hulk), who once again proves why he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.

For those still endeared to Keaton's version of Batman, Iñárritu satisfies the superhero faithful by eventually having the fully costumed Birdman character follow Riggan around like an unwanted shadow. There's also a spectacularly-staged fantasy sequence that almost makes you wish the "Birdman" films were real and available to see, a scene that in a way drives home the point of why Riggan is in his predicament in the first place.

In a movie environment that is lately driven by superhero fare, the genre no doubt has a power to, well, pidgeonhole a "Birdman"-type actor, making it all but impossible for some to branch out into more serious, character-driven fare. Luckily with "Birdman," Iñárritu gives us a unique glimmer into both genres with a uniquely compelling tale.

"John Wick" (R) **1/2 (out of four)

If "John Wick" teaches us anything, it's that you should never, ever mess with a man and his dog – especially when that man is played by Keanu Reeves.

Reeves plays the title character of John Wick, who at the beginning of the film, at least, is trying to live a peaceful life. Recently becoming a widower after the woman (Bridget Moynahan) that he left the Russian mob for dies, all hell breaks loose in Wick's life after Iosef (Alfie Allen) – the son of his former boss, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) – has a confrontation with Wick over his classic Mustang at local gas station.

Breaking into Wick's house along with a gang of thugs and beating him to a pulp, Iosef steals Wick's car and brutally kills Wick's Beagle puppy – a dog that was the last gift given to Wick by his dying wife in order to help him in his grieving process. And that's a big problem when Iosef finds out that Wick is his dad's former top assassin who will stop at nothing to make sure he pays for cruel misdeeds.

Playing out like a gritty, graphic novel (a la "Sin City") adaptation, "John Wick" is a simply-plotted but effective revenge thriller with a high body count. Ultraviolent and cartoonish in its action scenes (but not in the technical sense like the "Sin City" movies), the film fortunately employs an intense atmosphere, odd sense of humor and engaging enough characters to keep viewers locked and loaded into its paper-thin narrative for the entire 1 hour and 41 minute run time.

As for Reeves, while never the most emotional actor in the world, he still doesn't have any problem commanding your attention in "John Wick." Sleek and imposing as the title character, Reeves even shows a bit of charm as re-enters the criminal underworld and encounters fellow assassins and crime figures (Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Adrianne Palicki among them), not knowing who exactly he can trust since a contract has been put out on him by his former boss.

All told, "John Wick" doesn't pretend to be anything more than the high-octane shoot 'em up action movie that it is, and it has no apologies as Wick gives the bad guys everything they have coming to them. Of course, there are convenient, nonsensical plot turns that happen to allow the story to play on, but overall, the movie works. It's not a great film, but a satisfying one in a genre that definitely has its limitations.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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