Blood Will Out

December is all about catching (and catching up with) movies that are being discussed on year-end lists. There's no way I'll get to everything I want to, but that's no reason not to give it the ol' college try. Going to Kansas City to visit my sister is always a good opportunity to consume some culture, and this past weekend was no exception. We had a Saturday double-feature of Birdman in the theater, then home for The Skeleton Twins on Netflix. And as my sister mentioned on Twitter, if nothing else, "Birdman and the Skeleton Twins" would be a terrific band name.

Now, did you know that there are only two types of entertainment? There's deep, emotionally complex Art, and there's soulless, big-budget dreck. The former is always good, the latter is always terrible, and there's absolutely nothing in between. That's the gist of Birdman, the newest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, known for such rollicking good times as Amores Perros and Babel. Michael Keaton stars as an actor who used to be a big name, most notably for playing a costumed superhero, but hasn't been heard from in a while. GET IT? He stakes his reputation and a good amount of his money on a serious play that he's not only producing, but directing and starring in as well. His fears and nerves continually flood to the surface, often in the form of hearing the voice of his Birdman character from long ago. His new attempt at relevance is beset by problems ranging from a surly, distant daughter to a costar who insists that all emotions in the theater be genuine at any cost, whether it's by drinking real alcohol or by nearly raping an actress on stage. His problems mount until inevitably, they explode into violence.

This movie is on everyone's lips as a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, and while I didn't dislike it, it doesn't remotely deserve that reputation. It's well-acted (Edward Norton almost walks off with the entire picture) and well-shot, but it doesn't have much to say, story-wise. Journalists and critics are set up as easy strawmen to knock down. American tastes are derided as wholly crass and unsophisticated. It's a shallow criticism of the state of modern culture. While it probably deserves a C+ for those reasons, strong performances and cinematography (the movie is filmed to make large sections of it seem to be one continuous shot, which really works well) elevate it a good deal. It was definitely worth a viewing, but awards.

The Skeleton Twins was interesting, in that it's a drama that features actors better known for comedy. It stars Bill Hader, who plays Milo, a gay, out-of-work actor who comes from a family racked with depression. After a failed relationship, he unsuccessfully attempts suicide, after which he reconnects with his similarly suicidal twin sister Maggie (Kristin Wiig), who he hasn't spoken with in ten years. The two start to rebuild their relationship, while still stumbling over life obstacles that serve as constant temptations to end it all.

It's a heavy premise, but these two actors are adept at injecting levity. They also play really well as siblings. In a way, brother/sister relationships are the most difficult to portray realistically, but you can immediately accept that these two grew up together. Scenes that would come off as trite and cheesy in another drama actually work in this movie. In particular, a scene where Milo tries to cheer up his angry sister by roping her into a Starship lip sync really shines. This film is not the most layered, unflinching depiction of depression and family tension that you'll ever see, but it's better than any suicide drama starring Saturday Night Live alums has any right to be.

Birdman: B-
The Skeleton Twins: B


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