Fake scares dilute effectiveness of ‘The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death’

When it comes to horror movies, the sub-genres — the crazed killer(s) on a slasher spree, the demonic possession, the monster/zombie rampage and the paranormal/ghost story — are recycled with a few tweaks here and there to keep the fans interested. Of these themes, the ghost story has the most disadvantages because there are fewer options to maintain a fresh and creepy presentation. Mysterious bumping and creaking, furniture moving on its own and fleeting ghostly images can only go so far in making an impact on an audience.

“The Woman in Black: Angel of Death,” the sequel to the well-received 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe, is one of those follow-up movies that really adds nothing to the story.

The premise shows some initial promise. The story takes place in 1941. With England  being pummeled by bombings as part of the Nazi Blitz, a group of children who have no immediate relatives is rounded up to be taken to the rundown Eel Marsh House as a temporary and supposedly safe orphanage.

The adults in charge are Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory), a strict school mistress, and her assistant Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), who has a better grasp of handling these vulnerable children than her boss.

Times are desperate in England, which is the only rationale for sending already emotionally distressed children to a remote, derelict ruin like the Eel Marsh House, with limited access and surrounded by dreary and creepy woods, and, of course, a cemetery.

The script by Jon Croker does not devote much time in developing characters of the youngsters, focusing primarily on Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), a boy who has gone mute in the aftermath of a bombing that killed his family.

The set-up is effective in that children are now facing potential peril, so it would have been better if some of these young people were given a chance to display some personality.

But that aspect is devoted entirely to the adults. Eve at first seems to be a grounded young woman who has managed to maintain a positive perspective in the midst of the horror of German aggression. Jean is authoritarian and often cold — this is her way of coping with the grim reality of war.

A third adult is introduced upon the party’s arrival at Eel Marsh House — Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine), a young pilot who seems to have a lot of time to drop in at the house, with hints of him having designs on Eve.

Once the people get settled into the house — not exactly the most cozy of lodgings — it is time for the creep show to start.

But after a decent build-up of dread, the spookiness deteriorates. A major is problem is that writer Croker and director Tom Harper overuse the gimmick of the fake scare. Sure, they make the audience jump, but it is all just a tease. It’s cheap and lazy.

Eve and Edward are the only ones who become aware of the malevolent spirit of Jennet Humfrye, still out to wreak havoc in response to the death of her illegitimate child Nathaniel. Amid the not-so-scary incidents, Eve tries to unravel the mystery of the haunting, and along the way, confront an unfortunate incident in her own life.

The action intensifies later in the story, but the conclusion wilts in its soggy resolution. One cannot help but wonder if the director and writer had not expended so much energy on thinking up the inconsequential scares they might have been able to create a truly nerve-wracking story of a restless, vengeful spirit.

Code-breakers go up against the Germans in ‘The Imitation Game’

As in any conflict, not all the battles are fought on the front lines, and wars often are affected by what is going on in places where bullets and bombs are far away.

“The Imitation Game” is an intriguing look at how England dealt with trying to decode the many German military transmissions that used the Enigma code, a complex method of encrypting them so that any interceptions of the messages virtually were undecipherable. Things were dire in Europe as the Nazis easily could communicate their plans and were sweeping across the continent, overtaking countries at an alarming rate.

In England, a team of brilliant mathematicians and cryptanalysts was being put together to decode the messages. One man who was not called but volunteered his services was Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). As job interviews go, Turing’s lacked tact but was brutally honest.

“You need me more than I need you,” he informed Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), whose working relationship with Turing would be strained at best. Turing, however, had an ally in Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a high-ranking intelligence official who had earned the confidence of Winston Churchill. Thus Denniston had to chomp at the bit because not only was Turing drafted to work as a decoder but per Churchill’s decree was put in charge of the program.

“The Imitation Game,” directed by Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) and adapted for the screen by Graham Moore from the book by Andrew Hodges, is not a linear presentation. It jumps around in time to focus on three different phases of Turing’s life. There are scenes of his early teenage years when as a brilliant student but social outcast the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by a classmate, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Christopher not only introduces Turing to cryptology but also triggers homosexual feelings in the teenager.

Another aspect of Turing’s life that is explored is in the early 1950s when his home is burglarized and police grow suspicious when he insists there is no need to investigate. Not willing to drop the case, Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), presses on with the investigation, revealing a part of Turing’s private life that was against the law at the time.

The movie mostly centers around Turing and his team’s seemingly insurmountable task of trying to discover the key to breaking the code among 150 million million possibilities — in only a 24-hour period because each new day the key was changed.

Turing concludes that a machine needs to be designed that could wade through all the possibilities at a much faster rate, and he is able to secure funding to build it.

“The Imitation Game” also zeroes in on Turing’s personality and his shaky relationships. Despite being in charge, Turing fails at gaining the respect of his colleagues, especially Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode from “Stoker”). Luckily for Turing, one of the people who tested to be brilliant enough to be on the team is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who serves as a bridge between Turing and his team.

Turing and Joan develop an unusual relationship, growing to care for each other without any physical attraction. When things unravel between the two, Joan proves to be the much more mature and perceptive one.

Cumberbatch likely will be an Academy Award nominee for his performance. He presents Turing as the complex man he was. Turing was brilliant, arrogant, unwittingly funny and deeply compassionate about his work. Even when the code is finally broken, it is Turing’s Spock-like logic, devoid of emotional considerations, that leads to the wrenching decisions that had to be made by the English military brass, essentially having to respond to one threat while allowing others to go unheeded as part of the wartime strategy.

The tragedy of Turing’s life was that his contribution to the war effort was not made known to the public until nearly 60 years after his death by suicide. Aside from that, his private life put him at odds with English law, making him even more of an outcast.

As portrayed by Cumberbatch, Turing was not a warm person, someone people would want to hang out with. He realized his intellectual superiority and was not shy about expressing it. He was a lonely man whose primary function of his relationships, aside from the private ones (which are hinted as being devoid of any emotional bonds), was to get the job done no matter how bad feelings were hurt. As cold as this was, it proved to be a valuable commodity when dealing with the horrifying threats of Nazi conquests.


The pressing problem with “The Gambler” is that the main character, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), does not seem to care much about his destructive path, so why should anyone else?

A remake of the 1974 movie of the same name that starred James Caan, “The Gambler” is the study of wasted potential, of a life degraded by an insatiable desire to beat the odds despite the enormous setbacks.

Bennett is a professor of literature and the author of a modest-selling novel. But he is living two lives. By day he teaches college kids — although he concedes his students probably will gain nothing from his class other than the necessary credits for a degree. By night he engages in big-stakes gambling — at which he is not very good.

He racks up sizable debts to a couple of nasty loan sharks: Mister Lee (Alvin Ing) and Neville Baraka (Mark Kenneth Williams), and has a week to come up with money numbering in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As played by Wahlberg, from the script by William Monahan based on James Toback’s 1974 screenplay, Bennett is self-centered and self-loathing and very exasperating. Despite being alienated from his wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange), she gives him the money to repay his loans. Does he seize the opportunity to get out of hot water?

No spoilers here.

There are a couple of positive aspects of “The Gambler.” In the classroom scenes, Wahlberg shows he can do more than physical, action roles, managing to keep the students off balance and adeptly turning the lectures into his own self-exploration.

Also a highlight is John Goodman as Frank, a huge, menacing loan shark with a shaved head and a darkly humorous but deadly philosophy on business and life. It is yet another set of scene-stealing performances by Goodman.

Wasted is Brie Larson as Amy Phillips, one of Bennett’s promising students who inexplicably falls for him even though in her job as a cocktail waitress she is aware of his destructive gambling habit.

Ultimately, “The Gambler” is all about Bennett, and the frustration therein of waiting for this man to somehow redeem himself, to do something he certainly could be resourceful enough to pull off, if only he cared. Even in the end, the audience is left with the suspicion that despite apparently seeing the light, Bennett will not peel off the dangerous path he has taken.


Trekking 1,000 miles to get back on track in ‘Wild’

“Wild” is one of those risky projects wherein the story zeroes in on one character, and if that person is not very interesting or sympathetic, the entire film can fall flat. This movie comes very close to taking that spill.

Fortunately, “Wild” is propped up by the presence of Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, giving a performance that has earned a Golden Globe nomination and should be a contender for an Academy Award nod also.

Witherspoon has had her detractors over the years — in 2012 she received the EDA Special Mention Award from the Alliance of Women Journalists for Actress Most in Need of a New Agent for her role in “This Means War” — but one cannot deny that, in whatever role she takes on, she is watchable.

She is on the screen for almost all of the movie’s 115 minutes of running time, mostly in scenes where she is trudging along, reeling from the burden of an overloaded backpack. She is grimy and sweaty and out of breath.  And those are her better moments. Otherwise, while taking a break from her hiking quest, she is building the character of her role as Cheryl Strayed. That’s where the real strain is because Cheryl Strayed as presented here just is not that interesting.

“Wild” is based on the autobiographical book by Strayed, a Minnesota woman who went on a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Coast trail as a means of self-discovery following the death of her mother and subsequent fall into a life of drugs and sex.

Those of us who have had hiking experience can relate to the discomfort Cheryl endured during her months-long trek — the sore muscles, the bruises from the constant thumping of the pack against your back, the blisters and toenail damage.

The rest of the movie simply does not do enough to lift Strayed’s bland character. Her failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) is barely fleshed out. Too bad because despite all their problems the two people have managed to remain friends. Gaby Hoffman is underused as Cheryl’s loyal friend Aimee — viewers get little insight into that friendship.

On the plus side, Laura Dern delivers an under-appreciated performance — no nominations yet — as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi. This woman’s life certainly would serve the basis for a more emotionally wrenching movie. Married to an abusive, alcoholic man, Bobbi makes do with what she has. The best scenes in “Wild” feature Dern and Witherspoon. The highlight is a flashback scene in their home when Cheryl incredulously asks Bobbi how she can cultivate a positive attitude given the troublesome life of which she has been dealt. Bobbi replies she has no regrets — the bad marriage did produce two children she adores — and that she is not going to allow all the mishaps to define her life.

Bobbi exudes an optimism despite the financial difficulties, the domestic upheaval and even the health setbacks.

Cheryl responds to the loss of her mother in the most disrespectful way — indulging in drugs and cheating on her husband — until she sees a book in a local store about the Pacific Coast trail. Thus she decides to embark in this long hike as a way to get back in track.

There are some humorous moments as Cheryl, an inexperienced hiker, stumbles along, especially burdened by a backpack stuffed with a lot of junk she does not need. Also, Cheryl does mutter a few witty, sometimes macabre observations. There is even a funny encounter with a reporter for a magazine that focuses on hobos.

Along the way, Cheryl meets other fellow hikers, and there is some tension given the possibility these people might harm her. But the film does capture the camaraderie of dedicated hikers. Especially standing out are Kevin Rankin as Greg, Cathryn de Prume as Stacey and Cliff DeYoung as Ed, the latter a grizzled veteran of the outdoors who helps Cheryl discard much of the items she thought she needed to haul in her backpack.

The script was written by Nick Hornby, himself the author of “Fever Pitch” and “About A Boy.” Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) directed “Wild” and put together a visual treat, thanks to the natural beauty of the west coast wilderness. But the character of Cheryl Strayed, even in the end, does not stand out. She is on the receiving end of wisdom and generosity throughout her journey, but she shares no insight, no advice to others who have endured similar difficulties. All the gifts she received are never reciprocated.



‘The Theory of Everything’ is a story about perseverance

For those who see the title of the movie “The Theory of Everything” and break into a cold sweat, accompanied by flashbacks of those torturous high school and college science and math classes, rest assured this film is not two hours of a professor at a chalkboard, lecturing away.

Instead, “The Theory of Everything” is the story of two people who faced a sobering challenge and prevailed.

Eddie Redmayne is generating Academy Award buzz for his portrayal of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, whose theories on black holes sent shock waves through the scientific community. But this aspect of his life is not covered in detail in “The Theory of Everything.” Instead, the movie, based upon the book by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane, focuses on their relationship and his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

While a graduate student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a friend of his sister, and despite their religious differences — she is a member of the Church of England and he is an atheist — they fall in love.

However, the early signs of ALS set in and Hawking is told he has maybe two years to live. But instead of giving up, Jane vows to stay with him and help him deal with this degenerative disease, and they are married.

As his body deteriorates, Hawking  remains focused on his work, and Jane becomes an emotional force and source of strength in their marriage, which produces three children.

Redmayne’s performance is exceptional, not only in portraying the debilitating aspect of the illness that leads him to being wheelchair bound, but also the difficulties in speech. Hawking is seen as a man still strong in mind and determination although growing weak in body.

The script by is Anthony McCarten, and as portrayed by Jones, Jane is seen as a woman who sometimes stumbles but never wilts under the pressures of having to provide constant care for her husband.

The movie does not delve into the  strains of the marriage, although it does show how the Hawkings grew apart. Encouraged by her mother, Beryl (Emily Watson) to join a church choir as a release from the enormous burdens of caring for her husband, Jane does so and meets the choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a widow who soon also becomes a helper in the family, and inevitably he and Jane develop strong feelings for one another.

Meanwhile, Hawking grows close to one of his nurses, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), and eventually he and Jane are divorced and he marries Elaine while Jane weds Jonathan.

The screenplay by McCarten, along with the direction of James Marsh, handle this aspect of the Hawkings marriage delicately. In real life, there was a period of alienation between Stephen and his ex-wife and children, and there were even suspicions by his family, never proven, that Stephen was being physically abused. Eventually there was reconciliation with his children and Jane.

In the end, “The Theory of Everything” is the story of triumph. Hawking has lived decades beyond what was expected, as ALS is a fatal disease. And when Hawking makes a public appearance long after he has lost his voice via a tracheotomy and must communicate electronically, he writes, “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”


Predictable story, but cuteness, small details lift ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

You can’t go wrong with penguins. Right? Well, “March of the Penguins” was a fascinating real-life documentary, and Bugs Bunny’s Warner Bros. cartoon adventures in which he has to keep a mute penguin out of peril (“8-Ball Bunny” and “Frigid Hare”) were good for laughs.

When it comes to “Penguins of Madagascar,” these critters may be spread a little too thin.

Much like Skrat, the acorn-obsessed saber-toothed squirrel in the “Ice Age” series, the four penguins in the “Madagascar” animated films work better in short, energetic spurts rather than in a feature-length movie.

“Penguins of Madagascar” is a pleasant enough movie, a nice time for the family. Children will enjoy the visual antics of the stars while adults will find occasional amusements in the jokes that youngsters will not understand.

“Penguins” opens with a prelude about how the four creatures got together as kids, led by the Skipper, who entices Kowalski and Rico to rescue a runaway egg that hatches and becomes the fourth in their group, Private.

Years later, this group faces its greatest peril when it encounters Dr. Octavius Brine, also known as Dave, a revenge-minded scientist. The penguins suffer a few setbacks and soon find themselves forced into an uneasy alliance with an undercover group called The North Wind, led by a fox named Classified (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch).

Skipper (Tom McGrath) and his boys are at strategic odds with The North Wind in a typical match of an elite, high-tech unit versus a tight-knit group that relies on its resourcefulness rather than gadgetry. While they have the same foe in Dr. Brine/Dave, the two factions bicker on the methods to bring down the villain.

Character development tends to bog down the story. Skipper finds his leadership questioned while Private (Christopher Knights), although adored by his fellow penguins, is not considered a key player in the attempt to foil Dr. Brine. Classified’s leadership also falters along the way.

The story leads to a predictable conclusion that includes an unlikely hero. It’s a good tale for children. Adults, meanwhile, should stay alert and catch all the humorous little details obviously inserted for their benefit by the writing team of John Aboud, Michael Colton,Brandon Sawyer, Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons — there are plays on celebrity names throughout.

As usual, the visuals are a stunning array of computer-generated animation, a joyride of cuteness throughout.


Grief turns to terror in ‘The Babbadook’

People who have been tuned into the news from film festivals all over the world likely have heard the buzz about “The Babbadook,” the feature film debut of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent. It has won 16 awards including four in the Horror Features category for best actor, best actress, best screenplay and best picture at the Austin Fantastic Fest.

A domestic horror story, “The Babbadook,” also is an emotionally unnerving exploration into grief and the debilitating effects it can have on a person when it is suppressed.

Kent based this movie on a short film she did earlier, “Monster,” and with funding from Kickstart was able to develop a full-length feature.

In interviews, Kent — a fan of horror movies since childhood — has said “The Babbadook” was influenced by the early silent horror films, along with the works of Roman Polanski, such as “Repulsion,” and David Lynch. In fact, she uses footage from creepy silents like clips from Georges Melies’ movies to enhance the spookiness of her film.

In “The Babbadook,” Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed mother trying to cope with raising her six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), and it has not been easy. Sam has some obvious problems. He is socially isolated, prone to violence, and each night wakes his mother, claiming there are monsters under his bed and in his closet. One of the causes of Sam’s anxieties is a pop-up book titled “Mister Babbadook,” featuring a character that Sam is convinced has invaded their home.

Initially, Sam is presented as an absolute terror, screaming, devising weapons and wearing Amelia down with his constant need for attention. Seeing the Babbadook book as a bad influence, she discards it, but like the creepy doll Annabelle, it reappears in the house.

As the movie progresses, Kent’s script challenges the viewers into questioning who really is more unstable — Amelia or Sam. Given the circumstances that led to the death of Amelia’s husband, serious issues may be simmering in the mother-son relationship.

Thus, an ambiguity arises as to who is more vulnerable to the psychological impact of the Babbadook book — mother or son. The pages of the book, although on screen only a few seconds at a time, are darkly disturbing, with illustrations designed by stop-motion animator Alex Juhasz, who won an Emmy for his opening credit sequences on Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”

Before long, Amelia is unable to convince Sam that Babbadook is not real because her own sense of reality is slipping and she begins a descent into madness.

Kent  has said suppression of emotions was the underlying theme of “The Babbadook,” exploring Amelia’s attempt to keep her life together without a complete emotional breakdown. The result is a terrifying and gradually billowing inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not

Kent as the script writer and Davis as the actress have collaborated on making Amelia empathetic. She does things that are compassionate while also engaging in selfish and irresponsible behavior, yet given what she is enduring it is difficult to judge her harshly.

Meanwhile, Wiseman, the son of a child psychologist, is a marvel, as he evolves from what seems to be a candidate for serious therapy into a basically sweet and caring child, terrified of the Babbadook but motivated by love to do what he can to protect his mother. The death of his father is something he can only absorb in an abstract way. He brings up it casually and in a detached way, as if dismissing it as one of those things in life. Yet he too seems to be suppressing his true emotional feelings about being fatherless.

“The Babbadook,” now available on pay per view while its DVD/Blu-Ray release is yet to be announced, is a well-constructed and ably acted view of a personal tragedy that metamorphoses into a dark and frightening psychological episode. In the end, Kent leaves it up to the viewers to decide if indeed the nightmare was real, and if it was, will it ever be over.

‘Whiplash’ presents look at a hellacious road to perfection

J.K. Simmons is one of those people whose face everyone knows, but whose name may elude many. Even his most high-profile exposure, in a series of State Farm Insurance commercials, he plays a character we all have grown to recognize. But what is his name?

For the record, his name in the State Farm commercials is Prof. Nathaniel Burke.

Simmons has had a career dating back to 1994 in mostly supporting roles but has added his special touch in fleshing out some memorable characters such as Vern Schilliger in “Oz,” Dr. Emil Skoda in several “Law & Order” episodes, J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” films as well as other upcoming Marvel adventures, and Assistant Chief Will Hope in “The Closer.”

Now Simmons is being mentioned as a possible Academy Award nominee for his work in “Whiplash.” As Terrence Fletcher, Simmons puts on a command performance, one in which every second he is on the screen he keeps the audience riveted with his unpredictable behavior.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at one of the most prestigious musical academies in the nation, located in Manhattan. Andrew is a jazz drummer who aspires to achieve the status reserved for the likes of Buddy Rich.

One day while practicing the drums on his own, Andrew is visited by Fletcher, the most renowned, and feared, teacher at the academy. Fletcher sets up the parameters of this teacher-student relationship by asking Andrew to do a specific piece of percussion work, then in the middle of the performance walks away, as if disinterested.

Later, however, Fletcher tells Andrew to report to the practice studio of the school’s highly regarded jazz band that under Fletcher’s guidance has a reputation for winning competitions. Andrew arrives and learns he is to be, initially, the back-up drummer for the group.

It is at these practice sessions that Fletcher is most volatile. Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher has been likened to that of  R. Lee Ermey’s Gunner Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” a man who is unrelenting and vicious in molding his charges into the toughest of the tough. Fletcher is a master at keeping the musicians on full alert. His facial expressions give nothing away. He may appear to be satisfied with the performances but in a flash can blow up and deliver vile, confidence-bashing tirades, or even resort to throwing things.

Fletcher has three words that all of his students dread to hear because when he says it, they know they are in for difficult time. Those three words are “not my tempo.” He is a stickler for the musicians to be in lock with his tempo and has such a gifted ear he can detect within seconds if the tempo is wrong.

He is cruel with his sharp criticisms and insults, and praise never comes from his lips. An approving nod is all the students will get if he is pleased.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle based “Whiplash” on his own experiences in a band led by a man who intimidated him. Initially, because he lacked finances, Chazelle filmed “Whiplash” as a short that he submitted in the short-film category at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Jury Award and funding came through for Chazelle to make it a feature-length movie.

Teller, an accomplished drummer, turns in a credible performance as Andrew, a disciplined young man who wavers but never gives up despite the driving force of Fletcher with his mixed signals and unyielding demand for perfection.

“Whiplash” is a study of two people, one a master who honestly believes his methods are justified to mold musicians into true artists, the other an impassioned young person already driven to succeed who goes even further, willing to sacrifice a promising relationship with a young woman, Nicole (Melissa Benoist from “Glee”), to achieve his goals.

Under Chazelle’s direction, there are some intense scenes of Fletcher cracking a verbal whip, driving his students to exhaustion — and in the the case of the drummers, bloodied hands — never letting up until they reach their full potential. Even then, a simple mistake can result in any of the musicians being mercilessly ridiculed and degraded by Fletcher.

People who had their own experiences as musicians, dealing with stern teachers, will identify with “Whiplash,” although they may concede that Fletcher’s behavior is extreme.

The camera work during some of the performance scenes is impeccable, and fans of jazz will savor the moments of cool music, especially as a respite from the grueling exercises Fletcher puts his students through in the pursuit of perfection.


Keaton regains screen presence in ‘Birdman’

Back in 1982 Michael Keaton seemingly came out of nowhere and upstaged Henry Winkler with his performance in “Night Shift.” At the time, Keaton had worked mostly in television (his first credit was as a” volunteer” on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”
in 1975). His work as Bill Blazejowski in “Night Shift” was a breakout role, and a few years later he made a real name for himself as Betelgeuse in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”

He did a stint as the caped crusader in “Batman” in 1989 and “Batman Returns” in 1992. For several years thereafter he took on supporting roles (“Out of Sight,” “The Other Guys”) without much distinction until he once again pulled off a scene-stealing performance as the rogue Internet streaming personality Monarch in “Need for Speed” earlier this year.

Now Keaton has returned to a lead role in “Birdman (also known as “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), a uniquely structured character study by director and writer Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, whose earlier works have included “Amores Perros,” “Babel,” “21 Grams” and “Biutiful.”

The product of three writers in addition to Inarritu — Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — “Birdman” is the behind-the-scenes look as Riggan (Keaton), a washed-up actor who years earlier had played an iconic superhero called Birdman, tries to resurrect his floundering career and redeem himself as a serious actor by directing and starring in a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Aside from a crumbling career, a failed marriage and an alienated daughter, Riggan is occasionally visited by a voice in his head, the voice of his younger self, insisting he reprise his Birdman role and return to the top of his game.

Meanwhile, Riggan has to deal with the problems that inevitably arise as a stage production moves into the final rehearsals and premiere showings. Among the personalities weaving in and out of Riggan’s immediate existence are Jake (Zack Galifianakis), his high-strung attorney and financial handler; Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his lead actresses about to make her Broadway debut in the play; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other lead actress and with whom he is romantically involved; Mike (Edward Norton), a late replacement in the other male lead role, a man who functions better on stage than in real life; and Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter, fresh out of rehab and still smoldering with resentment over her father’s absentee parenting while she was growing up.

Inarritu and his production staff have employed a single tracking shot effect, which can be riveting as the movie flows from one scene to the next without any cuts. The impression is similar to that of a live show being recorded with no pauses or additional takes.

Also unique is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez, heavy percussion interwoven with orchestral music. Some viewers might find the drum work jarring.

While visually appealing, “Birdman” is primarily about the performances, and Keaton does his best work in years as a man beset by regrets over his life, along with the anxieties that go with taking a major career risk. Some of the best scenes involve the interaction between Riggan and Mike, two giant egos posturing and trying to manipulate one another. Mike does not hide his disdain for Riggan as an actor and director while Riggan sees through the shallowness of this man who behind the curtain has many imperfections.

Among the women, Stone stands out as Sam, interjecting some insight that lifts the young woman from the usual portrayal of a person embittered by a dysfunctional family life. Watts and Riseborough also have some moments but their characters fade a bit, overshadowed by the performances of Keaton, Norton and Stone.

Some debate may arise over the metaphysical turn “Birdman” takes in the final moments, an abrupt change of tone from a grounded comedy-drama to what evolves into a fantasy sequence. Viewers who go with the flow of this change of course may find “Birdman” to be an interesting and layered study of the emotional ride performers must endure as they prepare to put it all out there for an audience that can either embrace or reject their work.

Gyllenhaal mesmerizes in ‘Nightcrawler’

A few years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal went through a critical wringer when he played Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a heavily financed movie that fizzled at the box office, not even grossing half of its cost. The consensus of many reviewers was that Gyllenhaal, while a proven actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005), he was not cut out to be an action hero.

Given the right role, however, Gyllenhaal can be a commanding presence, and his work as Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler” may be his best opportunity so far to show off his talent.

A lot credit also goes to writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Two for the Money”) for providing a script that allows Gyllenhaal as Bloom to build a character that can leave the audience with mixed feelings about this man and what he does.

As “Nightcrawler” opens, Bloom is a man trying to make a living in dishonest ways but is driven to find legitimate work. Early in the movie Bloom shows talent for building himself up to a prospective employer, a sales pitch that might have worked if only his past did not include illegal activities.

One night, fate intercedes. While driving home in his clunky car, Bloom comes upon a serious auto accident where firemen are working to free an injured driver from the burning wreckage. As he pulls over and closes in to get a closer view of the action, a van pulls up and a “nightcrawler” emerges and takes videotape of the rescue operation. Entranced by this man’s actions, Bloom hovers nearby learns that this guy is what might be generously termed a “crime (or accident) journalist.” Not affiliated with any news organization, these nightcrawlers cruise the cities while plugged into police and fire department radio scanners, and go to the scenes and take news footage that is then sold to whatever television news organization is willing to buy it. They are freelancers, or as the news organizations call them, stringers.

This becomes a defining moment in Bloom’s life. He engineers a theft that helps him finance the purchase of the basic tools in his new line of work: a video camera and a scanner. His first foray into this gruesome world of first-responders to crime and accident scenes yields sloppy but graphic images. Wisely, Bloom takes his tape to a local Los Angeles television news outlet that is last in ratings, assuming the people there will be eager to obtain and air his footage. There he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the station’s news director whose career is teetering after years of bouncing around.

In Bloom, Nina sees a man driven to succeed in this line of work, but one who needs to refine his skills.

“Nightcrawler” is a character study, and Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Bloom. He is very motivated, while also showing mastery in negotiations — he could thrive as a sports agent — and manipulation. The movie is heavy in dialogue but never boring. The camera zooms in on Bloom as he uses his powers of persuasion and exercises an ability to keep people off balance.

His interchanges with Nina are fascinating as he tries to build not only a business relationship with the woman, but an intimate one as well. In addition, he hires a desperate unemployed man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to be his assistant. The way Bloom treats Rick is chilling — he plays the poor man, one minute praising him and building his confidence with predictions of a bright future, then a minute later cutting him down with brutal, yet useful, criticism.

“Nightcrawler” also is a study of exploitation and how Bloom, with emotional detachment, can turn people’s tragedies into money-making opportunities for himself, and how he can work a desperate employee to near exhaustion and then trick the man into making a payment deal that clearly benefits himself more.

The screenplay and Gyllenhaal’s performance also create a conflict in how the Bloom character is perceived. He can be ruthless in going after his goals, yet is admirable in that he is willing to do his research and put himself on the front lines. When he tells people that he would not force them to do anything he would not do, it is the truth.

“Nightcrawler” is an uncompromising look at a world where tragedies and crimes can be immediately recorded and dispatched via various media, and what can happen when people driven by personal motivations are able to set aside any sensitivity to achieve their goals, be it great ratings on television, or big payoffs for muscling in on horrible events without ever considering the dignity or privacy of the victims.

It seemed fitting that “Nightcrawler” would be released on Halloween weekend, as it is a modern urban horror story, with Lou Bloom and Nina Romina as monsters preying on the unfortunate.

‘Ouija’ conjures up little in suspense, horror

The makers of “Ouija” deserve an A for effort on this, the first major feature for writer-director Stiles White and co-writer Juliet Snowden. They tried to take on a subject that can be creepy and chill-inducing but were unable to add any new elements to the story. The result is another ghost yarn that is just a variation of the “Paranormal Activity” series, but minus the found-footage, jerky motion format.

The Ouija board, a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, has been featured in dozens of movies over the years, most notably in “The Exorcist” and more recently had a guest-starring stint in “Paranormal Activity.” The consistent thread in these appearances is that using the Ouija board, like playing with matches, can usually lead to trouble. It seems every  time a call is made to the great beyond via the board, it is not Casper the friendly ghost who answers. It is more often than not a spirit that is upset or riled about something.

“Ouija” begins with two young girls, Laine Morris and Debbie Galardi, playing with an Ouija board and Laine gets spooked when her sister Sarah comes into the room uninvited.

The movie advances several years and now teen-age Debbie (Shelley Hennig), alone in her house, seems to be unnerved about something. She tosses an Ouija board into the fireplace,  wanting to destroy it. Then, when Laine (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”) comes by so they can go to a high school basketball game, Debbie begs off for vague reasons, making Laine suspicious something is up. But Laine goes on to the game.

Back alone in the house, Debbie experiences some strange things and soon is dead, having hung herself.

In the days following the tragedy, Laine, grappling with the guilt that she was unable to prevent Debbie’s suicide, begins to sense something else is going on. Conveniently, Debbie’s parents decide to leave town for a while to recover from their sorrow, asking  Laine to watch the house during their absence. Also, Laine, whose mother is no longer around (either split from the marriage or dead — it is never revealed), is left with her rebellious  sister Sarah (Ana Coto) while her father is on a business trip. This gets the parents out of the way.

Laine discovers the Ouija board at the Galardi house, not aware it supposedly was burned. Giving in to her intuitions that Debbie might be trying to contact her, Laine drafts four other people to join her in a seance at the Galardi house: Sarah, Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) and Isabelle (Bianca Santos).

The Galardi house is the epitome of a place with a bad history — two-story, old and creaky, and despite having numerous lights throughout always seems to be dark. Some unusual events occur during the seance held by the young people, but nothing substantive results from the attempt to contact the dead.

However, over the next few days, four of the young people encounter the same message in various ways — written on a wall with chalk, etched on a desk, appearing on a laptop screen and scrawled on window condensation — leading them to believe it is indeed an attempt by Debbie to contact them.

So the Ouija board is hauled out again, but soon the young people discover there is something more sinister going on. Here is where the screenplay by White and Snowden gets bogged down in yet another haunted house story. Fans of such spooky stories will enjoy the appearance of Lin Shaye from the “Insidious” films, playing a different character but in a similar role as someone who may have an explanation for the creepy incidents. Also, Vivis Columbetti, who played the nanny Martine, a person who sensed evil things brewing before everyone else in “Paranormal Activity 2,” plays the Galardi housekeeper Nona, who counsels Laine on how to battle these nasty spirits.

“Ouija” does build some suspense, but the payoff scares just fall flat. Flickering lights, mysterious shadows, doors opening on their own and the creaks and pounding have become mundane after so many uses in movies of this type.

Cooke, who starred as Jane Harper, the young woman supposedly possessed by a doll in “The Quiet Ones” earlier this year, anchors “Ouija” as Laine, a strong-willed young woman whose attempts to make sense out of a friend’s death unwittingly launches more peril around her. Unfortunately, other than Coto as Sarah, the sister who likes to sneak out at night with an older guy, none of the other characters has much personality. They are props whose role is to be terrified.

“Ouija” falls short of creating any substantial apprehension. When the secrets are finally revealed, they are not particularly startling. In the end, White and Snowden simply revisited the familiar themes of the ghost story movie.