A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’ 10.10.14

Anyone that knows the film lover side of me knows how much I absolutely adore Woody Allen. My first introduction to him was in a film class in my late teens when one of my teachers showed the class “Annie Hall” (1977). A film that struck such a chord with me and left such a mark that even 15 years later I still consider it to be one of my 5 favorite films of all time. In the several years following I’ve immersed myself in almost every Allen film. At one point a couple of years back, if my mind serves me correctly, I think I remember counting that I had seen 37 of his 44 films. His films have become something much deeper than just movies. In fact, they’ve gotten me through some really difficult times in my life. I almost use them as a therapeutic tool. They’re my version of what I consider to be “feel good movies”. Even though underlying them there’s a sense of cynicism and sadness about his views on life. In my eyes, I look at life very much through what I now consider to be almost an “Allen-like lens”. Given the fact that at this point I feel like I practically know the guy being well aware and knowing that I only know him as a writer, actor, director, comedian, and musician. The best thing for me is that I know each and every single year I will be given a new Woody Allen film. His creative output is only matched by the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, who used to release a film a year. And, who non coincidentally, also happens to the director who Allen cites as his biggest influence. Now I can’t really say I had the highest hopes going into his new film, as the trailer just screamed out “minor Allen”. But being in that he’s one of my top fave favorite film makers, I just knew that I had to see it.

The film starts off in Berlin circa 1928 where we first meet a seemingly famous magician named Stanley (played by the great British actor Colin Firth). Our initial impression of him is that he’s quite full of himself. He’s pompous, self absorbed, and a total narcissist. A longtime friend and admirer of his work employs him to travel to the southern coast of France to expose a clairvoyant named Sophie (played magnificently here by Emma Stone, in what might be her finest work to date), who specializes in being able to raise the dead through the ritual of seances. Since he himself is considered to be one of the finest magicians of his time, his employer hopes that he can debunk her and show that’s she’s really just a fake. Stanley arrives to France under the guise of a businessman, but after some time of him and Sophie getting to know one another, she recognizes who he really is and through intuition correctly guesses what his motivations are. But it also seems as if she is smitten by him and doesn’t really seem to care or not that he’s there to expose her. That, and he is fascinated by her too. So while they both know that he’s there for reasons to ruin her they grow a deep affinity and admiration for each other and one another’s work. As their relationship grows so do their affection for one another, but because of their age difference (Stanley’s much older) and the fact that both of them are already in committed relationships, it doesn’t seem like this is a possibility. Except by maybe an act of fate. At the core it may sound like a simple love story but in typical Allen fashion, there winds up being much more involved than what meets the eye.

This wound up being an enjoyable film that I had a fair amount of fun with. Even if it does fall into the more “lighter fare” category. But it is “late Woody Allen”. Who in much of his recent efforts, with the exception maybe last year’s splendid “Blue Jasmine”, more or less reflects the tone of a lot of his latest work. Emma Watson is enigmatic here and a true delight to watch. Colin Firth also seems fitting for the role, and while although I wouldn’t put it up there with his best work (see 2009’s “A Single Man”), he certainly does a decent enough job where I thought he was a good casting choice. The two lead actors obviously seem to have a lot of fun with another one of Allen’s consistently good scripts and provide some great on screen chemistry. Also, as is with a lot of Allen’s more recent work, which acts as an almost travelogue since he films all over the world, he shoots the coast of southern France beautifully with some absolutely gorgeous and stunning photography. The music is also a highlight, as is with most of Allen’s films, he has a great ear for old school big band jazz sounds of the early 1920’s and thirties. My only criticism of the film is that it almost felt a bit “too” light. Like it was trying to pander a bit to the audiences heartstrings. Which is not something I’m used to with Allen. If anything I’ve often felt like his work is the exact opposite in that it tries not to even remotely pander to what he thinks the audience might like. It’s also cute and charming but not very funny. Which I was fine with as I don’t think its intention really was to be funny. At least not laugh out loud funny. However, I look at both of these things as minor critiques and that for the most part, I was able to overlook because of the other elements that I liked. This is slightly above average “late Woody Allen” and is more aligned with his post-aught films like “Match Point” (2005) or “Midnight in Paris” (2011) than it is with his stronger films like “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (2008) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013). It’s a film that even an Allen admirer such as myself can certainly recommend to others who are just looking for an enjoyable evening out with a delightful and charming film which even despite it’s more lighter leanings, succeeds on a lot of levels.

Grade: B