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]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Whiplash” 11.13.14

Winner of both the Audience Award and the Special Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival 29-year old wonder kind writer/director Damian Chazelle knows his music. Having been raised in a musical family himself and joined the band in high school. It would only make sense that his debut feature; given that he’s so young, would have something to do with music. I had heard about this one following the Sundance hoopla, and noticed that it had taken home the 2 coveted awards that I had mentioned above. So based on that and that alone I knew I was going to see it. Then I saw a trailer for it that pretty much knocked my socks off it looked so good. I did however think for a second that it looked strongly similar to Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010) about a ballet teacher who pushes one of his students too far. Except here it looked like a musical teacher who pushes his drummer student too far. Which left me slightly skeptical. That and while I’ve liked some of the work of its 2 leads in J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, the former of whom is one of the better “character” actors of our time but one whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a lead role from what I can recall. And the latter, Miles Teller, who prior to this I was only familiar with in his small but memorable role in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” (2009) and as the lead in last year’s mediocre “The Spectacular Now” (2013). A film in which I thought got more credit than it deserved. But after hearing such good things about the film following the festival circuit, particularly that of the 2 actors who received a lot of buzz for their performances, I decided to check it out. What sealed the deal for me was having a lengthy discussion about it with one of the theater reps who spoke incredibly highly of it and who books movies at one of our commercial theater chains that tends to show a lot of the Academy bait-type movies early in the Oscar season. Before those movies get catapulted out into wide release later in the year as they start to get noticed via word-of-mouth. So, I went to see it and just barely chose it over Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Birdman” (a hard decision to make let me tell you). But one that I had nothing but the utmost confidence in.

The opening shot introduces to our first of 2 main central characters, Andrew (played by Miles Teller), in a pan in shot playing a drum solo that tips off the audience right away to the fact that he’s some sort of prodigy of sorts. Which is confirmed soon after when we find out that he is currently enrolled in a prestigious (though fictitious) music conservatory college in New York City. One in which even Andrew himself claims is “the best in the country”. Andrew, like most people who devote 100% of their life into honing their craft so that they can be the best, is a bit of a ghost to most of his classmates who seem to be able to maintain other interests outside of their area of study like most college students. He’s got no friends, is painfully shy, and spends his free time going to the movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). He’s a second year, 19-year-old, back up drummer in class. Who basically just flips pages in the second seat waiting for his chance to be a core player. That chance comes one day in the form of the school’s most prestigious musical teacher, Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), who also happens to teach the most reputable musical group in the school. One in which every student’s lifelong dream is to get into and play for him. Well, Andrew gets such an opportunity which elevates his confidence to ask out the attractive young girl who works at the movie theater he goes to with his dad. Everything seems to be going good for Andrew. At least for a short while until he gets his first crack at performing for the infamous Fletcher, and soon learns that there’s a method to his madness. The two then go on to develop a teacher-student relationship. A dynamic in which I haven’t seen since R.Lee Ermy’s Sargeant to Vincent D’Onfrio’s Private in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) or more recently Vincent Cassel’s dance troupe instructor with Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). Can Andrew rise to the challenge to fulfill his passion of becoming the best drummer at the school? Maybe one of the all times greats? Will Fletcher help bring this young prodigy get to the top? Or will his perfectionist and unorthodox methods of teaching act as a roadblock to him achieving his dream?

What can I say about this film other than that it was nothing short of exceptional. Easily the best part of it for me were the 2 very fine lead performances on display. It’s refreshing to see such a great script whose characters get played by 2 actors – one who’s relatively new to the game in the form of the young Miles Teller, and the other by a veteran actor like J.K. Simmons whose been in the business for years but mainly as a character actor in bit parts. Both are outstanding, particularly that of Simmons, and both of whom should get some serious awards attention as the critics and Academy start rolling out their nominations in the next few months. Secondly, like some of my favorite films do, it plays into several genres. It contains a sports drama element like 2002’s “Drumline”, part musical, psychological thriller, even at times borderline horror film like the aforementioned “Black Swan” (2010). Though don’t be fooled – at its very center it is first and foremost a concert film, and one of the very best I’ve seen about music in as far back as I can remember. The way the script and cast of professional jazz musicians bring the music to life really needs to be seen to be believed. At its core it’s really a film about the love for music and the lengths some people will go to be the very best. Which zips, booms, and bangs music and breathes new life into the genre with its great jazz, swing, and bebop score. The last thing I think is important to point out, is the testament to the truly great script which never panders to the audience, even if in the first third I thought I had the rest of the film figured out. The way in which it shifts gears in plot and keeps the audience guessing the 2 lead characters’ motivations to me was executed perfectly. Did I also mention it’s incredibly intense yet also an incredibly confident story and assured piece of filmmaking? And one that will have you on the edge of your seat from about a third of the way in until it’s wonderful grand finale. Don’t be surprised if this picture winds up being a dark horse for Best Picture, and one or both of the 2 leads gets Oscar nominations as the year comes to end. This is a smart, well executed and acted sports drama/thriller, about one very unique relationship between mentor and pupil. Which also happens to be one of the year’s best pictures that should easily land a coveted spot on my list of the top 10 films of 2014.

[A-]