Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Release: Friday, October 17, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu; Nicolás Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris Jr.; Armando Bo

Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu 

Michael Keaton as Birdman as Batman, is awesome.

Behind him, a coterie of memorable characters, some fictitious and others parodies of the performers playing them. There’s Ed Norton in his underwear, Emma Stone in a drug rehab phase (if you thought she was good before, Birdman demonstrates that there is another level of impressive that she’s capable of reaching), and Zach Galifianakis, subdued to the point of being unrecognizable. There are so many elements to carry with you out of the theater, but it is these individuals who will preoccupy your thoughts more often than anything else.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the fifth film from Mexico City-born Alejandro González Iñárritu and my first experience with his work. It tells the tale of a desperate and washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson, trying to salvage his career by mounting his first Broadway play, one based upon American writer Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When one of the play’s star performers is ‘accidentally’ injured on set, Riggan stumbles upon what first appears to be his ideal candidate, a well-established actor by the name of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) for the part. But in the days leading up to opening night, a string of on and off-set snafu’s threatens to shut down the play before it has even debuted.

Two decades after Riggan decided to step away from the role of the popular (and fictional) superhero Birdman he is found succumbing to hair loss and possible mental instability while scrambling for a way to revitalize himself. The film unequivocally runs parallel to Keaton’s own Hollywood experience, particularly the years after he exited Tim Burton’s take on Batman. Now, Birdman doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of the actor’s history but every little bit of familiarity is likely to enhance the experience. For those who know, the struggle is indeed very real.

Birdman is a film student’s guide to establishing creative shots. Cameras spend much of the time following Riggan around the cramped interior of the famed St. James Theater in New York City, occasionally ducking out of the building to deal with side stories involving his troubled daughter Sam (Stone) and to put into perspective Riggan’s dual identities — as an aging actor and a former superhero. He’ll have you know that there are distinct differences, unique burdens and even particular liberating powers. And what better way to try and visualize the concept of a man struggling to accept who is than by hiring the incredibly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (don’t take it from me, check out his work in Gravity). Once again, his cameras find some of the most beautiful imagery in difficult and unusual places.

There’s one technical aspect that really separates the film from other tales of ill-conceived attempts at career resuscitation, and that’s Iñárritu’s wanting to give the impression the movie is cut as one long, continuous take. Thanks to Douglas Crise’s crucial editing, it’s much easier to feel a part of the process because we never feel as if we’re watching a series of scenes strung together. There’s a flow to the proceedings that could very easily be overlooked in favor of the impossible dynamic between its cast and setting.

If the unexpected virtue of ignorance does have fault, it’s just that: too many things to ogle over and become infatuated with. It might be too dynamic a picture, but that’s more a passive-aggressive compliment than a sleight against a director who simply has a wealth of strong ideas surfacing at once. In some ways Iñárritu’s imagination is like that of a child’s: exploding with ideas and bright color, an obsession with the fundamentals of existence, things like popularity. Self-identity. Awareness of the place that has you contained. In Riggan’s case, it’s more a fear and confusion over these things from his past than apprehension and curiosity about what the future holds.

Riggan is a complex and massively entertaining character. But he is merely one piece of a fascinating jigsaw puzzle that crams stellar performances — Galifianakis, as Riggan’s best friend, lawyer and producer Jake, deserves a second mention perhaps more than Stone — as well as a passion for theater, and positively thrilling and adventurous storytelling into a relatively taut two hours. Is this the part where I am supposed to mention something about the score as well? Surely the jazz-drum score laid down by Antonio Sanchez will linger in the mind well after the end credits have rolled.

Here’s a production that is as uniquely bizarre as it is efficient and deceptively straightforward. Actors are, more often than not, some pretty insecure people. Actors want to be liked. They ideally would like to be adored by all. While that’s never going to be true, one is still allowed to dream. Here are those dreams visualized, distorted and shaped as if made of something tangible. As far as Iñárritu and Birdman are concerned, anything is possible through the magic of performance art. I absolutely loved this movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one whacky ride. Its outward appearance is likely to scare away a few who aren’t too impressed with kinky stories. For god’s sakes we have Ed Norton fighting Keaton in his undergarments, actresses making out with each other for the hell of it, and a man seemingly possessing an ability to control things with his mind. (If that wasn’t telekinesis, whatever the director’s doing with that little extra bit certainly propels the film further into the weird.) But it’s such weird, good fun and if you are game for a movie that is a little different from the rest, I can’t recommend a better one right now than this.

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Sixty is the new thirty, motherf**ker.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Oblivion

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Release: Friday, April 19, 2013

[Theater]

Honestly, this is the perfect movie for an actor who has (or according to some, had…) feet firmly planted in the Scientology belief system. For someone who believes in aliens, Tom Cruise managed to pick rather appropriate territory by signing up for Oblivion, the new sci-fi adventure from Joseph Kosinski.

Aside from his intellectual curiosity about all things extraterrestrial, Cruise’s role in Oblivion seems to be a throwback to his performance in another futuristic thriller, Minority Report — some decade ago now. . . . . .and this would be right before he began to lose serious credibility with me.

Both of those films deal heavily in gadgetry, in human relations that have evolved (or devolved, take your pick) to the point of being robotic, and both are set well into the future. For both, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite. One major difference between Kosinski’s sci-try and Spielberg’s effort, is that Minority Report was rather successful in its mind-warping storytelling. And another: while many science fiction films do pay tribute to other films of the genre, Oblivion does this to a fault. Comparisons to other films run the gamut from Wall-E to Independence DayI, Robot to Inception. A lot of scenes throughout this post-apocalyptic-Earth story make up a collage of borrowed ideas that attempt to forge an original storyline that, ultimately, reverts to ripping off one of the aforementioned films (Independence Day) in a very obvious way.

But it’s hardly an original idea to argue how this film is not original. Again, the homages paid in many sci-fi “classics” can be obvious. Maybe the multitudes that are made do not surface all in one film as they do here, but hey whatever. What is more annoying and a bigger letdown is that it’s now 2013, and still we are being fed sci-fi soup with not a whole lot of flavor; and in particular, this one is very deflated in tone, and well-worn in its invention. Basically only the setting and its cast help distinguish the project.

Jack, along with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), comprise a mop-up team that ensures that the technology humans have employed to retrieve valuable resources from Earth are functioning correctly. Now, most people are either living on Titan (apparently one of Saturn’s moons has been deemed a reasonable place for us to live these days) or they’re preparing to go there, and soon Jack and Victoria will join. They live in luxurious quarters established high above the clouds. Jack’s mode of transportation looks like a concept helicopter for the year 2077. It is with this rather sleek vehicle Jack makes his drone repair missions frequently and the vantage point we have for a good portion of the first half, in experiencing the aftermath of a war which ravaged the planet.

Harper fills us in a little on the situation during a brief narration in the very opening scene, informing us that while humans won this war, Scavs destroyed the moon along with half the planet. The resultant landscape is something akin to the Halo maps, fully-realized on an IMAX screen. When we are out wandering around with Jack, it’s all very stunning and strangely beautiful seeing a planet devoid of human life.

In fact, I’d argue most of Oblivion‘s issues arise from the production design being a seriously tough act to follow, if you’re the script. I don’t see this film suffering from a simple case of a weak script. There’s always a pecking order amongst direction, production, and editing departments, and it’s clear where it all broke down for this one. (Academy Award-winner Claudio Miranda has his way with this set. Thanks, buddy.)

We get to feast our imaginations on the unfamiliarity the new landscape brings, one that cements the Empire State Building in several thousand feet of ash; a floodplain the size of the Mississippi on top of — yes, on top of — Washington D.C.

What must this war have been like? — we might ask ourselves as the camera sweeps dramatically out again across the land.

We almost couldn’t care less about what Cruise represents here, that he’s actually a part of the actual story actually taking place in this proposed world. We’re so overwhelmed by what Oblivion has done better than The Day After Tomorrow that we forget about the fact we are going to face plot turns, consequences and all that stuff specific to this movie. . . . if only we could just stop comparing . . .

The fact that the plot and especially some of the dialogue feels like it took a backseat to production values is not damnable, by the way. It’s just impossible to ignore. Riseborough, in particular, is terrible in this film. Morgan Freeman, as Beech, was handed some pretty dull assignment as well. And that’s exactly how his role feels, too: an assignment. He’s not operating in full Morgan Freeman capacity here, particularly given what you know and what you will know by the time his character is fully revealed. Tom Cruise seems to handle his job fine enough, but this is not his greatest performance of all time either. Olga Kurylenko plays a very soporific Julia, a character development that is also not too thought-provoking. As uninspired as she comes across, her character is rather crucial to understanding the film’s final destination.

It’s a passable story, though, and its dressed up in beautiful style. Altogether, Oblivion sells as quite a handsome marketing pitch, and it’s a cool-feeling movie when everything is said and done. Need there be no more involvement than your gut reaction, Oblivion works as a perfectly serviceable new-age actioner featuring a revamped alien version of Tom Cruise.

His role in Scientology makes perfect sense.

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3-0Recommendation: It lacks the sophisticated premise that underlay some of the visually inferior works of Cruise’s early career, but style over substance might just do it for most people when standing on the edge of Oblivion.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t shake the feeling that Earth, in spite of all that’s happened, Earth is still my home.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com