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 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Release: Friday, November 22, 2013

[Theater]

After struggling to find a decent seat at a showing at 3 in the afternoon, it would seem I had seriously underestimated the frenzy that The Hunger Games had thrown the world into; although I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite all of my hesitations as I watched the original — the first of three adaptations of Suzanne Collin’s brilliant dystopian vision of the American future.

Given the surprising quality of the first, it should’ve been easy, then, to see how the forthcoming sequel would stir an even larger wave of enthusiasm ($25.3 million on Thursday night alone, to be precise). To put this ridiculous number in perspective, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the most successful midnight-opening in box office history, earned $43 million in its first wave of Thursday night showings. This film wasn’t close to topping that, but given the circumstances (this being only installment number two, rather than being the final chapter in an eight-film-long franchise, and also being a considerably more obscure story than that of that magical little wizard) I’d say the odds will forever be in this adaptation’s favor.

The dizzying numbers, which are projected to skyrocket internationally and over the course of this weekend, shouldn’t really come as a surprise either, because everything that made 2012’s The Hunger Games such an engaging and enjoyable experience is further refined and expanded upon in Catching Fire.

Purists are sure to find some fault in how some specifics of Collins’ novel may be overlooked, but a tremendous amount of credit must be given to both directors Gary Ross (who helmed the first) and Francis Lawrence because both films have proven to be incredibly immersive experiences, capable of standing on their own, touching on everything from simple teenage heartache to the complex morality play at work involving the politics of this new world we’re arrested into.

At the heart of Collin’s novels lies the disturbingly oppressive political regime that dominates all of what remains of a post-apocalyptic North America, which has now been divided into 13 districts, all presided over by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol. The Capitol is the central point from which all evil is derived in this compelling drama about choice versus destiny. One woman, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), dared to defy the pre-existing “rules” set in place by winning the 74th annual Hunger Games in the previous film using unorthodox methods. Because of her actions, two tributes (the people chosen from each district to fight to the death in these games) are left standing: herself, and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Without explaining away too much, the circumstances at the time were certainly dire enough, and to think that Katniss would end up getting away with this act of defiance unscathed, well you’d be dead wrong.

Hence, where we are now.

Catching Fire picks up almost directly off the back of its predecessor by showing the two winners obliging in a ‘Victor’s Tour,’ where the pair will go around to each and every district and make themselves known as the (read: perceived) true symbols of hope throughout the land. Katniss, being the fiercely intelligent protagonist that she is, knows that behind this facade of fake smiles and ill-begotten honor lies something that’s truly worth fearing. The games weren’t exactly fun, but they indeed were just ‘games.’

As it turns out, President Snow is well aware of Katniss’ adaptability and of her rare ability to think for herself. In fear of a resurgence of spirit amongst the millions of downtrodden and hopeless residents of each district and the inevitable rebellion thereof against the Capitol, Snow makes Katniss aware of the hell she is going to pay for giving the good people of Panem hope.

The ensemble from 2012’s games return here in fine form once again. Elizabeth Banks turns in one of her most inspired role choices for the second time as Effie Trinket, someone who looks like she just emerged from Willy Wonka Land dressed up in attire that would make Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby costume designers jealous. Woody Harrelson is back as the supportive, fun- alcohol-having Haymitch Abernathy, the survivor of the 50th Hunger Games; so too is Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ costume designer and stylist; and Liam Hemsworth returns as the side-lined love interest for Katniss, Gale Hawthorne.

We are treated to newcomers, also: a pivotal character emerges at the culmination of the Victor’s Tour. Katniss meets a man named Plutarch Heavensbee (because they couldn’t find a less goofy name) who’s portrayed by the immensely talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, a casting choice that only cemented Catching Fire further as one of the year’s finest offerings. We also see new faces in new tributes, as a significant portion of the film is dedicated to the Third Quarter Quell — a special edition of the games in which a rule is changed. . . to make things interesting. To make the districts suffer for their previous insurgencies in the past. A cast this large and this inspired deliver terrific performances all around, giving the second elaborate step in the series an energy unlike any other.

But perhaps the strongest, most resonant aspect to the Hunger Games is also the same thing that drives the characters to do what they do: an incredible sense of fear. For us, it’s the fear of what we think may or may not happen to Katniss next (or for those who have already read the books, you know what is about to go down in some cases) — as the audience our fear is of the visual; but for the characters its a palpable fear of death, a fear of losing their loved ones, a fear of entering the hunger games again. Injustice, both physical and psychological, swells to nearly unbearable proportions in moments throughout Catching Fire. What Katniss, her fellow tributes and loved ones have to endure at times is painful, but it’s all attributable to the solid screenplay penned by Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy. The general brutality of the oppression is appropriately given an extra dose of severe in the sequel.

At the same time, one should expect some incredibly beautiful things to happen as well. As per the excellent writing, Katniss as the central figure simply defines the term ‘burdened.’ The consequences of the first film have increased the spotlight on her throughout Panem, and she’s caught the close attention of President Snow himself. The pressure has mounted for her to demonstrate her love for Peeta, convince the nation. As Haymitch observes, her private life has become [theirs]. Given the complexity of someone like Katniss and especially the psychological element at play here — the live-broadcasted television shows that feature a host (Stanley Tucci) too frightening for me to describe being the most illustrious moments of this aspect — this film handles it all remarkably well. Not only is the character allowed to develop far more than she does in the first, the intriguing premise set up by Collins’ novels blends smoothly with it, creating one of the most exciting films released all year. Nevermind it being a sequel.

All of the elements that made its predecessor the hit that it was is evident here, only amplified. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours in length, Catching Fire is The Dark Knight of Collins’ vision on paper.

Without a doubt, this is how you adapt a book into a film (says the guy who hasn’t read the books yet). Don’t worry, I will be shortly.

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4-5Recommendation: Francis Lawrence bats it out of the park in terms of appealing to genre devotees and general audiences alike. I believe at least three screenings tonight sold out at at least one theater in my area. The movie is set to produce near-record numbers after a weekend and expanded international release. Catching Fire is a movie you won’t be able to avoid, but don’t think of that as the groan-inducing kind of side-effect associated with something gone mad-popular, but more as a sign of appreciation for a film that got things right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Let it fly.”

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