Sunday, April 26, 2015

BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)





BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

(DIR: ALEJANDRO G. INARRITU) (SCR: INARRITU, NICOLAS GIACOBONE, ALEXANDER DINELARIS, ARMANDO BO, WITH ADDITIONAL EXCERPTS FROM RAYMOND CARVER'S WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE)


After all the controversy about the films SELMA and AMERICAN SNIPER, (which I wrote about here and here), the Academy finally decided to award Alejandro G Inarritu's BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) as best picture of 2014.  While it's an odd, openly surreal film full of in jokes about it's star and Hollywood in general, it's victory was not that big a surprise given the recent trend of the Academy to award films that deal with film making itself in some way or another (like 2011's THE ARTIST).  Looked at in a simple way, the Academy, like most audiences, enjoys movies that have characters that they can relate to. In any event, although I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of 2014, I do think it's a wild, creative and enjoyable satire that rewards repeat viewings.  It also shows the continuing influence of Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece  8 1/2, still the best film about film making ever.

The idea for the film first came to Mexican born director Inarritu when he decided that he wanted to do a comedy after making heavy dramas like 2010's BIUTIFUL, and conceived of a film that dealt with the backstage drama of producing a play. He consulted screen writers Nicolas Glacobone and Armando Bo, along with playwright Alexander Dinelaris for backstage experience.   Right from the start, he wanted to shoot the movie in what would appear to be one continuous take, even though his co writers were dubious about this idea (and he himself would later admit he his own misgivings about it).  The script was worked on for two years, with Inarritu feeling that only former BATMAN star Micheal Keaton could play the lead role of former superhero star Riggan Thomson, and, fortunately for them, Keaton agreed.  The rest of the cast filled in quickly, with Ed Norton also making fun of his image as a difficult star by playing pompous stage actor Mike Shiner.
Meanwhile, Inarritu was still working on trying to set up a single take film; although this wasn't a completely original idea, Alfred Hitchcock shot the film ROPE in 1948 in just 10 takes with carefully placed fades to give the illusion of seamlessness, while 2002's RUSSIAN ARK pulled off a single shot 99 minute movie, those films were set in enclosed places where camera placement and movement could be tightly controlled.  But BIRDMAN was to be set in and around a Broadway theater in New York City, and feature many different characters and settings.  To shoot this difficult film, Inarritu hired cinematographer Immanuel Lubezki, and the two first started to shoot a practice version of the film to see if it was technically possible.  They quickly realized that a real Broadway theater would be needed for all the backstage locations, so  actual Broadway theater the St James was used for most of the film.  Even using modern digital cameras, the two month shoot was difficult, with each movement of both the camera and the actors having to be carefully choreographed.  In the end, there are sixteen visible cuts in the film, but most of them are easy to miss. (The lack of multiple takes meant that the film was edited in a mere two weeks!).  Not surprisingly, both Inarritu and Lubezki were given Oscars for their ambitious work.  And the film, while not a huge hit,  made over forty two million dollars in the US alone, on a relatively low budget of sixteen and a half million.

Micheal Keaton and Ed Norton


It tells the story of Riggan Thomson(Keaton), a one time Hollywood star who played the superhero character Birdman in two movies before walking away, a decision he's not sure was the right one.  Now he's making his debut on Broadway, starring and directing in a play version of the Raymond Carver story WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE.  As opening night approaches, he is plagued by doubt, difficult actors, and his even more difficult family.  More and more he imagines his Birdman persona coming to life and goading him, perhaps pushing him towards suicide.

My immediate reaction to the film is that Inarritu's bold decision to use long tracking shots pays off wonderfully, as we see the camera prowl through every corridor and cranny of the theater it adds to the authenticity of the story.  And, since this a backstage story, having actors perform in long, live theater like takes seems appropriate.  And there is a raw directness to all the acting and often brutally honest dialogue throughout.  Even if Keaton and Norton are playing characters based on their own images as celebrities, they never become parodies or wink at the audience.  Every performance rings true in the film, even the small ones like Lindsay Duncan as the New York Times Broadway critic who plans to destroy Riggan's play before she's even seen it ("You're no actor, you're a celebrity").
It's really surprising that the film won best picture and that Keaton did not win for best actor, he really dominates the film, and pulls off scenes where he rages against the Birdman voice in his head or apologizes to his wife Sylvia(Amy Ryan) daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and girlfriend  Laura(Andrea Riseborough) with ease.  He also  plays the role with out a trace of vanity.  Although he has said in interviews that Riggan is nothing like him, the character clearly reflects  how much of the public probably think that Keaton's life must be like now: a washed up movie star who walked away from the lucrative BATMAN franchise to mostly fade out and always be known as the guy who played Batman for two movies.  As if that weren't enough, it becomes a running joke in the film that nearly every other character verbally assaults him in the harshest possible terms at some point. Keaton also allows the camera to catch every wrinkle and flab in his aging body and, in a now famous scene, he finds himself trapped in nothing but his underwear in Times Square and must sprint back inside the theater to not miss his cue.  Not only is this scene hilarious, it also wonderfully shows the high wire nature of live theater, where there are no retakes and actors have to keep going, even if they're running onto the stage in no clothes!

Micheal Keaton

Ed Norton is just as good as the egotistical Mike Shiner;  I love the way that the first time we see him, he's standing on the edge of the stage, wearing a perfect hat and scarf, extolling the history of the theater to Riggan, every inch the serious, intense actor.  I also enjoy the way he jumps into a rehearsal of the play right away, and then pauses to dissect Riggan's delivery of a single line.  Or the way that he  literally flexes his naked body in the mirror during a costume fitting and  insists that he drink real gin on stage like his character during a preview of the play.  Another nice touch in the performance is that he loses his pompous actor pose twice, when he talks to Riggan's daughter Sam  on the theater's rooftop (when he's both not in the theater and not talking to a fellow actor).
To me, the biggest flaw of the film is that Norton's great character mostly fades from the latter part of the film as we get more and scenes of Riggan retreating into his own world.  Although an inevitable scene at the end in which Riggan actually comes in contact with the Birdman character flying around him, before taking flight himself has some nice special effects and well placed jabs at Hollywood's current infatuation with super hero movies ("Give the people what they want."  Birdman yells, "Old fashioned apocalyptic porn!"), it goes on far too long and takes away some of the dramatic momentum of what the film should be building to: the all important opening night of Riggan's play.  Even worse, the film mostly ignores the fact that Riggan becomes aware that Mike is making romantic moves on his daughter; this should be a major conflict between them, but instead it's never really dealt with.
One nice touch in the film is that we see the final scene in Riggan's play, which features his character wielding a gun at his unfaithful wife and lover (played by Mike) before shooting himself, being performed three times, and each time the context and emphasis is different.  The most dramatic version comes at the end, when a seemingly despondent Riggan brings a real loaded gun on stage; for a moment he appears ready to shoot Mike before he turns the gun on himself and fires.  But the movie throws a last twist at the audience:  instead of dying, Riggan survives the gunshot (which blows his nose off) and, as his friend and lawyer Jake (Zack Galifianiakis)  tells him in his hospital room, the resulting media attention over his "accident" appears to have revived his career.  Riggan takes the news silently, and then, alone, he walks over to his hospital bathroom to look at his new, larger nose (which now resembles, yes, a beak), sees Birdman next to him one last time and then walks over to his hospital window to jump out.  In an incredibly ambiguous last shot, Sam walks in, looks out the window, and looks upwards and smiles at....what?  Has Riggan actually become Birdman?  Throughout the film, we see Riggan using telekinetic powers, but only when he's alone, and, it's clearly implied, those powers are all in his head.  But this ending now seems to show that he really had  Birdman powers all along.  Or is it possible that he did commit suicide and his daughter just hasn't seen his body yet?  Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?  Clearly there's no easy answer here, and I'm glad that the Academy decided to award a film that had such an unconventional ending, given their usual penchant for neat story telling and uplift.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

I've already mentioned that I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of the year, and there are basically three films that I enjoyed more: Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL which was the most entertaining film of the year, Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD which was the most innovative, and Ava DuVernay"s SELMA which was the most moving.  Still, BIRDMAN is certainly a well made and acted film, and I enjoyed it more than other stodgy films that were nominated like THE IMITATION GAME, so, overall, it's certainly not a bad choice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE AMERICAN SNIPER CONTROVERSY

The Real Chris Kyle


I've been avoiding seeing Clint Eastwood's AMERICAN SNIPER for a number of reasons: although I've been a fan of some of Eastwood's films, as a progressive I intended to boycott everything  he did after his embarrassing (and infamous) interview with an empty chair  at the 2012 Republican convention.  And then the controversy about the film also turned me off, as it's enormous box office success (the biggest grossing R rated film since, somewhat appropriately, Mel Gibson's equally controversial THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) led to inevitable debates about its message, even as it was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture and Actor. And, in a real low point in American culture, fans of the film  took to twitter to make offensive statements such as: "Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are, vermin scum intent on destroying us."  Those stupid tweets have probably cost the film a Best Picture Oscar, with the Academy not wanting to reward a film that inspired such racist bile.

But all the debate couldn't help but pique my interest, and I'm enough of a film geek that I like to watch all the Best Picture nominees before the awards are given.  So I went.  My first reaction is that the film is undeniably well made and well acted; Eastwood clearly knows how to stage an action scene, and he avoids the quick cutting and jerky camera angles that mar so many modern action scenes (a shoot out in a dust storm towards the end is particularly exciting).  It also clearly wants to portray for the audience the sacrifices and struggles that American soldiers have and continue to make, which is certainly a noble enough purpose. But the film's black and white view of the war makes it at times a tough watch.

Part of the film's problem is the history of its production: the film's hero, Chris Kyle, published the book AMERICAN SNIPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN US MILITARY HISTORY (co written with Scott McEwen and Jim De Felice) in 2013, and actor Bradley Cooper expressed an interest in adapting it.  At first, he wanted just to produce the film, but Warner Brothers eventually convinced him to also star.  He briefly contacted Kyle before Kyle was tragically killed by another Iraq war vet at a gun range in February of 2013.  Kyle's tragic death inevitably meant that the film would stand as a tribute to him, and unfortunately that means that the character is portrayed as absurdly noble and brave; Cooper's a fine actor and does what he can with the role, but this is a character without depth of nuance, and the film's script even has friends and family members telling Kyle how great a hero and father he is.  The real life Kyle was prone to exaggeration, saying that he once killed a car jacker and looters in New Orleans after Katrina (there's no evidence for either claim).  He even once said the he beat up former governor (and Navy SEAL) Jesse Ventura, a charge that Ventura successfully sued him over in court.   Not surprisingly, that side of his character is never shown in the film.

Interestingly, David O Russell and Steven Spielberg both considered directing the film before Eastwood came aboard, and it's tantalizing to think what kind of movie they would have made.  In defense of the film, Eastwood has said that it had "the biggest anti-war statement that any film can make."  With all due respect to Eastwood, if that was his intention the film is a failure: early in the film, we see Kyle and his wife respond to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on TV, and shortly thereafter Kyle deploys to Iraq.  The fact that the Iraq invasion was not a direct response to those attacks is left unspoken in the film, as is the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that were ostensibly the rational for the war in the first place.  More than once Kyle contends that the war is about defending Americans back home, an argument that goes uncontested.

One of my least favorite films of all time is 1985's Sylvester Stallone film RAMBO:FIRST BLOOD II, in which  Viet Nam vet John Rambo returns to Viet Nam and singlehandedly rewages and wins the war with his trusty explosive arrows.  The film absurdly gave audiences a cathartic happy ending to a war that had none.  Although AMERICAN SNIPER is a far better film, it often tips closely towards that film's simplistic reduction.  One of the through lines in AMERICAN SNIPER is that there is a rival Iraqi sniper named Mustafa (unnamed in the book, but based on a real person) that Kyle pursues before inevitably gunning him down in his final tour of duty; giving our hero a villain to chase and kill at the end gives the film the same kind of simplistic rah-rah ending that RAMBO did, avoiding the realities of both real life conflicts for easy uplift.  In the real world, Kyle believed that Mustafa was probably killed by someone else,  but he was never sure, an ambiguity the film avoids.

Slyvester Stallone blows away subtlety 


Equally troubling is the film's depiction of the Iraqi people, who are continually referred to as "savages" by the film's hero.  Except for one Iraqi man who briefly considers helping the Americans, all of the Iraqis in the film are enemies of America. While I would hope that Eastwood (and screenwriter Jason Hall) don't agree with the horrible sentiments of those aforementioned anti Arab tweets about the film, you can see why the film inspired them. While one can't expect a film named AMERICAN SNIPER to have a balanced view of the war, at least some appreciation for the people of the country the US invaded wouldn't hurt.   But then, that lack of appreciation may be the key to the film's box office success; while other films about the Iraq war have not made much money (even 2009's THE HURT LOCKER, which won best picture, was only a moderate hit), this one is setting records by turning a controversial war that most Americans came to see as a mistake into an exciting action film with a noble hero and evil bad guys.  Personally, I can't look at that war in that way, and I hope history won't record it that way either.  In many ways, Clint Eastwood's career has paralleled that of Hollywood legend John Wayne, and unfortunately AMERICAN SNIPER feels like his version of Wayne's  pro-war Viet Nam film THE GREEN BERETS, which is far from high praise in my book.

Monday, January 26, 2015

THE SELMA SNUB

Actor Chis Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the best director nominees


The nominations for the 87th. Academy Awards have caused a stir of controversy for a simple, straightforward resason: every nomination in the acting categories is white.  The critically acclaimed SELMA, directed by Ava DuVernay was nominated for best picture and best original song, but was completely shut out otherwise.  This stung most hard for DuVernay who was expected to be the first African American woman to every be nominated for best director.
It would appear that one year after awarding 12 YEARS A SLAVE the best picture award, (which many Academy voters admitted they didn't even see) the Academy has gotten back to its usual business of giving awards to mostly white men.  And is that such a surprise?  According to a recent New York Times article, the Academy is over 90% white and over 70% male; sadly, as our society gets more diverse, the Academy remains monolithic.  And in a perfect world, they wouldn't be playing catch up: while it was good to see Kathryn Bigelow become the first female director to win for 2008's THE HURT LOCKER, why weren't others worthy female directors like Nora Ephron (who was never even nominated for best director), Julie Taymor (who's striking 1999 film TITUS was sadly underrated) and Kasi Lemmons (1997's EVE'S BAYOU and 2007's TALK TO ME are also underrated)winning before her?  And why was  Bigelow herself not nominated again for 2013's ZERO DARK THIRTY?  Sadly, it appears that the Academy voters will break precedence once, pat themselves on the back, and then go back to rewarding white male directors  and consider the matter done.
But politically correct quotas aside, was DuVernay really wrongfully overlooked?  In my opinion she absolutely was.  Let me give an example: one of the best director nominees this year is for Morton Tyldum, who helmed THE IMITATION GAME.  While that film was reasonably well made, there were no particularly striking visuals in it; his direction was workman like and competent.  In SELMA on the other hand, there is a truly stunning and memorable scene of state troopers attacking civil rights protestors on a bridge, featuring billowing fogs of tear gas and slow motion shots of men on horse back with clubs; it's the kind of powerful movie moment that is hard to forget.  On the strength of that scene alone, I think DuVernay topped Tyldum and deserved a nomination, and I think her cinematographer Bradford Young and her editor Spencer Averick should have been nominated too.

And unlike Tyldum's film, which is mostly a simple history lesson, DuVernay wisely comments on modern times through her story: in one of the film's early scenes,  African American woman Annie Lee Cooper tries to vote and is stopped by a racist poll worker who gives her an impossible to pass poll test.  The fact that the Cooper character is played by Oprah Winfrey, one of the most famous and successful women in the world, lets us dwell on the fact that the country has progressed.  At the same time, the poll test is a harsh reminder of the current trend of voter ID laws that conservatives are trying to pass, proving that maybe we haven't come so far after all!

David Oyelowo,  the man who would be King

As for the performances in SELMA, well, actor David Oyelowo was attached to this film years ago, determined to play Dr. Martin Luther King, and he held on as different directors passed on it and other cast members dropped out; giving him a nomination would have been a nice reward for his determination. That aside, its a terrific performance, with Oyelowo emulating one of the most famous speakers of the twentieth century without just imitating him.  I also think that Andre' Holland as civil rights worker Andrew Young was a real stand out in a fine cast, and should have been nominated for best supporting actor.
Now there has been some anger in some quarters about the film's portrayal of former president Lydon Johnson, with people who knew the man saying that he was a more enthusiastic supporter of the civil rights movement than the film portrays.  Political commentator and former Johnson aid Bill Moyers,  praised the film overall, but felt that it overstepped when it implied that Johnson was behind the FBI's decision to send an incriminating recording of King having sex with another women to King's wife Coretta.  I must say that I agree with him on that point, but I don't think it hurts the film overall.  DuVernay has said in interviews that she didn't want the film to be about a noble white man coming in and saving black people, and I admire her for that. As always, historical films always have to play with the truth for dramatic purposes, and the fact that the aforementioned  historical best picture nominee THE IMITATION GAME  has also been accused of playing with the facts while still getting a best director nomination for Tyldum shows that criticisms of DuVernay's portrayal of Johnson should not have cost her a director nomination.
In conclusion I want to mention another statistic about the Academy that is notable: the average member is 63 years old.  It appears inevitable that as time goes on and new generations of voters begin to join their ranks, the club of Oscar nominated directors will become less and less dominated by white men, until someday there won't be anymore controversies about films like SELMA.  Like the Republican party, the sands of time will slowly bring change to the Academy, or it will lose its relevance.