Monday, November 3, 2014


Alternate Title:  What is this I don't even...

One sentence synopsis:   A washed-up movie star famous for his decades-old role as a superhero tries to adapt a Raymond Carver play to Broadway while dealing with his crazy family and psychic powers.

Things Havoc liked:  Three years of hard-bought experience have taught me to duck whenever a movie shows up that begins receiving universal acclaim. I'm not talking about movies like Lord of the Rings or Avengers, the blockbusters that everyone at least "likes" even if some like more than others. I'm talking about darlings of the indie circuit, the "masterpiece", once-in-a-decade films which seem to come about every four or five months or so, the ones that generate Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores that beggar belief, and which would appear to have every single critic in existence foaming at the mouth in praise of. I've seen a good half-dozen movies who fit this category to-date, and without exception, every single one of them was a disappointment, varying in quality from the "decent" (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Boyhood), to the "wretched" (Under the Skin, Dear God... Under the Skin). My policy with these things is to consult reviews only after seeing the movie in question, but inasmuch as it sometimes becomes impossible to avoid the buzz, I tend to get a sinking feeling whenever I realize that the movie I'm about to see was praised by every critic known to exist, as it usually puts a ceiling on my ability to enjoy the movie. You can thus imagine just how thrilled I was to learn, moments before I entered the theater, that this movie was being touted by an entire phalanx of major movie critics, as one of the finest things ever made.

Of course, the rules only apply when one is not dealing with Alejandro González Iñárritu.

You remember Alejandro González Iñárritu is, don't you? I certainly do. He wrote and directed Biutiful, the second film I ever reviewed back in 2011, one which, I assure you, I am in no danger of ever forgetting. Biutiful was a weird, atmospheric, magical-realist film about a low-life criminal dying of cancer, a memorable experience to be sure, as it made my shortlist of "Great movies I never want to see again" (sharing that distinction with Sophie's Choice and Grave of the Fireflies). While I'm not overly proud of my reviews from back then, I stand by my final statement that you should watch that film immediately if you find that there is altogether too much happiness and cheer in your life. The good news here is that Iñárritu, who was also the director of Babel and 21 Grams, decided here to dial back the hopeless fixation on misery (somewhat) in favor of other things. The bad news is that those other things are more or less raving insanity.

Michael Keaton, an actor I jump at the chance to whenever I can, plays... well... his character has a name but it's hard to see it as anything but Michael Keaton, or perhaps Michael Keaton after taking a particularly heavy dose of PCP. Keaton, or rather "Riggan Thompson", once was a movie star with a successful franchise of superhero flicks about a man in a costume who fought crime, but that was decades ago, and in the twilight of his career, he is on Broadway now, desperately trying to produce a play about love and relationships and all the drama that circulates in people's lives, despite the twinned problems that nobody will take him seriously, and that he is positively barking mad. Keaton has always thrived on madness, either implied or outright, as his best performances in things like Jackie Brown, Beetlejuice, or... well... Batman, all make clear. It shouldn't be much of a surprise then that he is absolutely fantastic here, edge-of-sanity crazy at all times, harried by the pressures of his play, his career, the voices quite literally in his head, and his completely unexplained ability to manifest telekinesis (or something) during times of great emotional stress (as though there are any others). Simply making this film, given its obvious parallels to Keaton's own career, was a ballsy move, but he goes all out in it, deconstructing himself and anchoring the film with a performance that feels exactly right, no matter how weird it gets.

And it gets weird. The reason it gets weird is complicated, of course, but part of it at least is that the movie seems to flow between the various characters, from Keaton to others and back again, something which is rendered far more tolerable by the fact that basically everyone else is just as good as Keaton is. Actresses like Emma Stone and Naomi Watts are always good of course (even if I haven't seen Watts in about seven years) the former as Keaton's bedraggled, rehab-shuffling daughter/personal assistant, the latter as a newly-minted Broadway starlet trying not to screw up her big shot. But the surprise is from those actors who are very much not, particularly Edward Norton, whom I've never much liked, and Zach Galifianakis, whom I've never liked. And yet I do here, as Norton is superb at playing a veteran, method-to-a-fault stage actor, who rides the line of being an insufferable prick without actually necessarily being one, while Galifianakis, of all people, is tasked with playing the voice of reason, Keaton's best friend and manager who is running himself ragged just trying to get this insane thing to work. I don't know whose idea it was to make Galifianakis the straight man in this, but to my astonishment it works and works well, as this is easily the best thing I've ever seen him do, and probably close to the best for Norton as well.

Perhaps it's me, or perhaps I'm being overly affected by Guillermo Del Toro, but I've come to associate Mexican directors with a very strange, fantastical style of filmmaking. Iñárritu's own Biutiful had a completely out-of-place magical realism sequence in it after all involving Javier Bardem talking to dead people in the middle of a realistic movie about immigration raids and sweat shop laborers being poisoned to death with carbon monoxide. Here that element takes front and center, not only with more inexplicable fantasy elements (Keaton has, or is at least strongly hinted as having, telekinetic powers enabling him to fly, break things, and even kill people), but with a visual style that attempts to replicate the effect of having the entire movie be a single, unbroken take. It isn't one of course, but the seams between shots are very cleverly hidden, as the camera moves up and down and through the backstages of the theater, into dressing rooms and down dingy corridors, up onto rooftops and down into the street. This might have been distracting if the movie weren't so weird overall, but in this case simply adds to the dizzying effect of everything piling on. The camera twists and turns and drifts from character to character so much that we lose sight of where we actually are at times, as chaos seems to be unfolding all around us. Given this, and the natural pressures of live theater, the overall effect is one of immense tension, as we keep waiting for fresh catastrophes to disturb, yet further, our main character, and his tenuous grasp on reality.

Things Havoc disliked:  Speaking however, of tenuous grasps on reality, this movie eventually gets so overwhelmingly weird that it starts to break apart. The surest sign of this being the duration. At 119 minutes, Birdman is hardly a long film, but boy does it feel like one. Perhaps it's simply a facet of the unrelenting tension in the film, of sitting there for hours on end waiting for shoes to drop, to the point of actual physical exhaustion, but having left the movie, I would have sworn that we had been in there for three hours. I have nothing against long movies, but there comes a point in any film when you are ready for it to end, and a movie that continues on past that point is liable to earn itself some ire, at least from me.

And part of why I felt this way may be that not every character justifies its existence properly. Keaton's ex-wife, played competently enough by Andrea Riseborough, has absolutely no purpose in the film except to stand there and serve as a soundboard for Keaton's escalating levels of craziness, occasionally stirring them up by leveling criticism on his life choices in ways calculated to make him even more crazy. Worse yet is Lindsay Duncan (of HBO's Rome), who plays Tabitha, the New York Times' theater critic, who midway through the film confesses to Keaton that she despises him and all his ilk (movie stars trying to become serious theater actors), showering his career and pretensions with venomous contempt, before informing him that, sight unseen, she intends to write the single most devastating review in the history of theater criticism and destroy his play and life, all from pure spite. In addition to displaying a staggering overestimate of the influence of critics (Spider Man, Turn off the Dark, concluded its four-year Broadway run this past January despite being roundly savaged by every critic alive), this reaction is not merely crazy (which would at least be consistent) but vicious and hateful to the point of monomania. No less than Roger Ebert himself was once thrown out of the Film Critics' guild for reviewing a movie he had not seen all the way through, and the concept that a theater critic would be willing to risk their hard-won reputation doing the same is almost laughable, to say nothing of the fact that a review that outlandishly bad would be almost certain to generate buzz rather than defuse it. The film battles hard to regard this subplot as the straw that breaks the camels' back, leading Keaton to act in wildly crazy ways, secure in the knowledge that his life is ruined anyway, yet the entire notion, to say nothing of the manner in which it is ultimately resolved, cheapens the last third of the movie considerably.

Final thoughts:   What does one do with a movie this insane? Does one throw up one's hands and rate it Q out of 10? Does one flunk it for being an unapproachable mess, or praise it immodestly for being daring and avant-garde? None of these things are really my style, and yet I confess I had a hard time coming to grips with just what I thought about Birdman. I see most films on Tuesdays, and yet, even on the rare occasions when I'm actually on schedule, my reviews are not finished until the following weekend. Part of this is irredeemable procrastination of course, but part of it is the base fact that sometimes you need to let a film settle in your mind before you write the review of it, give it time to percolate and discover what you feel about it in retrospect, not just in the moment. This is what turned Gone Girl from a 7 to a 3.5, and in this case, is what turned this movie from a fairly mediocre score to the one you see below. Ultimately what I remember from this film is not how uncomfortable it made me, but how much I enjoyed seeing Michael Keaton on screen again, how much I was pleased to finally like Zach Galifianakis and Edward Norton, how much Emma Stone lights up the screen and how ageless Naomi Watts seems, despite the interval it has been since last I saw her.

In short, for all of the criticisms I level at these two-hour blocks of would-be entertainment, I enjoy watching movies, all kinds of movies, and I enjoy watching actors I like (and even ones I don't) giving good performances in movies. I enjoy innovation and daring and a bit of unstated zaniness thrown in, and I enjoy watching good directors direct good films with wit and skill and creativity and charm. I enjoy these things all, and when a movie is made sufficiently well to remind me of what it is that I enjoy about watching movies in the first place, then how bad could it really have been?

Final Score:  7/10

Next Week:   Keanu Reeves shoots many people.  Again.

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