Birdman

Quiet Please

birdmanBirdman walks a narrow line between utter cynicism and hope – in this case, the hope that art means something, and by extension, that our efforts to create, regardless of who’s going to consume the end result, are not in vain.  The film goes beyond a statement such as “If it’s important to you, it’s important” and explores what any of that even means.  When Sam (Emma Stone) delivers a histrionic tirade to her father, protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), which ends with her assertion that Riggan himself is completely irrelevant as an artist, a celebrity, a father, and a human being in general, we get the sense that somewhere inside, whether or not she knows it yet, Sam’s impetus is something gentler and benevolent.  Or maybe that’s the “hope” part.

Riggan was once a movie star who led popcorn superhero films that grossed billions of dollars and rendered Riggan a household name.  He left the franchise after three films, and twenty years later, he tries to redefine his career by directing and starring in a heavy-handed Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (a Plato-esque story about couples discussing suicide, death, and spousal abuse).  Birdman‘s narrative covers a few days leading up to opening night, including several climactic preview performances.

If it weren’t such an unabashed black comedy and show-business satire, Birdman would be a pretty unique character study (and in some ways, it still is).  Besides trying to prove to the critics that he’s a real artist who isn’t wasting stage space, Riggan has almost no relationship with Sam due to his inattentive parenting and the fact that she’s been in rehab for drugs, something he has no clue how to address other than to yell at her when he smells weed in the room.  On top of that, he is often haunted by the voice of his old superhero character, the titular Birdman, who expresses disdain at this new artistic venture and insists that Riggan’s only real chance at a “comeback” is to do another superhero film.  When alone, Riggan levitates and uses telekinetic powers.  This is all played straight, but as the film goes on, one begins to wonder whether or not these things are actually happening (a scene in which Riggan flies over the city to reach the theatre, only to be immediately accosted by a cab driver who says Riggan owes him money, is particularly telling).  Riggan resists, however, and has some serious ideas about what it means to be an artist in spite of the Hollywood garbage that got him off the ground.  When the Birdman uses the billions of dollars Riggan once made as an incentive to do another movie, Riggan responds, “Billions of flies eat shit, too.  Does that make it good?”

Thankfully, Riggan isn’t the only character in the film with experience or an opinion (in fact, quite the opposite).  His foil for much of the film, at least as far as the artistic approach to adapting Carver’s story, is an aptly-named prima donna method actor called Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who butts in about redundant writing and unimaginative blocking, and insists upon drinking real gin during the show.  Norton finally inhabits another character that he’s best with: a cool antihero whose abrasive personality and aggressive dogmatizing lend themselves so well to Norton’s ability to motormouth that many of his scenes with Keaton might as well be part of an ultra-stylized documentary.  Other vital characters include aforementioned Sam, who works as Riggan’s assistant; Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress who stars opposite Mike; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan’s current girlfriend and also an actress; Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s attorney; and Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a sharkish theatre critic who promises to “kill” Riggan’s play for the sole reason that she considers him a celebrity, not an artist.  Is Riggan’s sanctimonious smackdown speech (highlighting the cowardice of critics who lambast but do not create) a hallucination?  The film begs comparisons to Tom Stoppard, Charlie Kaufman, Armando Ianucci, but also warns against the ease of “comparing” in place of examining the thing in front of you.

Alejandro González Iñárritu directs the film as a handful of very long shots (whether manipulated in editing or not), which allows the viewer to experience the entirety of the story, hardly ever cutting to the next day, sticking closely to the experiences of every character (especially Riggan) during these important days.  Onscreen stress becomes real stress.  Conversations have to proceed and end naturally, not cut away when it’s convenient.  The theatre and the camera become characters themselves, one attempting to hold in (and occasionally expel) all of this chaos and emotion, the other deciding on a dime whom to follow, which people and moments are worth its attention.

On that note, every character is worth spending time with, but much like other films by male directors that center around an up-and-coming (or washed-up-and-trying-to-come-back) male character, Birdman tends to define its female characters by the men in the story (Lesley is Mike’s girlfriend, Sylvia is Riggan’s ex, Emma is Riggan’s daughter, Laura is Riggan’s girlfriend, etc.), and most of them, with the exception of Sam (one of the film’s strongest characters), the women mostly talk about pregnancy, heartbreak, and sex, and their conflicts are pure reactions to what the men do – for example, Lesley and Laura share an emotional scene together, which could have been more meaningful if 1) it hadn’t ended with a laugh, and 2) Iñárritu had put any stake into decisions that the female characters make, only after Mike nearly rapes Lesley onstage (unbeknownst to everyone else) as part of his attempt to find “truth” when acting.  The teary conversation between Lesley and Laura ends in an impulsive kiss, which is well-acted and convincing (and moreover not played for laughs), but which perpetuates an uncomfortable stereotype: that women turn to each other because they are abused and ignored by men.

The film’s cinematography and style seamlessly weave its themes into its character drama.  It’s not just a story about a funny midlife crisis or a spoof of self-important celebrity culture (although it has those things too); the careening up and down the hallways of the St. James Theatre constitutes the film’s own search for “truth,” mimicking (and perhaps sympathizing with) its characters.  Its world is so contained and defined that it doesn’t matter whether Riggan’s superpowers are real or a hint at his deteriorating mind; thematically, they represent, maybe, the thing that no one else is allowed to see, the things we all have but can’t “prove” to anyone (for Riggan, it’s a combination of fear of embracing the truth of his relationships with the fear of selling out).  It’s both Kafka-esque in its concern for the present, and Carver-esque in what its protagonist is drawn to do (and it uses foreshadowing like nothing else this year).  Its depth of intensity stems from Iñárritu’s (and the actors’) ability to convince you that a film about people searching for something profound already possesses something profound.  Its final scene is so good because it isn’t inevitable, and it resists the temptation to deliver the cheap “stinger” ending that many filmmakers would have used.  And what we’re left with, besides the lingering image of Emma Stone’s brilliant mug, is the question of whether Antonio Sánchez’s jazz drums are in our minds, or if there’s actually a drummer banging away in the halls of the St. James.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014); written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo; directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

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