Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

February 10, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

To better appreciate this film, I recommend reading up a bit on short story writer Raymond Carver, and his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film plays out as sort of a movie within a play within a movie, linked with an abstract narrative about self discovery and self release. The reason I’d recommend knowing a bit more about the background of Carver and the story is to diminish distractions like trying to figure out how the play revolves around the story–it may make things less confusing.

The main story of the film is about a has-been actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who was once a big star because of a superhero movie called “Birdman”. Since that fame, he has faded into obscurity and a generation of parents whose kids have no idea who he is. His irrelevance bothers him, so he wants to try and do something else–but something with more substance. He wrangles up some stage actors and gets some money behind a production of one of his favorite writers, Raymond Carver, and adapts his short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into a Broadway play. None of the people involved have that much experience. His main actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), has never been on Broadway. His producer and friend (and lawyer) Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is doing his best to keep Thomson together emotionally, while the production has a bit of a problem since a light falls on one of the principal actors. The actor, whom no one thinks is very good, is replaced by a much more seasoned–albeit dangerous and unscrupulous–actor named Mike (Edward Norton). Mike can recite the lines before even knowing what they are, and has the ability to lose himself in the character while being on stage. His problem is that he is very unpredictable, and that he’s almost impossible to control. He starts to take a liking to Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who Riggan hardly knows due to all his years spent acting instead of being a father. Riggan and Sam share an understandable strained relationship, but it still seems amicable.

While Thomson tries to whip the show into shape during its preview run, he is tormented by the voice and sometimes appearance of his old character, Birdman. Birdman represents his “dark side”. Birdman believes that Riggan is denying himself the joy of being a superstar by trying to do something as small as theater. Thomson tries to get him out of his head, but he nearly tears his dressing room apart while battling the imaginary “devil on your shoulder”.

He desperately wants to be recognized. He knows that he does not have a good reputation in theater, and is afraid of a prominent critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), will eviscerate his efforts and make him look bad once the play opens. Without even seeing it, she tells him, she will write a bad review.

With every doubt in his mind, Birdman becomes more powerful and manifests himself more to Riggan. His ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) doesn’t believe in him, and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) simply seems like a replaceable understudy in Riggan’s life.

The film is shot to give the feel of watching a play. There are no cuts, only occasional fades that let us know that time is passing. Most of the film feels like it’s one ongoing shot. So in a way, Riggan is on stage throughout the entire movie. When he’s acting in his play, he can come undone just as easily as he can when he’s in his dressing room hearing voices.

The performances are very strong, with a spotlight on Michael Keaton, obviously. He is at his best in this film, utilizing his entire range from ominous to manic to brooding to bright. He is everything at once, and can fall apart at any moment. Norton is also exceptionally funny as the “foil” in much of the storyline, and Emma Stone is appealing as always, as well as Watts and the rest of the “actors”.

There are two titles for this film, and I kept both in tact for the review. “Birdman” seems obvious, but what about “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”? What’s that supposed to mean? Well, the meaning to that title comes within understanding the film itself. And that can be a few different things, culminating in the film’s mysterious and purposely puzzling final shot. But you are definitely watching more than one story when you watch this film. That’s why you’re talking about more than just love when you’re talking about love. The emotional states the film touches on, the play on people’s actions and reactions, mixed with some satire and black comedy, all make for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking film.

My rating: :D

Carrie (2013)

October 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“Carrie” is an iconic horror film from the 1970’s that probably never needed to be dug up and remade again (isn’t she supposed to be burning in hell anyway?). But, there was another iconic horror film from the 1970’s that was remade, and remade pretty well, and that was Rob Zombie’s “Halloween”. So why not?

Then again, “Carrie” was already remade. But do TV remakes count? This one shouldn’t have. And let’s not mention “The Rage: Carrie 2”. OK, I just did. But let’s just move on now.

This remake is directed by Kimberly Pierce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), and has a strong cast including Julianne Moore as the psychotic fundamentalist Christian mother, Margaret; and, Chloe Grace Moretz as the titular character, Carrie White. Sprinkled in the supporting cast is Judy Greer as the gym teacher Miss Desjardin, Portia Doubleday as Chris Hargensen, and Gabriella Wilde as Sue Snell. This is a contemporary remake, so all of the events in the film take place now, not back in the 70’s. This sets the stage for a film that could really make a statement or at least have an opinion on the 21st century problems of “cyber bullying” and “mean girl syndrome” that seems to be infecting more and more schools around the world. In the hands of such a good director as Pierce, I had high hopes.

However, this film just pricks and prods at the problems of abuse and bullying rather than really taking these issues to task. Carrie (finely played by Moretz) is a 17 year old virgin who experiences her first period (a bit late) in the gym showers after a water volleyball scrimmage. The mean girls laugh at her and take photos; Chris (nicely played by Doubleday) uses video from her iPhone and puts it up on Youtube (doesn’t everybody use Instagram for short videos now?). At first, Sue (Wilde) is part of the action, but she starts to feel guilty. The gym teacher puts a stop to the whole ordeal and tries to comfort Carrie while also punishing the mean girls.

Meanwhile, during Carrie’s meltdown, she finds out she has telekinetic powers. This leads her overbearing Evangelical mother (Moore) into believing she’s a witch and forces her into a small closet to pray about it. Something tells me that’s not going to exorcise the demons though.

The movie’s plot pretty much plays out the same way the original did, which is a bit disappointing since they could’ve gone for a different approach. The original novel is written in an epistolary style, telling the story from media viewpoints after the fact. In this day and age of 24 hour, ubiquitous media outlets exploiting every single story out there, I think it would’ve been a nice idea to try and use that as a device to make a commentary on today’s society. Think of interviews with survivors with Bill O’Reilly; or, people blaming liberals and conservatives for Carrie and school bullying? Social satire would’ve been a fresh idea here. The acting is good, and Julianne Moore does a worthy job of filling in Piper Laurie’s shoes as Margaret. But her character isn’t nearly as menacing and scary as in the original film. As good a job as Moretz does as Carrie, she just doesn’t have that same innocent and yet “could snap at any moment” quality that Sissy Spacek naturally had.

As familiar and predictable as the remake is, being so close to the original, it starts to break down toward the end with the prom sequence. First, we come to realization that we hardly know any of these characters and so the prom just doesn’t feel that big of a deal. It feels like it’s just there to serve as the climax. And because we haven’t had the chance to really get to know any characters, some of the mocking at Carrie during her “pig’s blood” scene doesn’t really add up. Especially when her period video is being shown on a loop on a big screen during it. The natural reaction to something like that, I would think, would be more horror than laughter. Even with how mean kids can be, there’s not a whole lot of setup that the whole school is full of disaffected desensitized youth–only the mean girls share that quality.

So when Carrie finally comes undone, she comes off more as a Hogwarts reject showing off her magical powers (and in some facial expressions, looks like she is enjoying it for the sake of it), rather than a traumatized victim who’s finally acting out her aggression on those who have tormented her throughout the whole film. And that’s where the film just falls completely flat. Before the prom scene, I could forgive it as a nice and faithful remake. But then when you start to think about all of the possibilities this film had to be so much more, I just felt that it was overall a  missed opportunity.

My rating: :?

The Dictator

May 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

There seems to be something missing from Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedies since the 2006 smash hit “Borat”. While for the most part I still enjoyed “Bruno”, I felt that he was imposing his agenda to “expose stupid Americans” more and more and hitting you over the head with stupid comedy rather than allowing the comedy to just happen. He takes this to a new level with “The Dictator”, a film so full of comic exposition that it gets rather tiring even at only 83 minutes of Cohen constantly efforting us to “get it”.

The film’s plot, which is as thin as you could possibly use as an excuse to make a feature length film, is simple: tyrannical despot who is unaware of how brutish he is, goes to America after being discovered to be having a possible nuclear plot against us, gets duped by his own assistant (Ben Kingsley) and he’s attacked, beard shaved, and stuck in NYC with no identity. He meets a vegan hipster played typically over the top by Anna Faris (who seems to can’t ever help winking at the camera even if she doesn’t bat an eyelash), and she reforms him and tries to get him to a summit to stop his body double from making a mistake in making Wadiya the next oil country for the world. There’s a bit more to it but you can immediately see where the movie’s going at every turn. To say it’s predictable is a bit of an insult to predictability. If that makes sense.

Cohen tries to blur a line to see if we can understand what he’s parodying. For instance, his character resembles someone Middle Eastern–yet he’s actually North African. The fictional country Wadiya is located in the area that contains some Arab heritage, yet his character Admiral General Aladeen is not Arab. In the film’s funniest scene, he and his former nuclear scientist Nadal speak in their native language in a helicopter confusing the poor dumb American tourists about a possible follow up 9/11 plot that winds up getting them both arrested. We’re not really sure what language it is, but it sounds “Arabic”, and we could easily mistake them for that.

That scene works so well because for that moment, Cohen isn’t trying to tell us what he’s doing. He’s just doing it. There are many scenes in which characters talk and talk, and they ramble about what is right and wrong about this and that and it just seems like you’re watching a first draft of a script whose jokes haven’t been fully worked out yet. There are some scenes that are funny, and there are some big laughs. And of course, since this is Cohen who seems to insist now on being subversive, there are a lot of “offensive” jokes including the film’s opening dedication. I’ve seen far too many “offensive” films to take anything in “The Dictator” as offensive; but even the offensive jokes aren’t very clever and seemed to be aimed only at adolescent boys.

I get that for the most part, that’s probably Cohen’s target audience anyway. I’d say that the guys who make “Jackass” probably would share that audience. But the difference is that Cohen has the ability to reach a far greater audience and has potential to be one of the great political satirists of our era. I think he kind of wasted his time with this one. It could have been on par with “Team America: World Police” as far as making fun of America and also globalism and bad foreign policy–instead, it just merely pokes fun. And a little poking from Sacha Baron Cohen goes a very long way. Literally.

My rating:  :?

The Cabin in the Woods

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m always intrigued by any filmmaker who sets out to tear down the genre and build it back up. Wes Craven achieved this with “Scream” back in the late 90’s, a film that was released during a desperate era for the genre, when it had been bled completely dry (pun intended) by the saturation of slasher franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. We were starved for something new, and “Scream” provided a fresh but somewhat all-too-hip alternative to the routine slasher genre. It turned it on its head by being more self aware, while still telling a decent story and having a fun twist at the end.

Now that we’ve been inundated with remakes and “found footage” movies left and right, perhaps it’s time for another shot in the arm. That’s at least what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon set out to do with “The Cabin in the Woods”.

But this movie may be one of the biggest miscalculations of a genre critique I’ve ever seen. Any fan of these types of movies should see right through the criticisms of Goddard and Whedon fairly quickly. And then we are left with a very arrogant, cynical, and extremely self-serving horror comedy that neither chills nor amuses.

First misstep: the characters are too bland and irritatingly stock to be made into funny caricatures mocking what we usually find in these kinds of films. We have the dumb blond, the jock, the quiet smart guy, the homely (but insanely beautiful) down to earth girl, and of course…the stoner who turns out to be right about everything. I guess Whedon wanted him to be the “audience”, catching onto every little inconsistency in a horror story. He’s played quite nauseatingly by Fran Kranz. I hope I never have to see this actor in another film in my life.

The second misstep can only be described while describing the plot: take a couple of kids and have them go to a cabin in the woods (because it’s the jock’s cousin’s), and then as the story progresses, illustrate that these kids are part of a scheme by oddly button down suits who are part of some cult that sacrifices people for ancient gods that will destroy the earth if the sacrifices are not executed (ahem). Did I just ruin the surprise for you? I don’t think I did, but even if I did, I did you a favor.

The idea is that these suits are going to control what happens to the kids at the cabin. They display all kinds of creepy things you find in these types of places. Creepy dolls, creepy paintings (which came the closest to actually scaring me), and of course…Pandora’s Box. So the kids actually raise the dead and the suits then try to make sure the kids die one by one until the sacrifice is complete.

I actually liked the premise of this film because it would give you a chance to make fun of the standard horror “cabin in the woods” story while still telling a bigger story with the real horror being that if these stereotypical things don’t happen, we all die. Unfortunately, Whedon and Goddard are far too interested in being cute and clever that once we’re let in on the joke, they’re already telling you how funny it is.

I think in a horror comedy, you have a very thin line to walk. You don’t want to be too jokey, because it becomes self aware and then you take the fun out of it. But you do still want to scare people. I think one of the best examples of when it works is the original “Fright Night”. Another would be “Evil Dead 2”. I can even point to Whedon’s introduction into the genre with his own “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But here, this is beyond self-aware. This is purely self-congratulatory. Whedon and Goddard want you to know how cool they are by throwing in a ton of horror film references (everything from “Hellraiser” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Night of the Living Dead” to “Aliens”) and how great it is that they are being critical of bad horror films that are full of cliches and bad dialog.

However, in their attempt to mock the genre, they simply just come off as snobs as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest–I love bad horror films. I love the stereotypes, the cliches. Why? Because these films aren’t meant to be film classics. They’re meant to be drive-in fodder. An excuse to put your hand around your date’s shoulder and make a move. In many cases, these films mock themselves already enough and become parodies of themselves to the point where “The Cabin in the Woods” is the equivalent of the NYU film school grad sitting in a showing of “Friday the 13th” and telling you how adolescent it is.

We get it, guys. How about instead of wasting time telling me what I already know, make your own film fun and entertaining? “Cabin in the Woods” has its own problems, too. Logically some of the steps these guys take to sacrifice people don’t make sense, and sometimes they’re too convoluted if the end result is supposed to be death for the ancient gods. Why would you give anyone a chance of surviving if it means the end of the world for all of us? Which by the way, leads to a very anticlimactic ending. All the while I kept thinking…what is really at stake for any of these characters? Can we really believe the world will end if these kids aren’t killed? What’s at stake for the kids is far more relevant and credible, and yet we already know what has to happen with them so there is no tension going into the third act of the film.

I wanted to like this movie and appreciate the level of detail that Whedon and Goddard took with the horror genre. If they didn’t try so hard to manipulate me so much, maybe I would’ve actually enjoyed it.

My rating: :(

Brüno

July 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Sascha Baron Cohen just loves to mess with people. I think my whole review could actually be that one line, and that would suffice as an accurate, detailed depiction of what to expect with this film; or most of what he does, in fact. Cohen did this in 2006 with “Borat”, which was a “great success”; and now he hopes he can redeliver the goods using another persona from his acclaimed (and very funny) show “Da Ali G Show”–this time, the Austrian homosexual fashion zealot, Brüno. Are you prepared for male nudity? Guys, buckle up. It’s a long ride if you aren’t.

The plot of the film, much like in “Borat”, is very thin. The whole basis of the film rides on Brüno getting famous in any way he can. And he tries just about everything you can do–but first and foremost, he must get to America. He takes along his lapdog assistant and goes through some great lengths in order to realize his dream to become famous. He even adopts a black baby and takes him on “Today with Richard Bey”. I didn’t know Bey was still on the air, to be honest. In any event, Brüno has some wild misadventures trying to get into the spotlight: he gets an agent to help him launch a reality-talk interview show and actually gets a test audience to screen the show, and they subsequently watch his “package” dangle for a little bit (even talk to them), and watch him “dance” while they get one second of an “interview” with Harrison Ford. In one of the funniest moments of the film, he tries to “seduce” Ron Paul into his room in order to make a “sex tape” that can be circulated around the internet.

When his dreams of fame fail, he tries to do anything he can to get back on the horse. He even tries to turn straight. He goes to a gay converter, and he tries to go hunting with some real men (another funny sequence, if a bit played out); he also goes to a swinger’s party–and this was where the film impressed me most. Not because of how far he went, but because I could not believe the MPAA allowed what pretty much was porno right on the big screen, in a summer movie. Genius!

This is kind of the greatness and weakness of the film, and I was even a bit distracted by the somewhat slow pacing. Because there wasn’t a real plot, you were just watching Brüno do crazy things. And, to me, there seemed to be a bit more culture and depth in “Borat”. How many jokes can you make about rednecks and fundamentalists? The joke seemed to be wearing thin quicker in this film than in previous Cohen offerings. Another thing was that while Borat has an assuming charm about him; Brüno is not very likable. He is brash, and he’s very stupid in an unengaging way. He’s just vapid and superficial. With Borat it seems to be more of the language barrier and culturual barrier that separates him from any normal person. But Brüno just seems out of it. I know that’s part of the joke, but if you’re going to give us 90 minutes of the guy, I think he should at least be somewhat sympathetic. And because he’s flamboyant, and obnoxious, the homosexuality seems to become more of the joke than anything else, and again, that wears thin as well. We get it. He’s gay. We get it. Homophobes are uncomfortable around it. Yes, can you make something else out of this now? Or can we move on?

Perhaps I’m nitpicking–this film has some uproarious moments, too. It’s also very shocking at times, sometimes outdoing “Borat”. And I did look into the goings on to see what was staged and what was natural. A lot of it does check out. But I really wonder how much deeper Cohen wants to take this. I’m hoping this is his last venture into this kind of film. He is a very clever satirist and a very good actor and writer–I think he can do much better things now. I know this will make him more money, and it’s what the people want; but I’d like to see him really extend himself for his next film, should he continue making them.

My rating: :-)