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

The Hangover Part III

May 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

The Wolfpack is back for one more adventure, and this time, the formula’s changed a bit. This was a relief after it felt a bit tired in “The Hangover Part II”, and it even felt a bit underused since they were in such an exotic place where they didn’t even speak the language. The arrogant Phil (Bradley Cooper), paranoid Stu (Ed Helms), quiet and completely unknown Doug (Justin Bartha), and the man of the hour Alan (Zach Galifianakis) have returned to fix a problem that was started by their old nemesis, Chow (Ken Jeong). Unbeknownst to them, Alan and Chow have actually been in contact, and that leads a gold smuggler named Marshall (John Goodman) to catch them on their way to taking Alan to a mental hospital in Arizona. Chow has broken out of prison in Bangkok and stolen gold from Marshall. The gang is told they have only 3 days to find Chow and bring him to Marshall. And guess who is the bait?

Doug. The one guy we never get to know in any of these movies. I suppose that it’s fitting, and probably on purpose, that they chose him again. So, it’s the remaining three of Phil, Stu, and Alan, to find Chow who has gone to Tijuana. The boys try to use their own medicine that had gotten them in trouble in the first place and drug Chow when they find him–but Chow is on to them.

Instead, Chow sets them up yet again and has them unknowingly break into Marshall’s mansion and steal more gold from him. Then, Chow leaves them there while he goes…back to Las Vegas. Now the gang has even less time and a less patient Marshall to work with.

So in this sequel, action drives the plot more than any other “Hangover” movie. I guess that works better, but it leaves less room for comedy. There are some big laughs, though, including one involving Alan in an intervention that echoes an actual episode of “Intervention”. In fact, most of the laughs belong to Alan, as this is primarily his and Chow’s movie. Alan’s always been the most enjoyable character, although I couldn’t care less for Chow. But the filmmakers get it right this time by giving Galifianakis the most screen time. And, they are smart not to clutter the film up with tired cameos and stupid in-jokes.

This felt the most like a real “film” of the three “Hangovers”, and it works the best. I would’ve liked to laugh more; but I was at least thoroughly entertained, and that’s more than I could say for the first sequel. The entire trilogy still leaves something to be desired, though. I always felt that the execution never lived up to the promise of the set-up. I always liked the premise of people waking up after a night that they don’t remember. But there were always conveniences and lazy pay-offs that I thought undermined the potential for a great action comedy series, which is really what this was. I think if the writers looked more at screenplays like “Lethal Weapon” and “48 Hrs.” instead of trying to be something like an adult “American Pie” or a less bleak “Very Bad Things”, the series would’ve been more of a success.

As it stands, however, I do think this is the brightest of the three films, because it focused on the right character this time. It is a funny movie, and at times it’s thrilling too. The most surprising thing, though, is that it even has a sweet moment halfway through where we are reacquainted with the baby “Carlos” from the second movie. He’s grown up a little bit; but he and Alan share a very good scene together, possibly the best in the whole movie. The resolution of the film is satisfying; and unlike the other two films, it ends right when it needs to. 

This isn’t a movie that will resonate but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted. I don’t need to go through it again; thankfully, it looks like that isn’t going to be offered anyway.

My rating: :-)

The Hangover 2

June 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

2009’s “The Hangover” was a sleeper summer hit comedy that continued the tradition of modern raunchy American comedy films, and had some hits and misses but enough hits for me to enjoy the film. But two years later, I remember very little of it–much in the way that the characters in the film didn’t remember the night before when they got themselves involved in all of their shenanigans.

But like them, I decided to go through it all over again, and I saw ”The Hangover 2″, a sequel that I’m not sure is so inferior as much as it is just a continuation of a mildly entertaining movie “series”. In this case, the “Wolfpack” that includes Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), are heading to Thailand–a much more exotic and even more dangerous locale than the more familiar (and American) Las Vegas.

The plot is pretty simple, as in the first one: Stu is getting married in Thailand, his friends come, Alan is jealous of Stu’s future brother in law Teddy, and a few nights before the wedding, something happens. Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a dingy hotel room in Bangkok, and have no idea how they got there.

This actually has been the part of the premise that has intrigued me the most, for both films. I liked the “adventure” angle that took the plot forward. It was like a mystery. My only problem with the first one with that the payoff was a little weak. Maybe that was the point, but I remembered the funniest parts of the film were during the end credits because you saw all of the pictures from that lost night.

In this film, there are actually bigger laughs, especially coming from Galifianakis and the little monkey that was in the hotel room with them. But again, the payoff is weak, and some of the raising of the stakes are familiar enough by now that you know what’s going to happen; whereas in the first one, it really was hard to actually know how everything was going to unfold. But everything with the international intrigue and interpol and gangsters–we’ve seen this all in the first one; and although this brings it a little more over the top, the climax is still quite predictable.

This film does provide stronger characters, however. Stu is easily the most likeable, and because he’s the one caught up in this mess and the focal point, we are a little more invested in seeing things through and rooting for things to work out. In the first one, we had no idea who Doug was and only saw him in snippets. So while we did want to follow the journey, it was the journey over the characters that took precedence. In this, we’re familiar with the journey and the characters are a little more fleshed out that we like them enough that there’s a balance.

The film does try to be bigger than the first one even though it’s recycling the same plot, but I don’t think it went far enough. Kind of like in the first one, some of the ways they find out about the night before are actually a bit disappointing because they’re not very interesting. In this, though, there’s an expectation to see more exciting and shocking things; and with the exotic locale, I would have thought the language barrier would have played a large part. If you’re stuck in a foreign country, there are far more interesting and funny things that can happen than accidentally kidnapping a monk, for instance.

And like in the first one, this film doesn’t seem to know when to end.  There’s a decent finish, and it’s satisfying; but then, we still have to go through the wedding. I will maintain, we don’t care that much about the characters that we need to see the actual wedding. That part isn’t necessary; the story has been concluded. The end! But, not only are we having to sit through the wedding, we go through the reception, too, and the cameo at the end neither made me laugh nor interested me at all. It felt so tacked on, and a waste of time. Sure, this cameo performance probably gave this person some much needed cash, but why subject us to this? Have the person come in during the plot of the film so it doesn’t seem so forced and wasteful.

Overall, the film’s not a complete waste of time; but it’s also not, in my mind, a successful movie. It needed a bigger punch than it delivered and while the actors do their best with the material (that admittedly is handled a little better than the original), it just doesn’t have enough. In the first one, the premise was interesting and there was enough to make it a passable comedy. This one is just unnecessary enough to not give it a pass.

My rating: :?

The Hangover

June 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“The Hangover” did look a lot like “Very Bad Things”–but they are two completely different movies. Where “Very Bad Things” is a dark comedy about the depravity of humanity (who knew Peter Berg was so disturbed?), “The Hangover” is a light screwball comedy that, while it does have some “shock” moments, never lets up its shiny disposition that you should have fun with it. It’s a misadventure.

And, probably one that I should’ve encountered sometime in my life while drunkenly wandering the streets of the south side of Chicago. But somehow, by unbelievable luck–I survived without having to go through the ordeals these poor guys have to. And “The Hangover” is everybody’s worst nightmare come true when you go balls out and get wasted–and in a town like Vegas, so much can happen.

So it was, from the start, a win-win situation, as long as the writers realized how much material they had to work with. I think they got it. I think there could have been more, but I think they got enough of it.

This is helped in large part to Zach Galifianakis’s deadpan, strange, and off-the-wall performance where there’s just so much honesty in his eyes, you can’t help but laugh at everything he says and does. There are also just some laugh out loud moments in the film, some of which you feel guilty laughing about.

Overall the movie does work, but I have to gripe about a few things that didn’t work for me: what was the point of the car meaning so much to the dad? It didn’t add any stakes as we all are aware the car was pretty valuable–and, it was already stated in the beginning that he didn’t want anybody driving it but Doug. It just seemed unnecessary for the repeated lines of “Dad is going to be so mad about the car!”. Didn’t add anything at all. But that’s small, it didn’t annoy me. The chicken. What was with the chicken? It wasn’t even a funny prop. The tiger at least had a pay off and was amusing. I didn’t buy the connection Stu made with ruffies having to do with where Doug was. That was weak to me.

But the biggest problem I had was the ending. Once they found Doug, that was it. There was nothing left on the table. It was a huge dip in the energy of the film, and I just felt that the whole wedding sequence was severely drawn out. And the wedding band? Um…yeah–we KINDA saw that in…”Old School”? It was eye-roll inducing to say the least. I understand they wanted to conclude stuff with Stu and his girlfriend but they could’ve done that in a much quicker way. We don’t care enough about these characters to sit through the ceremonies. Once they had found Doug, and they were headed back to the wedding, you need to end the movie in 5 minutes or less.

Going back to the characters for a moment–while misadventures don’t often allow for a lot of character development, because they wanted to treat this as sort of a buddy movie as well as a screwball comedy, it didn’t work as well because the characters were very thinly drawn. It was as though they just borrowed stereotypes from other movies about bachelor parties and gave them the run-of-the-mill standard personalities. And the weird thing was, they didn’t even act out accordingly a lot of the time. Because Allen (Zach) was such a strong presence, the other characters seemed to spend most of their time just trying to figure him out rather than being who they were. And Doug was a complete non-entity. We had no idea why these guys were friends to begin with. They could’ve used a scene or two to establish their history.

The ending credits were probably the funniest part, and that’s not exactly the best time to have the biggest laughs. But I will give credit–they were hysterical.

Overall, it’s a good time and it’s a fun movie. Yes, obviously when you break it down, it falls a part a little bit more. But I’ve laid out stuff in this review that’s really not even necessary–but I couldn’t get it off my mind. Don’t worry, I am recommending this film and I did enjoy it. But I had to call out the weaknesses.

My rating: :-)