Friday, October 31, 2014

I Don't Know Where You Magic Birdmen Came From, But I Like Your BIRDMAN Drink!

BIRDMAN (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Great movies, before they end, carry a few milestones for the audience. First comes the realization and immediate rush that you're watching one - this is really happening, and it's happening now. Next comes the inevitable anticipation of the crash. Life is but a bounty of disappointments, so why should this movie be any different? Finally, the moment when it either fails to stick the landing or, like some kind of intervention from God, sees its own potential through.

To watch "Birdman" is to witness the rare and elusive spectacle of something actually pulling it off, something setting a ridiculously ambitious bar for itself and clearing it. A virtuoso act of technical mastery and performance, of ridiculous confidence and ease, "Birdman" isn't just a movie you're happy to see. You're practically grateful. 

This is the sort of work that inspires immediate, breathless Twitter updates in the parking lot.

In a masterstroke of casting, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who ruled Hollywood when he played comic book hero Birdman 20 years ago (sound familiar?), now trying to revive his career by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. After a falling stage light injures a costar the day before previews begin, Thomson replaces him with noted New York thespian Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, known as an actor who brings it, but also drives casts and crews crazy with his temperament and methods (again, sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone) pesters him to build a social media presence, his producer (Zach Galifianakis) hounds him about budgets, and he hears increasingly confrontational voices in his head that may or may not be the iconic superhero he once played.

As a piece of writing from director/cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," 21 Grams") "Birdman" is wicked and incisive, offering dark belly laughs as it exploits show business conventions and its cast's public images. As a piece of filmmaking, though, oooh boy. Spanning the period of roughly a week, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot "Birdman" as a series of extended scenes manipulated to resemble one fluid, unbroken take. Unlike one obvious ancestor, Hitchcock's "Rope," which sported editing tricks between shots to create the illusion of a single real-time take, "Birdman" makes no such pretense that this is really one shot. Sometimes a scene cuts when characters walk through shadows or the camera whips. Often it's invisible. I only spotted a few.

Here's the thing, though - I stopped trying to count. Iñárritu isn't dressing a shallow movie with flashy showmanship, designed to call attention to itself. Instead he hides this technique in plain sight, as if it happened from the inside out and blends right in. His camera doesn't simply observe. It doesn't simply follow. It interacts. It invites and caresses and invades. Individual scenes can last as long as five or ten minutes, but Iñárritu precisely frames each moment, even as his camera circles the actors or the actors circle it, with characters often shot in extreme, oddly canted close-up, as if they're ready to burst through the screen. One can only imagine the rigorous rehearsals as actors learned their exact blocking, everyone no doubt terrified of standing in the wrong spot or moving at the wrong time and blowing it all.

To conceive of such a thing reflects stunning ambition. To achieve it is an act of technical wizardry. To stop the audience from noticing is a gotdang miracle.

But to what end? Not for nothing does Riggan adapt Raymond Carver, of all people. Few authors are as good as Carver at diving into the lives of characters at the exact moment their plans stop working. And by the end, beyond its high wire tricks, "Birdman" reveals itself as a searingly human work about a man ready to collapse under the pressure of his failed hopes. We've all had that point, whether it's lying in bed at night or browsing a high school classmate's Facebook page, where we face the sum of who we are and worry if it adds up to much. Our blown opportunities. Our lost successes. "Birdman" takes us right to this edge, where our rapidly fading potential comes crashing down and we must decide whether or not to resign ourselves to it.

You could argue that Iñárritu's purpose behind the single faked, fluid take is to recreate the immediacy of live theater, given the movie's Broadway setting. You wouldn't be wrong. But that's not the whole story. By imbuing this world with such a sense of madcap urgency, Iñárritu holds our eyes open and forces us to reconcile this moment, right now, for these people. We're not standing outside of it. We're plunged deep in the middle. There's no safety of the camera cutting away when things get too personal or uncomfortable. And eventually, like Riggan and his dreams of career reinvention, we wonder if there's a way out.

Basically it's a convincing replica of live theater, filtered through decidedly cinematic conventions, all with a literary understanding of human suffering. Never say "Birdman" doesn't try.

There is nothing timid about this movie. No moment where it plays things safe. Featuring a towering performance from Keaton that not only rebuilds his career, but redefines it, "Birdman" isn't quite like anything you've seen this year. Isn't that what we go to the movies for?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Full Of Gore And FURY, Signifying Slightly More Than Nothing

FURY (directed by David Ayer, 2014)

Either your respect for "Fury" keeps growing after you see it or it keeps falling. Here is a movie with fairly little to say but strikingly well made in saying it, whose blatant lack of encompassing statements some might see as profundity. As Staff Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) says halfway into the film, "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent." Such is the crux of "Fury." Such is also the crutch.

Director David Ayer, working from his own script, constructs "Fury" like a shaggy dog story, in no hurry to arrive nowhere. Collier commands a tank staffed by men with colorful nicknames and less colorful personalities through Germany as the European theater of World War II draws to a close. Episodic mayhem ensues along the way. Far more time for contemplation in between. In this, we meet our only real arc and "Fury"'s real protagonist - a young private named Norman (Logan Lerman) who, despite joining the Army a mere eight weeks earlier, is assigned to Collier's tank. And yes, oh yes, innocence is absolutely lost.

It is not unheard of to make a movie that can be defended or derided with neither side necessarily "wrong." Lars Von Trier specializes in such works. What makes "Fury" such a rare exception is its supporters and critics seem to follow the same arguments. Impressed by Ayer's resistance to easy morality, as he portrays war one big grey area that simply continues until it doesn't? Boom - you're in the target audience. 

Or do you feel that, "History is violent," in trying not to be an easy cop-out, is itself a cop-out? Maybe you think that portraying morality in war as grey instead of black/white is only a different kind of absolute unless you also demonstrate how we're lead to this mindset, and maybe even its effect on the human soul? You're obviously in the other camp.

"Fury" is almost a fascinating case study. How one audience can watch one movie but arrive at two different conclusions using the same road map.

What's particularly frustrating is you can almost feel "Fury" wanting to push further, and at this point, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: "Fury" is not an out-and-out bad movie. Bad movies waste your time. "Fury" does not waste your time. It just could have filled it in a more satisfying way. Lets take what is by far the stand-out sequence in the movie. Collier and his men have successfully overtaken a small German village and pause for a night of rest and relaxation. Some of the men drink. Others find local German women to screw. Collier and Norman spot a couple of young ladies in the window of one of the town's few surviving buildings and invite themselves up. Eventually they're joined by the rest of their tank comrades, and everyone sits down for a meal of fried eggs.

By now, we've spent a solid 60 or 70 minutes of screen time with these men. We know how they feel towards each other. We know how they feel towards Norman. We know how they feel towards Germans. Now here they all sit around the dinner table, with nary a gunshot to distract them, discussing the carnage they have faced and the justification in it (or lack thereof), and we tensely sit perched in our seats, waiting to see what sparks will fly.

It's an exceedingly effective scene, perfectly placed halfway in the film, earning its obvious comparisons to the famed French plantation sequence cut from the theatrical edition of "Apocalypse Now." And yet it also highlights everything wrong with the rest of "Fury." Ayer has said that he envisioned the movie as an examination of a make-shift family unit - what drives a family together and what drives them apart - and you can sense this dinner sequence as emblematic of that thesis. When he doesn't push the idea further, though, instead settling for a brazen lack of conclusion, it serves only to frustrate. 

Still, I said earlier that "Fury" doesn't waste your time. That ain't no lie. Ayer shoots combat with a kind of glorious, expertly choreographed chaos. Defiantly sticking with 35mm film after digital tests reportedly didn't satisfy, he balances the modern philosophical messiness of his script with old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship. If the Normandy sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" seemed purposefully spontaneous, as if the crew struggled to keep up with the action, the carnage in "Fury" feels consciously staged. This is not an insult, Ayer blends this deliberate framing with gritty, rough violence that prevents us from feeling too much awe as people die.

Even this reaches frustrating ends in the last act, however, as "Fury" attempts its only real "plot" and it becomes Collier's tank against more or less the entire German army. What was once a fairly realistic, almost clinical portrayal of violence becomes bro-tastic "Fuck yeah!" antics, with us meant to cheer as our team of merry men mow down swarms of Germans in ridiculously over-the-top fashion.

I understand the inherent satisfaction in war action scenes. But do we really need timid young Norman shouting, "Motherfucking Nazis!"?   

Still, are you just a fan of war movies wondering if "Fury" is worth your time? Go for it - if nothing else, the movie is immaculately paced. The subgenre of WWII pictures isn't exactly gasping for additions, though, and in its lazy stab at hazy morality, "Fury" can't quite justify itself.

Mostly it seems meant for those who saw Pitt's own "Inglourious Basterds" and thought, "That was nice...but did it have to be so much fun?"