Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Birdman Review

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” 

That line, said by Edward Norton during a heated exchange with Michael Keaton tells you all you need to know about Birdman. This is, essentially, a super-hero movie that despises super-hero movies and the trappings that go along with them. 

Twenty-Five years ago Michael Keaton lit up the screen as The Dark Knight in Tim Burton’s Batman, a role that went on to define his career whether he liked it or not. Fast-forward to 2014 and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Keaton is playing a fictionalized version of himself, trying to right the damage done by playing such a famous character. Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a once blockbuster-headlining superstar with one last chance at legitimacy as an actor. The man has sunk every last penny into a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and as the film starts, is at his wit’s end dealing with bad actors, a problematic daughter and oh yeah, the constant heckling from Birdman, the voice inside Riggan’s head.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, is a tough nut to crack. He’s previously shown a great ability to tell a globe-spanning tale of interconnected misery with his 2006 opus Babel. Here the misery and redemption is not globe-spanning but instead confined to a two block radius around the storied St. James Theatre in New York City. Iñárritu shows that he has an ear for great dialogue and is able to get some arresting performances from his cast. This is in thanks to some heartbreaking monologues where the actors/characters are able to bare their souls. Various subjects such as ego and obsession are touched upon with a grace (some would say heavy handedness), that approaches an ethereal quality that isn’t unwelcome in the least. This is a director who will constantly surprise you with the stories he chooses to tell.

Just so I don’t come off like a broken record from here on out, everyone in the cast is doing career best work. Keaton in particular is masterful as the on-the-cusp of redemption Riggan Thompson. He’s proven himself as a fine actor before in films like the underrated Game 6 and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but here he has upped his game into the stratosphere, giving his best performance yet. Filled with conviction and an indelible sadness, his is one of the towering performances of a year filled with great ones. The supporting cast is also one of the strongest you’ll see in theaters in 2014 as well. Emma Stone deserves particular praise for her portrayal of Riggan’s daughter, a fresh out of rehab twenty-something hiding a world of anguish behind her eyes. She’s truly given the opportunity to shine in Birdman, giving one of the strongest performances in the film outside of Keaton. Pathos that was only teased elsewhere in previous roles really comes to the fore.

The rest of the cast is aces as well, from Zach Galifianakas turning in a fine dramatic performance to Naomi Watts dazzling as always. Her character in particular has some strong moments and she hasn’t been this heartbreaking since 2001’s Mulholland Drive. The real star of the supporting cast, when it comes right down to it, has got to be Edward Norton. Playing a Broadway actor who is so full of himself he can be downright painful, Norton plays the role he was born to play: Himself. Few actors would have the courage to play an exaggerated version of themselves, especially when the character is so vile and Norton deserves some respect for even going through with it.

On a technical level Birdman is a masterclass. From the pounding drum score to the seamless editing, it’s a marvel. Emmanuel Lubezki is having an absolute field day here with his camera. Filmed and edited to resemble one continuous shot, the cinematography can be jarring at first but settles into a steady rhythm before long. Taking his sweeping camerawork he employed and won an Oscar for in Gravity and using it in the enclosed space of a Broadway theater is an inspired choice. Lubezki is a cinematographer with an eye for beauty in even the ugliest situations as evidenced by his previous work with directors Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) and Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and his work here reaches the same great heights as before.

An existential super-hero film if anything else, Birdman is one of the best films of the year. A great behind the scenes look into the world of Broadway and the way super-hero films can ruin the lives of those who star in them, this is a film that should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in strange, unique stories. Breathtaking from start to finish and a truly surreal experience, Birdman is one of a kind and a high point for the Fall movie season.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Halloween Review

Though not the first slasher film (Texas, Psycho and Peeping Tom came before it), John Carpenter’s 1978 masterwork drew the blueprint that every subsequent slasher would abide by. A simple story of a babysitter and her night with the embodiment of evil is great example of indie filmmaking and what a small budget can produce. Michael Myers is the stuff of nightmares.

Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Dean Cundey and a no-nonsense pace thanks to Carpenter’s sharp screenplay, Halloween is a classic in the genre for a reason. Jamie Lee Curtis shines as the young Laurie Strode with a scream most horror actresses would sell their soul for and Donald Pleasence is a pure delight in his signature role as Dr. Sam Loomis, Michael’s former psychiatrist. Halloween is the rare slasher with characters you can both relate to and enjoy thanks to the performances that “totally” bring them to life. 

Surprisingly bloodless, like most great horror films it’s what you don’t see that really gets to you. Sure, there are murders aplenty but the lack of gore, much like in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre four years prior, only adds to the mounting dread and tension. Aside from The Thing, this is John Carpenter’s crowning achievement as a director and the king of all slasher films.

The Shining Review

Derided upon release as slow-paced, boring and far too removed from the source material, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror has steadily grown in stature ever since. A far superior version of Stephen King’s original story, Kubrick’s version has been analyzed to death since release but suffice to say it’s one of the most unsettling and disturbing family stories ever made. 

A master of mood and style, Kubrick’s film is flawlessly made. From methodical steadicam shots through the halls of the Overlook Hotel to the barrage of terror that Shelley Duvall endures in the film’s final act, The Shining checks off every asset that makes a horror film effective and adds even more. Jack Nicholson may seem unhinged from the start but that’s a moot point, his is a singular performance and the movie as a whole would’ve been lesser without that menacing stare present in almost every scene. 

There’s palpable dread throughout and it’s brought to vivid life thanks to Kubrick. Horror and the haunted house sub-genre of it would be lesser without his contribution and all we can do is thank him for it.