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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

October 24, 2014

The first and most honest reaction on seeing Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has got to be, “boy, is this guy full of himself.” And, to be clear, I say this as generally a fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work. But for all its audacious, technical brilliance, this film comes off as a work of bombast by a director declaring himself better than Hollywood, better than Broadway, and better than critics, just as a start. It’s a crabby, petulant film, even as it’s raucously entertaining.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood actor who peaked twenty-odd years ago as the star of three Birdman movies. Desperate for relevance, he enlists his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), as producer and sinks everything he has into adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway version of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and at the St. James Theatre, no less.

After an accident sidelines one of the cast as they head into previews, they get Broadway star thespian Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to replace him, courtesy of his girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts). But Mike is a devoted method actor, which immediately unbalances the whole energy of the cast and crew. He clashes strongly with Riggan, who he sees as an outsider and a dilettante.

But since that’s not enough we also get some throwaway plotlines. Castmate Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is also Riggan’s current romantic partner, and she might be pregnant. Then we get the supposed voice of the millennial generation in Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter by ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who is fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant. And, as if Mike wasn’t enough push-back from the Broadway in-crowd, the only person whose opinion really counts in the success of the show is the New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who is already writing her scathing review before even seeing the play, just because she hates the very idea of superhero movies.

Oh, and one more thing: for pretty much the entire week leading up to the opening, Riggan is in the midst of a psychotic break, hearing the growly voice of Birdman in his head and hallucinating telekinetic powers.

Just to make sure we notice all these different things going on, Iñárritu insists that everyone be Acting at full volume all of the time. The only time someone isn’t yelling is if they’re delivering a quiet, emotionally overwrought monologue. The camera swoops in to give each actor their own wild-eyed close-up in turn. The effect is overwhelming — an attempt to beat the audience into submission just as solidly as a gasoline explosion chaotically edited by Michael Bay.

But instead of chopping the film apart, Iñárritu works with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot it in such a way that most of it looks like one continuous shot. Why? I really can’t say. It doesn’t even pretend to take place in subjective time, like Rope or Silent House do. Some backstage sequences might be really effective in this style — I’d love to see Lubezki repeat the trick on a production of Noises Off — but it doesn’t take long to feel like showing off, and to the detriment of the story. Throwing in a CGI action sequence is Iñárritu’s way of gilding the lily: “Look, I can pull off impressive visual stunts, too!”

And that feeds back into the overall tone. The mixed messages the film sends sound like a spoiled child wanting to have everything his way, even when they contradict each other. He indicts Hollywood blockbusters through Mike in one breath, but then paints self-styled artists as ridiculous and pretentious in the next. He presents a caricature of a critic — an attempt to undercut criticism of the film itself, maybe — and then has her echo his own criticism of mass-market movies, which only serves to undercut his own points.

All this dissonance would be maddening — and easy to dismiss as incoherent babble — if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing is so damn fun. It’s sublimely ridiculous and surreal in its garish, blown-out performances. Everyone feels like a version of their actual public persona, as seen through a funhouse mirror. Keaton, of course, was Tim Burton’s Batman; Norton is famous for rewriting his parts, and refused to return to his own superhero franchise as The Hulk; Stone could have replaced an unreliable Lindsay Lohan. Only Galifianakis comes off as more normal than usual, probably because we’re only used to seeing him as an outrageous idiot-manchild.

Maybe that’s the point, though: there is no real point but to have fun with it. Disregard all of Iñárritu’s self-serious harrumphing about “art films should just be called ‘films'” as an Andy Kaufman-style bomb-throwing performance to drum up attention and outrage. Yes, some Hollywood blockbusters are excessive; yes, some method actors can be ridiculous; yes, some critics have an outsize sense of their own importance. Anyone who takes themselves and their art too seriously is in need of a little deflation. After a trio of somber, self-important dramas, Iñárritu himself certainly does, and Birdman has its talons sharpened for the task.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

St. Vincent

October 24, 2014
St. Vincent

I joked, to friends after seeing the screener for St. Vincent, that someone at the theater must have bumped a tray full of dust into the ventilation system just before the end of the film. Theodore Melfi has made a character study for Bill Murray that so obviously and nakedly goes for the heartstrings that the only possible explanation for my reaction would be something in my eye. Jokes aside, there’s something wonderful about a movie that tell you exactly what it wants you to feel, how it’s going to get you to do that, and then actually manages to pull it off.

Murray plays Vincent McKenna, a boorish drunk and longtime Brooklyn resident. He’s also a problem gambler who owes money to his bookie (Terrence Howard). The closest thing he has to a friend is an Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts).

Vincent gets his first chance to show us just what a miserable bastard he is when Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) moves in next door and he blames her movers for the damage to the fence that he himself ran over while drunk the previous night. She’s left an unsupportive jerk of a husband who’s angling for full custody, and her kid, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), is a pathetically adorable moppet who gets home from an expensive Catholic school most days before she can get off of her job as a radiology technician at a local hospital. And Vincent flops into the ill-fitting role of Oliver’s babysitter — at extortionate rates, of course.

Of course, Vincent must have a heart of gold under that crusty, ill-maintained exterior. And so of course, when Oliver’s overbearing religion teacher (Chris O’Dowd) assigns a report on saints in our midst that will be delivered in front of the entire school community, Vincent is Oliver’s first choice.

The whole thing is such a transparent manipulation that I’m honestly surprised it works so well. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store; Melfi’s script does manage to change up on plenty of expected turns. But even if we take a slightly different route, the destination is clear from the start, and it should by all rights be a cloying, sappy one.

The obvious place to look for an explanation is the star: Murray has been on a winning streak of late, and Vincent is much more his speed than the Franklin Roosevelt we saw in Hyde Park on Hudson. On the other hand, the role is so perfectly crafted to the intersection of Murray’s best comedic and dramatic turns, so it’s no surprise that he can grab hold of it with both hands like this, and that’s often a recipe for overdoing it.

I think more than a little credit has to go to McCarthy. This is exactly the sort of range I knew she was capable of when I found Tammy so disappointingly lacking in it. She’s a totally different actress here than she is in the raunchier comedies on her résumé, and a far more effective one.

But maybe some of it goes back to Melfi’s story itself, and maybe his direction too. For all the obvious parts of the ending, it doesn’t go quite as far as it might; like Murray’s and McCarthy’s performances, the story itself shows a measure of restraint.

It’s nice for stories to resolve happily, but some of them are less about happy endings and more about endings we can learn to live with and move on from. Vincent’s saintliness isn’t about working miracles. It’s about helping when he can, getting by when he can’t, and maybe — eventually — learning to tell the difference.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

John Wick

October 24, 2014
John Wick

There’s one offering that’s all but guaranteed to be on the menu at any decent enough restaurant: the steak-frites. Just steak and french fries, and maybe a side vegetable. I pretty much never order it, myself, but it’s always there as a fallback for diners too timid to order something more interesting or original. And it’s not even necessarily bad; some restaurants can make even something as basic as steak-frites delicious and quite enjoyable, even though most of the time the kitchen treats it as a regrettably necessary way of making money from a certain unadventurous clientèle.

John Wick is a very well-executed steak-frites of a movie. It’s a big, thick, juicy rib-eye of an action flick prepared with a minimum of narrative fuss and a maximum of choreographic and cinematographic talent. I don’t usually care for just-plain-action movies, but this one stands out.

It works despite — or maybe in this case because of — the bare minimum of plot. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former gang underworld hitman who left that world behind as the best of the best. He’s set for life, living in a large, isolated house and driving a classic Mustang. But when he refuses to sell his car to Iosef, a self-important prince of the Russian mob (Alfie Allen), the kid not only steals the car, but kills Wick’s dog — the one his wife arranged to be delivered after she died of cancer two days ago. As Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), can predict, Wick will kill not only Iosef, but every last man who stands in between them. And there’s going to be a lot of them.

Seriously, that’s about all the exposition we get, and it’s done within about fifteen minutes. The rest of the film is solid action; no twists, no turns, no long, boring, info-dump speeches. Reeves is the perfect blank for this part: Wick needs no personality or emotional drive beyond revenge, and he needs to look awesome in an immaculately tailored three-piece suit; Reeves fits both requirements like they were made for him.

The fight choreography — both the gunplay and the hand-to-hand sequences — is perfect. It’s crisp and snappy, and stuntmen-turned-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski wisely choose long, clear shots so we can see every single move. This may be these first time in the chair, but they get seasoned action cinematographer Jonathan Sela to make the most of the dark, murky settings.

Even without a lot of explanation it’s clear that the movie posits a deeply textured world of gangsters and hitmen just underneath the surface of New York, like the secret hotel Continental, whose neutrality is scrupulously maintained by its owner (Ian McShane) and concierge (Lance Reddick). Or there’s the standard covert cleanup-crew for the piles and piles of bodies. Or the gold coins that serve as standard tokens for everything from drinks to favors. I’d be glad to see screenwriter Derek Kolstad spin out more stories using the same setting, even if they have little to do with Wick as a character.

Just as the best steak-frites might be found in old, wood-panelled steakhouses with overstuffed leather chairs, John Wick is at home in an exceedingly masculine environment. With the exception of the basically-absent Mrs. Wick, there’s only one woman Wick interacts with, and Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki) is pretty much the usual guy-but-with-breasts character we get in action movies anyway. Even Wick’s terrifying Russian nickname “Baba Yaga” is changed from a female Slavic storybook witch to “the boogeyman”, complete with male pronouns. This is a movie that is designed for a very traditionally masculine sort of taste

I do want to give credit, though, for the choice not to shove Wick’s wife into a refrigerator. Yes, her death is part of his motivation, but it’s not the direct cause. She is not killed in order to drive him into action; she dies, and someone ignorantly fails to respect that sorrow. It’s a fine distinction, but I think it makes a difference. Just because you’re making a hypermasculine power fantasy doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy, lazy, or crude about it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Dear White People

October 21, 2014
Dear White People

If there’s one glaring problem with Dear White People, it’s that the people who desperately need to hear what it’s trying to say won’t understand the point. Scratch that; they won’t even see the film. Oh, who am I kidding; they won’t even realize that a great, smart, original Black film like this one exists.

On the surface, writer/director Justin Simien tackles the manifold experiences of being a Black face in a White space, specifically the pseudo-Ivy liberal arts Winchester University. There’s some merit to asking why tell a Black story in a Predominantly White Institution instead of a Historically Black College or University — for more, see here — but given that America is, by and large, a White space, this is kind of a more fitting microcosm.

And yes, before you even think of asking, there’s more than one “Black experience”.

Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is a button-pusher; the film draws its name from her radio show skewering the many microaggressions that still exist in the so-called “post-racial America”. At the urging of Reggie (Marque Richardson) — more of an agitator than Sam is — she runs for head of the historically-Black Armstrong-Parker House, seeking to reverse the recent policy of random dorm assignments that stands to disperse a growing power center of Black students. And, surprisingly to even her, she beats the incumbent BMOC Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell).

Troy, for his part, is growing disillusioned with the prospect of a life in law and public service as envisioned by his father, the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). He would rather join Pastiche — Winchester’s answer to Harvard’s Lampoon — which means winning over Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the privileged son of the university’s president (Peter Syvartsen, doing a damn good John C. McGinley impression).

Meanwhile, Colandrea “Coco” Conners envies the notoriety Sam’s controversy brings. She wants fame and fortune, which a shot at a reality show might bring her. Egging Kurt on might lead to just the opportunity she can capitalize on.

And in the middle of everything is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a gay, black, nerdy kid who is equally bemused by everyone around him and doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.

Technically, Dear White People is impressive work for Simien’s first time out. I might question some of his compositions, but he’s on fundamentally more solid footing than a lot of journeyman directors out there. The screenplay zips along, crackling with dry wit.

But more important than the film’s technical merits are the ideas it voices. The characters are complex and multifaceted, not yielding to simple descriptions or clichés. The experiences they embody are no less varied, and to be honest I am nowhere near the right person to even start unpacking them here. For that, I will point you first to my friend Dominic Griffin’s review — along with his whole “Dark Gable Presents” series — and suggest you seek out even more critics of color to read their opinions, each informed by their own experiences.

And please, if nothing else, don’t be surprised when they don’t all agree.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.


October 17, 2014

War movies have long since moved beyond the black-and-white cheering for the good guys and into moral grey areas. Even the most gung-ho leave me questioning whether it truly is as sweet and fitting as Horace thought it was to die for one’s country. Fury
is, at least, one that seems to at least raise the question itself. What it comes up with as an answer, I don’t know.

There aren’t a lot of tank-based war movies out there. They were difficult to shoot realistically before the advent of modern CGI, and they haven’t seemed particularly relevant since. To the extent tanks still serve a purpose, they seem more like armored mobile heavy artillery than anything else, and a tank battle seems almost quaint in today’s airstrike-dominated battlefield.

But, holy crap, could a tank really dish it out back in World War II. If you’re looking for the maximum damage and destruction with a minimal cast, you can pick from tanks or bombers, and bomber squads aren’t on the ground to see the results after the fact. And so, on a technical level, Fury is almost certainly one of the most impressive military action films in years. It’s also one of the ugliest, and most disturbingly graphic. But does that make it good? I don’t know.

Most of us in the audience have no experience in the battlefield. I certainly don’t. Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is our surrogate: a typist even greener than his uniform, dropped into a Sherman tank in April of 1945 to replace the bow gunner who was the squad’s first casualty since North Africa. His first task is to clean the remains of his predecessor out of the tank. The body was removed, but there’s blood and tissue over the seat, and part of a face stares back from a nearby nook.

Writer/director David Ayer doubles down on the gore when Norman fails to shoot a German he sees in the woods. The tank in front of him gets hit by a rocket, and someone climbs out, engulfed in flames. He runs and screams for more than a few seconds before he can draw his sidearm and end his own suffering, all in front of Norman’s — in front of our — eyes.

I don’t describe this to disparage the film. Indeed The Thin Red Line — which film I will defend unreservedly — has no shortage of graphic violence itself. But you should ask yourself, do you really need to see a man shooting himself in the head while still burning alive to believe that war is horrifying?

The tank’s leader, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), takes it on himself to turn Norman into a Real Man who can and will slaughter every German he sees. And he’s right that, on the battlefield, that’s the difference between life and death not only for Norman, but for the rest of the tank’s crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) as well.

Lerman portrays Norman’s arc from scared kid to shellshocked “war hero” admirably. By the end, he knows all too well what awful things men are capable of doing to each other, and I guess we’ve seen a few things ourselves. For this to play out in just a few days is unrealistic, but I have to admit that it’s kind of beside the point.

Also beside the point are the historical and technical inaccuracies a friend of mine leapt on right after the screening. Fury isn’t trying to chronicle the truth about tank combat so much as it wants to remind us of the humanity people have to sacrifice to become soldiers in wartime. The people who fight and die for us do all sorts of unconscionable things to stay alive, and it’s neither pretty nor glorious when they fail.

So, could a real Norman go from typist to war-machine in under a week? Could they find an organized SS battalion that hadn’t scattered in April 1945? Did tracer rounds really look like G.I. Joe laser fire, down to the red and blue color-coding? Do human bodies really do that when hit with high-powered machine-gun fire? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t want anyone to know.

Does the fact that I found the military action depicted in Fury so profoundly disturbing to watch that I’m lying awake over the idea that anyone has to know what it’s really like mean that the film has accomplished its goals? Does that justify rendering these horrors so vividly? I don’t know.

Worth It: I’d err on the side of no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Best of Me

October 17, 2014
The Best of Me

There’s a point, about halfway through The Best of Me, where Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) tells her teenage sweetheart Dawson (James Marsden), “I always assumed life would just work out, and it did.” Well, of course it did, I wanted to yell. You’re rich, you’re pretty, and you’re in a Nick Sparks story. Any one of those would assure you an easy life.

Yes, this makes nine of these adaptations, and they’re not getting any better. The weak-sauce twist in Safe Haven at least added one small bit of texture in the mindless pablum, but there’s no such luck here. This is, frankly, lazy and predictable even for Sparks.

At the time she has that one, bare flicker of self-awareness, Amanda and Dawson have returned to their shared hometown where Dawson’s surrogate father-figure, Tuck (Gerald McRaney), has just died. But though they were once young and in love, unspoken circumstances have separated them.

Dawson works as a roughneck on an offshore oil rig, where he’s not only the smartest guy on board, he’s the most heroic. He proves as much when the well blows out, which is totally not a cynical move on Sparks’ part to repurpose an environmental catastrophe and the death of eleven men as cheap fodder for his bodice-rippers.

Amanda, on the other hand, is a dissatisfied housewife to a finance dudebro (Sebastian Arcelus). Which, to be honest, is where her life was always headed anyway. When we flash back to their childhood, the younger Amanda (Liana Liberato) was raised in a wealthy, Louisiana-society home, complete with white gloves at the parties. Younger Dawson (Luke Bracey) comes not only from the wrong side of the tracks, his redneck, drug-running father (Sean Bridgers) spits on the very idea of tracks.

But Dawson is somehow perfectly sweet and kind despite his entire home life, and Amanda is drawn to that kindness as an improvement over the preppy jocks she knows. And the one she will later marry because of course she won’t actually learn anything from her teenage romance with Dawson.

That’s one of the most frustrating parts of the whole exercise: watching Monaghan try to find depth in this rainpuddle of a character when we’ve just seen that she’s capable of so much more. The lack of anything worthwhile for her to say is only slightly beefed up with close-ups of high school drama exercise facial expression shifts.

But even Amanda’s wishy-washy hand-wringing is a tour-de-force next to basically any other character we see, as they’re all either angels or demons. I’m sure it’s comforting to see the world drawn in such black-and-white lines, filled in with primary colors, but it’s boring and predictable from start to finish.

I know that hit-pieces like this are the lowest form of criticism, but there is literally nothing else to say about this movie.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Kill the Messenger

October 10, 2014
Kill the Messenger

A couple weeks ago, while talking about The Equalizer, I mentioned the sorts of shady dealings the United States government carried out in our name that we started to become aware of in the ’70s and ’80s. So let me tell you a story.

Ronald Reagan, middling movie actor turned saint of the modern conservative movement, wanted to fight a war in Central America. During his own administration, we learned that the United States had arranged to sell weapons to Iran — in violation of an arms embargo — in order to raise money to secretly fund antisocialist “Contra” forces in Nicaragua. What we didn’t realize until ten years later was that the CIA also raised money in partnerships with major drug traffickers, turning the other way as they brought literally billions — with a ‘B’ — of dollars of cocaine into the country, to the point that the local distributors couldn’t drum up enough demand to meet the supply. No American lives were lost fighting in the Nicaraguan jungle, but plenty were destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic that funded the fighting.

It’s a crazy story, and we probably wouldn’t have known about it at all except for Gary Webb. And, since the final confirmation was quietly delivered amid the chaos of the trumped-up Monica Lewinsky scandal, you may not even have heard of it except for Kill the Messenger.

Webb (Jeremy Renner) was an investigative reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, a small regional newspaper. In 1996, he wrote up a story about civil asset forfeitures — the kind John Oliver just talked about last week — that caught someone’s eye. A woman contacted him, saying her boyfriend was accused of drug trafficking, and something interesting had accidentally been disclosed by the prosecuting attorney: his confidential witness was Danilo Blandón. But while normal drug prosecutions punch up the supply chain, this one was punching down: Blandón was the supplier, and a larger player than her boyfriend could ever be. Something strange was going on.

Blandón’s name led Webb to Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams), indicted for purchasing hundreds of kilograms of cocaine. He ran a drug empire in Los Angeles, but even so he was a much smaller fish than Blandón. From there, the trail ran to Blandón’s partner, Norwin Meneses (Andy García), in Nicaragua’s Tipitapa prison. One of Meneses’ colleagues showed Webb around the old, disused airfields, and gave him the name of Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), now on the National Security Council.

Webb’s editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt) were nervous but excited at the prospect of breaking such a big story in their little paper, and so Webb went ahead to publish the story as Dark Alliance. It was initially acclaimed, even setting Webb up for the Journalist of the Year award from the local Society of Professional Journalists. But the CIA obviously wasn’t going to admit to their part, and even the papers of record in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC were more interested in tearing Webb down than admitting they got scooped by a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News. Of course, only someone like Webb could have broken the story, since a biger-name reporter would have known what he was getting into.

The movie plays out as a taut thriller, and Renner is excellent as Webb, steadily unraveling his composure as his career and personal life collapse around him. But the story Kill the Messenger tells about Webb is not nearly so fascinating as the story he told. And whether or not his journalism was as oversimplified as his critics suggest, the movie certainly is when it comes to Webb’s life. A speech at the SPJ awards makes for a dramatic final scene, but if Webb’s good name and career started to go down in flames by the time of the ceremony, it feels like they’d have found a way to rescind the award.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test fail.


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