REVIEW: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.

REVIEW: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Going into a Wes Anderson film there are several things you know to expect: a healthy dose of dry and sometimes offbeat humor, a unique visual style, and familiar aesthetics that permeate each of his movies. “Moonrise Kingdom” is no different from other Anderson efforts in terms of it’s storytelling style and visual presentation.  This is his first film since 2009’s Oscar winner “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but it’s clear from the opening credits that his dedication to his style of filmmaking is still as strong as ever.

“Moonrise Kingdom” takes place in a small community on a New England island in 1965. A very Wes Andersonish  narrator sets the table for us and we meet several of the community folks including Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) the leader of the island’s branch of the Khaki Scouts. While doing morning inspections, he discovers that 12 year-old Sam (Jared Gilman), a picked on, eccentric young boy has run away from the camp. Elsewhere on the island young Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives at Summer’s End, her home shared with her parents and three young brothers. Suzy is a reserved introvert who has no friends and finds refuge by retreating into her fantasy novels and looking through her binoculars – something that she pretends gives her super powers. It’s through her binoculars that she discovers her mother Laura (Frances McDormand) meeting secretly with the community policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Her father Walt (Bill Murray) is impervious to the signs of his wife’s secret fling mainly due to their fractured relationship.

Suzy ends up running away from home and through a flashback we learn that it’s something she and Sam had been planning since they first met at a local church play the year before. The two meet in a meadow then set out on a journey together through the rugged and rainy island terrain. Sam flexes his extensive outdoor knowledge before Suzy by pitching tents, building fires, and catching and cooking fish. Meanwhile, after discovering the kids are gone, the dysfunctional community sets out to find them.

Anderson has several interesting dynamics at work, the first being the relationship between the two kids. It’s easy to see why they are drawn to each other. Both feel detached and out-of-place. There’s a void in their lives and they find solace in the fact that they no longer feel alone in the world. Both Gilman and Hayward are stunningly good especially considering this is the first feature film for both. Anderson’s childlike deadpan dialogue flows naturally from the two characters and he really gives them a believable foundation for the budding adolescent romance. Some have argued that the romance between the two was lacking and never provided the spark to drive the relationship. I argue that there’s no huge passionate spark mainly due to the children’s age and the newness of love and romance. I feel that their attraction to each other is based more on their personal, emotional, and social similitude. Being in each other’s presence fills a substantial emptiness in their lives and let’s them know they aren’t alone. A form of love sprouts up from that and Anderson depicts it with tenderness even amid the laugh out loud moments and the hilarious, straight-faced dialogue.

My biggest problem with the way Anderson handles the children’s relationship is the way he handles his child actors in one particular scene. Intended to show a sexual curiosity and almost unwanted compulsion, there is a brief scene where Gilman and Hayward are asked to engage in something that I have no problem saying I was uncomfortable with. At the time of filming, both actors were 12-years old and the willingness of Anderson to shoot this particular scene is disappointing. It’s certainly not graphic but it’s also not appropriate and that fact that it’s used more for comic effect is even more frustrating.

But while the story of Sam and Suzy drives the main narrative, perhaps the biggest microscope is put on the community and the fact that they are each flawed individuals forced to make important and sometimes redemptive decisions. As you look at each character you see situations unfold that bring them to the point of either doing the right thing and changing the direction of their lives or watching as things crumble in around them. In a very real sense, the disappearance of Sam and Suzy is the catalyst for some pretty real and important character transformations in Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward, Laura, and Walt. Even Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts are faced with their own moment of truth.

I talked about Gilman and Hayward’s performances but they’re surrounded by some equally strong work. I was particularly drawn to Bruce Willis who delivers some great laughs but through a very controlled performance that’s perfectly fitting for Wes Anderson material. Willis occasionally gets to show his acting range and this is a good Oscar caliber example of that. And I have to say, as someone who isn’t the biggest Edward Norton fan, that he was a lot of fun here. He’s goofy, nerdy, and his delusion of control that’s evident in some of the early scenes results in some of the films funnier moments. Frances McDormand is perfectly cast and Bill Murray is funny as always. I also thought Anderson favorite Jason Schwartzman was funny running around in full Khaki Scout attire.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is another Wes Anderson picture that’s a side-splitter to some but a head-scratcher to others. I laughed a lot through the film but I was also touched by its tenderness and care in addressing struggling children with feelings of isolation and insecurity. Anderson does get careless and I feel irresponsible in one brief scene but there are still several undercurrents that touch on important themes without fully diving into them. We not only see it with the children but in the community and it really worked for me. “Moonrise Kingdom” may not be for everyone but I loved its full package and stylish presentation. It’s a breath of fresh air in a comedy genre filled with raunchy movies and lazy humor. I’ll take this over them any day.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS