Birdman


The angel on Michael Keaton's shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

The angel on Michael Keaton’s shoulder may be a devil in disguise.

(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, Damian Young, Keenan Shimizu, Merritt Weaver, Natalie Gold, Clark Middleton, Jimmy Marsh Garland, Akira Ito, Michael Siberry, Katherine O’Sullivan. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu

Our identity is sometimes self-affixed. Other times it is forced upon us by circumstances, or by others. When you are a celebrity, you are often trapped within the latter situation. A memorable role or performance can change people’s perception of you until you realize that you aren’t seen as anything separate from that performance or role. You become trapped in that role forever.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) has had such a role. The superhero Birdman made his career through three hugely successful movies but after three of them he decided to turn his back on the part which by then was far too late. By the time he’d turned down Birdman 4 he was already yesterday’s news, a has-been.

Itching to make a comeback, he’s putting on a Broadway production that he has written, directed and is starring in. adapted from the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. With his closest friend and lawyer Jake (Galifianakis) helping him with the business end, he has cast his girlfriend Laura (Riseborough), first time Broadway actress Lesley (Watts) and Ralph (Shamos), possibly the worst actor ever. When a fluke accident knocks Ralph out before the first preview performance and Jake frantic to find a replacement, Lesley offers to call Mike (Norton), with whom she once had a relationship. Mike, being a big star who could certainly draw larger audiences, is immediately brought in even though some have misgivings about Mike’s general attitude and backstabbing tendencies.

Riggan and Jake have sunk everything into this venture and know that if it fails, Riggan’s career is done. With Riggan’s adult daughter Sam (Stone) acting as his personal assistant to offer support – okay, to rip her father a new one at every opportunity, a vicious New York Times theater critic (Duncan) waiting in the wings to savage the play because she hates Hollywood stars with a passion, it is no wonder Riggan is beginning to have delusions of telekinetic superpowers, of hearing the voice of his cinematic alter-ego in his head with whom he has long conversations. Can Riggan pull this off and save his career?

Inirritu has tended to do dramas with a kind of heavy hand in the past with movies like Babel and Biutiful to his credit. This is more of a heavy handed comedy in many ways although at the end of the day I think it is more accurately classified a drama with fantasy and comedic overtones.

Keaton, who once played Batman in two Tim Burton movies back in the day, is inspired casting. In return he delivers his greatest performance to date. Riggan is a tortured soul of missed opportunities, bad turns and ill-advised choices. Those are the kinds of things that keep a person up all night and Riggan clearly isn’t getting much sleep. His chance at redemption is a long-shot at best and Riggan knows it. Years wasted away from his family that ended his marriage to a faithful wife (Ryan) and created a rift between Riggan and Sam. On top of that, he’s having delusions, hallucinations – call them what you will – which make more sense to him than the sensory input from the reality around him.

Give him a good supporting cast and a terrific script and you have a winner without fail. One of the things I like about Birdman besides Keaton is the ambiguity within the script. In many ways, you are given “just the facts” without any editorializing. You are left to make your own opinions with the information you’re given. If you need an example ask yourself this when you leave the theater: What did Sam see at the window? Those who have seen the movie will get the reference. My friends and I debated that very question after the movie was over and I don’t think any two of us had exactly the same answer.

Inarritu chose to shoot the film to resemble one long continuous shot a la Rope by Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of critics have praised this technique but I thought it got a little gimmicky, particularly near the end of the movie when they were running out of ways of transitioning from one point of view to the next.

This isn’t a mainstream movie although it isn’t so far out that mainstream audiences can’t enjoy it. This isn’t a typical indie movie either although it isn’t so Hollywood that indie audiences won’t embrace it. Not everyone is going to like it although critics have thus far enthusiastically recommended the movie but while most of the people who saw it with me admitted that they liked it, there were some who were ambivalent about it. I won’t say it’s a transformative movie experience although I will say it’s insightful – and allows you to reach those insights honestly. It is likely to be an Oscar contender although I suspect that there are other movies that are more likely to win the gold statue come February. However, I think a lot of people are going to see this as one of the year’s best movies and I really can’t fault them for that.

REASONS TO GO: May be Keaton’s best performance ever. Line between fantasy and reality is thin. Ambiguous where it needs to be. Terrific supporting cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A little gimmicky in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of swearing, some brief violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was shot at the St. James theater on Broadway, one of the most prestigious theaters on the Great White Way where such plays as Oklahoma, The King and I, Becket and Hello, Dolly all made their Broadway debuts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Fish
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: St. Vincent

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Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade