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

Event Horizon


You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

(1997) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Peter Marinker, Holley Chant, Barclay Wright, Noah Huntley, Robert Jezek, Emily Booth, Teresa May. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sci-Fi Spectacle

The trouble with exploration is the unknown. We don’t always know what’s out there. We may have a good idea, sure but when you go out into the real unknown, it’s just that. Anything could be lurking out there. And it might just hitch a ride back.

In 2040, mankind makes the first great push beyond our solar system. The great ship Event Horizon, powered by the gravity drive, makes its way out to Neptune to truly begin its journey. The gravity drive manufactures a black hole and slips the ship through, allowing it to travel great distances – to any star in any galaxy. The Event Horizon powers up the gravity drive, hits the go switch – and disappears. Nobody hears a peep and the ship is presumed lost.

Seven years later it reappears as suddenly as it disappeared. Attempts to hail her yield nothing. A rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark is sent, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Miller (Fishburne). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Neill), the man who invented the gravity drive and has the best shot at figuring out what went wrong.

Once they arrive in the outer atmosphere of Neptune the mile-long vessel is as silent as the grave and unutterably cold inside. There is still power – it’s just not turned on. When Miller and his crew come aboard to see what’s happened, they find the video log mostly intact although it cuts off an instant after the drive engages. There are also disquieting signs of a violent end for the crew – bloodstains indicating that crew members sustained fatal and horrifying wounds – but no bodies.

As the rescue ship crew attempts to restore power so that the ship may be towed home for further examination, the crew begins to see strange things – hallucinations of people and places they know. It becomes clear to Captain Miller that wherever the Event Horizon went to, it has brought something back with it. And that something may be more deadly than outer space itself.

This is one of those movies that didn’t do well during its theatrical run and then acquired its audience through cable and home video. Savaged by critics when it was released, who compared it unfavorably with the classic Solaris – as unfair as it is inaccurate – the movie has become something of a cult favorite. One of the big issues that fans have with it is that it isn’t the movie that Anderson wanted to make. Rushed during the post-production process, the studio put immense pressure on Anderson –  who was making just his third feature film – to make its August 15, 1997 release date. Anderson did get the film ready for its release date but had to make a lot of studio-insisted cuts and felt that had he been given enough time to finish the movie properly would have come up with something superior. Fans have been clamoring for some time for a director’s cut version which Anderson doesn’t seem disposed to doing.

The truth is, this is actually a superior sci-fi horror flick that may be the best thing Anderson has directed to date (he’s also done four movies in the Resident Evil series as well as Death Race). Moody, atmospheric and grim, he has created a movie every bit as scary as the original Alien and even surpasses that film in some ways. Initially the audience is led towards thinking that the carnage aboard the Event Horizon is the work of some interstellar beastie but as the film wears on we discover that the destination can be a killer.

Fishburne, a couple of years before his signature role as Morpheus in The Matrix, is magnificent here as the taciturn and square-jawed Miller. As no-nonsense a commander as you’re likely to find on any space opera, he inspires confidence and despite some inner demons of his own is the kind of guy you’d follow to hell and back.

Neill recalls his villainy as Damien in The Omen: The Final Chapter which established the Australian actor in the United States to a great extent. Weir is tightly wound and maybe a few bricks shy of a load in the sanity department. The minute he gets aboard his baby, things begin to spiral out of control. Neill takes the character from cool, calm scientist to baleful madman in a believable way.

The ship is a character all its own with its silent corridors and empty rooms to the engine room with the gravity drive itself which looks a little bit of a cross between the Contact craft and a mechanical nightmare dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft – that’s it in the photo accompanying this review. It looks suitably futuristic and scary as hell at the same time.

While the dialogue is somewhat stilted and there is a derivative quality to the film that is what set critics and some fans off during its initial run (Alien anybody?) the movie is nonetheless one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made and a truly underrated classic. If you saw it and didn’t like it, it is worth coming back to and if you haven’t seen it, it is worth a look. As we enter the Halloween season, this is one of those movies that can get you right in the mood to have the heebie jeebies scared out of you – or into you. Like the great ship itself, the scares you get out of this movie are very well the same ones that are already in you – just waiting for the right vessel to release them.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS:  Lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of cursing and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD has some amazing storyboards for scenes not shot, as well as plenty of making-of footage. The Blu-Ray edition has all this but adds a section on the post-production difficulties that resulted in the filmmakers having to release a movie that wasn’t quite up to their expectations.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $60M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy – free to stream for Prime members), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry get a glimpse of the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee, Raevan Lee Hanan, Alistair Petrie. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

 

Some movies are easily described, tackle relatively simplistic storylines and are therefore reviewed rather easily. Some have epic ambitions, attempt to tackle much more complex stories and modes of storytelling and give critics fits trying to describe them.

Cloud Atlas is such a film. Based on a much-admired novel by David Mitchell, the movie was taken on by the Wachowskis (auteurs of the Matrix trilogy) who first got their attentions captured by it when Natalie Portman gave a copy to them on the set of V for Vendetta. They decided to turn it into a movie shortly thereafter and brought in close friend Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run) to help them with the writing and directing.

And it is a magnificent canvas. Six stories run concurrently across six different eras with actors playing multiple roles (and often multiple genders). In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Sturgess) returning home from the Pacific Islands to his home in New England after negotiating a slaving contract helps a stowaway slave (Gyasi). In 1936, a young man who dreams of composing (Whishaw) becomes an assistant to a fading composer with the delightful name of Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and writes a series of love letters to his lover (D’Arcy) at Cambridge while composing a piece of music that will go largely unheard but will have a major effect on other people as time goes by.

In 1973 Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative reporter in the mold of her father (Gyasi again) is put onto the trail of a defective nuclear power plant by a physicist – the same man who the young composer was writing in 1936 – and goes after Lloyd Hooks (Grant), who runs the plant with what might not be altruistic motives. She will be helped by a physicist (Hanks) and a security chief (David) while stalked by a deadly killer named Bill Smoke (Weaving).

Meanwhile, in 2012 a dishonest publisher (Broadbent) finds himself with a hit book on his hands after it’s criminal author (Hanks again) throws a smarmy critic (Petrie) off a roof but is forced to seek help when the author demands more of a cut. He reluctantly turns to his brother (Grant) who fools him into committing himself in a retirement home that is something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with its own version of Nurse Ratched (in this case, Weaving) and with a few fellow elderly inmates concocts a plan of escape.

In 2144 in the city of Neo Seoul, an artificial human being named Sonmi-241 (Bae) finds her life as a restaurant waitress turned upside down when a revolutionary (Sturgess) shows her an entirely new world as he teaches her philosophy and history and she soon realizes that the corrupt world she lives in needs someone to speak up for the downtrodden – and that someone might as well be her, despite grave risks by a nearly all-seeing establishment.

Far in the future after civilization has fallen, a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks) living on a Pacific island in a village of peaceful farmers and shepherds is visited by Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced society called the Prescients. She wants to be guided to a distant place but nobody will take her because in order to get there they must go through the territory of a vicious tribe of cannibals called the Kona who are led by a particularly ruthless, nasty chief (Grant). Zachry agrees to do this in exchange for Meronym saving his daughter Catkin (Hanan) from death by a nasty infection.

These six stories are told concurrently with the film jumping from era to era, sometimes after only a matter of seconds. Initially it is going to sound a lot more confusing than it is; once you get settled into it, it’s actually not that hard following the stories. And while there is a bit of the stunt casting element (all of the main actors appear in one form or another in nearly every one of the six stories, some in more than one role) you get used to seeing the same faces in different roles thanks to some pretty nifty make-up jobs.

The overall theme here is that someone is being repressed and must face a decision as to whether to accept the repression and imprisonment or to act to end it, whether for themselves or for others. People have the capacity to leap beyond their own needs and give selflessly for the sake of others; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do. People also have the capacity to force others into lives of servitude and reap the benefits of these actions; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do as well.

The descriptions of the stories are actually fairly general and don’t really capture the whole magnitude of each vignette. Each story has an epic quality to it and while some are more personal than others (the Tykwer-directed stories in particular) there is certainly a sense that each story has ripple effects that magnify through time. While the stories don’t necessarily intersect directly, they often parallel one another with identical themes told in different ways. The stories aren’t necessarily meant to follow one another so much as complement one another.

It’s an ambitious work and without a stellar cast to carry it off it probably wouldn’t have worked as much. Not all of the roles work every time for the actors and often they are asked to move well out of their comfort zones but I suspect that they loved being pushed into places they hadn’t been or at least rarely go. Berry is intriguing in her 1973 and far future incarnations; Hanks does well in the far future and in 1849. Broadbent is fun in 2012 and more of a rotter in 1936; Whishaw does some fine work as the doomed composer in 1936 and Sturgess as the dying lawyer in 1849 and the somewhat guarded revolutionary in 2144.

Weaving also fares well as the 1973 hit man and as kind of a devil in the far future. Bae, whose work I wasn’t that familiar with to begin with, is magnificent in the 2144 sequence. She reminds me very much of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Not just from a physical standpoint but simply in the manner in which she acts.

Definitely this isn’t going to be for everyone. General audiences tend to want their science fiction to be action-oriented rather than thought-provoking (even Blade Runner wasn’t the hit Alien was); sure there’s a pretty sizable cult audience for thinking sci-fi but they don’t seem to be enough to really push movies such as this one into profitability which is a shame because work this ambitious and innovative should be rewarded.

I’m sure a lot of people were put off by the scope of the film, and by the reviews that placed it as cerebral. Not everyone goes to the movies to be intellectually stimulated and that’s okay. I like a visceral knuckle-dragging action movie as much as the next guy. I just like to have the part of me above the neck stimulated as much as my testosterone and this movie does both amply. Simply put, one of the movies that I will continue to debate and discuss with other film buffs for a very long time to come and clearly one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and compelling. Awesome visual and make-up effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people are simply not going to know what to make of this. Cerebral sci-fi historically not a big box office winner.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some graphic nudity, a bit of bad language and some drug use (some of it involuntary).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three time period stories apiece, sharing no crew other than the actors themselves. The Wachowskis filmed the 1849, 2044 and far future sequences, Tykwer the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty mixed but leaning towards the good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Machine (2002)

DRAG LOVERS: Most of the main cast plays members of both genders at various times in the film.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: What’s Your Number

Mirrors


Mirrors

You should see what Jack Bauer does with more than 24 hours...

(2008) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Peil, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Julian Glover, Tim Ahern, Josh Cole, Ezra Buzzington.  Directed by Alexandre Aja

There are questions in the universe that bear asking – some of them are not what you’d call obvious. For example, if eyes are the mirrors of the soul, does that mean that mirrors are the eyes for the soul too?

Ben Carson (Sutherland) has taken a few hits to the soul lately. A recovering alcoholic – not a good place to be if you’re a cop – he was involved in a shooting that left an undercover cop dead. His antics have alienated his wife Amy (Patton) to the point where she’s kicked him out of the house, severely limiting his contact with son Michael (Boyce) and daughter Daisy (Gluck). He’s been suspended from the force and is reduced to sleeping on his sister Angela’s (Smart) couch.

He gets a job as a night watchman at the Mayflower Department Store. A burned-out husk that is awaiting resolution of an insurance company squabble, it was the site of a fatal fire years ago. Soot coats nearly every square inch except for the many pristine mirrors, oddly looking polished and untouched.

He begins seeing strange images in the mirrors, horrible murders that come to pass. He has terrifying, realistic hallucinations of burning alive. The mirrors begin to communicate tasks that he is expected to do, and when Ben resists, family members are threatened and even killed. Soon, Ben is in a fight of his life against an enemy that is supernatural – one that can travel to any mirror or in fact, any reflective surface – and can kill with its reflection. His only salvation may lie with a cloistered nun who is not exactly jumping at the chance to help.

Aja is one of the most promising up-and-coming directors in the horror genre. His French films – particularly High Tension and his remake of The Hills Have Eyes are strong from a visual standpoint, and he knows how to make characters relatable. The visual sense of Mirrors is pretty dark, which you would expect in a deserted, burned-out department store. Sometimes underlit is a good thing, and it adds to the creepy element.

The effects are a little on the chintzy side – the mirrors use a kind of television static ripple effect that looks a little bit like a low-rent Ring. However, there are some pretty successful moments, such as a death scene in which a naked woman in a bathtub is killed by her reflection pulling off her mandible. It’s one of the highlights of the movie.

Most people know Kiefer Sutherland through his TV show “24” and this role isn’t too different than Jack Bauer. Ben is a little more damaged than Jack (I know, I know, Jack is plenty damaged) but they’re both men of action who when backed up to the wall. He has demonstrated a terrific action hero persona and there’s no doubt in my mind that if he continues to pursue parts like this, he’ll continue to be successful. This is the perfect role for him.

Smart is one of those actresses who just does a good job every time out. She doesn’t get big time leading roles but whenever she gets a part, she runs with it. Patton is a beautiful actress who has little else to do but look beautiful. I would have loved to see more motherly instincts from her when her kids are threatened; she doesn’t seem anxious enough.

The movie is a bit on the talky side; too many conversations between Patton and Sutherland about how they really should be together but she just can’t get past his actions and he needs to get his act together…okay, we get it. Other than that, this is a competent horror film that while a bit pedestrian about the whole mirror conceit, has plenty of scares, enough to recommend it.

WHY RENT THIS: Aja is one of horror’s most promising visual stylists. Sutherland has plenty of charisma in the lead role; Smart has a memorable supporting role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Could have been a little less talky.

FAMILY VALUES: There are lots of images that may be too intense for youngsters, plenty of violence and bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The unfinished Academy of Sciences building in Bucharest, Romania doubled for the nearly-demolished Mayflower Department Store.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a vignette showing Anna Esseker’s none-too-cheerful childhood, and there is also a featurette on the role of mirrors in urban legends and myth that may well be more informative and interesting than the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was undoubtedly a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Rocket