Saturday, February 7, 2015

Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), starring Michael Keaton is a palpably felt exploration of drama as a function of existential crisis.  It also explores the vanishing seams of art and the culture in which it is situated prompting to the viewer to ponder where one stops and the other begins.   The relationship of criticism to art is also explored.

Birdman features an aging protagonist, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) who is perhaps slightly beyond middle-age and who is desperately struggling to find integrity and truth through art with his Broadway stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.”  He is also the father to a somewhat broken daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), a twenty-something who is in recovery from drug addiction and with whom his relationship is somewhat strained.

Amidst the (perhaps conspicuously serendipitous—as no love is to be lost due to his absence) injury to one of Thompson’s actors, a replacement actor, Mike (Edward Norton), is brought on. Mike’s reputation precedes him in more ways than one as critics celebrate him nearly universally yet those who have had to share a stage with him lament him almost as much for being notoriously difficult to work with.   Acting alongside Mike are Thompson’s girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) as well as an aspiring Broadway actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is making her Broadway debut and who shares romantic as well as professional ties with Mike.  Off-stage, in addition to his cast-mates and at-times-less-than-amicable daughter, Thompson is joined by his friend and lawyer, Jake (Zack Gallifinakis) who is producing the play and as such has a vested interest in how many seats are filled each night and in some cases, by whom, given the publicity certain audience-goers will bring to the event (or simply the way their perceived attendance—whether in fact actual or not—will help to sustain Thompson’s morale--at one point Thompson is even teased, with the convenient name-drop of the “Scorcez” [as it is glibly and smugly pronounced through a confident lean back and teeth that are clenched in a type of Cheshire grin]).

Riggan Thompson also must struggle against the negatively predisposed critical response set forth in somewhat ad hominem fashion because of his previous celebrity having been derived from playing “Birdman”—a high-flying comic book superhero who seems to embody the plebian blockbuster sensibility so firmly eschewed by the critical elite.  In particular, Thompson must weather the a priori critical scorn of a prominent reviewer for the New York Times who seems to react to Thompson’s play and its surrounding hoopla as more the spectacle of a has-been actor, in his post-fame throes than as a legitimate work of art wrought from a place of passion and integrity.

The sound design and camerawork of this picture are technical marvels as the film’s first forty-five-or-so minutes appear as one continuous take and are complimented by a superbly crafted blend of diegetic and non-diegetic sound.  At certain points a frenetic percussive beat seems to be laid upon the film’s world as it would seem to have no reasonable origin in the action that is unfolding on-screen and yet in the next moment is revealed to have boomingly emanated from a marching band that just happens to be passing through Times square, justifying, then, these sounds that the audience member is hearing as belonging squarely to the reality of the film’s world.  The remarkable fluidity of the film’s more sensorial elements gives the audience member pause to contemplate whether art imitates life, life imitates art or even if the two might deceptively belong to one and the same side of a proverbial Mobius strip in spite of their seeming convergence to an edge as themselves disparate surfaces.

In addition to exploring the “about”-ness of art, as it might pertain to life, the “about”-ness of criticism as it might pertain to art is also plumbed throughout.  Tucked away in the corner of Thompson’s mirror is an index card upon which is plainly written the proverb, “A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing.”  This sentiment echoes throughout many of the film’s sequences as the effects of “labeling” (as Thompson at one point disgustedly puts it) art and what that might reveal about the character of said “labeler” are weaved unabashedly into the content of several of the story’s relationships as well as the substance of character for its principal as well as supporting acts.

As the complex and pathos-evoking lead character in this intimately woven and darkly comic drama, Keaton gives an extraordinary performance that leaves him well-deserving of the Academy’s nod for Best Actor” as well as for his past recognition at this year’s Golden Globes for “Best Actor in a Drama, Comedy or Musical.”   Birdman also comes recommended on the aspects of its thoughtfully provocative content and uniquely compelling--as well as technically astonishing--presentation.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Social Network

David Fincher's "The Social Network" is a scintillating achievement from the opening shot of Harvard Campus, overlaid with a graphic of the film's title as placarded on that iconic, blue Facebook masthead, to it's concluding stages, which are compelling to the very last frame. "The Social Network" is as much timeless as it is timely, moving at a break-neck pace and managing to encompass both the classic struggle to establish clear ownership of a great idea -- especially a profitable one -- as well as being underscored throughout by the bitter irony that befalls the ingenious Facebook programmer Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), of having written an application that has literally connected millions of people yet himself being so painfully inept socially that he is forever left on the outside. So unfolds this amazing journey and look into the life and times of an American billionaire -- indeed history's youngest billionaire -- who is somewhat of a savant and, if we are to consider him a protagonist -- certainly a dubious claim at best -- likely would be described as a "quixotic" one.

Our story starts in a Harvard bar where Mark is having a somewhat-awkward, somewhat-heated exchange with his soon-to-be-ex Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara). What starts as a conversation between the strained pair quickly degenerates into an argument as Mark fixedly persists in describing the importance of admittance to the prestigious clubs of Harvard while Erica tries to sway him from what she feels to be a preoccupation bordering on obsession. Erica's attempts to pry Mark from the icy grip of this project are combated with condescending retorts among which is Mark's insinuation that Erica is only allowed in this bar because she slept with the doorman. Incensed, Erica breaks off their relationship then and there as Mark scrambles in vain to salvage it with desperate apologies and pleas. As Erica is about to leave to go "study" she dispenses a one more piece of advice to Mark that seems to stay with him throughout the rest of the film: "[Mark,] You're going to go through life thinking that girls won't date you because you're a nerd; when it's really because you're an ass-hole." Mark then returns to his bedroom, fired up as well as a little drunk, and churns out a cruelly-worded blog, which is written with the intent to destroy Erica's reputation. He follows up this acerbic reaction to having been spurned by whipping up a "hot-or-not" -type website which invites it's users to compare the female students of Harvard, two-at-a-time, and to determine which one is hotter: the one on the left, or the one on the right.

The story, it turns out, is told through a series of flashbacks as we're soon transported to a pair of alternating, present-day legal depositions, carried on behind closed doors with the respective parties sitting across from one another and fully "lawyered-up," as the saying goes, and entrenched in litigious debate. In each arbitration Zuckerberg is forced to defend himself and his fortune amidst respective accusations of cheating Eduardo (played by Andrew Garfield), his best friend, outright, out of millions, on the one-hand; and intellectual property theft on the other. The latter of these proceedings sees our introduction to three of the story's other main characters, the Winklevosses (or "Winklevii" as Mark smugly refers to them at one point), a pair of twin brothers, Cameron and Tyler (played by Arnie Hammer), who row Crew for Harvard; and Divya Narenda (played by Max Minghella), a close associate and friend of the Winklevosses who is equally upset over what he feels to have been the clear theft of the core idea--indeed their idea, collectively--behind Facebook. The cast of this picture is rounded out by Eduardo's groupie girlfriend, Christy (played by Brenda Song, who enjoys her first major role in a mature, feature-length drama) and Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), creator of the infamous, game-changing "Napster" file-sharing application that invoked the ire of the record industry in the early 2000s.

As we're taken through the film, Mark, at one point, remarks that Facebook is moving faster than anyone could have anticipated and indeed, the audience is equally at risk of being left in the dust if we stop to take a breath amidst the story's briskly moving clip--moving along as such all while it's central progenitor, Zuckerberg, traipses about the Harvard campus in flip-flops and a bath-robe, his eyes beady and darting.

While Eduardo, who is much more well-rounded than Mark and better adapted socially, often acts as the voice of reason to some of Mark's more hair-brained--if brilliantly executed--stunts, the quirky engineer soon falls under the sway of a much different type of influence, the fast-talking Sean Parker, who seems to have an innate grasp of how great web applications do, indeed, become great yet who also has a reputation for living life in the fast-lane, partying as hard as he plays and sometimes eschewing the law in the process.

The plot features plenty of sex and drugs to boot, and hardly needs rock 'n roll in addition (though if you count the non-diegetic scoring by Trent Reznor it does indeed have a lot of that too) and canvasses a broad range of feeling, witnessing the bitter dissolution of friendships as well as affording a glimpse into the rare, incendiary joy of being right on the cusp of something truly groundbreaking--so much so, in fact, as to be revolutionary. Jesse Eisenberg is extraordinary in the film's leading role, never missing a beat with his staccato cadence, strange attempts at tact and deft portrayal of what is clearly quite an ego. The film is as fastidious as it is sincere, however, clearly having done it's homework in that of it's portrayals of technology, containing at least two scenes where a thick volume on "Sendmail," the inveterate open-source SMTP server technology, can briefly be spotted, as a background prop, as well as depicting terminal sessions wherein legitimate command-line's, like "wget," are run; and the standard Unix text-editor "Emacs" even gets a shout-out along the way. The only shortcoming of this film -- and perhaps such things are inevitable with so much ambition on the line -- is that while Mark's character is sufficiently complex and shaded in such elaborate detail that you don't know how to feel about him -- as is the case with most real people off the street -- each of the story's other main characters are rather one-dimensional, clearly being either "good" (as is the case with Eduardo) or "bad" (vis-à-vi Sean), and nothing too much in-between. Finally, it's hard to determine how the tertiary, supporting character of Christy fits into things as we're only really afforded a few details about her character leaving her significance unclear.

Overall this is a brilliant motion-picture and an important film of our times. I think it has the potential to be a juggernaut at this year's Academy awards, being a front-runner or at least a contender in several categories, including -- and especially -- "Best Picture." I would highly recommend this film to anyone and would even go so far as to recommend multiple viewings as I, in fact, am writing this review after a repeat trip to the theater.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Up in the Air

I recently watched Up in the Air produced and directed/co-written by father Ivan Reitman and son Jason, respectively. This film was Jason’s follow-up to 2007’s quirky, break-through critical success Juno.

Up in the Air is all at once a compact, palatable and charming film yet with multiple layers of depth and nuance in terms of its characters, social message and broader considerations of human relationships; particularly the ever-relatable walnut of intimacy. Up in the Air stars George Clooney in the leading role of “Ryan,” a seasoned veteran of an agency whose service is to tell people they’ve been “let go” when their “pussy” bosses – to use Ryan’s off-the-cuff characterization – are afraid to do the job themselves. Ryan’s job then, is, quite literally, to tell other people they’ve lost theirs yet he seeks himself to dignify that moment as much as possible for the unwitting participants who sit on the other side of his desk and unfortunately have to receive the dreaded news. Dispensing cookie-cutter packets detailing severance packages and the vague promise of future contact by a placement agency, Ryan soon jets to another and remote part of the country to perform this task again and again, verbalizing bumper-sticker platitudes tempered with anecdotes from his own veteran plethora of wisdom to console mothers, fathers and breadwinners whom he’ll never see again once the office door closes behind them. Some of this anecdotal wisdom and earnest charisma also make their way into inspirational seminars, which turn out to carry equally vapid, yet executive-placating messages. Ryan hops aboard flight after flight en route to the next “firing” -- to use the more frank, behind-closed-doors term of the story’s characters – giving the movie its title “Up in Air,” which of course is also a play on the current state of the security of Americans’ jobs in today’s economic climate.

Business is as booming as ever, but a young upstart, Natalie—played by Anna Kendrick--wants to change the way things are done, suggesting a slick new approach of firing employees remotely via web conference sessions, reducing costs dramatically by eliminating the need for cross-country jaunts and all the air/hotel/rental fares they entail. Her and Ryan’s boss, "Craig"--played by Jason Bateman (who also starred in Juno)—is rather impressed by the pitch of Natalie’s new cost-effective approach; so much so, in fact, that he decides to give it a trial implementation. Ryan, however, is not so impressed with Natalie’s new, decidedly-stationary proposal; arguing that the young new-hire doesn’t really know what she’s doing as the use of such tele-present techniques will pre-dominantly serve to de-personalize what is a very difficult day in the lives of those being let go. Hearing out his veteran star, Craig decides to send Natalie and Ryan on a cross-country trek designed to help Ryan show the new protégé the ropes of their profession.

And this, is where things get interesting.

The wheels having been set in motion, the story sees our tag-team duo hopping from town-to-town and state-to-state aboard various airliners whose shadows glimpse the country’s landscape – as is foreshadowed by the cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land,” which plays as the film opens initially. In addition to Jason and who are possibly the past and present/future representations of his company in that of Ryan and Natalie, the story rounds out its core set of characters with the sexy Alex – played by Vera Flaminga – a fellow traveler who is every part Ryan’s equal in terms of cool diffidence regarding the whole boyfriend/girlfriend thing and good old no-strings-attached, friends-with-benefits, hotel-suite encounters. Last but not least of all, the story features a trio of characters who are so tertiary as to be almost tangential to the movies story, but who ultimately matter; namely his sibling Julie, and her fiancé Jim; and Ryan’s other sister, a divorcee whose name, honestly, escapes me (she’s just that important – lol).

The chemistry between Ryan and his whipper-snapper protégé Natalie is delightful as he demonstrates to her the old-timer wisdom from having been there and done that and which humbles her presuming youthfulness as their on-screen relationship first develops. While their intermingling is at first merely comical Ryan and Natalie soon become philosophical sparring partners, displaying the comparative differences on their interpretation of the job description they’re charged with and on personal relationships. Most interestingly, the manner with which they transact business is ironically at odds with their interpersonal dealings. Professionally, Ryan’s manner is typically looser, and more congenial as he strolls around with rolled-up-sleeves and is able to go off the company script when it comes to releasing employees from their jobs; improvising in creative and compassionate ways to assuage the otherwise disgruntled, newly-bereft workers. Natalie, by contrast, has her hair neatly tied back into a pony-tail, insists on political correctness and even “types with purpose,” as she explains when it is implied that she must “hate her computer” with the way she loudly and quickly punches the keys. In terms of attitudes toward love and companionship however, Ryan turns out to be the more detached of the two, favoring the occasional hook-up but utterly uninterested in a long-term relationship; while Natalie still dreams of story-book weddings and cannot understand how anyone would not at least spend substantial portions of time contemplating whether or not they wanted a family. Ryan’s nomadic partner-in-crime, Alex, seems disenchanted herself toward the idea of marriage, if not as altogether dismissive of the idea as Ryan.

The idea of firing employees remotely, by web conference, exposes the compelling irony that society now faces of connecting us to others all while isolating us from them physically. Whether or not this is a good thing seems to play out in the competing world-views of Natalie and Ryan, who clearly, at least at the story’s outset, have very differing notions of how things ought to be. The exploration of this type of quandary with respect to how we interact with one another is hardly new territory, but Jason Reitman manages to execute a filmic treatment of this problem with remarkable aplomb, avoiding near-luddite demagoguery in the presentation of what seem to be the films underlying views – whether or not they are Reitman’s personally. Furthermore, dealing with this quagmire in the context of the hot-button issue of job security – or lack thereof nowadays – likely puts an interesting and new spin on the audience member’s digestion of it.

In the end of the story, Ryan and Natalie end up learning a little bit from each other both in terms of their professional and personal views on life.

Overall, my only complaint is that I think Ryan’s on-again-off-again lover Alex is a little bit underwritten, though hardly under-portrayed by the enticing Ms. Flaminga. Alex’s character unfortunately doesn’t really seem to change that much and, in my opinion, got a slightly short shrift in that of a shoe-horned writing twist that seemed almost more like an ad hoc consideration, carried out to tie up one last loose end, than anything else.

I think this film has a lot to offer on a lot of different levels, and I think Clooney really hits it out of the park with his laissez portrait of Ryan, mastering subtlety, nuance and, might I say, a certain je ne sais quoi in the way he laxly carries himself. Ms. Kendrick’s off-setting performance as Natalie isn’t to be under-estimated though, as she pulls off a witty and intelligent – if not sometimes vulnerable too – woman who is entirely believable – all the more so when she finally lets her hair down.

I see this film as a front-runner for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Male Actor in a Leading Role at 2010’s 82nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony. In the interest of full disclosure though, I should say that I haven’t yet seen the heftily lauded Precious, which generated no shortage of Oscar buzz itself when it was released earlier this year. (To wit, Precious reeled in a 92-percent on review-culmination site – a rating beyond even that of Up in the Air, which so far has an 89-percent and will likely stabilize at that number.)

Movies (minus popcorn)

Hello, my name is Aaron and this is my blog in which I intend to review movies, trying my hand at the critiquing of today's cinema.

The title of this blog derives from the fact that I love the movies but have never really liked popcorn, a combination of facts that, taken together, might simply be considered ironic by some; or, alternatively, altogether oxymoronic by those others who are staunch advocates of the iconic theater-going snack. Either way, I do hope you enjoy my musings -- if not rantings; and it should be said that I always appreciate feedback.

Without further adieu then, I present to you "Movies (minus popcorn)."

Enjoy the show!