Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ambiguity – Amazon Review (Day 9)

A former superhero actor puts his career back on track by reminding people that he’s a heck of an actor.

SUMMARY

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor and the former star of the Birdman superhero series in the 1990s. He has started to go insane and hears the voice of Birdman telling him how he’s wasting his potential in his current venture: writing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan appears to display telekinesis and levitation superpowers, but only when alone. When a lighting fixture hits Riggan’s male co-star, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), a day before previews are supposed to start, one of the leads, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends replacing him with her boyfriend, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). 

Bit of a generation gap.

The previews go horribly. Mike wants to drink real alcohol during the show and gets into a fight with Riggan while onstage, while the next night Mike attempts to have sex with Lesley onstage despite her refusal and ends up showing his erection to the audience. When Mike does an interview with the New York Times and steals a story he heard from Riggan, Riggan attacks him and tries to fire him. Riggan’s lawyer and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), convinces him to continue. Riggan’s daughter and assistant,  Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab, gets caught smoking pot by Riggan and proceeds to insult his entire life and ambition. She and Mike then start to flirt and eventually sleep together. 

When your daughter has a five-minute monologue to attack you with, that’s bad.

During the last preview, Riggan gets locked out of the theater in his underwear and walks through Times Square, becoming a viral sensation. Riggan goes for a drink and encounters critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who tells him that she hates Hollywood celebrities pretending to be real actors and promises to kill his play. Riggan then insults her and claims she’s just biased. Riggan then gets drunk and passes out on a stoop. While heading back to the theatre, Birdman appears to him and tries to convince Riggan to do another Birdman movie because audiences love spectacle and will praise him as long as there are big action scenes. Riggan flies to the theatre… or takes a cab, maybe.

Okay, I admit that I would see this movie.

On opening night, Riggan gives a command performance and apologizes to his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) for his behavior during their marriage, admitting that he tried to kill himself once out of guilt. As Sylvia wishes him luck, Riggan grabs a real gun and does the final scene in which his character kills himself, shooting himself in the head to applause. Riggan wakes up the next day in the hospital with a new nose and a glowing review from Tabitha, who claims Riggan’s suicide to be “super-realism.” Sam visits with flowers and new respect and love for her father. Riggan goes to the bathroom and tells Birdman goodbye before climbing out on a ledge to watch the birds. When Sam comes into the room, she runs to the window and looks down to see Riggan’s body, but then, confused, looks up and smiles at something she sees.

END SUMMARY

When I saw that the prompt was “Film with Great Cinematography,” I immediately knew that it had to be this movie. Not only are almost all of the shots in this film perfectly constructed, but the film itself is designed to seem like it’s mostly only a single take. It serves as a way to give the experience a feel more akin to a theatrical performance. While there are a few visible cuts, they roughly correspond to the “dream sequences” that apparently Riggan worked into the stage production. The single shot nature of the film is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope, which used a number of long-cuts and editing tricks to disguise the fact that the movie was shot on reels that could only hold 10 minutes of film at a time. While Rope is depicted as taking place mostly in real-time, Birdman instead uses transitions between parts of the theater or the city to move us forward in time, often connecting the shots thematically. 

Such beautiful framing even in seemingly unimportant scenes.

Similar to a play, too, the film will often focus on interactions between side characters, such as Lesley and Laura or Mike and Sam, in order to allow for Riggan’s story to move forward. Some of those scenes, while they are interesting and well-performed, often wind up reminding me more of a Shakespearean monologue crafted to buy an actor time for a costume change. They end up seeming even more blatant on re-watch when you realize that many of these side stories have no real resolution. Laura and Lesley begin to seemingly find an attraction to each other, but nothing further comes of it. Mike has no character arc and his relationship with Sam doesn’t move anything forward for either of them, aside from setting up the scene of Riggan getting locked out of the theatre. This makes the movie feel like everyone really exists to support Riggan’s story, which is exactly what his daughter accuses him of believing.

Jake makes stuff go away, somehow.

Keaton was really the perfect pick for this and, honestly, I can’t imagine it working with anyone else. Riggan Thomson is a thinly-veiled substitute for Keaton and Birdman for Batman. I was shocked to find out that this movie was in production without Keaton in mind at first. Riggan, like Keaton, is a great actor whose career suffered due to being typecast as a superhero. Despite the fact that superhero films are no longer treated as complete popcorn fare, with some getting critical acclaim or even Oscar wins, Riggan still hasn’t been allowed back in bigger dramatic roles. Birdman seems to represent Riggan’s love of celebrity, wanting Riggan to abandon his dreams of “real acting” and instead focus on spectacle. 

Which is what we see him constantly imagine, amidst a ton of flashy ads for plays.

The characters in the film tend to try and draw a distinction between spectacle films and real dramatic acting. Birdman even delivers a monologue directly into the camera during a fake action sequence, saying “[the audience members] love this shit. They love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” When Tabitha tells Riggan that she intends to close his play, she describes it as being because she hates what he represents, film actors trying to appear on Broadway. Without any regard to whether or not Riggan actually can act, the fact that he once appeared in a popcorn film disqualifies him from any claim to actual artistry. This actually works even better under the final cast, because most of the leads in the film had all appeared in superhero/comic films (Norton – The Incredible Hulk; Keaton – Batman; Emma Stone – The Amazing Spider-Man; Naomi Watts – Tank Girl) and yet all of them give command performances in this film. Despite pointing out that studios will often conflate art with spectacle (they aren’t mutually exclusive, though), the film makes a point of showing that actors can do both. 

These men have range.

Overall, this movie is a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rent, steal, whatever you need to do.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Netflix Review – The Death of Stalin: A Dark Comedy About a Darker Time

An amazing cast manages to make light of one of the most monstrous periods in world history.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free because it’s history)

It’s 1953, the Cold War is on, and the USSR is run by Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). Everyone is afraid for their lives, and for good reason, as Stalin’s Interior Ministry Head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) constantly has hundreds or thousands of people abducted or brutally executed for crimes both real and imagined. When Stalin suddenly passes away from a stroke, Beria starts to scheme to seize control, as does Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). They both try to gain support from the various members of the Council of Ministers, including the incompetent Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and the Party loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), the head of the military Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), as well as Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). If you’ve paid attention in history class, you can probably guess who won. If you didn’t, then this movie counts towards college credit.*

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He’s not delayin’, he’s just Stalin.

END SUMMARY

Comedy is tragedy plus time, supposedly. This film mostly relies on the theory that a massive tragedy, with enough time, will inherently become somewhat funny. Surprisingly, it actually seems to work. The movie doesn’t have traditional jokes or gags, instead just relying on the absurd performances of the cast and the crazy (and probably real) things that the characters do in the name of trying to fill the power vacuum left by Stalin. Part of why it works is that life in the USSR was kind of inherently insane, with everyone doing literally everything that Stalin or his close allies want, regardless of the feasibility. One (true) thing depicted during the film, for example, was the time that Stalin asked for a recording of a concert which had not been recorded, leading to a replaying of the concert.

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I mean, it’s also pretty funny when monsters die. 

The performances are pretty much all amazing, particularly at managing to make their characters seem funnier, and therefore less harmful, than their real-life counterparts. The exception is Beale’s Beria, who is too cruel and threatening to ever seem particularly funny. However, some of the scenes that involve his police force, the NKVD, manage to be darkly comical in a slapstick sort of way. The other characters are all pretty funny if only for their constant disconnects from reality that comes from living in a dictatorship. It helps that at no point during the movie does anyone attempt to use any accent other than their own, regardless of the fact that they’re playing Soviet leaders. Having Steve Buscemi say things like “I’m the peacemaker and I’ll f*ck over anyone who gets in my way” works so much better with his natural Brooklyn accent than a phony Russian one. 

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Also they have funny hats. 

Honestly, if you didn’t see this movie while it was in theaters, you should really check it out now that it’s on Netflix. I think it’s both funny and perpetually relevant. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

*Only at DeVry.

Mandy: Nicolas Cage’s Awesomely Nicolas-Cage-iest Movie

Leaving Las Vegas. Raising Arizona. Con Air. National Treasure. The Wicker Man. The Weather Man. Lord of War. Adaptation. Face/Off. Gone in 60 Seconds (and a cameo in its porn version: Bone in 69 Sexconds). Vampire’s Kiss. The Rock. Next. Knowing. Bangkok Dangerous. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Kick-Ass. Peggy Sue Got Married. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Ghost Rider. Mom and Dad. Looking Glass. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.

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Those were just the ones I could name in 30 seconds.


Nicolas Cage has done some stuff. Some of it has been amazing, like Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona. Some of it has been terrible, like USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage and Windtalkers. But a lot of it has just been Nicolas Cage-y, which is to say so insane and entertaining that things like “good” and “bad” seem to be irrelevant. Con Air might make movie critics vomit with rage, but I’ll yell at random strangers to “Put the Bunny Back in the Box.” Vampire’s Kiss is literally an internet meme now, but there’s no one who can tell me that they have watched it and thought that any other actor could do that movie. Cage has been great, he’s been terrible, but mostly he’s just been Cage.

 

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Yes, I do say.

With that in mind, I can say the following: This is the most Cage that he has ever been, but this movie was clearly written to bring out as much Cage as he could bring. AND IT IS AMAZING. This isn’t a “So bad it’s good” movie or a “So insane I can’t look away” movie. This is a great movie that has all the trappings of a bad movie done in such a beautiful and insane way that can only be captured by the crazy talented mind that is Nicolas Cage.

Mini-Summary (for the impatient)

Red Miller’s girlfriend Mandy gets abducted by a cult. He goes on a roaring rampage of revenge with an axe, a crossbow, and a chainsaw.

SUMMARY

It’s the 80s, because everything was more fun back then. Red Miller (Cage) lives with his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in the Shadow Mountains in Eastern California. Red works as a logger while Mandy is an artist that does elaborate fantasy pieces (Think stuff that would be awesome airbrushed on a van). While they don’t say anything directly, both of them show signs of having trauma in their pasts that have led them to having a stronger bond to help each other.

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They’re adorable.

Mandy is on her way to her day job at a gas station when she walks past a van carrying cult members of the Children of the New Dawn. The leader of the cult, Jeremiah Sand (Linus “You know who I am, but probably wouldn’t recognize me here” Roache), immediately becomes obsessed with Mandy. He orders his lieutenant, Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy), to kidnap her. Swan enlists the help of the Black Skulls, a possibly-semi-magical demon-themed biker gang who are also LSD-tripping cannibals. The Skulls require a sacrifice for their help, resulting in Swan giving them one of the low-ranking cult members.

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Arguably the least-insane of the biker outfits.

 

The bikers break into Red and Mandy’s home and capture the two. Two of the cult members, Mother Marlene and Sister Lucy (Olwen Fouéré and Line Pillet), drug Mandy with some liquid LSD and the venom of a specially bred wasp. At this point, the movie becomes significantly trippier, something that, admittedly, is tough to accomplish when you’ve already had demon bikers and a hippie cult.

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And yet, it somehow will…

Sand attempts to seduce Mandy with his music (having been a failed musician), claiming that he has divine providence and right over all things. Mandy responds by laughing at his small penis and generally pathetic nature. This causes Sand to consider for a moment that he is not, in fact, divine or special, so he becomes angry and orders Red to be tied up with barbed wire and stabbed. He then forces Red to watch as he sets Mandy on fire, burning her to ashes before leaving. Red frees himself, then passes out from blood-loss and shock. When he awakens, he drinks an entire bottle of vodka (his character is implied to be recovering alcoholic) and then gives one of the best performances on film.

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Admittedly, this part is great too.

I’m not kidding. I’ll go into it more down there, but Cage, in one unbroken take, goes from confused to sad to angry to accepting to vengeful. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen, and it stems entirely from the fact that Nicolas Cage, when given the right script, is one hell of a performer.

After swearing vengeance, Red goes to his old friend (and probably former comrade in arms) Caruthers (Bill “I was in Commando and Predator” F*cking Duke). Caruthers gives Red a run-down on the Black Skulls and gives him “the Reaper,” Red’s old crossbow. Red forges a battle-axe and proceeds to get captured by the Skulls. However, he escapes and goes on a rampage, killing all of the bikers and taking a bunch of cocaine and LSD that make the movie, again, TRIPPY AS F*CK.

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“As long as Arnold isn’t here, I’ll survive.”

Red heads to where he thinks the Cult is, only to find the Chemist (Richard Brake), a drug manufacturer who tells Red where the cult actually is. Red proceeds to the cult’s church and kills several members of the cult with an axe before getting in a CHAINSAW DUEL, BECAUSE WHY THE HELL NOT???? He eventually kills all the members before finding Sand, who is now openly a pathetic waste of a man. Sand begs for mercy, but Red opts to crush his skull with his bare hands instead. He burns the church down, gets in his car, and hallucinates that Mandy is with him again and that he’s driving away from an otherworldly landscape that resembles her paintings.

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I’m weeping with joy at this.

END SUMMARY

First off, this movie trips so much balls that the doses of LSD that the characters take pretty much are superfluous but, when they do take drugs, the film style starts to shift accordingly so that things are blurry or focused almost at random while the sound gets distorted and echo-y. The colors and style throughout the film, as well as the strange lingering cinematography, really do make this feel like what I imagine a good acid trip would be. Musically, this movie is fantastic. It’s very 80s with an appropriate amount of Synth, but also manages to keep everything feeling just a hair off at even the most normal times, then turns the crazy up to eleven when called upon.

Second, the film starts slow and peacefully, focused mostly on Red and Mandy, but manages to avoid actually being too expository, something that I WILL ALWAYS LAUD. If you can convey a character’s backstory without it feeling contrived, I think that’s amazing. This film does it with both of the leads, and later with the antagonist, and never does it feel like it’s just awkward, unnatural exposition.

Third, HOLY HELL IS NICOLAS CAGE AMAZING. Seriously, this is the best performance he’s given in years. I think that aside from Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona, this is not just the best film he’s done, this is the best he’s ever been in a film. There’s one particular scene that I have to comment on. When Cage starts drinking again after seeing Mandy burned alive, it is one single, unbroken take in which Cage clearly improvises a ton, and all of it works. In this sequence, Cage perfectly embodies someone who has just experienced the kind of thing he has. For no reason whatsoever, he just had his best friend and lover abducted, tortured, and murdered while he was helpless to do anything. He nails it. I just regret that I can’t find it online to show you.

The only thing in the movie that’s better than that scene is the CHEDDAR GOBLIN. Yes, the Cheddar Goblin is a fake commercial which immediately precedes the above scene and was done by the crew that made the famous “Too Many Cooks” short for Adult Swim. It’s just as insane as the movie, but in a more grounded way, if you can understand. If you can’t, here’s the ad.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. If you can stand gore (because the third act is damned gory, although in a cartoonish way), you should watch this film. It’s the kind of movie that almost escapes definition, except that it’s what you would find on an 80s Heavy Metal album cover. If you ever wanted to see one of those come to life, then you need to see this movie. If you love Nicolas Cage, then you need to see this movie. If you have a lot of pot on hand, then you need to smoke it and see this movie.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.