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.

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.

Halloween Review – Funny Games (2007): The Scariest Thing Is Us

A fourth-wall breaking movie about two psychopaths playing with a random family. It’s a comedy, clearly.

SUMMARY

George Farber (Tim Roth), his wife Ann (Naomi Watts), and their son Georgie (Devon Gearheart) are staying at their lake house for a vacation. When they arrive, they discover that their neighbor Fred (Boyd Gaines) has a few guests, Peter and Paul (Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt). The two new guests come over to borrow some eggs, but they end up making the Farbers feel uncomfortable. When finally asked to leave, the pair attack the Farbers and hold them hostage, torturing them physically and psychologically and all because it’s fun for them, and for the audience. Peter frequently discusses film trends and tropes, while Paul literally breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience. 

FunnyGames - 2Setting.png
And yes, the bad guys are dressed like ultra-yuppies.

END SUMMARY

This is a remake of the 1997 film of the same name, but it was by the same director, Michael Haneke. The only major differences are budget, language, and the caliber of actors involved. Not that the cast in the original Austrian film are bad, quite the contrary, but the cast here really sell the film. While the violence is, if not toned down, then at least changed a bit, most of the scenes in this movie are lifted directly from the original, from the lines (albeit translated) to the camera angles to the sets. While that might sound like Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, let me assure you that this movie is actually good. Also, Haneke’s copying himself, so I think that doesn’t count as a rip-off.

FunnyGames - 1PaulPeter.png
And both are amazingly well-shot. 

The big thing about this movie is that it’s pretty much designed to be the opposite of expectations. That’s exactly what Haneke was going with in the original and this carries the same theme. The idea behind the movie is that it’s violent, but there is no underlying meaning or purpose to anything in the film. It’s supposed to be a critique of violence in media being meritless, and how we somehow forgive certain violent acts in film as long as they’re done in the “right” way. We’re fine with Clint Eastwood gunning down a town full of people or watching Jason Vorhees massacre a group of horny teens, because those are the “approved” kinds of violence. In modern narratives, violence is permissible as long as it’s either redemptive (i.e. John McClane dropping Hans Gruber off of a skyscraper) or punitive (i.e. the T-Rex eating the bad guys), but this film defies that by having all of the violence enacted upon pretty much innocent people for no reason. 

FunnyGames - 6GeorgieBag
Yes, EVEN ON THE KID.

Beyond that, the movie doesn’t try to get us to blame the two sociopaths for doing these things, but instead has Paul keep winking at the camera, literally, and ask us what we want, pointing out that the reason why there’s so much violence in the media is because we desire that. Moreover, it asks us to ask ourselves WHY we desire it? What the hell is wrong with us that we’re not disturbed by watching John Wayne kill thirty men, even if they deserved it? If we’re justifying it by saying those people aren’t real, then why would it disturb us when these people are tortured and murdered in this film? The point of this movie is that we really need to ask ourselves why we’re so okay with violence. As a fan of action and horror movies, I usually just say it’s part of a natural catharsis, but it’s not like this isn’t a question people have asked for millennia. This is just a fairly original way to ask it again.

FunnyGames - 4FourthWall.png
Yes, he’s literally asking you a question. It’s awesome.

The reason why this works so well is because this movie is really well done. Any art film can ask a philosophical question and pretend that it’s deep, but Michael Haneke focused on making an intense and interesting film first, then building the message organically into the story. The cinematography is first class, the dialogue is compelling despite being awkward, and the performances are all great. A weirdly notable thing about the movie is that nobody looks good in it. Everyone looks like they’re under stress and half-beaten when they’re supposed to be, but not in the way that Hollywood actors usually portray “tired.” These people look like they’re at the ends of their ropes, and I appreciate that they were willing to be shot that way, like they’re actual humans in this situation. 

FunnyGames - 5Georgie.png
Yes, even the kid can look like crap. It’s weird that this is rare.

This is a horror movie, but it’s not a traditional one. Even the director says it wasn’t intended to be, but what else would you call a movie that not only shows you something revolting, but leads you to ask yourself why you wanted to watch that? Really, I recommend everyone watch this at least once, because it truly is a unique movie… except that there are two of them, I guess. 

FunnyGames - 3Remote.png
Also, they both include the best use of a remote in film.

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.