What the in Hell is “Birdman” All About Anyway?

The bottom line is “Who Cares?” as long as we get to see Michael Keaton give the performance of his career, then who cares what this film’s message is actually supposed to be.

He's flying, high above the streets of New York and loving every minute of it in "Birdman."

He’s flying, high above the streets of New York and loving every minute of it in “Birdman.”

In the beginning I wasn’t sure what to make of it…

As the opening frame which quite frankly is the only frame of “Birdman” in it’s entirety the first time we see Michael Keaton in his tighty-whities it’s from behind. His character, a formerly huge action movie star by the name of Riggan Thompson (can I please have that name for one day?), is sitting in the lotus position in his dressing room of a historic Broadway theatre, only he’s levitating above the ground. Bathed in sunlight streaming in from an open window, he looks peaceful but i’m I’m also wondering “What the hell is going on here?” But a voice inside his head, which serves as our film narration is growling, grumbling, and literally screeching at him at times, constantly about matters both large and small as he tries to take “flight” so to speak.

The next time we see Keaton in his tighty-whities in “Birdman,” he’s dashing frantically through Times Square at night, having accidentally locked himself out of that same theatre (it was an odd circumstance that any of us can get into) in the middle of a performance of a Raymond Carver production of ““What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that he’s starring in, writing, and directing. He’s navigating through a river of gawking tourists, iPhone video sharers, food carts and street performers. But despite that chaos that surrounds him, Riggan seems purposeful, driven and–for the first time–oddly content. Hell, you would be too if you had to get back into the damn theatre and boy does he ever, through the front door in his tighty-whities no less!

Thank God there are some filmmakers that still take chances. 

These are the extremes that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu navigates with audacious ambition and spectacular skill in “Birdman”–the full title of which is “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” (Yes, I’m not exactly sure why the movie takes on that title and at that length). He’s made a film that’s both technically astounding, thanks to that one moving shot, yet emotionally complicated with multiple layers, it’s intimate (thanks to the St. James Theatre setting) yet enormous (thanks to taking the action to the rest of New York City at times, biting yet warm, satirical yet occasionally sweet. All about the life in entertainment in all it’s ugly glory. It’s also the first time that Inarritu, the director of ponderous downers like “Babel” “and “Biutiful,” actually seems to be having some joy in his movies, maybe because it’s about the making of entertainment that so few of us get to experience.

Let’s make that a ton of joy, with equal parts resentment and anxiety. “Birdman” represents a complete off the wall blast from start to finish, no matter how odd and off-putting that finish is. The gimmick here–and it’s a real doozy, and it works beautifully–is that Inarritu has created the sensation that you are watching a two-hour film shot all in one take. Working with the brilliant and inventive cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar® last year for shooting “Gravity” and is the favorite to win his second in a row again), Inarritu has constructed the most delicate and dazzling high-wire act. And apparently, before shooting began, the director sent his cast a photo of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers as inspiration to what they were attempting to do. (That event is also being turned into a movie, because Hollywood can’t stop walking tightropes both metaphorically and in actuality)

Inarritu takes chances with "Birdman" and it's not only the actors who are lucky enough to experience that here.

Inarritu takes chances with “Birdman” and it’s not only the actors who are lucky enough to experience that here.

Through the impossibly long, intricately choreographed camera tracking shots on both dollys and hand-held, the camera swoops through narrow corridors, up and down tight stairways of the St. James and into crowded New York City streets. Shots vary from close ups for quiet one-on-one conversations in dressing rooms to huge panning shots which soar between skyscrapers for a moment of magical-realism flights of fancy when the title character “Birdman” really comes out and spreads its wings so to speak. In 2002, I made sure to see a small foreign language film called “Russian Ark” that took place in The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia which was imagined as one long tracking shot. That film had the benefit of a large museum to play in, “Birdman” does not, and takes advantage of their small intimate space.

A percussive and propulsive score from Antonio Sanchez (which was criminally rejected by the Academy and disqualified from consideration for the Oscar®), relies heavily on drums and cymbals, maintains a jazzy, edgy city-esque urban vibe throughout the entire film which allows it to plat a secondary character. This gimmick has been sold as one long continuous shot with no edits, but there are some edits there for sure. Sure, you can play it back on your DVR and look closely to find where the cuts probably happened (I have my suspicions), but debating where they happen takes much of the enjoyment out of it and takes away from the work of the film’s editors (again criminally unacknowledged by Oscar®).

Here’s to not being overlooked come Oscar® Sunday.

Beyond the actual moviemaking of this film comes the commanding performance from Michael Keaton in the role of a lifetime as Riggan Thompson, the washed-up actor he plays trying to regain his former glory he achieved as the fictitious winged action hero Birdman. The film follows the fraught early going of his Broadway debut which he believes is his last shot at greatness–although his on-screen alter ego doesn’t help much by voicing his fears and making him doubt himself incessantly. Yes, it’s knowingly amusing that Keaton, who peaked 20-plus years ago as the now legendary superhero “Batman,” is playing an actor who peaked 20-plus years ago as a superhero. Reality and clearly fantasy meet. Although I belive that it is Keaton’s Batman made by Tim Burton all the way back in 1989 should be considered is the definitive performance of that iconic superhero–but that’s neither here nor there. (God who would have thought that Keaton would have been able to pull that off from what we all know now from that franchise’s history)

The Golden Globe Award® winning script from Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo is cleverly meta without being too cutesy and self-satisfied. They allow for Keaton to toy with his persona a bit–as well as acknowledge how comparatively quiet his career has been in recent years–but seeing him in seasoned form provides its own joy. He’s still hyper-verbal and playful and he can still be amusing and lacerating in his delivery, but there’s a wry wistfulness and even a desperation in the mix now that’s achingly poignant.

True Ensembles Make for Truly Unique Storytelling. 

Also confronting his real-life reputation and stealing the movie is Edward Norton (Best Supporting Oscar® nominee) as Mike Shiner, the brilliant but infamously egotistical actor who steps in as Riggan’s younger co-star just as previews are about to begin on his labor-of-love production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” (Why Thompson chose to adapt this work of all things is never quite fully explained) Norton, who’s come with the baggage of being difficult and demanding over the years (again with the meta-ness with real life meeting fantasy), manages to find a distinctive balance between arrogance and sincerity with Shiner.

The "meta-ness" turns into reality with both Keaton and Norton playing fictionalized versions of themselves in "Birdman."

The “meta-ness” turns into reality with both Keaton and Norton playing fictionalized versions of themselves in “Birdman.”

Besides, they need each other, as they find in the days leading up to opening night. Everyone in this cast needs each other. Inarritu has amassed such a tremendous (and quite star studded) supporting cast and made ridiculous technical demands of them, (apparently they yet managed to film the movie in less than two months including rehearsals, and they filmed almost fifteen pages of dialog a day so they can continue the theme of a continuous shot throughout the entire movie) they all rise to the occasion and relished the chance to shine in this intimate tale.

Zack Galifianakis plays strongly against type as Riggan’s manager and the rare voice of reason in the middle of all this madness. Emma Stone (Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nominee) is adorable as Riggan’s world-weary, wise-ass daughter who also serves as his assistant. (She and Norton have crackling chemistry in a couple of crucial scenes.) Amy Ryan manages to make a splash with her very brief screen time as Riggan’s ex-wife; her character allows him to flesh out in fuller form and allows us to see both the selfish and the good in him. And Naomi Watts, who starred in Inarritu’s wrenching “21 Grams” (and got a well-deserved Oscar® nomination out of that role) gets to play both light and heavy moments as a neurotic fellow cast member (and girlfriend to Shiner). It’s powerfully clear that they all worked their asses of to make this complicated thrill ride look effortless. The result is one of the best times you’ll have at the movies this year–which might even be the best movie this year.

Is Riggan Thompson just as confused as we are watching 'Birdman?" God I hope not!

Is Riggan Thompson just as confused as we are watching ‘Birdman?” He’s definitely more tortured as his tormentor is a man in a freaking bird suit, feathers and all!

But What Is Birdman All About Anyway?

Like I said in the beginning of my review, Who Cares? Is it about redemption, individual-wise or career-wise? Is it about putting on a show? Is it about coming to terms with who you really are? There are so many questions to ponder here. To really enjoy the power of movies, then we should all be so bold to recognize interesting film-making when we see it. The story has some holes and the almost out of left-field ending doesn’t help the films case. But I l am telling you this film deserves praise for being so audacious in its production and performances. Where they meet is where you want to experience. This film won’t be liked by everyone, but should still be seen by everyone. It’s so out there that by taking chances on filmmaking, Inarritu allows the viewer to be taken on a wild ride of a production of a play (and a career hanging in the balance) along for a ride of a lifetime.

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“Whiplash” May Just Give You That After Watching It

This Intensely Spellbinding Movie Will Hit Close to Home For Anyone Who Has Both Idolized and Feared Your Mentor or Idol. 

As a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor (J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

Miles Teller is pushed to the limit by his sadistic teacher as played by Oscar® favorite for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons.

Miles Teller plays a drumming prodigy who won’t stop until he gets pushed to the limit by his overbearing music teacher as played by Oscar® favorite J.K. Simmons.

Let’s face it, we’ve all had that one teacher that has instilled both equal parts fear and inspiration in you. These are the people, for better or for worse, that have such a profound impact on you as they affect how you will eventually turn out from the decisions you make to your eventual career path. You never forget them, you love their hate, you hate their love, because they get to you in that inimitable way. For an Oscar® nominated film like “Whiplash,” which focuses on a music progeny who gets wrapped up in the watchful eye of a masochistic instructor who yells screams not just swear words, but misogynistic and homophobic slurs that would make even Archie Bunker blush, it sticks with you for a long time after watching it because you empathize with everyone involved, strident student and horrible instructor alike.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.’ “

If you are an aspiring artist, musician, athlete or honor student then you will probably bristle at those words (so too will your parents). But those never been truer words as recited by a young drummer’s tyrannical teacher who drives his students to excellence, or more likely despair, with his constant belittling of them, their talent, even their sexuality and parentage.

Miles Teller plays 19-year-old Andrew Neiman. As an actual trained drummer, you can tell Teller is in his comfort zone. He plays Andrew as a borderline obnoxious savant, with a jumble of half-hidden feelings and overbearing insecurities. But the movie’s black heart and soul belongs to that of J.K. Simmons as the Machiavellian legendary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher, a verbally, physically abusive authoritarian. He turns questions of tempo and rhythm into matters of life and death. He’s a manipulative enigma, encouraging one second saying “the key is to just relax,” which he purrs in Andrew’s ear before one rehearsal, and then becomes Satan the next scene demanding perfection from all of his drummers competing for the one slot by making them perform during rehearsal over and over again until everyone collapses.

But let’s start from the beginning…

In the movie’s first shot, you see Andrew as he practices alone one night at his New York music school, with the menacing beat at play the camera rolls in slowly down a dark hallway. (Thank you to the cinematographer and lighting director who provide so much to the world we get to see and experience here.) Just from these few minutes along you can tell Andrew is someone with remarkable talent and willing to work at improving at it. After watching and hearing him for a spell, Fletcher eventually invites Andrew to join the studio band. We get the sense of Success is here! Then he’s humiliated by Fletcher, slapped around, literally, busted down to alternate. Now we’re back down to Failure. (Oh great!) Fletcher practically goads this new guy into quitting, but how does Andrew respond? He fights back and begins marginalizing everyone around him and everything in his life for the sake of his new found career that has taken hold of him. He is now bleeding for his art.

A new burgeoning relationship with a fellow college student (Melissa Benoist) gets sidelined because Andrew tells her that he can’t accommodate love and empathy. Andrew’s sweet, ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) represents one side of a coin of a father figure, while Andrew clearly looks at Fletcher as the flip side. Recently an intriguing article from USA Today posted an intriguing discussion on how get a point across when it comes to pupils or disciples. It is as if Andrew cannot resist the abuse from Fletcher because he refuses to quit.

J.K. Simmons acts like a real ass. Thankfully he is going to be rewarded come Oscar® time for his performance as the sadistic Terence Fletcher.

J.K. Simmons acts like a real ass. Thankfully he is going to be rewarded for such close to the bone realism come Oscar® time for his performance as the sadistic Terence Fletcher.

But where is Whiplash headed?

As “Whiplash” builds, demonically so, to a crescendo of panting grandiosity, you start thinking about the mixed-up, fascinating implications of what you’ve just seen. Can Andrew ever integrate the pieces of his fractured life? He can’t live with his devil known as Fletcher, but he apparently can’t live without him either. In the end, we are left with ambiguity as to whether of not Andrew managed to one up Fletcher at his own game. But that’s the brilliance of Whiplash in the end, it doesn’t give you answers to the questions you long desire. It cuts straight to black when all of a sudden you want more. Sure there are some questionable moments in the film where Andrew is put into a position where you think there is no way he can continue performing under any circumstance, but somehow he does, leading to disastrous consequences, proving what doesn’t kill us makes us somehow stronger.

“Whiplash” lives up to its name. It throws you around with exacting control, yet the film’s director Damien Chazelle manages to exert tight, exacting control over his increasingly feverish and often off-putting comedic melodrama. (There was a similar intensity Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar® winning ballet melodrama, “Black Swan.”) By combining a number of various genres from comedy to drama to thriller to horror, “Whiplash” turns into a new take of “a-star-is-born saga” in its final climatic scene, set at a concert in Carnegie Hall. I’m not sure the climax works as well the story line that precedes it — yet Chazelle’s technique is so fabulously effective even when his story telling instincts wobble just a bit. The movie hums with provocations and its own youthful yet maturely realized vision of artistic torment and release, and it’s a cinema highlight for 2014 for sure.

After all that's said and done, Andrew's father Jim (as played by Paul Reiser)  comes across as the voice of reason in "Whiplash."

After all that’s said and done, Andrew’s father Jim (as played by Paul Reiser) comes across as the voice of reason in “Whiplash.”

Bottom Line

Although “Whiplash” is no longer in theatres, you should do everything in your power to see this film on a wide screen television with surround sound. The pacing, the intensity, even the rash uncontrollable dialog that allow you to be taken along Andrew’s journey with him as he makes questionable decisions makes it all worth it. The performances, especially out of leads Teller and Simmons is first rate. They’re bold and raw, as they attempt to match mano y mano. This is perhaps the best acting duo of year out of any other films being considered the best of the year. Considering director Damien Chazelle based this film on a short film he filmed in 2012 (to prove this story was worth telling), he was able to have the temerity to expand his vision into a full-length feature, I cannot wait for his next project.

I hope ‘Whiplash” rewarded with at least the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar® on February the 22nd. The film poses a lot of questions on what you would do with such a tyrannical leader in your midst. Would you stay and fight on? Or would you fight from afar from the sidelines? In the end, Andrew continues to fight on stage and we only hope he exacts his revenge on Fletcher with the yearning for success that got him to that music academy to begin with. And in that respect, you should be lucky to catch “Whiplash” on the big screen so you can feast your eyes on what passion realized is supposed to feel like and witness what a first rate film is really supposed to look and sound like.

Why the new movie “Wild” is One Meta “Wild” Ride

Self-discovery and one life’s journey can go in any which direction. Thankfully with skilled direction, nuanced writing and heartfelt acting, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed best-selling autobiography doesn’t seem to veer too far off track by not turning it into a maudlin experience.

Reese Witherspoon gets down and dirty in the adaptation of the best-seller "Wild."

Reese Witherspoon gets down and dirty in the adaptation of the best-seller “Wild.”

Having not read Cheryl Strayed‘s best-selling book “Wild,” I was impressed how the movie made hiking actually seem interesting and even enthralling thanks to the remarkable real-life story of author Cheryl Strayed’s life story following the death of her mother Bobbi.

First off, my expectations were very high for this one. I remember when the book first came out with all of these glowing reviews of a simple white book with a single brown hiking boot on the cover. With descriptions of how Strayed was inspired to become a better person through hiking on her own the Pacific Coast Trail out west following the unexpected death of her mother. Then I find out that it’s been optioned for a movie by none other than Academy Award® winning actress Reese Witherspoon. I thought there is no way they can screw this up as the book’s story line of heartache and redemption clearly lends itself to be perfectly showcased on film.

I have to admit it the entire team behind Wild pulled Strayed’s complex and sentimental story off with great aplomb! I just hope more people go out and see it. After a quick spurt of a release Wild is currently in limited release playing a few theaters here and there. After receiving two major Academy Award® nominations for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, I can only hope that a re-release or major push on Blu-ray/DVD is warranted, because this story has the potential to be considered one’s exploration of life’s journey a biopic for the ages. I’m that serious.

Here’s How Reese (or Cheryl) Climbed Every Mountain

“Wild” is the real-life story of author Cheryl Strayed’s journey to find herself, as she looks back on her often troubled upbringing from childhood all they way to adulthood, and reflects on how her mother’s death so deeply affected her life thereafter. Her decisions and actions affect everyone around her from her brother to her husband, no one is spared. After seemingly having her life in order, Strayed is dealt with the worst possible news, her rock and support system, otherwise known as her mother Bobbi, brilliantly played by Laura Dern, is suddenly diagnosed with bone cancer and is told she has only months to live. Even that’s not long enough, as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi abruptly dies after diagnosis and Strayed’s world is thrown into chaos, much of it self-inflicted.

Laura Dern who plays Cheryl's mother Bobbi won a much deserved Oscar nomination as well.

Laura Dern who plays Cheryl’s mother Bobbi won a much deserved Oscar nomination as well.

Reese is a angelic beauty and of course every guy wants to sleep with Cheryl (not matter how unkept she clearly is) But is this reality?

Despite acting like a complete mess following the death of her mother, Cheryl manages to get it on with every guy she meets. This despite still being married to her loyal husband Paul (nicely played by Thomas Sadoski), Cheryl becomes engrossed heavily into alcohol, drugs, and extra martial affairs, not knowing where her life is headed. It takes her husband Paul to physically save her after one too many illicit experiences that leads Cheryl close to her own death.

She also lucks out like no other! The movie made me think that I should sit down and read Cheryl’s book because her journey was filled with so many twists and turns both physical and emotional, which is just enough to make this movie adaptation fly by, that you can’t believe what a remarkable life she has lead already.

Credit screenwriter (and successful novelist himself) Nick Hornsby for telling what could have been a linear and borderline lifeless story into a brilliant and nonlinear journey that travels through a human being’s troubled soul. Trust me, this journey will all make sense in the end. In addition to director Jean-Marc Vallee‘s decision to de-glamorize Miss Witherspoon as a person or the not really showcase the scenic locales she is visiting with long sweeping vista shots is a right one. This is a story told with heart and humanity.

Makes me think it helps to be the producer of the movie you star in, doesn’t it? You get to handle all of the decisions of what you want to focus on.

What Would You Do In Cheryl’s Boots?

I certainly would never hike my way through the dessert and mountains if i had a tragedy before me. It seems like such a drastic decision and who knows if you are seriously trained to actually live on your own in the great outdoors? Not to mention you have to walk until your body aches.

Cheryl Strayed’s life is so tumultuous and she becomes so impetuous that she has that “a-ha moment” when she and her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) have to shovel snow in one scene. Cheryl with her life an impossible mess, sees a hiking book on the Pacific Crest Trail. Then all of a sudden it dawns on her: she has to hike in order to become to woman that her mother wanted her to become! That singular line that Witherspoon says in the movie, stood out to me. I thought okay…this moment comes across as a wee bit contrived, but hey if this a plot point that sets us out on our journey, then who am I to question how she got there?

Cheryl explaining her legal last name change to “Strayed” in a flashback (get it she Strayed?) is another off the mark moment that only makes sense when you get to the end and think back on what you just saw. Speaking of the end, it just ends abruptly, which is my only big problem with the movie. No post script to acknowledgment of journey completed, just Reese looking into the rainy Oregon sky and the film fades to a white light so to speak.

As you can see author of "Wild," Cheryl Strayed and the movie's producer/ lead actress Reese Witherspoon look so much alike!

As you can see author of “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed and the movie’s producer/ lead actress Reese Witherspoon look so much alike!

It may look like its a Reeseisance but where is Reese’s career headed now?

She managed to produce a potential Best Picture nominee and box office smash in Gone Girl, now she’s starring in a movie that did bag her a second nomination for acting. I can now see why David Fincher suggested someone else namely Rosemund Pike instead of herself in the role of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, she’s a wickedly great find who can pull off cold and calculating. Whereas Reese well she’s still just as cute as she was as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. It’s that perky personality and smaller stature I think will be a hindrance for Reese in finding a project as great as Wild was.

But now that she is producing more movies she is clearly taking control of her career and she is striving to pick strong projects that will enhance her skills as a performer. Think about it, she could be doing more rom-com projects and no one would be the wiser that her career is quite frankly stuck in neutral. But she’s choosing not to, she’s choosing to wipe off the makeup and give her fans and the movie going public energetic thought-provoking mature characters. I’m glad she’s clearly reading best-selling books, someone has to and why not her? The next book that comes along that features a strong willed woman I will picture Reese Witherspoon in the role and think it’s because of this role of Cheryl Strayed in Wild that I now think she can stretch herself. For fans of movies, we should all be thankful that someone is taking the time to be thoughtful about her career.