November 19, 2014
We at Independent Ethos are extremely supportive of the Miami Beach Cinematheque and its Speaking In Cinema series, which would not be possible without funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The series has brought some excellent filmmakers to Miami since it began earlier this year, and we helped out with its inaugural event (An Interview with ‘Hide Your Smiling Faces’ Filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone in ‘Miami New Times’). We’ve covered them all because, frankly, it is damn exciting to consider movies thoughtfully for an hour (sometimes longer) in such a setting with some amazing guests.
This month and next — the month known in Miami Beach for one of the biggest art festivals in the world: Art Basel – Miami Beach — the Cinematheque has begun screening some rare films by Andy Warhol thanks to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA at the Carnegie Institute. The four films are all about Golden Age Hollywood starlets and their scandals recreated in the experimental and exploratory way only Warhol could have made. The Velvet Underground, Edie Sedgewick and famous drag queens are all collaborators. The films include Harlot (1964), Lupe (1965), More Milk Yvette (1965), and Hedy (1966)*.
Discussing the films with depth and knowledge will be our old Miami friend and compatriot on WordPress Alfred Soto (check out his terrific blog Humanizing the Vacuum). He will lead a discussion with director/producer Tom Kalin and Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant and project manager of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I corresponded with the out-of-town experts via email ahead of their visit and wrote an article for the art and culture blog of the Miami New Times, “Cultist.” Among other topics, we discussed common misconceptions of Warhol’s film work, and I even asked them for a personal favorite of the the four Warhol films screening at the MBC (it turned out to be unanimous). You can read the result by jumping through the link below:
But, as always, there was more. Asked what mainstream filmmakers can learn from the work of Warhol, Henry declared that indeed they have already learned a tremendous amount. “The commercial success of The Chelsea Girls in 1966-67 paved the way for more radical filmmaking,” she notes, “both in subject matter — Midnight Cowboy (1969); A Clockwork Orange (1971); Pink Flamingos (1972) — and in technique — Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Memento (2001).”
She deferred to Kalin for more on this notion. Though he was rushing to board his plane to Miami, he offered, “Sometimes in mainstream cinema a pop star crosses over and becomes a screen star. This blurring of the lines — the synergy between music and movies for instance is very Warholian. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was ahead of its time and the boundary pushing of his expanded cinema like Chelsea Girls still resonates in this era of ‘multiplatform storytelling.’ Also Warhol’s superstars, mere mortals transformed by the magic lens, anticipate today’s preoccupation with reality, real faces.”
Finally, since Speaking In Cinema also tries to go off topic to discuss film in general, it was worth asking Kalin, what he is up to as a filmmaker, considering this writer is only familiar with his work as a feature filmmaker of 1992’s Swoon and 2007’s Savage Grace. “In addition to my feature narrative work, my films and videos include short experimental work, installations and collaborations,” notes Kalin, who is also a professor at Columbia University. “Recently, I have been collaborating with musician Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on a series of projects. We premiered My Silent One at REDCAT in Los Angeles in July. You can read a bit about it here and here.”
He also pauses to note Warhol’s own influence on his work. “Of course Warhol famously was a key figure in the combination of film and live music in his work with The Velvet Underground, and like many filmmakers, I have been inspired by this work. I also have just made a new short film for Visual AIDS’ 25th Anniversary of Day Without Art. The film is called ‘Ashes’ and features the voice of Justin Vivian Bond.”
Finally, for those curious about his feature work, Kalin offers: “I’m developing two new features, one of which is about a crime in a small town, my first feature set in present time. I will shoot summer 2015.”
Director/producer Tom Kalin will join Claire K. Henry, Senior Curatorial Assistant of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art and “Humanizing the Vacuum” critic Alfred Soto for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss the films on Thursday, November 20, at 7 p.m. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for all the Warhol screenings and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.
*The films in the retrospective are from the Collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA., a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved.
November 9, 2014
Force Majeure, a new, impressively shot film from Sweden takes a stark but funny look at the fragile fibers that hold together a family of four when the actions of the father calls the unit’s existence into question. Director Ruben Östlund uses both humor and an efficient sense of drama to examine the role of the father that draws in the audience to consider today’s notion of what makes a man. It’s tight filmmaking in the best sense, as it never over-reaches the human drama at the center of it but has vast echoes beyond the image on screen.
Östlund, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a rather interesting portrait of a modern man who screws up in a big way with the wrong gesture. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a ski vacation with their young children, older sister Vera (Clara Wettergren) and younger brother Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The crux of the film is hinted at early on, with a photographer who bullies the family off camera into taking some portraits on the slopes. Tomas goes with it, following orders from the man, who is left unseen on the other side of the lens.
But the real drama begins after the family has a close encounter with an avalanche while dining at an outdoor restaurant … and Tomas runs away, leaving his panicked wife and screaming children at the table. After the screen goes white and the snow powder clears, others around them have a laugh at the scare. At the edge of the frame, one laughing man even points his thumb at Tomas, as he returns to his shaken family. Though physically unscathed, the emotional wounds will be profound.
The film is all about the various ways Tomas is tested following the incident. It comes out not only in Ebba’s very public manner in dealing with the trauma by recounting what had occurred in the company of other couples but also in Tomas’ private moments afterward. Though he insists that Ebba’s perception of what happened is somehow warped, there is also no denying a weight is now bearing down on him. He must find some way to deal with it, and though he tries in various, very human ways, it culminates in a delicious moment of humor and pathos that will test the family further.
The drama would never be as interesting as it is had Östlund not considered the many ways Tomas’ actions has reframed his role as a patriarch. The director wastes nothing in the film’s pacing, the characters’ gestures and actions and especially the movie’s potent visuals. Against a landscape at its most intimidating, using anamorphic, widescreen lenses, Östlund presents the fragility of the family brilliantly without being overt. Early in the film, before the avalanche, the director infuses a sense of dread into the movie by simply juxtaposing scenes of domestic banality and the nocturnal maintenance of the ski-slopes with controlled avalanches. Against the frantic, extra-diegetic sound of Ola Fløttum’s score of rumbling strings and accordion, the family brushes its teeth. Meanwhile, outside, canons explode over the slopes to loosen snow, and a snowmobile zips across the screen followed by three lumbering snow tractors. The music and the sounds of buzzing machines, be they electric toothbrushes or industrial machinery, toggle to monopolize the soundtrack during pauses in Fløttum’s witty score. Tomas, domesticated and contained, handles an electric toothbrush as well as his wife and two children. Meanwhile, outside, in the night, real men, who we never see, speed around in machines to do manly work. Who knows? They might even be women.
Östlund wants the viewer to not only consider the man’s reaction during the avalanche but other details. It’s about gender roles in a modern age where everyone should be considered equal, lest you be considered sexist or politically incorrect. Though it does not come up in the movie, it is interesting to note that in Sweden it is not uncommon for a man to choose to take the wife’s last name when they marry. It’s important to consider this film comes from a country with such advanced ideas of gender roles. The film also brings up the idea of open marriage during an opportunity Ebba has to have a chat with a fellow married female vacationer who seems much happier than she does.
This is not the first time manliness has been called into question with a gesture in film (The Loneliest Planet did it more austerely: Film Review: the insignificance of trauma in the land of ‘The Loneliest Planet’), but that Östlund can find humor while considering a drama that has real pathos (you will feel for these people) is commendable. Force Majeure is smartly entertaining, shocking and funny, and it presents one of those hypothetical situations that demands discussion after the house lights go up. It presents it all in a tidy package with powerful performances and a sly, steady camera that’s both ironic and focused. It’s one of those great art house experiences that provokes on many levels without feeling cruel or overly serious, and it stands as one of the best cinematic experiences of 2014. It’s plain ingenious on all levels of cinematic story-telling and should not be missed.
Force Majeure runs 118 minutes, is in Swedish and English with English subtitles and Rated R (there’s some language and brief nudity). It opened exclusively in South Florida in at this Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday. On Nov. 14., it expands to the Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and the Lake Worth Playhouse. It may already be playing at other theaters across the U.S. To check other screening locations, visit this website. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.
November 7, 2014
There is no denying one thing about Interstellar: it’s an epic space adventure made for the big screen. It features set pieces that will dazzle and impressive alien landscapes that will enthrall. The effects, which include a near-scale spaceship seemingly tearing through the stratosphere and popping into the silence of space, are unforgettable. The appearance of an intergalactic wormhole that will carry our brave explores to another galaxy against the stark backdrop of what looks like a painted planet Saturn is both surreal yet geeky cool.
There is no need spoiling what lies on the other side of the titular crossroads, and I would hate to reveal how director Christopher Nolan presents the theory of the wormhole in not one scene but two that occur at different points of the movie yet are still connected to the moment of the spaceship’s penetration of the portal both narratively and visually. He’s a smart filmmaker, but I feel obliged to warn viewers to lower their expectations.
It will be easy for ticket buyers to understand why plot points were held so secretive ahead of the release of Interstellar once they see the film. It’s a preposterous yet sprawling movie filled with several overwrought pauses in action for lots of tearful emoting or explaining of theoretical astrophysics between sequences of action, and then there’s the ludicrous third act. As opposed to the much more interesting Inception, this film feels clunky, arriving at a trite finale that’s more supernatural than scientific.* Both films share an action-packed climax that unfolds in alternate levels of time and space featuring fast-paced inter-cutting, but one did it much better: Inception. In that film, time felt reinvented like Chinese boxes on a plain. But with Interstellar Nolan pads nearly three hours full of expository theory to inform the viewer with a weird logic that actually disarms anything interesting about the impressive visuals and ideas that occur throughout the film. To end on a note that does not so much defy astrophysics as it does wash its hands of it, devolving into a convoluted idea that feels more desperate to tie up loose ends in a fantastical reach for closure betrays much of what’s impressive about the film: the awe-inspiring visuals.
It’s so ironic that in this near future version of our planet, children are being taught that the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969 was staged. We learn this when the film’s hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is called to a parent-teacher conference regarding his daughter Murph’s (Mackenzie Foy) defiance to the idea that a conspiracy theory has become a fact. After all, she has a legit, vintage text book her dad had given her, and he was an astronaut for NASA once. But in this dystopian future, NASA has been dismantled and people have more earthly concerns. Mother Earth is revolting against human kind, and people cannot grow corn fast enough to sustain life on a planet overcome by dust storms.
To double the irony, Nolan has made no secret about the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that downplayed emotions and exposition to achieve moments of transcendence that are rarely achieved in film. Of course, Nolan also qualified his comments to say he was not trying to match the masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick. I studied the movie for my Master’s thesis (you can read an abridged version of my analysis beginning with this post: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 1 of 4), and I can tell you, if Nolan would have taken the fundamental notion of presenting a film that relies more on visuals over language, viewers would have come away with a more memorable experience.
By no means did I enter Interstellar expecting a film equivalent to 2001. It would be unfair considering the influence 2001 has had on so many films since its release, not to mention the era when it was released, so many decades ago, and the changes to commercial film since then. What I did expect of Nolan is to place some trust in the power of visual language without weighing it down with characters continuously declaring their feelings tearfully or espousing theoretical knowledge as the narrative bumbles along. Adding to the encumbrance is an operatic, overly present score by the often cheesy Hans Zimmer. So he uses organs, but anyone who has heard the impressionistic work of Philip Glass or even the bombast of early Yes, has heard the instrument used more effectively.
The film pays off when the extraneous noise, like the music and dialogue, are toned down. It’s hard to buy these emo astronauts. Thank goodness they have a pair of robots, voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart – who look like monoliths with inventive articulation and act like R2-D2 — that are programmed with senses of humor. Then there are even more secondary characters, including a surprise appearance by a famous actor, but none ever feel written with the right amount of sympathy, and too much repetition of how they feel comes across as patronizing to the audience instead of adding dimension to their characters. The most sympathetic performance of all turns out to be that of young Murph. Foy plays a frustrated young woman desperate to be taken seriously but also reaching out for the love she needs from her too-noble-for-his-family’s-good father. She brings the right amount of restraint and spunk to the character that makes her the most endearing element of the entire cast. Her absence in the second half of the film feels pronounced after a capably somber Jessica Chastain steps in as an older Murph after one of the film’s genuinely emotional plot twists creates a powerful leap in time for the space travelers.
As for some of the other performers of note, Anne Hathaway plays Cooper’s foil Amelia, and though she is a wonderful actress, there is not enough substance in her role for Hathaway to pull out a dynamic enough performance to remember. She played a much meatier character in The Dark Knight Rises as Catwoman. Her acting chops are betrayed here by a mostly hollowly written character, which deflates a key speech for Amelia at the center of the film. Finally, as for McConaughey, the dude knows how to push the waterworks from his tear ducts, but sometimes he comes across mush-mouthed in his attempt to ground Cooper as the modest hero of the movie.
It’s not like the stakes are not heavy in this film. This space journey has both the human race at stake as well as the personal baggage of the astronauts. It’s just delivered with so much sentiment that it all feels rather strained. Some will roll their eyes, thinking, “enough already!” Others who love being spoon-fed emotional drama, will go along with this melodrama and have a cathartic cry. As for the film’s finale, I love mysticism in the movies, but the tonal inconsistency of so much astrophysical theory, which is suddenly allowed to be subverted by another force that is grounded in a convenient kind of supernature makes it all hard to swallow. But if you can forgive Interstellar’s redundant sentimentality and a final act that will invariably disappoint anyone with some knowledge of theory and astrophysics, the movie’s still worth the price of admission. Those splurging for the IMAX experience will feel less ripped off than those waiting for a home video release, so take advantage. Much of what works in the film is purely visual and kinetic, and Nolan is at the top of his game at least in that sense.
*Last year Gravity received the ire of popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for its slips in logic, but at least that film tried to seem realistic.
Interstellar runs 169 minutes and is rated PG-13 (there is some light cussing and some moments of terror and startling deaths). It’s in theaters at every multiplex in the U.S. today, including IMAX. Paramount Pictures invited us to a preview screening in IMAX for the purpose of this review.
November 6, 2014
Miami’s O Cinema is once again expanding. After setting up a movie house in the artsy district of Wynwood in February of 2011, O Cinema opened another movie in Miami Shores in October of 2012. This Friday, it will take charge of a third movie house in the northern part of Miami Beach. It’s an old movie house built in 1968 and once owned by Wometco and later the Regal Group.
I sat down with O Cinema’s co-founder Kareem Tabsch, in one of the cinema house’s 304 seats, at the front of the theater. It’s a large space with a mezzanine and is fitting of the aspirations of one of several Miami-area indie art houses. Tabsch says the City of Miami Beach has long hoped to bring art and culture to an area that already has plenty of great restaurants and lies just blocks from the beach. “It’s part of a lot of things there,” Tabsch says. “They just redid the fountain up the street, on 71st, Normandy Circle, the band shell is being activated.”
Tabsch notes that when he and his business partner Vivian Marthell started O Cinema, they hoped to usher in a new era of film culture to the community. “Why we did it from the beginning, which is what we believe in, is that there are plenty of film lovers or people who want to see quality independent cinema in the city, but they don’t have the opportunity … There is a critical mass for film. All the arts in Miami have reached these new levels,” he says, referring to the art scene in Wynwood, the Adrienne Arsht Center, a massive theater and concert hall in Downtown Miami, and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, among other new cultural destinations in the city that have popped up in the last decade or so. “But film was kinda held back in a sense, as far as critical mass. You had stuff going on in the ’70s and the early ’80s with Nat Chediak’s theaters in Coral Gables and the Fendelman Brothers in the Grove.”
He also brings up the ’90s, when Miami had the Alliance Theater in Miami Beach and the Absinthe House in Coral Gables, the owners of which later expanded to the Mercury in North Miami, in the early 2000s. The Mercury would only last a couple of years, and all those theaters soon shuttered. The only mainstay, as far as indie/art/world and retrospective cinema was concerned, was being programmed by the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is now celebrating its 11th year in operation under founding director Dana Keith, who has been booking special screenings in Miami Beach since 1993. “I always give Dana at the Cinematheque props because he’s held it down for the longest,” says Tabsch.
Tabsch also notes that he has a great working relationship with Keith and neither see the new O, which is located more than 60 streets north of MBC, as competition. Tabsch brings it back to North Beach as opposed to South Beach, which has its own culture and scene. Tabsch says it’s all about giving the area its own indie cinema. He also notes that he is very aware of the demographics of the community, including the fact that there is a high concentration of Brazilian and Argentinian families in the area. “Going to the movies is something that should happen within your community,” he offers. “It’s a part of your life. It’s a part of your culture. You want to walk to your movie theater. You don’t want to drive 20 minutes away. For a very long time in Miami, all you could do was just drive. For the first time in 15 years we will be providing, 52 weeks a year, seven days a week, cultural programming in North Beach. You will be able to come and see an indie movie every day of the week, and I think that’s gonna be a huge part of the growth of the neighborhood.”
You can read more of my conversation with Tabsch and plans for the new theater in this week’s “Miami New Times,” out on newsstands now or on-line at the weekly paper’s art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the banner below to access it:
The opening night screening of Birdman is already sold out, but the film will play there until Nov. 13 (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach). For screening details, visit here. Then, the theater will host The Theory of Everything (details). Read my review of Birdman here: ‘Birdman’ lampoons Hollywood with humorous, hyper-real, hero-hating satire. I loved that movie.
A great teaser trailer released a few months back hinted that Nightcrawler would present a character study of a manic man determined to get a job (watch it here). Jake Gyllenhaal certainly delivers an intriguing performance as Louis Bloom, the man at the center of Nightcrawler. It’s too bad the film fails to deliver any worthwhile insight into this character. This guy could have been something as interesting as Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master. Instead, we get an enigma so opaque you cannot tell whether this man has Asperger’s or is a genuinely psychotic misanthrope.
The movie, a first-time feature for screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy, is a flashy affair on many levels beyond the lead performance — the cinematography, the music, the overall atmosphere. It’s a shame that the idea feels so unsubstantial and even condescending. We meet Louis as he scrounges metal at a rail yard. When a security guard catches him, he beats the guard and steals his watch, which Louis slips on, despite it being too large for his skinny wrist. He then takes the metal he has gathered, which includes manhole covers and chain-link fence, to a scrapyard where he negotiates a price with the taciturn owner. After settling on a price, Louis pitches that he hire him. His eagerness and breathless self-hype are grating. The scrapyard owner shuts him down with, “Why would I hire a thief?”
There’s always freelance work, and Louis finds the right gig after coming across the aftermath of a collision on a highway and watching freelance cameramen gather footage at the bloody wreck. The next day, Louis steals an expensive bicycle and trades it in at a pawn shop for an old handheld camera and a police scanner. He soon finds Rick (Riz Ahmed), a skinny, young homeless man to assist him in his search for car crashes and crime scenes in the early morning hours that freelance newsmen thrive on. Louis’ lack of empathy and gusto for the job gets him close to victims and bloody scenes. A news director at a local TV station with faltering ratings (Rene Russo) is happy to pay his inflated prices for the footage. We follow the two nightcrawlers, as Louis gets more brazen in stepping over ethical boundaries and Rick grows more nervous about the acts.
Gyllenhaal deserves credit for losing himself so deeply in the role of Louis. He lost a ton of weight to give this man a look of having been eaten away from within. But he’s far from fragile. There’s a dynamo inside driven to survive. He’s a kind of vampire, using people with a cartoonish charm that’s sociopathic in its lack of any genuine warmth. He brings a nerve-rattling intensity to the character who seems to hide behind a thin but impenetrable mask of phony, fast-talking charisma. There’s a trapped desperation to Louis behind a surreal composure that seems on the edge of breaking down. He’s like a feral creature with attitude but little substance, which could also describe the movie as a whole.
Louis Bloom should also be recognized as a team effort. Makeup enhances his ashen, wraith-like appearance. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (who’s done amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) mixes the light and shadow so expressively there are several moments when he looks like a cartoon. There’s one scene where he commits a flagrant, ethical no-no as a news photographer: tampers with the scene of a crash for “the shot.” He backs up with his camera to record the aftermath of the wreck, lifts the camera over his head. His eyes bug out. They appear as large white orbs out of a comic panel, shining forth in the wide, dark, distant landscape shot. His face expresses an ecstasy of revelation, seemingly entranced and impressed by his handiwork. As wide as they are, his eyes remain as impenetrable as ever. There’s more to read in his mouth. His jaw drops open to expose a blackness in his maw — once again, the impression of a wraith. He looks like Munch’s Scream, and makes no sound, just like the painting. It’s an impressive moment when the film comes together on the level of image and actor.
There are great action sequences and a dark atmosphere certainly saturates the film. James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is probably the sliest element, oscillating between calm, brooding echoing guitars and hyper-pumped drumming and humming synths as if it were something out of the ‘80s. It’s ironic that the film has the atmosphere of an ‘80s movie because it also feels as dated as one of those films.
In the grand social scheme, Nightcrawler tries to present a critique of superficial news reporting, which has little resonance in today’s era. Any comparison to Network would be pointless. That 1976 film mattered because it was prophetic of today’s current TV anchors/personalities who wear shrill opinions on their sleeves. Nightcrawler’s critique is old news. The idea of “it bleeds, it leads” took over local news reporting in the early ‘90s (and, seriously, must Gilroy have a character in the news business actually use the line in the movie?). Had this film appeared in the ‘80s, it may have been a bit more interesting, but as it stands, it’s like a joke that has fallen flat. That the film only ever builds toward a joke ending instead of a worthy moment of revelation, or at least a vague ambiguous notion of insight, speaks to the slightness of the story.
The problem is Gilroy, who also wrote the script, cannot seem to find his way out of this dark character study. It’s as if he’s written himself into a corner. Louis is presented as a rather impenetrable character, and he remains that way until the end. His only moments of weakness are when he has a solitary tantrum, all alone at home, letting out his frustration on a mirror. The most Gilroy can do to remind us of the compromised moral character of this guy is make sure the giant, loose-fitting watch he stole from the security guard is in frame.
But Nightcrawler still has a fundamental flaw in that there’s hardly anyone to play off morality to. The best we get is the assignment editor (Kevin Rahm) at the news stations who pronounces disapproval and wags a finger at the news director for humoring the footage Louis presents her with. Louis’ homeless assistant also shows a profound sense of right and wrong, but Louis always out reasons the poor, meek man. Their conversations go nowhere except one moment that just might settle the question whether Louis is a misanthrope or a man with Asperger’s. But it remains only a possible glimpse left unexplored.
Nightcrawler runs 117 minutes and is rated R (gore and sex talk). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Friday, Oct. 31 (check for tickets here). Fox Searchlight invited me to a preview screening earlier this month for the purpose of this review.
Mexican DJ turned filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has so far made a name for himself as a director of weighty films with bleakly serious subjects in search of transcendence. Ever since his Spanish-language debut Amores perros, his 1999 Oscar-nominated film that had Hollywood knocking, it has been an uphill battle for the director to achieve the same level of respect. It seems what he needed was a tonal shift. The black comedy of his fifth feature film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is that shift, as it sends up virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry with dark humor on a meta level. Though Iñárritu has often reached too hard to make big statements, Birdman feels breezy by comparison and still achieves the resonant kind of statement fitting of his aesthetic.
Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson with a complex dynamic of ego and insecurity, as he tries to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis. Just like Keaton, Riggan once played a famous superhero in the movies that spawned a series of sequels: Birdman (fun fact: there is indeed a Birdman superhero). Riggan groans about Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender as they rake in fame and fortune by donning superhero costumes in this new era of movies based on comic books with a mix of disdain and envy. He seems plagued by a bitter resentment that he hasn’t somehow been recognized for paving the way for the superhero movie star in some impractical way (maybe he’s secretly hoping for “Pioneer Superhero Tentpole” Oscar?). Yet, he also desires recognition as an artist, so he decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, in a husky growl not unlike Christian Bale’s interpretation of Batman’s voice, seems to always belittle him when he’s alone. Oh, and one more characteristic of Riggan’s worth noting: he displays powers of levitation and telekinesis when no one else is looking.
If the richness of the satirical implications of this character is not enough, there are many others who enter into Riggan’s world with their own quirks. Edward Norton does hilariously self-deprecating work as Riggan’s nemesis, Mike Shiner, the heroic stage actor who will save the play. Mike is literally cocksure. He strips to nothing backstage, in wardrobe, fists on hips, ready for his fitting. While Riggan strains for respect with his grave adaptation of serious literature, Mike oozes confidence in his craft that relies on method-like process. When on stage, he needs real gin to feel drunk and must follow his erection when he lies in bed with his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who herself is a bundle of nerves in search of her own respect on Broadway. Riggan only wishes to earn appreciation as an actor with integrity and clashes with Mike over what Riggan sees as inappropriate behavior, but Mike wants Riggan to respect his process as essential to his craft. Hovering over that, Riggan’s best friend/manager/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) sees integrity in making this production a commercially viable affair, but the constant collateral damage of ego puts him on edge. On the periphery, lackadaisically observing the ship sink and lusting after Mike, is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant.
All of these people pine for a sense of their own version of what is essential to their own vision of reality, which they hope will grant them some sense of value, but that means struggling against the other titanic egos that surround them, which is key to the film’s humor and drama. The generalizations are so piled up in this film that it would be unfair to fault it for presenting tropes or clichés. This is a movie about demolishing expectations where expectations often lead to disappointment. It thrives on generalization. But beyond that, Iñárritu presents it with a filmmaking style that at times defies the tenets of film language, adding yet another layer of meta reality to this satirical vehicle.
The editing in the film is invisible, but the story does not take place in real-time. Even though the entirety of Birdman seems like one take, with the camera slipping through corridors and other nice moments of trickery to meet the actors at various moments of crisis, the story covers several days. It speaks to the idea of theater where acting cannot lean on editing as a crutch. At the same time, it also speaks to the lack of connection between these people. There is no room for match cuts, associative cuts, shot-reverse-shot, etc. because no one genuinely connects. It’s also a departure for the director, whose films have often depended on action off-screen and silent moments of time trickling past cut and pasted together jarringly to add a sense of levity to the contemplation of his characters. It’s as if the film has lost a superpower, much like Riggan/Birdman.
The film’s musical accompaniment is worth mentioning. In his first film score, Grammy-winning jazz drummer and bandleader Antonio Sanchez – who, like the director, also hails from Mexico City – gives the film a chaotic, cacophonous rhythm with a free-jazz, percussion-centric score, speaking to the nervous, scatterbrain of Riggan. Sanchez’s presence is so vivid, he even appears in the film at a drum kit on more than one occasion, giving physical form to the harried Riggan’s nerves. The always amazing and fluid camera work Emmanuel Lubezki is also key to the film’s tone. His sharp focus not only presents unforgiving images of the creases of many a weary face but also highlights makeup and styling designed to make some of the actors look like birds. Whether this is intentional or not, it speaks to Riggan’s perception of his world and to the fact that this is also an alienating presentation of reality, keeping the audience at arm’s length, building toward a finale that no one can truly, definitively understand because this is Riggan’s world … and ultimately, just a movie.
In its hyper-real presentation of story, Birdman takes an almost encyclopedic survey of every trope, generalization and prejudice we might have about Hollywood and celebrity culture and in turn lampoons it in some way. Critics, the PR machine, social media, the idea of fame by viral video, sexual relations between actors, clashing egos, it leaves none of it out. Much of it is reductive, but it’s also offered in a spectrum: there is the cynical theater critic for he powerful “New York Times,” the serious journalist with the social/theoretical concerns of the art and the star-struck reporter who will believe any rumor as insight into the unknowable person behind the celebrity. Of course, the film also does this with the colorful actors at the center of the film but still does not forget the personnel behind the scenes, as well. With Birdman, Iñárritu sets out to bite the hand that feeds so hard and with such force so as to dazzle those bitten with stars. It’s a caricature filled with magical realism that never forgets entertainment value, inviting everyone to have a laugh at themselves.
Though it is implied that Riggan may or may not have super powers, whether or not he does is unimportant. What Iñárritu is doing with this character quirk is offering a metaphor for the power of celebrity, which Riggan is trying to suppress so his craft might be taken on its own terms. Ask any artist worth his or her own work, and they will tell you that they view celebrity with a wary eye. Galifianakis noted as much in his interview regarding the film in “Hollywood Reporter.” Recently, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told me about it as if it exists outside of his control. It’s a double-edged sword that gives actors value, but that they do not have the same kind of control over. Scott Haze, another actor I interviewed, spoke about the prejudice that surrounds the work of his friend James Franco, who directed him in the underrated Child of God.
For all its smart satirical qualities, it’s hard to ignore a sense of genuine bitterness that informs the stories that make up Birdman. Iñárritu himself has had to combat high expectations from the beginning of his work in the U.S. But if you do not care to look behind the screwball farce of the action of the film, you will only be disappointed by this movie. It targets Hollywood as a business that thrives on celebrity to make its fortune at the sacrifice of people whose only dream was to express themselves in front of an audience before the machine gobbled them up, which is the true tragi-comedy of the reality of the entertainment business. What can you do? Enjoy the show!
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R (language, sexual humor and pathos). It has already opened in many theaters across the U.S. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Oct. 31. Then, on Nov. 7, it will be the premiere film at O Cinema’s newest theater in North Beach, at the former, newly renovated Byron Carlyle. (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach). Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.
October 28, 2014
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that Listen Up Philip presents a man, specifically an author, living two lives. One is a life of the corporeal, human behavior and feelings with repercussions on those close to him personally, the other is a life of intellect, creativity and imagination, which satisfies personal ego and impacts, however fleetingly, those who read his books. The drama of the film stems from the titular character’s sacrifice of one life over the other. Which one he chooses will make him either a hero or a villain. Director and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry wastes no time establishing which he is.
Third-person omniscient narration prattled off by Eric Bogosian in an authoritative deadpan, as if he were at a book reading, informs us that Philip (Jason Schwartzman), who is walking down a New York City street with a furrowed brow is “characteristically not in a hurry but enraged by slow foot traffic in front of him.” When he sits at a diner counter the narrator speaks of a familiar “stage of rage” that has overtaken him due to the tardiness of his ex-girlfriend. When she appears, he tries to shrug it off, but ends the “date” by walking out without ordering and refusing to give her a copy of his new book he said he has personalized with a dedication to her.
Perry has set up a movie to make Philip Lewis Friedman, played by a note-perfect Schwartzman, one of the pettier, unsympathetic dicks committed to screen in a long time. The voice-over narration reveals motivation and often conflicting feelings of angst and ennui. It’s as if Philip lives and destroys relationships so he might inform his writing, and it makes for a heck of a funny film if you can stomach the anti-hero as protagonist.
The audience is not allowed to judge that his writing is any good, but we are told that it is. That is all that matters because this a film not concerned with the craft of creativity as much as it is interested in the formation of the persona of the creator. When we meet Philip, he is only just finished his second novel, but we are told he is on his way to a very successful career as a writer. It’s no secret that Perry based this film on the acclaimed writer Philip Roth, so those with some insight into the life the writer, who has been known to have influenced Perry, might get extra satisfaction from the comedic drama of Listen Up Philip. But those who are not are still in for a heck of a hilarious ride into comedic irony that speaks to the creative soul entanglement with true human relations.
Philip is a huge narcissist. His consistent failure to sympathetically connect with those outside of him from one beat to the next gives Listen Up Philip a sort of sadomasochistic humor firmly trenched in Woody Allen and Larry David, albeit a bit darker. There is a sense of hopelessness for this man to connect. He hardly shows any despair about this quality, and if he does it’s only because he might feel he failed not others but himself. It’s presented as a vivid conundrum via his suffering current lover, played with forgiving heart by Elisabeth Moss. Ashley is certainly strong in her own right as a working photographer with her own creative side, yet she struggles to stay afloat in his wake. He seems more domestically satisfied when a more famous writer, with a lengthy but faltering career (a steely but tired Jonathan Pryce), invites him to his country home to finish his third book. That this man seems like an aged doppelgänger, beard and all, should serve as a warning post, but for Philip, the ego maniac, he has found a mentor to aspire for.
Schwartzman proves a perfect pick for the lead role. Philip’s remote yet determined attitude harkens back to his role as a teenager in the film that put him on the map as an actor: Rushmore. Philip is what the sociopathic aspiring overachiever Max Fischer would have become had he lost his virginity to Miss Cross.
Moss is also given a period of time in the middle of the film to carry the movie, and she shines with warm grace. While Philip heads off to the country and later accepts an adjunct position as a creative writing professor at a university, she takes the time to grow familiar with the comfort of his absence. The time away from Philip reveals what a weight he bore on her, and when he returns, the audience will have every right to root for her own desires over his, a power she can only find with distance.
Shot in Super 16mm, the director harnesses the power of the medium for the intimacy required of his subject and themes. Faces are tightly framed by the format, highlighting the actors’ expressiveness. Listen Up Philip needs this intimacy, which is hardly played for sentiment. Close-ups highlight often conflicted faces, which enhance the declarative, oft-present narration, which digs deep into the tumultuous emotions that inform Philip’s behavior, who cannot ever seem to genuinely communicate and connect with those around him. Sometimes the voice-over narration drowns out dialogue because it’s the world inside that Philip cares more deeply about.
Listen Up Philip is a film not only incredibly concerned with the internal world of the writer but also the dual nature of identity. There is no middle ground for Philip, he must choose between the people who want to love him or be loved by strangers who have not had the misfortune of meeting this cretin in the flesh. The film presents that vividly with strong performances, creative filmmaking and witty writing. It’s a tragic comedy that balances both sides to present a thoroughly watchable movie informed by a pained personal wisdom, so thanks to Perry for digging as deep as he does to present one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies of a real a-hole.
Listen Up Philip runs 109 minutes and is not rated (it’s got cursing and some sexual stuff [can't recall if its graphic]). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Oct. 31. The cinematheque provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. It only recently opened in theaters across the U.S. and will be expanding across cinemas for the rest of the year. For other screenings, visit this link.