posterMexican 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.

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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 image-22891d8e-aa7a-45d2-8221-c72d6a5125cbunfair 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 image-83d3ecdf-6887-4c4f-be3e-ad184b9742b6kit 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.

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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!

Hans Morgenstern

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. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.

Update: Birdman arrives at Broward’s indie art house the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Dec. 25.  It also won the Florida Film Critics award for best picture of 2014.

Previous update: 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).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Poster-High-ResWith X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to directing the characters he first successfully brought to the big screen more than 10 years ago in X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003). In between he directed the fanboy-maligned Superman Returns (2006), the even less liked Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), not to mention the underrated, though problematic, Valkyrie (2008). After these diversions, among others, one has to wonder…  Does he still have the touch that made the first two X-Men films so enjoyable before he handed the series off to Brett Ratner, who directed probably the least liked film of the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)? Can his new X-Men film measure up to the humanity director Matthew Vaughn brought to the series with X-Men: First Class (2011)? And how far gone is the witty, suspenseful director who gave us The Usual Suspects (1995)?

The last question is the easiest to answer:  The old director is long gone, sucked deep into his passion for superheroes first manifested with the early X-Men films before going wayward and indulgent with Superman Returns and then hitting a wall with Jack the Giant Slayer, the director at his most cold and dispassionate. Unfortunately, his time spent with mediocre films has a presence in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s made plainly clear when considering what Vaughn brought out of the youthful X-Men characters in First Class. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-26952R_rgbIn the hands of Vaughn, who burst on the scene adapting a darker group of wayward heroes with the excellent and harrowing Kick-Ass, the X-Men felt human in a manner the franchise has never felt before or since. When Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Professor X tangled verbally while coming terms with their powers and the role they had to play on this planet, the script and the director gave them space to explore their burden without over exposition. The British actors stepped up with performances that made the characters seem like something more than cartoon characters. Those performances were the best special effect of the entire film.

There’s just no room for that kind of soul in this epic version of the X-Men, and it’s fun an diverting, as these summer tent pole films should be. However, as Vaughn proved (not to mention Christopher Nolan and Marc Webb) these superhero films can still have soul brewing below the digital effects and stunt choreography. X-Men: Days of Future Past has an uphill battle for space to flesh out our heroes, as the drama is packed not only with characters but doubles some of them. With time travel at the heart of the film’s plot, the drama sees the younger mutant heroes in a parallel story line with their elder counterparts.

All the actors are back, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as a younger and elder Professor X, and Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto. There’s also Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and even Ellen Page playing the most essential Kitty Pryde role of the entire series. DF-07871   Hugh Jackman as Logan in X-Men: Days of Future Past.All are quite capable thespians, but the film just feels too concerned with set pieces and action sequences to allow for much feeling. There are even expositional speeches some characters give on their own histories to help clarify who they are to the plot and where they are emotionally. Ultimately, it is futile to look for any redemption beneath the 3-D effects and the convoluted plot of this new X-Men film.

That said, no one is going into an X-Men film expecting to feel emotionally involved with the characters unless you’re bringing childhood sentimentality with you. The film literally cuts right to the chase in a world in ruin where our hero mutants are being hunted down by giant robots called Sentinels. Kitty Pryde has mastered the ability to send the consciousness of one her fellow mutants back in time, so her rag-tag group of familiar heroes old and new can stay a step ahead of the attacks. As this on-going war unfolds, the drama includes lots of action sequences. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-02072_rgbSinger’s longtime editor John Ottman also provides the film’s punchy orchestral music that accentuates the action a bit too literally sometimes. Like the campy ‘60s-era Batman TV show, punches are often emphasized with musical stings. The battles with the Sentinels, though, are vicious affairs that feature many dying mutants. Thanks to time travel many get to the chance to die more than once, some in quite horrific ways, even if they are ripped apart in their elemental states. But it still seems futile. Only when Wolverine volunteers to have his consciousness delivered to the watershed moment of these Sentinels, in the early ‘70s, does hope seem to arise, but he’ll have to convince an embittered, young Professor X about his mission.

It’s telling that despite all the thrilling melees between mutants and sentinels and the twisty plot, that a brief moment alone with one character steals the entire film. There’s a glimpse into the experience of Quicksilver (played impishly by Evan Peters) with his power to speed himself up through the moment while everyone else around him practically freezes. He, Wolverine and Professor X are trying to bust Magneto out of a maximum security prison when they are confronted by security guards who fire a barrage of plastic but deadly bullets. x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-24983Rv4_rgbQuicksilver saves them all before Wolverine can even extend his claws. It’s a split second, but it’s drawn out to two and half minutes as Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is used to score the “action.” The melancholy classic adds a nice dimension to what would be just a mere humorous set piece. Peters captures a sort of loneliness in an almost mundane expression of his mutation, as he sets the guards up for profound failure before they can even realize it. It’s a brilliant scene in a film that certainly does not forget humor in the face of apocalypse, but more significantly, it has a bit more resonance in highlighting how lonely these heroes can feel, which cuts to the core of the perpetual us vs. them message behind the X-Men.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fine action movie, and it will do well for the ongoing domination of superhero movies at the box office. Singer knows he’s not creating anything more than this. You can tell that even in how he handles the exaggerated  ‘70s wardrobe of the characters. He knows he’s not obliged to re-create the ‘70s of American Hustle or Boogie Nights. That’s why it’s kind of funny to see Peter Dinklage in a polyester suit and a Tom Selleck mustache. It’s all comic book exaggerated, and everyone steps up with the degree of severity that these kinds of films call for. But it’s a miracle what spending a little time with a character does to flesh out the proceedings.

Hans Morgenstern

X-Men: Days of Future Past runs 131 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some mutants suffer brutal deaths, there’s an impactful use of the phrase “fuck off” and you get a gander at Jackman’s backside). 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in theaters pretty much everywhere this Friday, May 23.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


According to “Variety,” the other day, Colin Farrell and Marion Cotillard are now officially attached to headline the cast in David Cronenberg‘s version of Cosmopolis, a novel by Don DeLillo.

There isn’t much information on the film on the Internet right now (and I have noticed many stalwart Cronenberg fan pages seem kind of stalled with information). The film is most definitely in its early development stages (“Variety” says shooting will not commence until March of 2011). From what I read about the book, it takes place a decade ago. If the story is up-dated for the current times, it could prove a timely subject.

Farrell will play the role of a young billionaire who watches his fortune slip away from the back of his limousine over the course of a day in NYC. Cotillard will play his young bride. The film sounds like it could be quite a claustrophobic experience, as it most takes place inside the vehicle. It also sounds demanding on Farrell’s capable acting skills. If it works out, it could be a fine Cronenberg experience.

The Canadian director is one of those rare filmmakers still working in the major studio system that offers a very distinct and incomparable vision through cinema. His work is well-known for its harsh explicit violence, paired with a taste for surreal horror manifested from psychological disturbances within the unconscious. Cronenberg has played with monsters, technology and many an inhuman mind to explore the power of the mind over the flesh. His early films were mostly regarded as B-movie, 70s and 80s horror fare, but grew more sophisticated with Dead Ringers (1988) at the end of the 80s, exploring the mind as the monster.

Since eXistenZ (1999), his films have become even more grounded in the real world. I think his amazing skill at handling horror and reality has only grown stronger since. He stages things in his movies with such power and looks so deep into the effects of things like murder and violence that he truly highlights the power of the cinema screen as mirror.

His last film, Eastern Promises (2007), offered a harrowing trip into the underground world of Russian gangsters in America. Before that Cronenberg received wide praise for his adaptation of the graphic novel A History of Violence (2005). Viggo Mortensen played both lead roles with award-worthy aplomb. As a matter of fact, Mortensen is currently readying to begin shooting A Dangerous Method with Cronenberg at the helm. According to the IMDB, that begins shooting this month and will precede Cosmopolis.  It is in pre-pro and will not see release until 2011. As fitting to the director of some of the most psychologically rooted movies in film history, it is based on the novel A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. Kiera Knightly us to play Spielrein and Michael Fassbender is to play Carl Jung, while Mortensen will be Sigmund Freud.

So, just wanted to share the news the Cronenberg is hard at work on new films, and next year should provide a fruitful one for fans of his original cinema.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)