The Time Has Finally Come to Take a Stance on Birdman (because I feel like it now)

Let’s end the debate that no one cares about anymore from 2014… Birdman: brilliant farce or pretentious mess? I’m gonna do my best to actually take a side and not just say “well, it’s a little bit of both. Okay, thanks for reading; sorry I didn’t even take a firm stance!” But the problem is, on my latest re-watch, I was really enthralled with the movie, but I also hesitate to say anything Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu makes is brilliant because he is such a pretentious piece of shit, who is outrageously impressed with himself. But I think here, he is making an honest attempt at satirizing people like himself (namely through Edward Norton’s character). And that’s why it’s hard for me to take a firm stance here because the movie itself is also a little divided. At times we’re meant to think Norton’s pretentious theater performer is a whiney little try-hard who thumbs his nose at everyone else but then at other times, it wants us to look at him and say, “well he is an artist, and the rest of these frauds aren’t.” That’s what makes this so difficult.

Even larger themes in the movie play both sides. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is plagued by his inner voice, channeled through the Birdman character, throughout the film, urging him to give up on his aspirations for artsy bullshit and go back to making superhero movies. Most of the time the film wants us to root for Riggan to shrug that temptation off and continue on making theater but then at other times it asks us “is there really anything that wrong with liking a campy action movie?” Once again, hard to take a side on a movie that seems to be playing both sides at every turn.


Quick aside: It’s actually interesting to remember when this movie came out.

During the press tour for the movie, Iñárritu constantly spoke at length about his apathy and borderline disdain for space movies and comic book movies, saying that they were too vapid to be as influential on the culture as they were. He went as far as to say that the Bush administration was heavily influenced by superhero movies, seeing America as the hero and the Taliban as some kind of dastardly supervillain that needed to be demolished.

What’s crazy to me is that Birdman only came out in 2014… looking back at that time period, we were only beginning our societal superhero craze. The Nolan Batman movies were just barely in the rearview, the DC Universe had barely even launched and then subsequently crashed and burned, we only still had the original six Avengers… Age of Ultron hadn’t even come out yet, let alone the insanity of Infinity War Endgame. There were no outrageously kooky characters like Ant Man, or Dr. Strange; the irreverence of Guardians of the Galaxy had only just been released. There were no R-Rated superhits like Deadpool or Logan that were even able to garner awards attention. Other than Robert Redford in The Winter Solider, we hadn’t yet seen actors with such regard as Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Angela Bassett play around within the Marvel universe. Just a few years after this movie’s release, Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, something that was previously unthinkable.

Superhero movies only got bigger, crazier and, above all, more powerful in the time since Birdman’s release. It would probably be hard for Iñárritu to fathom them being any more prominent than they were in 2014, and was likely predicting their downfall, so I can only imagine what he might say about them now.


So, let’s go through and decipher how much of this movie is brilliant and how much of it is pretentious bullshit.

The ensemble is great. Everyone knows that. These actors are all doing great work. Not much more can be said about that (well, probably a lot more can be said about that… like tons more). I do feel bad for Andrea Riseborough, who gets the short end of the stick here. Her character is poorly defined and doesn’t evolve much over the course of the film. While everyone else is a fully realized character, she is oddly ill-defined; all we really know about her is that she’s an actress who is kind of dating Riggan and it’s not going well. I hate to say the character could have been cut… but she really only seems to exist to round out the cast a little bit more.

The movie caught a lot of attention for being a seemingly brilliant, self-aware critique of Hollywood actors, specifically ones like Keaton, who struggled to find their creative identity after gaining fame from action movies, but that’s not so much what I’m drawn to. The real brilliance comes in the form of the aforementioned Birdman voice that takes the piss out of all the would-be pretention that Riggan attempts to embrace. That character-within-a-character is the single stroke of brilliance that keeps you smiling throughout. He is the reminder that no matter how proud you are of whatever seemingly important thing you accomplish, realistically, no one gives a shit. People just wanna see cool shit. They wanna see something cool and take a picture of it and show off to everyone else that they saw some cool shit; that’s it. No one cares that you finished your novel, won an award or got your PhD. People will politely applaud but at the end of the day, they don’t give a shit. It’s so seemingly simple and obvious but it’s brilliant.

The absolute standout scene comes at the climax when Riggan nearly lets Birdman take over completely and embraces his role in life as a movie star. He doesn’t need the approval of a bunch of theater douchebags, he towers above those people. It’s an incredible sequence and genuinely very funny.

I know the big takeaway from this movie was the Emma Stone monologue where she takes three minutes to spell out the entire point of the movie: at the end of the day, nobody matters and eventually no one remembers you. It’s nice to know that Iñárritu is willing to admit this about even himself but at the end of the day, this scene is about as on-the-nose as it gets.

There’s also Amy Ryan who plays Riggan’s ex-wife. She’s a great addition as always but she brings a much-needed non-showbusiness perspective to the movie. The whole thing is a little too deep in the weeds on all the showbusiness stuff. Showbiz people are exhausting. All they know how to do is talk about showbiz and how good they are at showbiz and what they’re doing next in showbiz and which important people they know in showbiz. Fuck off. But every now and then, in comes Amy Ryan to breathe some fresh air into the movie as just a normal fucking person who can gently tell Riggan that there’s a world out there and maybe, just maybe, his whole life doesn’t hinge on whether or not his stuffy Broadway play for a bunch of stuffy, rich, white Broadway attendees is a success. You can be supportive and encouraging but also keep someone’s feet on the ground.

This is the pinnacle of brilliance. This is 100% how two douchebag actors who only know how to do choreographed theater fighting would square up against each other for a real fight.

So, what’s pretentious about this movie? Honestly, not all that much. A lot of the bells and whistles are pretty superfluous and seem to exist for no reason other than to flex some muscles that no one cares about. Which is actually quite interesting. If the Birdman character exists to let you know that no one cares about all the special little moves you have, why include them in a movie that aims call that kind of thing out?

Why make the movie seem like it’s all one seamless shot? That’s pretty pretentious with almost no tangible purpose? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why give Riggan ambiguously defined mental powers that only he can see but never really come close defining what it’s supposed to mean other than some ill-defined mental breakdown? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock. Why make an eyeroll-inducingly ambiguous ending that exists for no reason other than to get your movie to spread via frustrating word-of-mouth? Seems like the kind of thing that the Birdman would mock.

And that’s what I can’t stand about Iñárritu: here he is, taking the piss out of his own ego and asking you to laugh at people like himself, who hold their silly, meaningless accomplishments so dear, and yet… he can’t help but toss in a handful of needlessly pretentious flourishes in the movie. You were so close to perfection, why did you actively include the one thing you sought to kick in the nuts? None of it acts as a meaningful repudiation of the movie’s other themes, it’s all just… there… because he couldn’t help it. And that’s why I hesitate to ever call him brilliant but damn if this movie isn’t the closest thing he’s made to perfection.

Birdman is so close to being one of the standout movies of the 2010’s and it probably belongs in that conversation but while its close relationship to pretention is what makes it so special, it can’t help but taste a little bit of the same Kool Aid that its characters drank. 

So… let’s go take a side.

FINAL SCORE:

Brilliance: 85%

Pretentious Bullshit: 15%

FINAL VERDICT:

Birdman is a brilliant satire of ego, the arts and the people that work within it but ultimately, it does come from someone very egotistical who works deep in the arts so it can’t help but blindly become the very thing it aims to mock.

Primal Fear – Can a Movie So Stuck in the 90’s be Enjoyed Today?

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High school is a pretty good time to start watching Edward Norton’s hot streak of movies from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. They’re often very serious and not all that subtle. That’s a perfect combination for a high school-aged kid; you get to watch adult movies that deal with mature themes that don’t run too deep so that you don’t miss any real subtext. Norton hit the apex of this with Fight Club: the ultimate high school movie. It has big performances, enough pseudo-intellectualism to kill a liberal arts student and a crazy fucking twist. Even at age 16, I was able to look at Fight Club and think to myself, “Nah. This is a piece of shit.”

No matter how some of his movies turned out, Norton is an undeniably magnetic performer. He can play intensity with ease, as many dramatic actors can, but also slip into softer characters with just as much success (something over-acclaimed actors like Leonardo Dicaprio and Jack Nicholson are genuinely terrible at). The movie that allows Norton to flex both of those muscles is his big screen (and Academy Award nominated) debut in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of murdering an Arch Bishop in Chicago. Richard Gere plays the lead character, Aaron’s lawyer, and honestly gives what should be hailed as one of his career’s best performances, but gets overshadowed by Norton’s meatier supporting performance (ain’t it always that way?). What we get, is a relatively standard courtroom thriller with just enough twists and turns in its pocket to keep you interested, buoyed by powerhouse performances.

What struck me as I re-watched it for the first time in at least 5 years is just how 90’s it is. Yes, there are the shaggy haircuts, parted down the middle, the goofy-looking suits and actors like Maura Tierney (who isn’t given enough to do) and Laura Linney (who should have rocketed to fame after this) to remind us that this movie was made right in the thick of the 90’s but there are also some indescribable features that place us in that decade. Maybe it’s the music cues, maybe it’s just the general swagger people held back then, I’m not sure, but if you showed this movie to someone without any prior knowledge, it’s likely they’d guess it was made somewhere between 1994 and 1998.

So, does it hold up, despite being undeniably 90’s? To be honest, I’m never quite sure what “holding up” means. Yes, there is the direct interpretation of, “is it still a good movie, all these years later,” but everyone seems to have their own take on what it means. It’s definitely dated but I also think it still works. The performances aren’t any less captivating today and the story structure still works well enough. So, if that’s the case, what would have to happen for a movie not to “hold up?” Short of new social and societal revelations, I see no reason why a movie should work in one decade and crumble in another.

PFEN

Primal Fear’s biggest asset is its performances and characters. Gere’s Martin Vail actually has layers that go beyond the normal “hot shot lawyer” archetype, not many layers… but layers nonetheless. Even the supporting players, like Andre Braugher have backstory that doesn’t smack you in the face. For a blunt courtroom drama about a sociopathic murderer, there is a fair amount of restraint at play.

Of course, Norton runs away with the movie, thanks to his character’s mid-story revelation of multiple personality disorder, but the snappy dialogue between the rest of the characters keeps you watching almost as much. There’s a certain composure these actors hold, that keep them from getting bogged down by some of the cheesier lines they’re forced to spit. And the quippy banter? As always, when quippy banter is done right, it’s nothing short of delightful.

Tommy: That’s the worst bullshit story I’ve heard in my entire life.

Martin: Now it’s our bullshit story.

I was talking about this movie with a friend once who said it was the perfect kind of movie to remake in the modern era. At first, I was intrigued by the idea, maybe giving it a new coat of paint could revitalize it for a new generation. Throw Bradley Cooper into Gere’s role, stick Scarlett Johansson in Laura Linney’s place and find a fiery new talent for Norton’s role… why not? But then I firmly stood against the notion. Beyond the fact that studios don’t make movies for $30 million anymore, this movie can’t be remade now because it would be trash. It should have been trash in the 90’s but it isn’t. Thanks to the right talent all coming together, the material is elevated to something much better than it had any right to be. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Look what happened to Total Recall, another clinically 90’s movie. When they tried to update it for the modern era with new actors, all of a sudden it became clear that it was the talent involved that made that cheesy movie work, not the convoluted story.

After watching it again, it became clear to me that Primal Fear doesn’t really have anything to say. It boils down to being an entertaining-as-hell film adaptation of a murder mystery novel you would probably see sitting on your grandma’s coffee table, with a menacing ending that I legitimately never saw coming (at age 16, at least). To me, that’s fine. Maybe not every movie has to be a musing on what it means to be human or what makes someone crazy (maybe we’re the crazy ones!!). Some movies can just be about a killer in a courtroom. Nothing wrong with that.

I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Isle of Dogs

 

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There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.

I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.

I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.

Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.

But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.

Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).

The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.

So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.

So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.

I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.