Birdman


Watching Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) is like watching a dream. The camera takes us on an uninterrupted journey through the St. James Theatre during opening week of Riggan Thomson’s (Michael Keaton) Broadway play. While there are some disguised cuts throughout the film, it looks and feels as though the entire film is one, long take. It’s incredible. It’s very engaging to watch, as if we’re a part of the action of the screen, or at least a fly on the wall in the theatre. It gives the illusion of a dream, because most films do not have that kind of pacing. It’s kind of like watching a play on the screen, but you get to mingle with the characters on stage. It’s a stunning idea, and it’s executed brilliantly.

Maybe another reason it feels like a dream is its use of magical realism. Throughout the film, usually when in conversation with his alter ego Birdman, he exhibits what appear to be magical powers. The entire film begins with a show of tighty-whitey clad Riggan floating in the air. He uses his powers to trash his dressing room and to fly back to the theatre. Are his powers real? No. These powers are manifestations of his depression and  other psychological problems. Riggan’s main problem is that he so desperately wants to take control of his life. He put on this Broadway play explicitly to take control of his career and regain relevance…except it doesn’t seem to be working. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone) viciously lashes out at him to illustrate just how irrelevant he is. That combined with the brazen conversation he had with New York Times theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), Riggan was more than ready to stand on the ledge.

Which brings us to the film’s ending: what the heck happened? Did Riggan actually fly away? What was Sam looking at outside the window? What gives? Well, Sam had her fair share of issues, so it’s safe to say: daughter like father. There seems to be a peculiar aviary trend when it comes to films about artistic perfection (yes, I’m referencing Black Swan). Riggan has had a lucrative yet unsatisfying early career by portraying super hero Birdman. After rejecting a fourth installment in the franchise, he’s dissolved into obscurity and he cannot stand it. Putting on the play would be a way to step back into the spotlight and receive critical acclaim for his artistry. Turns out, his actions are more transparent than he thought. So now, how is he going to achieve fame again? Relevance begins to morph into buzz, and facing a review that will close his play, he isn’t thinking long-term anymore. I believe he meant to end his life on the stage on opening night by using the loaded gun — especially after that chilling conversation with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). He recounts a previous suicide attempt: he tried to drown himself in the ocean but was unexpectedly stopped by jellyfish that stung him and forced him to swim back to land. Opening night — which Black Swan confirms for us — is the perfect time to go big or go home. Except he missed and just blew off his nose. Then, once he heard the review of his play connecting his name to a new wave of American theatre, he feels content to finally let himself go knowing that his name will not fall into obscurity. After he jumps out the window, Sam looks up and begins a similar delusion that her father endured often. In order to block out the sight of him dead on the street below, she imagines him flying away, and that comforts her.

Birdman is a thrilling film that absolutely takes you on a journey. What that journey is, only you can decide for yourself. The cinematography is exquisite, which not only shows off the prowess of the filmmakers but also the virtuosity of the actors to shoot much longer scenes than are normally shot. Keaton delivers an incredible performance, though some may argue that he’s not really acting. After all, he, too, is an actor who played a big super hero (Batman) in his early career and is returning to the big screen after a long time to deliver a big punch. Same thing could be said about his co-actor Edward Norton, who plays the disagreeable Mike. Norton is notoriously difficult to work with, and his character is the same way. How much of this film is fiction and how much is inspired by some reality? Regardless, Keaton and Norton give beautifully nuanced performances, particularly highlighted in the scene where Mike reads lines with Riggan for the first time. They go from messing around with lines, to really getting into the moment, and quickly coming out of it to a laugh from the audience. Stone gives a strong performance, as well, causing fireworks when she disparages her father. Naomi Watts also gives a beautiful performance of a hard-working actress who has finally made it to her first Broadway play. Too bad it won’t last long. Birdman is one of the favorites to win Best Picture. If it wins, it will undeniably be much deserved.

Man of Steel


Man of Steel (2013) is the latest reboot of the Superman franchise, directed by Zack Snyder. The Superman film prior to Man of Steel was Superman Returns (2006) directed by Bryan Singer.

The film takes a different approach to a familiar and often-told story. The origin story of Planet Krypton is told in greater detail, illustrating an Avatar-like world that combines advanced technology and weaponry with savage structures and flying beasts. In the final moments before the planet explodes, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his babe son into space, heading for Earth in order to preserve the race, against General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) wishes, who aims to preserve the race himself.

The film, after that point, takes a thoughtful approach to Superman’s upbringing. The next hour of the film has no linear plot. The film progresses through various flashbacks to Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill) childhood, which allow the viewer to understand Clark’s present-day morality. They present the trials and tribulations that a young Clark faced, which molded his nomadic adulthood. Cavill’s portrayal of Superman is sensitive, expressing subtle changes in his voice and eyes. He fully utilizes his rugged features to exhibit Clark Kent’s wholesome, small-town America vibe.

The flashbacks continue as Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins chasing down leads to write a story about Clark Kent. She delivers a strong portrayal of Lois Lane without risking vulnerability and compassion. Adams creates a driven female journalist with a hint of her signature sweetness.

Man of Steel expresses some religious imagery throughout the film, almost as if Superman is the ‘Man of God’. The way Superman is shown floating in the air is almost Christ-like, which comes as no surprise since his father describes him as a savior of mankind. These depictions are stunning yet curious — is he one of the human race or is he akin to a god? On a similar note, the scenes that showed Superman overcoming a considerable challenge were inspiring. The look on his face, the determination, the struggle, it all drew in focus and inspired. Superman becomes a stirring figure, comparable to a deity.

The film thrives on a thoughtful pace of meaningful memories, mirrored by calm and reflective music by Hans Zimmer, but the film unfortunately takes a turn from that introspective tone. In fact, the film makes such a stark change that it feels like Michael Bay came in and directed the second half of the film. As a concrete plot line is established, the tone and the story feel aggressive and somewhat false. This film tried to capitalize from previous superhero movies, particularly Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, that presented superheroes and villains in an authentic way. That worked incredibly well for Nolan’s Batman films, because his villains were human, albeit crazed and extremely flawed. They worked in a real-world scenario because real life has shown eccentric and despicable beings. It did not work in this film for two reasons: 1) Superman’s world involves aliens and 2) the movie becomes action-centric. Aliens are always challenging to make realistic, and the entire encounter and communication with the human race is not believable.

The movie tries to be exciting and action-packed, like J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is, but it overshoots the mark. The amount of destruction is laughable. There is a point in all the action when the viewer shuts down and waits for it all to stop. And when that stop finally arrives, the action just picks right back up and bombards the viewer with more. The writing, the one-liners, and the story all took a blow in the second half — where it feels like an entirely different film.

The reboot has tremendous potential, and if the movie gets a sequel, one can only hope that Snyder focuses on the thoughtful and unique storytelling from the first half. That is where the film shined.