Saturday, January 31, 2015

Birdman review; an unexpected Oscar frontrunner

When I first heard about Birdman, I was a bit skeptical.  If one were to read nothing more than the synopsis of the film; you'd think it was just about an actor who was once famous for playing a superhero, but is now diving into insanity as he puts together a play.  The film is much more than that!  Writer/Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a film that is too difficult to describe with just a synopsis.  So let's see if I can do the film justice.  Let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Actors
Michael Keaton plays the lead in the film.  Keaton's character used to play a superhero in the fictional blockbusters, appropriately titled, Birdman 1-3.  But Keaton's character has aged, matured, and is ready to try something different.  So he writes, directs and stars in a play, with a much more serious subject.  Keaton is the best I've ever seen him in the movie.  He plays the character so well, I honestly believe he had to have got lost in the character.  Watching the character devolve into complete insanity; all the while performing the best he ever has in the play, was a sight to be seen.  I've said this before; but some of the best actors in the world can convey an emotion with nothing more than their eyes, and Keaton does that here.  Brilliant performance and he deserves to be one of the Best Actor Oscar nominees.

Also terrific in the film is Edward Norton.  He plays a man who is multi-layered, and has his own bit of crazy.  Watching him perform, you get a feeling Norton was enjoying playing up the kind of character Hollywood has stereotyped him as.  The perception is that Norton is a difficult actor to work with, and so too is his character in the film.  Loved it.  Emma Stone plays Keaton's mysterious daughter; who has a great character arch throughout the film.  Both Norton and Stone have been nominated for Oscars this year as well.

There is some great comic relief from Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts.  Although bit parts, they are significant to the story.  I really enjoyed both of the actors in this film, especially Galifianakis.

The Cinematography 
Emmanuel Lubezki is nominated for Oscar this year for his work on this film; and actually won the award last year for his work in Gravity.  The cinematography in the film is simply too good to ignore.  The entire film appears to be one continuous shot.  You may think it plays as a novelty, or a gimmick, but I assure you, it does not.  It helps to push the story forward in such a way, that you can't tell how much time has passed between scenes.  This is to the benefit of other aspects of the film as well; the pacing, set design, and music, all feels cohesive because of Lubezki's work.  I loved it, and can't wait to see the movie again, just to try and find the cuts.

The Set Design
The majority of the film takes place in the theater, where the fictional play is being produced.  Set Designer, Kevin Thompson, with Lubeski's help, puts us inside the theater, to experience the events onscreen with the characters.  By the end of the film, you have a visual schematic of the theater that is multiple stories and spans across a huge space.  Great stuff hear.

What I didn't like about the film:
Birdman's Relationships
This may not be so much a negative, as it is me wanting more... but I wanted to learn more about the Keaton character's relationships with the other characters.  We barely scratch the surface of whether or not he was a good husband to his ex-wife.  What was he like when his films were making millions and millions of dollars?  How did his romance with a co-star in the play come about?  Why is the Galifianakis character his only friend?  These could only be answered if the movie inched towards 3 hours, and we wouldn't want that!  But something to think about.

The Verdict:
An Unexpected Oscar Frontrunner
I would venture to guess that no one saw Birdman as an Oscar frontrunner, prior to its release.  The film has been nominated for 9 Oscars and is the early favorite for several categories.  I really enjoyed the film; but not as much as some of the other Oscar hopefuls I've seen.  I'd strongly suggest you go see the movie, as it is a unique story, about unique characters; told in a style that will surely be copied for years to come.

Boyhood review; a film for the ages... literally

It's easy to get caught up in the 'making-of' a movie like Boyhood.  As you've most likely heard by now, the movie took 12 years to produce, and it utilizes the same actors, throughout that 12 year journey.  Every year, Writer/Director Richard Linklater would gather the cast and film a few additional scenes.  Before he knew it, he had completed something so rare, it could have been written off as nothing more than an experiment in filmmaking.  Luckily for us, it turned out to be much more than that.  Let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Characters
The film centers around a boy named Mason; played by Ellar Coltrane.  Mason is a sweet young boy; quiet and mostly introverted.  And it's fascinating to watch the young actor become an adult onscreen.   We quickly fall in love with Mason as we remember back to our childhood innocence.  Whether you are a boy or girl, man or woman, you will see Mason go through things that will harken back to our own experiences.  And not to get off topic, but that's why I think the movie is doing so well.  It's connecting to its audience on so many levels; and I've always felt that is the sign of a great movie.  It's a film I connected with on so many levels.

Mason's parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and they are phenomenal.  Both actors have been nominated for an Academy Award this year for their performances in the film.  Hawke's character has a very interesting character arc throughout the almost 3 hour runtime.  He is a father who genuinely loves his children; but is a childish man who somehow refuses to grow up.  There are some great moments between Mason and his father, that will most definitely resonate with men of all ages that go see the movie.  Hawke plays the character as a fragile young man, who grows up, just like Mason.

The real 'center' of the film is Patricia Arquette's character.  She is a single mom who is lost in the world.  She's going back to school to finish her education, while trying to find love.  Arquette plays the character so honestly, that you genuinely feel for her.  We go through a range of emotions with the character.  We're happy for her when she finishes college, and we weep for her when she enters one abusive relationship after another.  While Arquette's performance is a stand out in the film; the movie really focuses on her relationship with the Mason character.  As a man who is very close to his mother, I really appreciated these timeless moments we see between the two characters.

There are other great characters scattered throughout the film; but really this is Mason's story.  I do want to mention Director Linklater's daughter, Lorelei; she plays Mason's sister Samantha and also captures our attention as she grows up onscreen.

The Moments
Life really is just a series of moments we string together to tell our story.  Not everything in our lives has a beginning, middle and end.  Boyhood goes against the grain, and doesn't worry about telling a traditional, narrative, story.  Instead, it explores important moments in Mason's life.  I've ready a lot about the film, and much of Mason's story is inspired by Director Richard Linklater's.  So many things I went through in my life, I saw onscreen.  Maybe it wasn't an abusive father, but I could relate to a tension filled dinner where no one said a word.  I could relate to a teacher who believed I was capable of more than what I was producing.  Or a sibling I trust to tell anything.  Again, movies we can relate to on some level, are usually the best kind!

The Director
The movie could have turned out to be nothing more than a novelty; the culmination of a talented director's crazy idea.  But it is so much more.  The first time I saw the young actor age before my eyes on the screen, I was a bit taken back.  Linklater seamlessly moves the story along, and does not slow down to acknowledge the passing of time.  The term 'movie magic' is quite literal in this film.  The idea was so crazy, it actually worked.  I've seen, and been a fan of several of Linklater's films; but after Boyhood, he's cemented himself as a visionary director with the ability to tell an engaging story.

What I didn't like about the film:
The Pacing
Even with a tightly knit script, the pacing is a bit off.  It was inevitable, considering the way in which the film was made.  This is really a minor complaint; but when you consider the movie is almost 3 hours, it's a bit of an emotional roller coaster to get through everything that happens with these characters.  There are really intense moments between the characters that will get your anxiety up; followed by tender moments of love that get us to relax.  I guess this is yet another metaphor for life.

The Verdict:
A Film for the Ages
It really is a movie that only comes along once in a generation.  A great story, with great characters is the foundation for a great movie.  The fact that it was filmed over 12 years was crucial to THIS story.  I don't know if it would have had the same effect as using the same actors, instead of three different actors at various stages in the characters' lives.  But, we shouldn't use the mechanics of the film to define it.  The method in which it was made are just the icing on this amazing cake.  Go see Boyhood!