Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

BirdmanDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis

The “critic” is somewhat eviscerated in the new film Birdman. At the risk of seeming gauche, I will review it anyway!

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, but the man has had some tremendous success with films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel which was nominated for 6 Oscars in 2007. All of those films feature separate events and storylines that entwine to bring multiple unlikely characters together. In his new film, Birdman, Iñárritu takes a sort of departure from that format to follow one central character in his personal search for glory.

Michael Keaton pays Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star, famous for playing Birdman in a successful trilogy of superhero films from the 1990s. Tompson’s career has dried up since then, but he hopes that by producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play of his own adaptation, he will once again feel relevant.

The film follows Tompson seemingly through one uninterrupted shot as he handles the pressures, complications, and stresses of live theater as the production courses its way from rehearsals, to previews, and ultimately to opening night. Whether it’s the battle of egos between himself and co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) or the battle of emotions between Tompson and his assistant/recovering addict/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Tompson clearly has his hands full. He also has everything riding on this production and Iñárritu communicates this with a frantic energy that results in a film as unpredictable and erratic as the jazzy score that accompanies it.

Fittingly, this film about actors acting happens to have some great acting. Keaton easily surpasses the initial, shallow Batman comparisons and makes Tompson’s struggle relatable. Emma Stone is biting and angsty as Tompson’s daughter, and Zach Galifinakis makes the most of his screentime by downplaying is normal persona. Also great are Edward Norton and Naomi Watts who act as foils to one another in terms of their perspectives on being career actors.

Birdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into Tompson’s world. Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” We are delighted to be reminded of the pitfalls and trappings of performance art, especially since audiences are often only privy to the final, polished product.

But Birdman is not just a film about ignorance, nor is it just a film about reclaiming glory. Birdman is mostly about perception. In one scene, an ego-maniacal Edward Norton says to Keaton, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” This resonates with Keaton as his dilemma seems to be between those two very things – the popularity he experienced in his past and the prestige that comes with being viewed as relevant in the eyes of those he cares for. This quest for relevance is truly where the movie excels, and it is the key to unlocking the truth of the film’s final scene. Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.  A

Birdman is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

ImageThe films of director Wes Anderson have obtained a cult status with a shrewd and astute base of fans. His niche style of film making is chocked full of trademark set designs, deadpan dialogue, and plots that can be best described as Norman Rockwellesque…on acid. However, with 2012’s Oscar nominated film, Moonrise Kingdom and this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is looking to expand his fan base not by sacrificing any of his trademark oddities but by writing brilliant characters who are far more developed than those in his previous films.

Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of a fictional Eastern European hotel located in the republic of Zubrowka and the concierge, Gustave, whose reputation elevated it to its legendary status.

Told in flashback through the eyes of Gustave’s trusted lobby boy, Zero Moustafa to a young author, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a murder-mystery story that takes place between the World Wars where the Hotel becomes the constant in an ever-changing European continent.

Starting out in 1985, the story jumps and bounces through three main time periods. An aging author (Tom Wilkinson) addresses the audience to discuss how a writer is able to tell great stories. He mentions that great writers establish credibility with those with great stories so that they can write them. The film then jumps to 1968 where an adult Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the outrageous and fabled story of Gustave to a young author (Jude Law) about his own life under the charge of the famous M. Gustave.

Gustave is established as a gifted concierge who sacrifices often to bring joy and comfort to the guests of The Grand Budapest. When an affluent and elderly guest (a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton) passes away, the future of the hotel and the future of a rare renaissance painting are in jeopardy as the selfish family of the deceased are pitted against the preservationist Gustave.

Fiennes is excellent as Gustave, emphasizing the importance of identity, culture, and heritage in a time of extreme instability. His fearless adventures find he and Zero in all kinds of situations where they must rely on a slew of imaginative supporting characters all from the mind of Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of Anderson’s films, has a fabled tone and novel-style plot progression. It also has spirit and heart that are on full display. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements. A-

The Grand Budapest Hotel is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.