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.

Robocop

ImageThe murder of Alex Murphy in Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent 1987 Robocop still ranks as one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen.  This time around, the studio handcuffed director Jose Padiha to a PG-13 rating in hopes of recouping the $120 million dollar budget even though Padiha and star, Joel Kinnaman fought for an R rating.  The result is a film with an entirely different tone that goes for a strong punch in the arm rather than the jugular.   

The premise is mostly the same as the original.  Set in a dystopian Detroit in the year 2028, Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) and his partner Jack (Michael K. Williams) get too close to drug kingpin Antoine Vallon’s (Patrick Garrow) operation.  After a car bomb detonates, Murphy is critically injured giving mega-corporation OmniCorp a chance to unveil its capacity to create a part man, part machine police officer.  OmniCorp has had success with similar ambitions by planting robotic “peacekeepers” in military hot-zones throughout the world.  These giant, armed intimidation machines wander the streets bellowing phrases like “May peace be upon you” as they continuously scan the area for threats. 

US citizens are happy to have these things keeping peace in other parts of the world, but they have not warmed up to the idea of having them within their own boarders.  With much hesitation, Murphy’s wife, Clara (Abbie Cornish) agrees to allow OmniCorp to go ahead with their plans to use Murphy as a way to sway public opinion towards a robotic police force. 

 “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”  Screenwriter Joshua Zetumer takes these words to heart by writing a screenplay that has too many ambitions but still manages to take the audience for a ride.  While the original film had two feet firmly planted in satire, this sci-fi, action, satire, political drama, morality play, crime story doesn’t quite know what it is.  Regardless, it has sufficient doses of each of those to summon enough enjoyment for the movie to come across as surprisingly fun. 

The film also looks very good and it’s a credit to director Jose Padiha since his heightened budget is certainly on full display.  While occasionally delving into video game style action, most of the “futuristic” touches are done with seamless realism that do not force the audience to zone out.  This has been the case with too many action films of recent years, most notably, another 80’s retread (and coincidentally also a February release) A Good Day to Die Hard from last year.   Another credit to Padiha is that this film is far better acted than it has any right to be.  Kinnaman is a great Robocop and supporting roles from Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, and Jackie Earle Haley are strong, energetic, and believable.  However, the most surprising and enjoyable performance comes from Samuel L. Jackson channeling Bill O’Reilly as reality news anchor and personality, Pat Novak.  Novak spews absurdly biased opinions on his show, The Novak Element, and Jackson sinks his teeth in and does not let go.  I’d watch an entire movie about this character alone. 

While it lacks the bite and intensity of the original, Robocop is not bad.  Part man. Part machine. All cop.  Alright – B-

Robocop is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.