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.

St. Vincent

St VincentI had always imagined that Bill Murray could be entertaining even if he was just watering a plant. His new film St. Vincent ultimately confirms my assumption but not before offering one of the most satisfying experiences at the movies this year.

St. Vincent is the story of Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray), a selfish, filthy, cranky curmudgeon of a guy living alone in his Brooklyn home. However when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince’s deliberately isolated existence is suddenly shattered. With Maggie’s job as a CAT scan tech requiring late hours, she must, in an act of desperation, lean on the dissolute Vincent to watch Oliver after school. Oliver’s new school is a religious prep academy that is uncharacteristically non-denominational. And while the school is universally accepting, the students are less so making it hard for Oliver to make friends even with Brother Geraghty’s (Chris O’Dowd) lessons about sainthood and brotherly love. Thus, Oliver looks to Vincent for guidance, and what follows is a well-executed, though familiar, tale of unlikely friendship. Think Up with most of the “Disney” rinsed off.

Selfish adults paired up with circumstantially victimized children is a staple of American cinema, and that fact could have easily stacked the odds against St. Vincent; however, the charm, heart, and most of all performances in this film prevent it from falling victim to the clichés and mediocrity that this genre is capable of producing. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi’s screenplay does not meander or wander away from its strengths, the principal of which is Murray. Murray’s turn as the crotchety Vincent is as fine a performance as he’s ever delivered and certainly the most sentimental. Yet, the film earns every laugh and every tear without setting foot into melodramatic or schmaltzy territory. While the screenplay does enjoy the occasional shortcut or coincidental predictableness, the larger motif about the existence of unconventional goodness in the world is quite successful. Newcomer Lieberher’s performance as Oliver is also very good allowing Murray’s character to feel that much more dynamic. McCarthy is great opposite Murray and Naomi Watts is surprisingly well cast as Vincent’s lady (of the night) friend, Daka.

St. Vincent is less a comedy than the trailers would have you believe. While occasionally funny, this film tugs at the heartstrings as hard as any drama ever dares. Still, genre-based confusion aside, the film works and delivers on a wide range of emotions that may help get Murray his first Oscar. A-

St. Vincent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. And if you want to see what I mean about Bill Murray being entertaining while watering a plant, click here or just sit through the film’s credits.