Birdman

To paraphrase John Cage, Birdman is too insecure to know what to say, but it is saying it. Screeching it from Manhattan rooftops. The movie doesn’t eat crow; it regurgitates it. And yet, like Whiplash, it’s full of infectious energy—enough voltage to power up a smile, and maybe a few seizures. The problem is that it’s at Michael Keaton’s expense. In affect, the film is the opposite of Wes Andersonia—it’s more like a backstage musical that breaks out in fights rather than songs—but, as a work of art, it’s made impotent by its irony. It flatters the audience by playing off popular preconceptions of what showbiz people are like; shits on Middle Americans (like a multi-chinned family that wants its picture taken with Keaton’s movie-star character); and then shits on artists because having aspirations only means jerking off your ego. Right in the middle of the ensemble is Keaton, playing a washed-up Hollywood actor who’s writing, starring in, and directing an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that’s about to premiere on Broadway. He’s like Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2: everything happens to him. Except, potentially, for a devious act in the beginning and a last-straw gambit at the end, he’s a cipher, devoid of volition.

Twenty years after turning down the fourth installment of a superhero franchise, Riggan Thomson is pressing bleakly past middle age, having sold out, then cashed out; he’s gone from being typecast to not being cast, and suffers from the lingering apprehension that he hasn’t—in the film’s mushy terms—lived up to his potential. What a coincidence that he’s played by Keaton! Whether or not the particulars of Riggan’s career are true to Keaton’s own—and my educated guess is that they’re not—they are corroborated by our pop-psych, tabloid know-how of the former Batman’s “fall from grace,” and this completely (and cheaply) shapes the way one perceives Keaton’s performance. Batman shadows Birdman just as Birdman shadows Riggan. That his performance is excellent, and that, so far as it goes, Keaton chose to play this role, doesn’t contradict the fact that he is being exploited in much the same way that Riggan is accused of exploiting his celebrity to mount his return to relevance.

There’s no way to get a read on this movie—and not just because the movie conveniently, and quite arrogantly, tells you you can’t by introducing a spinster theater critic who drinks alone at a bar and schemes about eviscerating Riggan in print before she’s seen his play. Zach Galifianakis classes up his mealy gay-guy bit to play Riggan’s lawyer, and seems to be the sole figure who has only Riggan’s interests at heart. And yet—spoiler alert!—he couldn’t be more thrilled about the social-media buzz his buddy gets after a suicide attempt. When the emotional focus shifts from the star to one or more of the subsidiary characters, the pat revelations come out of nowhere; they rear-end the narrative. What are we supposed to take away from Emma Stone, playing Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter who talks like Aaron Sorkin’s idea of a twentysomething? Her father’s selfishness addled her upbringing, to be sure; so when she tells him otherwise, is she just being polite? And then there’s the matter of the Romeo she falls in love with—a self-absorbed prodigy, played by Edward Norton with caddish gusto, who can only get a hard-on when he’s in character. (Or, hokier still, only in front of an audience.) In this film’s backhanded reckoning, artists need protection from nasty know-nothing critics because they’re so pathetic and insecure. Naomi Watts, in particular, seems hobbled by this delimiting conception. “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” she cries. “You’re an actress!” her foil replies. The persistent drumming on the soundtrack pauses for gems like that; it’s a reverse rimshot.

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Whiplash

In Whiplash, the golden light of the Schaffer Conservatory brazens its students; they merge with their instruments between those cigar-box walls. Under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the most demanding instructor at the world’s most prestigious music school, these students aren’t using tools to make art; they are tools for making art. Greatness doesn’t mean interpreting music; it means playing the notes flawlessly. By using this definition, the film means to excuse its substitution of jazz for what we’ve come to associate, in movies, with sports: Whiplash is a crowd-pleaser, from high brow to low, because it takes the drive to win the championship game and moves the competition inward, into the consciousness of an artist whose form is as refined and esoteric as opera or ballet. Talent equals craft plus spite: a formulation that is as false as it is irresistible.

Damien Chazelle, the writer-director, probably couldn’t have sold this notion so resonantly if Miles Teller’s Andrew wasn’t as convincingly an artist and asshole as Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis. A 19-year-old aspiring drummer, whose hero is Buddy Rich, Andrew whams on his instrument till the sticks shred his flesh; he takes five to submerge his hands in ice water, and watch the water turn red, before going back to whacking that elusive mole. When he’s recruited into Fletcher’s band, he becomes the star pupil—which means he receives the most abuse. A lagging tempo can make a chair go airborne; Fletcher isn’t a teacher, he’s a rabid drill sergeant who’ll strike you, call you a fag, or threaten to fuck you like a pig. He beats perfection out of his students, and if you’re a perfectionist like Andrew, he gets inside your head like an axe.

Simmons, buff and bald as a bullet, plays Fletcher con brio; having for years subsisted on being a droll presence who livened up movies as blah as Juno from the background, the actor has been overdue for a big part, and I’m happy to see him take center stage and amp his shtick up to 11. But it’s a stunt role. Fletcher certainly believes in his, shall we say, tough-love philosophy, but Chazelle has made him intentionally impenetrable, so he’s nothing except an idea and some swagger. It’s Andrew who’s observed in his natural habitat, and in the most revealing scene in the movie, he’s away from his drum kit, having taken a girl on a date to a dinky delicatessen. She tells him that she studies at Fordham, where her major’s undeclared; she’s just figuring things out. To a degree that could land him on one spectrum or another, Andrew simply cannot empathize with her lack of clarity, can’t identify with people who aren’t interested only in the best for themselves and of themselves. His lust to be an immortal—a “great one”—is inhuman, but it’s also the luxury that Chazelle indulges us in. And holds us with.
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The Imitation Game

How do you play The Imitation Game? First, you mimic The King’s Speech, by taking the high moral certainties and elegant, aristocratic reserve of mid-century England. Next, you roll the dice on a social message that will give you a safe return on your investment; no need to go full-on 12 Years A Slave, but no harm in cribbing a little from the superiority complex we moderns hold against our ancestors. (We can persecute them without consequence.) Add a few Britons from prestige TV, and the Old Hollywood tortured and/or misunderstood genius routine that’s so hoary that even the period characters know it to be a shtick. And finally, be named Harvey Weinstein. If you win, you can pick up your trophy in February.

The game is rigged, of course. And these costume dramas about iconoclasts always back up against their own variation of the quandary that Y-A movies run into: Everything that set Alan Turing apart—every quirk that earned him the honorific of the father of modern computing—is reduced to the same old autistic damn-fool that we always get as “the price one pays for genius.” [S.M.H.] To be fair, his downfall was that of a tragic hero: His code-breaking machine helped defeat Hitler and save the world. The insult of being prosecuted for indecency only a few years later, when the law against homosexual acts was still on the books, is compounded by the irony that all who knew he was a hero couldn’t speak out in his defense. His contribution to the war effort was a state secret for 50 years. He was undergoing chemical castration when he died, possibly of suicide, at 41. His was the case that breaks the cliché; he was ahead of his time.

The film, for its part, sticks to its awards-season time warp. But it isn’t boring. It’s Anglophile soul food, complete with all the implied intelligence of Received Pronunciation. It does a few things very well, like the casting of the boarding-school scenes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance; Keira Knightley’s mirth, by contrast, is wearing rather thin. Turing himself might have perfected the algorithm the filmmakers use to drop every quip, reveal each character, and jerk every tear at all appointed intervals. That is to say it’s well made for what it is, and what it is is something you can take the whole family to, except for the great-uncle nobody talks to because he belongs to the Westboro Baptist Church.

Wild

Wild is about a trial by fire for someone who plays with matches. That someone is Cheryl Strayed, who, in 1995, hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with very tender feet. She was not a precocious searcher, like Christopher McCandless, or an experienced mountaineer like Aron Ralston; she was recovering from loss, addiction, and divorce, and this challenge was her cleanse. I haven’t read her memoir—which wasn’t published until 2012—but it would appear that its adapters have distilled from her complex life a few gobbets of optimism and self-determination. In the end, Sheryl physically crosses her metaphorical bridge, but Reese Witherspoon cuts a fine figure of what it’s like to be at a crossroads.

There are times, though, when the script (by Nick Hornby) and the direction (by Jean-Marc Vallée) seems too inchoate, or too insensitive in its treatment of Sheryl. Perhaps the strangest miscalculation comes at the very beginning—which has the virtue of making it easy to forget by film’s end. We open on a black screen and coital-sounding noises which are revealed to be agonized huffs. This bump in Sheryl’s road is both graphic and upsetting—she rips off a toenail and loses a boot—but weighs very lightly on the plot overall. At one point, Sheryl finds herself hitchhiking. The driver who stops doesn’t pick her up but claims to be a reporter from The Hobo Times. It’s a pleasurably inexplicable moment—he snaps her picture and logs a quote into the notepad stored in his shirt pocket—but Sheryl reacts like a stolid nitwit, and there’s something hollow and stoogey about Witherspoon’s delivery. Sheryl’s feminism—which is folded into her naïveté, her predeveloped worldview—is the butt of the joke.

Least accountable of all the misfires, however, is the closeted eroticism imposed on the flashbacks involving her brother Leif (Keene McRae). Perhaps, in a scene where he comes home with a friend and asks their doting mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) what’s for dinner, the intention is to show that he’s saddling Bobbi with stereotypically female obligations that Sheryl does not approve of. Bobbi has, in fact, broken from Sheryl and Leif’s abusive father to raise them on her own, and is only now going back to school. But what is one to make of the dark look that Leif’s companion casts at Sheryl, or the weird, possessive way Leif gives his mother a kiss? The oddly loaded atmosphere carries over to a scene where brother and sister are in bed together talking about Bobbi, who’s dying of cancer. And when Sheryl convinces her brother to commit a horrific act after Bobbi’s death, the toll that this event takes on the siblings’ relationship is never made clear. Their only interaction during her hike is a brief, generic message she leaves on his answering machine.
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