Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

October 31, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Biutiful”)
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Biutiful”), Nicolás Giacobone (“Biutiful”), Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. (debut) & Armando Bo (“Biutiful”)

As an actor who has donned a mask and cape in a couple of “Batman” films, Michael Keaton knows all about the pitfalls of big franchises and having audiences expect a certain thing from a certain actor. It’s also no secret that as far as high-profile gigs, Keaton’s career has been relatively quiet over the past decade. Perhaps it’s the built-in winking irony of art imitating life that makes Keaton’s performance in “Birdman” so delightfully perfect. Or maybe he’s just that damn good.

After becoming synonymous with the superhero character Birdman that spawned an action movie franchise, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is struggling to get people interested in his first foray into writing, directing and acting in a Broadway play. When an accident happens on stage injuring an actor, his producer suggests they bring aboard enigmatic actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). With just days until the play’s official opening, Riggan tries to handle Mike’s unique acting style, his daughter’s disdain for him and the pressures of the biggest night of his career all while trying to ignore the voice of Birdman inside his head telling him to go back to his blockbuster ways.

To call Keaton’s performance in “Birdman” a career resurgence is an understatement as this is a performance that would send even the most highly regarded actor into the stratosphere. Not only does Keaton get to flex his thespian muscles while performing pieces of the play inside the film (and playing them with different emotions at various times), but he nails Riggan’s off-kilter personality quirks, sinking his teeth into every scene while covering the emotional gamut and displaying impeccable comedic timing. Simply put, Keaton has thrown the Best Actor gauntlet for the upcoming Oscars. But it isn’t just Keaton that shines. Norton goes toe-to-toe in every scene they share, and his exaggerated and hilarious take on the uber serious method actor are among the films funniest moments.

A great thing about “Birdman” is that it exists in the Hollywood world that we live in. This allows for the commentary on film and superhero movie culture to hit a lot harder and have moments such as when a news story plays about Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man. When Keaton’s inner Birdman taunts him about how much better of an actor Riggan is than Downey, it makes a greater comedic impact as a result. The ideas of holding up a mirror to pop culture society go even further, poking fun at critics, the modern culture of celebrities and social media.

Beyond it’s talent on the screen and the fantastic screenplay, “Birdman” is a technical feat that is sure to catch the attention of the audiences senses. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu worked hard to create an entire cinematic atmosphere and the results are astonishing. The film features a score containing solo jazz drumming by Antonio Sanchez that allows the offbeat and kinetic parts of the film, and of Riggan’s personality to be heightened even further. Not to be outdone, Iñárritu employs acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to give the film the look of one continuous take. Though the film itself takes place over the span of a few days, Lubezki seamlessly connects his gorgeous swooping tracking shots creating a final product that might give him his second consecutive Academy Award.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Birdman” might be how funny it is. Norton is the highlight in this regard, though really, any time that Keaton and Norton share the screen together it is comedic and cinematic gold. Though the deeper and darker parts of Riggan and his inner Birdman might not be explored to their fullest potential, “Birdman” is still a complete blast, and a fantastic snapshot of a man who can’t get out of the shadow of a character bigger than himself. It’s whip-smart, humorous, well-acted, beautiful to look at and easily among the best films of 2014 thus far.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

If filmmaker Wes Anderson simply isn’t your quirky cup of tea – the handmade look and feel of his sets, the subtle and oftentimes dry humor, the eccentric overall nature of his characters – not much is going to change your mind with his latest opus, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” For fans of his authentic and whimsical work who really don’t understand what everyone else is missing, a trip with Anderson to the fictional Republic of Zubrowka (because in Anderson’s world Hungary would be just too square) is like an inclusive tour of his 10-year-long career. From his 1994 film “Bottle Rocket” to his prior art-house success, 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have taken elements from his past work to fashion together another satisfying creation. It doesn’t top some personal favorites (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), but even Anderson’s middle-of-the-road entries should never be described as such.

In “Grand Budapest,” Anderson uses an assortment of flashbacks cutting from the 1980s to the 60s and again to the 30s to tell the story of how Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s aging owner, came to take possession of his fine establishment after working as a lobby boy there decades ago. Under the tutelage of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in a role unlike anything he’s ever done), a faithful concierge employed during the hotel’s glory days in the 30s, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) gets mixed up in family affair when Madame D (Tilda Swinton), one of the wealthy female hotel guests Gustave takes special care of (wink), dies and bequeaths to him a priceless painting much to the chagrin of her extremely serious family (Adrien Brody plays her irate son). When Gustave is accused of actually murdering Madame D, he and Zero set out on a mission to prove his innocence, which includes evading an evil assassin (Willem Dafoe) and the local police (Edward Norton plays Inspector Henckles). It also features an outrageous jail break that could only be invented in Anderson’s head.

As silly as Anderson’s past films are, “Grand Budapest,” with its crime-caper narrative, feels even more madcap than, say, a group of stop-motion mammals digging underground escape tunnels in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The “Keystone Cops”- atmosphere, however, isn’t a bad thing to see in an Anderson film. If anything, it keeps the story moving swiftly and on edge. So, along with the pastel-colored designs, the dollhouse appearance, and detailed imagery, Anderson packs his film with kooky chases and vaudevillian-esque comedy.

Finding some of his vision from the work of German American director Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson can take the most random film references and styles and build on them to mold his own cinematic flair. It might feel typical to those who can’t differentiate between Anderson’s more entertaining albeit mature storytelling, but there are plenty of new nuances in “Grand Budapest” that continue to elevate his filmmaking charm and spark more artistic inspiration.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” screened as a part of SXSW 2014.

For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.

The Bourne Legacy

August 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachael Weisz, Edward Norton
Directed by: Tony Gilroy (“Duplicity” “Michael Clayton”)
Written by: Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Dan Gilroy (“Real Steel”)

After both star Matt Damon and go-to director Paul Greengrass passed on doing a fourth film featuring Damon’s badass amnesiac Jason Bourne, the studio behind the series (Universal Pictures) had a decision to make. Should they recast the role with a new actor? Maybe they could reboot the franchise and start from scratch. All the studios are doing it these days. Or perhaps they could just leave well enough alone and be content in having produced a fantastic trilogy of solid action movies that redefined the genre for the 21st century and move on to something else. With none of those options deemed suitable, Universal pulled a “Teen Wolf Too” and made a movie where everyone knows who Jason Bourne is, but since he’s not around they just made the story about this other guy who’s just like him instead and called it “The Bourne Legacy.”

“Legacy” stars Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a Bourne-like agent from Operation Outcome, a sister operation of the previous films’ Operation Blackbriar. When Jason Bourne brings down Blackbriar, the high-level CIA suits, led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton), order all of Outcome’s agents killed. Cross manages to escape, however, and enlists an Outcome scientist (Rachel Weisz) to help him get the drugs he needs to survive.

Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter behind all three of Damon’s entries in the series, takes over the director’s chair in addition to his writing duties this time out. Gone is the kinetic, handheld camera feel Greengrass brought to the series, and with it most of the excitement. Gilroy doles out the series’ trademark action sparingly, peppering it in here and there between long scenes about pharmaceuticals and people talking about what the never-seen Jason Bourne is doing at the moment. With a good portion of “The Bourne Legacy” taking place at the same time as the events in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” you may start to feel like you’re stuck in a theater showing a dry political drama while the whole time you can hear the rumbles coming from the awesome action movie playing next door.

Jeremy Renner, who you may remember from “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “The Avengers” as the guy who was along for the ride while the real heroes did their thing, steps in to the lead and does an okay job, but doesn’t come close to matching the desperate intensity and anger Damon brought to the series. It doesn’t help that Renner’s Cross isn’t suffering from memory loss, trying to regain the life that the CIA stole from him. Instead he’s a modern day Captain America – an injured soldier with a low IQ given drugs that turn him into a super soldier. That’s right, Renner’s ass-kicking powers come from a daily dose of drugs, a revelation that’s nearly as disappointing as finding out that Jedis are only Jedis because of the high amount of midichlorians in their blood. Throughout the movie we’re told over and over that Jason Bourne wasn’t the only one. But he should have been.

Moonrise Kingdom

June 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray
Directed by:
Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Written by:
Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbauns”) and Roman Coppola (“The Darjeeling Limited”)

I couldn’t help but feel conflicted as I was turned away from a sold-out showing at the local indie theater. I’ve logged hours perched firmly atop my soapbox pontificating about how people in this city should embrace independent film and stop ignoring one of the most important theaters in town. Yet there I stood, totally annoyed that after coming to dozens of showings where I’ve literally had an entire row to myself, a 10:30 screening that I wanted to go to was sold out. But what else can you expect when a film from arguably the most popular independent film director comes to town. In his first live-action film since 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited” director Wes Anderson is back with the summer camp coming-of-age love story “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film that feels decidedly Wes Andersonesque, while also exploring new territory.

In the summer of 1965, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) escapes from a summer camp led by overbearing Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton). In escaping, he plans to meet his misunderstood penpal Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) in a field and escape together. After Scout Master Ward and Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) discover that they are missing, they team up with the group of Khaki scouts from Sam’s camp and a local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) set out to find the young runaway lovers.

It is no secret that Anderson prefers sticking to a familiar group of actors to headline his films. While Anderson invites back some familiar faces such as the oft-used Murray and Jason Schwartzman, “Moonrise Kingdom” features surprisingly few veterans from his previous films. For the first time in his career, Anderson doesn’t make use of Owen Wilson in any capacity. Instead, we see veteran actors such as Willis, Norton, and McDormand step into the fold. None of these secondary characters aside from Murray’s are particularly memorable, but Norton delivers the best performance as a scout leader that takes his job too seriously. Perhaps the most interesting difference from Anderson’s previous films is its heavy reliance on unknown kid actors. Fortunately for Anderson, Gilman and Hayward are able to soak up Anderson’s trademark quirk like a sponge. Although this is the first acting credit for both Gilman and Hayward, their lack of experience might have actually served them well. Even though their chemistry is strong, much of the humor and the highlights of the film in general in the film comes from the awkward interactions between the tweens.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is not a particularly hilarious film, but its subtle comedic moments work more often than not. The film takes a while to get its bearings but finds its footing once the audience starts spending time with Sam and Suzy in the wilderness. Despite its slow start, “Moonrise Kingdom” culminates in perhaps the most intricate, exciting and large-scale climax that Anderson has ever attempted, even making use of a few special effects (minor ones; we’re not talking Michael Bay-level here).

There’s plenty to like about “Moonrise Kingdom.” It’s charming, unique and occasionally pretty funny. Devotees of Anderson will be comforted by the familiar overhead and panning shots, offbeat humor, and the fantastic presence of Murray. Even with its highlights, however, something feels unspectacular and minor about the film from the get-go. It’s a good film and a worthy entry into Anderson’s catalog, but “Moonrise Kingdom” feels more like a summer fling than a modern classic tale of young love.

Pride and Glory

October 26, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”)
Written by: Gavin O’Connor (“Tumbleweeds”) and Joe Carnahan (“Narc”)

If “Pride and Glory” were an episode of “Cops,” it would be any one of the shows where a police officer pulls an eightball out of a crackhead’s pocket and the only thing the panicked druggie can say is, “That ain’t mine.” It’s director Gavin O’Connor’s stock answer for the crime-drama genre.

Sure, not all crime-dramas can be as well-acted as “Training Day” or as brutally realistic as “Narc” (written and directed by “P&G” scribe Joe Carnahan), but with “P&G,” Carnahan and O’Connor (“Miracle”) drag the story through such generic plot points and with halfhearted characters, it’s no wonder New Line Cinema decided to shelve the film for more than half a year (it’s original release date was, gasp, March 14).

Playing brother-in-laws in the NYPD, Edward Norton and Colin Farrell can’t be held accountable for “P&G”’s lack of sensibility. In the film, Norton is Ray Tierney, a straight-laced officer who, after two years working in Missing Persons, is pressured by his father (Voight), the Chief of Detectives, to head a task force in search of a cop killer. Farrell is on the other side of the law as Jimmy Eagan, a hard-ass cop who pals around with drug dealers while on the clock. It all makes for a not-so-sweet holiday season at the Tierney household as Ray investigates the murders of four policemen, while Jimmy looks for ways to cover his tracks.

While most of the boys in blue look out for their own, the same can’t be said about Carnahan who dumps some rather stagnant and unintentionally funny dialogue onto the lead actors. This may be the first film of his career where he’s not directing his own script, but responding the same way as the aforementioned crackhead isn’t going to hold up in any court.

The Incredible Hulk

June 10, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth
Directed by: Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”)
Written by: Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”) and Edward Norton (debut)

Hulk returns to the big screen, this time as “The Incredible Hulk,” a reimaging of the underappreciated and artistic Ang Lee version of 2003. Sadly, the film feels like a brittle stepping stone for the bigger picture at Marvel: setting up for an “Avengers” flick sometime in the near future.

Although the new cinematic version of the mean, green superhero wants to completely disassociate itself from its predecessor, the story seems to begin right where the Lee picture left off. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana then, Edward Norton now) is living in Brazil trying to control the monster inside his gamma ray-filled body.

This means if you don’t know the mythology of the Hulk, polish up on your comic book history because “The Incredible Hulk” doesn’t have time to explain. Head screenwriter Zak Penn (“X-2”) decides to simply breeze through Banner’s background and scientific discovery, which comes by way of a cliché montage during the films opening credits

It’s been 158 days since the Hulk has emerged when we see Banner, who is making a living working in a bottling factory. On his wrist he wears a small watch-like monitor that lets him know when his heart rate increases, which, in turn, warns him that the big green guy could make an appearance if he doesn’t control himself. This is an unwarranted and erroneous addition to Banner’s story. While the comic book, TV show, and 2003 film versions explain that Bruce only transforms into the Hulk when he became angry, this Hulk has to take deep breath for everything including running long distances and getting overly excited while in bed with Betty Ross (Jennifer Connolly then, Liv Tyler now).

Betty and Bruce are reunited when Bruce returns to the states after Betty’s father, Gen. Thaddeus Ross (Sam Elliott then, William Hurt now) and the U.S. government locate the drifter and attempt to capture him so they can create more Hulks as military weapons. To help, Gen. Ross recruits super soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who later becomes the Abomination, to hunt for the Hulk and subdue him.

In more mainstream fashion and with far less style and originality, “The Incredible Hulk,” helmed by unproven action director Louis Leterrier (“Unleashed”), follows the same pattern of most superhero/comic book movies. Although this “Hulk” tends to lean more toward the 1970’s TV series, which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, there’s really not much emotion behind the Hulk to say the audience is immersed in his personal story and conflict. Simply playing the TV show’s theme song during one part of the movie isn’t going to cut it.

For those Hulk fans who were critical of the lack of action in the Lee version, there’s more in this one. But really, are a couple extra smashed tanks really benefiting a story that should be focusing on a tormented soul? Lee’s version was brave enough to try something completely different that all the trivial comic book adaptations. In “The Incredible Hulk,” Leterrier and crew are just mixing up the same imitative concoction and pouring it out green this time.