Birdman, in the Flesh

Birdman - posterI liked Birdman, but not the way critics did.  It features a tour de force both in its performances and production, a film executed in whirlwind non-stop frenetic fashion that will hold you from start to finish.  It deserves high accolades for its successes.  But I found the story too monotone, or put another way Birdman has trouble breaking free of its self-imposed Alcatraz.  So for all its virtues, my mantra is: story matters.  It matters more than anything else, and when it is constricted so is the end result.

Part of my problem with this movie also lies in its marketing and primary trailer, which I think misrepresent the film as more of a superhero tale, and less one of the mad scramble of a man on the edge, fighting for survival while exorcising his demons.  Both Crazy Heart and The Wrestler better illustrated this dynamic.

But the movie-making virtuosity of Birdman is astonishing.  It’s one of those rare films I wouldn’t mind watching again someday, just to study the technique.  And one last note: I recommend Birdman, but it’s not for everybody — a good number of people will be flatly turned off.  7/10

Comparison Notes: Synecdoche, New YorkBoyhood

Birdman - text blockIf you watch the trailer, you’ll want to see Birdman.  Below is a more representative sampling.

A Little of the Ol’ Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet - poster

I have not seen the Milla Jovovich sci-fi thriller Ultraviolet (2006), so why I am writing about it?  Because what I have seen — a key sequence with another scene or two mixed in — I’ve found to be very compelling, enough to recommend at least checking for yourself.  It’s been universally panned, with a 9% Tomatometer score and a flat 0% among top critics.  But the sequence of which I speak — where she is attempting to infiltrate a top-security institution — was ultra-cool; style and élan to the hilt.

So from what I’ve seen, to call it “inept in every regard” (the Tomatoes consensus) is plain wrong.  In fact, the sequence in question ranks up there with the lounge follow-along scene in Goodfellas or the Marsellaise scene in Casablanca.  The movie as a Ultraviolet - text blockwhole I cannot comment on other than to say that one cannot peg its value at zero.  That’s not fair to Ultraviolet, and it’s not fair to movies great or fair.

At some point I’ll actually watch the whole movie, and provide a proper post.  I understand the movie is a take off on the vampire genre, but I liked what I saw anyway.  And I’ll take it any day over that silly Hunger Games nonsense.  In the meantime, any thoughts?  Comment below!

Comparison Note: Ultraviolet’s sibling Æon Flux — also universally panned, also tons of cool style.  I have seen this one, but it’s been a while.  From what I remember, it’s not nearly as bad as the critics made it out to be.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton on Charlie Rose

The early returns on Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman are in, and it is hitting universal praise.  I’ll be seeing it soon enough and will report on it then; in the meantime, the director and veteran actors Michael Keaton and Edward Norton appeared on Charlie Rose.  And check out the Charlie Rose website for other interviews with luminaries inside entertainment and out — there is no better talk show.  If you bear with an annoying 30-second ad, you will be treated with an alternate trailer at the beginning of the segment.

Film Brief: Whiplash

Whiplash - poster large

Everything you’ve heard is true.  If you haven’t heard, Whiplash follows the basic dynamic of The Karate Kid / Flashdance / Black Swan / An Officer and a Gentleman with a musical prodigy story just about perfectly executed.  The Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads:

Intense, inspiring, and well-acted, Whiplash is a brilliant sophomore effort from director Damien Chazelle and a riveting vehicle for stars J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller.

Nailed it.  Having watched the preview a couple times, I wasn’t particularly keen to see this one — but Rotten Tomatoes convinced me otherwise.  One of the best of the year, about on par with Ida.  9/10

Film Brief: Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children - poster medThe good thing about bad movies is they make fair and good ones look better.  Boyhood, which I bestowed with a 7/10 rating indicating good but not great, is a masterpiece compared to this clunker.  Men, Women & Children plays like one of those bad rom-coms like Valentine’s Day or He’s Just Not That Into You which juggle a bunch of different interpersonal relationship stories in lieu of having any single one worthy of a tale, but with very little rom and no com.  Awful narration by Emma Thompson only added to my displeasure.

I liked the trailer so much that I posted it without seeing the movie, put aside the Rotten Tomatoes score (29%), and set out to judge this cowardly film for myself.  On the plus side, modern themes are not completely mishandled and the performances are good.  3/10

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Gone Girl, Gone for Good

Gone Girl - poster

For a while I was thinking Gone Girl was like Presumed Innocent turned 360°.  By the end I was thinking The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Desperate HousewivesBasic Instinct, The Last SeductionSleeping with the Enemy and last year’s Side Effects and Prisoners (all recommended) could be mixed in too.  But really, Gone Girl is its own movie, a personal thriller with just enough believable twists to make the whole thing click.

There are a couple moments when the Theory of the Rope is overstretched; as an example that won’t give anything away: very early in the movie, the father of the central character Nick Dunne shows up at the same police station where Nick is being questioned regarding his wife’s disappearance.  His father, at the exact once-in-a-lifetime moment that Nick’s wife disappears, himself goes wandering from the old folk’s home where he lives.  There is no precursor for this occurrence, and neither do we ever see Nick’s father again.  I wasn’t believing it at all, and there was no need for it in the first place.  It served as an unnecessary distraction.  So why put this little tidbit in?  Exactly my point.Gone Girl - text block

There are one or two other moments of incredulity that detract from an otherwise strong film.  And gentle but overloud music in the beginning of the film made it difficult to hear what the wife was saying — another ploy meant to fill a perceived vacuum.  I only mention the misses because if they had been handled better, we would be looking at a truly great film and one of the best of the year.  Another way to put it, this is not a movie that five years from now I’ll be telling someone, “Ooooh!  Remember that Gone Girl movie!??”  No, it won’t win any awards, but it’s a good time at the movies.  8/10

Key Concepts: The Theory of the Rope

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Frank McConnell, UCSB English Professor

A little background first.  When I was attending UCSB in the late 1980s, I first crashed, then attended, upper division English classes taught by the wildly popular professor Dr. Frank McConnell, who died in 1999.  McConnell drew big crowds to the grand lecture hall, his classes popular as much among non-English majors as those in the discipline — all the more remarkable given his classes did not meet the breadth requirement.  He was quite a character, a sort of grown-up counter-culture kid whose briefcase had a bumper sticker slapped across it that read “card carrying member of the ACLU”  He was completely engaging and often very funny.  From the University of California publication In Memoriam (2000):

…the UCSB Department of English lost its most popular undergraduate teacher. With lectures at once passionate and irreverent, often ribald, he held classes of five to seven hundred students spellbound on subjects as diverse as science fiction and Shakespeare. His colleagues knew him as prodigiously wide in his learning–as well as brilliantly witty, always ready with a comic story of sharp quip.

* * *

I attended two of Frank McConnell’s classes, The Art of the Narrative and Science Fiction.  It was in the Narrative class that he had us read a Batman comic book, and where he taught the Theory of the Rope, a key concept in storytelling.  And it is explained by a Garfield comic strip, which I have searched for in vain.  So, as a refresher, a different “Garfield”:

Garfield - Lasagna Day

Now picture a Garfield comic:

Frame 1: Jon is standing at the counter preparing to dive into the lasagna dish in front of him

Frame 2: Garfield swings by on a rope (à la Tarzan) and snatches the lasagna – the entire dish

Frame 3: Jon asks, “Where did the rope come from?”

There is no better way to explain the idea that sometimes a story requires sudden, unpredictable and often improbable elements in order to be moved along or turned a certain way.  It’s an idea that writers use all the time, and is a constant in movies.

I cannot confirm that the comic exists, but it was such a pointed and succinct lesson that I remember it as clearly now as the day I listened to Frank McConnell lecture on it.  I am relaying the Theory now for future reference.  Up first: the following post on Gone Girl.