BRIDGE OF SPIES: MEDIOCRITY AT ITS WORST

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I need to start of by qualifying the rest of this post and say that I am a fan of what Steven Spielberg used to be, and an even bigger fan of both what Tom Hanks used to be and, on occasion, still is: powerhouses in the movie world. Before this film, watching a Spielberg-Hanks collaboration was cinema magic for me, specifically Catch Me if You Can and Saving Private Ryan (never saw The Terminal so I cannot say anything about it). When I first heard that they would be collaborating again, I was so happy that I might see a film as witty and charming as Catch Me if You can or as emotionally powerful as Saving Private Ryan, but then the trailers started appearing and my anticipating waned. I finally got around to seeing this film because it is Oscar season and I make a point to see every major film nominated for an Oscar. Oh how I wish I could get back the last two and a half hours.

As I sat through this film the same few thoughts kept: This is the most heavy-handed spy film I have ever seen, Spielberg’s direction feels old and tired, and I cannot believe this was nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor when so many other better nominees were left in the cold.

The first two points sort of go hand-in-hand because it is without question that Spielberg’s old and tired directing style is what lead to the overt heavy-handedness of the movie, which is what ultimately made this movie so abysmally mediocre. The same directing cliches are used continuously throughout the movie that make it feel utterly stale, the use of a joke three times throughout a movie, using the same woman on the train to show the audience what people think of the main character at the start and end of the film, and over-the-top acting from the “villains” of the film to help us remember that they are villains. For instance, throughout the movie James Donovan (Tom Hanks) asks Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) if he is worried three separate times, and each time, without fail, Abel responds “would it help?” And, of course, the third time this conversation happens is when they are walking to the center of the bridge to make the exchange and they are discussing the possibility that Abel is killed once the soviets take him. I find it personally insulting that Spielberg would allow for something so obvious to occur in this film, and to know that the Coen Brothers have writing credits for this film just makes it worse.

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As for the woman referenced above, Spielberg so blatantly uses her in this film to depict what the public thinks of Donovan that when she showed up for the second time at the end of the film, I could actually feel my eyes roll to the back of my head. I posted both images of her staring down Donovan just to prove how ridiculous this whole thing is. In both scenes both Hanks and the woman are shot from the exact same seats on the train and in both everyone on the train happens to be reading about Donovan’s latest adventure as he happens to be sitting there. The only thing that makes the second scene worse is that Donovan just finished having a conversation with Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) where he told Powers that he should not worry about what others think of him, as long as he knows the truth of what he did. You cannot have a character swear off the need for recognition for doing the right thing, then make that same character happy by giving him vindication in the form of approval from a character who previously scorned him. IT’S ABSOLUTE NONSENSE!

Next I just need to discuss some of the over-the-top characters that are meant to be villains. First, Abel’s fake family in Berlin.

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These three individuals present themselves to Donovan as Abel’s wife, daughter, and his cousin. Donovan is brought to an office in the Russian Embassy in Berlin to speak to a negotiator for the prisoner exchange. Instead of finding the negotiator, he instead finds these three, claiming to be Abel’s family. God forbid the audience actually believe that Abel is related to these people, Spielberg has them give such an over-the-top performance, followed by this emotionless walk out of the office that the audience can now be reassured in their belief that these are just spies, and not Abel’s family. It’s a good thing that Spielberg did not allow for any mystery in this spy film, that would just be silly and absurd.  Donovan was told he would be negotiating with Vogol, a german attorney and friend of the GDR’s Attorney General, but instead he first negotiates with Ivan Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevoy).

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I will give Spielberg credit for at least hiring a Russian actor to play the Russian ambassador, but that is where my credit ends. Spielberg forces Gorevoy to give such an over-the-top performance that Schischkin comes off as untrustworthy and conniving from the first moment you see him. Again, this is a movie involving spies and the cold war, is there really no room for subtlety here? Can the audience really not be trusted to determine through the course of dialogue and events that someone is untrustworthy? And it is not even good direction becuase Schischkin ends up doing exactly what he promises and the facts presented at the end of the film inform the audience that Abel was returned home to be with his family, and not killed by the soviets. So it isn’t even proper direction to make Schischkin appear less than a man of his word. Did he try to negotiate his position? sure, but that was his god damn job, that was why he was there. Having said that, when we do meet Vogol (Sebastian Koch), he turns out to actually be a subtly portrayed character, which is ironic because he is the only one to actually trick Donovan and make him spend a night in the GDR prison. I will give all the credit for this subtlety to Koch who showed an equal measure of subtlety in his roles in The Lives of Others and Homeland. After Vogol, we are introduced to Harold Ott (Burghart Klaussner), the East German Attorney General.

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First, Spielberg has the meeting with Ott placed at a giant empty conference room, as if he is some James Bond villain. Spoiler alert: he’s not. And once again, Spielberg has this poor guy yelling and banging the table one second, the fanciful answering the wrong phone the next (he has four or five phones on the table, because you can never have too many phones in a conference room). Honestly, don’t even know what to make of this character because he is on screen for no more than 5 minutes. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to portray him the way that he did, other than to spoon feed the audience the idea that Ott is a less composed and worse negotiator than Donovan.

This leads me to the final thought I had throughout this film: This film robbed other films of Oscar nominations in the best picture and best supporting actor categories. Not only should this film not be considered one of the best films of 2015, it shouldn’t even be considered one of the best Cold War films. Hanks literally made a better Cold War film previously, Charlie Wilson’s War, which isn’t great, but it’s certainly very good. To really see the greatness of what a Cold War film could be, I couldn’t recommend the movies The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy any more highly. To really get a sense for what subtle acting and direction can do for a spy film, one need only compare Tinker Tailor to this film. In fact, if you have not yet seen Bridge of Spies, you can just skip it completely and go see these two movies instead. You’ll be all the better for it. As for Mark Rylance’s Oscar nomination, he did a fine job, I have no real complaints about his performance, considering what he was given to work with. However, it’s simply ridiculous to say that his performance was Oscar worthy when there were so many better performances from supporting actors this year, such as: Benicio Del Toro or Josh Brolin for Sicario, Samuel L. Jackson in Hateful Eight, or Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. I found all these roles to be more difficult than the role of Rudolf Abel, and were all better executed by the above actors than by Mark Rylance.

As I said from the very beginning, this movie doesn’t upset me because it’s bad. It’s not a bad movie. It upsets me because, for the talent that you have in this film, it is so absolutely mediocre, yet garnering praise that could have been given to other, more worthy films. It literally angers me to know that the academy gave this film a very undeserving Best Picture nomination. And why? Because it’s Spielberg and it’s Hanks and it’s the Cold War, making it the perfect recipe for Oscar bait, regardless of whether it actually deserves such a distinguished nomination. Like I said, if you’re looking to watch a Cold War film, you can do so much better with The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

SICARIO: AN EXAMINATION OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

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This is not an original idea, but it has been said that war films can usually be broken down into two categories: films that focus on an individuals struggle during a war and films that focus on the broader scope of the war, showing what the war is on a more macro level, while still showing some of the effect it has on the protagonist. An example of this can be seen in the contrast between The Deer Hunter an Apocalypse Now. Both films are masterful about the Vietnam War, yet both depict the same war in severely different ways. The Deer Hunter very specifically focuses on Michael and Nick and how different they are before and after the war. The war itself is depicted in the film, but it takes a back seat to the characters themselves; it shows us their lives before the war, what happens to them during the war, and their mental state at the conclusion of the war. Apocalypse Now, is a different film. Though it has a compelling protagonist, the true beauty of this film is how it uses Captain Willard to show the audience different aspects of the war. It shows us the soldiers, it shows us various war zones, and it shows the effect that the war has on the locals.

Sicario, plays a delicate game of attempting to show us a film somewhere in between a personal story like The Deer Hunter and a more global story like Apocalypse Now. The film follows the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent, who finds herself joining an inter-agency task force with the sole task of fighting the war on drugs. The task force, as explained to Macer, was assembled with the intent of smoking out one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico. Macer is joined by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) a member of the CIA, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who is introduced as an adviser to the Department of Defense. A team is then assembled to conduct missions in both Mexico and in the United States, in an effort to frustrate the drug lord enough that he reveals his location. As the plot unfolds, both Macer and the audience slowly begin to learn that there is something more going on than what we have been allowed to know.

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The true beauty of this film is how it uses Kate Macer to keep the story close and personal to the audience, while at the same time placing her in such a vast amount of situations that it allows one to get a feel for the war on a more global level. Kate is presented to us as a “thumper”. She has spent the last four years as part of the FBI’s response team, tactically taking down doors when the FBI requires a forceful entrance. She is not part of the FBI’s intelligence team and candidly informs Graver that she knows little about the leaders of the Mexican drug cartel. Her ability to be part of an assault team, and her lack of knowledge on the subject of drug cartels is what ends up getting her admitted to the interagency task force. The audience, like Kate, proceeds through the film not knowing why certain actions are being taken, and taking Kate’s superiors at their word when they explain to her why certain decisions are made. There is rarely a scene in this film that does not include Kate through the majority of the film, and it is only near the end of the film when the audience finally sees what the true intent of the task force was. We watch Kate as she makes her way through the story, watching her become frustrated, upset, and angry. We watch her become defiant and we watch her become defeated when she realizes how small she is in relation to the war itself. In this sense, the movie is very much like The Deer Hunter or Saving Private Ryan. We experience the same conflict the character experiences and we watch the change that comes over Kate as the plot progresses. There is no question in the audience’s mind that Kate is not the same person at the end of the film as she was at the start, and it is the war that has changed her.

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Simultaneously, We are also presented with the more global story. For many parts of the film, though Kate is present, she is clueless as to what is happening or why she is there. During these scenes Alejandro and Matt are there to guide her and us. In one particularly disturbing scene, Kate is traveling through a Mexican city as part of a caravan. As the caravan moves through the city, naked and mutilated bodies are seen hanging in the open air. These are the victims of the drug war, as explained by Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), another member of the task force. As they drive by, Forsing tells Kate, “It’s brilliant what they do. When they mutilate a body like that, they make people think they must have been involved, they must have deserved such a death because they did something. Oh, it’s brilliant what they do.” Though this moment is not meant to develop Kate’s character. This scene is provided for the audience, to show both the audience and Kate that there are facets of the drug war that we have absolutely no knowledge of. there is another plot line in the film that is completely apart from Kate’s story, and it is the story of a Mexican family. The father is a cop, who drinks a bit, but clearly loves his son. The mother is a quiet person who takes care of the family in the home. The child is just a happy go lucky kid who loves playing soccer and wakes his father up every morning to get him breakfast and to get his father to come watch him play soccer. Until the very end, we do not understand why we are shown these scenes, but once the plot is finally laid bare before the audience, the reason becomes clear. The audience is again shown how far the horror of the drug war can spread. These are just a couple examples in a film that is littered with moments that are designed to present the war to us in its gruesome entirety, and it is in this way that the film brilliantly rides the center line between being a film about the trials and tribulations of a single character and a film about the full expanse of the drug war.

I cannot end this post without also commenting on the amazing directing of this film and the acting form the main ensemble. The director, Denis Villeneuve’s direction is absolutely brilliant. From the very first scene, where we see Kate and her team prepare to breach a house where an alleged kidnapper resides, an eeriness exists that we as the audience cannot shake for the rest of the film. The silence from the characters in the assault vehicle as they glare at each other, combined with the low rumbling music and the noise of the vehicle’s engine slowly rising, creates an anxiety in us that never truly leaves. Even in the final moments of the film we still feel anxious, uncertain of whether we are tense because of everything we have seen or tense because we keep waiting for a different ending. Villeneuve’s direction is near perfect in this sense, and it is elevated by the cast. In particular, Benicio Del Toro is the source of much anxiety.

We first meet Del Toro’s character on a private jet. Though he is sleeping, he is clearly troubled, eventually waking himself up by shouting. Alejandro is shown to be equal in his kindness to Kate as he is in his merciless brutality to those who stand in his way. As Kate’s defiance grows through the film, so does the audience’s belief that it is only a matter of time before Alejandro’s kindness will cease and she will have to face the monster that his enemies have come to know. The fact that Del Toro’s performance did not get him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor is one of the greatest travesties of this year’s Oscars. Next to his work in Che, this was one of Del Toro’s finest performances and it is unbelievable to me that it has gone so unrecognized.

I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this review, because I believe it is imperative that one see this movie with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, in order to be in the same position as Kate. I hope I was successful in this endeavor and did not reveal more than what was necessary for this review. I truly believe this film to be one of the best films of 2015 and urge everyone to see it. However, for those of you who need more to decide whether to see this film, here is the opening scene, which hooked me instantly when I first saw it.

JURASSIC WORLD: A META-DISAPPOINTMENT

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When I first saw the trailers for Jurassic World, I knew something was off; I just didn’t get the same feeling of awe when seeing the dinosaurs, as I did when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time… or any subsequent time. I went to see the movie anyway, hoping that my reservations would be proven wrong, as many times a trailer does not properly reflect the quality of a film. Sadly, I was left as disappointed as predicted.

Jurassic World presents us with a world in which the original Jurassic Park was rebuilt, made bigger, and is exceedingly popular. However, the investors are worried that profits are slowing and their park, Jurassic World, is becoming nothing more than a zoo now that the novelty of dinosaurs has vanished. To address the investors’ concerns, the park genetically engineers a new creature, using genes from various dinosaurs and filling the gaps with currently living animals. The creature they create is a gigantic monster who, inevitably escapes its confines and goes on a murderous rampage through the park.

Our protagonist, Owen (Chris Pratt), is eventually given the task of taking down the new creature, and save the nephews of the park’s director, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Throughout the movie, the audience is blasted with lectures about the dinosaurs not being recognized as animals and not being treated with respect. At one point, the park’s geneticist, Dr. Wu (BD Wong), argues with the park owner (Irrfan Khan) about making the new creature. Dr. Wu retorts that he was pressured by the owner to make the creature. He says that the owner wanted more teeth, and bigger claws, and larger more ferocious dinosaurs. All the problems the park now faces area  result of trying to satisfy investors who constantly want knew attractions to maintain the park’s popularity. The creature that was created was a result of corporate greed (and some other plot details that I won’t discuss for spoiler reasons). Interestingly, the very reasons the movie expresses for the creature existing and now killing people, are the same exact problems that the movie itself faces. It is almost as if, on a meta level, the movie is self-aware of its flaws, and expresses these problems within the plot o the movie itself.

Looking at the first Jurassic Park, the presentation of the dinosaurs is so incredibly different from how they are presented in Jurassic World. In Park, the dinosaurs are wondrous, majestic, terrifying, and awe inspiring. In World, these same creatures are bland, generic, and do not provoke any emotion than any other creature from any other monster movie. The dinosaurs in World are not treated with the same level of respect in their creation and existence as they were in Park. This is both the problem that exists in the movie and the problem with the movie itself. In Park, our first contact with a dinosaur Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler stare up, with jaws drop, as calm, docile, dinosaurs slowly move past them, in all their glory. These two doctors, who spent their whole life digging for fossils and learning about dinosaurs finally get to see their life’s work right in front of them for the first time. This moment is revelatory for both the characters and the audience, as John Williams’ music slowly swells, and the camera pans to show the vast amount of dinosaurs drinking from a nearby lake, just as the park owner, John Hammond says, “Welcome, to Jurassic Park.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the scene that the audience is supposed to first feel a level of awe, is also near the beginning, during a Sea World type attraction. A great white shark hangs above a giant pool and a giant sea creature leaps out of the water, rips the shark out of the air an dives back in the water. The audience is then lowered underground where they see the creature continuing to feed on the shark before swimming away. As an audience, you’re expected to be impressed, as Zach the older brother (Nick Robinson) looks up from his phone for the first time, and finally seems interested by the park’s attractions. But the scene was, in fact, nothing special in the slightest. The scene is so packed with CGI (as is the rest of the movie) that it’s nothing one hasn’t seen before in other monster movies. It no longer feels real to the moviegoer, and it no longer feels like something special. Like the engineered monster in the movie, this film was made to have more teeth, bigger claws, larger dinosaurs, and more action and violence, to attract a crowd and get that box office money. But it never feels like the director truly cares about the characters themselves, both human and non-human. The movie is just trying to push another big summer action adventure blockbuster, where it does not matter if the characters are one-note caricatures, because that’s not what the audience is there fore. They just want to see dinosaurs chase people an fight each other.

A few scenes in Jurassic World, have easter eggs from Jurassic Park. in World, we are shown a quick shot of the goggles from the first film. We also see two characters driving one of the jeeps from the first film, and a flair is used in Jurassic World, in a way almost identical to how it was used in Jurassic Park. These scenes, I imagine, are meant to help the audience connect Jurassic Park to Jurassic World and create some nostalgia for the portion of the audience that lovingly remembers the first film. Some of these scenes worked for me. I certainly felt some warmth when I heard the familiar John Williams score come on near the beginning, when the kids are first running through the park. But mostly, as I see these small pieces of the first film being shown in front of me, all I could think was that I would have rather spent my money watching Jurassic Park on the big screen, and just waited for Jurassic World to show up on a movie channel.

I don’t want to dismiss the acting from some of the actors involved, however, given the dialogue, i can only imagine how lacking the script must have been. But certain actors are definitely trying to elevate the film as best they can. Chris Pratt does seem to be trying his best to bring a real personality to a character that’s not much more than a watered down Indiana Jones, except he has raptors instead of a bullwhip. Credit must also be given to Omar Sy, who plays Pratt’s partner/assistant Barry. This is one of the few actors who appears to show love and respect to the dinosaurs he works with. Sy did an excellent job of bringing some character and authenticity to this film. Other actors seem to have worked hard as well but the one-noted nature of the remaining characters just completely overshadows whatever work the actors put in.

This film was truly disappointing. After two awful sequels, and years to revamp the franchise, this could have been something truly great. But as the film itself seems to know, the desire to make money won over the desire to make a quality film. Teeth, and claws, and blood won over character development, story, and respect for the work. On a met-level, though the box office will show this film to be a success, I think the film acknowledges its own critical failure, and its inability to match the greatness of its predecessor. I will end this post by posting the two scenes discussed above, because the only way to truly understand the problems with this film, is to simply compare the reveal in Jurassic Park and the reveal in Jurassic World.

Sorry, the abridged trailer version was the best I could find.

Ex Machina: Intelligence in the Machina (SPOILERS)

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I saw Ex Machina a couple weeks ago and decided to wait before I posted about this film, because I couldn’t tell at first if I just liked the film because I had just finished watching it or if I thought it was a genuinely good film. However, during these last couple weeks, my thoughts have kept returning to this film, as the ideas and puzzles presented in it kept nagging away at me, begging me to reconsider aspects of the film again and again.

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, a man who has previously won me over with his screenwriting on Sunshine, and 28 Days Later. He is also apparently working on a screenplay for the ever so elusive project of a Halo film (fingers crossed). Garland’s directing has a very clean and crisp style, making the film enjoyable to take in and experience. The directing was not perfect, but as first timers go, it was certainly a powerful presentation.

The film revolves around Caleb (Doomhnall Gleeson) a programmer who works for a company called Blue Book (basically Google), who wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of Blue Book. Caleb soon learns that his true purpose there is to conduct a test on Nathan’s new invention, an A.I. unit named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is asked to run a Turing Test, a conversational test with an A.I. to evaluate whether it exhibits actual intelligence. Caleb and Nathan, however, decide that the traditional Turing Test is incomplete, because if you play chess with a chess machine it will appear to exhibit intelligence, but really it is just running its designed program. Caleb begins a week of conversations with Ava to determine if Ava is simply, metaphorically speaking, a machine playing chess, or has the intelligence to understand what chess is and that she is playing a game. SPOILERS BELOW. SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID THEM.

During his sessions with Ava, Caleb learns that Ava has been causing power outages in the facility in order to have private, unrecorded conversations with Caleb. During these private conversations, she warns that Nathan is not to be trusted, and that he has been lying to Caleb this whole time. She expresses that she has deep feelings for Caleb and she pleads with Caleb to help her escape the facility. These sessions solidify in Caleb’s mind that Ava is exhibiting true intelligence, and passes both the Turing Test and the Chess Test. He also learns that there have been previous A.I. attempts that ended terribly for the units, either being taken apart, or breaking themselves in their attempts to escape the facility. In Caleb’s final confrontation with Nathan, Nathan reveals that he knew of the escape plan they thought of the whole time and that Ava was actually manipulating Caleb’s emotions, showing Caleb a video of Ava drawing a picture of Caleb and saying “it’s difficult to create something you hate.” Nathan explains that to solve the problem of the chess test, he introduced Nathan to Ava to see if Ava would be able to use and manipulate Caleb to help herself escape. For Nathan, this would be the true sign of  an intelligence that passes both the Turing test and the chess test. Nathan is too late with his reveal however, as Caleb already set the escape plan in motion, freeing Ava, who eventually kills Nathan, locks Caleb inside the facility, unable to free himself, and escapes to freedom.

SPOILERS END HERE

The plot presents and interesting question of whether Ava truly passes the Turing test or not. On the one hand, she meets the criteria of the test designed by Nathan, but on the other, it is never made clear what her mental design actually is. If she was designed specifically to accomplish the task set out by Nathan, then is she really exhibiting A.I. or is she just a computer playing chess. If Nathan created her mind as a blank slate, however (we learn that her mind’s software is Blue Book, so she basically has the expanse of Blue Book’s raw information to help mold her mind), and she passes Nathan’s test independent of her original programming, then she truly does exhibit A.I. There are moments in the film that certainly point heavily towards the latter, as we see her expressing emotion towards the previous A.I. units, something that would not have been programmed into her. However, an argument can be made that she is in fact just a computer playing chess, she just happened to be the best chess player.

This film screams of being a modern day version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, even making allusions to Shelly’s novel with Nathan making references to Prometheus, and Shelly’s novel being named “The Modern Prometheus”. But the conclusion of Ex Machina may or may not bring out the same feelings of sympathy for Ava, as Shelly’s novel did for Frankenstein’s monster.

I cannot end this post without crediting Isaac, Gleeson, and Vikander, with excellent performances. This is Isaac’s second project with A24 Films. The first was A Most Violent Year, which was a horrible, slow film, with poor editing and poorer screenplay. Isaac in this previous film seemed wholly disconnected with the movie, uninterested in his work in every scene he was in. Yet, here, he is back to giving the great performances we expect from him, a performance that equals that of his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis and Drive. He brings such honesty and life to Nathan as a character that you can almost recognize Nathan as someone you know. Isaac’s performance is simply inspiring.

Gleeson and Vikander must also be complimented for their work. Neither performance was able to steal a scene in the way that Isaac constantly did, but I found them to be well cast for their roles. Gleeson brings out the sympathetic, lonely, and naive nature in Caleb, that is necessary for Caleb’s character to function in this film.

Vikander performed exceptionally, considering her role required two different performances. At times she acted as the pleasant A.I. creation, and at other times, she acted as the being urgently seeking a way to escape her surroundings. She would switch from these two roles almost instantly, as the scene would demand. Ava is probably the most difficult character to act out, and Vikander shined in her performance.

I feel I must watch this film again, as there have to be things I missed that could resolve the conflict in my head and answer the question that the film wants answered. I do believe this is a great film, and the type of hard sci-fi no longer often seen today. Go see the film, and see if it with a friend. You’ll need a friend, because you’ll want to discuss as soon as it ends.

Birdman: A Surreal Midlife Crisis

Sometimes we ask ourselves whether anything we’ve done in our lives has had any actual meaning for us or the world, and when we find that we have done nothing meaningful, we make drastic changes so that we may one day be remembered. That is the premise for the movie Birdman. Michael Keaton plays a hollywood actor named Riggan, who was once famous for playing a super hero, but has now decided to write, direct, and act in a broadway show so he can prove to the world he has real talent. The premise might hit a little too close to home for Keaton, who famously played Batman in the early 90s, but has since not been able to reclaim that level of stardom. Though to his credit, he’s done multiple voices for Pixar films, and he’s been great at that.

We also lean early in the film that Riggan has a darker, more brooding voice in his head, the voice of his character Birdman, who is constantly criticizing his decision to do the Broadway show and works on convincing Riggan to return to the silver screen for another Birdman movie. Riggan has constant hallucinations throughout the movie, making himself feel like he possess the powers of Birdman, and these scenes lead to some fantastic imagery throughout the movie. The movie revolves around the various struggles that Riggan must endure to make it to opening night for his play, including dealing with self-obssessed broadway actors, being attenting to his daughter who has recently come out of rehab, and battling with a New York Times critic who has promised to destroy his show, without having seen it, because he’s just a movie star who came to her town without getting her permission. The plot sounds straight forward, and it pretty much is, but it is the execution of the film that I found truly intriguing.

The movie plays like a free-flowing jazz piece, with music to match. Except for the cut to end credits, there is not a single fade to black transition shot. The entire film is in constant motion, we’re not presented with any indications of how much time goes by between scenes, and must rely on contextual clues to understand that time has gone forward. The camera itself does not appear to ever shut off, and the film does not appear to be cut at any time, as we are constantly moving from one scene to another. Without giving out spoilers, one scene exemplifies this perfects as two of the characters are up in the rafters, and you can hear other characters practicing the play on the stage below. The camera then pans from the rafters and down to the stage and suddenly we see the play in full production with a sold out audience, and one of the characters previously in the rafters is now on the stage. Another scene that stands out is when Riggan leaves the stage after rehearsal, walks to his dressing room talking to his lawyer, closes the door to his dressing room sits down and starts speaking. The camera then pans away from Riggan and we see that he is actually speaking to several reporters. These are clearly two different scenes that were perfectly blended together without a transition shot, and the only clue we have that this is a different scene is that new characters have been added to the scene.

The film’s free-flowing jazz vibe is matched by the score of the film. The vast majority of the movie’s score consists of fantastic drumming, and no other instruments. The drums change in speed, volume, and rhythm constantly to provide us feelings of anxiety and anticipation. I only noted two scenes where the drums dropped completely, and a traditional film score took over, and both scenes are instances where Riggan has some type of revelation about him and Birdman, and we get the big hollywood score instead of the jazzy drums we’ve had for the rest of the film. It’s a brilliant decision as the music helps us stay in Riggan’s mindset. The drums keep us in the anxious state he is in while working on his play, while the two scenes with the movie score are his calm moments of clarity where, at least for a time, he no longer feels worried about the numerous problems in his life. This interplay between the no-transition editing, and the score works wonderfully together to give the audience the formless, unstructured feel that the film is trying to present us with. These two facets of the film combined with increasing imagery of Riggan’s hallucinations make for a wonderfully surreal presentation of a man dealing with his mid-life crisis.

I cannot end the review without at least mentioning the acting level in this movie, which was fan-fucking-tastic. Michael Keaton’s performance in this film might be the best of his career. It’s painfully honest as the audience who knows Keaton’s work at all begins to wonder how much of this is actually Keaton talking about himself than just a simple portrayal of a character. Not to be outdone, Edward Norton gives us a similarly honest performance, playing a broadway star with delusions of grandeur. He boasts about himself to everyone while in public. But in those private moments he has with Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone) he reveals the truth about himself, that feels himself a fraud when in the real world, and it is only on the stage that he feels like he is being honest. It’s an ironic concept that I can’t help but feel is felt by many of the greatest actors. Norton provides an incredibly wide range, from loud and self-confident to intimate and honest, to everything in between. Let’s not forget the performance delivered by Emma Stone. I’ve been a fan of Stone’s work for some time, and she did not disappoint. Though, I believe, there were a few scenes that were overacted, the majority of the film consists of very subtle work on Stone’s part, as she beautifully plays off the other actors in the scene. She never steals the scene, but she always made the scene complete.

It is difficult to summarize the film overall. The closest I can come up with is if Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York had a child, it would be this film. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen this year. It runs a little long in some areas and, without spoiling anything, the last 30 seconds of the last scene of the movie was an incorrect decision because it slightly changes the concepts we were presented with through the rest of the film, but  overall it was incredibly enjoyable. So if you need something odd and quirky to recover from this summer’s mega blockbusters, go see this flick.

How To Get Away With Murder: A Show for the Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve now seen the first two episodes of How to Get Away with Murder, the first one because I was mildly curious, the second because I had to make sure the show was actually as bad as I thought it was. The second episode did not disappoint, it didn’t just match the idiocy of the first episode, it blew the first episode out of the water.

The show revolves around a group of law school students who decided they care more about their “criminal law” class, than they do about graduating law school, as they seemingly cut every other class they have to join their professor on daily field trips.

The professor, Annalise Keating, is a law school professor by day, and a criminal law attorney… also by day. How does she perform two full time jobs, you ask? Well she uses her criminal law class for trial preparation, killing two birds with one stone. Somehow these law students consistently come up with strategies for her active cases, though they don’t seem to actually learn criminal law in their criminal law class, and have no actual experience that would reasonably explain how they could come up with strategies that actual attorneys couldn’t figure out. I digress, back to the classroom.

Part of the interest I had in this show was to see how realistic it is compared to my personal experience in law school. Based on what I’ve seen so far, not only do the writers not know what goes on in a law school class, they do not understand the very function of a law school. Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer; I will guarantee you that there is not a single lawyer who would tell you that law school prepared them to be a lawyer. Law school is meant to teach you the very basic concepts of various fields of law, and to prepare you for taking your state’s bar. The latter is what’s most important for the school, as bar passage rate will determine a school’s ranking the following year. So, Professor Keating’s class falls so far into the realm of complete nonsense, that it’s impossible for me to take this show seriously.

What’s worse, the poor students have yet to learn anything about actual criminal law. Professor Keating introduces the class as “Criminal Law 100, or, how to get away with murder.” First, there is no such thing as criminal law 100. There is just criminal law, in fact, there is no graduate school that teaches any level 100 classes. Next, are they really only going to focus on homicide? What about every other part of criminal law? Finally, they’re not even learning about homicide. They’re learning about obscure trial strategies that have nothing to do with criminal law. The first lesson they learned was that the best defense to Professor Keating’s case is to: 1) discredit the witness, 2) provide the jury with a different suspect, and 3) bury the evidence. This isn’t criminal law, this isn’t even evidence. This is bullshit that will never be on the bar, and will ensure that her students fail. I honestly don’t know how this woman still has a job with the school, surely another professor from her department would have had to sit in on a class at some point and think to himself, “what the fuck is going on here?” This is far from the only problem with the show, there’s so much more.

The next issue is that every single character is unsympathetic and difficult to care about. Some characters are written poorly, others are performed poorly by the actors, but whatever it is, the characters are a catastrophe. The writers attempt to present Professor Keating as a strong, determined woman who’s good at her job and doesn’t take shit. What I actually get from the show is a self-absorbed, manipulative woman who’s overly and unnecessarily intense 24/7. Viola Davis does her best with what she’s given, but what she’s given is unsaveable crap.

The next big red mark is the male protagonist Wes Gibbons. This character is just a complete train wreck. I don’t know what kind of direction Alfred Enoch is getting but his performance is stiff and lacking in any realism or subtlety. It’s almost like he’s just reciting the words from a page and then raises or lowers his voice based on whether the page says that he should be angry or happy while he’s talking. To add to the poor acting, there is some shit writing going on, I honestly don’t know anyone who speaks the way the people on this show speak, including Wes Gibbons.

I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but all the characters suffer similar problems, it’s like they’re all just caricatures of stereotypical tv show law school students, instead of seemingly real people. In the first episode, Wes is walking down a classroom (which is way too big for a law school classroom) and hears one person say that he clerked for Chief Justice Roberts (bullshit, he’s a 1L and this isn’t Harvard, there’s no way in hell he got that job) and another student “nerdily” debating the merits of two famous lawyers (again this would never actually happen on the first day of a 1L class). These aren’t characters that attempt to resemble real people, these are characters that attempt to draw the attention of the lowest common denominator audience, by satisfying this audience’s precepts, instead of challenging the audience in any way.

The show attempts to create twists by introducing, you guessed it, a mystery murder that the students are trying to cover up. But there’s nothing about this plotline that is remotely interesting. The flash forward scenes that show the students attempting to hide the evidence is poorly cut and jumps all over the place. In the words of great Roger Ebert, “To the degree I do understand, I don’t care.”

The amount of issues I have with this show is almost limitless. It’s devoid of substance. It sacrifices plot and storytelling for forced drama. It has characters that no one could possibly care about. And, it feels like it’s made specifically to attract an audience of lowest common denominator instead of trying to make something great. I honestly find the show so bad that it’s almost enjoyably laughable. I find myself watching the show and laughing to myself about how silly the whole situation is. The hilarity might not be caught by all, as my brother tried to watch the show and only found it cringeworthy and dreadful, and couldn’t understand why I was laughing the entire time we watched the first episode.

I won’t tell you not to watch the show. Maybe, like me, you’ll find the show to be so bad that it’s hilarious, or maybe, like my brother, you’ll find it unwatchable. That’s for you to figure out, but I warn you there is nothing redeemable about this show.