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.

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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.