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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Amazing Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man (spoilers)

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I finally got around to seeing The Amazing Spider-Man today, and decided that the best way to review the movie is to compare it to Sam Raimi’s trilogy, for a couple reasons. The first is that they both contain origin stories for the same character. The second is that these movies were done way too close together time-wise. It’s been 10 years since the Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and only five years since Spider-Man 3, and this reboot could have been held off for another 10 years without any complaints. I’ll be breaking down the comparison in this way: Maguire vs. Garfield, Osborn vs. Connors, the overall acting, and directing/cinematography (which will have a few subissues).

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I don’t know if the issue was Sam Raimi or Tobey Maguire, but Maguire’s version of Parker/Spidey always seemed off compared to the comics and the awesome 90s cartoon. He was always a bit too mopey, too whiny, and nowhere near witty enough. The acting was a bit too monotonous; my brother likes to point out that with Maguire you could never tell if he was upset because even in the sad scenes he looked like he had a weird smirk on his face. This became blatant in Spider-Man 3 when Mary Jane broke up with him, and he starts crying, but his mouth still contorts into the shape of a weird smirk. He might just be incapable of keeping that frown upside down.

Garfield takes this round hands down. It just seemed like the movie allowed him to have more fun with the character, more fun discovering his powers, and a much wider range of emotion. You could see the real joy that Garfield’s Peter had whilst using his powers to skateboard and the puppy-love induced happiness when he’s around Gwen Stacy. You could also see the sadness and the rage when he loses his uncle, and again when he fails to save Captain Stacy. The one issue I do have with Garfield as Peter is there’s no way you can actually say the guy looks like he belongs in high school. Sure he looks a little young for his age, but a teenager? No way. Though Maguire didn’t look like he belonged in high school either so Garfield takes this by a landslide.

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I truly enjoy Willem Dafoe as an actor, so it pains me to see how limited he was in his role as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin. There was never any real depth to the character. Sure they tried to create issues with the early relationship between Norman and Parker, but they never developed it enough to make you care about the relationship. Dafoe had to end up playing a stereotypical villain, a man who goes insane because he tested a soldier enhancement formula on himself when he was told the contract he had with the government would get rejected. But you never really believe the motive behind the character. The formula makes him go insane and he decides to wreak vengeance and havoc on everyone else. It’s such a black and white portrayal of a character that you feel nothing for him when he dies at the end. Also, what was the deal with that suit? Watching Dafoe try to talk while wearing the goblin helmet, was like watching Power Rangers all over again. We can’t see the mouth movie, so we need overly-enthusiastic head bobbing from the speaker, as if we can’t tell who’s saying what otherwise.

This is again is where the new film has the edge, with Rhys Ifans portraying Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard. We have a similar plot line for the villain here, a scientist gets shut down and ends up using chemicals on himself. But here at least, we get clear motive for the actions and, more importantly, a motive that would believably cause those actions. Connors knew somewhere in his mind that the product wasn’t ready for human testing, yet two things ended up pushing him to use the product on himself anyway. The first was that he got shut down for refusing to use the product on war veterans. Did he use the product on himself to protect the veterans or did he use it on himself because he would not have access to the chemicals again after that day? Probably a bit of both, which leads to the second reason he used the product on himself, his missing right arm. After working on the project for years, and the desire to have his right arm restored, losing future access to the product had to have forced his hand in some way to act fast, and irrationally. Further, we have a villain here who isn’t just a black and white villain, you have the gray area here, the constant struggle between the scientist in him and the lizard in him. And the lizard in him isn’t even pure evil, it’s just working with a sick notion that it can better all humans by making them lizard-people like him. His actions were villainous, but there was a noble reason for them, even if that reason became twisted and contorted.

Overall Acting

I wanted to go into more character comparisons of Uncle Ben vs. Uncle Ben, Aunt May vs. Aunty May, and Mary Jane vs. Gwen, but if I did this post would go on for longer than anyone’s attention span would care for it to, so let’s just hit everything with quick points. The elevated acting that the new film portrayed with Garfield and Ifans extends pretty much to the rest of the acting in the movie. Emma Stone as Gwen completely outperforms Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane (to be fair I’m very biased here, I love Emma Stone). The acting in the new film just made all the characters so much more believable and less caricature than the 2002 film. The one spot where the 2002 film might win is with Cliff Robertson playing Uncle Ben. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking, but Robertson really made me care more about Uncle Ben than Martin Sheen did, not to say that Sheen did a bad job, Robertson just did a better one. I don’t want beat a dying horse here, so I’ll just leave it with this: the 2002 film had actors playing caricatures and the new film had actors playing people.

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The first directorial/cinematography issue I want to talk about is the web-slinging. If I give credit to Raimi for anything, it’s for this: it was a genius idea to make the web-slinging organic instead of mechanical. I know Peter is supposed to be very smart, if not a genius, but it’s silly to think that a high school kid could develop synthetic webbing and a mechanism to shoot the webbing exactly the way he wants to. Also, the spider bite organically changed so much about Peter: strenght, agility, ability to stick to walls, so it makes sense to have the web-slinging become part of the organic change. But how Raimi actually used the web-slinging was so dull and uninspired. Raimi had the webbing used for travel, but half the time we don’t even see what the web actually attaches to, and it was almost completely absent during the actual fighting. Webb, on the other hand,  I think made a mistake of going back to mechanical webbing (even if it is truer to the comics), but used the webbing masterfully. First, we actually saw the what the web clinged to, and more importantly, we saw its limitations, like when Spidey was making his way to Oscorp and he shot the web at the crane, but failed to reach it, or how it quickly dissolved in water and became ineffective, or how the lizard was able to remove the threat of webs by breaking the mechanism on both of Spidey’s hands. But when it worked it was beautiful to watch, we saw him use it to bind up the lizard the way a spider would bind a fly, we saw him create a web in the sewers and feel for the lizard in the way that a spider would use its own web. He used it to enhance his own speed and agility, he used it as an integral part of his fighting arsenal, never forgetting that it was there, whereas Raimi would quickly drop the web usage in exchange for acrobatics and hand to hand fighting. So I give Raimi credit for organic webbing, but Webb wins for actually being creative in using the webbing.

The next issue was the speed of story progression. Raimi’s progressed the movie a bit like he did with Army of Darkness, moving quickly through plot without much development. Webb, on the other hand, spent much more time within a singular time period, developing the characters and presenting the psychological progression of the characters. Raimi has Peter get mad about Ben’s death for 15 minutes, just long enough to confront the killer and graduate high school. Webb didn’t push so quickly through everything, in fact Peter’s still in high school by the end of the movie. We can actually see Peter deal with the grief of his uncle’s death as he works to hunt down the killer, and later as his grief and anger make him become flippant with his aunt, forgetting that she lost someone as well. The one place where Webb fell short here was with Gwen’s grief. She lost her father while he was helping deal with the lizard, yet goes to Peter right after the funeral wondering why he wasn’t there for her. One would think that she would feel some amount of anger towards Peter and put some amount of blame on him for her father’s death that she wouldn’t want to see him so soon after the loss. Sans this one point, Webb definitely dove into the character psyche more and didn’t rush onto the next plot point like Raimi did.

Finally, for cinematography I give Raimi’s movies the win for one reason, 3D shots. There’s one thing I can’t stand and it’s a movie that shoots a scene specifically for the 3D effect. I also refuse to see movies in 3D so these shots do nothing for me. Webb, having to pander to the 3D audience, provided an abundance of first person shots that didn’t add to the experience, and shots of things flying at the viewer, which again doesn’t add anything to the experience if you’re not watching it in 3D. I haven’t seen the 2002 film in a while, but as far as I can remember, there was never a shot that annoyed me as much as the above mentioned shots did in the new movie. It’s a shame really, because if these shots were cut out of the new film, I might very well have argued that the cinematography in the new film was better. Alas, that’s not the case and that alone is why I will say that Raimi’s movies had better cinematography (to be honest, I don’t remember Spider-Man 3 at all because it was too terrible to rewatch, so I’m not including that movie in this analysis).

From the Raimi movies, Spider-Man 2 has always been my favorite. Unlike the rest it actually dealt with character psychology and had a villain that people could sympathize with. The comparisons here were mostly to the 2002 film due to both being origin stories, but I would say as far as overall work goes, Amazing Spider-Man might be on par with, if not slightly better than, Spider-Man 2.