Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Catch-Up: 2014 Awards Season

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: three biopics with award aspirations.

The Imitation Game
Dir. Morten Tyldum

3.5 out of 5

The miracle machine at the center of The Imitation Game is an amalgamation of dials, wires, plugs, and rotors, searching ceaselessly for the combination that will crack Nazi Germany's "unbreakable" Enigma code.  The film, like the hardware, is likewise fixated on testing many narrative permutations to achieve a greater understanding of its subject, British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), telescoping the man's life into three major story threads - his contributions as an Allied codebreaker during World War II; his life as a lonely, awkward schoolboy smitten with one of his classmates; and his conviction for indecency in the 1950s under a 19th century law prohibiting homosexual relationships.  The Imitation Game whirs and clicks and clacks all these pieces into place, capturing a sentimentalized story arc of an irascible genius.

But what separates it from, say, The Theory of Everything, is that there are several more glitches in its cold, mechanical replication of the biopic form.  The frayed wires and loose plugs are the instances of dashing wit and droll humor that distract the characters from their grim business of counting the lives lost for each day the code remains unbroken.  The movie also aspires to be more than a simple chronicle of a misunderstood hero.  By focusing its main efforts on the defining era of Turing's life, The Imitation Game illuminates a bigger story about the wages of war, especially for scientists, philosophers, and other visionary thinkers.  It's an amoral calculus that, although sometimes rendered clumsily onscreen, portends the serious questions that would continue to arise in the computer age - an age that Turing was largely responsible for launching.

There are certainly criticisms to be made about how the filmmakers decided to tell this story: a shaky framing device involving a sympathetic cop (Rory Kinnear) feels calculated to foster weepy Cumberbatch monologues, and the influence of Turing's beard/lab partner (Keira Knightley) is stretched to fit the script's demands.  But none of that really diminishes the verve of the story that director Morten Tyldum chooses to tell here.  The Imitation Game is a film constantly shifting gears, modulating its levels of triumph and tragedy and sacrifice and sainthood, but it does so in a way that makes sure these emotions are truly felt.

Dir. Jean-Marc Valleé

3.5 out of 5

Wilderness survival stories are almost always predicated on some type of physical deprivation.  So it's charming to see Wild start with a scene featuring its heroine, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), struggling to hoist the excess of supplies in her overloaded pack as she prepares to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, an 1,100-mile route stretching between America's borders with Canada and Mexico.  She's chosen to take the journey alone as a form of psychic therapy following multiple life-altering traumas, seen via flashbacks - the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of her single mother (Laura Dern), and Cheryl's subsequent descent into drug addiction.  But even though Cheryl fully intends to exorcise her grief in solitude, Wild is a redemptive tale that actually posits a world that does not lack for helping hands.

However, just as in Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Valleé's previous film, Wild tends to get lost in the weeds of its own heavy-handed tone.  Witherspoon and Dern both do a fine job with their mother-daughter material, but its sledgehammer subtlety is often grating.  (After mom dies, Valleé gratuitously juxtaposes it with her children having to euthanize her beloved horse.)  Yet Witherspoon's gritty, unsentimental performance also keeps the earthy, saccharine tendencies of Wild at bay.  The film is always most fascinating when it decides that Cheryl is more important as a feminist symbol than as a character.  Despite the general goodwill of most people she meets, there is always a latent sense of danger she feels as a single female hiker, and for good reason; every encounter with a man is fraught with implications that would not exist were this a man's story.  Wild may not be the revelatory character study of its creators' intent, but it succeeds at placing Cheryl's specific, individual trials in the context of the ones that women face every day.

Dir. Angelina Jolie

2.5 out of 5

Imagine watching Unbroken from the perspective of someone completely unfamiliar with its subject: athlete, World War II veteran, and inspirational icon Louis Zamperini.  In an ordeal that almost strains credulity, Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) rises from humble immigrant origins to become a U.S. Olympian and a decorated war hero, surviving a deadly plane crash that left him adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 45 days until he was "rescued" by the Japanese, and detained in various prison camps where he was tortured by a sadistic enemy officer (Miyavi).  It's beautifully photographed, well-acted, and tastefully scored.  You know it's been reverse-engineered to win golden statuettes, but you can't deny the sincerity of its intent - classically inspiring, it's the kind of movie that causes critics to utter phrases like "triumph of the human spirit."

Now imagine learning that Unbroken adapts only half of the late Zamperini's memoirs, omitting his battles with PTSD and his eventual decision to forgive his captors, even returning to Japan to personally bury the hatchet with his former enemies.  Which story sounds more intriguing?  The immediately inspiring but incomplete one, or the messier one that subverts the traditional rewards of the war narrative?  This being middlebrow Oscar bait, however, first-time director Angelina Jolie wisely chooses to focus on the most visually empowering material.  Still, Unbroken is not compelling enough to coast on pedigree alone.  A fatal lack of characterization plagues its second half, as O'Connell is given little to do besides pound a single note of grim resignation, punctuated by periodic moments of uplift.  Unbroken proudly wears its heart on its sleeve, but it doesn't offer much more than surface-level emotion.  You'll leave with a very clear idea of what Zamperini endured...and only a vague notion of who he actually was.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Dir. Peter Jackson

2.5 out of 5

Like many, I was nonplussed when Peter Jackson announced his intention to make his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit a trilogy of films, and have dutifully indulged his obsessive completism.  I've tried taking different approaches to evaluating the first two movies, and even mined the depths of Jackson's oeuvre for answers.  After all that, I can only say: I told you so.  The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final installment of the trilogy, most conclusively illustrates the folly of splitting a picaresque beginner's fantasy novel into three epic films.

Say what you want about the first two movies, but at least they had variety.  Battle is an unambiguous war film and wears its subtitle like a straitjacket, devoting a generous chunk of its 140-minute runtime to the titular conflict.  As such, the slaying of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) - which would've made a fantastic climax for the previous movie - is an overqualified opening act, setting the stage for the clash over the beast's abandoned mountain of riches.  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is caught in the middle of the fray and questioning his loyalty to Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarf refugees, for whom the mountain is their ancestral home.  But soon the claimants come out of the woodwork - humans, elves, orcs, more dwarfs - and the maneuvers of CGI armies supplant the self-actualization of humble hobbits.

Let it be known that Battle of the Five Armies knows how to flaunt its impressive scale.  The envelope-pushing effects that Jackson pioneered in his Lord of the Rings trilogy are perfected here.  What's missing, however, are the emotional underpinnings.  Jackson doesn't totally neglect the small, crucial moments, and the screenwriters' invented romance between elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner) continues to pay dividends.  But in a way that's just a reminder of how bloated and dull these films are, and how they fail the source material, if one of their greatest strengths is essentially a fan-fiction subplot.  Bilbo himself is shoved farther into the background as Jackson presents a repetitive, cluttered, and exhausting final fight as our great reward for sticking through it all.

Battle's lasting impression is that of a interminable hack-and-slash video game played out to its underwhelming conclusion - imagine the loud finale of a typical action franchise picture, with its grand armies and functional dialogue and boss battles, stretched to feature length.  The Hobbit has been a fundamentally risk-averse endeavor of surprising mundanity that will satisfy audiences happy to consume more of the same old comfort food.  (It also embodies all the worst tendencies of prequels with its hamfisted connections to LOTR and the forced inclusion of Gandalf's (Ian McKellan) anticlimactic side quest with the first trilogy's B-team.)  Nothing can take away from what Jackson achieved with the Lord of the Rings films, but The Hobbit does what I previously thought to be impossible: it makes Middle-Earth a more ordinary place.  We have been taken there and back again, but we've almost completely missed the point.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

4 out of 5

Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice is a stoner movie in the most literal sense of the term - a willfully inscrutable, hard-to-place detective story starring 420-friendly private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in his attempts to locate a missing real estate developer (Eric Roberts).  Yet for all his counterculture shagginess, Sportello is a man with the heart of a classic Hollywood gumshoe - and the associates to match.  There's a damsel in distress - Doc's ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) - who visits his office with a desperate plea for help, the legit contact in the police force (Josh Brolin) whose straight-arrow conservatism rubs up against Doc's grooviness in a fascinatingly fractious partnership, and all the seedy underworld types that push the story into strange, seemingly unrelated cul-de-sacs.

Set squarely, both temporally and philosophically, in 1970, Inherent Vice cultivates a vivid historicity in its ensemble of Southern Californians dealing the fallout from the cultural nuking that was the 1960s.  Permeated with a mixture of foggy marine layer (another nod to its noir-ish origins) and marijuana haze, the film most resembles a recollection of a bad trip.  While Doc's gradual awakening to the rapidly expanding, decidedly un-mellow narcotics trade totally harshes his buzz, Anderson also casts a keen eye upon the parts of Thomas Pynchon's novel that serve as a litany of regret, with little portraits of people trying to rectify their poor decisions - most affectingly, a young mother (Jena Malone) who recently kicked a heroin habit and her missing jazzman husband (Owen Wilson) - living alongside with the new breed of vulgar lowlifes that the straight world sees as taking advantage of Left Coast permissiveness.  (In this post-Charlie Manson environment, the longhairs occupy a broad spectrum, from sanguine to sinister.)

None of this, I should mention, makes Inherent Vice an immediately satisfying experience.  Indeed, neither was The Master, but at least that film had the pretense of portraying a titanic battle for the soul of postwar America.  Inherent Vice is a much funnier film - it is, among many things, an epic ribbing of Chinatown, with its own version of a small-potatoes P.I. unequipped to deal with the much larger conspiracy he stumbles upon.  But its emotional disconnect doesn't really bolster the dark humor the way it should, and it's hard not to think that the filmmaker is leading us into dead ends.  I miss the laser-focused Anderson, the one who made comparatively big-hearted films, or at least ones with riveting pinpoint intensity.  This one often feels cloistered and uninviting as it meanders to nowhere in particular.  

But is Inherent Vice really as difficult as I'm making it out to be?   Not to be wishy-washy, but obtuseness is part of the point here.  Anderson wants us to feel like we've crashed the party late, after all the good stuff has happened, and we're in danger of being asked to help clean up the mess.  Doc's story is devoid of eureka moments because his struggle is to accept the truth in front of him: things are going to get worse before they get better, but that doesn't mean he should stop trying.  He even has a personal oracle, played with beatific calm by Joanna Newsom, practically telling him this.  The key to Inherent Vice isn't in any of its clues or digressions, but in a simple bit of bumper-sticker wisdom soon to define a large chunk of the era it portrays: "shit happens."  That's about as close to the truth as Doc - or any of us - can reasonably expect to be.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rank and File #3: Peter Jackson Beyond Middle-Earth

Art is not a competition...but it sure is more fun that way.  To celebrate the conclusion of The Hobbit trilogyRank and File considers those Peter Jackson films conspicuously lacking in orcs, elves, and wizards.

Peter Jackson has devoted more than a decade of his life to creating a cinematic record of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, first with the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then the slightly less impressive series of films based on The Hobbit, the third and final of which debuts a week from today.  (I've covered the first two here and here.)  While these movies, especially The Hobbit trio, are perhaps as personal as mega-blockbusters can get in the aftermath of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, there's no denying the influence that the twin shadows of Tolkien and New Line Cinema - and later Warner Bros. - have cast over them.

What really interests me about Jackson, though, is the filmmaker who emerges when the stakes are a bit different.  His career trajectory - from B-movie maven to Hollywood rainmaker - reveals a man of more diverse talents than most realize.  And through it all beats the heart of an impish prankster, the outsider from the far-flung colonies who built his own castle on a hill, the jack-of-all-trades hustler who suddenly became the kingmaker.  But as he's moved closer to the corridors of power, has he also distanced himself from his audience?  

To understand where Peter Jackson will land after The Hobbit, we need to see where he's been.

The Splatter Era

For his debut film, the amateur splatter-fest Bad Taste (1987), Jackson was about as far away from the blockbuster-industrial complex as a horror-obsessed Kiwi could be.  Shooting on weekends off from his day job and enlisting his friends as actors, Jackson was a veritable one-man production company - he's credited as a director, producer, cinematographer, co-writer, co-editor, makeup artist, and special effects supervisor.  And as if that wasn't enough, he also plays two of the main characters in the film - a reckless government scientist investigating the alien invasion of a rural New Zealand village, and the dimwitted henchman of an extraterrestrial overlord (Doug Wren) collecting Earthling specimens to test as a new dish for his intergalactic fast food franchise.

Despite its lack of formal polish, Bad Taste has an infectious, Sam Raimi-influenced energy, moving rapidly from one gross-out action setpiece to the next.  But even more than the over-the-top viscera, the film's best joke is the informality of Kiwi culture: Jackson and his mulleted, pickup-driving, metalhead cohorts aren't vigilantes, but the official representatives of a federal bureau on E.T.-related investigations.  They're the kind of plucky, determined heroes Jackson favors, confronting a danger so far over their heads that their naiveté doubles as uncommon courage.

The vulgarity is dialed up a few notches in Meet the Feebles (1989), a backstage puppet musical that resembles the Muppets by way of The Jerry Springer Show, TMZ, and Tijuana bibles.  Feebles' thin main plot - a puppet troupe mounting a live television tryout for their own syndicated show - is really a bunch of comic vignettes, flashbacks, and musical numbers sprinkled over 90 minutes.  The depravity of the movie's drug-addicted, sex-crazed, and generally unscrupulous fuzzies is a joke that quickly wears out its welcome.  But Jackson, in his first collaboration with creative (and life) partner Fran Walsh, keeps pushing it to such ridiculous extremes that it's hard not to watch with a kind of perverse fascination.  Still, it's mind-boggling to think Feebles was conceived as a television series before investors decided to make it a feature film instead.

After introducing each character's vices (save for the lone innocent, a lovelorn hedgehog, who serves as an audience surrogate) many of the film's subsequent scenes have a kind of numbing effect.  Once you're keyed into the film's central inversion of kiddie show tropes, you can pretty much predict what's going to happen.  Sometimes the results are too queasy: a subplot involving one of the show's main stars, a promiscuous rabbit trying to keep news of his unnamed illness out of the tabloid press, too closely resembles the era's AIDS cover-up scandals.  Yet I can't help but appreciate the loving attention Jackson gives to the fucked-up details: the S&M gear designed for a cow, the elaborate Deer Hunter parody starring puppet frogs, the gusto with which the housefly character gobbles up the others' excrement.  Meet the Feebles is wrongness done (mostly) right. 

In retrospect, Jackson's first three films follow roughly the same formula: naive pushovers are taken to their limits by casually amoral antagonists until turning the tide in a final conflagration of righteous violence.  This formula doesn't really get old; in fact, it reaches near-perfection in Dead Alive (1992), also known as Braindead just about everywhere outside the U.S.  In the film, Lionel (Timothy Balme) lives with his overbearing mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) in 1950s New Zealand.  When Lionel embarks on a tentative romance with sweet shopgirl Paquita (Diana Peñalver), his jealous mum follows the couple to the zoo where she suffers a fatal bite from a Sumatran rat-monkey.  But, as the title implies, Vera's not really dead - she's undead, and it's up to Lionel to keep her from turning the rest of his small town into ravenous flesh-eating zombies.

Besides from an opening sequence showing the transfer of the cursed rat-monkey from the presciently-named "Skull Island" to New Zealand, Dead Alive devotes its first act to slowly developing Lionel's relationships with Vera and Paquita, giving the audience a emotional beacon for the impending bloodbath.  Similarly, Jackson gives the zombie crisis an unexpected texture as the gentle Lionel tries to seek a humane solution for the undead problem, instead of annihilating them outright.  The movie gets to that eventually, but the gratuitously violent climax that overwhelms the frame with gore is entirely earned by Jackson's earlier dramatic legwork.  Love is a force multiplier in Dead Alive - a horror classic with plenty of heart.

Hello, Hollywood

Heavenly Creatures (1994) is a turning point in Jackson's career for several reasons: it was his first film acquired by a major distributor (Miramax), it garnered his first Oscar nomination (with Walsh, for Best Original Screenplay), and it spurred the creation of Weta Digital, the special effects house that would eventually become the biggest competitor to George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.  Based on the infamous case of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teenagers whose obsessive friendship led to the  murder of Parker's mother in 1954, Heavenly Creatures is also Jackson's first ostensibly "mature" film, but only in the sense that it has the gloss of prestige that non-horror fans and Academy voters would like.

Surprisingly, Heavenly Creatures is potentially even more shocking than Jackson's gore-fests.  The film focuses on the relationship between Parker and Hulme - played by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in their respective film debuts - up until the murder, eschewing the sensational trial and media firestorm that followed.  The resulting film tries to shed a sympathetic light on two bright, lonely, outcast teenagers in a conservative community.  It's clear that Jackson also identifies with the girls' imaginative sides: together they create a fantasy world called Borovnia, complete with a detailed royal lineage and "saints" culled from their crushes in celebrity magazines.  Fittingly, Heavenly Creatures blurs the line between fantasy and reality - it advances a theory that the girls' mutual attraction went beyond friendship, which the real Hulme has denied - and ponders what can happen if you allow your own narrative to spiral out of control.

With Heavenly Creatures standing as a serious departure from his earlier work, Jackson's next project, horror-comedy The Frighteners (1996), is eager to prove he hadn't forgotten what it was like to muck it up in the genre trenches.  Michael J. Fox plays a psychic investigator who truly can communicate with the dead, and uses this ability to pull scams in which he provides phony "extermination" services after enlisting his ghost buddies to haunt unsuspecting locals.  It's a wonderfully irreverent premise that's paired well with Jackson's macabre sarcasm and makes the inevitable pathos-laden backstory (there's a car accident and a dead wife) less of a chore to reveal.

However, the movie's seams begin to show to more Jackson tinkers with its tone.  His careful combination of a sad little ghost story and a sharp Ghostbusters-adjacent farce is disrupted by a mystery plot that features some dubiously convenient insanity.  The Frighteners' broad third act turn forces it to abandon much of what makes it special.  Still, there's no denying the energy behind the camera, as Jackson seems chuffed to have the mid-90s equivalents of a major budget and cutting-edge CGI effects to make his out-there B-movie.  The supporting cast alone - Elliot's mom from E.T.!  The mad scientist from Re-Animator!  Gary Busey's son! - signals that this is a film destined for cult appeal, and The Frighteners is at its best when embracing its weirdness.

Lord of the Multiplex

Up to and including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson's geographic isolation and low cultural profile gave his films a unique timbre - an almost mythic sense of foreboding combined with an alternately goofy and morbid sense of humor.  That sensibility endures in his remake of King Kong (2005), but it's also the first Jackson film where the audience got exactly what it expected: a three-hour adventure epic (nearly twice as long as the 1933 original) pushing the envelope of visual effects and populated with archetypal pulp heroes and villains.  King Kong is a film where the story being told - which is admittedly slight - is not nearly as important as how Jackson visualizes it.  It feels like a movie that's been playing out in his head since he was a little boy.

It takes cojones the size of the titular ape's to remake a well-known classic like King Kong, but Jackson's fanboyish enthusiasm ensures that it never feels calculated or mercenary.  That same aplomb, however, sometimes works to the film's detriment.  Apart from a lengthy prologue in Depression-era New York City, King Kong's charge is to cram a lovingly-curated bestiary of fearsome creatures into a string of nonstop action sequences.  It's all impressive and imaginative, but also exhausting and repetitive, like a kid spilling out the contents of his toybox and proudly describing the figures one by one.  And it's impossible to watch King Kong without doing a bit of mental re-casting: Jack Black is the most awkward fit as megalomaniac filmmaker Carl Denham, but Adrien Brody (as a sensitive writer-turned-jungle commando) and Kyle Chandler (as a cartoonishly arrogant actor) appear equally uncomfortable.  Naomi Watts, however, is unassailable as Ann Darrow, the ingénue who forms a special bond with the giant ape (a CGI character digitally captured by Andy Serkis) and lends Kong the air of tragic romance that sets it apart from the typical blockbuster smash-up.

The longest interim of Jackson's career saw him flirting with being a Lucas-esque godhead, guiding The Hobbit through development hell (which finally ended when he struck a deal to direct the trilogy himself) and advancing film technology through his special effects companies.  In that sense, The Lovely Bones (2009) - the story of a teenage girl observing the aftermath of her murder as she tries to leave the "in-between" stage of death and ascend to heaven - is a strange marker in his directorial career.  On paper, Jackson seems like an inspired choice to guide Alice Sebold's best-selling novel to the big screen: it's a deceptively sprawling story with several key subplots, it demands the creation of a striking fantasy world, and it even shares some tonal similarities with the dreamy and dread-filled Heavenly Creatures.

However, the difficulty of keeping one foot in reality and one foot in the afterlife quickly overwhelms the film.  The Lovely Bones is unfocused and maudlin, and features Jackson's least imaginative rendering of a world beyond our own.  Susie Salmon's (Saoirse Ronan) trek through purgatory is blandly beautiful:  snowy hills, sunsets, wheat fields.  Yet that's more than can be said for the unappealing stew of suburban drama, true crime grimness, and punchy comedy that comprises the rest of the film.  The Lovely Bones has its moments - many courtesy of Ronan and Stanley Tucci as the Salmons' creepy neighbor - as well as an interesting take on how tragedy can unexpectedly lead to other, more comforting paths.  But lacking clarity and control, it's a worrying symptom of Jackson's increasingly clumsy attempts at big-tent storytelling.

Odds and Ends

A couple more non-directorial efforts bear mentioning.  The whimsical fantasy Jack Brown Genius (1996) - which Jackson co-wrote and produced under his Wingnut Films label - is an uneven but amiable quirkfest about a humble inventor (Dead Alive's Timothy Balme) who's temporarily inhabited by the spirit of a medieval monk (Stuart Devenie) obsessed with the idea of human-powered flight.  Frequently distracted by its many hit-and-miss subplots - not to mention some weirdly offensive humor involving Asians and the mentally ill - the movie gets tangled in Jackson's predilection for obscure detail.  The film's backbone is strong, though: Balme delivers another terrific performance as a charming misfit whose dogged determination and purity of heart inspire others to rally around him.  He would have made a fantastic hobbit.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) arrived with much fanfare, the first in a diptych of motion capture-animated films to be produced by the creative dream team of Jackson and Steven Spielberg, who also directed the initial effort.  The final product wasn't bad at all, just a bit disappointing considering the track record of everyone involved.  Spielberg's Tintin takes far too long to set up its centuries-spanning adventure plot and suffers from the lethal dullness of its main character - Tinin's (Jamie Bell) great moments of discovery rarely feel like more than declarative exposition.  The performance of frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis - as the sympathetic drunkard Captain Haddock - is a triumph, as are its lively action sequences and its puckish sense of humor.  But as for that planned Jackson-helmed sequel...I think I can wait a little longer.

The Verdict

Ranking the 7 non-Tolkien films directed by Peter Jackson...

7. The Lovely Bones
    Death is boring

6. Meet the Feebles
     Yes, we get the joke

5. King Kong
    Indulgent, but mostly entertaining

4. The Frighteners
     The endearing orphan of the bunch

3. Bad Taste
    Cheap, fast, and out of control

2. Heavenly Creatures
    A shape-shifting teenage tragedy

1. Dead Alive
    The perfect blend of silliness and sentiment

Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6
Dirs. Don Hall and Chris Williams

3.5 out of 5

Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics, while a surprise at the time, looks like a shrewder investment every day - not just because of the financial rewards and infusion of adaptation-ready IPs, but also in its tacit recognition that superhero stories are the fairy tales of the modern age.  Nowhere is this clearer than in Big Hero 6, a film that combines the whiz-bang of manga-influenced comic book action with the sentimental through-lines of a traditional Disney animated feature.  

In the futuristic Pacific Rim metropolis of San Fransokyo, science prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) spends his time constructing "battlebots" and hustling adults in the city's underground robot fight clubs, despite the scolding of his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), a student at the local institute of technology.  Concerned that Hiro is wasting his talents, Tadashi introduces him to Baymax (Scott Adsit), a robotic healthcare assistant developed by Tadashi himself.  When a mysterious masked individual starts committing acts of techno-terrorism, Hiro and a spunky cohort of other young inventors must transform themselves into a ragtag group of avengers using their own cutting-edge science.

Though the plot turns on a sudden tragedy that pushes Hiro into pursuing cutting-edge research as a coping mechanism, Baymax is clearly the linchpin of the film.  Combining the polite, servile attitude of Siri with the huggable body of the Michelin Man, Baymax guides the young protagonist on a journey of emotional self-discovery thinly disguised as a standard superhero vigilante story.  Big Hero 6 covers a lot of familiar ground - it borrows heavily from Brad Bird's superior animated classics The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, as well as the "boy and his dog" story archetype - and character development is simplistic bordering on clunky, taking a step back from the more complex relationships of recent Disney films like Frozen.  (At one point, Hiro informs his own brother that their mother died when he was a toddler.)  

But what in lacks in narrative originality, Big Hero 6 makes up in sheer energy and colorful, kaleidoscopic visuals: the metropolitan mash-up of San Fransokyo is just as whimsical and detailed as any fairytale realm, and much more diverse to boot.  It's also heartening to see a film determined to rev kids up about science, with heroes applying their intellect to save the day.  In this, the movie is admittedly as nuanced as mixing baking soda and vinegar inside a clay volcano.  But passion for a subject feeds off an emotional enthusiasm.  You've got to dream it before you can do it, and Big Hero 6 gives a kinetic kick-start to the imaginations of a plugged-in generation.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Dir. James Marsh

3 out of 5

The lives of British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), are dramatized in the lovely but inert The Theory of Everything.  The film, based on Wilde's memoirs, heavily emphasizes a romantic angle from the get-go and seldom deviates from the prestige movie playbook.  Hawking's major career achievements - most notably, his work on the nature of time and the origins of the universe - are juxtaposed against the development of the motor-neuron disease that gradually robs him of his physical faculties.

The Theory of Everything eschews all the admittedly low-hanging but potentially powerful metaphors - a vibrant mind overcoming a weakened body, a man obsessed with time despite his own uncertain future - in favor of the longitudinal study of a late 20th-century marriage.  To its credit, the movie tries to say something worthwhile about the unpredictability of love and the long, difficult arc of human relationships.  We see more of the wife's side than we typically do in these biopics; as devoted as Jane is, she finds herself up against obstacles and temptations she could never have foreseen as a young woman spellbound by Hawking's confidence and determination.

But no matter how honest Jones and Redmayne are their performances, the movie reveals little about what makes Hawking - whose life was certainly impacted but not defined by this relationship - such a singular figure.  Instead, Hawking's brash real-life personality and groundbreaking science are made cutesy and digestible for maximum uplift.  In the end, that's Everything's mission: not to educate, but to inspire.  In this the film is rather successful, full of swelling strings and plucky humor.  But the lightly patronizing tone of the entire endeavor - which seems to suggest that we should be most impressed by Hawking's suffering - doesn't give that fuzzy feeling enough support to last.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Dir. Bennett Miller

3.5 out of 5

Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) begins Foxcatcher trapped in a life of quiet indignity.  He's ekeing out a living as an amateur athlete and, even worse, feels overshadowed by his more successful and charismatic Olympian brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo).  So when eccentric billionaire John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell) cold-calls him and invites him to du Pont's suburban Philadelphia mansion, Mark is thrilled by the potential of catching a huge break, even if he's worried that it might just be another dead end.  In a similar way, Foxcatcher does a great job of cultivating an atmosphere where it feels like anything can happen, even though the story turns out to be another straightforward, somber treatise on the American Dream.

Foxcatcher strikes me as a movie that is trying very hard to not blow anything out of proportion.  There seems to be little attempt to compress the details of the events that inspired E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's script, from du Pont's initial recruitment of Mark to oversee an elite wrestling club that lives and practices on his estate, to the two men's downward spiral caused by du Pont's erratic behavior, to Dave's late intervention to save what's left of Mark's career.  It's a story ripe with themes of obsession, control, entitlement, and power.  Yet, over a languid 130 minutes, Foxcatcher has difficulty emphasizing any of that.  The garish details are exquisite (the art direction of the du Pont estate is essay-worthy) but the bigger picture remains muddled.  Scenes simply come one after the other, make their single point, and then dissolve into memory.  

Though a haphazard script and poor pacing threatens to sink Foxcatcher the longer it lasts, excellent performances keep it afloat.  Director Bennett Miller is terrific with actors - remember, he guided Philip Seymour Hoffman to an Oscar in Capote and Brad Pitt to one of his most substantive star turns in Moneyball - and he proves this once more through his two leading men.  Tatum is better than he's ever been, seemingly tensing every muscle in his body, transmitting both the frustration of a world-class athlete struggling to remain on top and the discomfort of an employee working for a psycho boss.  Speaking of discomfort, there is Carrell, taking his gift of awkwardness and sanding off the cartoon safeguards to create something truly unnerving.  He also does this while making a physical transformation: his beak-like nose, prosthetic teeth, and affected slouch make him resemble Gru, his animated alter ego in the Despicable Me films, only with way more creepy menace.  (There's also fine work, as usual, from Ruffalo and Vanessa Redgrave as du Pont's disapproving mother.)

Foxcatcher presents itself as a tightly-coiled drama about what it takes to succeed in life's many arenas, be they athletic or interpersonal.  In reality, it's the cinematic equivalent of an awkward pause.  What the movie needs is to be more like Dave: assured, inquisitive, interesting.  Instead, it is like Mark, a character burning with competitive fire but fundamentally a blank space, who eventually turns into a sullen child caught in the middle of a custody battle.  Ultimately Foxcatcher always says what it means; it just has trouble saying it with meaning.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To
Dir. Bobby and Peter Farrelly

1 out of 5

The bulk of this review is going to sound very strange - perhaps even hypocritical - given that I consider 1994's Dumb and Dumber a fart-lighting, pee-drinking, diarrhea-blasting lowbrow comedy masterpiece.  It's juvenile and vulgar in a fun, rascally way that made sense in the Farrelly Brothers' directorial debut.  Two decades and several dispiriting films later, the Farrellys return to the well with Dumb and Dumber To, a recycled appeal to lowest common denominator attitudes.  It is, in fact, so vile that it should have us reaching for better mathematical metaphors.  It's a negative integer.  It is absolute zero.  

The plot is ostensibly about Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey), two lifelong friends who today we'd undoubtedly describe with the words "high-functioning," reuniting to locate Harry's heretofore unknown daughter (Rachel Melvin), the product of his tryst with local floozy Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner).  However, I prefer to imagine it as a dystopian science fiction story about two lovably childish men, who in their middle age have been abducted by aliens and replaced by petty, lecherous, racist, misogynistic, and generally unpleasant cyborgs.  Dumb and Dumber To plumbs new depths in stereotypical humor simply by virtue of its incredible laziness.  When it's revealed that Harry was raised by adoptive Asian parents, you better believe that someone is going to confuse his Ls and Rs - and just to prove that they're capable of writing fresher material, the Farrellys toss in a "me love you long time" joke.  You can practically hear the facepalming of Charlie Chan himself.

To be fair, Dumb and Dumber To has rude things to say to a lot of different people.  What’s perhaps more offensive is the way the Farrellys gleefully rob the corpse of their prior comedic triumph, trotting out snappy one-liners to use as catchphrases and rehashing some of the original's most inspired moments in depressing fashion.  Most of the time, it feels like a third-rate homage put together by hapless Dumb and Dumber obsessives.  There is perhaps no better metaphor for the movie as a whole - and please forgive me for spoiling one of the few successful jokes in the entire thing - than a scene where Lloyd and Harry miraculously recover their beloved "Shaggin' Wagon," Harry's old pet grooming van dressed to look like a large sheepdog, only for it to break down mere seconds into their joyride.

This film is completely saturated in ugliness, down to its horrendously cheap-looking sets and blatant tax credit locations: the guys' quest ultimately brings them to a TED-like tech conference, naturally located in...El Paso, Texas.  Here, the plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity which, obvious as it is, comes as a reprieve from the aimless gross-out gags and yokel humor.  And I never thought I'd say this, but the obnoxious mugging of Carrey and Daniels is actually the least bothersome aspect of the movie, and the only thing preventing it from complete disaster.  The reckless abandon of their antics give the gaping maw of humorlessness that is Dumb and Dumber To its only real jolt of energy.  They are clearly having a blast.  I’m glad someone did.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Dir. Christopher Nolan

3 out of 5

Interstellar, being a Christopher Nolan film, promises many things: secrecy and revelation, the inevitable re-framing of narrative boundaries, a sense of (or at least an attempt to achieve) real wonder or terrific awe.  What I wasn't expecting were sass-talkin' robots.  Even though they're medium-sized details, those glorious machines are proof that Nolan is self-aware and still attempting to grow, even as Interstellar is clearly of a piece with the rest of his filmography.  It's less of a puzzle box than anything outside of his Batman trilogy, yet still contains twists and surprises revealed with the smug sense of satisfaction usually reserved for tech product announcements.  It considers the human element and blends it with a welcome respect for science, but it ultimately seems to be saying, Now, wasn't that thing I made pretty clever?

And yet, Nolan cares enough about his brand as a maker of "intelligent" blockbusters that he actually does try to do smart things with them.  Interstellar is an ambitious sci-fi epic that blithely introduces advanced astrophysics concepts like wormholes, relativity, and extra-dimensional travel while stumping for the continued human exploration of space.  All of this is idealized within the movie's protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).  Formerly a NASA test pilot, he is now a farmer - one of many struggling to maintain the Earth's food supply after an unexplained plant disease and apocalyptic dust storms have driven most terrestrial crops to extinction.  Along with his science-prodigy daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), Cooper discovers that NASA has been surreptitiously sending manned probes into deep space to search for other habitable planets.  

Interstellar begins to pick up steam the farther it gets away from Earth.  Before you can say "destiny," Cooper makes the difficult decision to leave his family and captain the ship sent to retrieve the probes, in the hopes that at least one of them has found a suitable colony.  Bringing along scientists Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) - the astronaut business is is a surname-only affair - and a couple of impractical-looking yet extremely versatile A.I. machines, the mission predictably runs into complications and devolves into a series of gripping life-or-death choices.

The problem with Interstellar, however, is that Nolan frequently sacrifices clarity for density, and then confuses it for depth.  This is a film that feeds off furiously-scribbled diagrams and magic equations, all directed toward a reveal of the convoluted and silly explanation for what sets the whole thing in motion.  Nolan also gets bogged down in scenes on Earth with the older Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her brother Tom (Casey Affleck), who age to adulthood while Cooper is still out playing spaceman, thanks to the wonders of relativity.  And for a guy often lauded for his vision, Interstellar often feels like a bibliography for other sci-fi classics.  It takes its designs and daring from 2001: A Space Odyssey, lifts the dread about a dying planet and a doomed species (not to mention its boxy robots) from various '70s sci-fi movies, and features a father-daughter relationship that quotes heavily from Contact - a film that McConaughey himself starred in nearly 20 years ago.

Drawing inspiration from other sources isn't a bad thing.  Neither is taking the kernel of a scientific truth, then making up a bunch of interesting and dramatic stuff to place on top of it.  But it's hard to deny that overcooked, bloated storytelling often derails Interstellar, a film of so many wonderful individual beats that never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.  It's a gorgeously-rendered hymn to the spirit of discovery that nonetheless struggles to determine what it wants to be, though my theory is that it's a lot like the monolith from the aforementioned 2001: big, bold, and inscrutable, pulling us closer whether or not we understand its purpose.

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Wick

John Wick
Dir. Chad Stahelski

2 out of 5

Keanu Reeves is 50 years old.  Let that sink in for a moment.  One of the most convincing things in John Wick - and there are not many of those - is that, unlike his generational peers in the "angry middle-aged man" subgenre of revenge films, Reeves doesn't look that far removed from his physical peak.  When the filmmakers identify the titular John Wick as a recently-retired enforcer and assassin for various criminal types, they truly mean it.  There's barely even enough time for dust to collect on Wick's hidden stash of firearms, which he’s gone to the trouble of burying under thick concrete in his garage, presumably so he can look even manlier by smashing his way to them with a sledgehammer.  

Wick begins the movie in standard lone grey wolf mode, grieving the loss of a loved one - his deceased wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) - and giving the side-eye to the local criminal element, namely the petulant son (Alfie Allen) of a powerful boss (Michael Nyqvist) in New York's Russian mafia.  The young man foolishly and pointlessly provokes Wick by attacking the talismans of his masculinity - stealing his vintage sports car and killing the dog gifted to him by Helen - before scurrying back to the city.  At this point, the unfolding of the typical DGAF fantasy begins, with Wick pursuing bloody justice against every Slavic thug in the five boroughs.  

The over-the-hill avenger with nothing to lose is a simple gimmick with immense staying power (just ask Charles Bronson), but most attempts to achieve an adult gravitas in this inherently juvenile species of film almost always rest exclusively on the casting of wily veterans.  John Wick understands this, tossing names like Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, and Dean Winters into supporting roles.  Yet even this stellar cast can't help a script read like anything more than a third-rate James Bond movie plagued by wooden dialogue impatiently stuffed in between action sequences.  

The director, Chad Stahelski, and his producer, David Leitch, are better known for their top-notch stunt work in a variety of Hollywood blockbusters, and that's apparent in John Wick's many well-choreographed and visually coherent rumbles.  It's just too bad that everything else is a contrived mess, from the intricately connected backstories that ultimately don't matter to the swank Manhattan hotel that caters exclusively to visiting assassins and looks like a clone of the Flatiron Building.  John Wick undoubtedly can and even should have an audience - competently shot and edited action can't be ignored in an increasingly cacophonous era - but Stahelski just doesn't hit the right notes for a fun, pulpy revenge flick or an absurdist genre deconstruction (remember, this is a movie that begins as a quest to avenge a puppy).  There is only gunmetal-gray gloominess matched by a disappointingly stiff performance from Reeves, who just can’t work his anti-aging juju on a premise that’s almost ready to be put out to pasture.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Dir. Dan Gilroy

4 out of 5

Don't get me wrong.  Nightcrawler is a fine film: mesmerizing, tense, and disturbing.  But titling it as such might do a disservice to grubs.  Its principal subject, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), is an abhorrent antisocial creep, a small-time thief who chances upon the world of freelance news videography, chasing ambulances and filming human torment to sell to local television stations.  But what makes Lou so despicable isn't his vulgar opportunism - it's his false sincerity masking the emptiness of the frighteningly Busey-esque platitudes (in Lou's world, "fear" stands for "false evidence appearing real") and regurgitated self-help advice that is a poor substitute for a real moral philosophy.

And yet like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, Lou is a bad apple made worse by a rotten system.  Nightcrawler is many things - a study in quiet menace, a sultry LA-after-dark primer, a sordid tabloid-infused thriller - but ultimately it's the sharpest indictment of dog-eat-dog capitalist absurdity since American Psycho.  As Lou climbs the ranks of the insular world of guys who shoot the wreckage of daily life, he learns that not all accidents are created equal.  "If it bleeds, it leads" is still the rule, and almost no footage is too graphic, provided that the anchors give the audience fair warning.  Lou's warped worldview, however, drives him to use his blunted intellect like a ball-peen hammer, bullying the morning news director (Rene Russo) of a fledgling station and his own dimwitted assistant (Riz Ahmed) into positions that compromise their physical and emotional health.  Before long he's not just recording events, he's also manipulating them to serve his own purposes and fulfill the Darwinian narrative raging inside his head.

The film is a collaborative triumph for writer-director Dan Gilroy and Gyllenhaal; together they manifest one of the most memorable trolls in recent history.  It's not hard to imagine Lou as a Tea Partier, a GamerGater, or a truther, employing a cretinous rhetoric that's a  mix of desperation and entitlement, deep spiritual confusion and righteous determination.  Gyllenhaal abuses his natural adorability and sleepy basset hound eyes to sneak in more of Lou's ferocious tenacity and inherent soullessness, and Gilroy gives him the dangerously charismatic vocabulary of a first-class freak.  Nightcrawler isn't the most focused or original media satire, but it's a masterful portrait of skulduggery and it gleams with the pornographic beauty of Los Angeles at night.  And in that sunless electric oasis, Lou's just another person who can remain a stranger to the light, never having to acknowledge the darkness that's steadily enveloping him.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Catch-Up: Summer/Fall 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: films straddling the blockbuster/prestige picture divide.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dir. Jonathan Liebesman

2 out of 5

When you're making a film about giant talking reptiles using martial arts to protect New York City from a flamboyantly evil metal-suited samurai warlord, you're automatically given a lot of leeway.  So it's disappointing to see the latest stewards of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise - including producer Michael Bay and Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman - churn out a film that's a completely jumbled tonal and visual mess.

TMNT's problems start with a lazy script that lavishes attention on reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) while ripping off several story beats from, of all things, The Amazing Spider-Man.  April's investigation into the turtles' origin is both excruciatingly dull and frustratingly convenient: her father once worked with the film's villain, industrialist Eric Sacks (a bored William Fitchner), on the mutagen that eventually turned four box turtles into hulking karate masters.

Given the odd limitations on the heroes' screentime, the action sequences should be an ideal time to showcase their personalities.  Unfortunately, Liebesman has an established reputation for visual incoherence with films like Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles won't do much to improve.  Any flourishes that might make the film momentarily fun and buoyant are quickly overwhelmed by noisy, interminable chases or beatdowns that serve mostly to pad the runtime.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems in a hurry to get nowhere and is happy to meet a minimum standard of entertainment: a hyper-slick, colorful bit of nonsense that will distract its target demographic for 90 minutes while struggling to please anyone else.

The November Man

Dir. Roger Donaldson

3 out of 5

Pierce Brosnan's run as James Bond could be characterized as a stellar performance frequently in search of good material.  It's no surprise that immediately after shedding the Bond mantle, Brosnan moved (admittedly slowly, but that's the Hollywood machinery for you) to develop something that might play more to his strengths: Bill Granger's down-to-earth series of spy novels, the seventh installment of which serves as the inspiration for The November Man.  It's a staunchly old-school revenge film masquerading as an espionage thriller; Brosnan's character, retired CIA operative Peter Devereaux, is given agency to do more than just run and shoot stuff as he tries to outrace the younger agent (Luke Bracey) he used to mentor in a bid to capture a Russian war criminal.

The November Man has plenty of meat on its bones, layering an institutional conspiracy and the complicated backstory of a social worker (Olga Kurylenko) who may hold the key to nailing Devereaux's man.  In fact, there's a little too much going on if the film's truly aiming to reveal more of it's protagonist's psyche than the typical spy movie.  The November Man has keep several balls in the air as it races from target to target, offering Brosnan fewer chances to unwind and ultimately falling back on a single-minded pursuit of justice, always surging ahead with guns drawn.  It's got far more in common with a Liam Neeson beat-em-up than a Le Carre adaptation - an off-brand cloak-and-dagger thriller that could've been more with the right focus.

Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher

4 out of 5

The emotional hysteria of our modern spoiler-averse culture is a great hindrance for film critics who have to tiptoe around PR embargoes and an ultra-sensitive public.  That being said, the less foreknowledge you bring to Gone Girl, the better, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story from Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel.  Working from a script by Flynn, director David Fincher puts his own clinically cynical spin on marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  When his wife - the inspiration for a series of fictional children's books written by her patrician New Yorker parents - disappears from their suburban Missouri home, Nick struggles to navigate the media firestorm developing around the story, searching for his missing spouse while trying to keep the secrets of their relationship away from the public.

Gone Girl unravels with the seductive sensationalism of a Dateline mystery combined with the icy confidence of a master cinematic string-puller.  As the twists pile up, the film pivots from zeitgeist-y crime drama to unabashedly nasty, sexy, pulpy farce.  Any questions about how Fincher is interpreting the material - including the stilted scenes of Nick and Amy's early romance to the Way We Live Now monologues - should be answered by the time Tyler Perry shows up as a high-powered lawyer/image consultant tossing gummi bears at Affleck's face.  Gone Girl is wickedly fun and a great yarn, but it's merely good Fincher: terrific, but not transcendent.  As in so many of his films, Fincher holds up a mirror to the more monstrous aspects of the human condition - it just happens that this time his looking glass is more suited to a carnival funhouse.

Dir. Alexandre Aja

1.5 out of 5

The late Roger Ebert loved pointing out whenever a movie employed the Idiot Plot: a story kept in motion by characters withholding or not recognizing some basic information that would otherwise resolve the conflict.  Or, in other words, a story where everyone must necessarily be an idiot for the movie to exist.  What might he have thought of Horns, in which a young man named Ignatius "Ig" Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) begins growing satyr-like horns that lend him supernatural powers of persuasion?  Here is a plot device that could create a truly omniscient protagonist - people literally cannot lie if Ig compels them - yet it still takes an interminable two hours to arrive at its wholly dumb conclusion.

Horns is essentially a paranormal twist on a basic crime procedural conceit.  After being falsely accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend (Juno Temple), Ig becomes a pariah, descending into a spiritual malaise that lifts only when his horns begin to grow.  There's definitely potential to be found in this premise: veteran horror director Alexandre Aja adds a sardonically playful edge to the obvious Satanic metaphors, and it's fun to see Radcliffe get to cut loose and indulge his inner devil.  Unfortunately, Horns has issues with its softer side.  The tangled web of teenage relationships that drives the film is nowhere near as convincing as its (far too infrequent) moments of dark comedy.  Its understanding of love is oblivious to the point of callousness, and fatally undermines the weight and relevance of Ig's quest.  Really, a nice honest chat between a few of the characters could have ended the movie much earlier, providing a great benefit to these fictional people - and an even greater benefit to the audience.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

3.5 out of 5

Most opinions about art are as involuntary as a sneeze.  An experienced eye can discern between the basically good and bad, but there's no denying the immediate power of what we feel as we're watching a movie.  They are judged in the moment, and it takes a hell of a lot to scrape away those initial, visceral feelings to expose their underpinnings.  (They call this process criticism.)

How, then, to criticize something like Birdman, a movie where "in the moment" becomes an amorphous moving target?  It's a meta-joke, an apologia, and an artist's manifesto all rolled up into one.  And it becomes more complicated when that artist is Alejandro González Iñárritu, he of the overwrought, overbearing everything-is-connected mopefests 21 Grams and Babel.  Birdman is full of life by comparison, even as it revolves around a washed-up Hollywood actor (a revelatory Michael Keaton) slowly unraveling as he tries to resuscitate his career and earn critical respect by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.

Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, an actor known for starring as the superhero "Birdman" and a man whose bid for artistic integrity is undermined by the various crises in his personal and professional life: his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering drug addict resentful of Thomson's attempts to reconnect by hiring her as an assistant; his co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child; and his play is on the verge of catastrophe when one of his lead actors is put out of commission by a falling stage light.  Thomson's best friend and producer (Zack Galifianakis) and his other co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggest that he hire the brilliant and mercurial Method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement - a choice that provides a creative and financial jolt but has a negative net effect on Thomson's shaky psyche.  

The chaos in Iñárritu's films rests so much on calculation and coincidence that their messages and premises are at cross-purposes with their structure and style.  His solution in Birdman is to make that contradiction part of the spectacle.  You almost don't notice how hard the cast and crew are working to precisely calibrate the film's manic, freewheeling vibe.  For example: the film is shot to suggest that it is all one continuous take, but then there are the impossible transitions and costume changes and time lapses.  All of it bleeds into a heightened reality that one would expect Thomson, a highly unreliable narrator, to live in.

On the other hand, it's easy to feel like Iñárritu has chosen the most complex and difficult way to remake Noises Off.  Not-so-deeply-buried within Birdman is a satisfying backstage farce and a knowing admission of the laughably insane lengths that people will go to affirm their own flattering self-image.  Yet the longer Birdman lasts, the more subtlety it loses - nimble verbal sparring matches turn into shouty slobberknockers, two characters express their vulnerability within the framework of a Truth or Dare game, and a haughty stage critic (Lindsay Duncan) embodies  a Chef-like lack of nuance that makes me question if Iñárritu is sincere when he jokes about his industry.  

Yet whether it's too contradictory or too bloated or too overdetermined, Birdman never claims to take itself seriously (even though Iñárritu clearly does care enough to go to such impressive technical lengths).  It is audacious and insufferable, enjoyably wacky and annoyingly inconclusive.  It embodies a slogan Thomson has taped to his dressing room mirror: "A thing is a thing, not is what is said of that thing."  I don't necessarily agree with that, especially in the case of Birdman.  But one thing's for certain: it's nothing to sneeze at.  .