Thursday, February 5, 2015

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “Birdman” (2014) Review

It may not have a lot to do with 1960s cartoon heroes, but if you ask me, it’s still pretty damn good. 

As much as I generally despise both Tim Burton and the superhero subgenre,  Batman ‘89 remains one of my all-time favorite movies. In fact, it’s one of the few comic-booky movies -- along with Raimi’s second “Spider-Man” flick and the original “Robocop” -- that I would consider to be great movies independent of being great super-hero movies.

Probably my favorite scene in Batman ‘89 was the part where Bruce Wayne is about to tell Vicki Vale he’s Batman, and the Joker shows up and shoots him. There is this absolutely amazing part where Michael Keaton grabs a metal plate and just goes full-on ape-shit crazy, basically challenging the Joker to an ECW-style street-fight. That one scene, which couldn’t have been more than 15 seconds long, showed more nuance and psychological depth than anything we saw in Nolan’s trilogy -- without really saying anything, you realized Bruce Wayne was deep-down a goddamn lunatic, really no different than any of the costumed cretins he periodically kung-fus with.

The appeal of “Birdman” -- whose subtitle “Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is easily the most pretentious thing in human history -- is that basically the entire film IS that one scene from “Batman” played over-and-over for two hours. From the get-go, we KNOW Michael Keaton’s character is *this* close to snapping, “Falling Down” style, and the entirety of the film is just him spiraling closer and closer to that inevitable smorgasbord of grandiose public madness.

That said, “Birdman” really isn’t a tense film. In fact, it has an almost “Fight Club” like sardonic vibe to it, the kind of “proud to be disenchanted” mentality that we really haven’t seen in cineplexes for a good decade or so. The recession, clearly, has reached its end -- consumer angst is once again fashionable at the movies.

“Birdman” is a very, very good film. Not a great one, I feel, but certainly way, way, WAY above average for the mainstream 2014 slate. And don’t even think about giving me that “this is independent art” bullshit -- if you know who the actors are and the budget was more than one million dollars (not to mention the film is actually accessible at theaters in parts of town that aren’t primarily populated by speed dealers), the film as a whole is about as “independent” as a Starbucks franchisee.

When I first heard about “Birdman,” my thought was the same as everybody else. “They’re really making a movie about the Hanna-Barbera character?” As it turns out, though, this here “Birdman” is an entirely different kind of “Birdman,” which makes me wonder about the insane copyright issues that the filmmakers surely had to trudge through. That, in itself, would probably make a movie better than 75 percent of the flicks that have been released over the last 12 months.

Obviously, the flick is a deconstructionist work. Thankfully, it’s a good deconstructionist work, which owes far more to “Synecdoche, New York” than it does “The Watchmen.” Since Beetlejuice himself is our leading man, the entire flick takes on this surreal, meta-vibe, with Keaton seemingly playing himself playing himself at times. There’s a quick throwaway scene where a fan wants a picture with him at a bar. Her kid asks her who he is, and he tells him “he used to be Birdman.” I imagine the exact same thing playing out in real life incessantly for Mr. Keaton -- his character’s career woes feel all-too-realistic at several junctures in the film.

Strangely enough, the film is wholly anchored around a production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”  Even weirder, the in-movie adaptation takes quite a few liberties with the already obscure source material; sure, it can be read as a parallel for the plight of Michael Keaton’s washed-up main character, but at the same time, perhaps it is commentary on how modern film just can’t grasp the mechanics of the realist works of yore? A bitchy New York Times critic -- after watching Keaton literally blast his own nose off on stage -- ends up referring to the train-crash production as the first truly great work of “super realism.” This, in a film that features copious CGI and telekinesis as a prominent plot point.

As far as the general plot, it’s fairly straight forward. Keaton plays an old, balding action movie star, whose big franchise back in the day was “Birdman.” He’s been languishing in New York ever since the critical and financial disaster of the third film -- wink fucking wink, nudge godddamn nudge.

He lives in a scummy sweatbox above one of the most lackluster theaters in New York (it smells like “balls,” he tell us), periodically levitating in a Zen pose will waiting for his daughter (played by Emma Stone, who looks so gross in this movie that Helena Bonham Carters might think about suing her for stealing her shtick) to FaceTime with him. In a last ditch effort to salvage his career, he’s putting on his magnum opus play, which unfortunately, is hampered by a lack of decent supporting actors. After a disappointing fill-in gets bonked on the head by a stage light, Keaton’s agent -- played by Zach Galifinakis -- winds up landing one of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood (played by Edward Norton, who is every bit as ass-holish as he is in every other move he’s been in), who on the very first preview night, gets sloshed on gin for real and demolishes the set while everybody in the audience records it on their iPhones. Funnily, all of the other talents on his wish list -- from Michal Fassbender to Jeremy Renner -- are out making superhero movies in Hollywood.

So, Ed Norton and Emma Stone start kissing and junk, and the Naomi Watts and the woman who’s supposed to be Keaton’s girlfriend start making out, and Michael himself smokes marijuana and decides to trash his own room using psychic powers. By the way, did I mention that he hears the voice of his franchise character in his head sometimes, and periodically, he even jumps out in full superhero regalia?

At another show, Keaton ends up getting locked out of his own performance, and he has to march down Times Square (past a bunch of “Transformers” and “Spider-Man” doppelgangers, no less) to finish the show. Since it’s the year 2014, everybody uploads his embarrassing amble to YouTube. Afterwards, he gets rip-roaring drunk and tells a theater critic off, and has a hallucination that Birdman wants him to come out of retirement to make another “apocalypse porn” blockbuster, complete with rocket launchers and robotic bird beasts and lots of army men yelling and running over cars in tanks. Nobody, Birdman tells him, wants to see a bunch of “boring, talky, depressing” bullshit.

On the big opening night performance, Keaton decides to bring a real gun on stage, and he winds up shooting himself for real, while everybody applauds. The next day, there’s a global day of mourning, as he recuperates in a hospital bed. Following a final visit from his daughter, he decides to take Birdman’s advice and jump out of a window -- where, apparently, he flies away to his happy-ever-after ending.

My Score:

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four.

Helmed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- the same guy that did “21 Grams” and “Babel” -- “Birdman” is a really great “fuck you” to the modern Hollywood, dork-baiting anti-art motion picture. It’s clear that Inarritu feels utter contempt for stuff like “The Avengers,” and this is probably the finest reactionary work to the ceaseless “nerd culture” entertainment Wehrmacht to come down the pipes thus far.

It’s not to say that all of the movie is great, though. For me, that goddamn calypso drum soundtrack almost sunk the entire picture. Yeah, I know it was meant to symbolize tension and growing hostility and all, but since it plays literally throughout the entire movie, it’s undeniably annoying (although I did like the fact that they actually personified the soundtrack with a street musician character -- a nice little reconstructionist nod, if I may say so myself.)

That, and some of the contemplating scenes with Keaton do tend to drag a bit; thankfully, those scenes are few and far in between, though.

Needless to say, the acting is really great, and Michael Keaton probably deserves an Oscar for this one. While no one in the cast really comes close to matching what he accomplishes here, they ain’t too shabby, either -- especially Ed Norton, who comes off as the remarkable kind of sumbitch that only he can come off as.

I really haven’t seen much Oscar bait this year (and what little I have, I most certainly did not like) but I’d be quite surprised if “The Imitation Game” or “American Sniper” was as good as this flick. It’s not quite the acting tour de force that “12 Year a Slave,” “The Master” or “Dallas Buyers Club” were, and it’s nowhere close to reaching the comprehensive greatness of “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “A Separation,” but as a stand alone picture, “Birdman” is pretty dadgum fantastic … even if your theater is guaranteed to be filled with e-smoking douche bags, who will probably unanimously hail this one as the film of the year at the first annual Vapin’ Asshole Awards (I think it’s going to be telecast on Spike TV, if I am not mistaken.)

And you know the best part about all this? It really opens the door for even more anti-pop-culture existentialist deconstructionist works also named after antiquated cartoon characters -- if you think the work of Jodorowsky and Makavejev were something, just wait until you see “Jabberjaw.”


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