Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (R)

9 Stars

The viewer is a salmon.

Swimming up streams of consciousness, occasionally leaping between parallel tributaries to follow movements of different characters.

That’s right, folks – the old head-hopping narrator.

Extra thought provoking because the voiceover only chimes in to pester the protagonist.

What’s most noteworthy about Birdman is exactly that: Creative and original storytelling techniques.

Another example is the stylistic editing: The film has the appearance of all occurring within one take.

Therefore the cutting is minimal. Which is incredibly refreshing.

Big names are visibly acting in the same space, oftentimes physically interacting.

There’s no ‘cut to close-up’ as characters deliver dialogue, which makes for a more organic viewing experience.

(Sidenote: Hollywood should ban the ‘cut to close-up.’)

Birdman isn’t going to be your favorite, but it’s still great.

The writing is strong; the protagonist’s plight is timely and moving. The characters interact compellingly. The subject matter is thought provoking.

Although this term is overused, it takes a ‘gritty’ in-depth look at stage acting.

The metahumor is consistent and pointed. Even the casting is ironic.

Michael Keaton playing the washed up retired superhero. Edward Norton as a pompous know-it-all veteran.

Wanna know who’s excellent? Naomi Watts.

She delivers a stellar performance as Lesley; in a role that somewhat calls back to Mulholland Drive, in which she plays a sexually conflicted up-and-coming actress.

Emma Stone is ten types of terrific, but they shouldn’t have spoiled her monologue in the trailer.

Turns out Zach Galifianakis can play off-type extremely well, which comes as no surprise.

Andrea Riseborough is lesser known, but holds her own.

Finally, Amy Ryan plays a totally different character from her role in Gone Baby Gone and fits in perfectly with a slew of other great performers.

Although the trailer spoils most, the special effects are decent enough.

The surreal portion is a welcome addition to the common cinematic experience, and contributes uniquely.

Birdman’s a visual treat, as they say.

People seem to enjoy this flick. After all, what’s not to like?

It’s still in limited release, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding a screening nearby.

Expect a moving dramatic piece about the thespian business and you shouldn’t feel disappointed.

As always, the best advice remains the same.

Be a salmon – expect nothing, and eventually, you’ll feel something.

Resonates nicely with the subtitle, no?

X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13)

9 Stars

Wouldn’t it be best to change the team name to X-Humans?

I’m kidding, of course.

Want to know what isn’t hysterical?

A ‘loose canon.’

The exact origin of the nautical phrase is uncertain. It’s presumably sailor jargon for a canon breaking free of the rigging keeping it stationary. Imagine one hundred pounds of cast iron rolling about a storm beaten ship deck.

The phrase is overused. But one can understand this reviewer’s hesitation, when associating the live-action depiction of Wolverine with a loose canon.

Ever since Cyclops’s cinematic demise, the clawed crusader’s gone a little soft.

Jackman’s Wolverine is much less of an antihero. He’s more compassionate, no longer a recluse. And wouldn’t you know it – he stars in this film, too.

Despite the saccharine portrayal, I’ll take plenty more sequels with Hugh at the helm, because Days of Future Past is excellent.

What sets the X-Men apart from other comic creations is time travel, success through crafty teamwork and mutant segregation. This movie tackles the entire thematic trio with vigor.

First some notes on the acting, directing and writing. Then the fighting. And finally, a gloriously thought-provoking takeaway.

Before any of that, a warning to spoiler-sensitive readers. Cease your literary digestion and devour DOFP before it vacates the big screen.

James Marsden is excellent as Cyclops in X-Men (2000), and fourteen years later proves he’s still got it.

By the by, after all this talk of ‘getting the gang back together,’ it’s a bit underwhelming with only one scene featuring Cyclops, Rogue or Jean Grey.

All’s forgiven, because DOFP’s greatest achievement is the creation of a ‘narrative reset.’ The denouement (the falling action after the climax) indicates the button’s been depressed, removing any narrative restrictions set by the previous films.

There are too many characters to mention but for hints toward each player’s prominence, check the theatrical poster (not pictured). The relative size of the character’s image to screen time ratio looks exactly to scale.

Ellen Page returns for a particularly great performance as Kitty Pryde. Her only previous appearance is from The Last Stand back in 2006, making her unique amongst the supporting players.

Another reliable favorite from the earlier films, Shawn Ashmore, delivers as Iceman. He’s easy to love and fights quite a bit, too.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Mystique and doesn’t disappoint. The blue beauty engages in some serious hand-to-hand combat, and it’s consistently thrilling.

She’s an enormous talent. My sister groans every time the young actress’s name is uttered. However, if pressed, even my sister will agree J-Law’s a dynamite thespian.

Perhaps she doesn’t usurp her last performance in American Hustle. But Mystique is one of the more difficult roles. She must remain on the villainous side of morality while conveying a pitiable sense of decency.

There’s a nod to Rebecca Romijn in the movie, as well as a reference I can’t quite figure out. In Shanghai Noon, Owen Wilson quotes James Brown in saying, “I don’t know karate, but I do know ka-razy.”

So when Wolverine says it, I assume it’s a nod to Shanghai Noon. Perhaps others disagree?

Michael Fassbender plays young Magneto, and delivers a fitting performance as one of our best actors working today.

A major personal criticism of earlier X-Men films is the underwhelming action. There are always fight scenes, but oftentimes they’re brief and never elaborate enough. For example, consider the action involving Banshee in First Class, the most recent film from 2011.

To be clearer, consider the two major fights involving Beast. In First Class, Nicholas Hoult doesn’t throw a single punch on-screen during the final brawl on the Cuban beach. Whether or not Hoult lands a blow, his battlefield presence pales in comparison to Kelsey Grammer’s ferocity at Alcatraz in The Last Stand.

DOFP opens with a spectacular fight sequence. Really, it’s one of the best superhero battles ever. But it’s brief, and trumps all other physical conflicts (in terms of quality) occurring later on.

The sentinels are superbly rendered, and the teamwork dynamic is explored throughout various altercations between mutants and robots. Sending Colossus falling through warp holes (in order to achieve maximum velocity) is genius.

My sole request from the X-Men franchise remains the same: A further exploration of collaborative battle tactics. Engage the audience with higher stakes, alternative bits of terrain, contrasting settings, differing elevations, complex character pairings, elaborate face-offs; more tense and intricate ‘continuous action’ sequences that last for minutes, rather than seconds.

Good examples of what I refer to are found in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (but without the teamwork dynamic.)

What’s absent is ultimately inconsequential. I want a final fight scene, one in which the X-Men collaborate to triumph over the ultimate villain. One in which they don’t all die.

I never receive my bejeweled battle, but in retrospect, am pleased with the filmmakers’ decision. Everybody loves a superhero movie that doesn’t fit the mold.

Besides, I’ll trade anything for the narrative reset.

When Magneto informs Charles (James McAvoy) of a misunderstanding (pertaining to J.F.K.’s assassination) a hearty stroke of laughter pierces the canopy of suspended disbelief.

Apparently a fellow moviegoer buys into the whole story leading up, but JFK being assassinated for his mutation is just too silly to remain silent.

That, my friends, is a person looking for a place to laugh.

‘Because everybody’s thinking it, right?’

No, you scoundrel!

Moving right along; Beast’s serum is tough to swallow, but other than the lackluster fighting and Professor X’s whining, here’s my final criticism.

Magneto’s mutation allows him to manipulate metal. This doesn’t include an ability to remotely control or reprogram computerized machinery. Therefore, the process by which he gains their support would be much more complicated than simply imbuing the sentinels with metallic cables.

That’s a major inconsistency, and like the serum, I’m sure it’s necessary to tie up loose narrative threads. For my tastes, it’s not quite tidy enough.

By the way, superhero movies are constantly berated for being male-oriented entertainment.

In DOFP there is one scene involving nudity, and it’s Wolverine from behind.

I’m not complaining.

When the political correctors start to cry out for a more ‘accepting’ team moniker, I’ll remind them of this previous gender imbalance.

How’s that for conclusive?

Breathtaking, isn’t it?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

9 Stars

Certifiably rotten, huh?

I politely disagree.

Like the phrase dictates: ‘It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.’

Well, I’m not large in stature. So imagine the superhuman integrity it takes for me to say:

I was incorrect, ladies and gentlemen.

But only partially.

(Check out my review of The Amazing Spider-Man to see why. It’s factually accurate, but my skepticisms surrounding a series reboot come across too boldly.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a fantastic movie, particularly as it pertains to the superhero genre.

Frankly I’m surprised the movie’s been received unfavorably by critics. After rifling through several reviews, I find few criticisms worthy of contention. I suppose, ultimately, the appreciation is very subjective.

In my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I put forward a thesis about what makes a sequel ‘great.’ I reworked it for the purposes of this review.

A great sequel furthers and expands the central narrative. It introduces relevant new elements offering alternative perspectives resonating within thematic ideas established by the previous film; all while maintaining suspenseful thrills and compelling character interactions. Finally, it evolves the conflict, and (in the case of a multi-part series) offers an emotional bridge tethering us from one film to the next.

Therefore, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) is overwhelmed.

Garfield is an excellent web-slinger, he ratchets up the witty banter in the second installment and is quite lovable as the protagonist. Peter’s relationship with Gwen (played by Emma Stone) is cute, relatable and touching.

The more (for lack of a better word) ‘romantic’ parts are fast paced and riveting. So the movie doesn’t get mired in lovey-dovey gobbledy gook.

Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon/Electro is a highly sympathetic character. Which works great for a supervillain! We feel for his desire for verification, his dreams of celebrity and notions of grandiosity.

Speaking of well-written supervillains, one of the best parts of the movie is when the bad guys conspire. It’s a believable scene, justifying an evil alliance, and it’s an aspect of cinematic superhero stories that’s never executed properly.

Dane DeHaan is solid as Harry Osborn, especially in the form of the Green Goblin.

The primary complaints are an unfocused narrative, an overabundance of characters and an overly action-packed final battle scene. These are all generalized, subjective criticisms and I couldn’t disagree more.

One review compares the final fight scene to the destructive culmination of Man of Steel. I found the criticism absurd when people were ‘shocked’ by the chaotic final battle sequence in last year’s reboot of Superman. And I still think it’s ridiculous to criticize a superhero film for being ‘overly destructive.’

We’re dealing with superhuman beings here, folks; if we’re to accept this reality then buildings must tumble.

There are two points of contention worth discussing: Paul Giamatti’s character (Aleksei Sytsevich) and the needless scene where the airplanes avoid collision.

Beginning with the former, this is Giamatti’s worst role ever. For whatever reason, his character feels very artificial, primarily because we can’t understand his dialogue. The film also doesn’t explore his background; probably a contributing factor to the ‘overabundance of characters.’

As for the latter point, there’s a scene in which the city’s power becomes compromised. A slew of minor characters are introduced for a brief sequence. Basically, these scenes illustrate the potential problems resulting from losing electricity. The air traffic control team waits for the power to turn on so they can warn two planes of imminent collision.

The sequence isn’t pointless; they’re trying to show us something. But why wasn’t it removed from the final cut? It’s ultimately a major derailment that doesn’t justifiably build on the story.

I have one final thing to mention, but can’t do it without spoiling something major. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet, stop reading here.

Lastly, the confusion surrounding Aunt May’s role is worthy of note.

Post-viewing, my buddy mentioned being bored by the interactions between Peter Parker and his aunt (played by Sally Field.)

Whether you appreciate it or not; the filmmakers are establishing a contrast between Aunt May and Gwen Stacy. This dichotomy illustrates a correlation to Peter. The knowledge of his alter ego seems to place his loved ones in danger.

When Peter and Aunt May are interacting, he’s attempting to keep one variable in his experiment constant. Towards the end of the movie, his hypothesis is proven, and the way to move forward is clear. By refusing verification, he can protect Aunt May from the dangers of his other life.

I’m trying to be careful about spoiling a plot point I consider crucial, but will conclude with the following remark.

Your appreciation of this movie will depend much, it seems, on your willingness to engage with the narrative. If you’re a superhero/Spidey fan, you’re bound to enjoy this movie, even if you don’t love it as much as me.

Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an innovative and original flick, with a polished narrative that takes chances and attempts to illustrate aspects of superhero stories we’re unfamiliar with.

Good on you, director Marc Webb, for throwing together a sequel worthy of a trip to the theater.

Iron Man 3 (PG-13)

9 Stars

Ever wonder what a great superhero movie looks like?

Iron Man 3 is #9 on my ‘Top Films of 2013’ list.

The efficiency with which Marvel executes their film franchise is delightful. It’s almost unbelievable what they’re accomplishing in a timely fashion, while retaining quality in their product.

Iron Man 2 did not meet the usual standard, by any stretch of the imagination. If you think about it, the sequel retells the same story as The Great Mouse Detective.

Mind blown?

The third’s different.

First and foremost, the fights and action sequences are spectacular. Elaborate cinematic moments are captured through beautiful camerawork and near-perfect CGI.

And boy oh boy the story’s gripping. It’s packed with tension and emotional.

Here’s what works about the fourth installment (counting The Avengers) in Iron Man’s narrative arc.

First of all, it’s a deceptively small but tight cast.

Robert Downey Jr. is easily the weakest part of this film.

I’m kidding of course. He’s perfect as always.

Some critical opinion has been directed toward the adoption of voiceover narration so late in the series. While this claim’s easily permissible, it’s just as easily argued.

I never considered the voiceover out of place, and it’s certainly not off-putting. It’s a much more personal story with a character whose heroism we’ve grown accustomed to.

One might even say the narrative’s improved by the voiceover.

Stark feels locked up inside his own head. He’s a thinking machine without enough waking minutes left in his lifetime to reach full potential.

He is afraid. He literally awakes in midair; the audience and Tony become conscious of it simultaneously.

This scene utilizes a noteworthy camera technique – as if the audience is watching from the interior of the iron faceplate.

And it’s all interwoven seamlessly.

One might find these plot points contrived. I would disagree on these grounds: From what other material is the writer supposed to draw? He is bound by restrictions set in pre-existing narratives, and anxiety over these issues is exactly what a Tony Stark in our present reality would be struggling with.

Shane Black deserves a hearty round of applause for not only directing; he’s also credited as one of the writers.

Has Don Cheadle ever been less than delightful?

Again I find it hilarious no one noticed Terrence Howard’s replacement in the second until way after the third. (For more on this topic, read my review of Prisoners.)

There are the moments where Jon Favreau’s character (Happy Hogan) is so funny, you’re certain the painful comedic moment’s imminent. And of course it never shows up. Favreau’s spot-on.

Guy Pearce turns in a transformative performance as Aldrich Killian in two separate timeframes. Even though he’s more an unknown, he’s as good as the rest.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts is excellent. I’m surprised looking at her cinematic history, because she hasn’t done much outside this role.

I think Paltrow’s really great in this film, and her character’s one of the reasons Iron Man 3 goes above and beyond.

Pepper is supposed to be the lovable and dependable love interest. Tony’s constantly struggling to physically protect her while maintaining their relationship. As a fan of the comics, that’s all I’d expect from her portrayal on the big screen. But there’s a scene where Pepper ends up inside the suit and actually protects the unarmored Stark from certain death.

That’s great writing and the moment’s touching, fun and empowering. It also serves to satisfy the snootier audiences who require such details.

And as a final note, speaking of good writing, Ben Kingsley is an excellent villain.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the comic books or superhero movies, Iron Man 3 is a spectacular film for audiences of all sorts.

The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13)

7 Stars

The Web-Slinga.

I often wonder if I’m the last in a dying breed. As a teenager, I bought the bound volumes of The Amazing Spider-Man and read Nos. 1 – 40.

Years later I’d purchase the DVD box set of the 1967 animated television series. I watched about half the episodes because they start to get repetitive. Although it’s pretty good, I’m convinced the popularity of the show was largely increased by the catchy, swingin’ theme.

I remember my sole regret back in 2002 upon our introduction to Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. My greatest complaint about Spider-Man was the discovery of an innate ability to produce webbing. In the illustrated series, he constructs the web-slinging wrist devices himself.

This may appear inconsequential.

But part of the brilliance in the original writing shines through in Peter’s ability to adapt. It is the intelligence he brings from being a bookworm, combined with the radioactive agility and strength, which allows him to make use of devices like the ‘web-shooters’.

Only when the two collaborate (with Peter developing a mental innovation to remedy the physical conflict), does he transition from hero to superhero.

In the literature, Spider-Man develops a utility belt with extra compartments for web cartridges, spider tracers, his camera, and a buckle which functions as the spider signal.

Batman was created in the 30’s; the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man was released in 1962. I don’t know for certain but on top of other obvious similarities, the Spider-Mobile (a dune buggy which proves more trouble than it’s worth) pushes the supposition over the edge. It seems like Stan Lee wrote the illustrated seriesin response to DC Comics’s caped crusader.

Here’s the basic formula of each issue: Peter’s living life, a super villain with complex motivations shows up and reigns momentary terror. Spider-Man grapples with his new enemy to no avail. Meanwhile the conflicts of superhero life metaphorically resonate with the trials in his unmasked existence.

And then it would take a combination of his Spidey abilities, and the formation of a plan (with potentially a new gadget for the belt) to bring the super villain to justice.

This movie is misleadingly named because it’s based off the “Ultimate Spider-Man” comic series. I won’t get into the bevy of frustration that comes along with that.

In The Amazing Spider-Man, not only does Peter construct the web-shooters, but also he’s fighting The Lizard (who was an earlier villain than the Green Goblin.) Mary Jane has a different name and hair color however, and J. Jonah Jameson and his Daily Bugle are nowhere to be found.

Peter’s stint in underground cage brawling is also omitted, but it’s handled well because they give it a nod. And to be fair, the first film successfully executed that plot sequence. X-Men utilized a similar plot element as well. I appreciate the writers’ choice to cover new material instead.

That’s just one of many key plot points sacrificed on behalf of the reboot.

Anyway, enough comic blather. Let’s discuss The Amazing Spider-Man in depth.

First of all, it’s time we retire the whistling teapot from the pantheon of tension building auditory cues. Whosoever utilizes the prop henceforth shall be deemed a hack.

There. It is done!

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the original writer and illustrator of the comic series, were brought on to help with the screenplay.

If this isn’t the greatest Stan Lee cameo, I don’t know what is. I’m aware of the hatred for the cameos, but can’t connect with that particular criticism. Seems like a genuinely contrarian concern.

Martin Sheen’s a total chameleon in this movie, I had no idea it was him.

Sally Field, who I didn’t enjoy as Mary Todd Lincoln, turns in an excellent performance as Aunt May.

Emma Stone’s dependably fantastic. And I’m digging the blonde hairdo she’s rocking as Gwen Stacy. (That name’s a classic ‘firsty, firsty; girly, girly’ by the way.)

Emma’s pretty funny. But can’t we call her Mary Jane, and steadily rinse Kirstin Dunst from our memory?

I saw The Bachelorette. It was ungood.

Denis Leary’s okay. He doesn’t have an easy role, but does his best to make it fun.

Andrew Garfield turns in a solid performance. I like his quieter, more hipster Peter Parker. The only place he falls short is the witty banter. Perhaps this is a function of the writing, but Spidey’s jokester attitude’s not up to snuff.

I bring up the following weakness because it’s a bit heinous.

After a stupid scene where Pete gets beat up by Flash Thompson (the worst part of the film although it’s probably not Chris Zylka’s fault) all of the other high schoolers steadily depart.

One random dude kicks Peter’s camera a couple feet across the concrete while he lies beaten on the ground. It’s totally uncalled for and he’s not Flash’s friend. It’s just another guy in the crowd.

Nobody would behave like that! It’s a hilariously bad cherry atop a melted sundae.

There’s a nice little dichotomy to be drawn between Flash and the Lizard.

Speaking of, I’ve got no complaints about Rhys Ifans as the Lizard. Although I wish he’d worn the purple pants.

The CGI’s not perfect but it’s generally very good.

Some plot points have been unnecessarily translated from the first movie. For example, Dr. Connors feels torn between two personalities (he’s even doing the old mirror trick) and the Lizard consciousness encourages mischief.

It’s the reptilian brain after all, so perhaps this is the better context, but the question remains:

Did it have to be the exact same dynamic for the transformation of the super villain?

Again I must applaud the writers for their choice towards the end. There is a small, unexpected moment; a great twist on the classic hero/villain relationship.

If there’s one thing in cinema I despise, it’s bad ADR, and there are a handful of moments where the auditory puppet strings lose translucence.

Most specifically and egregiously, the conversation between Spidey and the criminal in the car underwent tinkering.

The film’s biggest fault is that it’s retelling most of the story from the original. For example, the dynamic between Peter and Uncle Ben is the same. When he scolds Peter about revenge, it’s all too clear where things are going.

My oh my oh my. The Amazing Spider-Man is much too similar to Spider-Man.

I don’t know how to solve this problem, but it certainly points toward a greater truth.

Ultimately, after much research, I’ve realized Sony Pictures is a villain akin to the Lizard. They both have complex motivations; disallowing my complete condemnation.

Sony bought up the rights to Spider-Man during a time when Marvel needed money and was selling brands to different studios. For example, 20th Century Fox grabbed X-Men. After telling a fantastic origin story in the first film, director Sam Raimi followed up with Spider-Man 2; a movie that is widely regarded as spectacular.

Finally in 2007, Spider-Man 3 is released.

Now we arrive at the first of two causes for my ire. I’ll argue with anyone that Spider-Man 3 is a good movie with one horrifically bad scene, and perhaps another shabby one. Part of the reason for a reboot was the increasing animosity between the director and the studio heads. Raimi was pushing for greater creative control in Spider-Man 4, after feeling pressured by the studio to force certain plot points into the third installment.

In my life, there has never been a more highly anticipated movie to be received with such vehement disgust as Spider-Man 3. I didn’t see it until long after its release to DVD. So whenever it arose in conversation, I’d ask if it’s worth my time, and always received a negative response. Not one person recommended I watch it.

Of course I eventually did, and was surprisingly pleased with what I was given. The fights alone are excellent. But that one ‘emo Peter’ scene where he’s walking down the sidewalk, shooting the finger guns at the ladies; is nauseating. It’s a pandering piece of garbage riddled with cliché.

It’s the kind of inexplicable moment that makes you wonder: What kind of self-respecting director would mar his hard work by including such an obvious error in the final cut?

I doubt it was Raimi’s choice.

So my point is, I’m suspicious that Sony is to be blamed for that particularly terrible scene. A scene that unfairly stilted public opinion against the third film. One that hurt the fan boys hardest and ruined the integrity of a promising franchise.

Therefore we get to 2012. If Sony doesn’t produce another Spider-Man film, the rights to the brand will revert to Marvel. Presumably that means Walt Disney Pictures, who also owns The Avengers brand.

Given the way Sony’s handled Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man, I’d have much preferred Disney ended up with the rights.

I can understand Sony’s wish to hold onto the Spider-Man brand. But clearly the series was rebooted too quickly if they wanted to include the origin story.

Perhaps the reboot will continue into excellence, and The Amazing Spider-Man (much like Iron Man 2)will fade along with K-Dunst.

It’s just sad to see a historically beloved and brilliant narrative quickly rehashed like a throwaway piece of ephemera.

It’d be nice if we got a visually seamless film this time around. Come May 2nd, we’ll see how things pan out.

Looks like Jamie Foxx is playing Electro, who’s a snarky cool villain.

So this ought to be good. Right?

Let’s hope so.