Review – You think pigeons are bad for statues? (“Birdman”)

Where do I start to praise this movie? The cinematography? The script? The acting? The jaw-dropping direction? The sheer madness of putting this lunacy on film? I sure hope this movie sweeps the Oscars next year, because it would be deserved.

We begin with Riggan Thomson (an amazing Michael Keaton) as a washed-up and on-the-edge Hollywood actor who’s desperately trying to shake the persona of “Birdman”, a superhero character he played in three mega-blockbuster movies, before he chucked the whole thing and left for Broadway. Riggan wants to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s dated short story. A risky, challenging move, but he has to do this, if not for himself, then for his sanity which is, shall we say, questionable.

It’s almost opening night and the lead actor gets knocked out by a falling light. This brings in Mike Shine (Edward Norton–outstanding), an illustrious Broadway actor whose ego-mania is as grand as his solid acting skills. The play’s crazed producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is thrilled, but co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) isn’t exactly overjoyed–she and Mike once had an affair. 

Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter Samantha (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, serves as his acerbic, fed-up assistant manager and, in a one dynamic scene, lays into her father with a torrent of hate-filled words that is just painful to watch.
After a bumpy preview night with a live audience, Shiner goes nuts on stage (there wasn’t REAL Vodka in his glass!) and ruins the first act, stopping the show dead. Riggan, slowly losing his grip on reality, keeps hearing the voice of his Birdman alter-ago criticizing him and urging him to go back to the movies where he belongs. But he can’t; he won’t. “I don’t want to be just a question on a Trivial Pursuit card!” he screams back at his empty dressing room.
Things start to unravel: Riggan and Shine have at each other over creative differences, the local theater critic and powerful influence in town, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) hates Riggan with a seething passion and promises to kill his play even without seeing it, and Riggan lives the ultimate actor’s nightmare. . .being locked out of a theater while it’s playing and has to run around the block to get in… wearing only his underwear… in Times Square!
The surprise, surreal, and shocking ending is nothing less than you’d expect from this bizarre movie that is SO engaging from the first opening shot to the last. What’s even more impressive, is the amazing way is was shot; one single continuous long take. Okay, so wasn’t really ONE take; that’s impossible, but like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s shot in long 3-10 minute takes and then edited with clever “cheats” as the camera passes by a person, wall, or goes down a darken hallway. It’s simply ingenious and wonderful to watch.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (who also wrote the screenplay with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo), his deft hand with the Panaflex camera is on a whole new level here. Shot on location at the real St. James Theater in NYC, it lends not only pure realism to the film, but also a heightened sense of claustrophobia as the camera whizzes down cramped corridors and hallways and into tiny dressing rooms.

Add to this the pulse-pounding jazz drumming score of Antonio Sanchez and the remarkable acting talents of Keaton, Norton, and Stone and you have a damn good film here with a modicum of the supernatural along with some very dark humor. It’s also a theater-geek’s dream with all the tech-talk. You really have to hand it to Keaton to portray this character that is so close to his home with his own persona and pull off such a Oscar-worthy performance. Do yourself a huge favor and go see this!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”. One of the most quoted lines in film history is from this movie about a washed-up actress who wants to make a come-back, but it’s clear her time is over. WAY over.

Starting with a flashback, the body of Joe Gillis (William Holden) lies floating dead in a pool. We hear through Joe’s narration exactly what events led to this tragic day. Y’see, six months earlier, Joe was a down-on-his-luck screenwriter trying to sell a script to Paramount Pictures, but it’s harshly turned down.

While driving away from the repo people, Joe turns into the driveway of a seemingly deserted mansion. After hiding his car, he hears a woman calling him, apparently mistaking him for someone else. Ushered in by Max (Erich Von Strohein), the butler, Joe recognizes the woman as long-forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Learning he is a writer, she asks his opinion of a script she has written for a film about Salome, the daughter of King Herod. She plans to play the role herself for a comeback, but Joe finds her script horrible, but flatters her into hiring him as a script doctor because, hey, the money’s good!

He reluctantly moves into Norma’s mansion at her insistence and sees that, not only has Norma refused to face the fact that her fame has evaporated, but the fan letters that she receives are secretly written by Max! Joe feels kinda foolish getting paid for such a dog of a script and, at a lavish party, feels worse when the party goers think he and Norma are a couple!

Meanwhile, Norma thinks her Salome script is greenlighted through a misunderstanding and starts to undergo crazy beauty treatments. Joe, while moonlighting at Paramount, is found out by Max, who reveals that he was once a respected film director and discovered Norma as a teenage girl, made her a star, and married her. After she divorced him, he found life without her unbearable and abandoned his career to become her servant!

Norma, thinking her script has been usurped, threatens to kill herself. But Joe, tired of her antics and senility, disregards Norma’s threat’s and tells her that the public has forgotten her, that there’s not going to be any comeback, no film, and that all the fan letters are from Max. Big mistake, Joe! Norma shoots him three times and he falls into the pool.

In the now famous conclusion, the police arrive to arrest Norma, but Max has set the house up with cameras to film her “big scene” for Salome because Norma as clearly gone bonkers and lost all touch with reality.

Directed by the great Billy Wilder and co-writted by him and Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., this is one the ‘essentials’ of classic movies to own. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it’s in AFI’s Best 100 Films of the 20th Century, AND the Library of Congress as well as the National Film Registry. Yeah, I know… wow!

Shot in black and white, it’s spectacularly good and has a plethora of famous Hollywood actor cameos, inside jokes and references, and bears a scathing resemblance to an actual unsolved murder case in 1922 involving silent screen legend Mabel Normand.


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