Category: review (Page 1 of 2)

Birdman or the Irony of Established Filmmakers Perfecting Movies About Failure

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) almost made me want to give up trying to become a writer, artist, or creator. Not because of the story’s content, although it did give me a lot to chew on.

No, the reason it made me want to give up is because, like when I read Fitzgerald or Bradbury, I can’t imagine ever being able to create something so perfectly realized. It’s like Alejandro Inaritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo (the four credited writers of Birdman) reached into my head, took all of the thoughts I’ve had about fame and artistic success, and told a better story with that inspiration than I ever could. It encapsulated a lot of my thoughts and feelings about one’s ambition to be an artist. Like Inside Llewyn Davis before it, established, successful filmmakers communicated the plight of the fledgling artist better than the fledging artist himself can.

In my estimation, the film picks apart art and artists through three separate characters. There is Riggan, the main character; Mike, Riggan’s foil for much of the film; and Sam, Riggan’s daughter. Let’s take a look at the ideas they embody one by one.

Riggan: Riggan represents the commercial, aging, soulless artist that may or may not have pursued acting for the right reasons but, as he’s gotten older, becomes obsessed with leaving a legacy behind. This resonates with me because part of the reason I want to be a writer is a vague attempt at leaving something behind that might allow me to be remembered.

Mike: Mike is pure artistry, only able to be his true self when he’s on stage. Renowned for his talent, he rejects all attempts at commercialism. I think the majority of those who are serious about writing feel this way. They look at what makes money in Hollywood, compare that with their idea of what makes a good movie, and notice a pretty huge discrepancy. Neither Riggan nor Mike understand the idea of a balance between art and accessibility.

Sam: The uncaring world. At one point, Sam has a great monologue about what motivates Riggan to put on the play at the center of the story. She explains that the only person whom the play’s success or failure matters for is him. No one else cares about his art. It’s a great point: How self-involved do we have to believe that the things we create matters to anyone but us? I tell myself I write stories and screenplays because I want to make people feel joy/inspiration/terror/thoughtfulness/whatever else I tell myself matters at any particular moment, but why should I assume they care?

Those three characters represent the extremes of every debate about art and its place in the world that I can think of. I’ve struggled with all three of those thoughts more than once while writing and thinking about why I want to write.

I think that Mike is what artists, whether writers, musicians, or painters, prefer to see themselves as. It’s what Riggan strives to be. But it’s not necessarily what any of us are, especially if we’re successful (not that I’d know what that’s like). There is a certain loftiness we all ascribe to our arts, but that loftiness also makes us inaccessible and pretentious. Riggan, on the other hand, is affable. He’s spent a career giving people what they want and being rewarded for it. This, I think, is ultimately the path we’re all on. Does something exist if no one acknowledges it? Popularity is the only sign of success that means anything.

That’s where Sam comes in. She is indifferent to everything and everyone for the most part, only coming to life when there is something more substantial beyond the “art” everyone is peddling. Her character, and what her character represents, is something I think about constantly. Why should anyone care what I think? Why should anyone care that I’m trying to do this thing over here when they can see that thing over there? The other characters need to justify their existence to her, just as any artist needs to justify their existence to the world at large.

There were some lofty ideas in Birdman that were wrapped up in a beautiful technical package and delivered by excellent performances. I just hate that the ideas that I spend my time obsessing over have already been stated in such an elegant way.

Damn you, Inaritu.

Whiplash and Ambition

I’ve given a lot of thought to ambition and what it means in life. The question of how far one is willing to go to succeed or, if success isn’t enough, become “the best” and immortalize themselves -somehow (I’ve also given a lot of thought to that concept and it seems like fool’s gold, to be honest) – is one I think every serious artist needs to ask. Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, shows what life is like when ruled by ambition.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19 year-old jazz drumming prodigy with the hopes of become the next Buddy Rich. JK Simmons plays his jazz conductor/mentor, Terence Fletcher, a maniacal and borderline psychopathic man bent on pushing his students past their limits and, in his eyes, hopefully, to greatness.

The film revolves around these two characters and the music. Everything else – Andrew’s father (played by a very tender Paul Reiser), Andrew’s love interest (Melissa Benoist), and his social group that is non-existent outside of his competitors – is background noise. This is a deliberate choice, as the story is about the ambition of two men, one burgeoning and the other past his prime, and nothing else. When we meet Andrew he is alone with his drums and Fletcher walks in to judge him. When we leave Andrew he isn’t alone, but he may as well be, and his relationship with Fletcher has evolved.

I was struck by how little judgement Chazelle passes on his characters and their ambition. One can read the story in, essentially, two different ways depending on your own values.

1.) Andrew and Fletcher ruin their own lives with their ambition. Andrew becomes unhinged throughout the story in his single-minded pursuit of greatness, isolating himself from his family, failing to make friends, and losing the girl he pined for. Fletcher, meanwhile, loses his job at Shaffer conservatory and his chance at finding what he hopes will be the next Charlie Parker.

2.) Andrew and Fletcher both succeed only because of their unrelenting focus on what they want. After overcoming Fletcher’s sabotage (in retribution for getting him fired from Shaffer) Andrew wows the audience with a 9-minute drum solo and earns Fletcher’s respect. Meanwhile, Fletcher realizes that Andrew is the great student he was seeking his entire career.

I can see it both ways. To me, I think they both wrecked themselves emotionally and socially. However, neither character cared about their own or others emotions nor their social standing. All either character cared about was becoming “great.” In that sense, the ending hints that they both achieved that goal. The sacrifices they made – losing the girl, being fired from the job – weren’t really sacrifices because they didn’t prevent them from succeeding.

I prefer my first interpretation, because the second troubles me.

Before I actually took the step of moving to Virginia, I used to often think about what it would take for me to realize my potential. I felt distracted in Buffalo, like having friends and family that I cared about and wanted to spend time with was a bad thing. I thought, as Andrew does in the film, that I needed a singular focus on becoming the best possible artist I could become.

Now that I’ve lived away from home for three years and have had the opportunity to let writing be my singular focus, I realize how naive that was.

For writers, at least, as I have no experience playing drums outside of Rock Band for XBox 360, the support of friends and family, and the existence of hobbies, is what gets you through becoming a writer. Those things are the inspiration a writer needs to flourish, not flounder. It takes a lot of time commitment to become great at something, that’s true, but I am of the opinion that without the opportunity to share success with others, all the time spent alone reaching for “greatness” isn’t worth it. Neglecting aspects of your lives may make you great at one thing, but it won’t fulfill every area of life that needs fulfilling. It won’t make you well-rounded.

Of course, that’s just me and my perspective. Someone else, someone who has that singular focus, may view Andrew and Fletcher’s story as one with a happy ending. That’s one of the many beautifully done things in the film. And that’s one of the many reasons it’s worth seeing.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Balance

You guys. I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy. It was pretty awesome. It’s alternately funny, dramatic, and adorable – sometimes all at once. What I noticed, especially with the audience reactions, was that each shift in tone played into the other based on the situation and the character.

Granted, it’s not high art by any means. It has its flaws, including what I felt were certain missteps in tonal balance, but it hardly affects the film as a whole.

I think the best example of the tonal balance the film strikes, and how it utilizes its characters and the situations they find themselves in to do that, is found in the Walkman that Chris Pratt’s character, Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) carries around with him. To a casual observer the Walkman is his link to Earth, which gives it a certain amount of significance so we don’t question his reactions when something happens to it. For example, when he’s in prison he goes out of his way to find it when it’s stolen by one of the guards, even though he puts his life and those of his compatriots in danger. It’s meaningful to him. Later (SPOILER ALERT) we learn that the Walkman isn’t important to him just because it’s the one thing he has left from Earth; it’s important to him because it’s something he shared with his mother – whom we see die in the movies opening. He cares about it so much because it’s his link back to her.

But what’s great about the Walkman is that it also lends an air of fun to everything. After we watch Peter’s mother die and him be abducted by aliens, we cut ahead 20 some-odd years to what we at first perceive to be another dire situation. He’s on a dead world searching for something. Dangerous looking creatures run around fighting one another. He hits the Walkman and “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts playing. Peter begins to dance through the ruins, grabs one of those dangerous looking creatures, and uses it as a microphone. It adds character-depth and makes the scene fun to watch. We like this guy and we want to hang out with him.

There are a ton of moments like that in the movie. From Drax the Destroyer’s tragic past and need for vengeance, but his inability to understand metaphor to Rocket Racoon’s awareness of what makes him different tempered by his sarcastic wit and fighting spirit. The situations create drama for the characters to wring comedy from, and the drama between the characters creates comedic situations. But, most importantly, all of this serves to take the audience on a wild journey and endear them to the characters.

I have a tendency to wallow in my character’s tragedies, which can suck the life out of a story. Balance is important. But it works best when that balance is based in the characters. Guardians of the Galaxy pulls this off like it’s an easy thing to do.

Edge of Tomorrow: When Did Tom Cruise Become Our Most Reliable Sci-Fi Star?

I saw Edge of Tomorrow last weekend. I know it’s been out a month already and there’s already been a lot written about it. Whatever, I don’t care. I want to write about. And this is my blog so I can do whatever I want (within reason, of course). Are we clear? Good, moving on.

When the fuck did Tom Cruise become our most reliable sci-fi star? Seriously, think about his output over the past 15 years or so. Starting in 2001 with Vanilla Sky he’s starred in (or been part of the impetus for) some of the best science fiction that’s been released in theaters. Let’s look at the output, shall we?

Vanilla Sky (2001): Based on the Spanish film Abre Los Ohos and directed by Cameron Crowe, this is a mindfuck of a film that works until the too-clean ending. I prefer it, personally, to the Spanish version because of Cruise’s charismatic and somewhat ballsy performance. But as a science fiction film, it does an excellent job of playing with audience expectations and bringing you into the mind of such a confused character. The ending is pretty bad, true, but if it wasn’t explained that everything after he woke up in the alleyway was part of his dream (Spoiler alert for a 13 year old film) audiences probably would have gone nuts trying to figure it out.

Minority Report (2002): Everything about this film is great. The technology, the world-building, the performances, the ideas of precognition and how that affects the law. It all works. I think most people would agree that this is a modern science fiction classic.

War of the Worlds (2005): Another effort with Spielberg and one I’ve already glowed about.

Oblivion (2013): What most impressed me about Oblivion was the immediacy of it. The world-building is strong, the twist is not, but the immediacy of the character’s plight and the sense of danger I got while Cruise’s character, Jack, faced off against the drones made the movie for me. Probably the weakest movie on this list, but still a pretty good sci-fi film overall.

And now we get to Edge of Tomorrow. It currently sits at 90% “Fresh” at Rottentomatoes, so I feel safe in saying that the film is generally well-liked. There were three things that stood out to me about the film: 1.) Ideas – this movie had a few that struck a chord with me; 2.) Feel; and 3.) Technical proficiency.

Ideas: Once the movie began to explore the more emotional aspects of its premise I became more invested. The movie is fun and the first half of it is devoted to having fun with the idea that when Cruise’s character, Cage, dies his timeline gets reset to a certain point. There are two main ideas that I latched onto here; the first is the idea of being stuck in this loop forever. There comes a point in the film where Cage seems to be seriously burnt out and on the precipice of giving up. We never get a sense of how many times he’s reset (one of the films more genius turns) but we do get the sense that it’s a lot. It adds to the feeling that the threat he’s facing is unbeatable.

The second idea Edge of Tomorrow plays with is how many times you can witness someone you care about being killed (even if you know they’ll be fine after the reset) before you can’t take it anymore. Cage begins to hide information from his partner, Emily Blunt’s Rita, because it becomes too hard for him to continually lose her. She mentions a similar idea earlier in the film, as well, when she talks about her experience being stuck in a loop. It’s an interesting concept and adds an emotional weight to the proceedings that helps to connect with the audience.

Feel: Others have said it, but this movie is the best video game adaptation ever made. Shame it’s not based on a video game. While watching I felt like I was back in my old apartment, watching my roommate play Xbox and die over and over again, getting just a little better each time. It was an interesting experience to sit in a theater and feel that way.

Technical Proficiency: The feel being what it was, I was worried that I would get bored partway through the movie because of all the resets. But, luckily, the writing and editing were spot-on. There are several scenes we see more than once, but because they’re approached from a different perspective or Cage is trying a different angle, they always feel fresh. There are also several times when we’re just dropped into the middle of a scene under the assumption we get what Cage has already gone through to get that far. It’s the correct assumption and really helps the pace of the film.

In all I hope that anyone who gets a chance to see Edge of Tomorrow does so. It strikes a delicate balance of concept, humor, action, character, and idea – not an easy feat. I’m sure I’ll be seeing it again soon enough.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the State of the Movies

I saw How to Train Your Dragon 2 last week and it left me with a lot of thoughts about movies. For one, let me just state this outright: I think this is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. If not the best, it’s my favorite. Inside Llewyn Davis was too good to ignore in that conversation, but that was also released last year. I just didn’t see it until this year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was good, but not as good as Dragon. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, too, but it doesn’t compare favorably to Dragon. The Lego Movie is a lock to be nominated come Oscar season next year, but even that I’d have a hard time saying was better or more interesting than Dragon.

The one thing I can say with assurance, and I think this speaks to the current state of movies as a whole, is that animated films have (on the whole) been much better than live-action films recently. I could write several posts breaking down why this might be true (visuals, breadth of story, simplicity, etc.) but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that animated films, or kids’ films if you’re the type to make that distinction, have taken greater risks and told better stories recently than the majority of movies aimed at young adults or adults.

It’s hard to say why that is. There are a lot of variables and Pixar’s influence on the way animated stories are told is a big part of it. There are also arguments to be made that because there are a much lower number of animated films being released, the sample size is too small to compare to live-action films.

What I can do is talk about why How to Train Your Dragon 2 is so good.

Hiccup: He’s a great hero, not least because he straddles the line between relatability and wish-fulfillment so well. He’s flawed in obvious ways (his small stature, his stubborness, his nervousness, his peg-leg) but is still ultra-competent. He tells the audience that just because you’re weak in some areas, that doesn’t mean your strengths can’t allow you to become more than the sum of your parts. He invents gadgets to help him become more formidable. He relies on bravery to make decisions and do things no one else is willing to.

But most importantly, he does the right thing. What stuck out to me most while watching Dragon is that Hiccup’s last resort is violence, and even then he avoids it as much as possible. This is another way that he is an outcast to his own people, but because he is so sure in his convictions he eventually learns their respect and converts them to his way of thinking anyway.

Relationships: The entire series is built on the relationships between several sets of characters. Hiccup and Toothless (his dragon) take center-stage, as their relationship is the embodiment of many of the themes of the story. But Hiccup also has fun, caring relationships with most of the other characters. His girlfriend, Astrid. His Father, Stoic. Other characters that it would ruin the story to reveal. And the supporting characters have fun to watch relationships, as well. The twins, Ruffnut and Tuffnut. Stoic and his best friend, Gobber. Gobber’s relationships with the dragons and the children on the island. The relationships serve the story and make you care about what’s happening.

Stakes: One of the themes of the film is expanding your horizons and accepting change. We like Berk and the people on it, so to watch it deal with negative outside influences is difficult to watch. But those stakes are nothing compared to the personal stakes the film raises. At the end of Act 2 there is a moment where absolutely everything seems lost. And you feel it because of the way the film has immersed you in its world and its characters.

Humor: One of the things I love most about animated film is the way they balance humor and drama. Dragon does a great job of this, too. I’ve found that I respond to dramatic situations more if you can make me laugh beforehand (or sometimes during). The jokes in Dragon are mostly funny and do a good job of either breaking tension, or shading character. In short, its used in such a way that doesn’t distract from the drama of the proceedings, but instead adds to it by making the audience enjoy spending time with these characters and situations.

Visuals: This film is gorgeous. The cinematography of the characters riding their dragons, the inventiveness of the way they utilize them, is awesome. The film is expansive but never loses its sense of geography or allows two settings to overlap. Everything about the world of dragons, from the setting to the designs of the dragons themselves, is functional and beautiful.

Themes and Moral Center: As I’ve mentioned more than once, through Hiccup and the themes of the film there are good lessons to be learned by children. Hiccup never resorts to violence, preferring instead to talk to people and show them why they are misinformed. We are taught that just because we don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or dangerous. Just that it’s different. But what sticks out to me most, especially considering the way I approach writing, is its optimism. Hiccup believes in the good in all things and while the story veers into dark, uncompromising places, it still rewards him in the end for his beliefs. With this film it’s difficult to say he’s in the right. His unwavering belief in the good of others and his need to try non-violent tactics before resorting to warfare leads to dire situations. But in the end he pulls through and learns some valuable lessons along the way.

Look, I know animated films may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But right now they’re, to me, the more interesting offerings in the cinema. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t a perfect film and I’m sure better ones will be released, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more gratifying experience in the theater this summer.

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