Jane Got A Gun

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As out-of-fashion as the Western may seem, it’s a genre that still persists in one form or another.  Lately, it’s even become somewhat trendy for A-list actresses to shed their glamorous images, adorn some frumpy frontier wardrobe, and take the lead role in decidedly unglamorous projects about hard-living in the Old West.  Following the trail of Hilary Swank, Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman stars in (and produced) Jane Got A Gun, a rugged, blood-and-guts Western with some heart to go with the viscera.  Directed by Gavin O’Connor, purveyor of the fine sports dramas Miracle and Warrior, the film may have some moments of intensity and tenderness, thanks to Portman, O’Connor and co-star/co-writer Joel Edgarton; but mostly it’s just a fair picture, underdone by flaws in its script, as the storytelling is too reliant on exposition and plot shortcuts.

When the film begins, Portman’s Jane Ballard is putting her young daughter to bed, making shadow puppets and telling a bedtime story, the moral of which has something to do with the nature of good and bad men.  The promise of a Western rooted in moral confusion is not really fulfilled by the subsequent events.  The next day, Jane, a homesteader in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870’s, finds herself in a tough spot when her boyfriend, a wanted man named Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich), comes home, shot up by a gang of outlaws called the Bishop Boys, and falls lifelessly from his horse.  Jane now puts him to bed, digs the slugs from his back and cauterizes the holes with gunpowder.  Knowing that the marauders are coming to finish the job, she goes looking for a hired gun to protect them, and she conscripts Dan Frost (Edgarton), a Civil War veteran whose history with Jane goes back to Missouri before the war.  While the two wait and prepare for the inevitable assault, the gaps in the characters’ backstories are filled using flashbacks and expository dialogue.  Here, the relationship between the syuzhet and the fabula (the presentation of a narrative and the chronological order of events therein, respectively) is too pointlessly confounded.  Whatever emotional payoff results from the temporal back-and-forth can’t overcome the nagging feeling that a simple story has been overcomplicated and that better filmmakers might’ve achieved stronger results with more straightforward action and dialogue.

In that long second act, the plot slows down just so we can catch up; and the film would’ve lurched into tedium, were we not allowed to luxuriate in some of its finer aesthetic qualities.  A long sequence when Jane and Frost reminisce is coated in the bluest moonlight, to emphasize the pathos of their stories, sure, but also to suggest the desolation of a landscape so devoid of light that the heavens could alter every hue.  In contrast, the exterior day scenes, as when Jane rides hours to a neighboring farm where she’ll hide her daughter, seemed impossibly bright, as if the sun were an inescapable quilt of fire draped upon miles and miles of caked sand and cacti.  In many Westerns, home is sanctuary, and Jane’s desert abode, always lit in wooden-slat chiaroscuro, is not exactly welcoming; instead it expresses a literal dark obscurity to match the secrecy of the characters’ pasts.  Also, the makeup art of two particularly boorish gang members left an impression.  One wore a crude tribal tattoo around his right eye, and insects might thrive between his rotting teeth.  The other displayed a hideous, elongated scar working its way from his jawline to his collar bone, the aftermath of a bullet to the throat, we learn.  Their leader is a coldblooded dandy named John Bishop, played by Ewen McGregor with a neatly cropped mustache, which makes him standout amongst his unwashed goons.  He’s the kind of character who’s refined about his cruelty, who probably wastes his bank-robbery spoils on fine suits and pomade.  He’s also a bit of a cliche (Guy Pearce did the same schtick in Lawless), and to be honest, not despicable enough to be a proper villain and not rounded enough to represent a complex human being.

Because the film is, at least superficially, about complicated morality, no male character is either completely good or completely bad.  Jane’s goodness, however, is never in question, and, since women in the West must wear many hats, she maneuvers skillfully from nurse to gunslinger to her most heroic role as devoted mother.  It’s more than likely that what attracted Portman to the project was the idea of playing a strong mother, given her recent marriage and childbirth.  Maternity is an important theme in the movie, but one that is never fully realized.  We never see how it might pertain to other characters, and despite Portman’s solid performance — her steely glower, bereaved wailing and adroit horseback-riding— she never makes Jane’s motherhood, or the fear that it could at any moment be revoked, a part of her breathing essence.  Supposedly, before O’Connor took over, the film was developed with Lynn Ramsay, the Scottish art-house director behind Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar.  Several years ago, Ramsay made one of recent memory’s more disturbing films about a parent-child relationship: We Need To Talk About Kevin.  With Ramsay directing, Jane Got A Gun might’ve had a darker, more provocative perspective on motherhood, especially as it related to frontier life and the unfortunate reality that, in those days, most children were not expected to live passed infancy.  O’Connor and Portman, along with screenwriters Edgarton, Brian Duffield and Anthony Tambakis, instead chose to collaborate on something more cosy and optimistic, I speculate.

The denouement certainly suggests as much.  It manages to rap the story up nicely, with an almost karmic, fatalistic sense of wrongs righted and good acts repaid with good fortune.  That said, I couldn’t overlook the plot holes along the way, especially those pertaining to Jane’s decision to leave Missouri in the first place, and the Bishop Boys uncanny tracking skills leading them too conveniently to the right place.  All in all, Jane Got A Gun, despite some impressive cinematography and authentic mise-en-scene, is only a mediocre sagebrush saga, burdened with exposition, riddled with dramatic holes, and sliced into thin characterizations.  We need more female-centric movies, especially those that lionize motherhood; and we could use more traditional Westerns, too.  Alas, Jane Got A Gun doesn’t satisfactorily remedy those oversights.  It digs out the bullets, but can’t cauterize the wounds.

10 Favorite Films of 2015

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Note: I usually name this annual entry “10 Best Films of (whatever year)”, but since I was busy in 2015, I didn’t see enough movies to feel confident declaring these the overall best.  Therefore, these are simply my favorites.  Of course, “best” is just a pompous way of saying “favorite”.  So really, nothing has changed.  Happy New Year!

1.  Carol

Director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel is gorgeous and profound, a romance built on a dream of the past.  In my favorite performance of the year, Rooney Mara plays a soft-spoken Manhattan shopgirl in the 1950’s, who falls in love with a charismatic older woman (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey patrician in the midst of a difficult divorce.  Haynes often films the actors in close-ups through panes — a rainy car window, a foggy telephone booth — that force the viewer to observe the subjects with obscured scrutiny.  The film is in many ways a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama of repression.  But unlike Haynes’ similar film, Far From Heaven, with its unspoken suffering and desire, Carol is ultimately about confidence and freedom.  It’s optimistic about romantic actualization.  Its lovers are not ashamed to be unapologetically themselves, to lock eyes across a crowded room, indifferent to whomever is watching or judging.

2. Inside Out

Inside Out was literally the brainiest movie to emerge from Hollywood this year.  It was also the most emotionally elaborate.  From Pixar studios, this animation explores the psychological and mental headspace of eleven-year-old Riley.  Her five major emotions (joy, anger, fear, disgust and sadness) are illustrated as humanoids in a control tower.  When her family moves to a new city, she starts to experience unfamiliar thoughts and feelings.  Inside Out cleverly plays with various elements of human psychology: imagination, fascination, abstraction, etc.  Typical of Pixar’s brand, though, the mature ideas are framed by an adventure story that kids can enjoy.  But when a film makes me sad, only to then comfort me by suggesting that sadness is itself a healthy part of one’s emotional development and complexion, I can forgive some silly characters and plot turns.

3.  The Hateful Eight

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino works as an entertainer often, but never has he worked so clearly as a provocateur.  After controversy about racism and violence in his films, The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino in a rage, upping the carnage and complicating the politics.  Set in Wyoming after the Civil War, the plot involves several unsavory men and one woman, a condemned convict, holed-up in a cabin during a blizzard, and nobody is who they say they are.  I didn’t love the payoff, but Tarantino moderates his cheeky reference-making in order to expose the hypocrisy inherent in most exclamatory issues of violence and racism, evidenced in the film by a Rebel marauder turned lawman and a former slave guilty of lynching and rape.  The woman — the story’s most conspicuous plot device and, maybe, its hero — is silenced by men, handcuffed to them, with little control over her own fate.  Tarantino comments on genre, Hollywood, and, as Westerns often do, society in general.

4.  45 Years

John Milius said, “Ambiguity is a tool of the artist.”  Few filmmakers utilize that tool well.  Andrew Haight, the director of 45 Years, employs ambiguity with the utmost precision, suppressing his story of marital fissure in the blackest recesses of secrets and shadows.  One week before their eponymous anniversary, Jeff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) become tormented by a past event that only now reveals itself.  The story is mounted like a cruel mystery, with vital information revealed sparingly or not at all.  It is filmed as mundane realism, which counters the complex emotions beneath the bourgeois surfaces.  The sound mix makes background noises — wind whipping the house, voices in a cafe — into whispered ciphers.  Many scenes end in wakeful darkness.  In 45 Years, a soulmate becomes a stranger, and Kate is left horrified by what she never knew about her husband, and by all the things she never will.

5.  Unfriended

While no classic, Unfriended was too fascinating to dismiss.  Teens on a Skype session are terrorized by an unknown force, either their classmate’s vengeful ghost or somebody impersonating it.  Its identity remains a mystery until the very end, but be it hacker or poltergeist, the movie brilliantly conflates them: i.e. when our active lives move online, hacking becomes a form of haunting, an inescapable malevolence that seems to be everywhere, infecting everything.  The kids’ deaths at its hands, implied suicides, are both clever and plausible in the era of cyber bullying.  One girl’s Mac desktop provides the entire (unreliable) narration, as she frantically clicks between applications, windows and browsers, in what could be described as digital stream-of-consciousness.  When it’s clear she’s trying to convince herself that she’s guiltless in her classmate’s death, Unfriended shows how the internet so effectively reinforces the delusions of its users.

6.  Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman is known for thinking outside the box.  Written and co-directed by Kaufman, with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa was made using stop-motion animation, with characters who look like anthropomorphic plush toys with robot faces barely hinged together.  It follows a customer service guru on a business trip to Cincinnati, where he attempts to reconnect with an old lover, and eventually develops a bond with a female fan in town for his lecture.  It’s hard to describe the film fully without giving away its secrets, but Kaufman and Johnson beautifully, hauntingly use sci-fi imagery to visualize an intense loneliness that only a human could feel.  The protagonist is so overcome with interpersonal monotony that everybody becomes a clone of the very same stranger.  Does Anomalisa depict mental illness, mid-life crisis or the way superficial attractions are bound to fade?  Kaufman leaves the answer up to us.

7.  Brooklyn

It’s true that Brooklyn was probably your grandmother’s favorite film of 2015.  It’s nostalgic, romantic and, remarkably, even pragmatic.  The effortlessly talented Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish immigrant in the 1950’s who struggles adjusting to life in New York City.  She falls in love with a charming Dodger fan (Emory Cohen), but is drawn first emotionally, then physically, back to her homeland.  Written by English novelist Nick Hornby, based on a book by Colm Toibin, the story shows an ambivalence toward Ireland that could be described as Joycean.  The filmmaking feels like the love-child of Douglas Sirk and John Ford, part Weepy, part paean.  A tribute to the immigrant’s journey, and the nation that was built on her back, Brooklyn is furthermore about maturation and experience, about the factors in choosing not only your home, but your identity, too.

8.  Phoenix

Many German films about the post-war years deal with guilt and betrayal.  Phoenix, directed by Christian Petzold, is one of the more unassuming and mysterious iterations.  A concentration camp survivor returns home after the war facially disfigured.  After surgical reconstruction, her unwitting husband exploits the residual resemblance and teaches her to impersonate his “wife” so he can claim her inheritance.  The film is like Vertigo meets The Third Man, but with a fascinating obscurity all its own.  We’re left to ponder why the woman goes along with the ruse.  The answer, I think, is that she’s afraid to embrace her new reality, and will do anything to reclaim her old life.  Phoenix makes her experience a metaphor for Germany after the war: broken and then rebuilt, at odds with its history and nervous about the future, reluctantly, arduously negotiating its demons.

9.  Far From The Madding Crowd

Good adaptations of fine literature come along so rarely that it’s important to celebrate them when they do.  Directed by Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg, Far From The Madding Crowd is based on the same-named Victorian novel by Thomas Hardy.  Like Hardy’s prose, Vinterberg’s film has a modest, classical eloquence.  Carey Mulligan plays a rural Englishwoman who inherits a farm.  Unmarried, she’s placed in the rare position of boss, landowner and financier, which makes her attractive to many suitors.  The film stays faithful to the book’s wary romanticism, agrarian idealism and progressive gender politics, as it shows a heroine allowed to fail or succeed on her own terms, with some semblance of control over her own romantic and professional destiny.  While certainly more transgressive in 1874, Madding Crowd nevertheless has morals worth reminding modern audiences, and relaying new to the many misogynistic cultures of today.

10.  Chi-Raq

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is far from the same area-code as perfect.  The plot is discursive, the politics intransigent and the resolution simplistic.  But there was not a more imaginative film all year.  An update of ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the film, set on Chicago’s ultra-violent south side, follows a gang-leader’s girlfriend; after a child’s death by stray bullets, she rallies neighborhood women in a sex strike, to motivate the men to make peace.  The dialogue is written in hybrid blank verse and slam poetry.  Samuel L. Jackson chimes in and out as a one-man Greek chorus.  There are sumptuously mounted musical numbers, an attention-grabbing rap prologue, and Dave Chapelle in a hysterical cameo as a strip club proprietor.  Chi-Raq is a filmmaking eruption, a directorial feat, and there’s nothing subtle about it.  But when you’re protesting for peace, subtlety is is not exactly a virtue.

Honorable Mentions: The Assassin, It Follows, Mad Max Fury Road, Room and Spotlight



Minority Rules: Movies Most Loved But I Hated

Snowpiercer (2014)

Have science-fiction socioeconomic allegories declined since Fritz Lang, or what!?! Lang’s Metropolis was a brilliant Marxist cautionary tale about a future when the poor work underground to sustain the lavish lives of the rich above. Bong Joon-Ho never saw or never understood Metropolis when he fever-dreamt Snowpiercer, a ripoff dystopian thriller about the last vestiges of humanity riding a train through a frozen wasteland on tracks that never need repairs with the poor (dead-weight in the caboose) saved from expulsion for harebrained purposes I won’t reveal; but I will suggest sterilization as a less convoluted alternative. Steely-eyed messiah Chris Evans, who retains a perfect buzz-cut despite living in claustrophobic squalor, leads a revolt up to the deified conductor. Ignore the flimsy premise, forget the asinine plot, overlook the dunderheaded classism metaphor—and Snowpiercer is still an overly violent and cynical train wreck which I loathed pretty much from “all aboard” to “last stop”.

10 Best Movies Of 2014

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”

1. Boyhood

Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s portrait of the artist as a young man. Shot over twelve years with the same cast, it follows Texas kid Mason, who ages from six to eighteen as both he and the actor playing him mature before our eyes. No film I’ve seen has so humbly toed the line between fact and fiction, between character and performer, between screenplay and real-life. As his childhood years are conveyed in a succession of small formative moments, Mason splits time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), who we watch change as well, physically and emotionally. In that way, Boyhood suggests that growing up is a process that occurs everyday and lasts a lifetime.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s far-out hipster cinema takes an appropriately supernatural turn with Only Lovers Left Alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old vampire lovers who hang around Detroit in an abandoned house that evokes Dracula’s castle. The demon-rock score is like haunted heaven; the actors are brilliantly droll; the art direction transforms rows of condemned auto plants into a gothic wonderland. In a canny metaphor for the lethargic routine of a junkie lifestyle, the two crave blood and then spin into satisfied ecstasy once they consume it. More than anything, Only Lovers Left Alive is a great love story about how intellectual unity can transcend an eternity of tedium.

3. Ida

In the tradition of post-war art cinema, Ida is a devastating drama about confronting the hidden horrors of World War II. In sixties Poland, an orphaned nun leaves the convent days before her solemn vows to learn how her parents perished during the war. In artful black and white, the cinematography is beautifully symbolic, as subjects sink down to the bottom of the frame, crushed under the weight of history above. The heroine and her dejected aunt, a Holocaust survivor who now ironically works as a Soviet bureaucrat, literally unearth and reinter family skeletons. But Ida isn’t interested in resolutions, rather the painful ambivalence of coping with the past or choosing to ignore it.

4. Leviathan

Like most noteworthy Russian art, Leviathan is a magnificent bummer. A mechanic in a seaside village enlists an army friend, a Moscow lawyer, to help stop the mayor from seizing his property. He’s unaware, however, how helpless he is before the larger familial, legal and spiritual powers at work. First keeping its distance, the film then surreptitiously pulls you in, until eventually the troubled faces become unshakeable. The title makes dual allusions—to both the biblical sea-monster described in Job and Thomas Hobbes’ book on the freedoms we sacrifice for protective government. Hence Leviathan shows how Russia’s corrupt church and state collude to steamroll everyday people, one hand washing the other.

5. Under The Skin

Jonathon Glazer’s Under The Skin is the rare sci-fi horror film with the philosophical heft of early Cronenberg. Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial spider-woman who drives around Scotland luring Johns to their dooms and harvesting their tissue for unspecified purposes. With a disregard for exposition the story unfolds like a microscope over a virus coming into progressively clearer focus. The indelible images cast a trippy variegation of colored filters, and the hypnotic score features the scratchy strings of The Shining. By the end, Under The Skin’s chief concern is the discovery of self, which it suggests could mean the distinction between bestial indifference and human empathy.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s dollhouse filmmaking has never felt as rich and melancholy as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The central farce recalls Lubitsch: in Europe, between world wars, a smarmy concierge vies to recover a valuable painting he inherited from a deceased crone. That plot, however, is merely a nesting doll within a more substantial epic. The caper occurs under the looming cloud of war, and the persecutory hand of Fascism appears often. Like most Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel has plenty of deadpan whimsy, but what resonates is its underlying tragedy of love found and inevitably lost, of nostalgia and regret, of lives swept up in the unstoppable flow of history.

7. Mr. Turner

As British Romantic-era landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Timothy Spall communicates more through gurgles and grunts than most actors can doing Shakespeare. In Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh’s eloquent biopic, the subject is a revered master but also a cad who ignored his wife, shacked-up with an Irish widow, and abused the servant woman who loved him. Spectacular photography illustrates how pictures made it from his private perception to the gallery wall. But most poetically the film depicts how he became an overnight laughingstock for experimenting with abstraction centuries before it was acceptable. Mr. Turner concerns a complicated man whose genius was both his legacy and downfall.

8. Whiplash

Great art often emerges from toxic situations. In Whiplash, a young Jazz drummer at a prestigious New York conservatory butts heads with his martinet instructor. The teacher (played with terrifying vigor by character-actor J.K. Simmons) hurls both insults and objects while the pupil counters with impregnable ambition. Like the Black Swan of band movies (minus the hallucinatory nonsense), the film demonstrates what an artist sacrifices for his art. But the showstopper finale, as the editing assumes the thrilling tempo of the music, channels the freeing rhapsodic spirit of Jazz itself. Thus Whiplash ultimately insinuates that greatness is borne from the synergy of all inspirational forces, positive and negative.

9. Night Moves

Who knew such a suspenseful thriller could come from Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic, understated direction? Night Moves follows a trio of environmental terrorists (Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, in my favorite male performance of the year) as they plan and execute the bombing of a hydro-electrical dam in Oregon. The centerpiece crime unfolds so patiently it’s harrowing; the characters reveal their true selves only once the heat of exposure surrounds them like homemade napalm. Even before the ambiguous conclusion, Night Moves proves a captivating study of impotence, or the combustible frustration wrought by repressed sex and an inadequacy to effect change in the world.

10. Force Majeure

Like a great Polanski film, Force Majeure is about the perils of intimacy. A Swedish couple and their two children take a ski-trip to the French Alps, where a natural near-disaster causes a serious rift. The location’s chalk-white placidity and the hypnotic patterns and sounds skiers create as they traverse fleshly groomed runs may put the mind at ease. But like a mountainside before an avalanche, the calm is startling, the silence deafening, and this nuclear family quietly boiling with anger and shame. Force majeure means a term-of-contract wherein parties agree to shed liability after an extraordinary occurrence. This deftly funny, complex film uses that to symbolize the roles men and women expect each other to play.

Honorable Mentions: Locke, The Lunchbox, Venus In Fur, Palo Alto, Nightcrawler

Response Journal: Nightcrawler (2014)

How to make it in America

A chilly satire about perverted entrepreneurship and the unscrupulous media, Nightcrawler is worthwhile. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a sociopathic self-starter who finds his calling with nocturnal freelance news photography. Eavesdropping on police scanners he speeds around Los Angeles’s hairpin highways and mountainsides to capture the bloody aftermaths of crashes, structure fires and homicides. He then sells the footage, the more shocking the better, to the highest bidding networks. With greasy hair, a suit pulled from a manikin at a department store for recluse pedophiles, and the grin and gait of a released mental patient, Gyllenhaal plays creepy surprisingly well. The character’s antisocial peculiarities manifest in the way Gyllenhaal speaks as if he’s reading an instructional brochure and turns every conversation into a negotiation: Bloom’s sexual advances toward a desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) fall somewhere between bartering and blackmail. The baroque cinematography and seedy production design combine to turn LA landmarks—Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park, and Hollywood Boulevard, et al—into stops along the River Styx as Bloom becomes the Beelzebub of ambush journalism, more aggressively chasing premium stock and attempting to establish a successful brand, which includes eliminating the competition (Bill Paxton) and exploiting a naïve intern (Riz Ahmed). Moreover writer-director Dan Gilroy blends various genre elements rather smoothly—in a car-chase Bloom films police on a high-speed pursuit; a suspense set-piece unfolds as he sneaks into a home, burglary in progress; gory images complement breakfast for morning-news consumers; and in an astonishing instance of black comedy Bloom explains good business practices to a dying gunshot victim. As a character study of a nighttime loner who descends into madness amid urban sprawl, the movie is like Taxi Driver for the Internet Age; but whereas Travis Bickle was a misguided romantic, Bloom is a coldblooded misanthrope whose unsavory ambitions make him closer to some machine-like metaphor for cutthroat capitalism than a breathing human being. Such simplistic characterization, dialogue that too explicitly conveys themes and James Newton Howard’s emotionally pushy score deprive the movie of the psychological illuminants of finer pulp filmmaking. In the end, though, I think Nightcrawler prefers the shadows and makes engaging enough the morbid cynicism it finds there.

Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Production design by Kevin Kavanaugh.

Response Journal: Birdman (2014)

Batman by way of Laurence Olivier

In Greek mythology, Icarus famously flew too close to the sun on wings made from wax then plummeted to his death once they melted. An obvious inspiration, Birdman makes mention of Icarus more than once, but I think the myth applies more to the director—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu—than to the movie. The running theme with his work is that his ambitions outmatch his abilities, and he always crashes midflight. A backstage musical (of sorts), Birdman cannily casts Michael Keaton as a washed-up movie star who headlined a popular superhero franchise in the nineties. To prove his worth as a serious thespian he adapts a Raymond Carver novel into a play to direct and star in himself. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play his impertinent costars, but since everything is intended as raucous Theater, the company also includes Zach Galifinackis as a stressed-out financier, Emma Stone as Keaton’s bratty assistant/daughter, Amy Ryan as his pensive ex-wife and Lindsay Duncan as Broadway’s haughtiest tastemaker. All are terrific, particularly Keaton as a wistfully self-deriding joke on his own diminishing celebrity and Norton as a genius prima donna so engrossed in performing that he’s forgotten how to experience reality. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably noteworthy, with fisheye close-ups that spotlight Keaton’s roadmap of wrinkles (likewise Stone’s lizard-face) and handheld long-takes that follow the characters through narrow corridors and into lonely dressing rooms. With invisible transitions borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rope, the editing conveys an illusion of impromptu seamlessness. Accompanied by a jazzy drum score, the overall aesthetic suits the world of high-strung actors, histrionic misbehavior and raging egos. For all that, the movie overexerts in the final third, taking off into befuddled flights of fancy and faltering to jejune storytelling, thus accomplishing little beyond entertaining bombast (especially compared to the other film this year set in a playhouse—Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur). While I enjoyed this Inarritu picture more than any other, an Inarritu picture it remains, so alas, Birdman concludes feeling long, disjointed and thematically ambivalent when not painfully obvious. Despite tremendous work, the cast and crew cannot rescue their director from soaring into the sun yet again, though it must be said, soaring is itself an astonishing feat.

Costarring Andrea Riseborough. Music by Antonio Sanchez.

Response Journal: Fury (2014)

“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee

If Fury director David Ayer is so convinced of war’s awfulness why does he also seem so damn fond of it? In the last days of World War II an American tank commander (Brad Pitt) leads a crew comprised of shallow genre stereotypes—a religious guy (Shia LaBeouf), an ethnic guy (Michael Pena), a vulgar guy (Jon Bernthal) and a new guy (Logan Lerman)—as they rumble through bombed-out Germany. Lerman’s hastened arc from a wan puking rookie to a hardened Nazi-killer extraordinaire provides some semblance of narrative structure, though all the characters are unlikable, appear closer to a band of pirates than a band of brothers and drop more mumbled platitudes than machine gun shells. The only good scene is when they confront a superior German tank and the two behemoths circle one-another in an armored combat waltz. The most ambitious sequence, however, occurs immediately before in an awkward attempt at quieter human drama when the men sit down for eggs and coffee with two petrified fraulein hostages. It’s heavy-handed at best and hateful at worst since the only aspect of humanity David Ayer really wants to explore is our entrails. Feebly aspiring to match the apocalyptic air of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame and the visceral carnage of Saving Private Ryan, Ayer’s picture is nothing besides dung-ugly exploitation with so much gratuitous violence (a man commits suicide to end the pain of burning alive, civilians hanged from power lines decorate the roadside, bulldozers shovel heaps of dismembered corpses into mass graves) and tastelessly morose production design (somber skies, fields chewed into muddy pits, wrecked smoking vehicles). Sure everything serves to remind that war is hell, but not all wars are the same and zero insights on this particular conflict are ever opined which dooms Fury to resolute bleak pointlessness. That description, while apt for many historical events, is one no movie should ever proudly advertise.

Costarring Jason Isaacs. Cinematography by Roman Vasyanov.