Friday, February 20, 2015

"Birdman" and "Inherent Vice"

Some quick reviews of two of the most interesting and highly discussed films of 2014.  I admire both, but unfortunately don't have all that much to say about either.
Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman" is probably going to win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, a black comedy about showbiz and a man at the end of his rope.  Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former movie star known for playing the superhero character Birdman, and now making a last stab at artistic credibility by staging and starring in a Broadway play.  As a potentially disastrous opening night approaches, Riggan grapples with his relationships with his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), recovering addict daughter (Emma Stone), a rival actor (Edward Norton), and the ghosts of his past, embodied in Birdman himself, who just won't leave Riggan alone.
There are several films this season that have been accused of being "gimmick" movies.  "Boyhood" with its long production time and "Grand Budapest Hotel" with its heavy stylization come to mind.  "Birdman," however, outdoes them all.  It's been designed so that the bulk of the movie appears to take place in a single tracking shot.  Things happen literally and figuratively at the same time to reflect our main character's state of mind, so Riggan Thomson appears to have superpowers and has face to face arguments with figments of his imagination.  There's the "Noises Off, " behind the scenes, play-within-a-play business.  And add the meta elements of the Hollywood v. artistic integrity conflict, with Michael Keaton fighting a thinly veiled Batman stand-in.  It's amazing that the final result is as cohesive as it is, and so jam-packed with clever little moments where you just have to sit back and admire the craft and artistry that went into pulling them off. 
I enjoyed "Birdman" thoroughly, but I didn't find myself engaged with it beyond the surface level.  I think it has to do with a script that was often juggling too many ideas and Michael Keaton's performance.  I never sympathized or felt I really got to know Riggan Thomson the way I did just about every other character.  It's really a knockout cast.  In addition to Stone, Risenborough, and Norton, we get memorable work from Naomi Watts, Zack Galifianakis, Lindsay Duncan, and more.  Keaton, however, gets the lion's share of the screen time and the entire movie hinges on his ability to sell Riggan Thomson.  And I never quite bought it.  There's always been a distance I associate with Keaton, and it really undercut him in this role. 
Still, the rest of the movie is such a wonderfully weird, ambitious piece of filmmaking, with gutsy cinematography, gorgeous fantasy sequences, some great dialogue, and a smashing jazz drum score.  This is the last thing I would have expected out of Alejandro Iñárritu, who is usually the purveyor of much heavier dramas.  I hope we get to see this side of him more often.
And now let's move on to "Inherent Vice," the highly anticipated reteaming of Paul Thomas Anderson with Joaquin Phoenix from "The Master."  This time they've tackled Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice," a detective story entangled in the drug culture of Southern California in the 1970s.  Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, who is trying to locate his missing ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and a local real estate developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).  And that's about all I'm really sure about plotwise, because this is a Pynchon story, and coherence is not really the man's strong suit. 
I don't really know how wrap my head around "Inherent Vice," because to some degree you're not meant to.  It's designed to be a rabbit hole, down which the perpetually high Doc Sportello gamely flings himself.  The incredibly dense, convoluted plot is really beside the point, meant to push Doc from one strange encounter to the next.  I lost track of the number of familiar actors who show up for a scene or two, some of them great, some not so great, and some entirely inexplicable.  Special mention must be made of Josh Brolin as Doc's nemesis  Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, who delivers a comic performance you gotta see up close to really appreciate.  And then there's Joanna Newsome as Doc's confidant, Sortilège, and Hong Chau as Jade, a helpful reprobate.  And Owen Wilson and Benicio Del Toro and Jena Malone and Reese Witherspoon and Martin Short are in the mix too.
I've heard the suggestion that Anderson meant to capture the experience of being on drugs, which accounts for the atmosphere of itchy paranoia and spacey disconnectedness.  This isn't to suggest that "Inherent Vice" is some careless mess or a one-trick pony.  Far from it.  The filmmaking is very deliberate, with beautifully composed visuals, well balanced tones, and some downright effective humor.  It's also a love letter to a bygone era, a satire on conspiracy thrillers, and a wistful fin-de-siecle chronicling the end of revolutionary spirit of the 60s.  The film certainly doesn't lack for substance, and there are already various interpretations and analysis pieces floating around, written by viewers who have excavated all sorts of fascinating things from the movie.  I suspect that for the Anderson die-hards, "Inherent Vice" will be a treat. 
I, however, failed to find an entry point.  "Inherent Vice" was just too difficult and obfuscated for me to penetrate.  I wanted to like it after having had very positive reactions to "The Master" and most of the rest of Paul Thomas Anderson's filmmography.  I liked a few moments here and there very much, and I know that I would likely find more if I watched the movie multiple times and put some effort into untangling the narrative and interpreting its obtuse symbolism.  However, I just don't care enough to try at the moment.  The movie didn't give me enough the first time around to make me want to take a second look.  Maybe after some time has passed, I'll give it another shot. 
But for now, I have a lot more films to catch up on.

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