Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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Random factoid:  the first Batman actor who portrayed the Dark Knight using a distinct voice different from his Bruce Wayne counterpart was Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series (which, incidentally, was awesome).  I only mention this because of Michael Keaton.  I’m sure I saw his version of Batman back in the day, but I don’t remember anything of it to compare his portrayal.  Some have said that this is a movie about Michael Keaton seeking to transcend his Batman-ness.

When you get past the superhero costume, though, this is actually a film about art and the value of creation.  Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is trying to escape his reputation as the hero of a series of massively popular superhero films – he’s accused of being a celebrity, not a real actor – by adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play.  Along the way, he invests everything, from money to emotional energy, into proving he’s not a hack, in defiance of that scary voice in his head that shares a striking resemblance to his alter ego, Birdman.

For some reason, I always mix up Raymond Carver with Robert Coover, who wrote “The Babysitter,” among other fractured postmoderny stories, and so I expected something a bit different from the play.  Oops.  So I’m not familiar enough with Carver’s work to see how it might shine more light on why that particular writer’s work meant something.  Riggan credits Carver with inspiring him to be an actor, in a bit of a stretched connection.  It seems like a sort of pretentious choice, designed for the sort of Broadway audience (the “rich old white people” as Riggan’s daughter describes).  It’s like he’s reaching so desperately for something literary, something that screams ART.  But is he being indulged in his vanity project, or is there some real worth to it?

I actually watched this twice in the past few months, because I’d intended to write about it earlier this year and then didn’t, and ended up forgetting the finer details.  And I think the second viewing helped me get a better grasp on it, though I still looked up online to see what the hell I was supposed to make of the ending.  I’m interested in the way this classic technique of magical realism is brought into a sort of modern, comic book context.  In a way, it’s almost the opposite of a typical superhero movie, where we take for granted that these certain people have special powers.  In Birdman, we’re left wondering whether there really is something special about this guy.  Is Birdman a part of Riggan’s unique reality, or is he just experiencing a psychotic delusion?  What are we to make of his mental state?

I love the long swooping shots, tracking characters from room to room.  It somehow expands the scope even as so much of the film takes place within the confines of this theater.  Because it’s so difficult to manage long shots, they’re rarely used in film (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t another such film that won Best Picture, because I looked for it!).  But it works well in a movie about rehearsals and acting and theater – on stage, you’ve only got the one shot to make things go the way you want them to.  As in life:  there is no dress rehearsal, so you’ve got to make the most of it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Hallucinations?

First Time Watching?  As long as you count it as first during 2016

Final Verdict:  Feeling relevant again

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Spotlight (2015)

 

 

I waited until after the Oscars before I watched any of this year’s nominees for Best Picture. But I’m honestly glad that Spotlight won, because otherwise I never would have seen it on my own. I moved to Boston about ten years ago (yowza), a few years after the events of the film take place, but this feels like a very current story, its repercussions lingering even today. As the long blocks of text at the end of the film attest, Boston was only one of many towns where the Catholic Church covered up the actions of its priests.

 

There are very few Best Pictures that I’m aware of being set in Boston (The Departed is the only other one I know of offhand), and not many overall, which seems strange for a city with such a rich cultural history. Boston is a fitting setting for a film – of any kind, but particularly this story. It’s small, old, with a long Catholic history, with pockets of powerful and wealthy people, pockets of immigrants, pockets of poor. I really enjoyed how local the film felt, from the newspaper atmosphere – talking about the Big Dig and other Boston stories – to the familiar shots of the city through the seasons. In nearly every city scene, we see a Catholic Church looming in the background, which certainly feels accurate. It felt authentic to me in a way that some other movies or television set in Boston seem to lack. My only criticism is how rare a good Boston accent is in this film, the best one coming from one of the victims, a guy from Worcester who now struggles with addiction. Considering how actors tend to mangle a Boston accent, though, perhaps it’s for the best.

 

I can’t help but watch this in the context of our current political system, thinking about the dangers of systemic abuses, the power of the institution threatened by those wronged by it. You see the truth of the story unfold and wonder, how did this happen? Why did nobody do anything about all these cases of abuse before now? How could people stand by while members of the Church – their neighbors’ kids, maybe even their own children – were being abused? Maybe it tested their faith too much to question the authority of the Church. Maybe the Church didn’t know what to do with the abusive priests. Maybe they hoped that if they kept praying for them, they’d somehow be fixed. That’s maybe the most generous way of looking at it. I liked that some of the characters questioned their own role in not doing more – not breaking the story sooner, when they’d received tips from victims years before the Spotlight story broke.

 

I really enjoyed this movie, more than I thought I would – though enjoy is probably the wrong word. The actors were great, particularly Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the head of the Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson. Mark Ruffalo seems to show up everywhere, though I don’t mean that in a bad way. Of course, John Slattery inescapably reminds me of Roger Sterling, and I like seeing Stanley Tucci pop up in any movie. Movies of this nature tend to make everything out to be a personal crusade for the story’s heroes, and I’m glad that the tack they took with this was less histrionic. It’s a story about journalists doing their job, working as professionals, and recognizing their own failings in the course of getting the story. So often we see reporters portrayed as sort of unsavory, like weasels preying on innocent mice. For once, that’s not the case.

 

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not Catholic. Admittedly, I’m also skeptical of religious people, because though some part of me was led to believe that the more devout one is, the more generous and loving a person he or she is, I’ve rarely found that to be the case. As an adult, I know more lapsed Catholics than practicing Catholics, and though that’s perhaps reflective of the sort of company I keep, it also probably says something about an institution that doesn’t retain many of its followers in adulthood. If I’d ever had faith in such an institution, I can’t imagine I still would by the end of this movie.

 

For the better part of the decade I’ve lived in Boston, I haven’t purchased an actual physical newspaper. Though I used to read my daily hometown newspaper, I’ve never been really big on following the news, and that casual interest faded even more over the years (to be fair, the fact that when I did subscribe to the Sunday Globe, my paper often didn’t show up also contributed to me abandoning the newspaper). I’m not the only one, and I have to keep that in mind even as I lament the slow decline of the newspaper industry, and particularly of the kind of long-form journalism that allowed a story like this to come out. Investigative reporting is never profitable, but I can’t help wondering whether something is lost with that kind of in-depth work, even as the internet creates amateur investigators all over the place. Maybe there will be more movies made about the hard work of newspaper journalism, but I can’t help thinking that they’ll never again be told in the present day.

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Of course

Final Verdict: Like a good newspaper, it stands alone.