Film Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” ★★★★★ (5/5)

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Before moving to New York, the one thing I was most excited about was catching small films on limited release before they get released nationwide, and in most cases, worldwide. I always wanted to witness a good independent film snowball through word of mouth, and grow legs, so to speak. You know, to see a film take its first steps towards success, and to see it all firsthand.

I caught Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” while it was playing in only three theaters across New York, but before its limited release, “Birdman” had already made the rounds at film festivals, and it wasn’t growing legs; “Birdman” had already spread its wings. I can only assure you that those wings will keep flapping across the awards season all the way to Oscar night.

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Michael Keaton delivers the best performance of his career, in what is unquestionably, the biggest Hollywood comeback since Mickey Rourke stepped back into the ring of cinema as “The Wrestler”. Keaton displays a full array of complex emotions, delivering one performance within the other, and then reinventing the performance within the performance over and over again. This is the work of an actor in complete control of his craft.

That said, his powerhouse performance is matched with an equally outstanding supporting cast. And while, many are calling “Birdman”, Keaton’s comeback, the same case could be made about Edward Norton’s return to cinematic splendor. I’ve always respected Norton as an actor, but he hasn’t delivered any awards worthy performances since “25th Hour”. Here, Norton soars right next to Keaton. Keaton was once the blockbuster superstar of “Batman” films, and it wasn’t long ago that many predicted Norton to be the next Robert De Niro. Both actors deliver brutally honest portrayals of characters sharing remarkably similar careers as the actors themselves.

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Also deserving much praise is Emma Stone, who in one scene delivers a heartbreaking monologue that left the entire audience in complete utter silence. On a purely technical standpoint, “Birdman” is the most impressive film of the year. Most of the film was shot in a way to give viewers the illusion that it is all one continuous long take. The sweeping cinematography and smooth editing flow together in perfect harmony making it nearly impossible to spot where the filmmakers interrupted the seamless visuals.

Like all great films, “Birdman” is about life itself. Inarritu satirically mocks professional criticism, blockbusters, art, and even social media, in a film that is just as much about the film industry itself, as it is about the pursuit of happiness, and our ridiculously desperate need to be admired, recognized, and respected by people that shouldn’t really matter to us. It is, in many ways, a wakeup call to look around you, and realize the people you take for granted everyday, the people who love you for who you are, regardless of success or failure. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is one of the best films of the year. Make sure to catch it when it flies over your nearest picture house.

Great Scenes: “Goodfellas”

Jimmy Conway smiles at Morrie from afar, knowing the poor bastard juster walked into the wrong bar. But he’s in no hurry. Before whacking him, Jimmy takes a moment to enjoy a few drags off his cigarette. Scorsese’s use of slow motion, combined with De Niro’s über cool performance and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” makes for one hell of a memorable moment in cinema.

Great Scenes: “Good Will Hunting”

Often regarded as the actor’s best performance to date, Williams delivered a scene-stealing performance as Sean Maguire in the modern classic, Good Will Hunting. Williams proved he can pull of a dramatic role just as easily as he could a comedic one in the turn that landed him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. One scene starts out with him being all casual and friendly; he briefly snaps, losing himself in anger, before a sad gaze eclipses his face. In this marvelous acting case study of a scene, Williams displays an array of emotions within minutes.

Great Scenes: “Cinema Paradiso”

I don’t think there’s any film that captures the magic of going to the movies like Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”. When people ask me why I still go to the movies as opposed to watching them online, or renting films, I find it hard to put into words. There’s a certain warmth and comfort I feel at a movie palace. Going to the movies is to share a mutual experience with an entire audience. For the briefest of moments you become part of an entity. The audience laughs, cries, and screams together. The connecting feeling of living through the same exact  experience as the stranger sitting next to you is sadly being destroyed by technology, which in this case, disconnect us. Every time a cinema closes down, I think of this marvellous film and it’s bittersweet musical score. In this heartwarming scene, the audience gets kicked out of the theatre for refusing to leave after a film screening. What happens next is as magical a scene as seeing an entire seated audience laugh or smile at the same moment in time and space.

Great Scenes: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

It is very hard to argue against “2001: A Space Odyssey” when you think of cinema’s greatest achievement. Personally, I think it is one of the greatest works of art regardless of the medium. What Stanley Kubrick achieved here is comparable with the work of DaVinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, and all the greatest artists to come out in human history. The meaning behind most of the film is open for interpretation, which is why it has stood the test of time. However, it is the final chapter in his film that has most viewers scratching their heads in awe. Seeing Dr. Dave Bowman age in a spotless room may be the most disturbing scene in the film. He sees himself growing old and then he becomes old and sees himself getting older before he becomes that and ends up in his death bed. We are only here for a fraction of a fraction of second. The human race is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I believe this scene evokes something our mind tends to block out throughout our daily lives. Most of the time we spent is being dead or not yet born, and while we’re alive, time consumes us and before you know it, your life is over.

Great Scenes: “Psycho”

After stealing $40,000, Marion attempts to leave town. She imagines how the conversation between her boss and the rich businessman would play after they discover her misdeed. I love how at first she seems worried, even scared, but then a creepy smirk curves her face. It’s almost like she intentionally throws a disgusting insult her way to villainize the businessman in her mind. The smirk is very subtle, and for the briefest of moments, it feels like Marion is the antagonist.

Film Review: “Fury” ★★★ (3/5)

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David Ayer is one of those filmmakers I’ve always kept an eye on. From his disturbingly powerful directorial debut, “Harsh Times” to “Fury”, Ayer seems to be a master in telling intimate tales of people leading very dangerous jobs. His 2012 film, “End of Watch’ made it on my list of top 10 films of that year. However, his latest foray seems to lack the grittiness of his earlier films.

Maybe, it’s the big budget or the all-star cast, whatever it is, “Fury” looks and feels like a film production. When a film is great, for the briefest of moments, the viewer forgets he’s watching a movie. There are films that demand this type of realism; a WWII picture told from the perspective of a single tank definitely qualifies as such. “Fury” is the Hollywood version of Samuel Maoz’ “Lebanon”.

It is big, loud, and full of action sequences, and although, there are moments of greatness in “Fury”, at the end it is nothing but a conventional war film. There isn’t a single scene in this film that I haven’t seen before. Rather than being a film about soldiers in a tank, it chooses to be a WWII version of the “300”. That’s right, one tank against 300 (literally) soldiers. The premise might excite some filmgoers out there, and they will enjoy it. It is a good action film after all. It’s too bad I was expecting more; it is too bad I was expecting anything but a thrill ride.

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Deep down, I was hoping “Fury” would be to tank films what “Das Boot” is to submarine films. The latter nails the suffocating experience down to every bolt. It is claustrophobic, intense, boring (it should be), and mentally exhausting. Scenes in “Das Boot” seem so real; you can almost smell the stench from within the u-boat. “Fury”, on the other hand, concerns itself more with surprising the audience with unexpected bursts of violence and building a confused film towards a heroic last stand, nothing new here.

That said, the chemistry between the crew seems very natural. One can tell that a lot of scenes were probably improvised. Shia LeBeouf delivers a strong supporting performance to Pitt’s strong-silent type role of “Wardaddy”, and Lerman hold his own against both actors. However, the film feels lost and hurried despite its lengthy runtime. At times, it felt like it was going down the gritty documentary feel route that I was hoping for, but then it’s almost like Ayer had a change of heart and turned it into a coming-of-age flick at war, before turning wheels again and ending it with the oh-so-overdone outnumbered battle.

Many will enjoy “Fury”. I’ve seen way too many conventional war films to fall for one that doesn’t add anything new or different to the genre. It lacks the philosophical undertones of “The Thin Red Line”, the gritty claustrophobia of “Das Boot”, the haunting psychology behind “Apocalypse Now” and the intense realism of “Saving Private Ryan”. “Fury” is an exercise of mediocrity.

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