Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Posted on October 23, 2014 at 5:59 pm

michael-keaton-birdman (1)Filmed as though it was almost entirely one long, stunning, audacious, breathless and breathtaking shot, “Birdman” (subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) explodes with ideas and visions, adopting the language of dreams to explore and upend the very idea of storytelling.

Michael Keaton plays a character in superficial ways like Keaton himself. He is Riggan, an actor who has undertaken at least three impossible tasks at once. He has adapted the acclaimed but notoriously difficult and difficult to adapt Raymond Carver collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, into a Broadway play. The translation of stories whose art is in the spareness and lyricism of the prose into a theatrical production is at best ambitious, at worst impossible. But Riggan is not just the writer. He is also the director and star. He has put his last dime into the show. If it fails, he loses everything. And there is more. His estranged and angry daughter Sam (Emma Stone), just out of rehab, is working as his assistant so he can keep an eye on her and perhaps repair their relationship. One of the actresses (Andrea Riseborough), may be pregnant with his child. And a piece of equipment has just fallen on the head of one of the actors. They are about to go into previews and he cannot perform.

Riggan and Jake, his best friend/lawyer/producer (a slimmed down and pitch-perfect Zach Galifianakis), throw out (real-life) names of possible actor replacements. The best of their generation: Michael Fassbender, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey, Jr — but they are all in Hollywood playing superheroes. Riggan knows something about that. He played a superhero called Birdman in a series of wildly popular films. He had money, fame, success, and the kind of power all of that brings. But now he has an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), an angry daughter, a possible new child on the way, and he is risking his future on the longest of longshots, a serious play in the high-pressure world of Broadway theater, between the vicious barbs of dyspeptic, despotic critics and audiences who would rather be at the latest musical based on a movie.

Riggan and Jake argue about what to do next.  The understudy? No! “It’s not like the perfect actor is just going to knock on the door!”  Cue knock on the door.  It is Lesley, the non-possibly pregnant actress in the show (Naomi Watts), volunteering her boyfriend, Michael (Edward Norton), who is available (he just got fired or quit or both) and wants to do it.  He is a Broadway darling, a Serious Actor with a lot of fans.  Jake is ecstatic.  This will sell a lot of tickets.

Michael shows up with the script already memorized and able to give a dazzling performance that pushes Riggan to do his best. But Michael is also narcissistic and arrogant. His relationship with Lesley is deteriorating and he is hitting on Sam. Worse, he is sending her mixed signals, making her feel even more insecure and putting her recovery at risk. Riggan is under even more pressure externally and internally as a voice — his Birdman persona? His younger self? His future self? — is urging him, taunting him, distracting him.

It is a high wire act, the endless, dreamlike take festooned with farce-style slamming doors, fantasy interludes with monsters and explosions, sharp satire, poignant drama, and across the board performances of superb precision. As sheer, no-net, bravura filmmaking it is pure wonder, and if it raises more questions than it answers, at least they are the big questions of meaning, identity, work, love, art, and, of course, superheroes.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situation, gun violence, drinking, smoking, and drug use.

Family discussion: How much of what we see in this film is “real” and how can you tell? What do you think is happening in the final scene?

If you like this, try: “All That Jazz” and Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”

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Comedy Drama Fantasy

Interview: Amy Ryan of ‘Jack Goes Boating’

Posted on September 27, 2010 at 11:10 am

jack-goes-boating-trailer-9-7-10-kc.jpgAmy Ryan gave my favorite performance of 2007 as the mother of a missing girl in “Gone Baby Gone.” And it has been a pleasure to see her since then in roles as varied as Holly the human resources manager and love interest for Steve Carell in “The Office” and a journalist stationed in Iraq opposite Matt Damon in “The Green Zone.” She is now appearing in “Jack Goes Boating,” the first film directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also appears in the title role. Ryan plays Connie in this story of two loners who try to reach out to one another. I spoke to her about this film and about her just-announced return to “The Office” for several episodes of Carell’s last season.
You came into a movie with three performers who had played those characters together on stage. Was that a challenge?
The challenge would have been bigger if I had joined them in the stage production. In this case there was about two years from the stage play to the screenplay and Bob Glaudini, the writer reworked some of the scenes and the characters. So they were re-discovering it while I was discovering it. We had a two-week rehearsal process in a room with our DP and script supervisor where we set out on it together.
You’ve now worked with a couple of actors turned directors, Ben Affleck with “Gone Baby Gone” and now Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was your director and co-star. What does an actor know that helps him as a director?
Two things that come to mind. One is truly a shared language. The bigger thing is compassion for knowing what’s it like to go to certain very dark or vulnerable places. Although I’ve had great support from non-acting directors, there’s just a shared experience. Phil never asked us to go places that he wasn’t going to himself. He had to be very vulnerable, especially those love scenes. He’s say, “You need to go there but don’t worry, I’m going to be right behind you — or I’m leading the way.”
This movie respects its audience enough that it doesn’t feel it has to give us explicit explanations for the characters’ behavior by telling us about their past. But do you need to create that for yourself in developing your performance?
Absolutely. Discussions with Bob and with Phil. I flat-out asked Bob: “What’s her story? Why does she use this language? Why is she so shy but why is she so vocal about what she wants, romantically and sexually?” He just kind of shrugged his shoulders. He really let me find it, which was at times frustrating. I wanted the answers. I knew they knew. But it was very generous in saying, “It’s okay for you to make it your own.” It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that something terrible happened to Connie. We don’t see characters like her in a love story very often. She’s in her 40’s and not good at love. She doesn’t have confidence in her workplace. She’s alone in New York City, and that’s enough. She’s an awkward person. Getting out of situations is never going to be a smooth thing.
She says very clearly, “Don’t hurt me.” She thinks too much. She says to herself, “This doesn’t feel good yet, but I’m going to keep trying. I wanted it to be like this, I wanted it to be like that, but I’m going to let go of what I imagined. But now I’m here with you. So overcome me.”
I was delighted to hear that you’re returning to “The Office!”amy ryan steve carell.jpg
Me, too! It’s good fun. That whole group, as you can imagine, truly is a barrel of laughs. I love working with Steve Carell. He is so generous. He never sets the tone of “Keep up with me or out of my way.” He really just says, “Come with me.” He is really, really fun.

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Actors Interview
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