Birdman trailer (10.17.14 release)

I’m posting a pair of trailers for the upcoming Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film Birdman.  The first one is a teaser, and it’s brilliant and arty, but it leaves the viewer wondering what the hell is going on beyond the central conceit.  The international trailer reveals more of the plot and supporting performances, and while it might not be as succinct a nugget of brilliance, it demonstrates more of the film’s reach while continuing to promise an awful lot.

At surface level, Birdman is about a washed-up Hollywood comic book movie franchise star (not unlike Keaton post-Batman) trying to prove something to himself with a self-produced vanity Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.  The film has been killing at festivals, partly because of the meta aspect, but also based on the strength of the performances.  It’s also uncertain from the trailers how surreal the plot is– i.e. how much of this is in Riggan Thomson’s (Keaton’s) mind and how much may not be. Keaton’s role is said to require several different sides of the actor, and that on all levels he’s pulled it off to an incredible degree.  The film is already being touted for Oscar nominations, particularly for Keaton, and it may put him back on the A-list in a big way.  It’s not so much a discovery, but a re-discovery– reminding us of the many things he can do, and do exceedingly well, and putting them all in one package at a time when we may be wondering why Keaton’s profile has receded in the last 10-20 years as much as it has.  Beyond that, the supporting performances are being talked about across the board as very strong to career bests; it’s also the first comedy director Inarritu has worked on, and the first shoot he’s described as enjoyable.  He previously directed Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful.  The first three are all brilliant films with strong ensembles, but also dark and bleak and often unrelentingly hard to watch.

After Babel, Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga parted ways, and as a result both of their careers stumbled.  Biutiful had a lot of potential behind its story concept and boasted a stellar central performance from Javier Bardem, but the film had a tighter, more personal focus with only one storyline that was a departure for Inarritu.  And as if it were possible, Biutiful was perhaps Inarritu’s darkest, bleakest film, while also not really delivering.  It felt as though Inarritu were using it to ask some questions as an artist, questions that he didn’t yet have an answer to, and as a result the film felt meandering and a bit lost.  It appears that with Birdman, Inarritu has answered those questions and found a confident direction forward.  To add to the immersion, Birdman is comprised of very long takes that required the actors to approach it more as a stage play, with most of the cuts hidden so that the film generally feels seamless.  It’s one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I’m equally excited to see where Inarritu goes next.

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Win Win, Thomas McCarthy (2011)

Win Win is what I’d call a modest success.  It’s about a down-on-his-luck lawyer and family man, played by Paul Giamatti, who agrees to take over the guardianship of an elderly client in the early stages of dementia.  And as a result, he ends up taking care of the the man’s grandson when he shows up in town.  Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty coaches the high school wrestling team on the side, and as it turns out, the kid Alex is something of a wrestling prodigy.  Mike’s best friend Terry Delfino is also going through personal turmoil after the breakup of his marriage, and Mike and Terry both become increasingly invested in both Kyle’s plight and his wrestling career as a means of finding something positive in their own lives.

Win Win is blessed with a really good cast.  Amy Ryan plays Mike’s wife, and you really can’t ask for two better actors than Giamatti and Ryan.  And director McCarthy, a working actor himself, obviously knows the language of actors and works very, very well with them.  Bobby Cannavale, playing Mike’s friend Terry, finds both the comedy and emotional weight to his role, and shines in his supporting part.  Melanie Lynskey, as Kyle’s drug-addicted mother struggling with her own recovery, brings a lot of emotional complexity to her limited screen time.  Alex Schaeffer, as Kyle, isn’t really asked to do very much, but he fits the part quite naturally.  In addition to the delinquency of the character, there’s also a kind side to him, struggling to make a connection, and his scenes with Amy Ryan play with this quite nicely.

There’s a bit of a narrative snafu to the story, as early on when Giamatti agrees to take on guardianship of Leo Poplar, his main reason for doing it is so that Leo can continue to remain living in his own home instead of at an assisted living facility where the state wants to place him.  But immediately Leo’s shown living in that very same assisted living facility anyway.  Part of this plays into the plot and the third act, but it’s confusing early on as it seems there must be essential scenes missing that have been cut from the film.  I understand McCarthy not wanting to overplay his hand, but I think in handling this the way he does, he actually does the movie a huge narrative disservice and even cripples it.

Win Win is equally heart-warming and depressing.  It has moments of occasional humor, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny.  It feels honest, and it’s refreshing to see a film that accurately depicts the financial hardship most Americans have been enduring for quite some time, and the ways it compromises quality of life, often requiring people to make sacrifices, cut corners, or both.  But for all of that, Win Win never really emotionally connects.  Giamatti has one little speech where he tells the kid during a wrestling match “You stay in this, okay?  This is your place, this is your place– you control it, remember?  You control it!”  But that’s probably the biggest emotional moment in the movie, and the only time it comes close to addressing its own themes.  And that moment is so much of what the movie is about– Mike and Terry admiring the kid having this one thing that’s eluded the grasp of the harsh realities of life, and being a little bit jealous of that but wanting to protect the kid and maybe get a little piece of personal success through osmosis.  That desire, and Mike’s resulting relationship with Kyle, is the door that takes him to a place where he has to examine the path he’s headed down with his own life and the choices he’s started to make.

The film certainly has some admirable intentions, and the characterizations and relationships are very honest, naturalistic, and true.  But Win Win also stays very close to center, so much so that it borders on the stagnant.  It could have really benefited from more humor, more pathos, or more emotion; not necessarily all three, but at least one of them to help give it more definition, color, and character.  It’s still worth a watch, but anyone should go in with very modest expectations to be able to enjoy the film’s modest triumphs.

Director McCarthy previously made The Station Agent and The Visitor.

6.5/10

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