Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton in Birdman

I opted to see this at the last minute, instead of Interstellar, because I worried that Interstellar might have too much of a feeling of self-importance about it for an early Saturday matinee. Hoo boy. There is no doubt in my mind that I made the wrong choice. Birdman wants to say something about what it means to be an artist — what it means to invest your heart and your soul in a project and to be racked with anxiety over the potential outcomes: fame! fortune! ruin! mockery! — but the chosen method of delivery is a hoary old backstage drama bereft of ideas.

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Johnny Depp in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam’s career has been a bit of a wooly thing, flitting from genre to genre and flirting with the mainstream without ever quite consummating the relationship. His best film to date remains Brazil, a dystopic masterpiece that’s bookended by another pair of singular accomplishments — the well-regarded fantasy adventure Time Bandits and the less-celebrated epic The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (A book, Losing the Light, was written about bringing that oversized project — a must-see for anyone who interested in expansive, expensive whimsy in the days before CGI — to the screen.) He next made The Fisher King, a nicely written (by Richard LaGravenese) romantic comedy with the hint of madness around the edges, with Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, and then snared Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt for his big commercial triumph, a feature-length extrapolation from Chris Marker’s brilliant science-fiction short “La Jetée” called Twelve Monkeys. For an encore project, he moved in as a fix-it artist on a troubled Hunter S. Thompson biopic, completing the Johnny Depp vehicle and instant stoner classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And with that, his future in the industry seemed assured.

And then the bottom fell out.

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Because Pixar is known for so reliably hitting balls out of the park, every time, it’s hard to think of what possible angle to take in a review as its latest slugger, Up, trots merrily around the bases of the multiplex, dances its way toward the hefty box-office returns that await at home plate, and basks in the warm glow of the adoration of millions of fans. For three years now, there have been stories in the financial press alleging that Pixar’s latest is due to underperform because a) nobody wants to see a silent movie about a lonely robot; b) children don’t want to play with plush rats; or c) nobody loves old people and fat kids. That’s one reason why it’s such good sport to watch the movies rake in the dough year after year.

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This Henry Selick stop-motion fantasy is the story of young Coraline, a girl just moved into a multi-family house with her busy parents. Coraline is peeved that her parents don’t have extra time to spend on her, or on the formidable task of homemaking, and she’s more than a little lonely. When she explores the house, she finds a portal into an “other” reality where her other mother seems eager to dote on her night and day, fixing up calorie-rich breakfasts and keeping her dorky other father at bay. But the other world isn’t as lovely as it seems — Coraline’s other mother is scheming to trap her in the other world, where she will sew up Coraline’s eye sockets, replacing them with buttons, and hold her captive.

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In a happy development for cult and genre-film fans, non-English-language offerings beyond the highbrow are continuing to trickle out on Blu-ray Disc. And while you can’t buy a HD copy of My Blueberry Nights in the U.S. (and with the dollar in the toilet, who can afford to import movies these days?), you can pick up this lesser-known Thai horror-fantasy from 2006. Directed by Pleo Sirisuwan, it’s a low-budget adventure about the various creatures — human, humanoid and otherwise — lurking deep inside the jungle. It’s one of those movies where the hero’s face gets more and more jacked up and bloody as it goes along.

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There’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is,

the last 20 minutes of Beowulf contains maybe the best, most

spectacular action scene of the year — it must be the most excitingly realized

man-on-dragon beatdown in the history of fantasy filmmaking. The bad news is

you have to sit through the rest of Beowulf to get to it. It’s not

all terrible — the story by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman is an exceptionally

playful reworking of the source material — but there’s a tension between the

film’s epic ambitions and its awkward, dead-eyed, computer-generated-zombie

protagonists that’s only resolved when it kicks into full action mode. Director

Robert Zemeckis adores the freedom of his virtual camera, sending it swooping

and zooming vertiginously through the animated world at the slightest provocation,

but — like the 3D gimmick — the technical grandstanding only distracts momentarily

from the film’s problems. Happily, the voice performances are first-rate, and

Crispin Glover’s weirdo performance as the monster Grendel deserves some kind

of special Oscar consideration. C+

This review originally appeared in the White Plains Times.

Books Into Movies and Awaiting The Golden Compass


For a long time I was resistant to the idea of making a point of reading novels that were being made into films. If a noted filmmaker’s reading list intersects your own, then fine — but I’m generally more interested in the film qua film than I am in its relationship with the source material, unless said source material is uncommonly fine. I found complaints about changes made by Peter Jackson to the Tolkien mythology to be tediously petty, especially since the films turned out so well (and also because the books bored my pants off as a youngster), and although I suppose I’m grateful when a talented critic nutshells the vagaries of a particular book-to-film adaptation, I seldom feel the need to do the kind of homework required to elucidate that process myself. At the end of the screening, after all, the film needs to stand on its own.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


Never having read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter movie, I was keen to see exactly how confusing this fifth installment in the wildly popular young-wizard saga would seem. Happily, this is the kind of movie where nearly every character is identified by name (and loudly!) as they make their first appearance on screen. It doesn’t take much knowledge about the complicated backstory to enjoy the cracking coming-of-age story about responsibility to your conscience, the importance of friendship, and the evil that can be done by corrupt bureaucrats. (Alternate title: Harry Potter Fights the Power.) The picture is derailed occasionally by that rushed, strait-jacketed feel associated with slavish adaptations, and the last reel is a bit anticlimactic, but this is still an engaging yarn with some gorgeous special-effects work. There’s also a special pleasure in seeing so many very young actors holding their own in scenes featuring their prodigiously gifted elders—Fiona Shaw, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Maggie Smith, just for starters. (Even Helena Bonham Carter shows up in a frightwig for what amounts to a cameo as a “Death Eater” named Bellatrix Lestrange!) Not a great film, but an ideal family matinée.