Movie Review: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

Starring
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu was part of the Mexican Invasion that took Hollywood by storm in the early naughts alongside such visionaries like Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. But after his little-seen 2010 drama “Biutiful,” he went on an unexpected sabbatical that left many wondering if he’d ever return. Iñarritu spent the last four years licking his wounds over the mixed reception of that film (as well as globe-trotting Oscar bait “Babel”), but he’s officially back with what’s arguably his best movie to date: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a daring piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. The movie doesn’t always work – in fact, it’s sometimes as messy as the characters that inhabit it – but it’s also the type of magical cinematic experience that, just like fellow countryman Cuarón’s “Gravity,” you can only gaze in childlike wonder as it unfolds before you.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero called Birdman in a series of successful Hollywood blockbusters. Desperate to revive his career and earn a little credibility in the process, Riggan mounts an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of the actors is injured in a freak accident, Riggan’s indebted co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), recommends her boyfriend and theater luminary Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a last-minute replacement. There’s no denying that Mike is a talented actor, but his unconventional methods lead to a clash of egos between him and Riggan, and with only days to go until opening night, the whole production becomes in danger of shutting down before it even begins – especially if the cynical and malicious voice in Riggan’s head (a manifestation of his Birdman alter ego) has anything to say about it.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to October

october

October has never really been known for its quality, but in recent years, studios have been a lot more open about releasing potential awards contenders alongside the usual array of horror flicks. In fact, 2013 saw two of the year’s most-nominated movies – “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” – released during this time, and that trend appears to continue this year as well, with no fewer than six potential Oscar hopefuls debuting throughout the month. The October lineup is certainly tasty, which is only good news for moviegoers, because that means you can see some of these prospective gems that much sooner.

“Gone Girl”

Who: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry
What: When his wife’s disappearance becomes the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when he’s suspected of foul play.
When: October 3rd
Why: With the exception of “Aliens 3,” David Fincher’s body of work is almost flawless, and there’s little reason to believe that “Gone Girl” will change that. Though this marks his fifth film in a row to be adapted from preexisting source material, Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel is tailor-made for the edgy director. The decision to hire Flynn to also write the screenplay was certainly a bold move, but Fincher has a history of making offbeat choices that work surprisingly well, and that extends to the cast of “Gone Girl” as well. Ben Affleck probably wouldn’t be most people’s top pick for the lead role, and the supporting cast is even stranger, but if anyone deserves your blind trust, it’s Fincher.

“Annabelle”

Who: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard and Eric Ladin
What: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.
When: October 3rd
Why: It’s not often that a horror movie finds so much success both critically and commercially, but “The Conjuring” is without a doubt one of the best horror films of the past 20 years. And while fans wait for the inevitable sequel, they can dive deeper into the film’s mythology with this spinoff featuring the creepy Annabelle doll. Though it’s hard to imagine an immobile doll carrying an entire movie on her own, the trailer suggests that Annabelle isn’t responsible for a bulk of the scares, but rather the spirit that’s attached itself to her. The whole thing feels more like a cheap cash-in than a necessary addition to the “Conjuring” franchise, but with James Wan’s longtime DP behind the camera, we’re hoping for the best.

“The Judge”

Who: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thorton
What: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder.
When: October 10th
Why: Now that Robert Downey Jr. is a huge movie star (thanks again, Marvel), the actor can pretty much do whatever he wants, including producing smaller, character-driven dramas like “The Judge” under his new company with wife Susan Downey. But while the film boasts an interesting premise and a superb cast of actors, the decision to hire David Dobkin, who’s best known for directing comedies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Fred Claus,” is extremely odd, particularly because he has zero experience handling serious material like this. Warner Bros. is obviously angling for awards consideration with its Oscar-bait plot, but reactions were very mixed after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with many praising the actors but damning Dobkin and the clichéd script.

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The Light from the TV Shows: ’60s and ’70s Saturday Mornings Made to Order

I love Warner Archive.

It’s true. I really do. I’ve been a major proponent of the MOD (Made on Demand) format for DVDs ever since I first heard about the idea in the context of movies – “Want an obscure film from our vault released on DVD? We’ll print copies on an as-ordered basis!” – but when they started moving into doing the same thing for TV series, I practically lost my mind. Mind you, they eased into television, first offering up a bunch of TV movies, then miniseries, then a couple of more recent series that didn’t have massive fanbases, like “The Eleventh Hour” and “Dark Blue.” Soon, however, they started to delve into their back catalog of Hanna-Barbera series…and that’s when things really started getting interesting for me.

Throughout the ’70s, I was an obsessive watcher of cartoons: before and after school, Saturday mornings, even the occasional Sunday morning series. (Anyone remember “These Are The Days”?) As Warner Archive has begun to reissue the series that I watched in my youth but, in most cases, haven’t seen since, I’ve all but drooled at the prospect of getting to revisit them. Now that I have, I thought I’d shine the spotlight on the top 10 releases that have resulted in the most flashbacks for me:

The Addams Family: The Complete Series

Be delightfully miserable with the Addams Family as they take to the road in their Victorian-styled RV for spooktacular cross-country quests only they can conjure. From Nashville to New Orleans, New Mexico and Hawaii, these peculiar parents – Gomez and Morticia – treat their family to misadventures, including outwitting a band of gold thieves, freeing the animals from New York’s Central Park Zoo and racing a horse in the Kentucky Derby. They even win a piece of the moon and with Uncle Fester’s rocket, the trip will be a blast! You may remember them as “altogether ooky,” but the spirit of this family is contagious!

Although the “Addams Family” movies resulted in an animated series in the early ’90s, a lot of people don’t realize that there’d already been one back in the early ’70s. I remembered that I’d watched it as a kid, but I hadn’t seen it in years. Indeed, my only truly concrete memory of the ’70s animated version of the Addams Family came from when they appeared on an episode of “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.” Unfortunately, although John Astin, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Coogan, and Ted Cassidy contributed to the Addams’ “Scooby-Doo” appearance, they’re nowhere to be found on this set. This is the sort of disappointment you never really get over as you’re watching it, but at the same time, if you’re a fan of “The Addams Family” in general, then it still makes for relatively enjoyable viewing.

Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles: The Complete Series

Buzz Conroy is a heroic boy-genius who builds the powerful robot Frankenstein Jr. When the Ghastly Genie, the Junk Man and other evildoers get up to their old tricks, “Frankie” and his young creator crank into action. The crime fighting coalition continues with the Impossibles, a group of superheroes disguised as a beatnik rock group. At the direction of “Big D,” Multi Man, Coil Man and Fluid Man make hot-rockin’ musical justice thwarting thieves and corralling crooks with their transformative powers.

This remains one of the oddest – and therefore coolest – series ever to have emerged from Hanna-Barbera. There would seem to be little doubt that the Frankenstein Jr. / Buzz Conroy relationship was inspired at least in some part by Gigantor, the famous space-age robot who was under the command of Jimmy Sparks, but hearing Ted Cassidy’s voice come booming out of Frankie made it rather easy to dismiss the derivative nature of the premise. As for the Impossibles, I remain mystified as to why a series about a rock band who doubled as superheroes neither lasted very long nor made any sort of dent on the pop charts. Somebody at Hanna-Barbera really dropped the ball on that one, that’s all I can say.

The Funky Phantom: The Complete Series

One cold, wet night three lost teens – Skip, April and Augie plus Elmo their dog – stumbled inside a spooky old house hoping to get warm. The dusty clock showed the wrong time, so these helpful kids reset the clock hands. A gong rang out, followed by a voice: It’s the Spirit of 1776, even, at your service! Much to their surprise was the friendly ghost Mudsy and his mischievous ghost cat Boo. Antics abound when this motley group hits the road, cracking cases and thwarting crooks, pirates, ghosts and all kinds of strange characters.

For my part, when I think of the Funky Phantom, I think of the fact that, when the amusement park Kings Dominion used to be Hanna-Barbera-themed, we also used to end up parking in the Funky Phantom lot. Also, I always remember that Micky Dolenz of the Monkees did one of the voices on the show (Skip). Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t until years later that I actually saw my first episode of the show, by which point I’d already long since associated it with fond memories of childhood, anyway. Having revisited it, it’s still a fun little show, following the same general formula as “Scooby-Doo,” but with the twist of doing the ghost-hunting with an actual ghost.

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