BY Chris Sanchez
The great thing about the Fargo theatre is that they play films that are not big, flashy and mainstream, but rather, smaller and more interesting pieces of cinema. It’s no different with the two films playing now.
“Birdman” is a film that premiered at the Venice film festival almost three months ago to rapturous responses and plenty of awards buzz. It opened in New York and L.A. over a month ago and has expanded throughout the country. The film has currently grossed $12 million.
“Birdman” is a jazzy and marvelously entertaining satire, which shockingly comes from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a Mexican filmmaker who’s known for making dour, serious dramas as “Babel” and “Amores Perros.” This is the first we see this director in a playful light, but boy, does it shine.
The film features Michael Keaton in his most memorable role in over a decade. He plays Riggan Thomson, an actor known for being the iconic superhero “Birdman.” After his enormous success, his career takes a nosedive. To prove he’s still worthy, Thomson writes, directs and co-stars in a Richard Carver play based on a short story.
Opening night is days away and the production is already falling apart. The lead actor got injured on set, so his replacement is Mike Shiner (the brilliant Edward Norton) a bad-boy thespian who interrupts preview performances by breaking character. At the same time, he tries to comfort one of the leading actresses (Naomi Watts) who fears her Broadway debut will fall flat, and whose relationship with Shiner is crumbling. He also spends the film dealing with his relationship with the other lead actress (Andrea Riseborough). Most importantly, Thomson is trying to reconnect with his daughter Sam (the lovely Emma Stone) who just got out of rehab and is now working as her dad’s gofer.
The stress has gotten to Thomson so much that he’s now hearing the voice of “Birdman.” Not only that, he also has unexplained superpowers. The film vigorously leads you to wonder if this guy is actually hearing his alter-ego, or simply going mad. We see this actor going through the motions, turning to the bottle and narcotics. But there is more beneath the surface, and the film brilliantly lets us glide through his journey with starling revelations that occur throughout the film.
This essentially is a backstage drama, but one infused with infectious energy that never flags. The jazz score only enlivens it. It also has help from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (who shot last year’s Gravity) who makes the film look absolutely dazzling. The film is seemingly shot in just one long take. It’s something I personally have never experienced before, and surely most audiences haven’t either.
The supporting players, which include an inspired casting of Zach Galifianakis, are all aces, making their characters go beyond drama queens. This marks the best ensemble I’ve seen in a film so far this year. But this is Keaton’s film. He gave one hell of a performance. It’s safe to say that he’s back in the spotlight, and after seeing this film, you probably won’t even recall that latex-wearing superhero he once was. Ah, what’s his name again?
“Birdman” is about reinventing oneself and the art of perfecting craft. And with that, like its protagonist, transcends brilliance into something majestic that soars high and never looks back.
“Whiplash” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, winning “The Audience” and “The Grand Jury” prizes. This film also received universal acclaim upon its release day over a month ago and even though it’s only grossed about $2.4 million, it’s still trying to find an audience.
Like “Birdman,” “Whiplash” is also about craft, but in a different realm. It takes place in an environment full of jazz musicians in Manhattan. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer who aspires to become one of the all time greats. He gets a chance to hone that in when he performs for the lead professor of a prestigious music conservatory (J.K. Simmons).
This professor doesn’t hold back his criticisms, and it elevates when he finally has enough and throws a chair across the room at Andrew out of rage. The tone that is set for “Whiplash” is an unnerving but exhilarating drama that takes the underdog story tropes and turns them on their head. We’ve all seen stories of teachers pushing their students to madness, but this is on a whole other level.
Fletcher sees a lot of potential in Andrew, and he literally pushes him and his classmates to the edge, in obscene ways. There are scenes where Andrew plays so hard on his drum that it makes his knuckles bleed. Even after all that, Simmons’ character is still unimpressed.
This has a huge affect on Andrew, who feels like jazz music is all he has. It’s something that none of his family members seem to really support him on, except his dad (Paul Raiser). This pushes him harder then ever. He puts his life on hold, even jeopardizing a potentially good relationship with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and dedicates himself, practicing for hours until his hands can no longer take it. This film truly shows the horrors of being an artist.
The film’s lead actors are excellent. J.K. Simmons sheds his loveable image to become a monstrous and mysterious person. With his bald head and muscular exterior, Simmons is almost a spitting image of R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket.”
It no surprise that director Damien Chazzelle, who had a background in music, has a knack for making this jazz world savory even for non-jazz fans like me. He makes the classroom look like a battlefield, as students try to sabotage each other.
With great acting and an intense plot, “Whiplash” is hard to watch, but it’s even harder to look away.