Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Hollywood has made movies in the past that talked about what it was like to be in show business. The majority of those films were glossed over elaborate productions that showed how glamorous the business was. On rare occasion a film came out that showed it could be destructive as well. BIRDMAN runs along the lines of those destructive films while at the same time being uplifting by its end.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan, an actor who has seen better days and is trying to resuscitate his career. Famous the world over for starring as comic book superhero Birdman, he turned his back on the role after three films, trying to find legitimacy in more meaningful roles. But those parts didn’t do his career any good and now he finds himself on Broadway, producing a play he himself has written and will star in. If it tanks, his career is over. It’s one last shot at stardom.

Surrounding Riggan are various side characters. Zach Galifianakis is his agent and partner in this production, always trying to make his star feel as if the world revolves around him. Emma Stone is his daughter and assistant, Sam, there to help when needed but feeling as if she deserves more attention from her father than a job. Naomi Watts is Lesley, the budding female lead of the show who wants success as much as Riggan wants to reclaim it. And Edward Norton is Mike, Lesley’s boyfriend and the current wunderkind of Broadway, an actor who in the eyes of the critics can do no wrong. He also happens to be the most prima donna person involved in the show.

As the movie opens Riggan is concerned about the way things are going. Set to open up with previews in a few days the second male lead in the show is struck by a stage light and needs to be replaced. Lesly suggest her boyfriend Mike who has made himself available for the show and is willing to join the cast. But all doesn’t go well with his arrival as Mike is a person who thinks he’s the center of the universe, soon making the play more about his character than the one Riggan is playing in the hopes of regenerating his career. Fear, concern, anxiety and that ever present damaged ego are what rule Riggan and when combined will either elevate his career or send it crashing to the ground.

Through it all Riggan wanders the stage, the backstage, his dressing room and the streets trying to find his center, to find himself in such a way as to massage not just his career but his ego as well. In focusing only on himself and his needs he misses everything going on in the world around him. As the movie moves forward you begin to wonder if he hasn’t lost his mind as well as we see him talking to his alter ego of the past, Birdman. We also glimpse moments of him displaying certain powers that were associated with the character. Are they real powers or is this just a glimpse at what is going on in his mind? I think that’s for the viewer to decide as they watch his story unfold.

The movie offers a masterful use of camera going from start to finish in what would appear to be a single shot with the camera following one character only to veer off and follow another before returning to the first. This not only makes for an interesting use of the camera as if you were someone there following each person from place to place but adds to the tension from scene to scene as well as the frenetic pace of the film which constantly seems on the move. It also makes the movie seem like a play unraveling in real time until the final scene.

Much has been said about Keaton’s performance here and deservedly so. For those of us old enough to recall his career from the start it’s hard to imagine the person seen on screen here began as a stand-up though short lived comedian who acted in comedies to begin with. When he was chosen as the first new Batman many scoffed only to be delighted with his performance. That adds a nice touch here as this character is also trying to get over his past superhero performance. Keaton makes this character believable and one that we care about before the film ends. Is he insane? Does he really have powers? Does he have the ability to bring his career back to life? Keaton tackles all of those ideas here with what seems like ease though is in reality talent.

The rest of the players in the film add everything to this movie. Had the roles been handed to lesser actors they would have felt like cardboard. Instead each brings their side characters to life and support the role that Keaton uses as the centerpiece for the film.

This movie will not be for everyone. Watching it for the first time I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. The more I thought about it the more I did. It was something refreshing and different. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you’re willing to give it a try you might find something different and enjoyable to see here. Did it deserve to win best picture this year at the Oscars? In my opinion no. But then again I tend to enjoy the movies it skewered most, superhero flicks. Different strokes for different folks.

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With all of the controversy going on these days concerning Iran it would seem that any movie based on events that took place there would be far from release. Quite the opposite is true as THE DAILY SHOW’s host Jon Stewart made his directorial debut last year with the release of ROSEWATER, just released on DVD.

The movie tells the story of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), a journalist working for Newsweek who was held prisoner by the country of Iran for four months. An ex-Iranian, Bahari returned to his country of birth in 2009 to cover the elections going in on Iran at the time. More so than any other election this one seemed to be the start of a change for the country. Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced stiff opposition from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a candidate favored by many students in the country. When the film starts Bahari is chauffeured around Tehran by a young student who takes him to his friends so that he can cover more than just the story being fed by the leaders of Iran.

Bahari records conversations with these students who seem to have no fear while he himself recognizes that by recording them he could be putting them all in jeopardy. While in Tehran he also is interviewed himself by a member of THE DAILY SHOW posing as a spy who has his own television show. As the story progresses we see the election results end with a surprising win by Ahmadinejad, even after polls showed a strong lead by Mousavi. Feeling that the elections were fraudulent, the members of the Green Movement (Mousavi’s backers) take to the streets in protest. The end result was extreme violence and several deaths. As he walks the streets with the young people he has met, Bahari films the protests as well as the violence that followed.

Within days of passing along his report, Bahari is awakened by the state police and taken away to Evin Prison where he is kept for questioning. Not only is he questioned but a slow form of torture follows as well where he is systematically broken down, not physically but mentally. Through it all he remembers his sister and father, both of whom had been arrested and imprisoned by the Shah’s government long ago. Seeking strength from their memories he holds out as long as possible. All the while his interrogator Javadi (Kim Bodnia) badgers him, belittles him and questions him based on the evidence they have gathered and are using. Included in that evidence is the taped interview seen on THE DAILY SHOW their inability to realize that his is a comedy show and not one actually hosted by a spy.

Bahari’s travails lasted for four months during which time he had no contact with his then pregnant wife. Through a concerted effort just touched on in the film pressure was put on the Iranian government for his release. Those who have read about the struggle he went through or who read newspaper accounts will already know the result of his imprisonment. If not consider this a spoiler alert, he was eventually released.

There are two things about this movie that make it worth watching. First and foremost is the realization of what goes on in Iran even though it is seen through the eyes of the film makers and through Bahari’s own telling of what he went through. The film is actually based on his firsthand account and book, THEN THEY CAME FOR ME. While the Iranians are not depicted as the most evil of governments in the world the picture offered is still not one of a peace loving government willing to do the right thing.

The second reason to watch the film is it being Stewart’s first foray into directing a major motion picture. Like him or not, agree with his politics or not, the movie doesn’t take an approach that many will find fault with. It portrays a well-rounded look at the country of Iran and its leaders. Not only that the quality of film making from the camera choices made to a well-made tip of the hat to social media to the performances he gets from his major players here show that Stewart has the ability to become a major director in his own right.

In the end the question of was this film entertaining leaves me saying that yes it was while at the same time it shed a light on what was going on in Iran at the time. There is little doubt that the movie tells the story from a certain perspective but don’t all movies do that, especially movies dealing with political issues? Suffice to say that in this film it attempts to steer the story down the middle and at the same time is well made enough that you never find yourself looking at your watch wondering when it will end. ROSEWATER is a movie that is in the right place at the right time and worth watching.

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People for the most part have a reputation for watching movies with a ghoulish twist to them. The FACES OF DEATH films went from a cult fan base to being watched by tons of people in the early days of video and are still sought out by many. When people drive by the scene of an accident they still slow down and glimpse to see if there were any fatalities. The reality is that we’re not the sick people that some would have us believe but there is a morbid curiosity with death and all things that surround it. Perhaps it’s just our way of looking and then being thankful that it wasn’t us.

But there are times when it’s a good thing to see life and the end of it as it really is. There are times when it can help us to understand things that happen that cause death. Such is the case with THE BRIDGE. Filmed over and entire year this movie captures the beauty and the sadness that is found in the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. A monument to engineering the bridge was an accomplishment not just of its time but of the achievement that formed this structure. And yet it has taken on a new life as one of the most used locations for people to commit suicide. That’s what this film is about.

With a combination of filmed footage of people actually jumping from the bridge melded with interviews with their friends and family members, the movie attempts to decipher what it was that led these people to make the decision to take their own lives. The most universal reason seems to be mental health issues ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to depression. That mixing of watching a person walking across the bridge, making the effort to climb over the rail and then to actually jump with the words and faces of their loved ones left behind shakes you to your core.

The movie also includes an interview with Kevin Hines, one of those who jumped and yet survived. He realizes the things he thought he couldn’t change were actually doable but he didn’t come to that realization until after he jumped. Changing his mind in midair he altered his position, landed in the water and though injured was able to swim nearly 50 feet to the surface. In a twist of fate a sea lion swam around him and kept him afloat until help could reach him. He says he will go to his grave thinking that this was God stepping in. I tend to agree.

Those responsible for the making of the film were not just sitting idly by while people jumped. When they could tell someone was about to do so they contacted the bridge authorities to help stop them. But recognizing someone about to jump wasn’t an easy thing to do. Some people climbed the rail just to have a picture taken. One gentlemen in the film talks on his cell phone, laughing, then closes it and puts it down, climbs the rail and immediately jumps. Though short, it’s a stunning scene in the film.

Of all those seen in the film jumping the camera nearly always cuts away before they hit the water. The fall is 245 feet and those jumping are traveling at 75 miles per hour as their body hits the bay. It’s been described as a speeding truck meeting a concrete building. While the view of someone hitting isn’t the gory sight that jumping from a building to the street would be, it is still disturbing. Of those witnessed in this film only one jump is shot from start to finish and that jumper’s story is told from the beginning of the film through to the end.

The inspiration for the film maker was an article that talked about the jumpers from the bridge. It also discussed attempts to have suicide barriers placed along the bridge so that those wishing to jump couldn’t do so. Believe it or not the attempts to have those put in place were argued against by people responsible for the bridge. The entire time I watched this movie all I could think of was why wouldn’t you want to stop people from doing this?
I know this movie won’t be for everyone. For anyone who has lost someone to suicide it will be a difficult film to watch. At the same time I think it’s important for people to see this film. If for no other reason than to see what it is that would inspire someone to take their own life. There are no clear cut signs that someone might do this and many of those interviewed had no idea it would happen. Then again there were some that knew it was only a matter of time. It would be nice to think that there was a way to help those who need it, those dealing with any mental issues that would cause them to do this, most notably depression which seems to run rampant these days.

I wouldn’t say this is an entertaining film but it is an enlightening one. It does what a great documentary should do, it presents as unbiased an opinion on its topic as can be expected but at the same time realizes that there is a right and wrong involved in the story. As I said, perhaps the main thing about this film is that as people watch maybe they’ll be inspired to look at their friend, neighbor or family member they’ve been concerned about and take a moment to let them know they’re there, to let them know that if they need help they can be counted on. In the end this movie give hope to the chance that people will walk away from it thinking about helping someone else. I can’t think of a better objective for a movie to offer.

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