…And The Valley of Them That Have Gone

For Marshall – who was one of the first people I’d met who’d push back on this movie’s ill-deserved legacy

We all know the infamous results of the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where How Green Was My Valley won 5 Oscars including the third Best Director win for John Ford and Best Picture. And that happened at the cost of Citizen Kane, thereby leading to nearly 70 years of backlash that insisted because How Green Was My Valley was not worthy of that award because the win was stolen from “The Best Movie Ever”. What this post pre-supposes is… maybe this win was deserved.

It really was. Certainly, How Green Was My Valley is not better than Citizen Kane (likewise, Orson Welles is my favorite director where as John Ford is only my favorite American director) but not being as good as Citizen Kane still leaves room for being one of the best movies ever made.

And I get how it may feel like the sentiment inherent in How Green Was My Valley‘s storytelling from a script by Phillip Dunne adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn was being awarded as a reaction to Kane‘s cold cynicism but if you may permit me the chance, I’d like to propose that How Green Was My Valley accomplishes that sentiment of a child’s memory but from the eyes of an adult that clearly came to recognize the beginnings of what is a darker and immediate present. That’s after all the first thing we are faced with before anything: an unseen narrator voiced by an uncredited Irving Pichel observes with us the audience a blackened and smoke filled hillside Welsh village as he prepares to leave this place for good. The very shot has us hover past his hands preparing to leave and exiting out the window of his home where blackened ground and smog from the nearby colliery greets us by filling an place in the frame where the sky could be visible with gray toxicity.

After Pichel delivers his defiant monologue for remembering the valley the way it was over the way it now is, we fade into a view of the major road where young Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowell) and his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) are able to view mountains as far as seen filled with trees and brightness in Arthur Miller’s glowing black-and-white cinematography but even within that opening introduction to our narrator’s – who is identifiable as the adult Huw – childhood reminiscences, the beginnings of that “black slag, the waste of the colliery” is visible (including a shot where it takes up a third of the frame at the top of the village’s adjacent hill. That slag is introduced to us in the frame narrative with practically half of the village’s homes buried beneath it, thereby even from the start of Huw’s voiceover waxing we are reminded grimly that the destruction of this village has already begun.

And before I go on, if I may note something I really love about the way these first three minutes (for indeed, I’ve only JUST described the first three minutes!) invite us to watch Huw’s memories with him: the introductory montage in the present brings us to face the remnants of the village with straightforward cuts from James B. Clark to each reveal but then once we fade into the past, a single moment – Huw and his father walking to the coal slag before Huw’s sister Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) calls out to them through song and Huw calls her back with the same tune – features crossfades between the shots, giving it more of the sense of something associative rather than continuous. Which is an outstanding usage of editing a single event to tell us how this is a movie communicating moments popping into the mind of a man rather than an active history. It will not return for most of the film, but as mental place-setting, it did all it needed to in those 3 minutes.

Something else that won’t necessarily return until later is the sense of things becoming for the worse, since this is in the end a movie about adult Huw’s attempts to maintain nostalgia as Pichel’s narration never ceases to be warm and wistful no matter what the scene be. Even while the central colliery remains hovering over the village with its smoke and its waste taking up one isolated quarter of the landscape shots involving that lovely and cozy village main village road (a studio set* designed by Richard Day and Nathan Juran in a manner that greatly favors Miller’s full frame and Ford’s attempts to resemble 19th Century British landscape paintings), Huw plays softball selecting early memories like his eldest brother Ivor (Patric Knowles)’s marriage (and Huw’s immediate infatuation with his sister-in-law, Bronwyn (Anna Lee)), the men working that colliery that make up that village’s entire economy singing proudly in Welsh at the end of the working day as they prepare to wash up the soot covering their bodies, and the pleasant domesticity of dinner together with the family.

And yet before very long, we are faced with the first major conflict: the wages of the coal mine workers has been cut and the remaining four of Huw’s brothers that were living in the Morgan home clash with their father on the matter of creating a Union to protect their rights as workers. And then further on more quiet conflicts occur at the margins of Huw’s happy memories until they start taking over the narrative structure. That’s the most impressive thing about Dunne’s writing here: the way it lets the events play episodically until they catch together as something like momentum to the inevitable around halfway through. It is also one of the ways this movie allows Ford to slip in as much of his socialist politics as possible: the union business, the lingering presence of capitalism and the awareness of its coming effects, and even fits in environmentalism in the quietest (though not subtle) ways.

In any case, just as much as Pichel attempts to provide resilience to the early signs of his village and his family’s future, there is still one more formal element to provide reinforcement to that swell and it’s Ford and Miller’s favor of wide shots and wide angle lenses. Which certainly makes sense for exterior sequences that add to the sense of community when we witness all the workers filling the streets and the screen, singing together or marching together or even just need a reminder of what is at stake with the shots of the entire village and what is coming with the colliery standing in the back. But the interior sequences – those particularly in the Gwilym home though the chapel in which Pastor Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) preaches between acting Huw’s secondary father figure has a significant presence and there is also an incredible usage of a schoolhouse hallway that stresses the out-of-placement of certain characters – give up the game by abiding by the same angles and lenses where we see just how tightly fit together the Morgans are in their own home, particularly when they get to pull Ford’s favorite trick of capturing the ceilings (introduced earlier in Stagecoach). Yet even within those homey walls, there are battles to be lost: the forces of the colliery ruining the livelihood and home of these people move back as the interpersonal conflicts take center stage, some of which are the acts of good people not knowing right (such as the afore-mentioned tension between Gwilym and his sons on unionizing), some are complex (as in the romance between Gruffydd and Angharad), and some are just the cruel acts of the vindictive (the deacon Mr. Parry (Arthur Shields) is the closest this movie has to an antagonist).

It is perhaps through the characters (and the ensemble’s lively way of playing them even at their most significant hardships) that Huw most finds his memories faced with a lack of pure sweetness. The perspective of which we are particularly watching Gwilym beckons the sort of uncontested admiration a son would have of his father, aided by the firm human patience with which Crisp (in an Oscar winning performance) fills Gwilym. But yet there are moments where Gwilym is fundamentally wrong and while it is admiring to recognize the manner in which Gwilym holds tightly to patience and manners, the course of events eventually locks on what his second oldest son Ianto (John Loder) declares “If manners are what keeps us from speaking the truth, then we shall be without manners”. Gwilym’s demeanor and role in the family are idealized tenfold especially from the eyes of a child, but it is not the answer in all cases and it unfortunately leads to the inevitable dissolution of the household by the end of it all (and maybe the best function of Sara Allgood as Gwilym’s wife Beth, the matron of the family, is how she gives by far the most emotive performance and the sadder moments in her performance give way to a better knowingness of where we are being led to than anybody else on-screen). Meanwhile, Gruffydd himself is a more grounded figure in Huw’s life who – even in his capacity as spiritual leader – leads the people to more down-to-earth perspectives and matters. And yet in the first of essentially two climaxes in this film, he finally betrays himself to an emotional outburst that promises all bridges burnt against the hypocrisies of the church he works in, something the film finds extremely unmanned even in the truthfulness of it all.

And so here I declare that How Green Was My Valley, even as blessedly affectionate and romantic about the past as it may be, is doing so in a defiant struggle against the clarity of what the real implications and consequence of the times Huw lived in as a boy. And the result is something as effectively bittersweet as anything else could be when introducing a boy’s dearest recollections the sort of gravity only a mature mind can recognize, something more complex than I feel the detractors give How Green Was My Valley credit for. Can it truly be blamed for wanting to indulge as much as possible in its maudlin sympathies? Can a man truly be condemned for wanting to remember simpler times, especially as he recognizes they were not so simple at the same time as the viewer does? That the very final moments of How Green Was My Valley fights the grimmest tragedy with the comforting fact of the affable homeliness at the very beginnings of this memory’s journey (including recalling the sing song calling in a new context) and refuses to return to that initial frame narrative before the credits gives me the sense that even if the past is distant and the present is impossible to escape, perhaps Huw’s battle was not in vain. And that is impossible for me to disparage in any capacity, especially in how it stands as memorable to me as any of Ford’s Westerns.

*An outlier amongst Ford’s pictures, which are usually shot on location. Unfortunately, the ongoing Second World War – which Ford would later famously be involved in the documenting of just after this movie was released – made shooting in Wales out of the question.

Ocean Man

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There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

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So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

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It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

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25 for 25 – Everybody Comes to Rick’s

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” -George Carlin

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Casablanca is to me the quintessential example of Hollywood alchemy and it comes right at the very point where the studio system was beginning to drop off from its golden years in the 1930s, explaining how the production was so hands-off from the Warner Bros. superiors to director Michael Curtiz and producer Hal B. Wallis’ involvement. And yet such a tossed-off afterthought to the movie is now one of the most firmly entrenched entries in film history. Which makes it feel somewhat like a last hurrah to a kind of movie-cranking style that you simply don’t see anymore these days, much as cinema today still seems indebted to nostalgia towards those eras – what easier way to spur that nostalgia than Dooley Wilson’s sweet voice serenading “As Time Goes By” – and try to imitate it in homage form. You can’t recreate Casablanca by any means, no matter how much you try to ape from it. It is a product exclusively of its time and of its situation, only the right combinations at the right moment could have coalesced into this perfect form of cinema, the way Casablanca gets to be formed.

So, for God’s sake, stop aping from it, Foodfight!

Anyway, I’ve been going through quite a phase in my life over the past few years where two movies altogether struggle within me for my top spot of My Favorite Movie of All Time and I think they both have to do with how powerfully each one speaks to me, so it’s time for another extremely subjective review where I just square with what Casablanca says to me about myself.

And that means getting into the root of what is, to my mind, one of the most perfect narrative works of screenwriting that all started when Hal B. Wallis of Warner Bros. purchased the rights to husband-and-wife team Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. In the end, the real MVPs of the story – notoriously writing it and re-writing it over and over until the bitter end – are Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein (other notable writers were Howard Koch providing more political elements while the Epsteins worked on another piece of agitprop Why We Fight and Casey Robinson touching up on several meeting scenes). The cobbled together aspect of the story, throwing in further and further dramatic reveals and shading characters with more dimensions on each page, can be seen in the urgency of every development in the script. But, it’s still incredible how flawless the story cogs work within it and how quotable it remains on top of it.

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But I still didn’t elaborate on what those story cogs are: The Nazis have arrived and occupied Morocco and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has been stationed there in order to see to the immediate re-capture of concentration camp escapee and resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who would have to go to Casablanca en route to salvation in America. At the center of this is the apathetic Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) Cafe Americaine, a hot spot where incidents are always happening and the latest one of which is the sudden arrest of the ill-fated criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre) over the death of two German couriers with MacGuffin-esque can’t-fail letters of transit out of Casablanca. Only problem is Lorre left those letters in Blaine’s hands and while Laszlo would very much like those letters, Blaine has complex history with the woman Laszlo is fleeing with, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).

There’s a real balance in this film with the desires of the screenwriters and director Curtiz, as it’s clear that the screenwriters want to focus on the melodrama of the scenario – every single motivation is covered and staked and communicated clearly with no room for ambiguity except in the very perfect ending – but Curtiz wants to up the romantic element which is probably why if the scene can spare as much framing as it can on Rick and Ilsa, with poor Laszlo nearly out of the picture, it can. The movie sells the chemistry between Rick and Ilsa as dynamic and interesting (while Laszlo and Ilsa are still sweet together, thanks to their performances) and that’s what makes it easy to be convinced Rick may be off to the deep end with what he does with the letters of transit. I mean, I don’t think anybody doesn’t know what happens in Casablanca at this point. But in the moment, Rick’s actions and statements are so very grey and cynical that I’m not convinced he knew 100% what his decisions were going to be until the end and Bogie himself does oh so much to sell that indecisiveness (the only thing he does better than tease the possibility of being a villain in his career despite earning our trust is play drunk and hardboiled and sharp-edged and… ok, he does everything great) while Bergman embodies a need to square her romantic history and bravery in trying to spare her husband of any pain in the truth. Frankly, I don’t think Casablanca is generous on paper to Ilsa as anything more than a gendered second MacGuffin between two men, but Bergman stands tall and proud in that thankless role that it’s not a surprise to find why she was a star afterwards.

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This doesn’t mean Casablanca doesn’t take seriously its political elements. They’re a continued presence that OF COURSE pay off in the final product and the movie’s second most memorable scene is not a political Laszlo scene for no reason. “La Marseillaise” drowning out the vain singing of the Nazis overtly uplifts and tugs at the heartstrings and I don’t give a damn. Those are real immigrants fleeing from German occupation right there in the scene singing along in defiance at the moment the world needed it most. Julius Epstein claimed the movie was full of corn, but that’s dismissive of the sincerity and genuine emotion on the film and the most invested usage of extras I can imagine in any film. If THAT’s corn, then I don’t know what’s real in movies.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be too real. Casablanca fills me with a romantic feeling, every element of it perhaps due to the artificiality of it. I’m not gonna be fooled by the production design of this B-movie-in-all-but-name when I’m actually from the Sahara and have been to Morocco myself, but it gives the film such an exotic atmosphere (something we’re pulled out of during the sophisticated Parisian flashbacks in the end of the first act) that heightens it as manufactured but convincing romanticism. As much romanticism as isn’t already provided by the fact that World War II is to our minds the last war to actually have clearly defined heroes and villains and thus making us yearn for more moral conflicts than the ones in our day and age, so having a movie not just made in that time period but actively pushing towards an attitude for the war that desires we get right to Europe and fight the Nazis head-on. It’s essentially the mythologizing of history right before our very eyes and I can’t imagine getting to have that sort of retrospective attitude toward this movie that fuels its battle for my Favorite Movie of All Time without being born 50 years after its existence. And yet there’s no distance in its mythologizing because of the immediacy of World War II. That very direct inspiration somehow is able to transcend time and its dated context to the very writer of this post every time I watch it. It’s a weird paradox of time of reception that is hard to explain, but it’s there.

Anyway, I’m a cynic, an exhausting cynic that curses and makes sardonic cracks and teases indifference and selfishness same as Rick on the screen. I make sarcastic quips when I don’t need to, I keep to myself deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, I get angry easy, these are all things people attribute to me. And it’s honestly not something I want to be, much as I doubt anybody wants to be a cynical angry person. Casablanca is certainly THE movie that helps to convince me I’m a romantic, just as much as the charmingly corrupt Capt. Renault (Claude Raines threatening to steal the whole damn movie from an already stacked cast) implies in his gamble with Rick Blaine. Blaine’s ability to make a decision by the end of the film for the fate of Laszlo and take a side for the war after the film shakes him angrily and demands it… that’s illuminating. It means there is something he’ll fight for, something to believe in within the war, and seeing myself in Rick means that maybe I want to be a romantic too which brings out my attempt to be the best version of me I can be whenever I can be aware of my actions. Which fuels a much better feeling in myself and yeah, a form of confidence. It’s not for nothing that this inadvertently became the movie I keep showing any girls I date.

It’s so that when we inevitably break up I can look them in the eyes and send them off with a “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid”.

Holy shit, that is cynical. Maybe I should watch Casablanca a few more times.

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Get the Hook

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WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU POSITION SOMEBODY BEHIND A POLE AND THINKS IT’S GOOD FRAMING?!

Even after we’ve already squared the “First Best Picture” discrepancy, the Oustanding Picture slate for the 2nd Academy Awards is quite tricky. Movies get lost. That’s simply what happens. We can (and should) push for preservation of our art in this industry, but despite our best efforts, we might lose prints completely. And so it is a common tragedy that The Patriot, one of the nominees for Best Picture in that very ceremony, has no complete print remaining in the world and we might never see it ever again. I can’t speak to its quality, but given that it’s directed by the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch, I like to imagine it worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces in his career. At the very least, I like to hope it’s a good movie.

Its absence from the world means that we filmgoers are left with four nominees from the 2nd Oscar ceremony and bruh… they’re all fucking bad. If I were to group the nominees of the first ceremony of the Oscars to be broadcasted (on the radio) and count their collective redeeming features, I’d be able to do it on one hand and spare fingers. So, in this lost cause, I’m not sure we could do worse than the actual winner of the evening The Broadway Melody (itself having a lost Technicolor part), but I’ll tell you something… we could do much much better.

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In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Broadway Melody was selected to take home the top prize: it’s about show business, it had the powerful Irving Thalberg of MGM producing it (Thalberg had another nominee within the slate – the variety special Hollywood Revue), but the most obvious one is a matter of historical precedence: The Broadway Melody is not only the first sound picture to have won the top Oscar prize, it is also the first all-talking musical (The Jazz Singer obviously predates it as the first sound musical, but is mostly made up of silent soundtrack-less moments).

There is one thing that is certain: it didn’t win that shit with merit. The Broadway Melody is one of only three movies to win the Best Picture Oscar without receiving ANY other Oscars at the ceremony (the others are Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty; also no film won more than 1 Oscar at this ceremony) and that says quite a lot.

The story is cookie-cutter showbiz, even as early as 1929: The Mahoney Sisters – Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) show up in New York to rendezvous with Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who also happens to be a singer, songwriter, and their potential in on the Broadway stages. Indeed, they try to show off their nonexistent talent to producer Francis Zanfield and are barely able to get their approval to be in the play when the three of them make their appeal (Queenie having the most influence). The very number they try to show off to Zanfield is a good synecdoche for the quality – the girls’ voices of the screechiest quality and barely able to keep tempo, their dancing even clumsier and that’s even when them holding on to each other in the most boring fashion, the song (which I honestly don’t think I can identify) was hokey in the worst way, and the performance keeps getting stilted by the piano’s malfunction. “I’ve seen enough,” Zanfield eventually declares and he made it through the performance farther than I did. I hate to use a better movie to dig on something that already is poor on its own merit, but The Broadway Melody until this point basically promises the same type of backstage making-of-a-show drama that was more less perfected in 1933 with 42nd Street. While it tries to stick to the sameof structure in which dialogue scenes go long and far between poorly sung musical numbers (almost all composed by legendaries Nacio Herb Brown and lyricised by Arthur Freed, who have both obviously seen better days), things get more melodramatic but only less interesting.

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During their lucky break on the show, Queenie – whom practically nobody can pass by without commenting on how beautiful she is – gets the attention of rich playboy Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), to the dismay of Hank at the potential of it breaking the duo up and Eddie as he slowly discovers that the empty air between him and Queenie must mean that the two of them truly love each other, since he has even less chemistry with Hank. In the meantime, the two girls’ Uncle Jed (Jed Prouty) keeps offering Hank a part in his 30-week traveling show and Hank considers it for longer than necessary. This all comes ahead to the most protracted and unengaging climax of shouting and manly punching with the sense that it’s more dramatic than it is (the wikipedia summary makes the ending sound more cynical than the vanilla film bothers to present it). I’m not sure if I don’t prefer the bad singing to the melodrama, since at least the terrible show performances have inadvertent humor in them. The first big revue we watch is the most laughably simplistic modeling of New York to the titular song where it’s just the flattest full frame shot director Harry Beaumont could come up with of Eddie and the girls finding their way around it (and filling it up later with a chorus line didn’t miraculously help). Its hilarious incompetence is the closest this gets to entertaining.

I’m not sure I can recommend this to even completists about film history, that it spawned a franchise to rival the Gold Diggers is a sham, and there’s much better movies that revolutionize musicals and sound within the same era (and without the poor sound quality of scratches and volume inconsistency either, but innovation means flaws with happen). It’s morbid mistake of the Academy to award such a film on their second year, but they got it right the following year, thankfully…

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Aces High

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William Wellman’s silent dogfighting film Wings has two big distinctions within the annals of war fiction and another within the annals of cinema history and I beg your patience as I focus largely on the former before I start to discuss the latter for reasons that will be obvious soon. The first distinction is usually not very much discussed to begin with and it’s probably because it requires quite a bit of historical context.

Wings was released in 1927, just right in the middle between World War I and World War II. And that’s kind of an interesting place for war fiction. Most of war literature and war films around that time have a pretty clear attitude towards warfare as being an unfair and costly trauma to the world that we all prayed would have occurred when we dubbed World War I “The War to End All Wars”. In the 1930s leading up to World War II, fiction began to be filled with frightened and arch works that implied how WWII would just be reopening wounds we had just spent decades trying to close and began upping the nightmare quality of World War I as a tragedy for us. The Big Parade itself was one of the big WWI films prior to Wings‘ production that illustrates that, while the most famous example is probably the subtle trench-based imagery of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien (himself a jaded WWI veteran)’s The Lord of the Rings books. In these days where we do have several movies that touch on the human cost of war, it may be hard to recall that pre-WWII propaganda era had some pretty heavy stuff in the genre.

Wings, which was directed by the only WWI veteran directing in Hollywood at the time, probably didn’t stand alone on being a pretty romantic look at war in that era, but it did stand on that side of the line between pro-war and anti-war pictures. Its attitude on WWI was less concerned with the damage it made to the people of the world and more concerned with portraying the idea of war as just one of the many places where boys could heartily become men or meet with the glory that comes with giving your life for your country. In general, conflict is shown to be a source of honor and camaraderie amongst men (strictly men, this is a male-skewed flick) from the very get-go. German planes refuse to shoot down planes with jammed machine guns. Our two male leads start off with contempt for each other before they get a moment to punch out their feelings with each other and suddenly become the fastest of friends. Wings is even heavily apologetic about its final tragic beats in portraying the war, turning it into a moment of forgiveness for a character and a validation of one of the central romances.

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My attitude on the subject of war aside (which is not similar to Wings‘), this sort of optimism is probably part of why a silent film going for a little under 2 1/2 hours is probably able to get away with that stretch of time. It’s excited about the things it means to show us as more than just spectacle, but grounded myth of heroics and action. And I think it has a real good reason to be excited about that when its focus is on the daring field of dogfighting – aerial combat – in the war. What is already a pretty thrilling concept of warfare to me (aviation and aeronautics in general) is only made extraordinary by the craft of those very same scenes, mixing between as many possible techniques one could throw at real-life shots of planes zooming around each other in the sky, leading up to one of two Oscars that the movie earned at the very first ceremony the Academy had – Best Engineering Effects. Save for the painting in of flames (which has mixed results with me), every single one of the movie’s flying firefights has spared no expense in trying to gain urgency and pleasant perils out of a visual presentation of that. It’s easily the biggest reason to watch Wings and yet its storytelling between those battles is not extraordinary but still digestible to act as interludes.

That story is more-or-less a bromance between two men, small-town man Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). This is no different than the kind of men in war relationship we’ve seen many times, particularly between flyboy flicks like Top Gun and Pearl Harbor – started over the affections of a pretty woman, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), grown into a masculine bond over their great work in the skies together. Sylvia’s affections belong strictly to David, despite leading Jack to believe otherwise, while Jack is the object of long-time friend Mary Preston’s (the iconic Clara Bow, in a performance that is limited in screentime yet eagerly uses all her strengths as tomboy, sex object, and dramatic actress) affections. Mary herself is so devoted to Jack and his patriotism that she herself enlists in the war as an ambulance driver. Obviously a large scale soap opera within itself and one that eventually gets tiring, especially when it tries to go darker with its ironic final dogfight scene (set after an amazing setpiece recreating the Battle of Saint-Mihiel), but nevertheless Wellman’s eagerness to go big on the melodrama helps such a long film feel like it keeps moving. And when I say big, I mean camera shots and tricks that are used for casual scenes one doesn’t really need unless he just wants to play around. My personal favorite touch is bubbles flooding a scene when Jack himself is drunk. I can hardly tell how this story I’ve seen many times before might have been perceived in 1927 as fresh or not. It certainly wasn’t when I first saw this movie in 2012. But it nevertheless was the best sort of digestible dramatics that leads to being loved by a large audience and so it’s easy to see how it won the first Best Picture Oscar.

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Which is where I rewind all the way back to my very first statement on this review, where I stated there are two big distinctions for Wings and address that second distinction for Wings. The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place in May 1929 and had presented one of its two highest honors The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture to Wings. The award would go on through different names over the years until 1962 when it would finally take its current form of The Academy Award for Best Picture (Wings is also the only silent film to have won Best Picture until The Artist, which still has two lines of dialogue). History has led this to be a point of contention as Wings was seen to have adopted the honor of being the very first Best Picture winner away from another more well-regarded film, which had been awarded that second highest honor from the very first ceremony – The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, which would only be given that one year before it was dropped. An unfair circumstance I intend to address as I continue from here into a retrospective of the Best Picture Oscar winners, if only to make a detour for one of my favorite movies of all time…

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Man is Measured by Moonlight in Him

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One thing that bugs the hell out of me about Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 when it was breaking out a brand-new visibility for LGBT stories in all of its Oscar attention is how quick people were trying to spin Brokeback Mountain as NOT a gay story because its topics about the relationship between its two leads were “universal” and could apply to any heterosexual relationship. This made me mad – rather than just being a simple “I don’t agree with this” situation – because well… duh. Did you really believe that there’s a great divide between gay and straight relationships? There’s certainly things a gay man goes through that I’ll never experience being straight, but it should not be a surprise that in terms of romantic tragedy, one can find the story of Brokeback Mountain supremely relatable and it’s reductive to see people pretend this disqualified it as an LGBT story.

So, as Moonlight begins its much-earned run of critical acclaim leading up to its certain Oscar nominations, I’m gonna be really damn annoyed if I go on to find people try to dismiss it as a Queer cinema (something I don’t apply to the Ang Lee-directed Brokeback, but absolutely do here considering the film’s basis in an unproduced play  by MacArthur Fellow Alvin Tarell McCraney, who is openly gay) simply because it’s… again, frankly an incredibly relatable tale from my perspective about more than just the life of a gay man – we don’t get many tales of black LGBT people (last year’s Tangerine was a breath of fresh air, even while I was not overall crazy for the film) and a little more – but also a severe drought – allowing us to accept the concept of a child considering his or her sexuality at a young age, something that still seems taboo for people to deal with. These are clear matters that Moonlight shines on and considers and yet it also uses those three subjects as the groundwork to provide an overwhelmingly dense study on masculinity, identity, silence, fate, and isolation. And all this while holding in themselves the fingerprints of McCraney and writer-director Barry Jenkins’ personal backgrounds within the neighborhoods they depict in Miami (both born and raised), though I feel given the re-writing Jenkins makes in the material, Jenkins has a louder voice in the film than McCraney.

The tale of Moonlight is the kind of structural exercise that absolutely makes me all sorts of excited even without watching the trailer of the movie. To sum it up, Moonlight follows three different turning points in the development of Chiron. The three different segments are painstakingly compact – they strictly begin those three events in Chiron’s life at the very start of their rising and they end immediately at their conclusion without the implication of how they affected Chiron except in that we can suddenly see the subtle yet notable difference in the personalities child Alex Hibbert, adolescent Ashton Sanders, and adult Trevonte Rhodes embody in their respective years towards Chiron. They don’t act as surrogates to those years in Chiron’s life either, they’re pretty clearly just part of a greater development, but Jenkins and McCraney don’t want to waste time with the in-between. They just want to show WHAT happened to Chiron and I think that’s what really makes it easier to find Moonlight so surprisingly moving, that people will input their own idea of what strung together these moments in his life to such a painfully restrained ending that could only come from a movie interested again in blunt emotional strokes than making things easy.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself talking about the ending. The WHAT of what happened in Chiron’s life is identified not only by his age, but by the name he goes by. As laconic and insulated “Little” (Hibbert), he is found and semi-adopted by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his infinitely generous girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) after Juan witnesses “Little” being chased viciously by bullies. Together, the couple are one of the only refuges Little has from his tumultuous home life and intense mother (Naomie Harris), the other refuge being his sole friend Kevin (Jared Piner) advising him on how to get tough without losing any warmth towards Little. The sanctuary Little finds amongst this loving couple he found crumbles away as he makes an induction towards the circumstances of his mother’s condition towards Juan (in a scene that swears Ali will be at the least nominated for an Oscar), one that Jenkins and McCraney had the delicate ability to show humanize the trap culture in a manner white filmmakers simply refuse to do while recognizing the repercussions of what a drug dealer like Juan does.

As he grows out of the name Little in high school, everything that troubled Chiron (Sanders) as a child escalates. He’s rarely staying at his home anymore, Juan has died at some point between the first and second segment with not even the hint of whether it was as a result of his trap life or otherwise, the bullies have grown much more violent and inescapable, and his feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) have exploded into romantic feelings that are briefly reciprocated. It doesn’t help that Sanders’ performance adopts Hibbert’s refusal to speak while making it a lot more clearer how many emotions Chiron is knowingly swallowing and how it makes him look like he might just faint from all the effort from the very first frame Sanders takes over. And then the comfort Kevin gives Chiron with his sexuality is absolutely demolished once again in a more assaultive manner and it’s clearly breaking Chiron beyond his own power (having had my own habit of ending up in the principal’s office or police station after a fight, the scene where Chiron is badgered by an official to report it was where the film hit me hardest. I swear to Odin, my fingers were digging into my palm with how real that scene felt to me again). This time however, Chiron retaliates to the world in a manner that doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should…

… probably because by the time we return one more time to Chiron, he’s now completely shed all his outer vulnerability into the hardest blackest motherfucker out of the cell block (another thing that no other white director would be able to do – put the mass incarceration of young black men on the table for discussion without calling attention to it) under the name of “Black” (Rhodes). And he’s doing a great job at letting this persona be his shield to stifle and suffocate the boy we met earlier in the film, but not as well as Rhodes is at letting glimpses of him show up all around the first half of the segment before it starts really struggling to breakout when he gets a surprise phone call from Kevin once again (Andre Holland) and that brings back all the complex emotions he wanted to pretend weren’t there in the first place. And this is inarguably the strongest segment of the film, largely because after the first two segments, we have a feel for the pacing and structure of each segment and know in advance exactly which beat this third (and the film entirely) will end, making its choice of ending point still more frustrating in the best way possible.

The things demanded of Rhodes to play both a shadow of the actors who played Chiron before him and to balance that with a muted gangster facade is surprisingly complex acting from an actor I didn’t even know existed, let alone was capable of providing possibly my favorite performance of the year (and I’m excited to see what he does in Terrence Malick’s next film Weightless) and he drives the third act by letting his inner commentary map out the growing emotional tension with his reunion with Kevin. Holland for his part fills in the silence Rhodes gives their scenes with his charm and smile, but it’s not his hour – it’s Rhodes’ and it’s only on Rhodes’ final word that the movie feels like it’s brought the story of Chiron’s reckoning with his attitude about who he truly is where it needed to reach.

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The entire cast is why the movie works so well. Even in the arch stage-driven manner of not only the dialogue between characters, but in the blocking of those dialogue scenes (including the same scene that’s gonna get Ali the Oscar nomination), the cast brings a respect to a side of African-American culture that is constantly relegated to caricature and stereotype and even the small size of the primary cast doesn’t stop the Miami of Moonlight from feeling lived-in and surrounding. And the three Chiron actors do a really impressive sleight, they make it three segments feel like one long stream without trying to pretend we’re not watching three different segments. It’s funny how every review I’ve read has had a different attitude on how little they look and like who looks more like who (personally, I feel Rhodes looks nothing like the young actors while I can see how an Alex Hibbert could grow into an Ashton Sanders). The screening I saw Moonlight at had all three actors (as well the two younger Kevins, one of the bullies, McCraney, and Jenkins) in attendance and they looked nothing alike, but they still got me thinking they were the same person. Their consecutive performances and how they only changed patiently over segments brought more smoothness to the structure of the film than all the crafty editing possibly could.

If there is any real gripe I could possibly have, Moonlight feels just as little less mechanical – but still mechanical as every other indie breakout picture of the 2010s has been. I nodded to how obviously this is still a stage script however Jenkins tries to beat it to film form, but Moonlight wants to be recognized for how it does the things it does, rather than just letting itself get away with the trick. Visual flourishes like surrounding circular Steadicam shots revolving around characters and the deepest blues to telegraph what’s happening in moments and overt usage of classical music with slow-motion where its better to let the audience sink into the moment without realizing it. But even that feels like a stretch – these aren’t creative decisions by Jenkins that are illiterate towards film vocabulary and they’re not decisions made flippantly. In a lot of the visuals, we get a much more David Gordon Green atmosphere to outdoors Miami – besides the two slickly shot beach scenes – that show both a love for the city Jenkins and McCraney come from (they’re more affectionate for Miami than yours truly, but that’s not a tall order) and a knowledge in how conditions are in the humid city. They’re just not nearly as delicate as the film requests.

But then Moonlight just as well sits between a spot like Chiron in toughness and vulnerability that it doesn’t have quite the need to grapple with. Losing more of the arch staginess of the dialogue scenes, I think, would lose more of McCraney’s authorship and I think that’s pretty important to retain as Queer cinema. And I’m not sure if Moonlight could be any more restrained about itself before the different branches of its themes become invisible. The Moonlight we have is still a moving work of visual poetry and if I were even half as capable of the things Jenkins does in the movie, I’d probably flaunt each at least at one point. No need to try to shut himself down and pretend to be any other director, that’d probably go against the moral of the film to begin with, no?

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Shine a Light

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Spotlight was a movie I was relatively late to the party on. Not that I was completely late to it, but by the time it was even on my radar, it was the most locked Best Picture nominee.

And upon reading the synopsis for the film, explaining itself as retelling the 2001 story of the titular investigative team for the Boston Globe as it digs into a story of conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual abuse of minors as perpetrated by several priests within the Church. If that sort of historical biopic backdrop for social issues heavily moral doesn’t sound like Oscarbait, you don’t know Oscarbait.

And upon seeing it’s directed by Thomas McCarthy, I had a lump in my throat, for my very first exposure to his work was earlier in the year with the appalling Adam Sandler dramedy mess The Cobbler. A reprehensible enough movie to make me wary to see anything else done by anybody involved with that film in the slightest – as a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I’m not even sure I want to listen to Method Man anymore. So, since THAT had to be my first Tom McCarthy picture, I was afraid that Spotlight would be similarly incompetent with the worst possible material to screw up.

Now, on the one hand, Spotlight indeed turned out to be the Oscarbait we were expecting. But, it is phenomenally well-crafted Oscarbait, sophisticated enough that I don’t hesitate in calling it my second favorite of the Best Picture nominees, even if Mad Max: Fury Road is the only one that I think belongs there. Much of the praise on the film is rightly given to how McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer dedicate their focus on the painstaking meticulous manner of digging through as many sources and asking as many questions as possible to slowly bring together a full picture on how far and deep does this conspiracy run, with editor Tom McArdle being the film’s biggest weapon taking time to show how messy the pile of information that the Spotlight team has to work with is before letting them making their tedious cracking at it run right on without any slowdowns nor making it seem like this work was easy.

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The other main source of praise, the one that actively has my head scratching, is where I’ve seen people claim Spotlight is entirely unbiased to the events the team is reporting. Which isn’t true at all. Spotlight could have been an objective recollection of the events (though, without going into the morality, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about child rape), but it’s not, for the other shocking strength of Spotlight is how it achieves being an ensemble character study.

Well, ideally, the CHARACTER central to this is Spotlight, but that Spotlight team is made up of head Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All of whom are humans whose reactions we have to witness as they’re digging up more and more information, most of whom are lapsed Catholics themselves who now have to witness the Church in a different light. It doesn’t override the movie’s intentions to be a story about how the system of journalism works, but it’s there and it’s sneakily snuck into the places where we think the investigation is at the front-and-center of the movie, only to see McArdle cut many times to the faces listening to the victims rather than the faces talking to them (Spotlight is not at all dismissive of the victims either, the moments where we listen to their accounts are sobering without manipulating the audience the gravitas of the recollections). There are few visual noted visual flourishes, for Spotlight is a very muted film (my first reaction was almost to add on to the “this would be a better film as a documentary” brigade only to figure that to miss the point), but its most obvious one is how it portrays that act of listening as taking its mental and emotional toll on each of the characters as they realize what grim reality this paints and what repercussions their story will have.

Spotlight is of course not the only one affected by this – new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to get a good feel for this new position of his, and section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) begin at ends in regards to this story (Baron being the one who prods Spotlight into taking it and taking brunt for it as well as being an outsider), while Rezendes constantly compels exhausted attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to pull out a lot of old skeletons out of the legal closet to help Spotlight get decisive information on the case while attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) regrettably maintains his representation for the church.

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The machinations of the journalistic and legal process becomes a smokescreen for a picture of all the people affected by this case from the outside and later, a portrait of Boston as a city with this as a dark shadow behind it (there is at least one shot to my memory of a church overlooking our characters, though I can’t say I buy that as the movie not dipping its hand). And this wouldn’t work half as much if the cast were not as successful as they were in making characters whose sole function is to move us closer and closer to unveiling the truth we already know, with Tucci being the standout best. Ruffalo is the only one who actually gets caught acting. Like, really caught acting. He is the movie’s biggest weakness as he stares as goes out of his way to broadcast ticks of Rezendes and overshoots his Big Acting Moment in the movie (everybody gets one). That he’s the one actor with an Oscar nomination for this film makes me slightly bitter, but he’s outnumbered by so many restrained performances under McCarthy that turn humanity into drama instantly assuages that bemusement of mine.

It’s not All the President’s Men and it’s not going to be. Nor is Spotlight trying to be, since All the President’s Men asphyxiates itself on tension and paranoia while Spotlight is not much more than a well-crafted social piece by a director who knows where his strengths are. It doesn’t break the mold of journalism pictures and I wouldn’t make it a Best Picture nominee and yes, it is at times semi-anonymous for those reasons, but it’s satisfying and intelligent and that’s all it needed to be to go and redeem the name of a director I was barely familiar with.

On the nicest note to possibly end on, I have since seen all the other Thomas McCarthy films – The Station AgentThe Visitor, and Win Win – and can safely say McCarthy is a really good director. A very strong director of character and acting, in case Spotlight didn’t already display that. Maybe I can pull a retrospective soon…

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No, it’s a Bird.

Ok, so I’m going to be upfront.

This weekend the most notable wide release is Dumb and Dumber To, which I can’t think of anyone wanting to see beyond sheer nostalgia. The rest of the possible remaining movies on the marquee are the simplistic Gone Girl (which you probably saw already), the not-for-everyone John Wick, the boisterous Interstellar and some others I won’t list because I’m lazy and want to get to my review.

But last night, from what I understand, Birdman opened in 800 theaters finally. And if I am correct, it will only be in that many theaters for ONE week.

Go see Birdman.

And now I back it up. I honestly did not expect to like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a title that is such an afterthought and too long that I’m only typing it once. In fact, I didn’t even expect myself to go watch it. It’s been a long while since I ended up actually liking the stuff director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I still want my time wasted for Babel back.

I also don’t very much care for one-shot scenes most of the time. They usually call too much attention to themselves, a catch-22 when the original idea is to reel you into the scenario a lot more. I think that idea is largely lost though by the fact that most filmmakers don’t use it as an involvement technique of cinematography, but just to show off “Oh look how much we can get done in one shot.”

Emmanuel Lubezki is in fact one of the few cinematographers I think can actually not call attention to himself. His career is made up of tastefully composed and spread-out one-shot sequences that leave you realizing what they are only after the fact (and he’s usually helped by a fantastic editor who knows when and where to use them – In this particular case, Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrone, though they are less there as a source of pacing for Lubezki’s beautiful eye and more to very astoundingly work at making the cuts near unrecognizable unless you really look for them; the pace for these moments seems to be granted by the throbbing drumroll of a score by world-class drum legend Antonio Sánchez).

But Birdman’s special form of presenting itself as a one-shot film (not including some semi-avant garde montages, the grand total of “shots” in Birdman is three) for most of its duration is special in not being cinematic. It’s extremely literary. It’s a visual translation to the stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s why some things in the film don’t make sense, timewise or locationwise, in its presentation. We’re thinking with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he just gathers himself in different places at different times. The movie makes this clear from the very first second it begins… the man is floating in midair, attempting to act serene as he sits on his invisible hand staring at a window, wondering “how did we get here?”

Who is Riggan Thomson, though? An actor once thrust into the limelight for his appearances in the blockbuster Birdman series, before inadvertently making a mess of his career by refusing to do a fourth movie. Now, a significant amount of decades after the fact, he is trying to clean his career back up in a revival at the St. James Theater. The play in question is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Riggan is involved creatively at all points, directing, writing, and having his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifinakis) produce the production while Riggan himself finances it. He’s put everything on the line for this play, even things unrelated to the play whatsoever like his relationship to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and has a very strained attitude to her dad, threatening to tear them apart.

Also threatening to ruin Riggan’s career and life with it are his actors, such as the last-minute addition actor of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton with a hairstyle that while probably serving as one of many subtle bird images in the film, just reminds me of James Dean. A lot.) who quickly proves himself to be just as much an asshat and a control freak to severe levels as he is an amazing actor, Shiner’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is looking forward to making it as a actress, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who Riggan is apparently sleeping with. The upcoming previews and opening performances are the final time-setter in this bomb Riggan finds himself inside of and he’s hoping to make it out alive.

See, now it’s especially funny that the movie is based on making itself as literary as possible simply through visuals and especially at focusing on a Raymond Carver tale because the movie itself feels like a Raymond Carver tale. Of course, one set in New York rather than the Southwest US and one that has a focus more on the upper class than the middle class, but its thematic appeals, its structure, its emotional focuses, they’re Carver in nature and maybe it’s because we happen to be in the mind of Riggan for most of the film and Riggan quickly proclaims himself a fan of Carver, but there it is – The script by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, & Nicolás Giacobo certainly pits a bunch of minds together to try to make the film seem like a singular thought following all the fears and anxieties of a man at the edge, and despite it being an actor on the stage who has the world staring at him, it is surprisingly easy to relate to for any layman, whether at midlife crisis or in the middle of a life crisis. If there is one problem with the writing, it sometimes tangles over itself – for one, constantly we see Riggan as he perceives himself – capable of psychic powers and superhuman displays of strength and flight. It very much cements the fact that we are watching from the mind of Riggan, but the movie constantly parades an ambiguity into these moments that suggests possibly Riggan’s powers are real and it grasps onto this presentation especially to its final shot. I’m sure it’s fun for audiences to ask themselves those kinds of questions, but the problem is that this attempt at ambiguity is weighted towards one side; if the powers are real, the movie loses most of its theme.

In addition, for a movie that is supposed to have a centralized point of view, there are more than a few scenes that Riggan just doesn’t even appear in at all, with only one of them seeming to be essential to the storytelling while the rest are really great, entertaining scenes that still are pretty disposable in regards to the rest of the film. This is Riggan’s world, these are his own shadows he is trying to escape, let’s try to keep it Riggan’s world and let’s keep focusing on those shadows instead. But that’s just me.

Of course, this is the sort of script that is tailored for a certain lead actor to shine in. The kind of movie made for acting. And that actor blessed with this opportunity is Michael Keaton. Ignoring the obvious parallels in career (ironically, Keaton claims Riggan is the furthest character he has ever played from his own personality), Keaton still is at his best form, not only since his obscurity post-Batman, but in his whole career yet. He channels his frenzied stage persona to a tune that the audience can keep up with without feeling alienated (unlike his performance in RoboCop which… ugh), he has an underlaying melancholy that gives so much to the movie’s atmosphere, and especially a constant danger with every twitch of the finger and whisper to himself. Keaton as Riggan is just the cherry on-top of one of the better casts I have witnessed in 2014, even including some surprisingly revelatory performances from actors I was starting to get tired of, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis, and Edward Norton all are actors with as much to prove as Riggan and they damn well prove it against me earlier bias. Just Innaritu proves he can still be a fantastic source of comedy and that all his precise work can be used to actually say something than be a pointless display of technique. I have a lot of re-thinking to do about him.

Listen, Birdman is a really funny movie. A surprisingly psychological movie. An unrelentingly dramatic movie. If you’re going to watch any movie this week, watch Birdman. You can catch Nightcrawler, Interstellar or Whiplash next week, you’re not missing much with the others, and if you took forever to see The Boxtrolls, you deserve to miss it.

Treat yourself with Birdman.