Birdman

Birdman delivers. It is an amazing thing to see. Michael Keaton’s terrific performance in the title role is likely to earn him an Oscar nomination. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who co-wrote the script) should receive awards, as well.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is a well-known movie star who played a character called Birdman in a series of films before he stepped away from the franchise. Now he is starring in and directing a Broadway play whose script he adapted. The movie covers the few days spanning the time from final rehearsals to opening night. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one with a dark, often subtle, wit.

Is Riggan crazy? Is his inner voice—the voice of Birdman— just the conscience we all have or is it the voice a mentally ill person hears? Does he really (within the movie) have super powers or is that just his imagination? Can he possibly be as insecure as he often seems? And there are more questions that are not clearly answered, questions that can’t be referenced here without being spoilers.

Other key players include Mike (Edward Norton) who is a last minute replacement in the play’s cast. He’s a pro and Riggan knows it, but Mike’s on-stage confidence and Broadway pedigree rub Riggan the wrong way. Naomi Watts is Lesley, another on-stage cast member. She and Mike have a past together. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is the 4th member of the play’s cast. His response when she tells him she’s pregnant reveals much about their relationship.

Samamtha (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter, just out of rehab. She confirms to her dad that, yes, he is no longer relevant. She chides him for not being on Twitter and Facebook, equating social media presence to existence.

Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the show’s producer, is a different role for Galifianakis. He plays a less wacky, more normal guy, though one with some funny lines.

Because of its technical style, long takes and unorthodox camera angles, Birdman is film that will be dissected and analyzed by film classes for decades. The Steadicam used extensively in filming Birdman earns back every cent producers paid for it.

If you see Birdman with a friend, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about after the show, such as: Who, besides Keaton, had the most award-worthy performance? (I’d say Norton.) Were things Mike said to Riggan based on jealousy of his notoriety or were they sage wisdom? (Both, I think.) Was Birdman‘s “continuous take” clever or tedious? (For me, mostly clever.)

More discussion topics: How about that soundtrack, provided mostly by a single drummer? (It magnified the tension, but I detest drum solos at concerts, so I got tired of it quickly.) Is the alternative title Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance really necessary? (No.) Was Riggan’s putdown of critics valid? (To a degree, yes.) What did you think of that ending? (No spoilers, so no input from me on this question.) We can talk after you see Birdman. And you must see it!

The Grand Budapest Hotel

If the Marx Brothers were still making movies, they might’ve made The Grand Budapest Hotel. “Zany” is not a word I often use, but it’s the best word I know to describe TGBH.

Like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set mainly in the 1930’s in a fictional country with an oddly named lead character. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) ruled Freedonia; Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) works in the imaginary European country Zubrowka.

Director and co-writer Wes Anderson has given us another movie with visual treats galore. This was suggested by the film’s preview trailer, which is better than many actual movies. Seeing TGBH in all its glory proves the product is as good as its tease.

The story is told via a triple flashback. A young girl opens the movie by reading a book about the hotel. Anderson cuts to the author (Tom Wilkinson) who flashes back a few decades to a time where his younger self (Jude Law) gets the lowdown from Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  Moustafa recalls his early days as hotel lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and his adventures with hotel concierge Gustave.

When the hotel truly was grand, dowagers (older ladies with money/property) would visit the hotel where Gustave would service them sexually. Madame D (Tilda Swinton) was among his favorites.

Following her passing, Gustave and his lobby boy take a rail journey to the funeral where they manage to steal a valuable work of art (which was supposedly bequeathed to Gustave). This is followed by Gustave’s imprisonment, which leads to a daring breakout. Throw in a wonderful wintertime chase scene on skis and sleds and the ludicrous story becomes even more bizarre.

The film’s cast includes Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willam DeFoe, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and Jason Schwartzman. Of course, Bill Murray is there. Murray has become an Anderson “director’s trademark.”

In 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson seemed to have dialed down the quirk factor a notch or two. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s back up there. As he did with the young leads in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has cast an unknown in a pivotal role. The rookie Revolori does a more than decent job as the lobby boy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel may be too weird for those who prefer their comedy more direct. But if you are among the growing legion of Wes Anderson fans and/or you have a taste for something goofy, silly and, yes, zany, do not miss this movie! (Rated R.)

Moonrise Kingdom

Did you have romantic fantasies when you were 12? Some of us did.

On the brink of puberty, we knew we liked the opposite gender, even if we did not know exactly why. That’s sort of the situation with Sam and Suzy. They run away together and set up camp at a spot they call “Moonrise Kingdom.”

This is a quirky movie from Wes Anderson, a director known for quirky films. But “Moonrise Kingdom,” while quirky, is not so weird that it will put viewers off. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” there is quirkiness, but there is also a great story. And the two main characters, Sam and Suzy (played by unknowns Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, making their movie debuts) are immensely likeable.

The story is set in 1965 on a fictional island off the coast of New England. Suzy leaves her home (and quirky parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) while Sam leaves his Khaki Scout troop (and quirky scoutmaster, played by Edward Norton). The parents and the scouts attempt to track them down, along with help from the island’s police chief, played by Bruce Willis.

Along their journey, we learn about the kids and their backgrounds. We see in a flashback how they met at a church on the island the previous summer and continued their relationship via mail correspondence. Suzy reads her favorite books (all creations of Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola) aloud to Sam.

It’s an idyllic time they spend together, despite the constant overcast conditions, which lead to a big storm at the movie’s climax. These are two kids whose lives so far are generally unhappy, who are now greatly enjoying one another’s company. For anyone who had unfulfilled romantic fantasies at age 12, it’s a joy to see these two together.

Among the many quirks in “Moonrise Kingdom,” one of my favorites is the way Suzy’s mom often communicates with family members—with a bullhorn. Another, as with most Wes Anderson films, is the genre spectrum of the soundtrack. In “Moonrise Kingdom,” it ranges from classical music to Hank Williams, Senior.

Is this a movie for everyone? No, not hardly. But if you are up for a sweet story, with interesting (I’ve used quirky too much in this review already) characters presented in Wes Anderson’s special universe, give “Moonrise Kingdom” a shot. I loved it!