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Sunday, January 11, 2015

From Birdman to Boyhood: The Huge Risks Directors Took This Year

There are two films that I have constantly seen at the top of many critics Best Of lists in 2014: Birdman and Boyhood, with the latter earning almost the consensus top spot on every list I've seen. It's no coincidence that both those films are huge risks and passion projects from their respected directors. Both filmmakers, Richard Linklater for Boyhood and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for Birdman, have a few movies under their belt (obviously Linklater has a tad more than Inarritu) and decided to release their passion project to the world this year; to release a project that many would consider on the riskier side. Last year's big passion project, Gravity, worked out pretty well for its director Alfonso Cuaron both critically and financially, and now Linklater and Inarritu hope for the same. For the time being, both directors have that whole "critical acclaim" down pat and both look like the two huge players as award season has just started to heat up. As we go down the rabbit hole for the next couple of months and more and more people start talking about these film, the real question is: Should you go out and see them? I'm sure the people, like professional critics, who watch five movies a day appreciated the work these directors did and that paid off in terms of ending up on Year End lists, but should you, the average movie goer go see them? Just because Linklater and Inarritu took risks, doesn't mean they paid off.

To prove I'm not a complete grouch, I'm going to first discuss a film a thoroughly enjoyed, would highly recommend to others, and one I am confident will make my True Best Films of 2014 list. As you can guess from the movie poster to your left, that film is Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

Boyhood is about the life of Mason Jr. (portrayed by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) as he ages from 7 to 18. Mason Jr. is the son of Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and brother to Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Olivia is a single mother raising both children and the kids were conceived when both parents were young and stupid. The genius and the huge risk that Linklater took, is that it actually took him over 12 years to shoot this film. While it was only shot in 45 days, production began in May 2002 and did not end until August of 2013. That means the actors you see aging are actually the result of them getting older and not make up, and the roles of kids such as Mason Jr. and Samantha are played by only one actor, and not several actors who just sort of look alike like- which is what every other film would have done. 

Taking over a decade to shoot a film is a huge risk. What if Linklater had suddenly passed away? What if one of the actors had passed away? What if you needed to do re-shoots but couldn't? Since it's illegal in the United States to sign a contract for over 7 years, what if one of the actors backed out halfway through filming? There's so many risks and problems that could arise- on top of the normal problems that come with creating an independent film. Yet despite it all, the final product is a delight. 

Taking 12 years to shoot a film is a gimmick and a tool the production company and marketing company had in their pocket to sell this film to audiences. However, just because it's a gimmick doesn't mean it wasn't used correctly and beautifully. The real purpose of Boyhood is to film a time capsule of what the average American life was like during the 2000's. It's a little snapshot of America. and you don't get true authenticity of what life was like unless you actually film it. Having gone through middle school, high school, and college in the 2000's, I related to a lot of what the film was encapsulating. There's a moment in the film where Mason Sr. takes his kids to see a Houston Astros game and Roger Clemens is on the mound dominating. I couldn't help thinking to myself, "Was this 2005 and the year the Astros ended up playing my White Sox in the World Series" and it brought back fond memories. 

There are little nuances in the film that I appreciated how Linklater ended up incorporating into the film, yet not beating you over the head with them. The first one was the use of technology. As video games and cell phones advanced in the 2000's, so did the characters use of them in the film. But it's not like these kids were on their cellphones 24/7, you just see them using it the way you or I would have used them. The second subtle aspect I enjoyed was the use of music. A lesser director would have taken a hit song from each time period and blared it in your face, whereas Linklater just plays a different song in the background here and there just as a nudge to remind you what year this is. 

Boyhood should not have worked for me because it's not one overarching story. There are purposefully many vignettes as Mason Jr. enters a different aspect of his life. There are long stretches that are not very compelling, and after the first third of the film, there's very little conflict. A lot of this film is just characters wandering around and existing, which is not usually my cup of tea. However, Linklater made it work for me. Truthfully, I think it mainly worked solely because I had nostalgia for the era. Or maybe it was because a lot of conversations and scenes that happened to Mason Jr. happened to me. Maybe Boyhood was just catharsis for my childhood. Either way, watching the almost three hour epic was an experience for me that I'm glad I had. 

Now not everything about Boyhood was perfect. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater gave some Razzie-level bad performances in this film. I understand these were just kids and probably didn't have a lot (or any) training, but they were really bad in the film. Boyhood is also grossly too long. It's official run time is 165 minutes and it's about an hour and half longer than it should be. I get that when you have 12 years of footage you want to put in as most as you can, but entire scenes should have been cut. Yet despite all of those huge obviously glaring faults, I still loved Boyhood and would recommend it to anyone in Generations X and Y. It's definitely not "hands down the best film of the year good" but it is very good and worth watching. 

The flip side to Boyhood is Birdman, another film that took a huge risk yet the risk didn't pay off. Birdman stars the great Michael Keaton as Riggin Thomson- a washed up actor whose main claim to fame was portraying the superhero Birdman in a set of franchise films in the early 90's. To help get himself back to the top in 2014, he's financed his own play that's soon set to debut on Broadway.

The risk that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took is that the entire 2 hour movie is filmed like it's all one long take. The film mainly takes place on the stage in which the play is rehearsing at, and it appears to the viewer that there's only one camera and that camera is filming everything for two hours straight. The film wasn't actually shot in one two-hour long take, but there's certainly the appearance of that. There's also this weird jazz drumming that's used in place of an actual score that was quite the ballsy choice for Inarritu.

The problem with the risks that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took is that it didn't do anything to actually enhance the film. To me, the camera work and the score was just jarring more than anything. Even worse, this felt like a gimmick for the sake of a gimmick. Whereas Richard Linklater's gimmick was used to enhance the viewer's experience of his film and was used to add an extra layer of depth to his ambitious project, Inarritu's gimmick felt like it was pretentious because he was doing it because he can and could call it Art. Birdman is meant to be a biting satire on Hollywood films (among other things) so filming this movie just like any other director would do would just be ironic in the worst way, but at the same time, it would have made for a much more enjoyable experience. There's a character in Birdman portrayed by Edward Norton by the name of Mike whose outlook on life is that the only thing that's real is the performance he gives on stage. He's considered a phenomenal actor but he's also volatile and an asshole, making his whole "everything on the stage is true" philosophy extremely phony and a cover up for something deeper. Birdman as a movie felt like its character Mike. It wants to have this perceived persona to the audience that it's something better than it really is and looks great, but when you dig deeper, you get just an average to above average film.

But with all of that being said, I least appreciated the effort that Birdman and Inarritu gave. You never know what works and what doesn't if you don't try at all. Filming an entire movie in one take is almost impossible (although technically it's been done before) so Inarritu did the best that he could realistically do and tried to create the best film that he could. Maybe another director could come along and take another risk and do it better, or maybe a movie shot all in one take is just nice in theory but shouldn't be completed in practice.

The irony of Inarritu's risk is that I would probably enjoy Birdman more and I would probably recommend it to others if he had just shot this film the way he shot Babel. Truthfully, Inarritu doesn't have to do anything as the way he actually filmed Birdman has earned him a butt load of critical recognition and award nominations. However, to me, I don't think his risk paid off.

Even if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu had shot Birdman normally, there still would be some faults with it. Mainly, this is a Hollywood film (distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures) that tries to mock the Hollywood culture, yet that point falls on its face. The film mentions all these actors playing superheros nowadays and talks about how Riggin is a "celebrity" and not an "actor" but I don't know what point Birdman is trying to say. Sure there's a lot of superhero movies, but so what? Why is that a bad thing? What's wrong with big budget action movies? My #1 film of 2014 is a superhero movie. If you're going to negatively comment on the state of Hollywood movies, then actually make a statement.

If anything, Birdman is more of a statement on Broadway culture, albeit myself and I'm sure the majority of Birdman's viewers aren't very familiar with Broadway culture. There's a point in the film where a Broadway critic yells as Riggin saying she resents what Riggin is and represents. She feels that because he came from Hollywood that he can storm Broadway and put on his own play while people who actually care about this art form are forced to go elsewhere. That speech reminded me of a story that Rainn Wilson told on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. He said that he first started off acting on Broadway but felt like he was getting screwed out of parts by less talented actors who just so happened to be Big Names. Therefore, he came out to Hollywood to become a recognizable name so he could go back to Broadway and get the parts he felt like he rightfully deserved. While it seems that Wilson isn't going down that route, the negative sentiment he presented on the podcast was present all throughout Birdman.

During that same speech between Riggin and the theater critic, Riggin retorts that what the critic does isn't really critique. She uses labels instead of form and substance in order to craft a piece. What Riggin has to do involves taking huge risks and takes a lot out of him whereas all the critic has to do is write up a few things and then they get to go on their merry way. The point Riggin makes is a valid point for all critique in general and what I have to do to "bash" Birdman isn't remotely close to the effort that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cast and crew had to go through, but I also felt like Riggin's speech was also a defensive mechanism making it harder to negatively critique the film as a whole. Every film has many people's blood, sweat, and tears in them; however, not every film is worth watching and not every film deserves awards. People like myself (and everyone much more talented and who gets a lot more reads and clicks) can probably do a better job explaining why something is bad or not good, but that doesn't meant we aren't giving objective criticism to something or that objective criticism isn't warranted.

Despite the fact that I spent many, many paragraphs pointing out all of the things I did not like or enjoyed about Birdman, there are many good things about the film as well. I thought the script and the story were very good. Like I mentioned earlier, I think I would have liked Birdman a lot more if it were shot and filmed normally and that wouldn't be true if the story and script itself were bad. There were also many performances that were excellent as well. Michael Keaton was perfectly cast as the washed up actor who used to portray a superhero. Not only was it fitting for the former Batman star, but Keaton is just a really good actor. However, the one actor that stole every scene he was in was Edward Norton. The dude just brings intensity and charisma to every role he's in, and he just killed it as the pretentious actor who's really just scared deep down inside. Lastly, I really enjoyed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's framing. It wasn't his fault the camera had to move around as much as it did, but he did the best that anyone could do. He proved why he's one of the best working DP's today.

However, all of the things that were good and/or great in Birdman couldn't overcome the risk that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took by using the drum score that he did and by filming the entire movie with the appearance that everything happened through one long take. Inarritu took a risk and I don't think that risk paid off. On the other hand, Richard Linklater's risk on Boyhood paid off beautifully. By taking a crazy notion and actually filming an entire movie over the span of 12 years, Linklater created a beautiful film time capsule for generations to come. Both Richard Linklater and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu took huge risks for their films in 2014, and I appreciated both of their efforts. Let's see what risks and passion projects directors take in 2015 and beyond.



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