Birdman screencap
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Movie Review: Birdman

I finally somehow created the time to see Birdman at an odd time on a weekday. I can see why it’s getting so much recent award love. The first hour gave me a revealing and intimate perspective on the craft of acting that I haven’t seen before. The second hour focuses on flawed people trying to deal with reality; an ironic tale of what’s it like to try to have a real life when you’re a professional pretender. I can see why some critics wouldn’t be great fans of it, but I can also see why people in “the biz” love it. To really understand why the movie is suddenly gaining Oscar momentum for the coveted Best Picture award, you have to understand the interesting, insular town where all this voting is done.

I recently moved from the west side of LA to Hollywood, just a couple blocks away from the Dolby Theater where the Oscars will be held. Even before I made the move, there was a feeling that you just can’t escape the movie business here. It permeates everything. Several true stories from my time here in LA:

  • Ran into Jamie Lee Curtis at the grocery store
  • Went to my mom’s place and there was a film crew setting up shop outside
  • Overhead the manager at the Chipotle off Hollywood and Vine saying he actually went to (and finished) film school
  • Was walking home and a guy was on his cell phone encouraging the person on the other end of the line that yes, they really did have what it takes to be a showrunner

The last 3 items happened just in the past three days. This city breathes and bleeds the performing arts, and the basic building blocks of film and theater are the actors/actresses who make it all look like magic when it’s actually often incredibly difficult and draining.

Although Birdman is set in New York’s theater scene, the story has many Hollywood connections (the lead character is a former Hollywood star trying his hand at “important” work in theater, and trying to get other Hollywood actors on board but they’re too busy). Actors are actors whether they’re on a stage or a set. And the people who live and work with the actors are just as much a part of the process even though you never see them. Birdman is a genuine look at not only the process of professional make believe, but also the people who get ground up in the gears of the acting machine either directly or indirectly. Those voters at the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild and “The Academy” are all in “the biz”. When they see this movie they probably see a part of their own lives, and sometimes it’s in an unflattering light but it’s always genuine.

Of course, Birdman has many other things going for it. The actors are fantastic. The script is punchy and surprising. The direction is outstanding and incredibly detailed. The approach of doing the film all in one big “single shot” sequence also makes the film seem simultaneously real and also surreal. And the driving drum beat in the background of the major scenes, while jarring at first, keeps the viewer alert and in the moment.

It is a skillfully crafted film, but its greatest strength in this award season is that it is a skillfully crafted film about the craft that all the voters have committed their lives to supporting in one way or another.

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A Latent Dark - Book Cover
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Book Review: A Latent Dark

I like it when writers blend fantasy and science into work that crosses genres. It’s a theme I incorporate in many of my own books. The premise of A Latent Dark had me ready to love the book, and initially I was intrigued by its vaguely future world where the Catholic Church has established dominance across much of the globe. I liked the steampunk-ish elements of the story too. But there were a few elements that disappointed me.

Firstly, the early pacing of the book didn’t quite grab me. I primarily read this book on subway rides where I had free time and no Internet connection, and didn’t find myself compelled to pick it up at other points in the day. I won’t say the first third of the book is boring because there’s plenty of stuff that happens, but I was always left with a sense that the things that were happening weren’t that intriguing. One of the greatest compliments a book can get is “unputdownable”, but I found myself laying this one to the side often without feeling like I was missing anything.

Then there’s our main villain, the Reverend Inspector Lyle Summers. He’s sufficiently evil in sufficiently creepy ways, but he’s also one-dimensional and a bit too cliche for my tastes. He does serve as a good example of religious extremism and pious hypocrisy, but beyond that he’s not going to be winning any villain Hall of Fame votes.

Finally, I didn’t like the final 20% of the book. As I said, I like it when fantasy and science combine, but there’s a plot twist near the end that totally jumped the shark for me and the story descended into metaphysical mumbo jumbo. I do appreciate the creativity here because it is a unique idea, but it didn’t work for me.

With all that said, reading a book isn’t necessarily about having a thrilling journey to an exciting destination. It can be a nice leisurely walk to a dead end too. I still did enjoy many of the side characters and the setting is fantastically developed. If you want something with new ideas on magic, the afterlife, and a good amount of real science thrown in for flavor, the book is definitely worth checking out at least.