Movies

Birdman and Fury

Michael Keaton at his high-flying best, Brad Pitt bogged down in the mud of war.

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Fox Searchlight

Comebacks are hard. Twenty years ago, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was an international movie icon—the masked and feathered crime-fighting superhero Birdman. He bailed out of the franchise after three pictures, but the typecasting damage to his career was done. Now, low on dough and desperate for redemption, he's determined to stake a claim as a serious actor. He has adapted a very serious Raymond Carver story and is bringing it to Broadway, with himself as both director and star. It's not going well. New York theatre snoots dismiss him as a Hollywood has-been, and tabloid jackals pepper him with off-topic questions like, "Is it true you've been injecting yourself with semen from baby pigs?" Worse yet, the Birdman—feathers and all—is making a comeback, too. What a nightmare.

So few movies attempt to do anything really fresh that the arrival of a picture that attempts to do several such things triggers a reflexive jubilation. Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is an electrifying oddity, an examination of the craft of acting and the hollowness of fame that's delivered with tremendous technical verve. The director and his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), create the illusion that the picture consists of one long, unedited shot. It doesn't—the joins are there if you look hard. But the individual scenes are long, unedited single takes, and you marvel as the actors power through pages of dialogue while hitting their many marks, moving from dressing rooms and cramped backstage corridors out onto the stage, or up onto the roof, or all the way outside to brave the tourist hordes on West 44th Street. (The picture was largely filmed in a real Broadway venue, the St. James Theatre.)

This technique—a triumph of camera blocking and lighting, and tight teamwork on both sides of the lens—creates a feeling of real life being messily lived. What boots the movie over the moon, though, is Michael Keaton. In portraying the onetime Birdman, Keaton, the onetime Batman, abandons all protective vanity to give us a graying, grizzled performer whose fading stardom has left him wracked with insecurity and dread. Keaton hits notes of anger and loss and raw humor with spellbinding precision, surfing through arrays of emotion in the space of moments. It's one of the richest roles in his long career, and he grabs it as if latching onto a long-awaited lifeline.

He also has top-grade backup. Riggan's play, which we see mainly in rehearsals and previews, is essentially four people—two men, two women—sitting around a table talking. One of the actresses, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is making her Broadway debut, and is as anxious as Riggan is for the show to succeed. The other actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), is anxious for a different reason—she's been having an affair with Riggan, and is irked by his indifference to her news that she may be pregnant. When the other male member of the ensemble is sidelined by a freak accident, Lesley calls in her actor boyfriend, Mike (a terrific Edward Norton), as a last-minute replacement. Mike is a major star (and major dickhead) on the New York theatre scene, a big enough name to open a show on his own. This is good news for the play, but a mixed blessing for Riggan, who fears being shunted into a supporting role in his own production.        

He also has to deal with his worried producer (Zach Galifianakis); his sympathetic ex-wife (Amy Ryan); and his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), whose childhood Riggan mostly missed during his hard-partying heyday. There's also a vicious New York Times theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who hates Riggan and all the Hollywood emptiness he represents, and is already working on a negative review of his show before even seeing it.

Most troubling, though, is the long-mothballed Birdman (Benjamin Kanes), who still resides inside (and sometimes outside) Riggan's head, where he cruelly notes that many younger actors—Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, those guys—are now huge stars in the sort of superhero blockbusters for which Riggan's old Birdman movies prepared the ground. "We had it all," the Birdman says. "We gave them the keys to the kingdom." The Birdman misses those heady days, and he wants Riggan to reclaim his destiny. "Without me," he says darkly, "there's no you."

In his mind, Riggan still possesses the Birdman's old superhero powers. When he's alone we see him rising up into the air and controlling objects with thoughts and gestures. And Iñárritu stages a spectacular CGI scene in which we see Riggan walking down a street as the world all around him erupts in fantasy mayhem—crashes, explosions, even a bellowing hell-beast bearing down from above.

The script (by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) is artfully knotted—you're never sure where the story is going. The movie is a wild ride, and if the ending settles a little too comfortably into vintage Harvey territory, by the time it arrives, you may be too knocked-out to notice.

Fury

Columbia Pictures

For a movie called Fury, writer-director David Ayer's new World War II tale isn't all that furious. The picture is long and talky; its characters are genre stereotypes, and its story circles the pit of old-school Hollywood corn before falling right in at the end.

Brad Pitt, who looks as if he's reconsidering his decision to be in this film throughout much of it, is Staff Sergeant Don Collier—"Wardaddy" to his fellow grunts. He's a weary tank-crew commander who's been long-occupied killing Germans in Africa, France and Italy, and is now, in the waning days of the war (it's April 1945), killing them on their home turf as the Allies battle their way to Berlin. Collier's tank, which has "Fury" painted on its cannon barrel (meager justification for the film's title), is tightly packed with familiar war-movie characters. There's an affable ethnic called Gordo (Michael Peña), a primitive goon known as Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), and an enigmatic character called "Bible" (an agreeably restrained Shia LaBeouf), who spends much of his time onboard reading in the Good Book (and saying things that are often lost in the movie's sometimes garbled sound recording).

These men are soon joined by a new recruit, a kid named Norman (Logan Lerman). Norman is an earnest youth who's been trained as a typist, not a warrior, and has never killed anybody. As the movie moseys along, though, he gets pretty good at it.

As a writer (Training Day) and director (End of Watch and Street Kings), Ayer has demonstrated a gift for hard-edged depictions of violent men in violent situations. Little of the action here could be described as pulse-pounding (apart from maybe a big tank face-off toward the end), but Ayer vividly conveys the horrific details of warfare: a truck returning from the front piled high with dead GIs; a soldier on fire shooting himself in the head to end his agony; a line of slaughtered Germans nailed up on poles, crucified for their "cowardice" in refusing to join the Nazis' last-ditch stand against the American invaders. And in the movie's best scene (although it goes on too long), Ayer deftly suggests the roots of war in heedless human behavior. In a country village, Collier and Norman take a time-out lunch break in the home of two welcoming German women—a civilized interlude that's ruined by the intrusion of the drunk and abusive Gordo and Coon-Ass. Later, we see the younger of the women lying lifeless in a pile of rubble.

The movie is keyed to the tones of mud and ruin—it's monotonous to look at. Its antiwar message is admirably sincere, but simple sincerity can't really carry a combat movie for more than two hours. We get the message, but the point becomes elusive.