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Reviewed by Geoff Pevere in The Toronto Globe and Mail
On the set of Wild earlier this year, director Jean-Marc Vallée got the feeling he was repeating himself. He was shooting one of the movie’s many flashbacks, in this case the central character’s memory of her abusively drunken father. He turned to his director of photography, Yves Bélanger.
“‘Let’s change this, it’s too C.R.A.Z.Y. It makes me think too much of C.R.A.Z.Y.,’” Vallée remembers saying. “And Yves says: ‘Just do it. It doesn’t matter if you did it on C.R.A.Z.Y. It’s a different story.’ And I thought: ‘Yeah, okay, all right.’ But it’s touching material about family, and about trying to find yourself and accept who you are. Even though there’s nothing to do with sexual orientation here, like there was in C.R.A.Z.Y., it’s something similar. That’s why I was attracted in the first place.”
C.R.A.Z.Y., the 2005 movie that Vallée co-wrote and directed about a Quebec teenager struggling with his family and emerging homosexuality, might have been his Hollywood calling card, but the Montreal filmmaker hasn’t felt as personally connected to a project until Reese Witherspoon brought him Wild.
Witherspoon had optioned Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s raw 2012 memoir about finding herself while hiking the 1,770-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail, while the book was still in galleys. Witherspoon shared a manager with Matthew McConaughey, and his experience making Dallas Buyers Club with Vallée at the helm had been so positive, she immediately arranged to see a rough cut of the uncompleted movie. When the screening ended, Vallée was her first choice as director for Wild, in which Witherspoon plays Strayed.
“Reese came to me,” Vallée recalled while pouring tea in a hotel room during September’s Toronto International Film Festival, “and I knew right at the beginning, when I read the book and the script, that I had the kind of material that not only was powerful emotionally, but had the kind of material that allows the director to have fun with the language and music and editing and silence – the quick disconnected images with sound. The language of cinema.”
Two things connected immediately with the director, who quickly went to work adapting the 500-page book with British novelist Nick Hornby. First was the story’s cinematic potential: Much of it takes the form of memories and impressions experienced during the long trek. It could be a story of parallel journeys, odysseys of land and mind.
“Let’s use the power of cinema to tell the story,” Vallée remembers thinking. “How the brain works – the brain can be bang! bang! bang! but it makes sense. … And ghosts, ghosts everywhere. How do we get the audience’s attention, and how do we keep being captivating with one girl on a trail for 65 per cent of the time? And the other 35 per cent I’ve got flashbacks and other people. I’m fucking alone with this girl – how are we going to make a film with this?”
Like Hornby, Vallée has a deep belief in the suggestive spiritual power of music and one thing that struck them both was Strayed’s description of the music that played in her head almost every step of the way.
“The challenge is to get in her head,” Vallée remembers telling Hornby. “So let’s cheat. Cheryl didn’t have any music, so no music on the trail, except when she’s humming and singing. Or when she’s trying to remember a song. Then, there’s a ghost of a song. We can hear the song and it’s mixed in a way that it’s not a filmmaker showing off with a song out loud, but quietly, a little bit quiet.”
But flashbacks and music do not a movie make, no matter deftly deployed. The film still needed a strong structural hook; that presented itself when Hornby suggested playing up Strayed’s memory of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern in the film), a single mother whose spirit follows her daughter just as persistently as those ghostly strains of music.
Vallée jumped on the suggestion, and not just for structural reasons. “I lost my mom from cancer three years ago,” he explains. “And I’m not sure I’ve mourned totally. But this film helped me get rid of a big chunk of tears I had kept inside. In the cutting room, I was editing the film with tears just pouring on keyboard. I was like: ‘Why can’t I stop crying? What’s going on with this film?’”
Vallée pauses, wipes his eyes and apologizes. “See? I talk about it, I get emotional.”
Composed again, he smiles. “I’m making fun of it a little bit these days. I like to say some people go to a therapist for a year – I make a film. It’s my sort of therapy.”
Reviewed by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
“Birdman,” a big bang of movie razzle-dazzle from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, opens with a winking sleight of hand. Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been turned Broadway second-chancer played by a blissed-out Michael Keaton, is hanging out in his dressing room at the St. James Theater in Times Square, by which I mean floating, like a mystic who’s passed transcendence and gone straight to nirvana. It’s a destabilizing liftoff for a funny, frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment in which Mr. Iñárritu himself rises high and then higher still.
It’s a nice change of direction for Mr. Iñárritu, whose has tended to pull viewers low and then lower in beautiful bummer movies, like his last one, “Biutiful,” about a terminally ill man who communes with the dead. For “Birdman,” he has lightened both his mood and metaphysical load to productive effect by concentrating on Riggan’s efforts to stage — as writer, director and star — an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It sounds like an alarming idea (and a strange fit, especially given Carver’s minimalism and Mr. Iñárritu’s maximalism), yet Riggan has bet his career on it in hopes that the play will deliver him from his ignoble, lucrative past playing a screen superhero called Birdman.
Did someone say Icarus? Well, no, that name doesn’t come up in this backstage comedy (and sometimes drama), at least not that I remember, although Mr. Iñárritu and his co-writers (Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) toss others including Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and Martin Scorsese. The story is as old as time — the play’s the thing, once again — and unwinds over several dreamily integrated days and nights that take Riggan from his meditative calm through the labyrinthine halls of the St. James in the hours and minutes leading up to the opening, during which (big breath): He rehearses an actor, receives a kiss, throws a punch, downs a drink, smokes a joint, walks a street and waxes poetic, comic, tragic and melodramatic.
Embracing the principle of more, Mr. Iñárritu packs the movie with multitudes, assorted backstage shenanigans, showbiz clichés and commedia dell’arte types. As Riggan moves onstage and off, from rehearsal to dressing room, he finds romance in the wings, instigates a little cloak and dagger, and powers through some heart-to-heart encounters with his rehabbed daughter, Sam (a wonderful Emma Stone in sexy-cynical ragamuffin mode). A supercilious theater actor, Mike, played by a pitch-perfect, perfectly cast Edward Norton, challenges Riggan mentally and physically by declaring his allegiance to the theater (truth or bust!) at one point wielding a copy of Borges’s “Labyrinths” so ostentatiously that even the most myopic moviegoer should be able to read the title.
Action creates reaction, and together they create flowing, organic form in “Birdman.” Riggan isn’t the only man on the move: So is Mr. Iñárritu, who has staged and shot the movie so that it looks like everything that happens, from airborne beginning to end, occurs during one transporting continuous take. The camera doesn’t just move with the story and characters, it also ebbs and flows like water, soars and swoops like a bird, its movement as fluid as a natural element, as animated as a living organism. (Like that famous Steadicam shot in “GoodFellas“ but longer.) Mr. Iñárritu’s partner in illusionism is the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, a Houdini of fluid camera movements whose genius is for keeping you watching rather than distractedly wondering.
The camerawork in “Birdman” is an astonishment, and an argument that everything flows together, which in this movie means the cinematography, the story, the people, even time and space. And as soon as Riggan floats down to earth, a series of walls — between character and actor, onstage and off, representation and reality — begin to collapse. The most obvious divide is between Mr. Keaton, who, starting in 1989, played Batman in two movies directed by Tim Burton, and Riggan, who made a killing playing Birdman, a feathered franchise jackpot. Years later, Riggan appears haunted by Birdman, whose image stares out from a poster hanging in the actor’s dressing room and who, in a creepy basso profundo rasp, offers a stream of Sammy Glick-isms about career and fame.
A few movies back, Mr. Iñárritu parted ways with his frequent collaborator, the writer Guillermo Arriaga. The two had joined forces with the 2000 triptych “Amores Perros” and then proceeded to win new admirers and detractors with other multi-stranded narratives, “21 Grams” and “Babel.” I fell for “21 Grams” despite its absurdities, largely on the strength of its performances by the likes of Naomi Watts, who, in “Birdman,” plays an actress, Lesley. But Mr. Iñárritu lost me with “Babel,” less because of its melodramatic excesses than because of its mechanistic quality and sanctimony. “Birdman” marshals its enjoyable excesses into a rigorous form, too, but here a newly generous Mr. Iñárritu has made room for the audience’s pleasure.
He’s also given the finger wagging a rest. To that end, it’s worth drawing your eye to the small card stuck on one of the mirrors in Riggan’s dressing room that reads, “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing.” It sounds a bit like Gertrude Stein or poorly translated Kant, but is attributed to Susan Sontag. It may be a gloss on a line from “Against Interpretation,” her book of essays on impoverished criticism and its “shadow world of ‘meanings.’ ” (“A work of art is a thing in the world,” she writes, “not just a text or commentary on the world.”) There’s plenty to embrace in Sontag’s polemic, though a critic can perhaps be forgiven for rooting around in the shadow world of meanings if the artwork has cloaked itself in Meaning and Importance, as some of Mr. Iñárritu’s movies have done.
You can dig or just skate in this significantly better new one, the full title of which is “Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” That phrase appears late in the movie, by which time Riggan has dodged various bullets, including a lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough, amusing); an ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan, touching); and his frantic producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis, deftly funny). Riggan has also crossed paths with a terribly mean theater critic for The New York Times, the rhymes-with-witch Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to close his play before seeing it. Her threat provokes a savage verbal assault on her from Riggan, an invective that by its very heat, expresses a conflicted desire for her benediction. This, you see, is also what we talk about when we talk about love.
The Theory of Everything
Reviewed by Lou Lumenick in The New York Post
In the sublime “The Theory of Everything,’’ British actor Eddie Redmayne knocks it straight out of the universe as Stephen Hawking, the most famous physicist since Albert Einstein — and the best-known celebrity disabled by a progressive neurological disease since Lou Gehrig.
It’s a tremendously moving and inspirational look at Hawking that centers on the cosmological genius’ unconventional marriage to his first wife, Jane — a superb Felicity Jones — a graduate student majoring in poetry who met and fell in love with Hawking when he was a fully mobile and very promising student at Cambridge University in 1963.
A serious fall leads to a diagnosis of ALS — and a doctor’s devastating prognosis that Hawking, then 21, would be dead within two years as muscles throughout his body rapidly deteriorated.
Of course, it’s well known that Hawking is still around at 72 — long ago having published his best-selling masterwork, “A Brief History of Time,’’ detailing his ground-breaking theories about time, black holes and the universe (theories that fuel this week’s “Interstellar”).
Despite being long confined to a wheelchair and using a computer with a voice synthesizer to communicate, Hawking is a huge international celebrity who’s appeared in everything from documentaries to TV’s “The Simpsons’’ and “The Big Bang Theory.’’
James Marsh, who directed the Oscar-winning doc “Man on Wire,’’ sensitively reveals the less familiar story — sensitively adapted by Anthony McCarten from a memoir by Jane Hawking — of how Jane patiently coaxed the man she loved out of deep depression after his diagnosis. They married and raised three children, their relationship constantly tested by the terrible progression of his disability, which ravages and twists his body but not his brilliant mind.
“The Theory of Everything’’ and Redmayne’s exquisitely detailed performance (which also beautifully captures the man’s mordant wit) takes great pains to detail how Hawking gradually loses all but the slightest mobility.
The film remarkably doesn’t shy from depicting the huge burdens it loads on Jane as his caregiver. But this remarkable woman never gives up, refusing to take Hawking off life support when he’s comatose with pneumonia (which leads to him losing his voice — by now barely understandable — altogether).
All of this places unimaginable strains on their 30-year marriage, during which Jane falls in love with choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox).
In an unusual arrangement that provokes gossip — and makes Hawking’s father (Simon McBurney) and Jane mother’s (Emily Watson) uneasy — Jones becomes a member of the family with Hawking’s blessing.
An internationally acclaimed Hawking eventually separates from Jane after he grows close to one of his nurses (played briefly in the film by Maxine Peake) to whom he was married from 1995 to 2006; Jane goes on to marry Jones.
Visually imaginative, “The Theory of Everything’’ is an unusually compelling true-life story about an extraordinary couple triumphing over adversity. It’s my favorite movie so far this year, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it ended up sweeping the Oscars. Don’t miss it.