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Films
by Kathi Maio

THE FAULTS IN OUR STARS AND OURSELVES


I HAVE often been less than kind to superhero movies and the actors who star in them. I remember that I totally panned Ben Affleck in his 2003 foray into Marveldom in a film called Daredevil. I suggested (in these pages) that he was just not cut out of superhero cloth, and indicated that although he could be "very good at playing cocky yuppie types, his forte is not exactly brooding intensity with tragic undercurrents." I was not, of course, the only one underwhelmed by that movie and Mr. Affleck's performance. So, it did not exactly surprise me to read and hear the less-than-complimentary outbursts that followed the announcement that Mr. Affleck would be assuming the mantle of perhaps the ultimate superhero, Batman, in the latest reboot—next year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The vitriol poured upon Affleck in blogs, article comments, bulletin boards, and throughout social media held the kind of negative power Bane, Lex Luthor, or any number of supervillains might well envy. The star of Gone Girl and the director of the Oscar-winning Argo is understandably more confident and mature in his talents than he was a decade ago, however. He seemed to take the furor in his stride. Still, I felt for the guy.

Despite the whopping paycheck, worldwide fame, and the chance to be associated with an iconic film protagonist, there is a certain damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't aspect of playing a superhero. The haters gonna hate. And the latex/spandex/silicone gonna chafe. After a while, it feels like time to move on or become buried in a role that is more costume and special effects than acting. That is why so many actors who have played such roles have walked away after their multi-movie deal was up, or after their simpatico director ditched the franchise or got the boot.

Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, and several other actors have taken that walk away from sure fortune. But they followed in the footsteps of Michael Keaton, whose Tim Burton-directed Batman (1989) set the standard for all the superhero flicks that have followed since. Keaton reprised his role only once. Then he and his career took a different path, never achieving the fame and fortune of his Batman years. Keaton has said that he doesn't regret his decision in the least. And I, for one, believe him.

But what if you were a vain and insecure actor (as so many actors are) who had an early success as a film superhero, walked away from the prestige and extravagant payday…and who has been, quite literally, haunted by the specter of his most famous role ever since? That is the premise of the surprising latest film of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel, Biutiful), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Iñárritu had the ambitious idea to do a film comedy in one shot and he developed his screenplay in collaboration with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo. Together, they crafted a play within a play that captures the absurdities of the general human condition by studying (and exuberantly satirizing) the foibles of actors in the final days of staging a new production in New York City.

The play is the misbegotten brainchild of the former superhero star, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who has struggled to reestablish his sense of self (and self-respect) along with the approbation of his profession (and the general public) ever since he left behind a masked and be-plumed character called Birdman. But while Riggan might have walked away from Birdman, the gravel-voiced superhero never walked, or flew, away from him. Embodying Riggan's superego—although more often the devil on his shoulder than his better angel—as well as a general commentator, Birdman (voiced by a raspier Keaton) alternately ridicules and exhorts the actor as he endeavors to direct and star in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver's classic modern short story "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love."

It's a foolhardy idea from the start, especially considering Thomson's overwrought and pretentious approach (complete with dancing reindeer) to Carver's famously minimalist story. But it doesn't help that the production is plagued by financial worries, fretted over by a producer (played straight by Zach Galifianakis). In addition, just as the play is about to go into previews, Riggan's very bad co-star (played by a very good stage actor named Jeremy Shamos) is bonked on the head, necessitating a last- minute replacement. A gifted but erratic and egotistical actor named Mike Shiner (a fabulous Edward Norton) is cast in the role. Mike might just add a believable intensity to the play, if he doesn't force Riggan or his girlfriend and co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts) into emotional collapse first.

As the production moves perilously close to opening night and spectacular failure, Riggan becomes more frantic and his Birdman alter ego becomes more strident and intrusive. Is Riggan simply unhinged and delusional, or is something else going on? Mr. Iñárritu leaves that in question, right up until the closing shot of the film. And this movie's nonstop rush through the bowels of the historic St. James Theatre and the streets of New York is enough to leave audience members agreeably confounded by the pace and by the rapid shifts from drama to comedy to fantastical touches of magical realism.

From the direction to the writing to the uniformly fine, high-wire performances to the driving jazz drum score by Antonio Sanchez, to the amazing unbroken shot camera work by D. P. Emmanuel Lubezki and his crew, this is one film that deserves the descriptor of tour de force. As for Michael Keaton, the fearless quality of his performance as Riggan Thomson will cement his reputation as a great film actor in a way the rubberized likes of Batman never could.

Mr. Keaton probably is indeed happy with his career path these days. He chose not to sell his soul to be Batman Forever—or, at least, for a few more paydays. Yet there can be little doubt that many actors would sell their immortal soul for a shot at any kind of film stardom. Just such a tale is told in the promising small budget horror movie, Starry Eyes.

Sarah Walker (an impressive Alexandra Essoe) is doing her time in the purgatory of the Hollywood demimonde with several other millennial pals who are wannabe actors, writers, and directors. Sarah makes a living in a pair of potato skin spandex tights as a waitress at a dubiously themed eatery called Big Taters. Although her earnest, if obnoxious, boss, Carl (Pat Healy), thinks she should be happy to be a dedicated Taters Girl, Sarah dreams of her big acting break.

Diffident, yet driven, Sarah goes to every audition she can. And each time she falls short. In a ritual of self-punishment, she follows every bad tryout with a temper tantrum that culminates in pulling out tufts of her own long locks. After one disastrous audition, a very dour casting director (Maria Olsen) witnesses Sarah's freakout in a rest room and invites her back for a second audition, even creepier than the first. Eventually, Sarah is called in for an evening meeting with the producer (Louis Dezseran), who appears to be interested in nothing more unusual than a few casting couch sexual favors. But it soon becomes apparent that the sleazy studio boss and his Astraeus Pictures represent something even more sinister.

Equal parts occult horror and slasher flick, Starry Eyes is definitely a B movie, but fairly well done, as such. Writing-directing team Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch serve up their creepy, bloody tropes in a fresh manner that bodes well for their future work when a larger budget comes their way. I only wish that Sarah's deal with the devil had been a more conscious one. She is not so much a Faustian antihero as hapless victim. Alex Essoe does a great job with the role she is given—which hopefully means she'll have an easier career than her character—but Sarah's transformation would have made for even more arresting cinema if it had been calculated.

As for what a big budget and a prestige director and production team can do, look to the latest intergalactic IMAX adventure yarn and sentimental familial drama from filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Interstellar is the kind of big science fiction movie, full of big scientific ideas, that is seldom made these days…or ever. It harks back to earlier classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film it clearly and obviously pays homage to. And it has the power to dazzle and entertain for two and three quarters hours without the kind of ultra-violent, over-the-top CGI that we have come to expect from blockbusters.

At its heart—and it has one, pinned rather obviously to its sleeve—Interstellar is a story about the unwavering love between a father and daughter. A farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, playing a hero reminiscent of another Cooper named Gary) worries about his failing crops and what appears to be a rapidly approaching total collapse of Earth as a planet capable of sustaining human life. In earlier, more prosperous and science-friendly times, "Coop" had been a pilot and astronaut. But now he farms and frets and dotes on his young, inquisitive daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). His fifteen-year-old son, Tom (Timothée Chalamet), is largely ignored by his father and by the movie.

Spurred by mysterious location coordinates, Coop and Murph stumble upon a secret outpost of NASA. There, astrophysicist Professor Brand (Nolan stalwart Michael Caine) leads a group of scientists intent on finding Earthlings a new planetary refuge. If all goes well, they will find a way to transport the remaining Earthlings to a far distant exoplanet. In a direr scenario, plan B, canisters of frozen eggs will be used to reestablish a human population on a viable planet. Faced with the possibility of saving his children from starving to death in a perpetual dust storm, Coop decides to join a team of other astronauts led by Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who plan to plunge through a wormhole in hopes of establishing a new Earth colony before time runs out back home.

Although obviously more Hollywood blockbuster than astrophysics treatise, Nolan (co-writing with brother Jonathan) really tries to do justice to the science in his story. The brothers were aided in this effort by theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who came on board the project when it was still in the early stages (and associated with Steven Spielberg). Thorne is credited as executive producer for the movie. And besides offering script counsel, he also authored a companion book, The Science of Interstellar, to further elucidate wormholes, supermassive black holes, time dilation, and all the other ponderous concepts suggested by the film.

The plot of Interstellar is complex in ways that have little to do with science theory, however. It seems that Coop and his colleagues are following an earlier team of astronauts into deep space. In the Lazarus missions, a handful of astronauts, led by the heroic Dr. Mann, each headed in different directions, hoping to find a Goldilocks planet. With limited fuel, resources, and time, Coop's new explorers have to decide which of the Lazarus planets to visit. Not surprisingly, they don't land on the perfect exoplanet immediately.

Coop and Amelia follow the promising data transmitted by Dr. Mann to his frozen outpost and find more than they bargain for there. For some strange reason, Christopher Nolan did not want the name of the Major Movie Star who plays Dr. Mann to be revealed in reviews. At this point, it seems unlikely that anyone will be surprised by who is zipped out of that cryobed, but I will play along. (I resisted reading the spoilers, and enjoyed the surprise of it, after all.)

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the collapse of our ecosystems has become more desperate. Coop's son Tom (now played by Casey Affleck) doggedly tries to grow food and keep his family alive. And Murph, now played by the excellent Jessica Chastain, has grown into the astrophysicist in charge of taking all the theory and the transmitted data and finally finding a way to save humanity.

Interstellar is, all in all, a very fine science fiction film. The muddy sound mixing and intrusive, organ-heavy score by Hans Zimmer are a bother. But Nolan claims the inaudible dialogue during much of the movie is "impressionistic" and intentional. Perhaps he should rethink his intentions next time out.

The schmaltz factor of the story, too, might be an unnecessary annoyance to some audience members. I actually respected the fact that the Nolan brothers tried to give their film an emotional tug and not just a gravitational pull. Unfortunately, the director rather obviously telegraphs many of his touching plot developments. While you might not guess the identity of the "ghost" young Murph senses in her childhood bedroom, who could doubt that father and daughter will be reunited, or how they will appear to one another when they meet again?

Although Christopher Nolan has built his career making imaginative films, from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010), he is probably best known for his recent Dark Knight trilogy. But, like Michael Keaton, Nolan appears to have walked away (at least for now) from Batman. And something tells me that if the filmmaker can continue to produce movies as good as Interstellar, he won't ever regret saying "so long" to the Caped Crusader.

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