COLUMN: Movie Magic

Harry Caines contributes a weekly column to CacheValleyDaily.com. His column is a work of opinion, and does not reflect the views of Cache Valley Daily, the Cache Valley Media Group, or its employees.

<em>“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.”</em>

—Edward Norton, from the film, “Birdman”

There is a story of my childhood I tell often. If my memory serves me right, I shared this anecdote from my youth in this column when it first started two years ago. So, for those who know it and are unenthused to hear it again, I would beg you to forgive me—but it is most certainly germane to the thesis of this column.

In May of 1977, my father took me to a drive-in theatre in a desolate, scary section of Philadelphia to see Star Wars. Like at most drive-ins of the time, Star Wars was the second film of a double feature. The first film was an entirely awful film entitled Empire of the Ants.

The short synopsis of that film is as follows:

A group of pathetic losers goes on a boat trip to visit a real estate development. While there, they are terrorized by a group of large ants, made so by devouring chemical waste dumped off the side of a ship. This plot would be bad enough, but there’s more! There is a “twist” that comes about ⅔ into the film that I dare not share with you now. The fact that the television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” missed out on lampooning this atrocity of a film is tragic.

I probably would have remembered seeing “Empire” regardless of other factors. But I remember it fondly because I saw it with Star Wars. I equate seeing Star Wars—just a few weeks before my 7th birthday—with those who went to see “The Wizard of Oz” back in 1939. Most people back then might have never seen a color photograph…no less a film in color.

The grandeur of such films tattoo themselves into our memories like few things can. There is a name for it that is overused but still true to its definition.

Movie magic.

And that brings me to the film Birdman. For those of you who have not heard of it, you will now. That is because we are in the early stages of what is referred to as “Awards Season.” Birdman stars Michael Keaton as an aging actor trying to get away from his early 90’s iconic movie roles as a superhero known as Birdman. The genius of this is that Keaton actually is an aging actor who still has not torn himself away from playing Batman over two decades ago.

The second male lead is played by Edward Norton. He plays a method actor with a bad reputation for being difficult to work with, and who is a notorious scene-stealer. Again, art imitates life. Norton is known for those very qualities himself.

The female characters are all heart-breakingly fantastic. Best among them is Emma Stone, who plays Keaton’s daughter. With this role, Stone could possibly make “Rehab Chic” a thing.

The plot of the film revolves around Keaton’s desire to make it on Broadway as a “legitimate” actor. But his dual personality—one of many in-jokes about Keaton having once played Batman—keeps getting in the way. As great as the screenplay and the acting is, the real star of the film is director Alejandro Inarritu’s vertiginous directing.

Inarritu shoots the film as one long take. His camera is up close in the actor’s faces. The claustrophobic, labyrinth back hallways of the St. James’s Theatre on Broadway envelops the characters of Birdman much like the Overlook Hotel engulfed the Torrance family in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining.

Movie magic. You will ask yourself how Inarritu was able to go from one scene to another with such effortless appearance. This film grabbed me early and never let go. Five minutes into the film, an accident (or was it?) befalls an actor who just wasn’t getting it right. I fully bought into the “is-this-real-or-a-fantasy” aspect of Keaton’s purported “superpowers.”

Here I was on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting in this small theater, completely engrossed by this dark, intelligent film. Very little has changed since 1977. As best as I can compare, I was just as much in wonderful awe of Birdman as I was of Star Wars 37 years ago.

You have been there, right? Sitting in a theater, or on your couch, watching something so enthralling that you are cognizant of the euphoria you are feeling at that exact moment. This just can’t happen to me. I have had the pleasure of feeling this sensation twice this year. Birdman was preceded earlier this year by the television show True Detective. I hung on every plot twist and red herring thrown at me in True Detective. It was art.

We all loved to be entertained. And while due respect is given to books and music, sometimes we just need a good movie. Every once in a while, you come across an epic film. I did that Tuesday.

What really got me about Birdman was that there was so many great scenes that my mind scurries to list them in order of mastery. I have seen many great films over the years; but this film was the first since I saw Almost Famous on a rainy September day back in 2000 where I cannot discriminate in favor of one great scene from others. The only two films that have come close since Almost Famous are Tell No One, a French film released in 2004 that is flawless (NOTE: it is currently available on Netflix streaming). The other film is Silver Linings Playbook. I am emotionally attached to that film in more ways than I could explain.

I saw Birdman at the theatre on 25th and Main Street in North Logan. Before writing this column, I checked to see how long it will be playing. It will be at that theater until at least Thursday, December 18th. I might see it again. You should make it a priority to see it.

And please do not let the fact that it is rated “R” deter you. It is a gray area R at best. Yes, there is a scene where you see Edward Norton’s butt. And there is a scene where an actor becomes properly motivated for a sex scene in the play within the movie–but he is covered up and it is played for laughs. Most of the cartoonish violence in Birdman is the same as is in the plague of action hero movies most of you flock to see. Curse words? Yeah, OK, the characters curse quite a bit. But any of my Mormon friends who have watched a USU-BYU sporting event with me will have heard worse in their lifetime.

Does the “R-rated” thing really matter anymore? I refuse to believe most people allow themselves to be that one-dimensional.

I love movies. They can entertain, inspire and make us think. When I am in a bad mood, I can watch a film I have seen many times knowing it will cheer me up without fail. Some films can invoke a good cry when we need one. And in this modern age of “hate watching,” some films are so terrible that we watch them again in spite of our disdain for them. It is a form of venting I suppose.

Birdman is a great film. And if you see it and disagree, feel free to argue your point with me. I will listen to your argument before dismissing it as being wrong. (I am looking at you, movie critic Aaron Peck!) But whether we agree or not about the merits of this film, we will be arguing about movies. And after we are done, we will notice that we are both happier than we were before we engaged each other in conversation.

Another special effect of Movie Magic.

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