March 2015
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I almost loved Birdman (2014), directed by Alejandro Inarritu. It made me a bit jealous, in a reassuring kind of way, because it excels in a genre in which I have worked extensively as a playwright, the realistic drama with supernatural elements. It got me thinking about some of the rules: Because you are mixing genres, you have to let the audience know right away we are not in a wholly realistic universe. The very first shot, in which we see Michael Keaton levitating as he meditates, accomplishes that very nicely. Secondly, you need to infuse such stories with a lot of heart, compassion, human emotion, relatable characters. Birdman succeeds in spades, while avoiding self pity, another rule. Finally, whatever happens at the end, there must be a realistic click. If you set your story in Times Square at 4 a.m., and your characters are constantly surrounded by the gods and demons of the New York night, it must still end with a real death or redemption or love or loss. Birdman doesn't; Keaton flies out the window and his daughter looks up and sees him flying, and smiles, an ending which at first blush was trivial and confusing. I had to think about this a lot, and finally concluded that Birdman's metaphoric flights would inspire his daughter for the rest of her life, whatever happened; and this was mildly satisfying, though I believe the click should happen immediately, organically, while you are watching,and not be something you think about afterwards. But that's just me, and who's to say this multiple Oscar winner needs to follow any rules I can imagine? One other thing I like to attempt in my own writing is the very weird moment that could really happen (there doesn't have to be an animated Aztec monster involved in the action). Birdman is full of these set pieces, from the interactions on stage with actors coming in and out of character, backstage confrontations over casting and recasting and actorly praise, to the magnificent sequence in which Keaton is locked out of the back door of the theater in his underwear and has to walk around to the front.

I wanted to like Focus (2015), directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, more than I did, though it was very diverting and the actors likable. In Playwriting 101, where I learned or invented the rules I describe in the Birdman review, I also learned about specificity. If I am writing a script about EMT's, revealing that their favorite TV shows when they are relaxing in the lounge at the battalion are about home improvement, grounds the story, makes it specific enough to be believable while also surprising the audience, making them think, "That's not what I expected". Focus represents a hyping-up, a falsification of story-telling that infects most genres today. Its the same reason the movies can no longer tell a straight trial story, without putting the judge on the stand. Years ago, there was a modest little movie called Harry in Your Pocket which was a realistic version of the same narrative, about a male thief mentoring a female one. The specificity in Focus instead is stuff which couldn't really happen, for example winning a bet with a mark by making him select 55 after unconsciously priming him with that number all day. It sounds good to the uncritical, but its bullshit. The details of real cons, like of real trials, are themselves so clever, why do we have to go for the unbelievably fantastic?

Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is a feminist masterpiece, something I never understood before though I have watched it many times. I marveled at Hitchcock's ability to present a smart small town girl as only that, not incipient bombshell or plaything or love-crazed pursuer or manipulative vixen but simply a smart young woman who knows several things about herself, of which her attractiveness to men is one of the less important. It struck me that Hitchcock himself must have been very liminal, even asexual, to have accomplished that. Teresa Wright's Charlie is always in control, without being a hyped up monster like the protagonist of Gone Girl or unrealistic superhero of any movie involving a woman with a crossbow or sword. The movie passes the watchamacallit test, because there are multiple female characters with names who talk to each other about other topics than men. There is a detective who falls in love with Charlie, but he never grabs her, lifts her, nor pushes or orders her around. In the denouement, he doesn't save her from her evil uncle; she does that herself. Something else that was very interesting, and suggestive for its times, was the story of divided loyalties. Charlie, the smartest one in the room, detects her beloved uncle is a killer. Every action she takes after that is to help the police to a point, but to protect her mother and family first and foremost. Getting Uncle Charles out of the house is more important than putting him in the hands of the authorities. Hitchcock also avoids the hyperbole which nearly spoils movies as distant from one another in theme and time as Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest and Psycho, the moment of staggering improbability you must swallow to enjoy the ride. Shadow of a Doubt, like The Wrong Man, is a relatively realistic psychological study.