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November 25, 2014

2014: THE ROAD

Land Ho!
In Land Ho!, directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens bring off a couple of feats. The movie is a remarkable piece of cinema verité. Especially seeing the trailer, you are convinced you are watching a documentary. In feature length, it reads more like a created work but still possesses a feeling of simplicity and lack of artifice that were probably more challenging to achieve than we might imagine. Much of Land Ho!’s charm derives from its retiring co-stars Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson.
Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in Land Ho!
Which brings us to Katz and Stephens’ second feat. If recent American comedies featuring older actors are any indication, the old-coot-movie more often than not is just plain awful and a humiliation to its stars. 

Think The Big Wedding with Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, and Susan Saradon. Despite some wonderfully nuanced performances as an older character in movies like Everybody’s Fine and Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro has become a staple of the old coot genre as a regular in the Fockers franchise, as well as in coot-as-unreconstructed-adolescent vehicles like Grudge Match and Las Vegas, which also stars Morgan Freeman and, it pains me to say, Kevin Kline. 

Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton teamed up this year in the barely okay And So It Goes, for which Sissy Spacek had the great good sense to turn down the Keaton role. Jane Fonda doesn’t have a great track record of late either. Grace in Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding and Hillary Altman in This Is Where I Leave You – remove the love beads from the former and the tchotchkes from the latter – are one and the same role. If we ignore the Focker mess, Barbra Streisand has exercised better judgment with little movies like last year’s The Guilt Trip, which brings us back to the road.
Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson in Land Ho!
Land Ho! is the classic road movie, by which I do not mean that the characters are simply on the road, but that the trip unwittingly, at least at first, becomes the most ancient trip of all, the quest. Setting off on a journey into the unknown is the catalyst by which the hero (or antihero) gains self-knowledge. 

Eenhoorn and Nelson are Colin and Mitch, longtime friends by marriage. (Colin’s wife died; her sister divorced Mitch.) Colin has become accustomed to being alone, and one senses that even before his wife's death, he was a quiet sort. Mitch is randier and has not caught up with political correctness. Mitch has bought them tickets for a vacation in Iceland without telling Colin, which leaves Colin understandably miffed, but Colin is such a thoughtful man, he soon succumbs to his old friend’s enthusiasm.
Earl Lynn Nelson as Mitch in Land Ho!
What follows is a gentle journey of self-discovery and a kind, thoughtful glimpse into two aging individuals’ friendship, something Americans too often refuse to examine with anything less than inanity.

The Trip to Italy
In The Trip to Italy, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their culinary junket to northern England in Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 The Trip. Neither is an epicure, yet they do not turn down the London Observer’s all-expense paid trips to stay in antiques-appointed hotels and dine on celebrity chef haute cuisine. All the while their improvisations are riffs on literature, culture high and low, and involve one upping each other in exacting impersonations.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy
Whereas much of Land Ho!’s warmth and sensibility emerges from its realistic style, Winterbottom, Coogan, and Brydon set up a thespian conundrum as to whether the two actors are a) themselves, b) playing themselves, or c) playing characters who coincidentally have the same names and manner. 

Britisher Winterbottoms’s The Trip and The Trip to Italy, like the indie Land Ho!, make something meaningful out of a comedy about male friendship, unlike the man-boy vehicles Hollywood churns out like Dumb and Dumber, Bill and Ted, 21 Jump Street, et al. ad nauseum. Ultimately, it’s not about the food, or Italy, or who does a better Michael Caine – it’s about an old friendship in which each man, seeing his own advancing age in the other, clumsily, obliquely communicates his gratitude to the other.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy

Considering the cinema verité illusion of Katz and Stephens’ Land Ho! and the complete blurring of the line between documentary and fiction in Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, it is interesting to note that Pawel Pawlikowski began his film career as a documentarian for British television. That said, what he has created in Ida is an austerely crafted tale of innocence and experience.

Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida
With Ida, Pawlikowski returns to the past – to his native Poland geographically and to Poland’s past historically. Set in the early 1960s, Ida is a Bildungsroman about a young novitiate, an orphan who has grown up in a convent apart from the world and apart from her own identity. The Mother Superior believes she must understand what she is giving up; otherwise, taking religious orders will involve no meaningful sacrifice. 

The Mother Superior tells the girl she must visit her only relative, an aunt who lives in Lodz, before she will be allowed to take her vows. Dutifully, Anna sets off to meet a complete stranger who is in many ways her diametrical opposite. Indeed, the young innocent will confront who she will be in the world, and her aunt Wanda, the cynical adult, will confront who she has been in the fallen world of corruption and disgrace. 
Agata Kulesza as Wanda in Ida
Upon the girl's arrival, a man not so discreetly departs the house as Wanda resumes her drink, lights another cigarette, and soon tells her niece that her name is not Anna but Ida Lebenstein – she is a Jew. 

As the two become acquainted we learn that Wanda was a state prosecutor in the brutal government of the Polish People’s Republic, which stopped at nothing to root out anyone even dubiously suspected as traitorous. Ida, unintentionally at first and then with precise volition, undertakes her initiation into the worldly, while Wanda sets about to confront her past and enlists Ida in a road trip with a very specific destination in mind.
For such a short film (Ida clocks in at a mere 80 minutes), Pawlikowski’s spare script and Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s sparse and beautifully composed black and white cinematography manage to juxtapose, with no overt display, the historic macrocosm of the tragic pall of the Holocaust – the end of which only exacted a furtive day to day life under the shadow of Polish communism – against the microcosm of the intersection of the two women’s lives.

New York Times film critic A. O. Scott astutely observes that “Ida has some of the structure and feeling of an ancient folk tale. It concerns an orphan who must make her way through a haunted, threatening landscape protected only by her own good sense and a powerful, not entirely trustworthy companion.” In his 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim argued that stories such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm allow children symbolically to grapple with the heart of darkness so as to prepare for life in a menacing world. Pawlikowski’s laconic tale explores the quest for identity as it takes up the question of the inevitability – even necessity – of wrongdoing. Ida suggests that the sins we commit to survive can be deserving of forgiveness.


Last year, Ken Loach followed up his delightful 2009 Looking for Eric with a marvelous little gem of a movie where the 2% of single malt whiskey that evaporates during the aging process, known as "the angels' share," becomes a metaphor for humanitas. Like Kirk Jones's 1998 Waking Ned Devine, The Angels' Share and Looking for Eric recall the golden era of Ealing Studios – the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world – that churned out one memorable little movie after another, including the 1949 Whiskey Galore! directed by Compton MacKenzie and Charles Crichton’s The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). What these films have in common is that the material object of the quest is merely a vehicle for the quest's larger purpose: the power to bring community together. In these narratives, community, not family, functions as the central social unit, the ultimate source of human meaning and communion. 
Compton MacKenizie's 1949 Whiskey Galore!
As in Whiskey Galore! and Waking Ned Devine, the deception requires the cooperation of the entire village in The Grand Seduction; Pride widens the lens by bringing two incongruous communities together; while St. Vincent narrows it by homing in on incongruous neighbors; and Calvary turns the community on its head in an existential, absurdist variation on the theme.

There is an episode of the brilliant television series Northern Exposure called "Our Tribe" in which tribal elder Gloria Noanuk invites Dr. Joel Fleischman to be adopted by her tribe. Joel engages Ed Chigliak, his Tlingits friend, to try to understand what this means.
JOEL: Ed, let me ask you something. What does belonging to your own tribe mean to you?
ED: Well, I was raised by the tribe, but since I didn't have parents, I was passed around a lot. I never really thought about it. I mean, belonging to a tribe.
JOEL: I belong to the Jewish tribe, so to speak, but I'm also an American, you know? What does that mean? I mean, is there an American tribe? More like a zillion special interest groups. In my own case, I am a New Yorker. I am a Republican, a Knicks fan. Maybe we've outgrown tribes, you know? The global village thing. It's telephones, faxes, CNN. I mean, basically, we all belong to the same tribe.

ED: That's true. But you can't hang out with five billion people.

Darren E. Burrows as Ed Chigliak in Northern Exposure

The Grand Seduction
Canadian actor and director Don McKellar’s The Grand Seduction is a remake of the French Canadian movie Seducing Doctor Lewis. The villagers of remote Tickle Head, Canada, have been thwarted for years in their attempt to snag a doctor. Mayor Murray French (Brendon Gleeson) contrives to convince the town folks to spiff the place up in an attempt to make it appear a desirable place for a young doctor to settle down – though, of course, their provincial idea of desirable does not jibe with a young doctor's. Everyone is on the dole and are themselves seduced by the prospect of a petrochemical company siting a plant in Tickle Head, but the deal always falls through for want of a resident doctor.

Madcap machinations ensue on both fronts – for doctor on the one hand and corporate contract on the other – as the town scrambles to carry out the zany scheme. The Grand Seduction channels Bill Forsythe’s 1983 Local Hero: as corporate farming and fishing have become the norm, local economies in steady decline turn to corporatized global giants for rescue. But The Grand Seduction fails at Local Hero’s underlying theme. Where Local Hero sees the tragedy in the sacrifice of nature in the name of jobs, The Grand Seduction is just happy to have the work – oh, and the doctor, too.
The Grand Seduction

Pride is the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, unlikely saviors to one of the Welsh mining villages caught in the draconian efforts of the Thatcher regime to crush the National Union of Mineworkers. From June 1984-June 1985, LGSM sees the villagers through a year of government imposed hardship and penury. One could take issue with the film’s oversimplification of the record. At the same time, in other hands the story could have devolved into sentimentality and mawkishness, but Matthew Warchus’s delicate direction gives the film a generosity of spirit that cannot be denied.

Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) is an ardent activist whose sympathy is always aligned with the underdog, no matter who it might be. His recruits are six characters in search of a cause until Mark, realizing that tabloid demonization and police harassment of the gay/lesbian community have been diverted to the miners, rallies for the strikers’ cause.
Ben Schnetzer as Mark Ashton in Pride
Tradition demands the village host delegations representing philanthropies from whom they receive aid, but their hospitality is tried under the circumstances. Three members of the union council – Imelda Staunton’s irrepressible Hefina; Bill Nighy’s union secretary and all-round conciliator, Cliff; and Jessica Gunning’s maternal Sian – hold to the principle that generosity is to be shown gratitude. The two communities learn soon enough that they have more in common than their differences might make it seem. Salvation, it turns out, is reciprocal. The emergence of AIDS in the gay community is skillfully underplayed, touched upon overtly only once, which makes our knowledge of what is to come somehow more powerful and heart wrenching.
1985 Gay Pride Parade in Pride
Bookended by annual Gay Pride parades, the film opens to Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever” and closes with Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in the Union.” At its center is an a cappella rendition of “Bread and Roses” that begins with Welsh vocalist Bronwen Lewis. As she is joined by one after another of the village women, and then their menfolk, the song takes on an harmonic power through which I had to stifle sobs. Pride bears witness to the power of solidarity and rings with the anthems of labor. Clench your fist! Now raise it with me!

St. Vincent 
Last year I said that Seth Gordon's Identity Thief co-starring Jason Bateman and The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and co-starring Sandra Bullock, would both be really bad movies were it not for Melissa McCarthy's kinetic energy, rapid-fire improvisational delivery, and wildly self-confident physicality. The phrase "over the top" was invented for her. She is queen of the pratfall, empress of slapstick, an impish roughhousing buffoon who, without your even knowing it, is creating a multidimensional character that she springs on you unexpectedly halfway through the movie. McCarthy burns with a magnetic attraction that kindles the chemistry between herself and whoever is cast opposite her.

Now she has outdone herself as working single mom Maggie in a remarkably controlled performance where again her generosity as an ensemble actress shines. Bill Murray, who has always been possessed of a sardonic genius, as the eponymous Vincent does not disappoint here. Together Murray and McCarthy, along with a great turn by Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian émigré pole dancer, take a script that could have gone all Disney cute and smash corny clichés (There are unlikely saints among us) into seriocomic virtuosity.
Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher and Naomi Watts in St. Vincent
Jaeden Lieberher as Maggie's son Oliver conveys admirable nuance himself, while he and Murray make a wonderful buddy movie duo, and the versatile Chris O'Dowd as Oliver's teacher Brother Geraghty brings some ethnic charm.
Jaeden Lieberher and Bill Murray in St. Vincent

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, Calvary is set in a village in County Sligo where its shepherd is Father James (Brendan Gleeson who co-starred with Don Cheadle in 2011’s wonderful The Guard, which McDonagh also wrote and directed). The villagers, full of cynicism, tension, and resentment, look out for their own self-interests at best, and at worst work to spitefully subvert what marginal shred of community remains.

Amidst this toxic atmosphere a parishioner steps into Father James’s confessional, and, after describing his childhood abuse at the hands of a priest, vows to take revenge by killing Father James in one week’s time. Vengeance can only be exacted, he explains, if the victim is – as he, the child, was – innocent. A parallel scene takes place later. Father James took the cloth after becoming a widower and has brought his daughter (Kelly Reilly) to the village to recover from a suicide attempt. In the confessional she says, “I belong to myself, not to anyone else.” “True,” Father James replies. “False.” We are individuals, but without community, we are lesser beings.

Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly in Calvary

November 24, 2014


In 2013 we lost James Gandolfini and this year Philip Seymour Hoffman, two actors who without fail could be counted on to so inhabit their characters that acting ceased and transcended to an unmediated empathic present. With the subtlest of gesture or expression, both men could convey volumes, and no matter how morally corrupt their characters, Gandolfini and Hoffman inevitably found what sliver of the light of humanity lay buried in those characters’ souls.

A Most Wanted Man
Nowhere was this ability more manifest this year than in Hoffman’s performance in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, adapted from John le Carré’s 2008 novel. I can’t imagine anyone (maybe Richard Burton, who in 1965 embodied the defeatist Alec Leamas in Martin Ritt's film adaptation of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) inhabiting the role of post-9/11 German spy Günther Bachmann as utterly as Hoffman does in one of the most consummate character studies ever put to film. 
Bachmann’s intelligence agency is surveilling a Chechen-Russian named Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) whom Interpol suspects of being an Islamist jihadi. Hell-bent on seizing Karpov, the CIA has sent in an agent (Robin Wright) to see their mission through. Bachmann, however, understands that Karpov is not the true threat; his real utility lies in allowing Bachmann to get to an influential man who pulls strings with money Bachmann suspects him of laundering for powerful terrorist networks.
As in life so in le Carré’s world of realpolitik: double-crosses, sellouts, lèse-majesté, shady deals, and cover-ups entangle anything that might resemble conscience. The cigarettes he chain smokes, the whiskey he craves seem to be all that keep the world-weary Bachmann alive. The jaded Bachmann’s cynicism is well-earned, but some small part of him still believes his job matters, that he can effect change in the longer view. When that spark is threatened with extinction in the face of the abyss, Hoffman’s Bachmann lets loose a primal cry of grief that echoes through Philip Seymour Hoffman’s masterful, loving oeuvre.

God’s Pocket
John Slattery’s directorial debut, God's Pocket based on Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel, takes its structure from the noir tradition of the hard drinking reporter, embodied here in Richard Jenkins, who romanticizes the mean streets and the wise guys who inhabit them.
Richard Jenkins in God's Pocket
It’s about Hoffman’s Mickey Scarpato, a truck driver and petty thief, and John Turturro’s Arthur “Bird” Capezio, a man too endeared of the horses. Mickey and Bird circle the fringes of the mob in their blue collar world. Mickey’s at a disadvantage, not being a native of the neighborhood. He married in, and it’s the bully of a son he inherited with the marriage whose death sets events in motion. Unlike Mickey, Bird is of the community and should know better than to get behind with its loan sharks. The film tries to navigate a seriocomic tone, and though it sometimes falters and verges on slapstick, Hoffman’s understatement balances Turturro’s manic braggadocio.

The Drop
Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop, a pulpy, noir-ish suspense tale adapted by Dennis Lehane from his 2009 short story "Animal Rescue," features Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini. Gandolfini plays Marv, the one-time titular owner of Marv's, a neighborhood “drop” bar where the underground launders its currency. Hardy’s Bob Saginowski is the bartender, a quiet man who keeps his own counsel.
Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace in The Drop
Bob rescues a battered pit bull puppy from a garbage can belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and as he gradually befriends her, comes to learn that she's the ex-girlfriend of the dog’s owner, a sadistic punk (Matthis Schoenaerts) who has spent a decade crowing about killing a guy last seen in Marv's bar. Critics have called the plot a shaggy dog story, and the tale of the murder and the assumptions surrounding it are repeated like an urban legend but doubted, too, especially by a detective (John Ortz) who’s been nosing around the case for all of its 10 years.
James Gandolfini in The Drop
It’s a good looking movie, but the acting is the real reason to see The Drop. Gandolfini, in his final performance, gives us a resentful has-been clinging to the idea that he’s still somebody. Schoenaerts’ Deeds oozes just enough venom, and despite her character’s fear of Deeds, Rapace makes Nadia her own woman. 
Noomi Rapace and Matthis Schoenaerts in The Drop
But the show belongs to Hardy and to Hardy’s character Bob, this seeming inarticulate, non-player who doggedly (pun intended) will not go away.

Hardy, a British actor, has an impressive roster of supporting roles in American films to his credit. He crafted a remarkable performance as the sole screen presence in Steven Knight’s 2013 Locke. In The Drop, as the central figure in a seedy urban neighborhood, he again manages to make a character of mundane ordinariness intense, compelling, and grounded in an authentic, if unconventional, morality.
Tom Hardy in The Drop

November 6, 2014

BEGINNERS AT LOVE: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

All great amusements are dangerous to the Christian life; but among all those which the world has invented there is none more to be feared than the theater.” ~~Blaise Pascal

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman is spectacular! A cast of marvelous actors deliver energetic, committed performances – Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts – and unite as a near perfect ensemble with a kinetic Michael Keaton at the center. Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor who came to fame and fortune as superhero Birdman. Riggan risks humiliation and ruin in his Broadway debut, directing and starring in a dramatic adaptation he has written of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Michael Keaton in Birdman
After a serene opening scene – Riggan meditating, and levitating, in his dressing room – a frantic sense of urgency overtakes the action. Yet despite its frenetic pace, the sense of meditation never recedes. At an eleventh hour rehearsal before the play’s preview performance, an arc light falls, knocking the actor below out of consciousness and out of the cast. Big names are tossed about, not simply as replacements but as audience draws: Woody Harrelson? Tied up with The Hunger Games. Michael Fassbender? Contracted to X-Men. Robert Downey, Jr.? Out on the Iron Man set. But wait… What about Mike Shiner? Yeah! Of course! Genius!
Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk
From the Icarus-referencing title onward, Birdman takes up one mythical or metaphysical motif and one genre after another. Just as all superheroes are doppelgängers of their alter egos, a sort of doubling squared takes place in Iñárritu’s casting. Edward Norton, who plays the difficult Shiner, was the Incredible Hulk while Michael Keaton was the original screen Batman five Batmans back. In yet another layering, Birdman’s voice schizophrenically dogs Riggan’s consciousness, the same voice of reckless hubris that drove Icarus to ignore the warnings of his father, Daedalus.
Michael Keaton in Birdman
The theater, with its narrow, subterranean hallways and dressing rooms, its catwalk, its banks of stairs up and down, down and up, is itself a character. Daedalus built the Labyrinth for King Minos to imprison the Minotaur, and here, Riggan is trapped within the labyrinthian coils of his twin dramatis personae – Birdman and Carver’s Mel McGinnis juxtaposed against his real life roles as father, ex-husband, lover, and friend.
Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan in Birdman
That any number of the greatest male actors of our generation have starred in comic book-inspired superhero action flicks is the hand line that raises the house curtain on Iñárritu’s manic meditation on the long lived cultural debate over “high” vs. “low” culture. High/low conceits are planted everywhere. Sunsan Sontag, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes (and probably others I missed) are invoked along the way. Riggan, famous only for his superhero incarnation, carries an aspirational talisman, a cocktail napkin on which the writer, upon dropping by the young actor’s dressing room, penned, "Thank you for an honest performance. Ray Carver." Iñárritu seems to insist that this dichotomy – between high and low, serious and comic, important and frivolous – is a false one. Humor and absurdity inform our existential dread just as the pathos and tragedy inherent in comedy make us laugh. It’s a mash up.
Birdman is also a meditation on desire – the universal desire to leave a legacy generally and the desire for celebrity specifically, and on aging, a double edged sword of impotence – artistic (Riggan)/literal (Mike) – and the wisdom of maturity to accept with grace the futility of such desire.

As self-reflexive drama, Birdman recalls Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic 1950 All About Eve and might put one in mind of El Pachuco’s prologue in Luis Valdez’s 1981 film adaptation of his play Zoot Suit:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, The movie you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy. But relax, weigh the facts, and enjoy the pretense. Our pachuco realities will only make sense if you grasp their stylization. It was the secret fantasy for pachuco to put on the zoot suit and play the myth.”
In the extremism of its idiosyncratic approach to questions of transcendence and salvation, Birdman has much in common with another seriocomic film, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 The Holy Mountain, which even more than Birdman, treads the boards on a dangerously fine line between chewing the scenery and the revelation of narrative truth. Birdman tackles deep metaphysical questions about the role of art in our understanding of being in the world, time and space, of cause and effect, and possibility, with an overarching self-awareness that existence is the Scottish play’s tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as a street busker toward the end of Birdman loudly declaims.
Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain
I think of Iñárritu as an auteur director, but the creation that is Birdman showcases the twin dramatic crafts of theater/cinema as the epitome of the collaborative arts. Indeed, the interior stand-in for the St. James Theater is populated with the many craftspeople who make the show go on. Iñárritu’s screenplay was co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo. The play within the play is itself an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and the whole is such a dizzying, dazzling metanarrative, metafictive kaleidoscope of cinematic, dramatic, and literary self-reflexivity that it leaves us gasping and grasping at allusions as we swirl into the vortex of its climax.
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography – with plunging, soaring, volant traveling shots that whoosh, sweep, swoop – gives the illusion that the two hours unfold in one continuous take. Edited by Stephen Mirrione (21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful, and winner of the 2000 Academy Award for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic) and Douglas Crise (21 Grams), the compositing is so seamless as to be reminiscent of cinematographer Tillman Büttner’s single 96-minute Steadicam sequence for Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 Russian Ark. Interweaving the whole is a soundtrack of Rachmaninoff’s Second, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, and Mahler’s Ninth, punctuated with Antonio Sanchez’s percussive, pulsating original score that accentuates the actors’ intensity and the story’s eddied acceleration.

There is a passage in Carver’s story that does not appear in Riggan’s play within the play, but it informs the whole of Birdman – the superhero-backstory on the one hand and the interdependence of its troupe on the other:
[Mel said,] “If I could come back again in a different life, a different time and all, you know what? I’d like to come back as a knight. You were pretty safe wearing all that armor. …. [W]hat I liked about knights … was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy.”
“But sometimes they suffocated in all that armor, Mel. … I read somewhere that they’d fall off their horses and not be able to get up because they were too tired to stand with all that armor on them. They got trampled by their own horses sometimes.”

“That’s terrible,” Mel said. “That’s a terrible thing, Nicky. I guess they’d just lay there and wait until somebody came along and made a shish kebob out of them. …. Some vassal would come along and spear the bastard in the name of love. Or whatever the fuck it was they fought over in those days.”
Love is vulnerability. Love is collaboration and reciprocity, a dance between lovers and confidantes, among family, friends, congregants, theater company, and fellow travelers. Love is hurt, rejection, resentment, and loss. Love is complicated. Within their alienation, arrogance, egotism, and rage, Iñárritu’s constellation of characters remain frightened and kind and genuinely loving souls.
Michael Keaton and Emma Stone in Birdman
Just as the classic myths of the Greek pantheon give narrative structure to the chaos of human existence, so the lowly superhero operates in a mythopoeic realm. Myth is the vehicle by which we try to come to terms with the human condition – not necessarily come to understand it, but come to terms with it. Movies vs. theater, comics vs. literature, pop vs. classic culture. The heart’s truth can be situated high or low. Iñárritu’s Birdman lovingly limns both.
“I could hear my heart beating,” Carver’s story ends. “I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”