Movie Review: Bird People (2014)

If you’ve been wondering what Josh Charles has been up to since his exit from The Good Wife, I’ve got an answer for you: he’s acted in at least one indie movie, the 2014 winner of the Cannes Un Certain Regard category.

Although Bird People is far from a great, or even a good movie, its thoughtful cinematography and a couple of beautiful scenes might allow me to recommend it–especially since it’s easy to watch on Netflix. The script, directed by Pascale Ferran, who co-wrote the screenplay with Guillaume Bréaud, is a strange hybrid of the existential malaise of  Lost in Translation and the self-serious business stress of Margin Call.

Although some summaries of the film describe it as being about the aftermath of the ‘meeting’ of the two characters, the protagonists don’t actually meet for most of the film. Each of their storylines is almost a film unto itself, to the benefit of one and the detriment of the other. Audrey Camuzet is a college student who commutes to a hotel on the outskirts of Paris where she works part-time. Gary Newman (played by the sexiness-dripping above-mentioned Josh Charles) is in Paris on Important Business, which is apparently also Stressful and Fraught. I’m facetiously capitalizing these because it’s a point that the movie seems at great pains to make: this is an important guy, but man is it hard to be a white guy with responsibilities.

For me, the biggest problem in this film is this character, Gary Newman. His is the story of a man getting sick of the life he’s leading and deciding to abandon his responsibilities.  This might be interesting if he went on to do something, but he doesn’t: from the moment that the voice-over announces his “decision,” Gary Newman goes on to have a series of painful conversations with his business partners, and eventually his wife, about how to tie up loose ends now that he’s decided that he’s leaving it all behind.

There are hints, here and there, about the kinds of conflict that could have led Gary Newman to “quit” the entirety of his old life in order to “stay in Paris” (or, sometimes, “stay in Europe,” which might indicate the fantasy element of this desire: not a specific country, just “Europe”). But to me, they’re not enough. Although his last name suggests that he’s trying to be a new man, Gary looks to me like an old man in an old story about leaving your responsibilities behind. I can believe that his wife, Elizabeth, is probably hard to live with, but I have serious problems with a film that is trying to portray life with two young children as tiresome–without at least mentioning whether they’re part of his malaise or not. I’m not saying that having children shouldn’t be portrayed as painful–there are great examples with Bill Murray’s (him, again! he was one lead in Lost in Translation) character’s bully twins in Rushmore, or the little kid from The Good Son. But I can’t forgive the oversight of failing to even mention the children except for making them a joint entity with his wife. Neither Gary nor his wife seem all that concerned with the kids’ reaction to daddy’s absence, either; they’re far more wrapped up in their own palpable distaste for each other.

It’s not just that I’m offended by the idea of a male character who just wants to “quit” his life and family. It’s that, in terms of narrative motivation, Ferran and Bréaud don’t bother to expand Newman’s feeling for his family with anything more than a tense, harsh skype-session with his admittedly bitchy-seeming wife.This isn’t about the film hurting my sensibilities by not even mentioning his children–although I am, slightly–it’s about leaving a gaping question in the middle of the narrative and filling it with angry, possibly back-stabbing businessmen.

Audrey’s storyline has much of the nuance and whimsy that is absent from Gary’s. There’s more to like in Audrey’s storyline, and not just because it’s more relatable: an especially beautiful scene toward the end brings the title to life much more literally than I expected. To be less coy: she turns into a bird. But even before her storyline takes flight, her storyline is more taut, more grounded. From the opening scene when we first meet Audrey, there’s more of the small, beautiful parts of life that actually make this movie enjoyable: we’re allowed to see and hear the thoughts of a few bus riders; there’s a guy listening to hip hop, a guy listening to classical music while blissfully staring at a woman’s cleavage, and Audrey, who’s calculating how much of her week she’s spending on the commute to work.

Her plot line has less contrivance than Gary’s, too: she’s just a girl, in college, trying to work and live and be. She’s got a boss who oscillates between needy and bossy, and a friend at work who invites her to parties. But the real centerpiece of the film is the scene where she turns into a bird and eavesdrops and interacts with hotel guests, and learns how to fly.

Overall, Bird People fails to come together as a cohesive movie. The whimsy and wonder of Audrey’s storyline is not mirrored in Gary’s, and, ironically, Gary’s storyline is less grounded in anything that feels real either. I’d say, watch the movie, but skip Gary Newman and go straight through to Audrey. It’ll be a shorter film, but a better one.

Favorite Movies, Part I

I like to think that my taste in movies is really good, but the truth is that my favorite movies span all genres, all brows (from high to low), all languages. Below is a list of movies that aren’t just among my favorites, but that I consider to be somehow essential; they have contributed to my sense of self and how I view the world at large. (Mild spoilers.)

Talk to Her
Directed by Almodovar in 2002, this movie differs a bit in tone from his previous works. Talk to Her, like his other movies, is still a celebration of women–but the contemplative, ponderous pace is a bit less diverted by slapstick and sex. Whereas most of Almodovar’s other films are led, and largely populated, by women, Talk to Her follows the strong, sad-eyed Marco, a journalist who starts dating a bull fighter, Lydia. When an encounter with a bull lands Lydia in a coma, Marco befriends Benigno, a nurse at the hospital where Lydia goes to stay long-term.

Benigno, like Marco, is a long-term caregiver for another woman in a coma, Alicia. The title of the movie comes from Benigno’s encouragement to Marco, talk to her. The plot grows a bit more complex from that point, but not by much. The film is a lot more concerned with meditations about life, womanhood, love, and reality, but it touches all of these with a deft, even light, hand.

One of my favorite scenes (aside from the mesmerizing open–an excerpt of Pina Bausch’s Cafe Mueller) is one in which Alicia’s former ballet teacher describes for Marco and Benigno a new ballet she’s thought of, Trenches. In halting, American English-accented-spanish, she talks about ballerinas, clad in gossamer-thin dresses, rising from the bodies of the fallen soldiers of World War II. What was solid becomes smoke, what was darkness, light.

The film is warm, thoughtful, and beautiful–but not quite as dry as I’m afraid I’ve made it seem. The ballet teacher herself is a bit of a picaresque creature. The cinematography, editing, and score are also mezmerizing–another favorite scene is the one in which we see Lydia, the matador, getting dressed before the bullfight.

With Talk to Her, Almodóvar seems to begin playing with genre a bit more. Whereas his earlier films are very much focused on performance, strong women dealing with weak, abusive, or oblivious men, his films after Talk to Her are expanded abit into other genres–the semi-autobiographical Bad Education, the body-horror thriller The Skin I Live In, The Ghost Story Volver, and the recent Airplane-inspired I’m So Excited.

2046 is one of my favorite movies because it makes me hurt so good. Part of this is because Tony Leung and Zhang-Shiyi perfectly inhabit their characters, but it is also because Wong Kar-wai really takes his time with each moment and with every single feeling these characters have and try to hide from whan another. All of the characters feel fresh, and, although the movie is much less about plot than it is about feeling, each character’s motivations are clear and believable. Like Talk to Her, the movie is beautifully shot and scored, although it has a much looser relationship with the constraints of time and space.

Exit through the Gift Shop
I’ve seen a few people ask whether the movie was “A Hoax,” but that’s an obtuse question. It assumes that there was really only one level on which the movie was operating, telling you all about Thierry and what a wacky guy he was. Well, not only do I think Thierry is a real person (although, IMO, not a ‘real’ ‘artist’), but I think that the question is largely beside the point. Without having to say anything explicitly about the aims of art in general or grafitti in particular, Banksy shows us that his work, with real texture, real questions, and real challenges to society, has more substance, punch, and taste than anything created by “Mr. Brainwash.”

The Maltese Falcon
As much as I love Cumberbatch et al, I’m not sure if our generation yet given us a Humphrey Bogart. He’s the only reason why I would watch Casablanca more than once. The plot of the film itself is captivating–I can never just watch one scene, I’m always hooked to the end. One of the winning strengths of The Maltese Falcon is that you’re always sort of guessing about Sam Spade’s motives–is he a good guy? Bad guy? Does he want to get to the end of things, or does he want to profit?

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