“Birdman,” “Turner,” “McFarland”: Triple-header film review

The Academy Award Best Picture-winning movie, Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a pretentious movie about pretentious people. In fact, the tension between the different characters develops from accusations of pretentiousness against one another. There is the pretentious former movie star who decides to produce and star in a Broadway play that explains all about love, playing off against the Broadway star who admits to being a phony in all things except his stage performances. Suffering from all this pretentiousness are the producer’s daughter, girlfriend, and ex-wife, plus the Broadway star’s ambitious girlfriend.

Michael Keaton, usually one of the most dynamic of screen characters, plays a delusional and melancholy has-been who once was famous for playing in a series about a comic-book character named Birdman. The inside joke is that Keaton was effective, years ago, in one of the better Batman movies. He even uses his Batman voice. Edward Norton, who usually exploits his excellent ability to play many-layered characters, plays the shallow Broadway star.

The film interrupts the talky scene-by-scene narrative with animated comic book movie scenes, to show how delusional Keaton’s character has become.

My movie buddy and I didn’t really mind seeing a movie about pretentious people, but we felt that the entire movie was pretentious. Why were we supposed to care about the broken-down movie star, either about his artistic success or about his love life? One of his main decisions has to do with mortgaging his house in Malibu. Should we care what he does with his house in Malibu? If the movie has a message or a point, it is something about how difficult it is for artsy people, and how far they will go, to find some foundation for their continuing pretentiousness. Also features Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.

Mr Turner, written and directed by Mike Leigh, isn’t about Mr. J.M.W. Turner. It’s a 150-minute period piece, but it’s not directly about the period in which Turner lived and painted his famous seascapes.

It isn’t that Turner wasn’t pretty interesting. His dalliances with his housekeeper and his probably bigamous married life were interesting enough. It was quite nice to see actor Timothy Spall interpret the painter’s interest in his contemporaries and his devotion to his craft. At one point, he has himself tied in the crow’s nest of a sailing ship so he can experience a storm firsthand. His work was sometimes controversial, too. One of his paintings depicted a storm in which seamen on a slave ship are throwing their living cargo overboard!

J.M.W.Turner painted when painting was at its apex. It was the best possible, almost the only, way to reproduce what people saw. During the movie, Turner himself goes to see an early camera – he calls it “the contraption” – and likes it well enough to have a couple of daguerreotypes made. The movie thus puts us on notice that, as far as simple visual reproductions go, painting was starting to slip behind.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such interesting period settings or costuming. The mid-19th century outfits really stand out. And that brings me to what Mr. Turner is really about: It’s in the cinematography, artfully presented by Dick Pope. Pope brings us some of the same sea scenes that Turner painted, landscapes that are breathtaking and, on the big screen, visual impressions that are far beyond what a 19th-century painter, or any painter, might have hoped for.

My movie buddy and I didn’t go to see Mr. Turner because we are interested in painting, although those interested in art history would like it. We went because we are interested in movies, and director Mike Leigh has never let us down. He is the master of the best modern art methods today, just as Turner was the master of what was available in visual art in his own time. It’s a movie for moviegoers and it’s about art. Features Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s faithful housekeeper.

McFarland USA, directed by Niki Caro, at 128 minutes, is more than sports and Kevin Costner. My movie buddy wanted to see it, frankly, because Kevin Costner is in it. She’s never missed a Costner film. For my part, I can’t remember being disappointed in one. We knew from the trailers that Costner plays yet another over-the-hill sports figure as he did in, for instance, Tin Cup and Bull Durham. We knew from the trailers that he was going to coach a winning cross-country running team. We were happy with those expectations and glad, when the movie was over, to see our expectations fulfilled.

But McFarland USA has quite a bit more to offer. It isn’t just an old high-school coach, near the end of his career, who takes on a near-impossible project. It’s also a white guy, with no experience in culture clashes and no direct interest in overcoming them, thrown into a different world. McFarland, in central California’s agricultural lands, is a town where pickers live. The pickers, including high schoolers, rise before dawn to work in the fields. At school time, they hurry into town. After school, they rush back to the fields.

Hardly any of the boys know anyone who went beyond the ninth grade. Whatever academic ambitious they might have entertained are eroded away from them by hot, sweaty field work. Whatever regard or trust they might have had toward their teachers has long been replaced with deep, bitter cynicism. They call Costner’s character, Coach Jim White, “White,” or “Blanco.” They barely, if at all, listen to his responses.

It’s that distrust and cynicism that Coach White, a real guy who carries his own baggage, has to overcome. He also has to deal with his own fear of the strange new culture that he and his family are thrown into.

Of course he succeeds all around. We knew that from the trailers. But how he does it, that’s what’s especially good and worth a high recommendation, for McFarland USA.

Photo: “Birdman”  |  AP