Review: Birdman (Or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

In numerous ways, Birdman is miraculous. For starters, it’s a miracle it exists. It’s unapologetic in its sarcasm, and makes no bones about the targets it lines up for an almighty mocking. Here’s a superhero film with no delusions about its central hero being super; for all the assistance CGI can offer, Birdman shares more comic-book spirit with American Splendor than The Dark Knight.  At the time of writing, something in the region of forty superhero movies are at some stage of development or production. This phenomenon appears critic-proof, so a film taking a potshot at their increasingly-bloated and convoluted omnipotence proves both an inevitability and a necessity. Birdman will save us!

It’s hard to believe that superhero flicks were once a novelty, with no guarantees of success. Those were the days when Tim Burton still made solid work and Batman was more than a bit of a goth. 25 years after Burton’s first Batman brought the Dark Knight to filmic life, Michael Keaton brings his cape out for an airing. He had to be the only choice for the role of Riggan Thompson; Birdman’s ability to flip expectations on their head begins by making this actor’s baggage a welcome burden. Riggan is a washed-up actor, having had little success since playing the eponymous Birdman in a trio of outings twenty years previously. Despite starring in some higher-profile films in the last couple of years, Birdman is the biggest thing to happen to Keaton since Jackie Brown. We first find his Thompson in a crummy off-Broadway theatre, in a meditative position but apparently floating off the ground. Why this is happening, or why his gruff-voiced alter ego is delivering opinionated voiceover is not immediately clear, but from the off we’re invited to go with the rhythm. Unlike, say, most superhero movie trailers, all will be revealed gradually.

In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start his career, Thompson is directing, producing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Anyone who’s read it knows that this is a fool’s errand. Getting Birdman right could have turned into a similar folly for Alejandro González Iñárritu, with the director/co-writer potentially overreaching to escape the shadow of the worthy, miserabilist dramas that have defined his career up to this point. Amores Perros was the high point, and the films just got more ambitious and more dour. Discovering his funny bone can only be a good thing, but marrying it to his brand of ambition is a gamble. Fear not; ambition is Birdman’s fuel. It aims to do so much that the fact most, if not all, of it works is another of its miracles. As well as the superheroics, it’s a film obsessed by theatricality, and the associated freedoms and limitations. Shot and edited to give the impression of one impossibly continuous take, Iñárritu’s film invokes the same rebelliousness that spurred Hitchcock and Sokurov’s one-take wonders, and is driven by its own brand of kinetic energy. The camera rarely stops moving. Theatrical acting and production is always heightened, pitched a little closer to hysteria than what’s demanded by film or TV. Iñárritu embraces this approach, allowing the actions of both cast and camera to inform the film’s outlook. It’s overly dramatic? So are most superhero films. It’s dripping with sarcasm? So is Robert Downey Jr. Birdman’s medium is crucial to its message.

Thompson’s opening meditations belie his traumas. His play and his private life are coming apart at the seams. His ex-junkie daughter/assistant Sam (Emma Stone) is barely staying on the wagon, while his relationship with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough) seems to be faltering. Meanwhile, the lead actor has just been incapacitated and is threatening to sue, and leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) is doubting her abilities onstage. What drives Thompson on through all this? Ultimately, it’s desperation with a side dose of mental issues. He needs a comeback, but his delusions of telekinetic ability and conversations with ‘Birdman’ threaten to derail his efforts. Keaton brings enough vulnerability and layers to the role to ensure he’s not just stunt casting. He’s necessarily stiff onstage, but comes alive when dealing with the real pressure offstage. The Hollywood system is an unforgiving beast, so it’s great to see his recent return to bigger roles reach such a sarcastic and triumphant apex. Keaton bites the hand that neglected to feed him for a long time, and it tastes delicious. Also taking a bite is Edward Norton, the former Incredible Hulk, playing leading-man replacement Mike Shiner. He’s written as a walking ego, and Norton delivers a hilarious performance, mocking both actorly self-importance and his own intense persona.

Shiner’s preening and the anxieties of Keaton and a uniformly-engaging supporting cast are all housed within the elaborate theatre, a character in and of itself. DoP Emmanuel Lubezki follows his Academy Award win with camerawork of such nimbleness and smoothness that the continuous shot effect, deliberate as it may be, doesn’t jar. Yet Birdman does have the potential to annoy. It demands you go along with its theatrical sensibilities and heightened performances. Occasionally ‘Birdman’ tauntingly manifests himself to Thompson, who in turn imagines taking flight as an escape. Birdman threatens to take off and leave its audience behind in a self-aware fuzz, but the performances keep it grounded. Thompson is brought down to Earth gently on occasion by talking to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan, with less-than-enough screentime). Hearing Thompson’s manager Jake’s (Zach Galifaniakis) pronunciation of ‘Scorsese’ or seeing Antonio Sanchez appear on screen performing his own sassy drum score could be grating, but the score and Galifaniakis are more than engaging enough to ensure they stay on the right side of self-aware. At the very least, Birdman is interesting; at its best, it’s dazzling.

The film constantly and consistently draws attention to itself, but what’s the harm? It’s refreshing to see a film not take itself too seriously, even one with as much satirical potential as this one. Many a true word said in jest, and all that. While superheroes get a pummelling from one of the original and best of them, Iñárritu and his script (co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo) risks goodwill and takes aim at critics. As represented by Lindsay Duncan’s veteran New York Times theatre writer Tabitha, the critical eye is accused of being unfeeling and pessimistic (As Thompson asks Tabitha, “What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic?”). Watching so much fluff can breed contempt, but that’s why we need “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”. That subtitle may seem like another layer of artifice to weed out anyone predestined to hate this thing, but it’s what Birdman is all about. On occasion, something like this comes around to surprise us. When superheroes didn’t dominate our billboards, we didn’t get teaser trailers for teaser trailers and Michael Keaton was Batman, we didn’t know any better; ignorance was bliss. If you go into Birdman knowing little about it, it might just astonish you. Birdman is anything but ignorant. The next umpteen years of umpteen caped crusades could be very long indeed, but Birdman probably has them sussed before they’ve even begun.

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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Director: Marc Webb

**

Posters for The Amazing Spider-Man have advertised it as ‘the untold story’. There’s only one problem: that’s flagrant false advertising. Sam Raimi ushered Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002 after numerous aborted attempts (most notably by James Cameron), and, while far from perfect, is an adequate origin story. Did we really need to be told all this again? No, but having poisoned Spider-Man with deadly Venom, Sony have to get their most profitable franchise rolling again, and thus we arrive at Spidey Mk. II.

Right from the offset, there’s no sign that the filmmakers are trying to overcome the familiarity of Peter Parker’s story. An opening scene sees a young Peter being left in the care of his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and aunt May (Sally Field) whilst his scientist parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) go off on secret business into the night, never to come back. This’d be eerie, except subsequent revelations suggest that there’s nothing sinister in this beyond coincidence. Actually, coincidences crop up all over TASM’s plot. For the second time of note, Andrew Garfield plays a guy with a knack for algorithims. Parker’s a slightly savvier nerd than the first time around. He’s handy around the house,  he skateboards, and is willing to get in a fight even without his superpowers. The coincidences kick in when he seeks answers to his parents’ deaths. He goes to the headquarters of Oscorp, their former employers. Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), Peter’s crush, just happens to be working there as an intern. She also just happens to be an assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a former work colleague and friend to Peter’s parents. Wow, what are the odds?!

Having sneaked into Oscorp, Peter stumbles across a lab developing extra-strength wire from genetically modified spider webs. One genetically modified spider bite later, and the revenge of the nerd begins in earnest. Parallel to Peter’s story, Connors’ experiments with reptilian limb regeneration take a turn for the worst as his desire to regrow his severed arm get the better of him. There’s a sense of tragedy to Connor’s story, and it’s effectively brought out by Ifans. The only problem is when he actually undergoes his transformation into Spidey’s arch-enemy the Lizard that problems arise. The uninspired CG design for the Lizard makes him look more like the offspring of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla than a genuine figure of menace.

Kudos to the script: it actually tries to flesh out the characters and relationships. Sheen is as dignified and inspiring as the kindly uncle and Field, though a little underused, is wonderfully maternal. Garfield makes for a very likeable Parker, and he strikes real sparks with Stone, who’s just adorable. Unfortunately, once we’ve settled in with these characters and have listened to them argue/banter, the blockbuster requisites demand action set-pieces and web-slinging aplenty. Director Marc Webb (who previously made the enjoyable (500) Days of Summer) gets the character beats right, but his action scenes are unremarkable. The Lizard’s plan for a biological attack is rushed through, and the CG-heavy set-pieces are unremarkable. There’s more tension in a dinner discussion between Parker and Gwen’s father (Denis Leary, repeat scene-stealer) than in any of Spidey’s and the Lizard’s routs. By the way, Mr. Stacey also happens to be the chief of police and is leading the hunt for Spider-Man. Another coincidence!

For a film trying to step out of Sam Raimi’s shadow, TASM can’t escape the basic story nor the sense of humour that stood out in the first three films. In the comics, Spider-Man makes wisecracks whilst taking down bad guys; despite the humour in Raimi’s films, TASM wants to cling closer to the comics and thus has no choice but to keep the cheesy lines (They also make Spider-Man’s web slingers mechanical rather than genetic, as per the comics). The cheesiness also extends to a scene in which the citizens of New York have to help our resident arachnophile in his crime-fighting activites. There was a similar scene in the first Spider-Man, but it was just post-9/11 and seemed forgivable. Here, however, it’s just another element in the clean and marketable image being presented here, with action and baddies for the boys and shirtless Garfield and more romance for the girls (At least, that’s probably how the reboot was pitched). Therein lies the problem: this is an all-too human hero, with far too much emotionality to be taken seriously as a superhero. He’s so human he just can’t resist taking off his mask and showing his face to people! Not clever, but then Peter’s search engine of choice is Bing!, so common sense is clearly lacking. By the time James Horner’s intrusive score has burst your eardrums (Note to brass section: SHUT UP!), you’ll realize that there’s little here that wasn’t covered the first time around. It’s diverting enough, but chances are no-one will miss the Spider when he’s crushed at the box office by the Bat.

Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

****

Love. Lovely loving love. Love is everywhere, apparently. It certainly is in Crazy, Stupid, Love; every character in this film is either falling in love or the object of someone’s affection. Beginning with the dissolving marriage of Cal (Steve Carrell) and Emily (Julianne Moore), Crazy, Stupid, Love grows into a sweet little mélange of stories which, though distinct, never forget that crucial common element of lovely love. And Ryan Gosling’s abs.

Seriously, is there nothing Ryan Gosling can’t do? Handsome, charming and talented to boot, he continues his quest to make the rest of manhood look inadequate in the role of Jacob, a lothario Cal runs into whilst drowning his sorrows. Jacob decides to take Cal under his wing and transform him into a confident ladykiller. As Cal gets a new wardrobe and charm lessons, Jacob steals the film from everyone with a ridiculously confident strut and cheesy chat-up lines. Cal has some success (enter Marisa Tomei’s maneater Kate) but still pines for Emily, whilst Jacob finds himself falling for feisty trainee lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone). As Cal and Jacob find their roles reversing, they come to realize what’s important just in time for the standard grandstanding romantic declaration in the last reel. Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t as original as it might think, as familiarity hovers just outside each frame, but Dan Fogelman’s script squeezes enough wit in to combat the potential cheesiness of the whole situation (A dejected Cal gets caught in a rainstorm and observes, “What a cliché”). It also helps that there is a game cast involved. Carell’s bulbous features are built for comedy, whilst it’s always good to see the likes of Moore, Tomei and Kevin Bacon (as Emily’s lover) have some fun. Even the trope of the wiser-than-everyone kid (Jonah Bobo, playing Cal and Emily’s son) is funnier than usual, as he’s gifted a romantic storyline too! However, this film belongs to Gosling. Jacob proves that he can do both drama and comedy; we gentlemen should hate him, but he’s so damn smooth he effortlessly charms everyone! Drive on, Mr. Gosling, Drive on!

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa clearly see the sweet charm in Fogelman’s script, hence they seem to emphasize the comedy, and allow the pathos to fall in place after. Crazy, Stupid, Love is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s genuine warmth here too. Unlike bawdy sex romps like Friends With Benefits, Crazy, Stupid, Love is built on genuine affection. For all the pratfalls and incidents involving nudity, Crazy, Stupid, Love feels relatively mature for a rom-com. Like Ficarra and Requa’s previous effort I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love is flawed and not quite as revelatory in its plotting as it would hope. It may not be that Crazy, but it certainly isn’t Stupid either. It demands your Love.