Birdman (2015)

★★★★★

Birdman PosterDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton

What, exactly, has happened to our actors? Michael Keaton obsesses over this moral quandary for the entirety of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, challenging each viewer’s own perception in the process. The best films are often those grounded in a sense of intellect, those which hold their audience in high enough regard to pose questions carrying significant weight. Here, it is performance art or, more specifically, the film industry that is placed under a 21st-century-swathed microscope. As the camera stalks an internally raving Keaton, we’re asked to consider the state of the movie business in 2015. Where did it all go wrong? Who is to blame? Don’t worry about causing offence. Iñárritu sure doesn’t.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor in pursuit of artistic redemption, a quest that currently finds him at the helm of a Broadway play. Thomson formerly played Birdman, a Batman-esque superhero whose feathered escapades brought the actor more cash than critical admiration. Though the film is set in a theatre, it becomes obvious that Iñárritu’s focus is the changing landscape of cinema. His script is smart, strategically splicing moments of rich humour in amongst an overarching spiel about the industry that’ll tickle those with a keen interest — like us movie dabblers.

Accordingly, Birdman ventures down two separate reels. When it is not exploring the limitations set by corporate culture, the film considers the power relations contained within visual art as it pits artist against critic; though both themes are intrinsically linked. The most prominent issue — uncultured suits designing and enforcing limits — is what bothers Riggan most, for the actor cannot escape his old Birdman character. At various points, Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography shows off a Birdman film poster peering over Riggan’s shoulder, a constant reminder of past success. This spectre even manifests audibly as a Christian Bale-toned voice in Riggan’s head, and later physically too, signalled by a deliciously pulpy beat.

For the wannabe theatre star, superheroes are too easy and the superhero genre is a sell-out, both literally and figuratively. Michael Fassbender in X-Men? Jeremy Renner in another Avengers flick? Riggan’s dismay is palpable. As real world Hollywood prepares for a five-year comic book brawl at the cinema, the superhero debate has never been more relevant and is therefore a totally engaging hook. Riggan’s fear that he will never amass to anything more than a spandex-laden pigeon could be the same fear echoing through the minds of those actors currently trapped in the seemingly endless Marvel and DC cinematic universes.

As an audience swept up in the numerous products spawned by these behemoth film companies, the challenge for us becomes one of understanding Riggan’s watery mindset. Creating a critically laudable play is imperative in order for the actor to move on. “It’s important to me… it’s my career,” he says. His daughter, played brilliantly by Emma Stone, sets him straight: “It’s not important, okay?! You’re not important! Get used to it.” As a recovering drug addict Sam is not so hot herself, which makes her the most relatable person on screen. Her words cut deep too, suggesting a very real sense of melancholy for those plagued by the monopolised movie landscape.

That is probably why Riggan hires Mike (Edward Norton) as a last minute cast replacement, despite some reservations. Norton is terrific as the button-pusher who we sort of hate due to his deviousness, yet whose talent is admirable. In one of many excellent quips — the film is dialogue heavy, but Iñárritu and his co-writers never seem to lose textual steam — Mike sums up the dilemma stabbing away at Riggan’s mental stability: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Keaton’s purveyance of instability is often electrifying and, even if Riggan never reclaims his former limelight, Keaton already has. At various points, both he and Norton must act as actors playing theatrical thespians on stage, which sounds incredibly difficult yet both excel.

Not satisfied with exposing those directly involved, Birdman soon sinks its claws into industry critics. We periodically encounter the power struggle between filmmaker and reviewer, and it becomes clear that as well as sell-out actors, sell-out journalists are in demand too — the Perez Hilton types, asking about the value of facial surgery and pig semen rather than proper actory stuff. The film’s best scene sees one such power-play in action: Riggan and a highly regarded theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) spit truthful obscenities across the bar, before coming to the conclusion that they both need each other to thrive. It resembles a politically charged Game of Thrones interaction set in King’s Landing, and is as good as one too.

Having written and directed a film that essentially bashes the modern film industry (admittedly, with rationale), Iñárritu’s masterstroke is his use of comedy to diffuse, and somewhat dilute, his overtly critical narrative. In lesser hands, both aforementioned themes could pave way for dourness, for an overbearing attitude fuelled by sanctimony, but the director uses comedy to get around this problem and instead makes it part of the in-joke. Birdman may well be a true reflection of the industry today, but it is still damn funny. Perhaps we are laughing out of disbelief (that’s THREE-ZERO superhero movies on the way), but I’d like to think it is because Birdman is witty, true, bearing meaty roles, and successful. And not a superhero film.

It is worth again mentioning the exceptional work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The entire film presents itself as a one-take product and, rather than becoming gimmicky, Lubezki ensures that the method energises the piece without overruling it. Shots are framed with precision and give us the chance to connect thematic dots, such as the journey of the aforementioned Birdman poster — its position on the wall coincides with Riggan’s spiralling thoughts. There is zip and tenacity, and a genuine sense of theatre/film set chaos.

What has happened to our actors, then? Apparently they used to play a superheroes, but then fell out of favour. Now one is back and, alongside his prodding director, Michael Keaton is on top form again. I love superhero films, but this is bloody good too — and I think that is the point.

Birdman - Keaton and Norton

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

★★★

Director: Marc Webb

Release Date: April 16th, 2014 (UK); May 2nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx

As Spider-Man majestically manoeuvres around an invisible pathway above New York City, camera in tow as if magnetised to his every flip, swing and twirl, we hear him articulate one witty quip after another. An air of intertwined energy and humour instantly sweeps across the screen, exponentially infectious; we are watching a superhero flick after all. Fun is the order of the day, only it arrives at a cost and in 2014 a structured sense of direction can too be quite pricey. It should come as no surprise then that, as Spidey encounters one enemy after another, proceedings take a slightly messy turn. Almost two hours and 30 minutes pass fairly quickly, but as time ticks and Spidey’s checklist grows you get the sense that ongoing events would benefit from separation into two shorter films.

Buoyed by his latest victory over Dr. Connors, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has become an ever-present on the streets of NYC, fighting off crime with aplomb and tactile guile whilst wearing the red of blue of his arachnid alter-ego. Beneath the surface, Parker has an awful lot on his plate: graduation, a relationship, mysterious parentage and an increasingly widening plethora of bad guys to deal with. Haunted by visions of his girlfriend’s dead father, Parker is at a moral crossroads as to whether he should continue dating Gwen (Emma Stone) and there still exists a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the motives of his father and mother. That’s not even to mention the blue-skinned Electro (Jamie Foxx) running rampant around the city, and he’s not the only one. Phew.

It’s almost a given nowadays that the combination of a gargantuan cinema screen and the latest summer blockbuster will yield exhilarating action and visual spectacle. On current evidence said expectation is justified. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens vibrantly and brims with commotion thereafter. Bolstered by some impressive digital creation and Daniel Mindel’s cinematography, each lively sequence retains an outstanding quality that keeps us engaged regardless of any plot misgivings. Notably, splurges of slow motion webbing are enticing and a transformation sequence towards the conclusion shepherds connotations of the magnificent scene in An American Werewolf in London.

One of the saga’s best branches stems from a trunk of genuine chemistry shared between its leading duo, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The pair are a couple in that thing we tend to call ‘real life’ every so often and their inherent connection flourishes on screen, even more so than in the first film. Garfield continues to cement himself as a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, who was hardly a damp squib in the role. The Englishman can hardly contain his wit at times, a trait wholly welcome in the superhero genre. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is ushered further into the limelight here and her performance alongside Garfield merits the busier workload. They jointly visit the entire emotional spectrum, a standout stop being an especially dramatic scene towards the end. It’s apparent that director Marc Webb and his cohorts are invested in these two characters and this is a positive sheen that rubs off on us viewers.

Beyond Stone and her beau, performances are generally excellent. Dane DeHaan is particularly impressive as Parker’s best friend and Oscorp inheritor Harry Osborn, his facial expressions often insinuating mischief. He resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio here more than ever — the voice, the hair, the mannerisms — and certainly has the talent to attain DiCaprio’s enviable portfolio. Jamie Foxx stars as the primary villain Electro, though is unrecognisable post-mutation. The character’s mindset drastically alters from one of blunder to one of forcefulness and Foxx handles the switch solidly despite the villain’s lack of conviction. Another unrecognisable face lost amongst the unnecessarily long list of antagonists is Paul Giamatti, who hams it up to the Nth degree as Aleksei Sytsevich.

Giamatti’s comedic purveyance is hit-and-miss, but by and large splashings of humour strike the correct spots. Comedy has become an essential element in the superhero formula, and getting it right undoubtedly provides a sturdy springboard for any subsequent action. Quality over quantity is key; brisk spells of funny are on the menu here and these bursts resultantly set the desired tone, ensuring wisecracking comedy doesn’t overpower the drama but simultaneously exists as more than simply a relief mechanism. Whether he’s arguing against the “laundry sheriff” or awkwardly atoning for making Gwen late (“I’m sorry to bother you my fair lady”) Andrew Garfield is often the source of amusement. Heck, he even generates a laugh out of the ill Spider-Man gag.

This is a far more entertaining watch than The Amazing Spider-Man, but it does adhere to the modern Marvel formula. The studio has been churning out at least two films annually over the past few years with more projects pencilled in until 2028, perhaps an indication that we are getting too much, too soon, too often. As time develops and these films come and go, it is become increasingly difficult to reinvent the superhero wheel and there are faint smatterings of this problem to be found in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film is on a similar level to Thor: The Dark World in terms of pure enjoyment, but unlike the Norse tale (which channels simplicity for the most part) Spidey part two gorges excessively.

This overabundance is a problem. Far too many things are going on. By the end of the film, there are at least five villains (admittedly, of varying importance) and a few characters so far out on the periphery of proceedings that their presence is called into question. Felicity Jones is criminally underused as Harry’s assistant Felicia and one can only hope that she has a greater role in part three. A random doctor plucked straight from 1960s Soviet Russia shows up at one point and his exaggerated demeanour is one step too far. A hefty percentage of the dialogue also gets caught up in discussions over physics. Modern day blockbusters should carry an intelligent weight, absolutely, but that notion doesn’t extend to rehashing school science lessons.

Reciting implausibilities within the context of a superhero film may not be the wisest of moves, but there is a difference between principal abnormality — that is, our main heroes displaying unimaginable powers — and plain absurdity. An early fight scene that takes place on an aircraft embodies preposterousness, as both a human being and his laptop withstand a free-falling, ripped apart plane. How on earth does the device manage to retain an internet connection?

Though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 becomes entangled in a complicated web of narrative strands, a healthy dose of thrilling action and toxic humour funds endless amounts of enjoyment. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone seal their place among the best couples going in the genre, and as the latter’s Gwen Stacy recites her valedictorian speech (“Make your [life] count for something”) we are appreciatively reminded of those familiar superhero themes: empowerment, belief, and laundry jokes.