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 Campaign (2012)

★★

Director: Jay Roach

Release Date: August 10th, 2012 (US); September 28th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis

Released in the midst of the 2012 Presidential Election in the United States, The Campaign struggles to reach the lofty heights set by Jay Roach’s previous work. More often than not the jokes are without any real substance and by the time the credits finish rolling, the film has cemented its place as a forgettable one.

The Campaign follows the naive Marty Huggins’ introduction into politics as he is propelled into the normally competition-scarce race for election in North Carolina’s 14th District. His opponent, Cam Brady, has spent the previous four terms as congressman of the district due to nobody running against him. However, two corrupt businessman use Brady’s involvement in an indecent incident to install Huggins into the race, with their motives less than noble and their focus solely on using Huggins to strike a profit-blazing deal with a Chinese company.

The film is at its best and funniest when it gets the political satire elements right (pointing out how far politicians will go to expose each other, for example), but too often these attempts fall flat and instead come across more like parody sketches on politics. When the events begin to enter the parody realm, the film veers dangerously close to Meet The Spartans and Epic Movie territory (although not quite as bad as either of those). This is unfortunate as the few times the writing does work the film is very funny, particularly with the added bonus of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis who are fully versed in successfully delivering humour with the correct material put before them.

Another problem The Campaign encounters is that there is no clear character to root for (perhaps this an intentional attempt to mirror real life election battles). From the get-go it is clear that the villain of the piece is intended to be Cam Brady (Ferrell’s character). Brady comes across as a cocky, chauvinistic jerk, and Ferrell plays the role to a T. With the introduction of Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, it is clear that the simple tourism director is set to be the sympathetic character. Brady is obnoxious, often degrading Huggins and taking advantage of the political newcomer’s nativity. However, the film does not even reach the half-way mark before the roles begin to reverse and Brady becomes the brunt of all of the jokes. The influential businessmen we see at the beginning of the film are clearly the puppeteers who are in need some sort of comeuppance, but they do not appear on-screen often enough to develop their nastiness and be paraded as the bad guys — must the audience rely on what they know from previous films of similar ilk to decipher who is playing what role? The Campaign sorts itself out in the end, but by then it is too late as the two main characters are not really worth caring about.

It is not all bad news though. As mentioned beforehand, Roach and the writers — Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell — do hit the correct notes on a number of occasions and the film does conjure up a couple of genuinely humorous moments. Ferrell and Galifianakis play off of each other well enough, but neither really seem to be completely committed 100 percent to the cause. In fact, Ferrell’s Brady holds a number of similar characteristics to those of his much-loved Anchorman character, Ron Burgundy. However the difference between the two is clear — Burgundy is given both the time and the correct narrative to evolve and become something more than just an egotistical news anchor, whereas Brady must suffice with punching babies and being a horrible father. Galifianakis is essentially playing the same role he has played since starring in The Hangover. It is not that the role is not funny, rather it is just not funny the fifth time around.

The Campaign suffers from one or two glaring problems, namely a weak script and non-existent character roles. Nothing really sticks out: the performances are nothing special, the laughs are few and far between and story is over-played and without inspiration. With that being said, Roach, Henchy and Harwell do get the balance of discreet-yet-understandable humour correct on a few occasions and the film is better for it. Perhaps Roach should have cast Rick Santorum in the role of Marty Huggins — at least then there would have been a consistent cause for laughter.

Credit: Telstar Media
Credit: Telstar Media