Monthly Archives: January 2015

Birdman (2014)

Birdman

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is a story steeped in theatre-land cliches. From the affair between actors behind the scenes resulting in a pregnancy scare, to the self-deprecation of an intimidated leading lady, Birdman delights in playing with the stereotypes of stage acting. Edward Norton plays a grandiose thespian who, despite his brooding over the great mysteries of life and acting, spends most of his time fooling around with attractive women in an attempt to distract himself from his sexual inadequacy. Lindsay Duncan is the stone-cold bitch critic, snobbish to the max and baying for blood. And at the center of it all stands Michael Keaton, the struggling actor past his prime, desperate to make some sort of impression on Broadway and thereby save himself and his career. “I’ve put everything into this!” he screams at his play’s producer repeatedly (played by a poker-faced Zack Galifianakis), although we never see him seriously struggle in any way, other than in the fight against his own subconscious.

Predictability pervades the film, as at one point, Mike Shiner (Norton) points out to Riggan Thomson (Keaton) that the red safety plug shoved down the barrel of a gun used in a scene towards the end of the film’s play (a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is distracting him from his acting. From here it’s easy to guess that some sort of drama will ensue involving an actual gun, and an actual shot. Sure enough, Thomson later attempts suicide on stage mid-scene.

So how does Birdman manage to soar, when its flight path appears so formulaic? Perhaps the answer lies in its cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki’s long tracking shots replicate the high stakes of theatre, where the actors have no choice but to be alert at every moment, waiting in rooms or on roofs for the arrival of the camera crew, aware that if they fluff their lines it’s right back to the beginning for everyone, not just them. The audience feels this tension, as lines are delivered with a dynamism that permeates the screen. Emma Stone as Thomson’s daughter Sam, in particular, possesses a brilliant nervous energy, and Michael Keaton’s outbursts of manic violence where he smashes everything in his dressing room, are captivatingly frenzied. Each scene buzzes with a turbulence that contradicts its careful set-up (actors would have surely had to be blocked perfectly to avoid collisions). Precision buts heads with chaos, and this is Iñárritu and Lubezki’s great achievement.

At the heart of Birdman is acting and all of its hypocrisies. Thomson gained his fame from playing the role of a superhero in a film franchise, and this success both enables him to continue acting, and haunts him as a reminder of his “selling out”. “You are not an actor, you are a celebrity” sneers critic Tabitha (Duncan) as she reviles Hollywood stars for their apparent thirst for fame. And yet Mike Shiner, the golden boy of theatre who purports to care only for the soul of whichever play he stars in, is visibly jealous of Thomson’s popularity. The winged figure of the title, ominous yet laughable, stalks Keaton’s character, willing him to return to the bombastic world of explosions and car-chases that characterised his blockbuster work. In the end, it is, strangely, Thomson’s moments of surrender to this fantasy world which lend Birdman a quizzical depth that it would lack otherwise.

This to-ing and fro-ing between somberness and silliness is nothing new, but the film does it so frenetically (helped massively by the offbeat, jazzy soundtrack by Antonio Sánchez) that you can’t help but admire its bravado. The irony of having Michael Keaton play the part of an actor abased by his past career choices is an obvious talking point, and endless references to real-world actors currently starring in Marvel movies are part of a running joke that you can either take at face value, or use as a starting point for discussions about entertainment and notoriety. In the end, echoing the poem that opens the film, Thomson finally feels himself beloved by all. After shooting his own nose off (which is replaced with a new one, suspiciously beaky), his play receives a stellar review from Tabitha. Wife and daughter forgive his endless narcissism, and the public send flowers to his hospital room adoringly. In a moment of apparent victory, the Birdman is told to shut up and is left defeated in the corner of a bathroom. But is this praise any different from the sort he received from his superhero films? Apparently not, as despite his critical acclaim, Thomson still feels a lack, still desires the thrill of the flight. The film ends with him jumping (or soaring) out of a window, perpetuating the yearn for fulfillment that is the lifeblood of the story. As Sam looks on in wonderment, the audience is left to ponder whether this actor, this man, will ever get what he wanted from his life, even so.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★

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The Great Beauty (2013)

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty opens with a canon firing from the Janiculum hill in Rome, signalling midday, fittingly the time when most of the film’s social butterflies would either be retiring to bed, or considering waking up. The camera glides over historical monuments and busts with a seemingly effortless ease, landing first on a man looking sorrowfully down at an inscription carved in stone which reads “Roma o Morte” (Rome or Death). Another woman rests against the marble head of a political or literary figure, looking anywhere but towards the statue, with a cigarette hanging from her lips. Finally, we reach the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, a fountain built for a Pope in the early 1600s, where a large man in a dirtied white vest top washes his underarms, and a chorus of women sing a modern re-arrangement of an old Yiddish folk song, written by David Lang, a current New York composer. In front of the fountain, a Japanese tourist separates from his group to take photos of the overwhelming view of the city, and dies from the shock of it all.

This occurs within the first two minutes or so, and is a good example of the film’s visual and contextual richness, but also of its playfulness – its willingness to accept, and be engulfed in, the contradictions and hypocrisies of the city it spends its time in. Remembrances of great people and conflicts are lent on by sleepy locals, sacred music that sounds ancient is in fact written after the millennium (and is no less beautiful because of this), and tourism and death take center stage. The divine and the vulgar meet, and are two sides of the same coin in Paolo Sorrentino’s ode to experiences of love, life and age.

Toni Servillo plays lead role Jep Gambardella, a socialite in his 60s who drinks through the night and sleeps through the day, and who appears to be loved by all. He surrounds himself with equally rich and important people, and prefers to talk “about nonsense, about trivial matters“, because doing so means he does not have to face anything more profound or questioning. Statues make nice backdrops at parties, great literature makes good chat-up lines, and nuns are decorations, setting the scene of Rome beautifully. That is, until Jep is visited by the husband of an old lover, whose news causes everything to be called into question, regardless of whether there are any answers.

The quintessential flâneur, or stroller, Jep dampens his pain and appeases his newly inquiring mind by walking through the streets at night, meeting old friends, making new ones, and generally musing on his past. Such masculine soul-searching could have so easily seemed trite or narcissistic, but through some combination of Servillo’s great comic timing and handling of his character, and Luca Bigazzi’s sweeping visual feasts, The Great Beauty remains the right side of indulgent. Decadence is simultaneously embraced with open arms, and mocked from a distance, reflective of Jep’s growing feeling of disconnect with the extravagant world that he is a part of, and which he helped create.

The film’s reality is fluid, with set-pieces continually entering a dream-like state where nothing is certain. Death is glossed over, and becomes the closed eyes of a troubled boy, or the glamorous sleep of a stripper. Funerals are strict performances alive with contradictions, and religion is redundant but is an entirely necessary component in Jep’s final moment of understanding. This ambivalence is perhaps the true ‘Great Beauty’, as a man in search of inspiration and meaning, staring at the remembered face of a young lover, settles on the fact that all there is death, and life, and “blah blah blah“. And yet this ambiguity is itself a passionate conclusion, and inspires Jep to begin a new chapter of his life and his book. After all, we’re all tourists in this world, so we may as well soak in the sights and make the most of it.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★