Review – Birdman

At one point in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fluidic and freewheeling latest a character points out to Michael Keaton’s actor-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown that he “confuses love for admiration”.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I'd hoped

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped

It’s a charge that can be levelled at Birdman; a whirlwind of industrial wizardry and an actor’s dream that’s very easy to admire, but more difficult to love.

It will be fascinating to see how Birdman is regarded in five or 10 years time. Iñárritu has a habit of making films that profess to profundity at the time of release, but come to be dismissed as the river of time flows; his English-language debut 21 Grams (2003) and its emperor’s new clothes follow-up Babel (2006) in particular.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

One suspects his latest will weather more favourably, if for no other reason than the career-defining central performance by Keaton, an actor whose scarcity in front of the camera is all-the-more tragic in light of his turn as the calamitous and anxiety-ridden Riggan Thomson.

Thomson has ploughed his finances and fragile soul into staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the hope of injecting new life into a flagging career defined by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big budget movies.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

His troupe of actors includes the deeply insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the revered, but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while backstage his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep the production afloat and he struggles to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). With opening night fast approaching, the cracks in Riggan’s splintered psyche start to widen and the voice of Birdman in his head manifests itself in his everyday life.

Keaton has spoken in interviews of the huge technical demands placed on the cast to ensure they hit their marks so as not to spoil one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lengthy shots, which have been masterfully stitched together to give the impression of a single, unbroken take.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

As a technical feat, it’s second-to-none and Lubezki deserves his plaudits for a job very well done. However, the many tricks Birdman has up its sleeves end up getting in the way of the film itself and become a distraction from the character-led comedy drama going on in spite of everything else. Similar accusations have been levelled on Wes Anderson’s work, which has often divided critics and filmgoers alike.

The film has some interesting things to say about what constitutes art in the social media age and cheekily gives Thomson the final word when confronted by an embittered theatre critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) who promises to wield the Sword of Damocles on the play because she hates what he stands for.

Riggan Thomson's long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson’s long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

By focusing so tightly on the emotionally fractured Thomson, Iñárritu asks us to question what is and isn’t real, right until the film’s final shot. Meanwhile, the presence of Birdman is akin to a winged devil on his shoulder whom Thomson must confront if he is to salvage his imploding soul.

Bottled up within the claustrophobic confines of the theatre for the most part, the wild ride the camera takes is matched by Antonio Sánchez’s jittery jazz drum score, which rattles around in the head, but doesn’t distract as much as some critics have suggested.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped.

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Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel

The idiosyncratic Wes Anderson conjures up his latest magical microcosm in this sumptuously designed feast for the senses.

When Wes Anderson is good he's very, very good and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he's at the top of his game. It's is an absolute delight

When Wes Anderson is good he’s very, very good and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he’s at the top of his game. It’s an absolute delight

One could compare Anderson’s career to that of a sculptor meticulously chiseling away at a piece of rock and removing all of the rough edges until what’s left is a thing of beauty.

His 1996 debut Bottle Rocket was an uneven work with enough flashes of Anderson’s unique visual style to mark him out as one to watch. His following two films, the resplendent Rushmore (1998) and superior The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) marked the end of a highly impressive first phase.

M. Gustave H. (Raplph Fiennes) comforts the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) comforts the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Phase two was more difficult, with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2006) failing to strike the same chord. However, since 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, the balance of whimsy, eccentricity and maturity he failed to achieve in his previous two films was finally stuck, with this third phase in Anderson’s oeuvre also producing the lovely Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and now this charming confection (actually his second ‘hotel’ picture following the 2007 short Hotel Chevalier).

The film begins with an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson) recollecting the time he spent as a younger man (played by Jude Law) at the Grand Budapest Hotel, where he encountered its reclusive owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Zero tells the extraordinary story of how, as a young man in the 1930s, he came to inherit one of Europe’s most lavish hotels from M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who at the time was its suave and sophisticated concierge. They strike up a warm friendship after Gustave is framed for the murder of his octogenarian lover Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) and must prove not only his innocence but also uncover the real culprits.

The one and only Bill Murray plays hotel concierge M. Ivan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

The one and only Bill Murray plays hotel concierge M. Ivan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Anderson’s love of early cinema, present in Bottle Rocket with its nod to Edwin S Porter’s landmark 1903 picture The Great Train Robbery, can be found here in the wonderful old school effects shots that bring to mind pioneering genius Georges Méliès. Likewise, the film’s deadpan physical comedy inevitably brings to mind such early masters of the form as Chaplin and Keaton.

M. Gustave H. (Raplh Fiennes) confronts the dastardly Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrieb Brody) and his henchman J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) confronts the dastardly Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) and his henchman J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

His trademark mise en scène is also taken to the nth degree in The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its beautifully crafted and crisp tracking shots, zooms and back and forth camera shots so meticulously constructed as to make Stanley Kubrick proud.

In spite of being a marvel of precise technical mastery, the film is rich with memorable characters, each brought vividly to life by a splendid cast. Fiennes, in his first collaboration with Anderson, is a marvel and gives a beautifully measured turn that’s equal parts farcical, steely eyed and kind. He’s matched by Tony Revolori, whose portrayal of the loyal and determined young Zero sits perfectly next to his partner-in-crime Gustave.

Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and his beau Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and his beau Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) in The Grand Budapest Hotel

The supporting cast, many giving extended cameos, all stand out due to the care and attention given to each of their characters. Willem Dafoe’s henchman J.G. Jopling looks like a cross between Nosferatu and Frankenstein’s monster, while Jeff Goldblum gives a typically terrific turn as the unfortunate Deputy Kovacs and Saoirse Ronan is sweet as Zero’s love interest Agatha. Let’s not forget Bill Murray, of course, who makes a quick impression as fellow hotel concierge M. Ivan.

These warm performances are matched by Anderson’s dialogue that, while maintaining the zippiness of his previous films, is also imbued with a generosity and affection that radiates when uttered by such a gifted cast.

When Wes Anderson is good he’s very, very good and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he’s at the top of his game. It’s an absolute delight.

Great Films You Need To See – Red Rock West (1993)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about John Dahl’s 1993 western neo noir thriller Red Rock West was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Cinema’s dustbin is littered with movies that disappeared between the cracks or didn’t fit neatly into any easy-to-sell marketing category.

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

Watched now, more than 20 years on, Red Rock West has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs

It’s a fate that befell the criminally underseen Red Rock West, John Dahl’s sophomore feature that, according to the late Roger Ebert, “exists sneakily between a western and a thriller, between a film noir and a black comedy”.

The film is worth seeing for the cast alone. Nicolas Cage gives one of his most hangdog turns as Michael Williams, an ordinary Joe on the road to nowhere who rolls into dead-end Red Rock and is immediately mistaken for “Lyle from Dallas” by bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh).

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he's "Lyle from Dallas" in Red Rock West

Michael Williams (Nicolas Cage) fools bar owner Wayne Brown (J.T. Walsh) he’s “Lyle from Dallas” in Red Rock West

Down on his luck, Michael keeps his mouth shut when he accepts $5,000 by Wayne to kill his wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). He’s then offered double by Suzanne to kill Wayne after telling her about the contract. The plot takes a turn for the perilous with the arrival of the real Lyle (Dennis Hopper), a psychopathic hitman who dresses like he stepped out of a Garth Brooks concert.

Dahl, who co-wrote the script with brother Rick, throws in more twists than a pretzel factory and has a ball in the process. There’s an amusing running joke that sees the exasperated Michael continually trying to leave Red Rock but, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, is seemingly never able to escape.

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne's wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

Michael (Nicolas Cage) gets himself into hot water with Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle) in Red Rock West

There’s more than a little of David Lynch in the film, and not just because three-quarters of the main cast have worked with him. Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode, while Boyle exudes the sort of old school matinee seduction she displayed in Twin Peaks.

In a film of meaty performances, the tastiest is given by Walsh (who should have appeared in a Lynch film, but never did). In lesser hands Wayne could have been a stock villain, but Walsh imbues him with a banality that is all the more chilling for being so underplayed.

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dennis Hopper is in full-on Frank Booth mode as Lyle in Red Rock West

Dahl is one of life’s nearly men. Now predominately a director of high-end cable and network TV shows, his film career never garnered the commercial success it was due in spite of such entertaining fare as The Last Seduction and Rounders, the Matt Damon and Edward Norton joint that helped launch the current poker craze.

Released in the wake of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Red Rock West became a casualty of the rapidly changing landscape of American independent cinema post-Tarantino. Watched now, more than 20 years on, the film has barely aged a day and deserves its place alongside the likes of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) as one of cinema’s most ingenious neo-noirs.

Review – Moonrise Kingdom

The excellent ensemble cast of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

The excellent ensemble cast of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s movies regularly split their audiences into those who embrace their whimsically eccentric nature or those who find them too smart for their own good.

Although the trademark Anderson-isms are present and correct (methodical, angular camerawork; retro soundtrack; self-referential dialogue), Moonrise Kingdom is his most accessible and warm-hearted work to date; a coming-of-age tale in which childhood sweethearts Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Heywood, both pitch-perfect) turn their small island community upside down when they run away together.

The performances from Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman) and virgins (Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand) are uniformly excellent in this splendid work that is equal parts sad and optimistic.