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.

Advertisements

In Retrospect – Batman (1989)

It’s difficult to overestimate just what a seismic impact Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Dark Knight’s on-screen persona had on the movie landscape.

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton's first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

While Steven Spielberg had given birth to the Hollywood blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and George Lucas had taken it into the stratosphere in Star Wars (1977), ‘event’ cinema reached a whole new level with the arrival of Batman in 1989.

I was one of the many millions seduced by the carefully orchestrated marketing hype that became known as ‘Batmania’ and queued as a young lad with barely contained excitement on the opening day… before watching it again the following day.

At the time I recall thinking it was “ace”. However, 25 years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss.

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton's Batman

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton’s Batman

Taking its lead from Alan Moore and Brian Boland’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, the film follows the early days of Batman’s war against crime in Gotham City, an urban cesspool riven by police corruption, terrified citizens, desperate politicians and mob rule.

An intervention by the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) at a chemical plant inadvertently leads to the ‘death’ of senior mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and the ‘birth’ of the cackling, psychopathic Joker and soon Gotham turns into the playground in which these two opposing sides of a scarred coin go mano-a-mano. Dragged into the fray is star photo-journalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s lured to Gotham by the fantastical news of a “winged freak” terrorising the city’s underground.

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton's Batman

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton’s Batman

The first thing that strikes you is Anton Furst’s astonishing vision of Gotham City; a mish-mash of conflicting architectural styles that’s brought to life so vividly it practically dwarfs everything else.

With such eye-opening visuals to contend with, Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman needed to bring his A-game for Batman‘s score and did just that. Elfman threw everything and the kitchen sink in, from the dark and sinister to screwball via operatic organs and the pulse-quickening march which memorably opens the movie.

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

However, a great score and production design do not a great film make. Despite several quotable lines – “Think about the future”; “I think I’ve got a live one here!”; “This town needs an enema!”; “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay is all over the place (Burton subsequently admitted that chunks of the script were improvised on the hoof).

Burton allows scenes to go on too long, usually to indulge Nicholson, while others are clunky or completely unnecessary, most notably the sequence in Gotham City Museum wherein the Joker and his henchmen bespoil a series of valuable artworks.

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Elfman’s score is so memorable that the inclusion of Prince’s soundtrack feels jarring next to it. The decision to draft in Prince – one of the most popular musicians on the planet at the time – was savvy thinking on the part of the money men at Warner Bros, but the film has an awkward time crowbarring the tunes into the narrative.

Burton works hard to create a dark and brooding tone akin to a 1940s-era noir (everyone wears hats!), but counterbalances it with a series of cartoonish moments (Napier’s bleached white hand emerging from the chemical waste; Wayne caught hanging Bat-like upside down by Vale) that seek to remind us we’re watching a comic book superhero movie. The movie also nods not once, but twice, to Raiders Of The Lost Ark‘s swordsman scene.

Batman's coolest shot

Batman’s coolest shot

It’s difficult to believe that neither Vale nor fellow reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) would know why Bruce Wayne – Gotham City’s most well-known businessman after all – is an orphan. Furthermore, it stretches credulity that so many people fail to suspect the Joker (who, let’s not forget, had tried to kill the city’s citizens a short time earlier) has an ulterior motive when he announces he’ll be staging a night parade in which he’ll dish out millions in cash.

In a parallel with Gene Hackman’s casting of Lex Luthor in Superman, the film’s biggest name is its villain. Nicholson seemed like the most logical choice at the time and there are moments when he truly strikes the balance between humourous and homicidal. However, too often his performance feels like a big screen extension of Cesar Romero’s take in the 1960s camp TV show. Meanwhile, Keaton is better than you’d expect as Batman, although Wayne inevitably takes a back seat.

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton's Batman

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton’s Batman

The homage to Nosferatu when we first see the Dark Knight is nicely done, as is the nod to Batman creator Bob Kane (in spite of being refered to as a “dick” by Knox when he shows the young reporter a mock-up of what the Bat Man looks like). There’s also a cool moment when the Batwing flies in front of the moon. However, these moments are too few and far between to override the feeling that this is a film which has dated badly.

Burton himself summed up Batman better than any critic when he said on reflection: “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”