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.

Ho Ho No – Christmas Turkies

Christmas is the season of goodwill to all men (and women). However, that generosity of spirit need not – and should not – extend to the slew of bad yuletide movies that make a plate of soggy Brussels sprouts look appealing.

For every Elf, It’s A Wonderful Life or Scrooged there are countless turkies seeking to cash-in on our festive cheer that make you want to shout “bah humbug” at their sheer cynicism and ineptitude.

Below are a selection of just some of the many risible Christmas movies I’ve unfortunately come across over the years. Consider this list a warning – don’t ruin your well-earned festive goodwill by subjecting yourselves to them. That being said, I’d love to know:

What are the worst Christmas movies you’ve seen?

Santa With Muscles (1996)

Santa With Muscles

In an all-too-familiar example of commerce winning over common sense, there was a period back in the 1990s when Terry Gene Bollea, otherwise known by his ring name Hulk Hogan, was something approaching a movie star. The fact he coudn’t act seemed unimportant. Put it down to collective insanity on the part of all involved (including Mila Kunis in only her second film), but Santa With Muscles must figure as one of the most far-out excursions into Christmas movie-making ever seen. Hogan stretches himself by playing a professional wrestler who believes he’s Santa Claus following a bang to noggin and tries to save an orphanage from an evil scientist. I’ll leave it there.

Four Christmases (2008)

Four Christmases

The truly uninspired (and poorly photoshopped) poster for Four Christmases of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon standing with their backs to each other should tell you all you need to know about this car crash of a film. Christmas should be a happy time of year, but Vaughn and Withspoon turn this tale of a couple visiting their divorced parents’ homes on Christmas Day into one of the most joyless experiences you can imagine. Worse still, the film co-stars Jon Favreau, which only serves to make you want to go back and watch Swingers instead.

Jack Frost (1998)

Jack Frost

No, not the 1964 Russian film (or the 1997 cult horror comedy), but rather the frankly bizarre fantasy flick starring Michael Keaton as the titular Jack Frost, who dies in a car accident and returns to life as a snowman. I’ll repeat that: returns to life AS A SNOWMAN and gets a second chance “to be the world’s coolest dad” to his young son. The classic animated short film The Snowman showed how magically something akin to this can be done; however, Jack Frost simply tugs the heartstrings (and trips the mind) and hopes that’ll be enough for audiences to ignore just what a pile of yellow snow it is.

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Surviving Christmas

Ben Affleck is now enjoying the fruits of a successful directorial and acting career, but there was a time not so long ago when all he touched turned to poop. Alongside such box office bombs as Gigli and his other Christmas-set movie Reindeer Games, Surviving Christmas came and went from cinemas quicker than you can say “Santa”. It’s an appropriate title, as watching Affleck as an annoying millionaire who pays a family to spend the festive season with him feels like an exercise in survival itself. What’s even more tragic is that it also stars the late James Gandolfini.

Fred Claus (2007)

Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn has the dishonour of appearing twice on this list, such are his crimes against Christmas cinema. Here he plays Fred, the elder and less well known brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti), who is forced to make toys at Christmas HQ after being bailed out of jail by his younger sibling – with unamusing results. In spite of a great cast (Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz), the film will leave you as cold as its North Pole setting. Now please Mr Vaughn: stop making Christmas movies. Think of the kids.