Tag Archives: Birdman

“Should I see The Revenant?” Might as well ask, “Do I enjoy cinema?”

14 Jan
The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio spent the last year Rocky Mountains way. Couldn’t get much higher

The Revenant is a film of few words, and so will be my recommendation of it: Go See. This is not merely a movie. This is Cinema.

The opening battle scene is as visceral as anything since Private Ryan (and as for that bear scene….!). The landscapes, filmed in the wild Canadian Rockies, show both the exquisite beauty and the cold brutality of nature – just as the ugliness of man, in this film, is interleaved with transcendent moments of tenderness and honour.

The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, definitely deserves an Oscar, Golden Globes result notwithstanding. As to the cinematography, it would feel like the most shocking upset in Oscar history if regular Terrence Malick cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki didn’t land his third in a row (after Gravity and Birdman). Leonardo DiCaprio is almost certain finally to take home his little gold man for the gruelling central role, rarely off screen though saying very little.

But forget the Oscars. This is just hauntingly lovely film-making, a work of unique vision and, indeed, obsession – not since Herzog hauled a steamship up a mountain, or Friedkin slapped his actors and stuck them in a freezer, has a director (Birdman‘s Iñárritu) gone to such lengths to get what he needed.

At first it grates that Tom Hardy mumbles into his beard nearly as incomprehensibly as when playing Bane. But then you relax into that, and remind yourself that the words don’t really matter, and it becomes almost a plus. The haunting images are all the story you need.

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Oscars 2015: Birdman soars, but Imitation Game moves

23 Feb
Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne at the 2015 Oscars, where he won best Actor

After months of jockeying for position, the Oscars had settled down to being a two-horse race between the two “B” movies, Boyhood and Birdman. The Globes gave no clue, since they split Best Picture into Comedy and Drama and honoured both films. Last night at the Academy Awards, Birdman emerged as the big winner with four of the big ones: best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography.

Boyhood had to make do with best supporting actress, which was no mean feat given that Meryl Streep was nominated in that category. Meryl took defeat more than graciously. When Patricia Arquette gave a speech thumping the tub for gender equality and equal pay for women (the hacked Sony emails having showed how culpable Hollywood was in this regard), Meryl whooped, pointed at the stage, and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like Meg Ryan in a restaurant.

Eddie Redmayne was named Best Actor, as had seemed certain. Though he is not the winner, really, according to Eddie himself, but “the custodian”. In an emotional speech where he seemed to teeter charmingly on the verge of complete meltdown, he said: “This belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS. It belongs to one exceptional family, Stephen, Jane, Jonathan and the Hawking children; and I will be its custodian.  And I promise you I will look after him, I will polish him, I will answer his beck and call and wait on him hand and foot.”

Redmayne was extraordinary in The Theory of Everything, and a worthy winner/custodian. But having seen Selma over the weekend, I am still scratching my head as to how David Oyelowo could not have been at least nominated, late screening tapes notwithstanding. With Redmayne you are admiring throughout of the exceptional craft in his acting. Oyelowo simply inhabits the role, to the extent that you forget entirely that you are watching an actor at all, rather than the Nobel peace prize-winning statesman who gave his life for the cause of equality. As host Neil Patrick Harris quipped when Oyelowo was cheered at the Oscars ceremony, “Oh, sure, now you like him.”

Julianne Moore finally won her long-deserved best Actress award, for Still Alice. In typical Oscar tradition, it took playing a character with a disability – Alzheimer’s – finally to nail it after four nominations. The other big winners of the night were The Grand Budapest Hotel, which came away with a raft of craft awards: production design, make-up, costume and score; and the little-indie-that-could, Whiplash, which took best editing, sound mixing and of course supporting actor for JK Simmons. The other big British movie, The Imitation Game, won best adapted screenplay, with a moving speech from writer Graham Moore that won a standing ovation from the audience:

“When I was 16 years old,” he said, “I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I am standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. Stay weird, stay different.”

And that’s the thing about the Oscars. They can seem empty and silly and glitzy and bland, and the run-up lasts for far too many months. But films are still the most powerful global means of expression of our age. They are our flickering campfire stories, our propaganda, our myths. They change minds, hearts and lives. And for one glorious, silly, moving night, on the stage of the Dolby Theater, it all comes together.

BAFTA night: Boyhood and Theory of Everything triumph

8 Feb
boyhood_still

Boyhood, winner of Best Film at the BAFTAs

The curtain has just closed on a night of glitz, hits and wits at the Royal Opera House, and this year’s BAFTA winners are in.

No real upsets: The Theory of Everything wins Outstanding British Film, Best Adapted Screenplay and – duh – Best Actor in Eddie Redmayne (or “Ready Edmayne”, as host Stephen Fry called him). Boyhood wins Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film (Patricia Arquette). Julianne Moore got best Actress. I was sad not to see Mr Turner recognised for cinematography, especially after the BATAs’ snub for Mike Leigh in the director category (though they compensatedby giving him a Fellowship), but the one-take achievement of Birdman carried the day.

My own predictions have come true, for once: JK Simmons is Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash, a film I have written about a lot in the past; and Jack O’Connell, about whom I wrote “a star is born” when Starred Up was released, wins the Rising Star award from quite a strong crop this year.

The BAFTAs always seem more relaxed, less rehearsed than the Oscars. Eddie Redmayne in particular has not yet learned to be dull and reserved. Asked on the red carpet what the first film he ever saw was, he replied, “Willow – terrifying. I was so scared I kept pretending I needed the loo. My friend thought I had some sort of weird bladder issue.” Even in his acceptance speech, he began by recalling a previous BAFTA night on which he had decorated the wallpaper in an unusual way due to a bout of food poisoning.

Cuba Gooding Jr took exception at Stephen Fry asking for a kiss from Michael Keaton and not from him, and planted a big smacker on his mouth. Gooding Jr seemed genuinely a little dazed after. “You have very soft lips,” he interrupted himself to reminisce a minute later. The presenter of the Best Film award was announced as “Tom Fucking Cruise!” And Ralph Fiennes was funny throughout. “We love seeing you doing comedy” he was told of Grand Hotel Budapest, on the red carpet. “Thank you very much. I took it very seriously.” With only the merest hint of a wry smile to signpost the joke.

Oh, and I was glad to see the excellent Pride recognised for Outstanding British Debut. Writer Stephen Beresford said, “It took my 20 years to get anyone to agree with me that gay and lesbian activists and a mining dispute were the ingredients for a sure-fire comedy smash…” But he was right.

Why Birdman soars: the art of the 90-minute single take

14 Jan
Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman's deft exploration of truth through artifice

Michael Keaton, former superhero actor, plays Riggan Thompson, former superhero actor, in Birdman’s deft exploration of truth through artifice

Saw Birdman with my son Sam last night, and it really is as extraordinary as they say. Every character, however small, is well delineated and has at least one great scene; Emma Stone is particularly brilliant, as so often.

But from a film buff’s point of view, the most exciting and head-scratching element is that it appears to be shot in one continuous 90-minute take, without a single cut. Ever since Orson Welles pulled off a wonderfully complex 3 min 20 sec tracking shot as the opening to Touch of Evil, directors have vied to outdo him. Gravity raised the bar last year, with Cuarón’s 17-minute opening shot made possible by digital technology. His fellow Mexican Iñárritu has now forever smashed that record with an entire film’s length. (Admittedly Russian Ark got there first, in 2002, but Birdman is filmed in a far more fluid and dynamic style.)

Fiendishly complex as it was to pull off, it is of course a digital trick, with the cuts hidden in digitally blended scenes when the camera pans to one side without a person in view. But beyond a “look ma, no hands!” desire to show off what can be done, why did Iñárritu decide to do this?

My son, who is perceptive when it comes to films, pointed out that Iñárritu’s trademark is the interlocking multiple narrative which was first displayed in Amores Perros, was developed in 21 Grams, and reached its apotheosis in Babel, which is set in four different countries in four different languages. Birdman’s single continuous take goes to the opposite extreme. Perhaps Iñárritu just wanted to do something different. He told Variety, ““It was like I was on a ladder, and I was getting a little too comfortable.”

But what is the technique’s impact on the film, its effect on the viewer? I noticed a weird thing. We are so used to the grammar of film, the cuts between characters and the sudden shifts in time and location, that they are no longer intrusive. In fact, to me, the definition of a great film is one where I lose myself within it completely, where I am no longer aware that I am watching a film but inhabit it completely, and 15 minutes or more can pass before I blink and remember that I am in a cinema at all. That’s why I always sit up close, in the third row, so I cannot see the edges of the screen.

So the long take in Birdman, which you would expect to feel more naturalistic than constant cuts, to me has the opposite effect. It is stylised, it reminds you continually of the artifice of film. The performances, as befits a comedy that is not quite a comedy, are somewhat stylised, too.

And this perfectly suits the theme of the film. On one level it is the story of a mid-life crisis, of a man who is famous for doing something he does not value (grossing billions of dollars 20 years previously in a superhero franchise) trying to achieve self-worth through putting on a “serious” play based on a story by Raymond Carver.

But it is also about the power of dreams, and the nature of truth, and the thin line between reality and fantasy, and how each can inform the other. That the superhero its protagonist used to play is Birdman, whose superpower is flight, is no accident. Nor is it that Iñárritu has cast in this role an actor, Michael Keaton, who himself is burdened with the fame of playing a superhero – Batman – in a blockbuster franchise. That Keaton is putting on a play within the film allows Iñárritu to explore notions of truth and artifice: Edward Norton’s character is a charming and manipulative bastard who can only “be real” when he is acting, on stage. He even tries to have sex with his girlfriend for real in the play’s bed scene, because it is only on stage, in character, that he has managed to get it up in the last six months.

When Keaton stands on a roof ledge, increasingly drawn into his schizophrenic fantasy that he really is Birdman, a woman shouts out: “Is this for real, or are you shooting a film?” “A film!” he says. “You people are full of shit,” she shouts back. His Birdman alter-ego, who whispers in his ear, tells him to make another blockbuster: “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which, of course, is the kind of film Iñárritu has just made, though smuggled into the multiplexes under the guise of a film about a superannuated superhero, including a gigantic fantasy scene three quarters of the way through of SWAT teams and exploding helicopters and a giant robot bird-villain so it can have its cake and eat it: criticising blockbusters while at the same time benefiting from the action scene’s trailer value.

The result is an intensively artificial film which, through artifice, gets closer to exploring truth and the nature of reality than perhaps any this year. Birdman is also funny, and touching, and something of a masterpiece. Go see.