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Film Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton & Edward Norton in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero. He must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.

How do you review a film like Birdman? It’s virtually impossible to truly describe it and do it justice using only words on a page or a screen. I did consider writing this review in one continuous sentence or paragraph as a nod to the film’s camera work, but decided it would just make reading my stuff even more painful than usual!

So where do we start? Let’s go for Birdman himself, Michael Keaton. Getting Keaton to play the role in the first place is a stroke of genius considering his role as Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Like Riggan, Keaton has never been as popular since playing a superhero and you could argue that Birdman is Keaton’s version of the play Riggan is attempting to direct.

Keaton is fantastic as Riggan, constantly walking the lines between creative genius, enthusiastic try-hard and mental breakdown, all three personalities vying for centre stage. Due to the semi-autobiographical nature of the film, it does feel as if we’re seeing a window into Keaton’s own mindset and, as such, it feels like a very personal performance. A scene in which Riggan lays into a Broadway critic feels very much like he’s finally spewing forth an opinion he, and countless other actors, have been waiting a lifetime to express.

Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter and Edward Norton as an arrogant Broadway star also put in excellent performances, both of whom also seem less than mentally stable themselves.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman’s cinematography is in the hands of Emmanuel Lubezki, who did such sterling work on Gravity, and here, along with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s direction, he’s created something quite breathtaking. Birdman is shot as if it’s one, continuous sweeping camera shot, swooping gracefully from one scene to the next and occasionally using timelapse to advance the narrative, all set in and around Broadway’s St. James Theatre.

Like Hitchcock’s Rope, edits are hidden very cleverly, although on first viewing the whole thing may be a little distracting as you could be forgiven for focusing more on the camera technique than anything else. It is, however, nothing short of a technical and creative marvel and should be applauded for helping to make Birdman something rather unique.

There’s a fair bit going on under Birdman’s hood, which is why a written review barely scratches the surface. It’s about fame, popularity, social media, mental health, the film industry and a million other things. It’s one of those films in which you get out what you put into it; there are metaphors and subtexts at every turn and you’re never really sure whether what you’re seeing is literal or metaphorical. For example, does Riggan really have the telekinetic powers he exhibits when no-one else is around or are they figments of his imagination? It’s a film that lets you make those kind of decisions for yourself.

You could even go as far to say that there’s actually a little too much going on. With the aforementioned camera work, the erratic drum soundtrack and myriad of ideas and themes criss-crossing here, there and everywhere, it can be a little difficult to take it all in, at least on first viewing. It’s all good stuff that’s being thrown at you but with so much of it, only some of it can actually grab your attention at any one time.

Birdman is one of those films that almost demands a second viewing (and perhaps a third and a fourth) but it’s such a whirlwind of an experience there’s every chance you’ll watch a different film each time. It’s difficult to say Birdman will appeal to everyone as it most likely won’t, but if you want a film that’s innovative, thought-provoking and unique then it’s an absolute must-watch.

Pros

  • Breathtaking camera work
  • Great performance from Michael Keaton and surrounding cast
  • Gives you plenty to think about

Cons

  • Sometimes a little too much going on for its own good

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Movie review catch-up

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve been a lot less active recently in my blogging activity. This is largely due to the fact I have had shoulder surgery and therefore have been somewhat incapacitated, and also because I’ve been a lot busier at work which has taken up a lot of my time. But I have squeezed in a few films, so here are some quick reviews to catch up…

Noah

I had little desire to see this until the reviews rolled in and they were so divisive. Now, I have next to no clue as to what is and isn’t taken from the biblical text so I have no issue at all with what it did in that respect, and not being religious I wouldn’t care anyway.

For me, it was the mythical elements that worked the best. I found the Harryhausen-esque rock monster things actually quite interesting and the more bonkers it went, the better.

However, it was when the film descended into soap opera style melodrama where it lost me a little, particularly in the final third. It asked some interesting questions about how far you should go for your faith, but wrapped them up in contrived drama.

Crowe is decent as Noah but Ray Winstone’s biblical gangster, complete with Cockney accent and rudimentary shotguns is laughable.

A decent adaptation from Aronofsky, who definitely inserts some personality into the story, but it loses its way and by the end undoes much of its good work of the first half of the film.

3 pigeons3/5 pigeons

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

When Sony rebooted the Spidey franchise so soon after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, many thought it was ridiculous. However The Amazing Spider-Man was actually pretty decent, and although it has some definite issues, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more of the same comic book fun.

Andrew Garfield reprises his role as Spidey but even though he looks the part, I’m still not convinced by his acting, although that’s definitely not helped by the god awful script that turns the whole thing into a cheesy episode of Dawson’s Creek at times.

There are plenty of decent set pieces throughout and the swinging sections through New York are vertigo-inducingly brilliant.

Villain-wise we have Electro although he feels somewhat underdeveloped, whilst Rhino pops up very briefly and a certain Monsieur Goblin who seems destined to play a much bigger role in films to come. With so many villains, it does threaten to turn into Spider-Man 3 and ensures the film is too long, but fortunately manages to hold it together much better.

It’s clear that the director wanted this film to have a more personal feel with more focus on the characters’ relationships, but at times it does feel at odds with the main story. When key scenes are rushed to make way for more teenage romance then it doesn’t knit together.

Emma Stone and Dane DeHaan deserve a lot of credit for their performances however, the latter in particular excellent as Harry Osborn.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a perfectly fine addition to the franchise but one that doesn’t really tread new ground in any way. Bloated and uneven in tone but if you’re a Spider-Man fan then there’s enough to enjoy.

3 and a half pigeons3.5/5 pigeons

Transcendence

Transcendence

Strong characters and a belief in their actions is essential if a film is to work, and the lack of both of these is what makes Transcendence a truly lacklustre experience.

The idea of being able to upload your thoughts and feelings into a computer isn’t exactly a new one, nor is that of computer AI becoming sentient and rebelling against humanity, and Transcendence does little new to raise it above its peers. See, it’s difficult at any point to actually work out what anyone’s really doing or why they’re doing it, and as such it’s tough to buy into anything the film does.

There’s a germ of an idea, but what starts of as a slow burning, political sci-fi thriller ends up trying to turn into an all-out action film but just doesn’t have the legs to pull it off and burns out long before its lackadaisical conclusion.

Johnny Depp well and truly phones in his performance, whilst Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany do their best to inject some life into proceedings, but they have little to work with in all honesty.

There was some promise here but it has to go down as a miss for first time director Wally Pfister who struggles to give the film any real direction or purpose.

2 pigeons

2/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Zombieland

Zombieland

After much of the American population has been infected by a developed form of mad cow disease, turning them into zombie-like creatures, few regular human beings still survive. One of them is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) who, on his journey to discover whether his parents are alive, teams up with the volatile Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and two con artist sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), to fight the zombie hordes.

Narrated by Columbus, we learn how he has survived to this point, adopting certain rules to obey, such as “check the back seat” and “avoid strip clubs” with accompanying subtitles each time they are adhered to, and it’s this personality that is the film’s charm. There are plenty of zombie films about, so it takes something a little different for them to stand out from the crowd. However, Zombieland is less about the zombies and more about each of the characters’ relationships with each other.

The comedy (it’s a comedy by the way, in case you’re completely in the dark about this film) is witty, although if you aren’t a fan of Jesse Eisenberg, there’s nothing here that’ll change your opinion of him. He’s likeable throughout and his relationship with Harrleson’s Tallahassee provides many of the film’s standout moments. Stone and Breslin are also excellent, but it’s Harrelson who shines (again).

Despite being a comedy, there is still plenty of gore and a few moments to make you jump. Add to that a truly incredible and memorable cameo scene and you have a film that, whilst cut from the same mould as Shaun of the Dead, is very much its own film and a very entertaining one at that.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Film review: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-ManWith this reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise coming a mere ten years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, it was always going to be under huge scrutiny. When it was confirmed that Spider-Man 4 was dead in the water and Sony were going to start afresh, thousands of Spidey fanatics swamped message boards to give their opinions. There were those who were outraged at a reboot and another origin story happening so soon, whilst others were hoping that this time they would finally “get it right”.

In The Amazing Spider-Man we get the same origin story we got a decade ago, and the first act feels a little too familiar – geeky outsider Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) gets bitten by a radioactive spider giving him all sorts of arachnid-like abilities. He then learns to come to terms and use them before his not-long-for-this-world Uncle Ben gives him some spiel about ‘responsibility’. However, the film does have its own identity, and this time we get more a focus on Peter’s parents and how he ended up living with his Aunt and Uncle, as well as a new romantic interest in the form of Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone).

There’s also a new villain in the form of Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an Oscorp scientist with one arm obsessed with learning the secrets of regenerative lizard DNA to help grow back his missing apendage. In true super villain style his experiments go awry and he transforms into the imaginitively named Lizard. Of course it’s Spidey’s job to put a stop to his evil plans.

For those concerned whether this reboot was actually needed, the good news is it feels fresh enough to stand alongside Raimi’s trilogy. Spider-Man 3 marked a considerable downturn in the series after the high of número deux, and with the studio and writers and director and actors all at odds about the direction of the next film, a reboot wasn’t actually the stupid decision that it first seemed.

Dr Curt Connors So out goes Tobey Maguire and in comes Andrew Garfield. Despite clocking in at 28 years of age, Garfield has the youthful looks and gangly physique perfectly suited to a high school Peter Parker. One problem some had with Tobey Maguire was that they just couldn’t see him as Peter Parker, but they should feel a lot happier with the Garfield in the role (complete with mechanical web shooters).

Garfield brings just the right amount of athleticism, vulnerability and comedy to the role of Spider-Man, although he does seem a little too cool at times for the supposedly outcast Parker. The rest of the casting is also pretty spot on. Emma Stone is very good as love interest Gwen Stacey, replacing Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane, and Martin Sheen and Sally Fields are a class above the previous incarnation of Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

As previously mentioned, chunks of the story are still a little too fresh in the memory, but it does just enough to stand alone as the start of its own franchise. The dialogue is wittier and the whole thing feels much more like a comic book brought to life; again Garfield has to take a lot of the credit for this. However, the action set pieces are a mixed bag. The pick of the bunch is arguably smaller scale bridge rescue which has a lot more emotional punch than the somewhat disappointing climactic showdown with the Lizard. The film is also a little on the long side, although that can be an ailment of origin stories, having to cram so much information into a relatively short period.

For those who would no longer consider themselves ‘young’, ten years between origin stories probably seems like no time at all. However, for anyone under the age of 25 or so, it probably seems a lot longer. There is most definitely a place for The Amazing Spider-Man, although it won’t be until the sequel roles around in a couple of years’ time will we really see whether the reboot decision is vindicated. A slightly lengthy running time, patchy set pieces and the worst use of a Coldplay song in the history of film don’t hold The Amazing Spider-Man back from being a solid comic book adaptation that will no doubt inspire a whole new generation of wannabe web-slingers.

Words: Chris Thomson

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