Birdman (2014) Film. Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu


Actor Riggan Thomson is most famous for his movie role from over twenty years ago of the comic book superhero Birdman in the blockbuster movie of the same name and its two equally popular sequels. His association with the role took over his life, where Birdman is more renowned than “Riggan Thomson” the actor. Now past middle age, Riggan is trying to establish himself as a true artist by writing, directing, starring in and co-producing with his best friend Jake what is his Broadway debut, an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He is staking his name, what little artistic reputation that comes with that name and his life savings on the project, and as such will do anything needed to make the play a success. As he and Jake go through the process of the previews toward opening night, Riggan runs into several issues: needing to find a replacement for the integral supporting male role the night before the first preview; hiring the talented … Written by Huggo

25 December 2014

You’ll believe a man can fly. Or you’ll believe that believing you can fly and flying are sort of the same thing. Either way, Alejandro González Iñárritu achieves takeoff in a big way with his crazy, freaky-deaky, hellzapoppin’ showbiz comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I certainly levitated with enjoyment. What is this? The Wings of Desire, as directed by Mel Brooks? At certain moments, watching it felt like inhaling laughing gas mixed with helium. And the technically extraordinary “flight” sequence looked very much like dreams of flying I’ve had myself.

It’s shot in one single take, without cuts (but with a few seamless digital sutures) and depicts the escalating anxiety attack being suffered by a failing movie star called Riggan Thomson, played with fiercely tender self-pity by Michael Keaton. Poor Riggan has haughtily abandoned the dumb superhero role of Birdman that made him rich and famous, and is now trying for credibility by starring in his own self-financed Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. He has hired his lawyer buddy Jake (Zach Galifianakis) to produce, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to be his personal assistant, in a pathetic attempt to make up for neglecting her in childhood while away shooting those hateful Birdman films – an abandonment that contributed to her drug issues.

Divorced Riggan is now in a semi-covert relationship with co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who wants a baby; however, she also has a Sapphic tendresse for the show’s leading lady, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who must act opposite her own boyfriend, Mike Shiner, a hyperactive, narcissistic method-acting diva hilariously played by Edward Norton. As opening night approaches, the pressure is causing Riggan to hallucinate, and he is visited by the granite-voiced figure of Birdman, the superhero monster he created, ordering him to forget the theatre and reclaim his chief superpower: making movie megabucks.

It is a film that has been wildly hailed by the critics, despite – I am sorry to say – depicting critics as fatuous, shallow, parasitic and prejudiced. At one stage, in an excitable impromptu casting discussion, Mike Shiner’s own popularity with the critics is discussed: “They want to spooge on him!” “Right on his face!” As for Iñárritu, he’s getting the facial-spooge-tsunami he deserves, showing a glorious capacity for comedy I hadn’t suspected from his earlier, more solemn movies like21 Grams, Babel or Biutiful. This does, however, finally display those movies’ tendency towards what I can only describe as plangent romantic seriousness.

Something in the jittery, crazy dialogue makes it sometimes hard to tell if the characters are talking as themselves, or performing the Carver dialogue. Riggan himself will roam the peeling, faintly nightmarish theatre corridors and burst out into the (genuine) crowded New York street – a bravura single-take staging in one unitary space that gives the movie the excitement of some experimental theatrical happening. And the unbroken take is weirdly reminiscent of the first-person point-of-view movies like Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void or indeed Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake. There is simply something disturbing in the unending, relentless single view. As the restless action unfolds, you’ll hear strange passages of music, orchestral swells or insistent nerve-jangling jazz drumming – music that may or may not be diegetic. Is Riggan using it as background music in the show? Can the characters hear it as well as us?

And all the time, poor Riggan is approaching a mental breakdown due to the imminent critical and commercial catastrophe; and he can’t quite admit to himself that he is addicted to celebrity, though he is unsure how to renegotiate his declining position as a famous person in the alien new world of reality shows and social media. Amusingly, he confesses to a horrendous status-anxiety episode while on a plane with George Clooney – like Clooney, Michael Keaton himself played Batman in that pre-Nolan era when superheroes were not quite as ubiquitous as they are now. Riggan doesn’t want to renounce his celebrity. He wants to upgrade it, improve it, make it classier. Deep in his heart, he prefers the acclaim of strangers to intimacy with his wife and daughter. And there is a brilliant, farcical moment when he is locked out of the theatre just before needing to go on, and the only way to the stage is through the public front-of-house entrance. The situation is every star’s worst nightmare: having to somehow prove your importance and validate your existence from scratch. Birdman is a delicious and delirious pleasure.

27 August 2014

On the opening day of the Venice film festival, the organisers like nothing better than to lock the guests inside a darkened room and suck the oxygen from their lungs. Last year’s event kicked off with Gravity, a weightless, airless thriller to die for. On this occasion we were treated to Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, a hysterical backstage melodrama that purports to hold its breath through the course of one continuous take. If Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film finally lacks Gravity’s populist punch, it is at least its equal in terms of technical prowess and claustrophobic panache. I sat through the whole thing with a mounting alarm.

Michael Keaton, best remembered for his role as Batman, plays Riggan Thomson, best remembered for his role as Birdman. Riggan is a vain, ageing Hollywood actor, his blockbuster days behind him, who is seeking redemption via a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver short story. But the boundaries are blurring. The walls are closing in, his personal life is in tatters. “The play is starting to feel like a deranged, deformed version of myself,” he wails at one stage.

Iñárritu’s film, we come to realise, is nothing less than an extended actor’s nightmare of disputatious colleagues, snooty critics and boisterous fans who still love him as Birdman. The camera hounds us from the dressing-room to the wings to the stage and then out into the din of Times Square, where Keaton parades in his pants during the tale’s comic highlight. En-route Riggan runs up against Edward Norton’s strutting co-star, an impotent diva who finds he can only perform when the lights are on and the house is full.

He squabbles with his acerbic daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, and receives visits from his ex-wife and current girlfriend, who may just be figments. The acting is clamorous verging on the indulgent. But the script cuts like a knife even when the editor does not, gleefully flaming everyone from Meg Ryan to Justin Bieber to Robert Downey Jr, the star of the Iron Man films. “That clown doesn’t have half your talent,” growls the voice of Riggan’s demon. “And he’s making a fortune in that tin-man get-up.”

Do we care about Riggan? I’m not sure that we do; I’m not convinced that we’re meant to. His torments are framed as sour satire, hotwired by gaudy flights of fancy. At times Birdman reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a more melancholy riff on a similar theme; at others of Alexander Mackendrick’s sublime The Sweet Smell of Success, with its restless, prowling tour of nocturnal midtown Manhattan. There’s no doubt it makes for a jubilant ride, a galvanic first blast. But it remains a film which feels deeply thought rather than deeply felt; a brilliant technical exercise as opposed to a flesh-and-blood story.

Is it a redundancy to complain that Birdman lacks soul? Maybe so. It’s a depthless, self-absorbed film about a shallow, self-absorbed man; jittery and relentless from the first to last gasp. We come scurrying up narrow corridors and up darkened stairwells, through the exploded stage-set of Riggan Thomson’s own head. The delegates applauded; they clearly relished the tour. But they broke for the exit with something approaching relief.

Life Feels Good (Chce sie zyc) (2013) Film. Director: Maciej Pieprzyca


Neither tearfully sentimental nor coldly scientific, “Life Feels Good,” Maciej Pieprzyca’s film about a man with cerebral palsy struggling to communicate to those around him that he is an intelligent, sentient human being, instead proves oddly entertaining. The protagonist, diagnosed as mentally retarded since childhood, delivers interior monologues that supply ironically normal counterpoint to the contorted sounds and spastic movements he makes. Brilliantly thesped by non-disabled actors playing the character as both child and grown-up, the film captures as much wonderment as frustration, and is filled with fully fleshed-out characters that defy simple categorization. Having swept the jury, audience and ecumenical prizes at the Montreal fest, this Polish feature could generate genuine arthouse interest.

Helmer-scripter Pieprzyca places the character of Mateusz squarely at his story’s center. As a boy (Kamil Tkacz), Mateusz devises a unique method of moving around the apartment, lying on his back and flailing his arms to propel himself backward, which gives him a measure of autonomy.  His happy childhood provides all kinds of education, from social instruction gained by watching neighbors from his window, to cosmic knowledge imparted by his whimsical wizard of a father (Arkadiusz Jakubik). While his mother (Dorota Kolak) wheels him around and showers him with kisses and laughter, his father fires his imagination.

As he grows up, Mateusz (his role now undertaken by David Ogrodnik) even wins a loving girlfriend, the beautiful blonde next door (Anna Karczmarczyk).  But, as with all his attempts to influence the world around him, his efforts to help her backfire: Momentarily freed of her abusive dad, she flees with Mom to parts unknown. Exit romance.

But not sex. Once his father dies and his mother becomes unable to physically tend to him, Mateusz is uprooted and placed in a home for the mentally disabled (or “morons,” as they are unkindly called), where only his undying interest in breasts keeps him sane. He devises a system to judge female caretakers by breast size, since they have little else going for them. Even more than at home, where his excitement at possibilities for communication were misread as hysteria and met with sympathetic quashing of his supposed “fits,” he is treated like a mindless carcass in the asylum.

Then Magda (Katarzyna Zawadzka), a beautiful new nurse, arrives and pays loving attention, dancing for him and waltzing with him in the wheelchair, the subjective camera turning in time to celebratory music. She even lets him touch her breasts; Mateusz feels vindicated. But comprehension does not always prove a blessing: When Magda takes him on an outing for her own neurotic needs, he understands her betrayal all too clearly.

Pieprzyca situates the central axis of his film in that gap between the emotional vegetable, seen by even the kindliest, and the smart, quite sardonic “inner Mateusz” manifested in his interior monologues and extremely expressive eyes. His erratic movements and unintelligible sounds register less as symptoms of disease than as a language that others are too unimaginative to interpret.

Visually, “Life Feels Good” falls somewhere between the overstated optics of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the clinical/humanistic distance of “The Sessions.” Like these disability dramas, the film is based on a true story, though its happy ending yields some unexpected twists.

Her (2013) Film. Director: Spike Jonze


Theodore is a lonely man in the final stages of his divorce. When he’s not working as a letter writer, his down time is spent playing video games and occasionally hanging out with friends. He decides to purchase the new OS1, which is advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” the ad states. Theodore quickly finds himself drawn in with Samantha, the voice behind his OS1. As they start spending time together they grow closer and closer and eventually find themselves in love. Having fallen in love with his OS, Theodore finds himself dealing with feelings of both great joy and doubt. As an OS, Samantha has powerful intelligence that she uses to help Theodore in ways others hadn’t, but how does she help him deal with his inner conflict of being in love with an OS? Written by Bob Philpot

Needless to say, the film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses. The whole thing looks like the most expensive ad for urban anomie ever made – Antonioni for the artisanal-cheese set – and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered – “Who knew you could rhyme so many words with ‘Penelope’?” says a co-worker, admiringly of his work – while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up “Mom points” for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge “You’ve Failed Your Children!”

The closer we draw to the central romance, the straighter grows the film’s face. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” confides Theo to Samantha, finding in her precisely the sympathetic ear he failed to find in his wife. She is played by Rooney Mara, thus confirming Mara’s position as the ex most men would regret breaking up with, ideally through a happier times montage involving cascades of hair and white sheets seen in chalky sunlight. She gets in the zingiest line in the film, delivered over an exchange of divorce papers – “He couldn’t deal with me, tried to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop” – but it doesn’t quite land. It’s like a zinger from one of Woody Allen’s comedies that has somehow drifted into one of his alienation-and-anomie numbers. The script wants things both ways – an obvious outrage to Mara, Phoenix’s love for his computer is seen as entirely normal by others – a penchant for blur that starts with the film’s wispy compositions and seems to spread from there.

Phoenix is as sweet and soulful as we always suspected he might be. Ditching the trail of dysfunction and hiding his scarred lip behind a neat little moustache, spectacles and high-hitched pants, Theo is a portrait of the sad sack as saintly urban eunuch – a great listener and perfect empath whose less attractive attributes are discretely masked from view. An early mention of Theo’s anger issues is never followed up on. A session of phone sex leaves him the bemused victim. Even his consummation with Samantha is discretely blacked out, to spare us the lonely, masturbatory truth. That’s quite a burden of simplicity to put on a figure who must carry a two-hour film; you can detect the strain during some of the date scenes, where Phoenix is required to gurgle with happiness one too many times – he wears the fixed grin of a man on a visit to the dentist.

Johansson has an easier time of it, having long taken over Demi Moore’s mantle as the owner of Hollywood’s huskiest tonsils. If anything she may pack too much punch for Theo, who remains a strangely chaste figure, too hung up on his ex-wife for sex, let alone a relationship. What he really seems to need is a therapist, and so it proves, as the script succumbs to the kind of well-intentioned maundering that ensnares the better kind of romcom: “It’s in this endless space between the words that I’m trying to find myself right now,” says Samantha. How did such a sharply conceived movie end on such a woozy note? It’s almost as if the haze above Los Angeles descends to envelop the rest of the film.

We are a long way from the sprightly anarchy of Being John Malkovich, which remains Jonze’s most fully realised film. Adaptation continued some of the fun, but Where the Wild Things Are felt far too depressed for a children’s fable: a movie about childhood from an adult who seemed to regret growing up – “run for the hills!” it seemed to warn them. “We don’t have a thing in hand!” Her seems to come from the same place – the desire, above all, to be comforted, cradled. The most direct emotional demand comes from Rooney Mara, who tells Theo “Come and spoon me,” and the cry recurs, as if technology had ushered us not into adulthood but made infants of us, trapping and swaddling us in our hi-tech cocoons. Oh well. The hunt resumes. Maybe one day, Jonze will find out and tell us where the wild things are.