The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.
The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.
Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.
My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: I’ve become addicted to daytime TV. Not just any old daytime TV, though; for me the Jeremy Kyles and Loose Women of this world hold no appeal. What I’m hooked on is a tea time pairing that tests the most trivial knowledge to the deepest of levels, where two men gently exchange banter and interrogate members of the public. Pointless is the name of the game, and if you’ve not seen it it’s essentially the inverse of Family Fortunes (or Family Feud if you’re American), so 100 people are asked questions and the best answers are given by the fewest people. I can often come up with a pointless answer on the film questions, but one recent episode had me completely stumped: all of the Bill Murray films I could think of, no matter how obscure, seemed to have been thought of. The likes of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day aren’t a surprise, but when two people out of a hundred remembered What About Bob? and Broken Flowers, surely there was no Murray film left unsaid? In fact, among the list of pointless Bill Murray films sat three with a common thread: Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited.
I pity those two people, if they were the same two people, that despite an obvious level of film buffery they couldn’t recall half of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, for Anderson and Murray go together like a well-aged cheese and a particularly fine wine. For what feels like an eternity, the world (and his former co-stars) have appealed to Murray to appear in Ghostbusters 3, with a seemingly now terminal lack of success, but he appears in whatever Anderson has cooked up with unerring regularity, ranging from the starring roles of Zissou to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of Darjeeling. For fans, it’s not hard to see why Murray keeps being drawn back, like a moth to the flame, but the style of Wes Anderson might also explain why so few people would seemingly count themselves as committed fans, at least in a random sampling of the public. Wes Anderson’s films are easy to identify, both thematically and stylistically, and the recognition factor is dialled up to at least 11 on both counts here. Moonrise Kingdom is resolutely the most Wes Anderson film of any Wes Anderson film to date.
From the opening moments, when the camera glides round the house of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, turning only at right angles as it winds its way through the corridors of the house to the accompaniment of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, it’s as if Wes has only one more film left in him, and has poured his very heart and soul into this final cinematic fling. Every single frame is artfully constructed and everything from the main characters to the merest background detail planned to within an inch of its life. Everyone’s been led to believe that silent films and black and white are on the up again in the year of The Artist, and while one could conceivably take great satisfaction from sitting back with the sound off, the intense colour palette and vibrant scenery is as intense an argument as has been made for many a year. Of course, if you did have the sound off, you’d miss out on one of the year’s outstanding soundtracks, Alexandre Desplat’s score perfectly complementing the selections of Britten music that give Moonrise Kingdom its foundation.
There is one particular vocal resonance that’s missing here, for while Anderson stalwarts Murray and Jason Schwartzman both appear, there’s no Owen Wilson to be seen this time around. Filling the gap left by Wilson are the likes of Bruce Willis as the ineffectual police captain of the island, Edward Norton as the scout captain losing control of his brigade (and Harvey Keitel as his stern superior) and Tilda Swinton as the closest the film has to an antagonist in the form of Social Services. (There’s also another specific delight in the form of Bob Balaban popping up as a narrator; if the question was “How ridiculous can we make him look?” then the answer would be “satisfyingly.”) The grown-up performances all feel of the specific world created and are as good as anything else Anderson’s ever gotten from his actors, but they’re all really supporting roles. The stars of the film are the two youngsters, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward and they give slightly mannered performances that should come as no surprise but still give the moving tableau a beating heart to bring it to life.
The adults around them manage to make life appear extraordinarily complex and awkward, whereas our two young leads glide through life with a reasonable amount of grace and a seeming lack of effort, reinforcing the cinematic stereotype that kids know more about love and relationships than adults ever will. Despite this, the unfolding young love affair grips and Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola make it incredibly easy to root for them. It’s a simple story at its core, small but perfectly formed, the combination of production values and performances giving it a fable-like quality, oozing charm and packed full of humour and genuine emotion that shines through the mannerisms. For those who have found Wes Anderson pointless in the past, it’s unlikely to win you over, but for those who consider themselves fans of his previous work, this is an intravenous hit of pure joy which should reward repeat viewings.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re a fan of any of Anderson’s previous work, then Moonrise Kingdom is an absolute must-see. Even if you’re not, then the blinding brilliance of the visual construction of each shot, coupled with a script that provides consistent laughs throughout, make this worth a trip to your nearest cinema. Catch it while you can, and don’t feel guilty about sitting through the end credits.
The Score: 10/10