Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

Wow. I just left the cinema after watching Birdman and I was blown away. It’s easy to see why it has been so heavily rewarded in both the Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations, and I would be surprised if the Academy Awards doesn’t follow suit.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor who has enjoyed massive cinematic success some twenty years prior portraying superhero Birdman. In a bid to reignite his waning career on a more critically reputable path, he is directing himself in the lead role of his own rewrite of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Also starring in it are Broadway newcomer Lesley (Naomi Watts), Riggan’s romantic-interest Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and late replacement actor and seat-filler Mike Shiner (Edward Norton in excellent form). Also in the mix is daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is now working as Riggan’s P.A., and Zach Galifianakis as Brandon Vander Hey, Riggan’s lawyer.

It’s a film that’s hard to pigeonhole and I’m not sure I really want to. I’d hate to call it a comedy, only for someone to read this article and feel hard done by by the lack of belly laughs. Then again, it’s hardly a superhero film and you’d be bitterly underwhelmed should you think this is what you’ll be getting.

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One thing that will strike you when you watch it is the use of long single-shot scenes. Actually, the film is essentially edited to look like a complete one-shot, though there are some subtle cuts where scenes have been interlinked. Whilst this technique is something I favour (for a great example of this you should take a look at the excellent opening sequence of Orson Welles masterpiece “Touch of Evil”), it can also be used as a means to show off by a director. I’m a big fan of theatre, so since this film deals with the run up to the opening night of a play, on a basic level I can make a connection with the desire to not have a cut between scenes as they run into each other. That’s clearly not what the director is doing here though. For me, in fact, the purpose of these long takes is to build up the relentlessness of the pressure Riggan is under as portions of his life blur into one another and his less-than-clear thoughts are muddied by his unwanted past as a Hollywood superhero and furthermore by an unexpected pregnancy. It’s a really effective method of storytelling and they completely nail it.

I find the casting of Keaton in this role as a masterstroke of genius too. Whilst he was one of the first big-screen superheroes, his subsequent roles have never looked like troubling the box office as much as his turn in Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989. Only Christopher Reeve had been part of a bigger superhero success when he took on the role of Superman, and Keaton’s career trajectory ended up mirroring somewhat Reeve’s problematic career post-Kent. There have been a smattering of successes (Jackie Brown, Toy Story 3 and The Other Guys), but with this in mind I don’t think Birdman’s likeness to the 1989 Dark Knight is a coincidence. This all makes Keaton’s portrayal of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown (or worse) all the more effective, as he struggles to find relevance amongst his peers. It is ironic that this film is doing exactly that for Keaton.

The real-life-to-character comparisons don’t stop with Keaton. Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner is a character whose talent is only marred by his reputation for being difficult to work with. It’s almost as if the Norton and the screenwriting team of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo are having a bit of a chuckle at our expense. Norton recently had another reflective statement when interviewed by NPR about his experience when pulling out of the Avengers series of films, which ironically was the reason he was able to schedule in this film (along with both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Clearly the fear for him was that his life would be consumed by a cycle of filming and promoting, when he could instead be part of several films that are both critically successful and reputable. The feeling I got when watching Shiner develop as a character was they had written him as the person everyone thinks Norton is, rather than what he is really like. With both Norton and Keaton both seemingly playing characters criticising the downsides of the superhero film franchises they were involved with, I wonder how Emma Stone, and more so her boyfriend Andrew Garfield, feel about the underlying commentary.

I’m going to single out Zach Galifianakis’s performance as a highlight. People know him very well for his character Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy, which he effectively reprised in Due Date and The Campaign, and I was a little sceptical of his casting here. Harking back to Keaton, this is Galifianakis shedding his skin as proving he can take of a serious role with great aplomb if given the chance. A great choice for him at this stage in his career.

Of course, this multilayered overthinking of all the characters is all well and good, but the film has to be good to justify it. Otherwise you end up with something like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, which I will go on record as saying is one of the worst films of all time. Fortunately it’s completely not the case with Birdman.There are some brilliant moments of hilarity in here, some surprising and well-handled special effects and a few intensely emotional back-and-forths from actors giving their everything to their art.

This is the first truly great film I’ve seen this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Birman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is out now at cinemas across the UK.

Gotham Series 01, Episodes 01-10 (Bruno Heller, 2014)

As the series enters a brief hiatus period I thought it would be a good point to stop and take stock of where we got to in the first ten episodes of a much-hyped series that had the potential to do for Batman what Smallville did for Superman some ten years ago, though at times fell short of its own promise.

For those that don’t know, the plot centres around Commissioner James Gordon, played by OC actor Ben McKenzie, as he moves to the Gotham Police Force and comes to terms with just how corrupt the city is. It is, essentially, an origin story for Gordon, though the story is also entangled with many more familiar faces. There are a few gangs playing people off against each other, everyone seemingly being puppeteered by the brilliant character Fish Moody (Jade Pinkett Smith), who was created especially for this series. She is a revelation for the show and during the slower points of certain episodes was one of the reasons I kept watching.

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We also come into contact with the increasingly twisted Oswald Cobblepot, who is the Penguin in waiting and has received a lot of focus throughout, establishing the character as a key player in the series so far as he plays the gangs off against each other to gain standing and reputation in a city difficult to survive in. Whilst he initial felt mispitched, the plans for Oswald came to fruition later in the series and it became clear the writing and character development was deeper than was initially clear.

We’re treated to a confident performance from young actress Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle (Catwoman), whose similarity to Michelle Pfieffer is uncanny. Furthermore, the groundwork has been put in place to introduce Ed Nigma (The Riddler) and later Harvey Dent (Two Face) and (Poison) Ivy Pepper.

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Each show has its own individual plotline and they often play out like an episode of something like CSI, only with a darker tone. Each week we’ve tended to have a one-off criminal that needs to be caught and they are usually tied back in with one of the gangs we already know of. It’s a simple – if repetitive – formula, but hopefully when the characters are further developed we will have longer story arcs concentrating on more prominent characters from the Gotham universe.

Underpinning it all is the development of Bruce Wayne who, as in all good Batman stories, loses his parents to a masked criminal early on. To be honest, the sections of the shows that focus on Wayne felt a little like filler as he is so far away from becoming Batman, and in a 42-minute episode it was annoying to lose 5 minutes to something not central to the plot.

I was glad I stuck with it though, as this turned into a big payoff in the last two episodes. Bruce and Selina formed a friendship (of sorts) whilst she was being sheltered in Wayne Manor and, following an attack on the house by gang members, both made a run for it to avoid gunfire. With Bruce operating as a more central character in his own right, still supported by the ongoing storylines with Oswald and Fish, the whole series felt a lot more balanced. These last two episodes also justified the baffling London gangster take on Alfred from Sean Pertwee, which makes a lot more sense if he’s allowed to punch people in the face occasionally.

With this in mind, the series is perfectly balanced to go into the second half of the first series with a lot of momentum and, whilst a lot of the series has failed to live up to my hopes and expectations, I’m confident it will build on its successes and grow into a worthwhile and original adaptation of the Batman story.

The recent episodes of Gotham are viewable on Channel 5 Player in the UK for another three weeks and I recommend trying one of the episodes as a taster before they go.