Birdman (2014)

_AF_6405.CR2More than twenty years after Birdman 3 marked the end of his career as a superhero, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is still trying to rebuild his reputation as a serious actor. His latest and most drastic attempt involves staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for which he will serve as writer, director and star. But while Riggan may be through with Birdman, Birdman isn’t quite through with him; as Riggan works to resolve conflicts with his esteemed co-star (Edward Norton), snooty New York Times critic Tabatha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) and his estranged, drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), the spectre of Birdman works to undermine his self-confidence and erode his resistance to a fourth movie.

There’s nothing quite like Birdman; whether it’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s hypnotic long shots, editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione’s seamless stitching together of scenes or writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s trans-narrative approach to storytelling, Birdman pushes boundaries until it defies categorisation altogether. As the camera follows Riggan in and around the theatre in what appears to be one uninterrupted take, with little distinction between on- and backstage drama, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. As such, when the film opens with our (reluctant) hero levitating a few feet off the floor, it’s not entirely clear what exactly you’re looking at. Is Riggan imagining these powers or is he genuinely manifesting telekinetic abilities?

These powers continue to develop throughout the movie, as Riggan uses them to move various items with his mind and eventually take to the skies in full-blown flight (as you’ll have likely seen in the trailer). It’s also possible that he used them to incapacitate one of his weaker actors — though it might just as easily have been simple sabotage or coincidence. Now in need of a replacement he hires Mike, one of his other cast-members’ other halves who just happens to be a renowned method actor himself. Keaton and Norton are terrific together, their rivalry compelling in its own right but further enhanced by their obvious onscreen chemistry. This is ultimately Keaton’s film, but when Mark gives Riggan a crash course in acting Norton owns the scene. The whole ensemble deserves mention, though, with Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts impressing as their respective girlfriends, and Zach Galifianakis displaying real gravitas as Riggan’s lawyer-producer best friend.

Birdman can be enjoyed as a bravura and increasingly bizarre black comedy, but it also holds up to a little more scrutiny. Like Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton is best known for playing a superhero. The parallels don’t end there either, as both hung up their cowls in 1992 and since struggled to either redefine themselves or recapture their early success. It’s clear that Iñárritu has something to say on the subject of superhero movies — Norton and Stone are no strangers to the genre, while Iron Man and X-Men: First Class are referenced in conversation — but it’s difficult to be completely certain what his message might actually be. To call Birdman an attack on the genre or those who engage with it seems overly simplistic, but it’s certainly raises a few pertinent questions. Iñárritu also has something to say about acting in general, about fame and fortune, and about those whose job it is to criticise the performances of others.

Birdman isn’t going to appeal to everyone — it’s unashamedly enigmatic and esoteric — but those willing to engage with it ought to find something to ponder and puzzle over. Rather than being the closing statement that many would like it to be, however, Birdman is merely the start of a much larger conversation. This isn’t a conclusion; it’s a curiosity.



The Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)

The Amazing Spider-man 2Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is loving life as Spider-man — or, at least, he’s trying to. When he’s not showing up the Russian mob he’s either investigating his parents’ disappearance, helping to support his aunt (Sally Field) by selling photos of his alter-ego to the Daily Bugle, or trying to come to terms with the death of Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), and the promise he made to leave his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone) alone. Across town, OsCorp is in crisis; much of its research into cross-species genetics has been destroyed to appease uneasy shareholders in the wake of Dr Curt Connors’ transformation into The Lizard, leaving Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper) without any means of treating his illness. To complicate matters, estranged heir apparent Harry (Dane DeHaan) has returned to the boardroom and an employee has seemingly died on the premises. When electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is reborn as Electro, and after he is apparently defeated by Spider-man, he is taken to the Ravencroft Institute for study, a secret research facility that may have ties to Peter’s father.

When Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-man was released back in 2012, the general consensus was that it did not distinguish itself enough from Sam Raimi’s original trilogy to justify Sony’s decision to reboot the franchise. This is of course ridiculous; Raimi’s films concerned a mature, earnest, somewhat hapless Peter Parker who was haunted by the part he unwittingly played in the death of his uncle, while Webb’s dealt with a cocky character preoccupied by the mystery of his parents’ abandonment. There were of course other differences — The Amazing Spider-man boasted a more believable love interest and followed the Marvel model of paving the way for future instalments — but the key distinguishing factor was that Parker was essentially a different person. Inevitably, the feeling now seems to be that it’s too different. Given that there are so many iterations of the character in the comics, this too is nonsense.

The Amazing Spider-man 2 feels almost as different from its predecessor as it does from the original trilogy (in fact, the film it most closely resembles is probably Kick-Ass). Just as The Dark Knight dropped Katie Holmes and the mystic ninjas after Batman Begins, Webb’s sequel does away with the darker suit and skateboarding scenes in pursuit of an aesthetic better suiting his intentions. Unlike The Dark Knight, Webb’s sequel goes brighter and more bombastic. This is the most primary-coloured superhero film since Fantastic Four, and not at all in a bad way (this is a children’s movie after all). Opening with a plane crash that may or may not involve Richard and Mary Parker, the film cuts to Spider-man swinging through the streets of New York, combining slow-motion and 3D to astonishing effect. It’s kinetic and fun and confident, beautifully capturing the appeal of the character and proving once and for all that Webb knows his way around an action set-piece. The following sequence is one of the most exhilarating of the year so far, as Spider-man tries to prevent Aleksei Sytsevich (a scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti) from escaping the scene with stolen OsCorp technology (and the vials from escaping his speeding van) while on the phone to Gwen, who is waiting for him at graduation. Webb certainly isn’t holding back.

What’s remarkable about The Amazing Spider-man 2 is just how much personality it has — the film is wonderfully goofy and at times incredibly childish. Garfield is once again on fire, dishing out one-liners and serving up charm with an ease and effortlessness that is incredibly endearing. He’s one of the best physical comedians working today, and his manic mannerisms lend the scenes in the suit as much character and energy as those outside of it. Webb is only too happy to showcase his star’s talents at the expense of pace, and three scenes in particular — one set in a pharmacy and involving a sick Spider-man, another between Peter and Gwen as they list adorable affectations the other must stop if they are to be ‘just friends’, and a montage showing Parker returning home after various crime-fighting escapades — come as a welcome break from the plot, and give a real sense of the character’s everyday life. Peter Parker has more dimensions than ever before: he’s a high school graduate, an orphan, a devoted boyfriend to Gwen Stacy, an estranged friend to Harry Osborne and the pride and joy of his Aunt May. Not to mention New York’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-man.

Parker isn’t the only interesting character, however, and each person in his life has interests and issues of their own. Gwen, tired of Peter’s reluctance to commit (and thereby betray the promise he made to her father), decides that she wants to be the one to end their relationship, and decides to start afresh at the University of Oxford in England. It is revealed that Harry, meanwhile, is headed for an early grave due to an apparently incurable hereditary disease he has inherited from his father. Harry’s arc is particularly juicy, as he becomes convinced that Spider-man’s blood is the only answer to his problems, leading him to ask for Peter’s help in tracking the web-slinger down. There is a desperation to the new Green Goblin that makes him incredibly compelling, and Dane DeHaan’s volatile performance lends him a real menace and threat. Sally Field is also on top form, as her Aunt May takes on a second job to help pay for Peter’s higher education and is finally forced to come clean about what she knows about Richard and Mary’s research. There are a number of heart-rendering moments in The Amazing Spider-man 2, and that’s one of them.

And then there’s Jamie Foxx’s primary antagonist, Electro. While bumbling electrician Max Dillon may fail to live up to Spider-man 2‘s Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is widely considered to be one of the great comic book movie villains) he is generally more successful than Lizard from the previous film. Dillon is clearly disturbed, displaying compulsive tendencies and delusions of grandeur. He just wants to be noticed, and when Spider-man saves him during the earlier skirmish with Sytsevich he misinterprets it as an act of friendship. Electro is created when Dillon falls into a vat of genetically engineered electric eels, and though preposterous it is a very cinematic rebirth. As OsCorp races to cover-up the incident lest Wall Street catch wind of it, Dillon sparks back to life in what appears to be an in-house morgue. Spider-man reaches out to him in Time Square, but as his image is replaced on the surrounding screens by that of the wall-crawler Dillon accuses his one-time idol of stealing the limelight. It’s not water-tight motivation, but it’s substantially different to anything we’ve seen in the series to date. Thanks to the texture of Webb’s world Dillon is not an isolated threat, and his working at OsCorp naturally leads to encounters with both Harry and Gwen.

Raimi’s movies were getting nowhere fast. At the rate of one villain apiece (at least until Spider-man 3) we were still a long way from seeing a world as vibrant and textured as that of the comic book realised onscreen. Since Webb took over the series, he has seeded his movies with subplots and supporting characters galore, each offering a new and exciting direction in which to take the narrative in future instalments. The Amazing Spider-man 2 isn’t all set-up, however, and thanks to a set of outstanding performances (Garfield and Stone once again have chemistry to spare), distinct arcs for both Peter Parker and Max Dillon (not to mention Gwen Stacy), and a truly unique score from Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams (which at one point beautifully emulates Electro’s inner monologue) it is also a thrilling, engaging and emotionally satisfying story in its own right.






INTERVIEW: James Baxter Talks The Croods

The Croods PosterAhead of his latest film’s December 9th home entertainment release, British head of character animation James Baxter was kind enough to discuss with me the work he did on DreamWorks Animation’s caveman comedy The Croods.

For the uninitiated, the film centres on Eep (Emma Stone) and her family of troglodytes as they are forced to leave the safety of their cave and venture out into the weird and wonderful world around them. While father Grug (Nicolas Cage) errs on the side of caution, Eep yearns for adventure, befriending a self-proclaimed modern man (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) as she endeavours to evolve — or die trying.

Though the character designs and behavioural observations suggest relatively more than just a basic understanding of human evolution, at least when compared to other children’s movies (I’m looking at you, Ice Age), Baxter admits that his team only researched the film up to a point.

“I’m a big fan of evolutionary biology and I always have been, it’s one of the things I’m interested in, but all of that just kind of gets thrown out of the window when you’re doing a movie like this. It’s such a fantasy that if you actually had to defend it on scientific grounds you’d be in trouble.”

Although not as hands on as he’d perhaps like to have been, instead working with a team of up to thirty animators on the busiest days, Baxter did manage to animate Douglas the ‘crocodog’ on a number of occasions. While the human characters bear at least some resemblance to the historical records, however, the flora and fauna that they encounter are often a little more difficult to identify.

“It was fun to play with the idea that some of these creatures are these evolutionary dead-ends. We had certain things that we ended up not doing because they were really kind of contrary to presenting a world which felt like planet earth. We had to do this sort of slight rationalisation, just so that we could figure out how these animals would move or how they would behave.”

Although a sequel has since been announced, Baxter and his team never took the possibility of another film for granted. The animators would often joke that characters or environments could be put in The Croods 2, but as he points out, to count on it would have been presumptuous. “But I’m glad they’re making one”, he adds, “I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory”.

Unlike DreamWorks Animation’s previous film, Rise of the Guardians, The Croods has evidently proven lucrative enough to warrant another adventure. The film didn’t just follow a box office disappointment (though Rise of the Guardians is now in the green), however, it was also the first film to be distributed by 20th Century Fox rather than Paramount, yet he assures me that there was almost no additional pressure behind the scenes to get it right.

“I’m sure there was [pressure], amongst the financial people [laughs]. Strangely enough, we were already deep into doing Croods by the time Guardians came out, and you have so much momentum by that  point on a movie that it doesn’t really change what you’re doing so much. I guess you just have to keep your fingers crossed for it, every time you do this, just to see if people are going to respond to it.”

It seems that, for Baxter at least, people have been responding to his work for years. He started out at Disney around the time of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and one of his first jobs — at just 23 years of age — was to animate Belle for a little film called Beauty and the Beast. At the time, however, there was little indication that it would go on to become such a classic, widely considered to be one of Disney’s finest features.

“I just remember being scared, trying to live up to things like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, you know — and as an animator knowing how good that work is.  I do remember making some conscious decisions about the brown hair and brown eyes; we’d never really done a brunette since Snow White, really. It was a really amazing experience for me, as young as I was, and it’s one of those moments that I almost wish I could revisit, because I know now that I’m a little better at spotting what’s going to work and what’s going to become something big. I think that if I’d known [how well it would be received] at the time I probably would have done some things differently.”

Although Baxter has been at DreamWorks since The Prince Of Egypt, he took a few years out to set up his own studio, called James Baxter Animation. It was at a time when next to no traditional hand-drawn animation was being produced, at least in Hollywood, and it was this more than anything else that motivated him to become his own boss. Oddly, it was while working independently that he was asked to develop the opening and closing credits sequences for Kung Fu Panda. And then something lured him back.

“I enjoy working for DreamWorks, they’ve always been a nice company to work for. I had a good time at Disney too; I learnt a lot. You know, my time at Disney, it was a great place to be to learn how to be an animator, to do feature film animation. They have so many resources, and they have this rich legacy. And you can go and explore their libraries. That’s a great place to go to learn to be a character animator. But I enjoy the culture here at DreamWorks very much; I think they’re an interesting company.”

It’s certainly true that in recent years DreamWorks Animation has emerged as one of the leading animation houses in America. Though much of their output has succeeded financially, it wasn’t until Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon (“I think it’s my favourite film that I’ve ever worked on”) that the critical consensus matched the commercial one. Over the last few years, the studio has brought in the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins as consultants, though Baxter is quick to reveal that they aren’t the whole story behind DreamWorks’ growing success.

“I’ve met Roger a few times. I don’t think I would credit…as fantastic and brilliant as those two men are, I think there was a larger thing going on at DreamWorks over the last ten years. I think the success of Dragon [in particular] really comes down to [the film’s director] Dean DeBlois more than anyone else, and I think DreamWorks’ efforts to cultivate directors like that is starting to pay off.”

As for the future, James Baxter sees much to be excited about in the current state of animation. With the likes of Laika, Aardman Animations and Studio Ghibli bringing some much needed diversity to a genre that had become somewhat lost in a homogeneous sea of pixels — and even DreamWorks planning a blend of styles in the form of upcoming film Me and my Shadow — it seems that the stage is set for something special. Even more so when you look beyond the multiplex.

“Animation, ever since really I got into it, has been a pretty exciting place to be. I’m really enjoying working on the sequel to How To Train Your Dragon — I’m finishing that up in January/February. So there’s that sort of animation where you’re really pushing what you can do in terms of performance and subtlety — dramatic animation — but I also really enjoy a lot of the things that are going on in television right now: Adventure Time, The Regular Show and Gravity Falls on Disney.”

Failing that, of course, you need only watch The Croods to feel excited. As I said in my review, early scenes of Eep scaling a cliff face induce actual vertigo, while the environments and creatures are among the most creative to grace the screen in years, and all this is yours to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday. Eep indeed.

Many thanks to James Baxter for speaking with me, and to Premier for making it all possible.

The Croods (2013)

The CroodsTired of life in her family’s cave, wildchild Eep (Emma Stone) ventures farther and farther from her ancestral home on the precious few occasions that she is actually allowed to go outside. Holed up with her overprotective father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), as well as her sympathetic mother (Catherine Keener), feisty grandmother (Cloris Leachman), dimwitted brother (Clark Duke) and feral younger sister, Eep dreams of adventure while everyone else around her prioritises safety and survival. When the cave is destroyed in an earthquake, however, The Croods are finally forced out into the real world where they form an uneasy alliance with modern man Guy (Ryan Reynolds).

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Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster SquadIt’s 1949, and in the wake of World War II Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has wrestled the city of Los Angeles from its angels and subsequently set his sights on the Mafia Mecca of Chicago. In an attempt to put an end to the crime boss’ reign before it’s too late, Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) recruits good cop Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) and asks that he put together an unofficial task-force of officers that he can trust. Meanwhile, initially reluctant to join the newly formed Gangster Squad, best friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) sets his eye on the kingpin’s girl (Emma Stone). Read more of this post

The Amazing Spider-man (2012)

Abandoned by his parents as a child without explanation, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has spent the years since searching for answers from the home he shares with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen – “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”). Discovering a briefcase whilst clearing the basement, Parker contacts an old lab partner of his father’s, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), only to be bitten by a radioactive spider at the latter’s place of work (OsCorp, for anyone taking notes). Helping to complete the scientist’s long-gestating formulae, Parker inadvertently helps create The Lizard when Connors tests the results on himself in a bid to grow back his missing arm. Having fallen for Connors’ head intern, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), Peter becomes Spider-man and sets out to win the girl and save the day. Read more of this post

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

All Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) wants is dessert. All his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), wants is a divorce. In the face of his wife’s betrayal, Cal relocates to a swanky bar, one which he had never thought to visit before. Having watched Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) leave with a different girl every night, Cal inadvertently finds himself playing padawan to Jacob’s infallible charm. From under this tailored wing, Cal begins to rediscover his manhood, beginning a spate of one night stands with nutso teacher Kate (Marisa Tomei). Back at the bar, meanwhile, Jacob has betrayed his inner chauvinist by falling for Hannah (Emma Stone), a perky accountant who unexpectedly resists his tried and tested routine.

There is a sequence, approximately two thirds into Crazy, Stupid, Love, which teases the movie that could have been. Perhaps ironically the perfect mix of cute and sexy, this scene is a veritable feast of charm, quirk and confidence that culminates memorably in a homage to Dirty Dancing‘s famous lift. As Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone lie in bed, having failed entirely at hot sex (come on, it’s in the trailer!), the film verges tantalisingly on greatness, what came before lapping jealously out of sight – out of mind. It doesn’t last.

Tonally, it’s all over the place. Joyless to begin with, Crazy, Stupid, Love flits from serious drama to laughable farce by way a slightly dubious sermon in masculinity, peaking prematurely with the above sequence, some twenty minutes before the actual conclusion, before breaking glass for the emergency neat bow. It is a meandering direction that makes you feel every second of the film’s 118 minute running time, spreading the story over a slew of cross-generational storylines that struggle – discordantly – for the dwindling spot-light.

Steve Carell and Julianne Moore are heartfelt, honest and deeply engaging, their damaged relationship pushing for a respectability not usually found in the ensemble romantic comedy. Gosling and Stone, meanwhile, pretty much sit the first hour out, coming together in a decidedly cliché attempt at parody, effectively lampooning the Hollywood romance embodied by Gosling’s smooth criminal. Each romance borders on exclusivity, however, undermining the other in what amounts to a series of uneven episodes – conflicting in tone, and grating in gears. With both threads vying for your heart (and – refreshingly – brain), straddling the rom-com hyphenated divide with a definite unease, precisely what the film does not need is another, twee teenage crush, as Cal’s son falls for his babysitter, who is in turn holding a torch of her own for Cal.

Culminating in a scene in which both Jonah Bobo and Steve Carell address the eighth grade with two conflicting, but equally saccharine, lectures on love, it is almost impossible to recall the promise and verve with which Crazy, Stupid, Love started out. Having accidentally threatening to turn the oh-so trite premise on its head, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa don’t stop until the film has been relentlessly course-corrected in time for the contractual happily ever after. Seriously, some of these contrivances need to be seen to be believed. The film’s fleeting misogyny aside – though if you didn’t feel objectified then who am I to complain – it is a movie that hits gold entirely by accident and completely without realising, swiftly falling back on convention for fear that anyone might have noticed.

Uneven, about 20 minutes too long and unfortunately short on Stone, Crazy Stupid Love squanders its promise in a misguided bid to finger all of the pies. With each subplot proving surprisingly satisfying on their own, together they simply clump unflatteringly as the script jumps from measured pathos to perky banter with even less finesse than Cal’s own transition from dad to lad.