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Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Music:
Steve Jablonsky.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
113 minutes.
Year:
2013.

4 Comments

magicinthemoonlight1This Woody Allen rom-com slipped out while I was on holiday in 2014 (you blink and you miss ’em these days) and can best be described as Allen-by-numbers, by which I mean that committed fans will enjoy it while being aware throughout that he can do better: typically there’s plenty of attention paid to period detail and its characters share a few droll exchanges, but it’s probably for the best if your expectations are low. Emma Stone appears to be Allen’s young actress of choice these days, and here she plays an American medium, who may or may not be genuinely gifted; opposite her is Colin Firth’s stuffy English illusionist, a man who prides himself in his ability to expose fake spirit guides (the joke being that he performs on stage in an unlikely guise as a Chinese man by the name of Wei Ling Soo).

Much of it is par-for-the-course, especially with regard to Allen’s late period European love affair: the characters are resolutely upper class; it features a young American abroad; the tone is light and frothy; marriages (both existing and potential) amicably dissolve at the drop of a hat when an older man (Firth standing in for Allen) falls in love with a younger woman; the setting (the south of France) certainly looks great but is once again a one-eyed vision of Europe that eventually seems as dull as a travel brochure; and there are virtually no local people in the story (a couple of people who speak zee Franglais wiz zee French accentz aside). Still, if you can stifle the yawns there are things to enjoy: Firth and Stone share some chemistry and raise a couple of laughs during one witty scene heavy in phallic symbolism set in an observatory; and when Allen really loves his leading lady, as is the case here, he and his cinematographer (the reliably excellent Darius Khondji) certainly pull out all the stops in order to make her look good. The supporting characters, an underwritten mixture of foppish twits and wily old beans, are almost instantly forgettable, which is a shame considering the presence of excellent actors like Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver, but Firth is obviously adept at playing English toffs and he and Stone manage to carry Magic In The Moonlight over the finishing line. Not bad, but often more tiresome than it is funny.

Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leehrsen, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney.
Cinematography: Darius Khondji.
Editing: Alisa Lepselter.
Music: Various.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
97 minutes.
Year:
2014.

15 Comments

Appearing on screen weeks after both Marvel and DC announced plans for world domination via the occupation of the world’s multiplexes between the years of 2015 and 2115, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dizzying, hifalutin and technically-impressive Birdman aims several darts at the tiresome superhero output of the Hollywood machine while also seeking to prick the egomaniacal bubble of its credibility-seeking stars. It feels very timely indeed, and showcases a welcome lightness of touch hitherto absent from the Mexican auteur’s work, even if at times it is somewhat difficult to gauge just how withering and caustic he and his fellow writers are trying to be.

Often Birdman appears to be a celebration of the actor’s powers of transformation, though conversely it also highlights this as a peculiar blend of arrogance and pretension. Michael Keaton is on career-best form as Riggan Thompson, an out-of-favour star most famous for his earlier role as the superhero Birdman (the heavy-handed irony being, of course, that Keaton himself is arguably best known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s original brace of superhero movies). The unhappy, unfulfilled Thompson has turned his back on the billion dollar series that brought him stardom and has decided to stage a highbrow adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway, self-financing the initial run and drafting in his lawyer Jake (Zack Galfianakis, restrained) as producer. He has also employed fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) as his assistant, partly to save money but mainly so that he can re-connect with her after being absent from the family home for years, while his partner Laura (Andrea Riseborough) co-stars in the play and his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) visits him in the theatre.

The film, which is cleverly manipulated through editing and camera trickery so that it appears to be one continuous two-hour take, details Thompson’s struggles as the play nears its opening night. As well as directing and acting in the adaptation he must also contend with the mounting problems of his fellow actors: Laura is taken for granted by Riggan while first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) must contend with her boyfriend, the primadonna method actor Mike (an electric Edward Norton). There’s even an embittered and influential New York Times theatre critic lurking ominously in a nearby bar, played by Lindsay Duncan, whose hatred of movie stars that seek instant credibility via barely-committed ‘big name’ theatre runs means that she intends to vengefully trash the play in print regardless of its quality. And to top it all, as opening night looms, Riggan appears to be losing the plot completely by communicating in private with his old Birdman character.

Magic realism crept into Iñárritu’s previous film, the relentlessly-downbeat Biutiful, in which Javier Bardem’s medium is able to communicate with the dead. Here the appearance of the Birdman character signals an examination of the supposed ‘transformation’ undertaken by serious film actors, many of whom regularly champion their own abilities during press junkets by stating that they ‘became’ a certain character during production, or were ‘consumed’ by the role, while also reaffirming the idea of the cinema screen and the stage as places where ‘magic’ happens. Iñárritu is smart enough to keep the Riggan / Birdman relationship on the back-burner for the majority of the film, and conjures up some intrigue from its ambiguity: the communication only occurs when nobody else is around, for example, and when we see the actor apparently fly to the theatre after a drunken night on a townhouse stoop the image is swiftly punctured by the sight of an angry cab driver following Riggan through the main entrance demanding payment. Has Riggan really developed powers of telekinesis, which he supposedly uses to drop a lighting rig on an incapable actor (Jeremy Shamos), or is this just a further sign of the deterioration of his mental health? On the one hand Keaton’s character appears to be going crazy; on the other hand Birdman’s appearances increase in frequency as Riggan gets to grips with the play he is directing (and, more importantly, the character he is portraying), gradually shedding the original, somewhat vain reasons fuelling the staging.

It’s hard to tell whether the writers are mocking the idea of actors being all-consumed by their roles or not. Without wishing to give too much away, by the end of the film Riggan has delivered a transcendental performance, and this is celebrated, though the writers of Birdman are also clearly poking fun at the lengths actors will go to in order to achieve this, especially regarding physical transformations. The prickly pretentiousness of serious thesps is lampooned throughout and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the dubious and wildly-unpredictable antics of Mike, whose own attempts to get under a character’s skin mean drinking on stage and even suggesting real intercourse, as opposed to simulated sex, to his on- and off-stage partner Lesley.

Mike is a respected theatre performer, as dismissive of Hollywood name actors as Duncan’s critic Tabitha, and interestingly it is these two who gradually dismantle Riggan’s carefully-rehearsed reasons for moving into theatre / adapting this particular Raymond Carver story. Both characters initially seem cruel in their withering dismissal of Thompson, with Shiner stealing Riggan’s anecdote about Carver for an interview and Tabitha denouncing him as a fake, but through their mocking cruelty they force the former A-lister to address his reasons for making the play and for taking up acting as a profession. Uncomfortable truths are told during two wonderfully-acted scenes in a bar, although they perhaps reveal Iñárritu’s own attitudes to critics and cred-seeking actors a little too easily. It’s interesting to note Riggan’s views about critics are soon forgotten when he actually gets a good review.

The film is also withering in its assessment of paying audiences: the main catalyst for public interest in the play is the reaction on social media to Riggan’s farcical jaunt around Times Square clad in nowt but a pair of underpants (male characters appearing in y-fronts alone is a recurring feature here that gently mocks the typical Batman / Superman costume), while Sam has no truck with the theatre world at all, caustically dismissing her father’s desire to appeal to a crowd of smug, privileged, middle-aged patrons during one heated conversation.

Birdman’s casting, as alluded to earlier, is interesting, though it appears to have divided critics; some have suggested it’s clever and others have been less impressed, arguing that the approach of employing ex-superhero actors in a film about an ex-superhero actor is arch to the point of being insufferable, and unsubtle in the way that it forces home the point that superhero movies having a stranglehold on Hollywood and its stars is A Bad Thing (though I dare say the budgets for the arthouse / indie films released by Fox Searchlight, such as Birdman, might not be so readily available if ‘sister company’ 20th Century Fox hadn’t raked in a billion or so from the X-Men franchise). Keaton’s own career has parallels to what we know of Thompson’s, of course, while it’s no coincidence that Stone – who, incidentally, is great – has appeared in the two most recent Spider-Man movies; Norton has history in that field too, having played Bruce Banner in Louis Leterrier’s so-so The Incredible Hulk a few years ago.

While I agree that there is a slightly smug, slightly self-indulgent aspect to this, in my opinion the casting does work in the film’s favour, and I say that simply because Keaton, Stone and Norton all excel. I also enjoyed the playful writing when the in-joke is taken even further, with Hollywood stars Jeremy Renner, Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey, Jr gently mocked: they are all listed as being unavailable when Riggan seeks another ‘name’ to increase interest in and ticket sales for his play, as a result of their on-going superhero franchise commitments. There’s even a prescient mention of Ryan Gosling, who has since signed up for his own cape duties, while George Clooney – another ex-Batman, of course – is the subject of one of Riggan’s insecurity-revealing dreams.

Throughout proceedings Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki follows the actors with his swooping, graceful camera as they themselves move in a well-choreographed fashion around the theatre, largely ignoring the mental boundary between off-stage and on-stage as well as the notion of ‘private’ spaces. The theatre is a claustrophobic and fairly dirty setting, with Riggan’s cluttered dressing room a focus, and it is a relief when a door is finally thrust open and the action moves to a rooftop or the exterior of the theatre; it’s almost as if you can breathe in that fresh New York air from the comfort of your cinema seat! When Riggan first bursts outside to meet Shiner for a drink it seems as though the entire world is suddenly available to him, even though the action is supposed to stay within a block throughout. This unusually-compact setting – we’re talking about a director who favoured city-and-continent-wide multi-threaded stories for his first three films, remember – allows for some inventive soundtrack work, too, particularly regarding the diegetic and insistent street performance of a jazz drummer.

Its cleverness may be dismissed as Oscar bait, and the Academy certainly loves a film about the movie industry, but ultimately Birdman is an original, involving work and it is a technically impressive one to boot. Keaton and Norton successfully send up the acting process via a game mix of farce and slapstick – their hissy-fit fight scene is a highlight – but they also have several separate moments of tenderness and vulnerability that increase the appeal of both characters. Stone’s performance marks her as one to watch, too, although I’m in two minds about her handling of the film’s final shot: it ends up as a botched attempt at a payoff.

While I’ve enjoyed all of Iñárritu’s films prior to Birdman this is definitely a step forward, tonally-different to his earlier, darker work, and it bodes well for the future that he has found another route to critical acclaim. That said this black comedy does have a spicy, vaguely malevolent streak, and its targets are broad: the prevalence of the superhero blockbuster is the most obvious, but there are a number of voices competing here with the intention of trashing actors, filmmakers, critics, stage directors and their audiences. Perhaps the Birdman character is actually an allegory of the director or a voice for Iñárritu himself: after all he, above anyone else, has the power to enable his lead actor to soar.

The Basics:
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

27 Comments