Birdman” doesn’t quite take off. And “Jupiter” sinks.

Michael Keaton in "Birdman".

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”.

Mexico’s Ale­jan­dro González Iñár­ritu burst on to the inter­na­tional film cir­cuit with Amores Per­ros in 2000. One of the most excit­ing and con­fi­dent debuts for many a moon, it really looked like some­one spe­cial had arrived to shake things up.

Unfor­tu­nately, since then things have gone decid­edly down­hill. We got the pon­der­ous and frankly soapy 21 Grams in ’03, the por­ten­tous and all too pre­cious Babel in ’06 and more of the same with Biu­ti­ful in ‘10.

That’s three dull duds in a row. So the first thing to say is that Bird­man is def­i­nitely some­thing of a return to form, albeit of the qual­i­fied variety.

"Amores Perros".

Amores Per­ros”.

Nom­i­nally, it’s the story of an actor pur­sued by his alter ego, the Bat­man like super­hero he long ago starred as in one of those Hol­ly­wood block­busters that so many actors like tofeign embar­rass­ment over. But really, it’s a won­der­fully com­pact and con­tained cham­ber piece set in the suit­ably con­fined space of the theatre.

Michael Keaton – you know, the guy that used to be Bat­man – is the washed-up has-been try­ing to give his career a sheen of respectabil­ity by adapt­ing a Ray­mond Carver short story for the Broad­way stage.

Stand­ing in his way are his girl­friend, Andrea Rise­bor­ough, his daugh­ter, Emma Stone, the method-obsessed star actor, the method-obsessed Edward Nor­ton and his love inter­est in the play, Naomi Watts.

And for 75 min­utes or so, we get a won­der­fully bitchy, impres­sively nuanced, grip­ping drama in which each char­ac­ter reveals them­selves to be at least as messed up as Keaton. Nor­ton is par­tic­u­larly impres­sive giv­ing warmth and depth to what could have been a one dimen­sional sleaze, and sug­gest­ing that con­trary to appear­ances, he does have a sense of humour. And Keaton obvi­ously is hugely impressive.

'All About Eve", now that's how you sneer.

All About Eve”, now that’s how you sneer.

But there’s a reveal­ing scene at around the 70 minute mark when the actor con­fronts the feared critic, played by Lind­say Dun­can.

This you felt is what the film had been build­ing up to all along. Here was the moment for Iñár­ritu to stamp his author­ity much as Godard did in One Plus One, with “The critic is as close to the artist as the his­to­rian is to the man of action”, or as Bren­dan Behan had with his famous “Crit­ics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it them­selves.” But the film fluffs its lines, and instead of a with­er­ing put down all the scene deliv­ers is hol­low blus­ter in the form of empty huff­ing and puffing.

From here on in, the film qui­etly loses its direc­tion, as it mis­tak­enly attempts to take flight. And for the last 20 min­utes or so, that por­ten­tous­ness returns, as the film makes a con­scious effort to become cin­e­matic. And all that won­der­fully claus­tro­pho­bic ten­sion is allowed to dis­si­pate, dis­ap­pear­ing into thin air. What had promised to be a con­tem­po­rary take on All About Eve and an impres­sive com­pan­ion piece to Sex, Lies and Video­tape becomes, yawn,  just another Oscar vehicle.

"Jupiter Ascending".

Jupiter Ascend­ing”.

What a pity. Bird­man des­per­ately wants to be cin­ema, but all it ends up being is theatre.

So, Jupiter Ascend­ing, is it really as bad as every­one says it is? Well, for one thing, as thin and incon­se­quen­tial as the script is, it’s not Star Wars bad. And yes, bereft of a story that any­one other than a 5 year old would own up to, watch­ing some­thing that’s so entirely depen­dent on CGI is like hav­ing to watch a video game you’re not allowed to actu­ally play. But in fair­ness, it’s 7 hours shorter than Lord Of the Rings was (16 if you include the sequel), and no one seemed ter­ri­bly both­ered about being asked to sit through that.

Truth be told, it’s very dis­ap­point­ing. Espe­cially after the sim­i­larly but wrongly ignored Cloud Atlas, Andy and (now) Lana Wachowski’s pre­vi­ous film.

As I men­tioned in my review here, the rel­a­tively restrained use of CGI there was put entirely at the ser­vice of the story and the char­ac­ters who inhab­ited them.

"Cloud Atlas", just as visually arresting, but with a story.

Cloud Atlas”, just as visu­ally arrest­ing, but with a story.

Jupiter Ascend­ing is like see­ing what you’d thought was a reformed alco­holic falling spec­tac­u­larly off the wagon, going off on an almighty ben­der to make up for lost time. It’s all CGI here. And what­ever story there might have been once upon a time has been irre­triev­ably buried. Instead, the cup over­floweth with unremit­ting tedium.

All we can do is hope that this was a one off. And that now, they’ll have got it out of their sys­tem once and for all.

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Bowie as ever bucks the trend.

David Bowie "Nothing Has Changed".

Double-vinyle edi­tion.

Like Reader’s Digest and tinned spaghetti, great­est hits albums are a cul­tural affront. By tak­ing the orig­i­nal out of its con­text, and reduc­ing and re-packaging it with such shame­less cynicism, you hope­lessly devalue it whilst insult­ing the intel­li­gence of those you are try­ing to appeal to.

Invari­ably, they’re some­thing the record label releases behind your back, and as such, most artists want noth­ing to do with them. As ever and as usual, David Bowie appears to be the excep­tion to this.

Some­thing about the man seems to give every­thing he does an irre­sistible sheen. And of late, he’s pulled off the remark­able feat of mak­ing even his money mak­ing schemes look chic. After he issued his Bowie Bonds in 1997 for a cool 55 mil­lion pounds Ster­ling, and when­ever another ad appears propped up by one more of his (albeit re-mastered) tracks, we all applaud, impressed.

The triple cd and the one to get.

The triple cd and the one to get.

Instead of lament­ing that one of the giants has joined the great unwashed to spend what remains of his pre­cious time in point­lessly dredg­ing through his back cat­a­logue to need­lessly gen­er­ate yet more un-necessary money. We con­grat­u­late him on treat­ing the mon­e­ti­za­tion of his back cat­a­logue with as much imag­i­na­tion as he would the cre­ation of a new album.

And now he’s pulled off the same feat with (another) great­est hits col­lec­tion, Noth­ing Has Changed.

Per­haps it’s just that when an artist does take a per­sonal inter­est in a great­est hits album, we’re so unused to it that it feels like they’ve called around to our house to talk us through it personally.

The fact of the mat­ter is, the tweaks that he has made to this one prob­a­bly amounted to no more than a one line email dic­tated to one of his assistants.

Yet there’s no get­ting away from it. Noth­ing Has Changed feels like Bowie has per­son­ally over­seen it. And as such, it feels so much more sub­stan­tial than a con­ven­tional col­lec­tion. Once again, and as ever, we’re impressed.

The 2-cd edition.

The 2-cd edition.

There are three dif­fer­ent ver­sions, each (again) with their own bespoke cover art. And, as noted by the boys from Pitch­fork who give it an 8.8 here, you can ignore the two more con­ven­tional dou­ble albums, and go straight for the impres­sively dynamic triple cd ver­sion.

It sounds like only a small thing, but going through his career as it does in reverse order is inspired. Instead of wear­ing out the first cd, return­ing to the sec­ond, and only occa­sion­ally dip­ping into the third, you lis­ten with rapt atten­tion to all three as it builds and builds.

It’s not that there’s been noth­ing of worth since 1990. But truth be told, the gems have got­ten fewer and fur­ther between. So the fact that a num­ber of the more recent tracks have been given a re-mix helps to bol­ster the ear­lier (ie chrono­log­i­cally later) tracks.

But even here, you sense his per­sonal pres­ence. When James Mur­phy ref­er­ences Ashes to Ashes in his Love is Lost, and then the Pet Shop Boys give Space Odd­ity a nod on their Hello Space­boy it’s impos­si­ble not to imag­ine the great man stand­ing behind them at the mix­ing desk, over­see­ing matters.

In the midst of those 5 extraordinary years.

In the midst of those 5 extra­or­di­nary years.

But what really makes the whole thing so cap­ti­vat­ing is the con­fir­ma­tion that Bowie has a Mozart-esqe abil­ity to churn out impos­si­bly mem­o­rable melodies at the drop of one of his many hats. What this means is, that he is at once an albums artist, and a sin­gles artist.

On the one hand, there’s the Bowie who made, arguably, the most impres­sive and out­ra­geously diverse 6 albums ever pro­duced, over a six year period between 1975 and 1980, begin­ning with Young Amer­i­cans and cul­mi­nat­ing with Scary Mon­sters.

From total immer­sion in Philly soul, to the fore­front of the elec­tronic avant-garde, and on into the sec­ond wave of punk. And all just two years after being the newly crowned king of glam rock.

And yet at the same time and dur­ing all of which, he can pro­duce a never-ending string of out­ra­geously hum­ma­ble tunes that pull unashamedly at the heart strings. From Life On Mars and Drive-in Sat­ur­day in the early 70s to Every­one Says Hi in 2002 and Where Are We Now? from last year’s oth­er­wise (whis­per it) hugely dis­ap­point­ing The Next Day.

It’s this com­bi­na­tion of artis­tic ambi­tion, and an ear for the per­fect melody that makes Bowie so beguil­ing, and keeps us all so con­sis­tently impressed. And that’s what raises this col­lec­tion up so thrillingly.

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Wong Kar-wai’s new film The Grandmaster.

Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster.

Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.

Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai burst on to the inter­na­tional scene with his third fea­ture, Chungk­ing Express in 1994. But there’s always been a sus­pi­cion that he puts far more effort into wear­ing his sun­glasses just so, and into always remem­ber­ing to keep them on indoors than he does into his scripts.

Like the char­ac­ters in his films, he seems to drift in a haze of exis­ten­tial ennui, from which he only occa­sion­ally emerges to mar­vel at his own love­li­ness. For all their frames of vel­vet and chords of gold, there’s a diaphanous feel to Days of Being Wild (’90) and Fallen Angles (’95) as there was to Chungk­ing Express that leaves you want­ing and qui­etly dis­ap­pointed. But then he made In The Mood For Love.

In The Mood For Love.

In The Mood For Love.

Screened in com­pe­ti­tion at Cannes in 2000, where scan­dalously it lost out to the ris­i­ble Dancer In The Dark, In the Mood For Love had all the usual extrav­a­gant imagery, melo­dra­matic music and impec­ca­bly man­i­cured char­ac­ters, but it also had weight, sub­stance and depth. It was as if he’d taken the sex­ual frus­tra­tion and emo­tional repres­sion of Brief Encounter, and reimag­ined it for the Far East, ren­der­ing it in a rich, exotic and ram­pantly resplen­dent Tech­ni­color. It’s mag­nif­i­cent, and you can see the trailer here.

But after that, there was 2046 (’04), the inevitably dis­ap­point­ing sequel to In the Mood, and then My Blue­berry Nights from 2007. So what are we to make of his lat­est film, The Grand­mas­ter?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon.

Released in China over a year ago, it arrives here only now. And that as they say tells its own story. I’ll not give too much away, but it does help to have a rough idea as to why it is that some of it jars in the way that it does. Tara Brady gives a pithy and impas­sioned sum­mary in the Irish Times here. And she’s right to be annoyed.

The film has those irri­tat­ing title pages that, instead of pro­pelling the nar­ra­tive for­ward by fill­ing in the gaps between what you’ve just seen and what you are about to see, merely sum up what you’ve just been told. You feel like you’re being patron­iz­ingly spo­ken down to by one of those fatu­ous teach­ers who put you off edu­ca­tion for life.

And entire story strands dis­ap­pear with­out trace, tak­ing with them what you’d assumed were impor­tant characters.

Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ziyi Zhang in Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon

And yet. What a sen­sa­tion­ally sump­tu­ous sen­sual feast for eyes and ears it is. It’s very much a com­pan­ion piece to Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon. But whereas the later was a love story framed by mar­tial arts, this is a mar­tial arts film with some class of a love story hov­er­ing at its fringes.

But, and this is hardly sur­pris­ing given its tor­tured ges­ta­tion, it lacks Crouch­ing Tiger’s struc­tural har­mony. The Grand­mas­ter is a metic­u­lously con­structed mar­tial arts film, that’s as pre­cise with its cam­era angles as it is with the chore­o­graphed shapes thrown by its combatants.

But it’s also a glo­ri­ously lan­guid, impos­si­bly lush, quin­tes­sen­tial art house film that lingers lov­ingly on every exquis­itely crafted com­po­si­tion, lux­u­ri­at­ing in the score that they’re draped in. The music is so Morricone-esque, it sounds as if some­one has repro­duced one of his scores, note by note.

Which makes it two films in one, that some­how coa­lesce, but not quite seam­lessly. I’ve no idea what kind of cross-over audi­ence there is for mar­tial arts films, and for ethe­real art house spec­ta­cles like this. But I’m one of them.

You can see the trailer for The Grand­mas­ter here.

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So Farewell then, Laser Video…

Laser DVD in Dublin.

Laser DVD in Dublin.

First, some quick house­keep­ing. For the moment, I’m going to be post­ing here once a month, as opposed to every week. If things are par­tic­u­larly slow in your neck of the woods, and you’d like to hear why, by all means drop me a line in the com­ment sec­tion, and I’ll make a short story bor­ing. But for the moment, onwards:

For any­one who’s lived or stud­ied in Dublin over the last 25 years, Laser Video, as it was and then Laser DVD wasn’t so much an insti­tu­tion as it was a life­line. Since it moved to Georges Street from Ranelagh 22 years ago, it fos­tered around it a com­mu­nity of aspi­rant film mak­ers and musi­cians and the intel­lec­tu­ally curi­ous from all around the city and its environs.

Women Without Men.

Women With­out Men.

The last three films that I picked up from there, as I recall, were: A Time For Drunken Horses, a Kur­dish film from 2000 that man­ages to be incred­i­bly cul­tur­ally spe­cific and yet time­lessly uni­ver­sal; the sump­tu­ous Iran­ian film Women With­out Men from 2010, which I reviewed ear­lier here; and Fassbinder’s sole foray into sci­ence fic­tion, World On A Wire which was orig­i­nally broad­cast as a two part mini series on Ger­man tele­vi­sion in 1973.

All three were a joy to behold and are impos­si­bly hard to get your hands on. Or at least they would have been, but five years ago.

The truth is, I’ve been to Laser sig­nif­i­cantly fewer times over the last two years than I had in the pre­vi­ous two. And I had been far fewer times dur­ing those pre­vi­ous two years than in the two before them. I had every inten­tion of fre­quent­ing it as ardently as I had in the past, it just didn’t happen.

David Byrne's True Stories.

David Byrne’s True Stories.

The very tech­nol­ogy that made a place like Laser pos­si­ble ulti­mately ren­dered it redun­dant. Or at least com­mer­cially unvi­able. It was the rev­o­lu­tion in film dis­tri­b­u­tion thanks to the arrival of video that lead to the cre­ation of a place like Laser. And it’s the Inter­net and the rip­ples cre­ated by the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion that have lead to its tragic demise.

It’s des­per­ately sad for every­one involved. And we’re all going to miss it ter­ri­bly. And I sup­pose, if anyone’s to blame, we all could have made a bit more of a con­scious effort of late.

But, for good or ill, the world has moved on. To quote from True Sto­ries, which is exactly the kind of film that you would only pre­vi­ously have ever chanced upon in Laser. David Byrne, whose only work as a direc­tor this is, turns to cam­era, and says:

What time is it? No time to look back.

Farewell then, and thank you.

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2001: A Space Odyssey, the Magic of Pure Cinema.

Section 3 of Kubrick's iconic sic fi classic.

Sec­tion 3 of Kubrick’s iconic sic fi classic.

Peo­ple often remem­ber 2001: A Space Odyssey as being divided into three. It’s actu­ally in four parts. The first part sees us in the depths of our pre­his­tory. And it’s a pretty accu­rate sum­mary of what was then known about our ori­gins in the mid 1960s.

We began as part ape part man, slightly more the lat­ter than the for­mer, liv­ing as one amongst many ani­mals, some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed upon us.

But our abil­ity to fash­ion tools, and our under­stand­ing that this is was sets up apart began the process by which we soon came to dom­i­nate the planet. It also – though much later – intro­duces rivalry between us and our neigh­bour­ing clans. And that means drama.

Section 1: no sex please, we're (adopted) British.

Sec­tion 1: no sex please, we’re (adopted) British.

Pre­dictably, the one ele­ment that Kubrick leaves out of our pre­his­toric evo­lu­tion is repro­duc­tion, because that requires sex. Despite the fact that sex is the source of all the best drama, Kubrick avoids it. Because sex leads to emo­tion, and Kubrick doesn’t do emo­tion – see ear­lier review here.

The sec­ond sec­tion moves to the future, where an astro­naut is sent into space to inves­ti­gate a curi­ous dis­cov­ery on a nearby moon. And when that goes wrong, we move fur­ther into the future for the third sec­tion, as another pair of astro­nauts have been sent into space to inves­ti­gate that.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

Miss Jones! Rigby in sec­tion 2.

This then becomes a bat­tle of wits between one of them and the on board com­puter, HAL. And when then the bedrag­gled astro­naut speeds off into space for the fourth sec­tion we are flung fur­ther for­ward into the future and what seems to be a new dimension.

What hap­pens when we get there is instruc­tive. In appear­ance impres­sively enig­matic, it’s actu­ally fairly easy to break down. The fourth sec­tion is basi­cally an exer­cise in sub­ject dis­place­ment.

He, the sub­ject, looks over at a door­way. Cut to his POV of the door­way, the object. Then the object has become the sub­ject, and we now find our­selves at the door­way. He, the new sub­ject, is look­ing over at: Our POV of an old man eat­ing at a table, the new object. Then once again, we are now at the table, where the old man, who was the object but is now the sub­ject, is look­ing around at: our POV of another old man in a bed. And once again we are over with the man in the bed, who is look­ing up at: our POV of the gran­ite slab that links all four sec­tions, sug­gest­ing so much yet say­ing so little.

Section 3: man V machine.

Sec­tion 3: man V machine.

The response to all of which is, so what? It’s all won­der­fully evoca­tive, but it’s not actu­ally about any­thing. Nei­ther philo­soph­i­cally, intel­lec­tu­ally nor nar­ra­tively. And that goes for the whole film. The only sec­tion of the film that is, is the third, where fairly stan­dard fears about machines tak­ing over the world are explored. Other than that, none of it is about any­thing. But that’s not the point.

What it is instead is a sequence of beau­ti­fully com­posed, imag­is­tic tableaux, painstak­ingly con­structed and all metic­u­lously framed by bril­liantly cho­sen pieces of com­pli­men­tary clas­si­cal music.

The enigmatic section 4.

The enig­matic sec­tion 4.

When the space­ship docs in part 2 to the tune of the Blue Danube, for a full six min­utes(!), that’s not what space looks or sounds like. That’s what we’d like it to look and sound like in our imag­i­na­tions. Unfet­tered by the con­straints of con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive, Kubrick let his imag­i­na­tion roam. And it’s ravishing.

If all films were like this of course, none of us would ever bother watch­ing any of them. But as a lone bea­con that stands proudly in con­trast to every other great film, with its dis­missal of nar­ra­tive and there­fore of emo­tional engage­ment, and its cel­e­bra­tion instead of pure images set to sub­lime music, ver­ily its vision to behold.

It’s on for a week at the Light House in Dublin, and else­where, and here’s the 2001 trailer.

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