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.
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.
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.
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.
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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