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Posts Tagged ‘Edward Norton’

Oh, lord, not another new year? Another one? Will the line stretch on to the crack of doom? …you know, I think that it will, by definition. Oh well, time to lay aside the bloated seasonal blockbusters and engage in the usual cinematic detox, although hopefully this year’s serious and worthy awards-trawling films will be a bit less utterly depressing than the crop twelve months ago. Now, more than at any other point in the calendar, we are invited to ask ourselves what constitutes a good film, genuine talent, worthwhile art.

birdman

Which makes it a good time for Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman to be released, not least because this is a film which seems to be asking those same questions. Very little about this movie is straightforward, but the plot seems pretty straightforward, at least initially: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor struggling for artistic credibility, but overshadowed by a stint playing a superhero in Hollywood back in the 90s. Now he is attempting to stage a (seemingly fairly dreadful) Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story he has written, directed, and is starring in himself – to make the situation even more emotionally charged, also involved in the production are his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and daughter (Emma Stone). However, when the production loses an actor, he takes on brilliant but wildly unpredictable method performer Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) – partly at the suggestion of his girlfriend (Naomi Watts) – not quite aware of what he is letting himself in for. As the pressure mounts, Thomson finds the voice of his super-powered alter-ego haunting him – but is he going mad, or is the world itself collapsing into chaos?

Birdman appears to suggest there is no meaningful distinction to be made here, which is surely key to making sense of a film which often seems to be on the verge of losing it itself. It’s a movie which demands the viewer to engage with it and think about its ideas, because offers very few cut and dried answers, and in places seems intentionally ambiguous. It’s pretty clear that at least some of the film is taking place entirely in Riggan’s head, but identifying what is real and what is fantasy is a challenge.

In the same way, the film itself blends fantasy and reality, at least for anyone aware of recent cinema history. Riggan Thomson, a man who reluctantly finds his career defined by a series of superhero movies he made twenty years ago, is played by Michael Keaton, best known for his stints in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Mike Shiner, a brilliant actor but a nightmare to work with, is played by Edward Norton, whose unique approach to collaborating did not exactly earn the gratitude of his colleagues on either American History X or The Incredible Hulk.

The presence in the cast of one-time avatars of Batman and the Hulk, not to mention Gwen Stacy and Jet Girl, has led at least one critic to declare that Birdman is primarily a scathing attack on Hollywood’s current fixation on making superhero movies by the dozen, instead of ‘real’ films. Certainly an early scene where Riggan tries to hire Michael Fassbender and Jeremy Renner for the play, only to discover they are too busy making X-Men and The Avengers respectively, seems to support this, along with a moment in which Robert Downey Jr is roundly mocked for making the Iron Man series.

I’m not saying there isn’t an element of this in the film, but I don’t think the film’s argument is as simplistic as mainstream art = stupid and pointless / highbrow art = worthwhile and important. For one thing, this isn’t exactly a glowing portrait of the theatrical world, either, and especially not critics. This dubious profession is represented by Lindsay Duncan, who portrays a critic out of any director’s nightmare: untroubled by the need to actually watch a play before reviewing it, she decides which productions to support or destroy based solely on her own entrenched prejudices. Not content with presenting actors as unstable basket cases and critics as vicious harpies, Inarritu goes for the hat trick by having a go at the audience too: at one point the film briefly breaks into a Marvel-style CGI battle sequence, during which Thomson’s Birdman alter-ego glares contemptuously out of the screen, snarling ‘Look at them – this is really what they want to see…’

It seems to me that Inarritu has managed the neat trick of making a film which functions as a sort of distorting mirror, which basically feeds back to you whatever strange prejudices you happen to turn up with – if you turn up with an axe to grind against mainstream superhero movies (which are, let’s not forget, often superbly entertaining and technically immaculate pieces of film-making), then you can plausibly interpret Birdman as supporting you. If, on the other hand, you just think theatre actors are all just weird and experimental theatre is a pretentious waste of time, you will probably find the film backing you up here too.

If this is the case, then it’s a film which asks questions – what is the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art? Is one particular motivation for making art superior to the others? – without presenting any definitive answers. But, fortunately, the film is more than inventive and entertaining enough to make up for this. The film establishes its warped and restless mood through the conceit of seeming to be made in an almost unbroken single two-hour take, and this is achieved in a technically brilliant way (even if some of the transition points are perhaps not quite as invisible as others). But beyond this it is simply very funny, functioning as a bizarre black farce about the fragile minds and egos of actors. There is some winningly scabrous dialogue (‘I wish I had more self-respect’ ‘You’re an actress‘) and the performances are uniformly very strong.

I laughed a lot all the way through Birdman, even as I was trying to work out what the film was actually about or trying to say. It touches on a number of semi-serious topics, but manages to do so without feeling heavy or overly pretentious – although I admit it’s a near thing on this last point – and is consistently witty and engaging throughout. Perhaps the satire is just a tad too dark and vicious for this to be the kind of film that does very well when the actual awards start being handed out, but it’s still a hugely promising film to start the year with.

 

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Under a spreading chestnut tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.

Except when he’s played by Orlando Bloom, in which case none of the foregoing really applies (there isn’t even much of a chestnut tree near the smithy). But such is the situation at the start of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 movie dipping its toe in the treacherous waters of medieval history, in particular, the Crusades.

Landy plays Balian, a soldier-turned-blacksmith somewhere rustic in France. Following the death of his wife and child he is struggling to find a reason to live, but one arrives in the imposing form of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron of the Crusader Kingdom of Palestine.  Surely no-one would describe Landy as a little bastard, but it turns out that’s just what he is, and Godfrey wants to make peace with his illegitimate son and indeed make him his heir too. Balian is initially resistant, but realises that fighting in the Holy Land could grant absolution not just of his own sins, but the ones which have consigned his wife’s soul to Hell.

However, on finally arriving in Jerusalem – this takes a rather long time, involving many appearances by the staples of Ridley Scott movies, i.e. beautiful shots of landscapes and brutal gory violence – Balian discovers a kingdom in peril. The truce with the Saracens will only endure as long as the King (Ed Norton) lives, and unfortunately he’s come down with a severe case of leprosy. Fanatical elements at court are pressing for Holy War against the unbelievers. Balian finds himself sucked into the power politics of the court, not least because he gets involved with the King’s married sister (Eva Green). Sooner or later Landy’s going to have to break out the chain-mail…

Well, I saw Kingdom of Heaven on its theatrical release, thought it was, mmm, okay, for a long time would probably have expressed no desire to experience (‘sit through’) it again. So why go back to it now? First off, as is his slightly tedious wont, Sir Ridley has revisited the movie and produced a director’s cut: and this has received universally glowing notices as a vast improvement on the original. Secondly, I recently digested (‘ploughed through’) Simon Sebag Montefiore’s whopping, superlative book on the history of Jerusalem, which includes a fairly detailed section on the events which this movie purports to retell. So I was interested to see if the director’s cut was any good, and if the history was remotely accurate.

The answer to the first is that it certainly is, if you like your epic widescreen historical action dramas, and the answer to the second is that it’s frankly a bit dodgy (no pun intended, history buffs out there). Scott can produce lavish, beautiful cinematic worlds in his sleep, and this film is no exception to that – my issue with his films is that the quality of the narrative often doesn’t match that of the visuals.

The story here certainly rambles on a bit – the movie is somewhere around the three hour mark – but the world it portrays is interesting enough for this not to be a major problem. Scott’s helped by the quality of the supporting cast, which is excellent, and stuffed with well-known faces – Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, amongst others. Even Landy is not, as one critic charmingly put it, ‘actively bad’ (bear in mind that Arnie was attached to star in this project for a while during its long gestation period). And, certainly in the extended version, there seems to have been a serious effort to portray the texture of medieval life with reasonable accuracy – these aren’t just modern-day action heroes playing dress-up. Admittedly, some of this is put to the service of rather obvious themes and metaphors: most of the characters on both the Christian and Islamic sides are fond of proclaiming everything that happens to be the will of God – it’s just a bit too thumpingly driven home that a) using religion as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility is the cause of all the trouble and b) they’re all the same anyway.

And I found it a bit of a problem that the characters we’re supposed to identify with and care about – Balian, the King, and to a lesser extent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) – all share a very modern attitude to the issue of religion and how much it should dictate one’s actions and morality. I suppose this is necessary in order for them to be characters we engage with at all, but it’s still not just getting the details of history wrong, but the whole tone.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven cheerfully engages in getting the details of history wrong too. Perhaps that’s putting it a mite strong, as there is such a thing as justified artistic licence – the historical Balian obviously wasn’t a bastard blacksmith, but neither was he such an identifiable character. Some of the stuff that’s crept back into the extended cut is a bit more dubious – the leprosy that afflicted Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is a recorded fact, but the movie opts to give his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, exactly the same disease (to lose one King of Jerusalem to leprosy is unfortunate, to lose two is an obvious plot contrivance). Baldwin V died very young, it’s true, but there’s no evidence he was bumped off by his mum as an extremely pre-emptive mercy killing, as the movie depicts.

More problematic, yet also understandable, is the movie’s portrayal of the major religions involved. There are many more nutters on the Christian side than the Islamic one, and Saladin is portrayed as the civilised, enlightened statesman of popular legend. At the end of the movie he lets the Christian population of Jerusalem walk free – historically, he was rather less generous. Of course, there are perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to annoy Muslims these days, and it’s difficult not to see Kingdom of Heaven as being, on some level, a comment on the state of the modern world. ‘To this day, peace remains elusive in the Kingdom of Heaven,’ states the closing caption, in a masterpiece of understatement.

Well, true enough, but there I think the movie is falling into a trap decried by one modern historian – that of treating the Crusades as somehow emblematic of an age-old, inevitable, irresolvable clash between different philosophies, the start of something which has continued to this day. The Crusades were nearly a millennium ago and no more influential on the modern world than any other event of that time.

Still, it’s not many big-budget Hollywood movies that cause one to engage in this kind of thought process, and this is surely to the movie’s credit. That it does so without neglecting the impressive spectacle and well-mounted violent action one would expect from a movie on this subject only increases my admiration for its achievement. The movie is still fundamentally troubled by the lack of a stronger leading man, but I found the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven a huge improvement over the theatrical version – quite possibly this is now my favourite of all Ridley Scott’s films.

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The first trailer for a new movie has a grave and very significant  responsibility, quite simply because – for people who are anything like me – it can be the main factor in deciding whether or not a film ends up on my ‘to see’ list. By this standard, the first trailer – or teaser –  for Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy did a supremely good job, managing to be atmospheric and memorable while playing on the audience’s memories of and fondness for the original three films. However, expectations in our house have seldom crashed quite so far or so fast as they did when the second trailer came out – because all that seemed to promise was a far-fetched and ferociously convoluted action runaround.

(Interesting to contrast the situation regarding Bourne Legacy with that of Dredd, another film I’m looking forward to seeing: despite a very positive buzz around this film coming from people who’ve seen previews, I can’t shake the impression I got from the trailer, which is that this is just going to be a grimy CGI-heavy SF twin of The Raid.)

Hey ho. I wonder what it says that, upon buying my ticket for this film, I found myself asking for one to see The Bourne Thingummy? Probably nothing very cheerful about me or it. The main thing about this film is kind of tipped off by the title, from which you might surmise that Bourne himself is no longer with us. You would be absolutely spot on in this, as Matt Damon has declined to return, along with director of the last two installments Paul Greengrass.

And so instead we have a narrative dealing with the consequences of events in the previous film, with the action running in parallel for some of the time (I was wary of this trick until I recalled they did something vaguely similar with the ending of Bourne Supremacy turning up halfway through Bourne Ultimatum). The details will probably be utterly unintelligible and also quite dull to anyone not with a detailed recall of the previous trilogy. Basically, Bourne’s whistle-blowing activities against his former masters cause panic amongst elements of the defense establishment well above the CIA, resulting in ruthless puppetmaster Eric Byer (Edward Norton) ordering all associated programmes which could be linked back to them permanently shut down and all details obliterated.

This involves the cold-blooded slaughter of numerous American operatives throughout the world, and high on Byer’s target list is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent whose physical and mental abilities have been boosted through genetic modification (provided he keeps taking his agency-supplied medication). As luck would have it, Cross survives the initial attempt on his life, but in order to maintain his supply of drugs he is forced to go in search of one of the doctors who has handled his case, Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). However, her own connection to the project means she is on the government’s death list  too…

Even when Greengrass and Damon were still on board, I was a bit dismayed to learn that a fourth Bourne movie was in the works – simply because I couldn’t see how they could keep up the standard they had established for themselves, and also because Ultimatum concluded with such a strong sense of finality and closure. Legacy works hard to make the viewer believe that this is a valid continuation of the same story – it opens with a man’s body floating in water (a repeated image in the original films), Joan Allen, David Strathairn and others have tiny cameos, and ‘Extreme Ways’ plays over the closing credits – but nevertheless the sense that this is a film cobbled together simply because the Damon series made $945,000,000 is virtually inescapable.

Like Supremacy and Ultimatum, Legacy concludes with a barnstorming vehicular pursuit with many spectacular stunts. And when it came on, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a bit like the climaxes of the last two. Is this the climax of the story already? Gosh.’ Frankly, I was a bit surprised the story was reaching a climax because so far as I could tell the story hadn’t actually started yet.

Or, to put it another way, there’s an awful lot of plot in The Bourne Legacy – huge amounts of exposition have to be laid in introducing the new characters and their relationships, then Cross and Marta have to be guided into meeting each other and then go on the run, etc, etc – but very little story. I think The Bourne Identity is a fun thriller, but what makes the Paul Greengrass films so exceptional is how far they manage to blend being terrific action movies with other things – Supremacy has a remarkable emotional story at its centre, while Ultimatum is an astonishingly angry and political film. And they’ve both got very smart and engrossing stories, of course.

In this one we’ve got two people being chased by shadowy government forces and some business about genetic viruses, and not much more. There’s a lot of stuff about the use of drugs to condition and modify agents, but it just feels like it’s here as a hook to hang the plot on, not something the director really cares about. There’s some material suggesting Cross is effectively addicted to his medication, but this doesn’t really go anywhere – except, perhaps, to some plot developments which are weirdly reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon.

I should say that both Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz are very good in sadly undemanding parts – Renner is cooler, harder, and less obviously earnest than Damon, while Weisz… I have to confess I was just thinking ‘Wow, she’s so beautiful… how old must she be?!?’ Even here, though, the film seems to be playing it very safe: gorgeous boffin in peril is pretty much Rachel Weisz’s stock-in-trade, while Jeremy Renner – charismatic though he be – seems to do nothing else but play sharpshooting military specialists and/or spies. And, apart from Renner’s considerable charms, we’re given scant reason to engage with him as a hero. He’s a man who’s chosen to go into a vicious, brutal world, and – prior to his bosses deciding to have him killed – he appears to have been pretty sanguine about this. There’s a tiny fig-leaf of a scene suggesting he’s had some sort of moral qualms in the past, but that’s all. He’s not trying to find himself, or right a wrong, or avenge a death: he’s just trying to stay alive and intact, nothing more.

Come the end of The Bourne Legacy, despite some decently put-together action and acceptable work from the leads, I was still suffused with an overwhelming feeling which I could articulate only as ‘So what?’ It doesn’t come close to the quality of any of the previous films and tells me nothing about this world or these characters that I actually cared to learn. Further outings promise only to actively slime the memory of one of the best action franchises ever made: for pity’s sake, knock it on the head now.

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