With nothing of note opening in Hongb Kong this week, we look ahead to a few upcoming releases that I have already been able to see. Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 2 will be this year’s big Chinese New Year title, while Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and journalism drama Spotlight open later next month.
This week on Radio 3’s Morning Brew, I talk to Phil about Pierre Coffin’s new animated prequel, Minions, as well as the Sam Raimi-produced remake of the Steven Spielberg-produced horror flick, Poltergeist. I also give Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet a brief mention.
Attempting to review Birdman, the new film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is somewhat trepidatious, not least because midway through the film, troubled protagonist Riggan Thompson launches into a bile-spewing tirade against just such criticism. In his case it is New York Times theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson, whose reviews can make or break a play in just 500 words, but the attitude and the sentiment most certainly spreads to cinema critics too. One of the many great ironies in the film, however, is just how much these artists pander to their critics, are beholden to their audiences and scrap in the gutter with each other in search of those precious few moments in the spotlight, and column inches on the front page.
The fickle relationship between performers and their audiences is engrained deep within the fabric of Birdman. Thompson, uncannily portrayed by Michael Keaton, was once the biggest star in Hollywood with the hugely successful superhero franchise from which the film takes its title. Then, a crisis of conscience, a desire to be rid of the cowl and be appreciated as a true artist – along with numerous other reasons we suspect – causes him to turn his back on the series and inevitably disappear into obscurity. Until now. 20 years and a broken marriage later, Thompson has come to Broadway, having adapted a Raymond Carver novel for the stage, which he is to direct and star in. While a core fanbase is thrilled to see him back in action once more, others approach with a certain morbid curiosity, while the critics have already begun sharpening their knives.
After a series of incredibly dark and brooding dramas, including Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, Inarritu here presents a comedy. A pitch black, ascerbic, barbed satire of fame, celebrity, the arts, ageing and the inherent fragility of masculinity, Birdman is no less ambitious than the fractured narratives on which the director made his name, and on a technical level is perhaps his most ambitious project yet. Playing out supposedly in one single continuous take, albeit with time lapses, transitions and numerous hidden edits along the way, Birdman is a whirlwind tour behind the scenes of a manic stage production rife with its own gallery of oddball characters, relationships, rivalries and unfolding dramas.
Inarritu assembles a fantastic ensemble including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan to portray the rabid collective of actors, producers, and family members who encircle Riggan Thompson in this, his most desperate hour. Norton plays the pretentious, pitifully fragile prima donna brought in as a last-minute replacement, Emma Stone is Riggan’s daughter slash assistant, a recovering addict desperate for some love and attention. Naomi Watts is the ageing insecure actress failing miserably at her career and relationship, while Galifianakis’ producer is close to losing his mind as he attempts to keep all these disparate threads together at least until opening night.
Captaining this ship of fools is a man whose very sanity is unraveling by the minute. Haunted by the voice of his caped creation, the lingering spectre of Birdman hangs over Riggan at every turn, criticising and baiting this washed-up has-been, never letting him forget he turned down Birdman 4. But as much as Riggan feels possessed and victimised, he needs Birdman, often turning to his cinematic alter-ego for encouragement and empowerment when drugs, booze and flattery all fail. These are the best moments of Birdman – a film that barely stops for breath thanks to its whirlwind camerawork and invigorating improv drum score from Antonio Sanchez. Inarritu maintains a brilliantly manic energy throughout, which when coupled with Keaton’s nervous, adrenaline-and-paranoia fuelled anxiety, makes for a feverish, and frequently hilarious experience.
Having always had a soft spot for films willing to dismantle the male ego, Birdman falls at my feet, gift-wrapped as a near-perfect film. That Keaton is willing to play so close to his perceived public persona, and dramatise his own faltering career in such comedic, self-effacing fashion, only ingratiates Riggan Thompson to his audience all the more – no mean feet when the man is borderline certifiable and a liability to himself and everyone around him. Less a career-defining role, than it is encapsulating of the many different facets of Keaton’s comedian-superhero-psycho journeyman livelihood on the silver screen. Likewise, Norton apes his own questionable reputation as an overbearing, invasive presence with the same winning blend of absurdity and accuracy that results in some of his best work in quite some time. Oftentimes Norton can come across as over-serious and cold, but here shines in the warm glow of self-mocking brilliance.
There is so much to enjoy in Birdman that this review could quickly become a procession of “labels, opinions and observations” that would incur the wrath of Riggan himself and inevitably fail to capture the uniquely invigorating experience of this film. Suffice to say that rarely do we get a film so expertly in tune with the current climate of social media celebrity, so nostalgic yet cynical for classic Hollywood star power, so aware of the rivalries between cinema and theatre, artists and critics, performers and their audiences. To then deliver a raft of awards-worthy performances from its impeccable cast, all captured using some of the most innovative, yet unobtrusive cinematographic and editorial techniques ever seen results in cinematic gold. Inarritu’s final triumph is that he somehow also manages to make his dissection of masculinity and celebrity into a superhero movie, and should bring any discerning cineaste to their knees.
Birdman is a heroic achievement.
For many, myself included, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is something of a sacred text in the world of 80s action and intelligent science-fiction cinema. It’s one of those films I saw way too young, and as a result, the violence had a stronger impact on me than almost any other film I remember watching. The scene in which a malfunctioning ED-209 tears into junior executive Kinney (Kevin Page) almost made 11-year-old me vomit, while Kurtwood Smith’s crime lord Clarence Boddicker displayed a level of gleeful sadism I’d never encountered before.
Years and countless rewatches later, RoboCop is still incredibly violent, not to mention prescient in its moral dilemmas and voyeuristic media, but it revealed itself to be incredibly funny and satirical in a way I hadn’t quite picked up on at first. Renegade Dutchman Paul Verhoeven created a unique cocktail of humour, violence, spec-tech fiction and high caliber action, showcasing state-of-the-art special effects against a backdrop of brutalist/industrial urban decay (that strangely foreshadows Tim Burton’s Batman). RoboCop was a cinematic enigma, which a couple of poor sequels and an aborted TV show successfully proved could not be repeated.
Understandably, the prospect of a remake, at a time when nothing seems sacred or untouchable any more, was met with emotions ranging from hesitation to skepticism, to outright rage. Many people still struggle with the notion that “remake” does not mean “replace” and that nothing, short of Verhoeven going all George Lucas on his earlier triumphs, will ever change the fact that RoboCop exists and is brilliant. That said, many of the themes in the film are still relevant, but have evolved, progressed and been further exacerbated in the 25-odd years since that film came out, and there is a valid argument for addressing them again. The RoboCop character remains an excellent tool with which to do that – in much the same way Mary Shelley used Frankenstein to speculate on the repercussions of science eclipsing religion in a faith-based society.
In this new iteration, the USA hasn’t privatised the police force, but weapons developer Omnicorp is looking to bring its successful fleet of surveillance drones and peace-keeping robots home from patroling the suburbs of Tehran to make the streets of America safe. Legislation is in place preventing them from doing so, but were CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to give the public a hero they could get behind, Omnicorp could move in.
Enter Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), recently blown to smithereens in a car bomb by a gangster he was investigating. By striking a deal with prosthetics specialist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Sellars brings the world’s first cyborg law enforcer to market, much to the emotional dismay of Murphy’s wife and son. Media scrutiny comes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s political commentator Pat Novak, whose TV talk show skews the facts however necessary to fuel his anti-government, pro-military agenda, and a volatile stage is set for Murphy’s return to active duty.
Brazilian director Jose Padilha, whose keen eye for politically-laced action is evident in both his Elite Squad films, keeps the major themes of the original front and centre, but also explores other areas that were largely ignored by Verhoeven. Specifically, Padilha replaces Miguel Ferrer’s sleazy, ambitious executive Bob Morton with Gary Oldman’s far more sympathetic, ethically challenged Dennett Norton. Persuaded by the promise of unlimited funds to explore new technologies and help the injured back on their (robotic) feet, Norton’s goals are far more worthy, even if his Faustian pact with Sellars proves less than honourable.
The other notable difference, also for the better, is the decision to keep Murphy’s family in the picture. In Verhoeven’s film, his wife and son are seen only briefly – and in flashback – leaving Murphy with only his cop partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) as a reminder of who he once was. Here, Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son David stand by their man, demanding answers, transparency and that this machine retains its dying embers of humanity, despite what Omnicorp might wish in order to sell their product to the robot-fearing public.
For the most part, the results are successful. The new RoboCop design may have whispers of Christian Bale’s bat suit to it but feels more authentic and tangible than Peter Weller’s silver get-up from 1987. There are some nice gags at the expense of China, a strong supporting cast around relative newcomer, Swede Joel Kinnaman, and a grounded tone to the film that helps sell the more sci-fi heavy elements of the plot with incredible ease.
There is no denying that this RoboCop is more polished and palatable than its predecessor. The film is almost entirely bloodless, especially when compared to its splatterfest namesake. In addition, the overhanging air of sleaze in Verhoeven’s version is absent, as is the sadistic nature of the villainy at play. Here, the bad guys are corporate criminals motivated by greed, money and power rather than psychotic sociopaths driven by a malevolent desire to create mischief and mayhem.
What is most appreciated in Jose Padilha’s film is that it never feels obsessed with paying fan service to its predecessor. While there are of course moments that evoke the earlier film – it is a remake after all – RoboCop never feels bound by any obligation to replay iconic scenes or regurgitate classic lines of dialogue. Instead, it feels like an honest attempt to bring the same ideas and questions into the 21st Century and address them from a new perspective. Padilha’s film will never overshadow or replace Verhoeven’s masterpiece, but it more than justifies its existence as a natural continuation of the same debate.