Tag Archives: Edward Norton

Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

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I was real amped up to see Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I had zero idea what it was about and had only seen the poster and flashes of the trailer — but I was convinced it would be brilliant from all the critical acclaim and award nominations. Even word-of-mouth reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with only one claim of apparent “pretentiousness.”

And so it saddens me to say I found Birdman a relative disappointment. It’s indeed a remarkable film that deserves the accolades — whether it is the stylish and complex direction of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the worthy Oscar-nominated performances of Michael Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton, or the ridiculously impressive script (co-written by Iñárritu) — but the totality of the viewing experience felt ultimately hollow. It’s a technically amazing work of art that didn’t connect with me at a deeper level for whatever reason.

Birdman is a coal-black comedy; a filmmakers’ film for Hollywood and Broadway insiders. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood star who once found fame as the masked superhero Birdman but now finds himself fading into obscurity in the internet age. To regain relevance and self-respect, he writes, directs and produces an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story — with himself in the lead role, of course — on Broadway. That’s the core of the film, though there are always subplots spiralling around him, from his feisty rehab-returned daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan) to his undermining new star recruit (Edward Norton) and occasional fling (Andrea Riseborough). Also in the all-star cast are Naomi Watts, playing a first-time Broadway performer, a slimmed-down and surprisingly serious Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s lawyer, and Lindsay Duncan as a theater critic out to get him. On top of all that, Riggan has his old character Birdman talking in his ear all the time, AND he might have actual superpowers.

It’s a delicious mess of interesting ideas and characters that moves around at neck-breaking pace, but the script and direction of Iñárritu manages to keep Birdman a very tight and controlled experience where everything is by design. One of the most noticeable things about the film is the deliberate lack of cuts. Apart from a few minor exceptions, most of the movie rolls along as though it was filmed in one long continuous take, with the camera moving around from one set piece to another and following one character after another. On the one hand it keeps the pace up and the action fluid without breaks, much like real life, while on the other it provides a nice contrast to the stage production depicted in the film. I was impressed by it (as I was when I saw Gravity the year before) and didn’t find it a distraction, though at times it felt like a decision intended to add to the “wow” factor of the film’s technical superiority as opposed to something that adds substance to the film’s narrative.

The film also weaves multiple ideas and techniques in a clever way by embracing traditional movie cliches — the aging actor’s last hurrah, the rebellious offspring, the egotistical performer trying to steal the limelight, the biased critic, etc — and putting a twist on it. The choice of Michael Keaton as Riggan/Birdman was obviously intentional, given that Keaton hasn’t exactly done much since he played another masked crusader all those years ago, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that Edward Norton was chosen to play an actor with a reputation of being difficult to work with. Yet both guys run with the roles and deliver arguably two of the best male performances of the year to nab well-deserved Oscar nominations.

With all these established names in the cast, it’s probably more difficult for the acting to be poor in this film than for it to be absolutely terrific, and even watching it you get the sense that the actors are having a lot of fun showing off what they can do.

I actually think Birdman is in some ways very similar to The Grand Budapest Hotel (review here), coincidentally another Best Picture nominee leading the Oscars pack with nine nominations. Both critically-acclaimed films are tightly wound and have bold, supremely confident scripts filled with rapid-fire dialogue that will probably be used as examples in screenwriter classes around the world. Both are also clever comedies, though the humour in Birdman is darker and more subtle.

Just like The Grand Budapest Hotel, however, I also found Birdman difficult to form an emotional connection with. In both cases I was in awe of the production — the script, the direction and the acting — and yet I wouldn’t consider either one as a film I loved, a profound experience, or something I would want to watch over and over again. To put it another way — I can point to truly great things about the films rather than point to the films as truly great. The individual components of Birdman are undoubtedly top-class, but the whole came across less than the sum of its parts. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Birdman or was not entertained by it, it’s just that I found myself more impressed by it than being genuinely fond of it.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I respected and appreciated his previous efforts, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums back in 2001 and the animated Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009, but I have not been able to enjoy them as much as some others, who think his flicks are the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. Anderson’s films are just so tightly-wound and choreographed — to the extent that they come across almost like animations or stage productions — that the surreal air about them often make it difficult for me to engage with the narrative for the entirety of the running time.

Anderson’s latest entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been lauded as a masterpiece, and I went into it thinking that this might finally be Anderson film that I can truly enjoy. And while I did enjoy it a lot, I still don’t consider myself a convert. It’s a finely crafted motion picture full of imagination, confidence, and a ridiculous A-list cast that spews out witty lines at a frenetic pace, and yet it is so whimsical and farcical that its deeper undertones and poignancy tend to be overwhelmed, resulting in one of those fun but ultimately forgettable experiences.

The fictional eponymous hotel, located in the mountains of a fictional European Alpine state, is the setting of this wild madcap caper about the adventures of a concierge, Mr Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a lowly lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, and later F Murray Abraham). Mr Gustave is a smooth, fast-talking sleazebag who makes a habit of courting wealthy, elderly women, and when one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, all fingers are suddenly pointed in his direction — and it is up to Zero to help prove his boss’s innocence. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of twists and turns, most of which are completely unexpected because it runs so fast and furiously that all your attention is spent simply trying to keep up. If you’ve seen any of Anderson’s past films you’ll have an idea of what you are in for, though this one, with cute miniatures and hand-made art, is arguably his most stylish and visually-impressive effort. It’s decidedly meta; there are delicate layers upon layers, stories within stories, the narrative moving from character to character and through different times and eras.

The cast is outrageous — apart from the aforementioned Fiennes, Abraham and Swinton, there’s Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson. Thanks to Fiennes’ superb performance and comedic timing, however, it did not feel jarring to have so many superstars in the one film, often for just a scene or even a second or two. Who knew Voldemort was so funny?

And that’s the biggest strength of The Grand Bupadest Hotel — it’s probably Anderson’s funniest film ever. The wisecracks are razor sharp, and, unlike much of the humour we tend to get in comedies these days, actually witty. The use of well-timed profanity is spot on. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I giggled often and hard.

The first half is funnier than the second half, where my difficulties with the film start to seep through as the story begins to take a slightly more melancholic turn. As often can be the case with Anderson’s movies, the tone can come across as unmistakenly smug. You just get the feeling that it’s getting too smart and witty for its own good — to the point where you react to the jokes with “that’s funny”, but without actually laughing. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half of the film because everything was so fresh and frantic and fun, though later, when you can tell the film’s also trying to be poignant and send a deeper, more emotional message, it becomes much easier to see through the contrivances. And once you lose your focus it becomes very difficult to get back on track.

Consequently, the overall package is a mixed bag, albeit one that is weighed heavily towards the positive. I loved the look of the film and the brilliant cast. It was undoubtedly funny and clever; stylish and precision-crafted. And yet its irreverent, artificial feel made the film difficult to sustain an emotional connection for its 99-minute running time.  I like to think of the experience as sampling a series of beautifully designed, tightly controlled set pieces, each of which stands up well on its own, though together the pieces don’t quite deliver something greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an easy film to appreciate and enjoy, and so far it’s my favourite Wes Anderson film to date.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have yet to see Moonrise Kingdom and I cannot recall much of Rushmore.

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

A Bourne movie without Bourne? Why the heck not?

The Bourne Legacy is the fourth instalment of the Bourne franchise and it’s the first in the series without Matt Damon, who played the titular Jason Bourne in the first three films (Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum). Instead, we get a pretty darn good replacement, Jeremy Renner, who I have been a fan of since The Hurt Locker and then became a massive fan of following The Town. And being Hawkeye in The Avengers didn’t hurt either.

It needs to made clear, however, that Renner is not playing Jason Bourne — he is Aaron Cross, another super soldier created by the US government. So why is a guy named Cross in a film with someone else’s name in the title? Well apparently, Damon’s decision to walk away from the franchise was only “temporary” because he and Paul Greengrass, the director of the first three films, didn’t think the studio gave them enough time to do this fourth film justice.

What this means is that The Bourne Legacy takes place in the same universe and is a continuation of the Bourne story but focuses on a different central character. You see photos of Bourne and he is repeatedly mentioned by the government and the press, but he’s supposedly hiding somewhere so that Aaron Cross can do his thing.

It does feel kinda weird watching a Bourne film where he isn’t in it, but I suppose Tony Gilroy, who was a co-writer on the first three films and wrote and directed this one, did the best he could under the circumstances. It certainly helps that the intense Renner plays a very different character to Bourne and is a killer badass in his own right.

That said, I don’t think the script is as brilliant as it pretends to be. We studied Gilroy’s Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton script in my screenwriting class, which I admired greatly for its confident dialogue and ability to keep the audience hooked by thrusting them into a world which has to be gradually pieced together, bit by bit, to understand what the heck is going on. You are constantly wondering what people are saying and doing throughout the film, and it’s not until the pieces start falling together that it all starts to make sense.

Gilroy employs the same technique for this film, but if you really think about it, all the pieces don’t exactly fall into place or fit together. He sets up a lot of “mysteries” as a device  to keep the audience engaged, but never ends up answering them in the end. Perhaps it was this kind of uneven writing that prompted Damon to call Gilroy’s The Bourne Ultimatum script a “career killer.”

Another problem  is that the forced references to Jason Bourne can be confusing for viewers who aren’t completely across the history of the franchise. I have watched all the earlier films in the series but to be honest I don’t remember a whole lot about the plot, which made it a little frustrating at times when the characters rambled on about the various government projects and some scandal that was being played out in the media. I also recognised returning actors such as Scott Glenn, David Strathairn and Joan Allen, but I had trouble remembering who they were. I imagine I’m not the only one who struggled with this aspect of the film.

But let’s face it, the plots of the Bourne films have always been secondary to their well-crafted suspense and action, and that’s where The Bourne Legacy also shines. The Bourne Legacy carries on the franchise’s tradition of “realistic” action that avoids reliance on CGI, which is made more impressive considering that Renner apparently performed almost all of his own stunts (talk about being devoted to the craft). The final extended action sequence, in particular, is probably the best in the entire series, and that says a lot.

I can’t believe I have written this much and not mentioned the two newcomers to the franchise, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. Weisz plays a doctor who is involved in the medical aspect of the program while Norton is the new guy trying to hunt the super soldier down. Norton offers the better performance but is given the short end of the stick in the script, where he can disappear for long stretches and be completely forgotten at times. Weisz, on the other hand, is gifted some of the best scenes in the film, including one outstandingly horrific sequence at the laboratory where she works, and another later on at her house. It’s scenes like these that demonstrated Gilroy’s ability as a director — someone who knows how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. And he isn’t as big of a fan of the shaky hand-held camera as Greengrass, which for me was a huge plus.

On the whole, The Bourne Legacy is a rather flawed movie and might be regarded by some as a “filler” film that can make the franchise more money while it waits for Damon to return. But what I can’t deny is that it is still an excellent flick purely from an action and suspense perspective and that Renner is absolutely dynamite as the new super soldier on the block. Damon has left open the salivating possibility of returning to the franchise in the future, which in an ideal world would put both him and Renner on screen at the same time. That would be awesome.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Avengers (2D) (2012)

Joss Whedon, you glorious bastard. You really did it. Despite near-impossible odds, you somehow managed to make The Avengers work.

Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), led by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) — a cast of characters that will make any fanboy violently spray their pants. It was never in doubt that the idea of putting together this Marvel-lous ensemble, inside and and outside the movie, is ambitious, delicious and simply awesome — but the question was always how on earth the poor screenwriter and/or director were going to pull it off.

The answer? Enter Joss Whedon, the genius behind the TV’s Buffy and Firefly.

Back in September 2010, I attended a chat session with Whedon at the Sydney Opera House, where he talked about a number of his popular projects, including The Avengers, the script for which he was working on at the time. Joss admitted it was bigger than anything he had ever done before and called it an exciting challenge, but said that at the end of the day it was just telling another story.

I remember being sceptical, thinking that there must be an infinite amount of ways this film would suck donkey scrotums. It’s hard enough making a film about one superhero — but to have four? And that doesn’t even include all the minor characters and the supervillain(s). How would he able to balance all of them, give each one enough screen time and development, while at the same time progress the storyline and fill it with spectacular action that is enhanced by, but not overshadowed by, the special effects? And how was he going to massage all the egos of the actors involved? Just the thought of it made my head spin.

And yet, Joss Whedon worked his magic and made The Avengers (arguably) the greatest superhero movie of all-time. Every one of the four main superheroes not only got their own time to shine, they meshed together wonderfully and became greater than the sum of the parts. The action was brilliant, thrilling and plenty, the plot was engaging and the humour was classic Joss Whedon — extremely dry and self-deprecating.

Speaking of plot, I realised I haven’t even mentioned it yet. But does it matter? All you need to know is that there is a common enemy, Thor’s brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston), and Nick Fury has no choice but to activate the Avengers initiative and bring these heroes together to save the world. It helps if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise and know what the little blue cube is, but if you haven’t it barely makes a difference.

Of course, it’s not easy bringing this volatile bunch together. As Whedon said it himself, if everyone was on the same page right from the beginning the film would be over in 15 minutes. So yeah, expect some tense moments at the start as each character is introduced and as they find time gel as a team — but when they finally come together as one, as you knew they would, it’s a goosebump-inducing sight.

Kudos to Whedon for creating characters that balance each other out and eliciting great performances from the entire cast. Robert Downey Jr, as the biggest name of the lot, steals the show a little bit as Iron Man because of his addictive personality but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Chris Evans’ Captain America is, as you would expect, a straight shooting, no nonsense leader. The other Chris, Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth, took a while to make it to earth but his presence is key because of his history with the supervillain — plus he’s arguably the most powerful. And last, but not least, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, my personal favourite — surprising because he wasn’t even supposed to be in it.

Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton, who fell out of the film early on, apparently because he was either asking for too much creative control or because he wanted too much money, or both. I’m glad it happened because Ruffalo’s a perfect fit for the role, a better Bruce Banner than both Norton and Eric Bana (from the earlier Ang Lee version).

You might wonder, with these four, why even bother with Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye? While they may be two ordinary humans with extraordinary skills, let’s face it, they’re not real superheroes. Nonetheless, Whedon gives both a special purpose and makes them indispensable members of the Avengers. Johansson, in particular, continues Whedon’s tradition of strong female characters — a far cry from her appearance in Iron Man 2 where she was little more than forgettable eye candy.

Speaking of strong female characters, Maria Hill, a SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), also has a surprisingly important role. And Gwyneth Paltrow makes a return appearance as Pepper Potts, which I also did not expect as none of the other love interests from the other franchises are in it (save for a photo of Natalie Portman).

Other returnees include Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, who gets a little more personality this time, as well as Stellan Skarsgard as the scientist from Thor. Considering how many characters there are it’s quite amazing that Whedon managed to get so much out of these two.

Another returnee, Hiddleston’s Loki, was an apt choice for the villain. In the beginning I thought it was a bad idea because Hiddleston wasn’t very villainous in Thor, but he worked out well here because he was an enemy that relied on his brain as opposed to his brawn.

It’s almost not worth mentioning for blockbuster movies these days but the special effects were amazing. The Hulk, in particular, was the best he has ever been — said to be due to the performance capture technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tin Tin.

Having said all of this, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the film. The first is that some of the action sequences, especially the hand-t0-hand battles earlier on, could have been slightly clearer by using less quick cuts.

The second is Loki’s alien army. Having put so much effort into the heroes, it just felt like this enemy was kinda lame. They looked menacing enough, but I kept hoping they’d pose a greater threat, a threat based on their abilities and cunning as opposed to their sheer numbers. I guess that leads into my next nitpick — that despite all the turmoil I never got the sense that any of the Avengers were in serious danger.

Lastly, while I love Whedon’s wry humour — lots of laugh out loud moments in this film — there were a couple of occasions where a tiny bit more subtlety should have prevailed, in that the punchline was already achieved but its effectiveness was diminished because it decided to go a little further or add an extra line that wasn’t necessary.

But these are all minor complaints. In the grand scheme of things, The Avengers is everything fans could have hoped for an more, a remarkable achievement considering the impossible expectations heaped onto it since the project was first announced in 2008.

I already can’t wait for the sequel.

4.5 stars out of 5!

(I don’t care for 3D, but I’d be interested to hear what people thought of it.)

China DVD Movie Blitz: Part II

Yes, there is a Part II.  For Part I, click here.

Here are the rest of the DVD movies I acquired in a recent trip to China.

Stone (2010)

Even though I didn’t know what it was about, I really wanted to watch this one when it came out at the cinemas, but I’m glad now that I caught it on DVD instead.

I thought it was going to be a smart, slick thriller, but Stone is essentially a character-driven drama about sexual politics featuring three sensational actors: Edward Norton, Robert De Niro and Milla Jovovich.

It’s a stylish film, an interesting film in many respects, but not exactly what I was expecting or hoping for.

3.25 stars out of 5

I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009)

It seems like the world still isn’t ready for a rom-com about a homosexual couple, because I had never heard of I Love You, Phillip Morris despite the fact that it features two big stars in Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

To be fair, apart from the intentionally full on gay jokes, Phillip Morris is not all that different from some of the other slightly farcical, somewhat strange/awkward (The Cable Guy comes to mind) comedies out there.

I did find certain parts quite funny, but there wasn’t anything apart from the unusual premise that made this film stand out.  And it did get a little tedious towards the end.

3 stars out of 5

 

Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

I’ve loved the story since I was a kid, and so I was kind of excited about the Jack Black version, even though to me Black is a bit of a hit and miss comedian.

Unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels was pretty much all miss.  It had a great cast, including Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet and Billy Connolly, but the jokes were mostly infantile and unfunny.  A fair attempt at a modern retelling with updated pop culture references but even as a children’s film it missed the mark.

2 stars out of 5

 

Season of the Witch (2011)

 

If this film made it to the cinemas then it must have been pulled off pretty quickly, because even though I saw ‘coming soon’ posters months ago, I don’t ever recall seeing the film screening at cinemas.

After watching it, I can kind of understand why this film was a flop (or went straight to DVD).  On the other hand, there are far worse films making it to the cinemas.

This was a Middle-Ages fantasy film (which I usually like) with Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman as two warriors tasked with escorting a suspected witch to a monastery.  It started off okay but the middle section was a bit of a bore and the final part, as usual, fell apart.  A shame, because as uninspiring as it was, I thought there was some potential.

2 stars out of 5

 

And yes, there will be a Part III, though I haven’t watched them yet.