Film reviews: Birdman | The Theory of Everything

Bridman starring Michael Keaton. Picture: Contributed
Bridman starring Michael Keaton. Picture: Contributed
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Siobhan Synnot reviews this week’s new cinema releases

Birdman (15)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Running time: 119 minutes

Star rating: ***

RIGGAN Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood actor who once made a series of films about a superhero called Birdman, and can’t shake him off. He still hears Birdman’s voice in his head, and has superhero powers. Is this imagination or derangement?

To relaunch his career, he’s poured all his money into directing, starring and adapting a Raymond Carver story for the stage. Things never go well for Carver characters, and apparently the same applies to those dramatising Carver’s work. Before opening night, one of the actors is knocked out by a falling stage light and is replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) a brilliant but unpredictable stage star with lots of great ideas, but a forceful manner.

I know – and you know – that more than quarter of a century ago Keaton starred in Batman movies and was never quite as famous as that again, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu has something other than a satire of the superhero industry in mind, although he does include a moment where Thomson imagines his obituary being upstaged by George Clooney, who did Batman And Robin.

Iñárritu’s previous films include Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. All are quite striking, but often achingly pretentious as well. Birdman feels like a throat-clearing exercise for the director; a means of expelling old habits, getting a few things off his chest and perhaps lightening up a little.

Some of Birdman is great. Iñárritu has deftly choreographed the camera so that the movie appears to flow in one long continuous tracking shot. There are little digs at Norton’s own “difficult” reputation, a nightmare exposure in Times Square, and a moment when you realise that the carpet backstage shares its pattern with the hotel in The Shining, another film about corkscrewing paranoia. Above all, there is Keaton giving a brave, bravura performance, and not only because of the many scenes where he’s stripped down to his white kecks.

Rounding out the cast are Emma Stone, as Riggan’s daughter, who has been put to work as his personal assistant to keep her away from drugs, Naomi Watts as an insecure forty-something actress living with Mike, and Andrea Riseborough as the younger actress Thomson is dating after splitting up with his wife (Amy Ryan). And of course there is a wise and tender-hearted reviewer, whose thoughtful advice is treasured by everyone. Kidding! Lindsay Duncan rocks up as a dragonishly vindictive theatre critic who has decided, sight unseen, that she hates Thomson and his play. You may scent an agenda here; especially when Keaton retaliates in a manner that would have the other actors, directors and writers swooning with envy.

Unlike Duncan, I don’t want to drive a stake through Birdman, but I do have quibbles: does Iñárritu really have to stuff the theatre with so many showbiz archetypes? Why does the audience love Thomson’s production when it looks like hollow grandstanding, and why do two actresses share one of those lesbian kisses where they sweep strands of hair out of the way beforehand, then never speak of it again? As a flight of fancy, Birdman swoops gleefully on artistic tropes and tics, but it never soars.

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

• On general release from Thursday

The Theory Of Everything (15)

Star rating: **

THERE’S no big bang to James Marsh’s biopic of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, just a whimper from audiences as a well-acted but soapy drama shifts too smoothly through its storytelling gears.

The film begins in 1963, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a gawky science student at Cambridge University, already solving complex problems on the back of a train timetable before class begins. At a party he spots Jane (Felicity Jones), a sociable, churchgoing arts undergraduate; a yang to Hawking’s yin. Their courtship includes shy kissing, meetings with parents and admissions that one day it would be nice to develop “one single unified equation that explains everything in the universe”.

Not long after, Hawking is diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 24, and he tries to withdraw from the relationship. “I have to work! I have two years to live” – “I love you” is a candidate for the worst movie exchange of the year, and it’s emblematic of the film’s reductive impulses. The physics of condensing Hawking’s 20-year marriage into two hours certainly requires a bit of time bending, but The Theory Of Everything also boils down emotional complexity. Jane nobly juggles child and husband care; Hawking pings out scientific theories despite his deteriorating condition; and then Jane gets distracted by the allure of Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) a young, single organist. Redmayne shines here, but Marsh’s timid and superficial movie leaves him unsupported. n

• On general release from Thursday

The Woman In Black 2: Angel Of Death (15)

Star rating: **

A sequel to the runaway horror hit with Daniel Radcliffe, this moves the action on 40-odd years to the Second World War, and yet again someone is unwise enough to venture into Eel Marsh House. This time it’s a couple of teachers (Phoebe Fox and Helen McCrory) and a group of evacuee schoolchildren who ignore the creaks, the bangs and the roomful of eerie toys in the hope of a good night’s sleep. With a lot of repetitive jumps, jolts and shrieking, it’s a haunted house story that’s only marginally more unsettling than next year’s stamp duty charges.

• On general release from Thursday

Enemy (15)

Star rating: **

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history teacher and a struggling actor who are startled to discover that they look alike down to a very distinctive scar, yet have lives that are polar opposites. The professor has a muted existence, barely enlivened by glum sex with his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). The actor is married to a pregnant hottie (Sarah Gadon) but has confidently cheated on her at least once.

Part existential drama, part psychosexual thriller, Enemy is unnervingly bleak, restlessly pushing audience buttons with lurid sex clubs and giant spiders. Shot in a Toronto the colour of urine, this is very much aiming for creepy David Cronenberg territory, arm wrestling between fever dreams and madness.

Gyllenhaal previously worked with director Denis Villeneuve on the equally oblique and mannered Prisoners, so if your heart sinks a bit at the film’s pseudy opening statement that “chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”, then maybe it’s best to look for something that isn’t quite so determined to be a metaphorical head-scratcher.

•On selected release from Friday