Tag Archives: Cinema of the United Kingdom

Laughter and Tears – Birdman and Whiplash

There aren’t many films that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but I have to say that Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is one of them, although the humour is pretty dark at times.  The film tells the story of washed up Hollywood “superhero”, Riggan Thomson’s attempt to relaunch his career as a serious stage actor by putting on a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Not surprisingly, one disaster strikes after another.   On the night before the previews open, one cast member, admittedly one Riggan is desperate to get rid of, is injured by a falling light.  As a replacement, Riggan’s manager and the show’s producer, hires renowned Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner.  Shiner is played hilariously by Edward Norton as monstrously conceited thesp, so dependent on an audience for self-validation that he can only get it up in front of a packed theatre.  Needless to say, Shiner loses no time in trying to upstage Riggan at every opportunity.  Add to the mix Riggan’s neurotic, much younger girlfriend, his ex-wife, his recovering addict daughter and a diabolically bitchy theatre critic with the power to make or break any theatre production staged in New York and you have the perfect recipe for black comedy.

Yet despite all that, there’s a warm undercurrent to the film.  Throughout Riggan’s trials, his cinematic alter ego, the eponymous Birdman, berates and upbraids him.   But although Riggan seems to have retained a number of Birdman’s supernatural powers including the ability to levitate, move objects using his mind alone and fly unaided above the streets of New York, his chief preoccupations remain deeply parochial.

The film explores the idea that as successful we might appear to be, we remain beset with the same commonplace anxieties – are we loved, what’s our place in the world, have we been successful?    Riggan might have had a stellar career in Hollywood, but he remains deeply insecure.  Years of impersonating Birdman to do nothing to save him from himself.

By contrast, Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is anything but a comedy.  Young drummer, Andrew Neiman – played by Miles Teller – is a student at an elite music school.  Andrew is determined to take his place among the jazz greats alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, but at what cost?  Neiman finds himself up against Terrence Fletcher, the sadistic leader of the school’s jazz band, who refuses to countenance anything other than total perfection.

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

In order to weed out the men from the boys, Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, resorts to cruel mind-games, excoriating verbal abuse and physical violence.  The result is a desperate duel, in which Fletcher pushes Andrew through blood, sweat and tears to the edge of insanity and beyond.   However Andrew is not a quitter and through the conflict, he gradually gains the mastery that will enable him to match and surpass his tormentor and earn his grudging respect.

The film explores a number of interesting ideas around what it is that enables an artist to stand apart from the crowd and become extraordinary and whether those that take that path pay too high a price for their success.    While there are abiding popular myths about those born to be geniuses, the reality is that greatness is almost invariably very hard won indeed.



Filed under Film, Screenwriting

No sour grapes

 It’s been awfully chilly this week.  I’ve been trying to tidy up the garden, mowing the lawn hopefully for the last time before next spring, cutting back summer perennials and collecting up the last of the fruit and veg.  It’s a melancholy business.  We have an old, prolific vine which produces copious clusters of small black grapes and once again, I realise we’ve reached mid-October and I still haven’t worked out if they’re suitable for wine-making, and if so how to go about making wine in the first place.  (Any recipes would be gratefully received.)    As a result, the grapes are now tumbling onto the patio, where the birds and foxes love feasting on them.  At least they won’t go entirely to waste, I suppose.

                Now that my screenwriting course is over, and I’ve re-written the script for my graduation feature for the second time, I find myself at a loose and slightly lonely end.  It’s easy to lose any sense of momentum and I miss the cosy camaraderie of college life.  I should no doubt be sending my story – about an ex IRA man who abandons witness protection and returns to face his demons in Belfast – out into the world to see if it can find a welcoming home of some sort, ideally with a lovely production company with an empty slate and a very large pot of money.  Oh I dream, I dream!  And for the umpteenth time, I question the sanity of my chosen path.  Why am I attempting to do this absurd and impossible thing?   Somehow I’ve managed to get myself to a stage where nothing else is possible for me.  A small part of me genuinely wants to find a sensible nine-to-five type job that pays a regular salary; a much larger part of me dreads the very thought of doing such a thing.   Besides, a new idea has already begun to bubble and brew in my head, and it will soon invade my heart and imagination to the exclusion of all else, and then alas genuinely gainful employment will seem even more unconscionable.   

                A few days ago, I saw Roger Michell’s Le Week-end.  The film gives an intimate and tender portrayal of a marriage, where the battle lines were drawn up long ago and the scars of long-standing resentments have never quite healed.  Yet at the same time, the disappointments are more than balanced by the consolations of friendship, familiarity and long shared history.  Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan are completely convincing as Nick and Meg, a middle-class couple in their sixties who are surprised to find themselves left with something truly enviable, when the habitual deceits and vanities with which they defend themselves are stripped away.   It’s a genuinely moving, beautifully written story for grown-ups and as a consequence, it will soon disappear from the few screens where it’s showing.  I doubt it will make any money, or if it does, not nearly as much as it deserves.     In recent years, there’s been a great deal of hand-wringing about the state of the British film industry; but if the gormless comedies and cheesy romances mean that films like this get funded, then all is not lost.

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