Film Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

This dark and surreal comedy-drama is an exploration of fame, ego and self-obsession. It makes you wonder if director Alejando G. Iñárritu’s experience as a director and working closely with actors has inspired this material.

The central character Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor, well known for his role as Birdman in a movie franchise from the 90’s. In an attempt to become a respected actor and not just some superhero celebrity, he tries to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play, adapted from a Raymond Carver story. But Riggan can’t leave the Birdman behind; the superhero remains as a taunting alter ego, talking to Riggan, criticising hims: “how did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls. We don’t belong here”.

We follow Riggan in the run up to the opening night of his play and nothing seems to run smoothly. After one of leading actors is knocked out by a theatre lamp, the talented actor Mike (Edward Norton) is hired to go in his place. But Mike with his larger than life ego immediately creates drama off the stage as well as on it. Riggan’s daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, having recently come out of rehab, adds to the backstage frenzy.

Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern’s cinematography is brilliant. The film is visually impressive whether capturing the claustrophobic backstage corridors, dirty dressing rooms, the lit up city streets at night or the colourful and surreal looking Broadway stage. The film is visually and musically seamless and looks as though it was filmed in one continuous shot (although of course, this is done with clever camera tricks).

The continuity extends to the representation of the real and the imagined. In one scene, we see a busker in the New York streets playing the drums that constitute the film score. In another scene, Riggan passes the busker playing the drums in a corridor backstage of the theatre. The action weaves seamlessly between reality and Riggan’s delusional fantasy world; the occasional ambiguous moment leaving the audience to guess what is real. The result is nicely disorientating, leaving us almost as confused as the sleep-deprived, delusional Riggan. It is also worth noting Antonio Sanchez, the composer behind this pounding drum score which serves to intensify the tense drama and the sense of Riggan’s growing anxiety. 

Whilst Birdman is entertaining, it is not without problems. Namely, it lacks some needed humanity as most of the characters are exaggerated and difficult to empathise with. Riggan’s dwindling sanity coincides with his obsession with success, making him somewhat pitiful; when something goes wrong, he retreats to his dressing room and uses telekinetic power to throw objects around in an angry rage. Norton’s Mike Shiner is a caricature of a self-absorbed actor and Sam is practically defined by her own resentment of her father. 

This aside, there is still plenty to enjoy in Birdman including the fine performances from the cast, particularly Michael Keaton who displays a range of emotions as well as varying degrees of madness. Edward Norton is perfect as the actor who cares about his stage and performances more than his real life relationships. The script is also very funny, full of black humour and sharp lines like, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”. 

Overall, this is an entertaining and stylish film that explores its themes with wit and confidence. Despite its problems, Birdman is worth seeing if you haven’t already.

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Film Review: The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for his moody, violent art house flick, Drive, the film that propelled Ryan Gosling into stardom. The Neon Demon is the Refn’s latest work, which has been causing a stir since audiences booed the movie at the Cannes Film Festival for its depravity and depiction of necrophilia. 

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a beautiful sixteen year old ingenue who moves to Los Angeles to become a model. Jesse epitomises the innocent virginal beauty, whose innocence and sweetness contrasts with those who already inhabit the modelling world, where it is not who you are inside that counts, but what you look like.

This is a film about surfaces and image, a theme of which is present in the scenery and set pieces. We see glitter falling across the screen in the opening scene and Elle is repeatedly masked in glitter, jewels and sequins for photo shoots. The mirror is ubiquitous in the film, often used as a symbol for appearance and self-image; mirrors are kissed, smashed and drawn on by various characters.

Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack is a futuristic alien disco which complements the strangeness and horror elements. Martinez is never conventional, and this score adds another dimension to the story, frequently setting the pace and defining a tone that would be absence otherwise.

The look of the film is perfect; it is cinematic, experimental and comparable to expensive music videos or glossy perfume adverts. Photo shoots and catwalk auditions take place in large white bare spaces which have an empty, lifeless quality. Everything looks perfect and the result is wonderfully unsettling and alien.

Over the course of the film Jesse is transformed from sweet innocent girl to a narcissistic nightmare. She discovers the power her youthful looks have over those around her including Hank, played by Keanu Reeves, the motel manager who lusts creepily after the young female occupiers. She meets jealous models like Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who believes that surgery is just ‘good grooming’, and Sarah (Abbey Lee) who is losing work to younger models like Jesse – “Do you know how lucky you are? I’m a ghost.” The story gradually grows more surreal and violent like a bloody fairy tale.

The script and performances can be a problem for The Neon Demon. In the opening scenes, Ruby, played by Jenna Malone, lusts after Jesse in a way that is neither subtle nor realistic. In the opening scenes, Ruby asks Jesse “Am I staring?” She then apologises and explains that she cannot help herself because Jesse has such beautiful skin. This is not the only cringe worthy exchange that sound like lines from a badly written romance novel or porn movie. It may be the case that Refn chose to make these scenes seem ridiculous and fake, continuing his portrayal of the modelling world as something unreal. But even if this is the case, as a consequence it becomes difficult to be drawn into this world. The bad acting throughout the movie may also be intentional but it does not work.

The tone of the film is not always clear. Although there are moments of horror that will genuinely make you squirm in your seat, there are also serious moments that are funny when they are not supposed to be.

However despite the flaws, the film succeeds in other areas. The art house elements, soundtrack and cinematography are inventive and effective. The Neon Demon succeeds in symbolism and imagery and is a bloody critique of the modelling industry. Beauty and horror coincides to reinvent the horror genre as audiences are familiar with the beautiful woman as the victim, but not the horror itself.

Film Review: Mustang

The liberty and sexual freedom of adolescent girls is an important issue today, as illustrated by the prevalent slut shaming on social media and class room harassment experienced by girls today. But inequality can also manifest in ways that are less obvious; girls are generally expected to be well-behaved and it is less acceptable for them to exhibit the kind of wild and loud behaviour that is expected of boys. Although set in a small conservative Turkish town, the new French film Mustang perfectly captures the freedom and repression experienced by adolescent girls.

Despite being released in the UK in May 2016, the film has already seen success and received widespread acclaim since it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It has won a number of awards and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Directed by newcomer Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang is about the coming of age of five Turkish sisters who live with their uncle, aunt and grandmother. On their way home from school the sisters play a game in the sea with a group of boys, but a neighbour misinterprets it, and tells their aunt. Suspected of having had sexual contact with the boys, the girls are punished; the older girls are even sent to the doctor to check that their hymens are still intact.

Scared that the girls are too wild and reckless to appeal to potential husbands, the tyrannical uncle blames the aunt for being too lenient and asserts that things must change. As the youngest sister, Lale puts it, “everything changed in a blink of an eye”. The sisters are shut indoors and made to wear shapeless clothing whilst their home becomes a “wife factory”.

The following scenes show the girls being taught to cook and sew, with bored looks on their faces. Banned from playing outside and returning to school, the girls lay around the house like caged animals. Their telephones along with any possessions that could be a bad influence are locked away by their aunt. One by one, the girls are married off to men they do not love and barely know.

The impressive performances from the young cast seem natural and authentic, making some scenes particularly sad and difficult to watch. But there is also much joy and humour in this film as the girls have spirits that are not easily broken. Rebelling when they can, the girls rip apart their shapeless garments, the eldest sneaks out at night to be with a boy and the youngest makes plans to escape.

When the sisters sneak out to watch a football match, their happiness is portrayed through their liveliness; the youngest, Lale, stamps her feet with excitement on their way there and her sisters lift her into the air in celebration at the game. But the match is being filmed for television coverage, threatening the secrecy of their excursion. What follows is both poignant and comical.

Overall, Mustang beautifully calls into question the old, outdated ideas of what a woman should be. The girls are portrayed as individuals, whole and complex. The scenes portraying their true nature are enjoyable and full of life, colour and humour. It is heartbreaking to watch their relatives attempt to take this away from them and turn them into something else.

Film Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Female characters in film are usually two-dimensional and unrealistic. As for female sexuality, this is something rarely depicted in our culture. We are used to seeing men who want to have sex with women on our screens, but we rarely see the opposite. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a rare exception. It is unashamed and unflinching in its portrayal of the 15 year old Minnie Goetze and her discovery of sex, love and lust.

Set in 1970s San Francisco, the story follows 15 year old Minnie, played by Bel Powley, losing her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe, who is 35 years old. Her reaction is one of excitement and disbelief:

“I had sex today. Holy shit.”

Minnie continues to have sex with Monroe, played by Alexander Skarsgård, in secret. She also has experiences outside of this relationship, discovering her sexual power at school and in the dingy bars of San Francisco. Minnie keeps a tape recorded diary where she shares her innermost thoughts and feelings, revealing to us how she feels about these new experiences. All the while, Charlotte, her unconventional mother played by Kristen Wiig, drinks and takes drugs with friends, still acts the wild child of her own lost youth.

The film is composed of both live action and animation. This could lead one to assume that the story is a light-hearted affair, but it is far from it. The story explores raw and dark subject matters. The animation refers Minnie’s own interest in art and writing but it also reflects her youthful imagination, adult fantasies and creative vision.

Marielle Heller directed and adapted the story from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name. Heller succeeds in creating real female characters that are not two dimensional or simply the object male interest. The honest portrayal of what it is like to be a teenage girl is incredibly refreshing to see.

The film conveys the contradictory feelings and emotions that go with being a teenager. Minnie wants to have sex. She wants to be physically close to another person and feel her body against theirs. But she can be self-conscious about her body and at one point, feels paranoid that Monroe is avoiding her because she is fat. She also discovers the power that she has when men are attracted to her: a power that can be thrilling or frustrating. She can be manipulative but she is also vulnerable.

Minnie explores her sexuality but without knowledge of what she is truly comfortable with and where her limits are. This is an interesting theme that is touched upon and sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. In having sex with her mother’s boyfriend, Minnie is also exploring an adult world, the codes and language of which she has yet to understand. The result is an emotional rollercoaster.

Powley is brilliant as Minnie and convincingly portrays an individual who is somewhere between adulthood and childhood. Alexander Skarsgård is great as the handsome object of Minnie’s interest, as well as being quite creepy at times, particularly as he tries to avert Minnie’s mother from suspecting anything. Kristen Wiig’s comical performance as the dope smoking, cocaine snorting mother, Charlotte, is worth noting.

Overall, this film explores female sexuality in a way that I haven’t seen before. It is refreshing, insightful and well observed. At the same time, this is an entertaining and absorbing film. Visually striking with great performances from the cast, I would recommend that you see this film.

Rated 18

As I mentioned in my last post, why this honest and raw coming of age film is important for young women, there was controversy over the film rating. With an 18 certificate, teenage girls have been banned from seeing a film that is about teenage girls. This is a shame because its realistic depiction of teenage sexuality could help young female audiences feel less abnormal about their own sexual awakening.

Bel Powley has gone as far as to tell teenage girls to get a fake ID to see this film.

Personally, I think that the film is on the borderline between a 15 and 18 rating. However, I agree with Bel Powley that teenage girls should see it anyway.

Why this honest and raw coming of age film is important for young women – The Diary of a Teenage Girl

What is The Diary of a Teenage Girl?

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a new film that has been adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by which was first published in 2002. Set in 1970s San Francisco, this coming of age story follows 15 year old Minnie Goetze as she discovers the world of love, sex and lust. The story follows Minnie losing her virginity, starting a sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend and the drama that succeeds this.

 

Why is this film important?

This film is important because it is about something that we rarely see in cinema: female sexuality.

The way that a woman’s sexuality is depicted in the media is extremely limited. The woman usually seeks commitment and a relationship. Sometimes she uses sex to manipulate another person. Her ultimate goal is not sensual pleasure. This contrasts with the male desire of which we are all familiar with because it is rife in cinema, television and advertising. The male gaze, we know. The female gaze is almost non-existent in the media.

But this issue is one that people are becoming more aware of and more film makers and writers are attempting to turn all of this around. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is one example of this. The film is said to be an honest portrayal of a girl who wants to have sexual experiences.

 

What is the problem with there being a lack of female sexuality represented in the media?

For me, the lack of representation implies that female lust is either non-existent or not normal. When something is not represented as ordinary, it becomes strange, abnormal and maybe even a bit frightening.

Growing up, before puberty hit, I had tweaked that men and boys wanted sex. But it didn’t strike me that girls or women did as well. In fact, the first time I came across this was when I myself first wanted sex. It made me feel completely awkward and strange. I asked myself if I abnormal?

I think that a film that for once recognises and depicts the girl hitting puberty and being interested in sex, is long overdue. A film that normalises these natural and confusing emotions and urges has the potential to make young women feel less abnormal about their own.

 

Why was the cinema rating such a problem for the film makers?

The film was given an 18 certificate although the film makers were hoping that it would be given a 15.

The rating was an issue because an audience of young women who could have benefited from the positive representation of female sexuality are now banned from seeing it. This film could have been the very thing to help young women become more accepting of their sexuality.

I think that the implications of the rating are quite negative. To prevent teenagers from seeing a film about a teenage girl exploring her sexuality is to imply that there is not suitable for them. It could even imply that there is something inappropriate about teenage sexuality. This seems absurd.

The Independent covered this issue in the article Diary of a Teenage Girl dares to be honest about female sexuality so why ban teens from seeing it?

The article notes that the film was written and directed by women but “refused a 15 certificate by an all-male panel at the British Board of Film Classification.” The article continues, “here are medieval-minded men trying to ‘protect the innocence’ of young girls while simultaneously ignoring the experiences of women who have been young girls themselves.”

I have yet to see the film myself, and until I do, I cannot make my own judgment about the certificate ruling.

 

Please comment and look out for future posts

I have purchased my copy of the graphic novel upon which the film is based which I will review once I have finished reading it. I will also watch the movie as soon as I get the chance and I will let you know what I thought.

Please leave any comments with your thoughts on The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I finally read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby after meaning to for a long time. A few years back I saw the movie adaptation of High Fidelity with John Cussack playing the music obsessed lead character, Rob. For me the most memorable thing about it was Jack Black’s performance as Barry, one of Rob’s co-workers at the record store. One of the early scenes featured Barry twirling about energetically to Walking on Sunshine at full volume in the store.

Although my expectations weren’t particularly high when I began reading High Fidelity, I was soon drawn into Rob’s world of relationships, anguish and treasured record collection. Rob’s life truly revolves around pop music. His taste in music and lists of favourite records gives him a sense of identity and contributes to his self-worth. Music and life are merged and inseparable, as illustrated in his question:

‘Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?’

The story begins with the end of Rob’s relationship with Laura, who left him. Rob explains, as if speaking to her directly, why this particular split-up has not made his ‘top five most memorable split-ups’ list. He fantasises about trying to convince Laura that she has not had as much of an impact on him as she may think. But this in itself as well as his behaviour suggests otherwise. As he delves into the reasons why Laura may have left him and what may be wrong with him, we know that he is hurt, but has too much pride to be honest about it. Rob is badly behaved, immature and yet highly vulnerable.

What I like the most about the novel is that the characters’ traits are recognisable and familiar. I either share their qualities or know other people who do.

Hornby has an impressive talent for capturing those hidden feelings and thoughts that we don’t tend to admit to ourselves. For example, there is a moment when Rob visits his parents when he is miserable. Upon discovering that they are not at home but are in fact at a wine tasting party in the house across the road, Rob resents the fact that his parents have more of a life than he does. ‘What right do parents have to go to parties on Sunday afternoons for no reason at all?’ he asks. As I read this, I completely understood what he meant.

Hornby’s ability to capture such human traits left me feeling as though I had deepened my understanding of them. Hornby realises the pressure that people feel to be accepted and good enough. I felt as though a bit of his wisdom had been passed on to me. That Hornby has constructed a neat novel that is all at once funny, entertaining and enlightening, is a real achievement. High Fidelity is as much as anyone can ask for of a modern novel.

 

Thoughts on Vianne Rocher in Chocolat

Chocolat is a bittersweet novel by Joanne Harris. The protagonist is Vianne Rocher who moves to the small French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with her young daughter Anouk. Unlike the rest of the town’s people, the new arrivals do not go to church (but that is not to say Vianne does not believe in anything divine). The pair move to this small town on the day of the carnival, right before the beginning of lent. They move into what was a closed down bakery opposite church, which they clean from top to bottom. With the help of local villagers, it is transformed into an exotic chocolate shop and the subject of secret curiosity and wonder. But the priest, Francis Reynaud, is furious that somebody would have the nerve to open such a place at the beginning of lent. For lent is not the time for indulgence.

The inside of the shop is more like a tiny chocolate cafe or American diner, rather than a shop. It has red cushioned stools by the bar where hot espresso or hot chocolate from the stove is served to its customers. Although this setting might be comforting and familiar to the reader, it is foreign and strange to the people of this small French town.

Vianne arrives with Anouk in bright coloured clothing from the city. By contrast, the people of Lansquenet are described as wearing plain and bland coloured clothing and hair hidden beneath dull coloured berets. Vianne’s openness and friendliness is also strange and unusual to the reserved locals. Vianne’s influence on them is one of the things that I like the most about the book. Under her influence, their inhibitions slowly fall away. For a few people, the culture of conformity and reserve is a damaging thing. These are the individuals who are the most open to Vianne and her differences. The chocolate shop provides a sanctuary where people have the freedom to be a little more honest and a little more themselves whilst indulging on some sweet and simple pleasures. Those that are influenced by Vianne’s free spiritedness start to wear colour and show more confidence, little by little.

Vianne’s strength of character is compelling. Despite being frowned upon by half the town who want her business to fail, she carries on because she is confident in herself. She does not seem to be afraid of failure. This fearlessness is both admirable and inspiring. This book reaffirmed my belief that it is better to try and fail at something than be overcome by fear failure. I could feel myself as a reader being just as influenced by this character as the other characters are in this story.