Oscars: ‘Boyhood’ & ‘Birdman’

boyhood-v-birdman

Technical mastery elevate Boyhood and Birdman to a different level, according to Michael Rice as he looks ahead to this weekend’s Academy Awards.

I love the Oscars, I can’t help it, I just do. I am fully aware of how ridiculous they are, and how seriously these people are taking themselves, but it’s just great. That amount of star power in one room just makes me dizzy, and it’s not just the stars; it’s the directors, and the writers, and everyone else in that room connected to film.

I watch a lot of movies, and I’m invested emotionally in a lot of these people, I have an opinion on who deserves it, and this doesn’t necessarily correlate with who I want to win. Anyway, I’m going off point, rather I started off point, it’s just for some reason I always feel the need to start off defensively when engaging in a conversation about the Oscars, because my head is often bitten off about how trivial they are, and how it’s all politics, etc. I join in sometimes to be fair, and I’m good at backing up why they’re pompous, and self-congratulatory, and so on, but it’s just words filtering from my mouth with no meaning or soul, I’m just lying through the vehicle of logic, and regurgitation. I love them. So there, I said it – twice!

I’ve had to change paragraph here just to try and get to my point. My point being that I think this year’s Oscars are of the highest standards in years. This is mainly down to two films, Birdman, and Boyhood – two films that were made using radical forms that required such technical mastery from their directors that it’s hard to comprehend. These are two of the best mainstream movies made in the last decade, and are both competing for the same Best Picture prize.

I’ll start off with Boyhood, written, and directed by Richard Linklater, known for such cult classics as Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. The film was shot over 12 years, chronicling the life of a young boy from the age of 6, to the age of 18, showing him growing up before our eyes, and doing so in a narrative that never even threatens to exceed the boundaries of plausibility, while remaining compelling. I’ve seen the movie twice, and I must say that my first viewing wasn’t matched by the second, but then again how could it be? The fact that this movie was made over 12 years is not something that immediately jumps out at you when you view this film, the transitions in time are so gradual and so smoothly done that the full effect of the movie is only felt when the end credits arrive on screen. It left a profound visceral effect on me that I can’t quite put into words, but I knew I had seen something very important. The film’s use of time and how it passes reveals in all its bluntness how short life is. My friend and I scurried away from the cinema making declarations about how we have to start making more out of life, and I vowed to kick-start a new improved chapter of my life. It was possibly a false dawn, but the sentiment has not left me since.  For a movie to have that sort of positive effect on your understanding of life is something that cannot be over-valued.

I have no clever seuge into begin my discussion of Birdman, only to say that this is a very different film, particularly distinguishable due to its use of the surreal. Directed by Alejandro Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel), the film is about Riggan Thompson, a once huge movie star of the Birdman franchise – those days are long over, however, and he is now trying to be validated as an actor by directing and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. First things first, the technical mastery here is one of a different kind, but has common ground in its extreme level of difficulty. The movie, outside of a few opening and closing shots, appears to be all one take. This creates a frantic pace that causes a visceral feeling of discomfort in the viewer, as everything seems to be immediate and happening in the now, causing the stakes to rise throughout the picture. This is aided by a story that challenges everyone involved in the creative industry, from the actors, to the media, to the critics, no one walks away from this unscathed. But what the film really captures is something that is independent of any industry or social construct, and that is the human condition. We all want to be validated, we all want to be loved, we all want to be admired, and we all have a limited time to get these things. The frantic pace of the film coincides with Thompson’s battle with time, a battle to get all of these things before he dies. All his actions, and indeed most of ours are driven by ego, and a fear of death, and until we relinquish that fear we are stifled by it.

Both pictures leave you pondering what it is to be human, and both pictures in some way capture that very essence, through unconventional and original uses of the form of filmmaking. There can only be one winner of the Best Picture Oscar, if I was pushed to pick between the two, I’d probably go with Boyhood by a nose considering the scale of the achievement, but I could feel differently tomorrow. May the best film win. I think I might wear a tuxedo just to watch this one.

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Birdman

birdman

DIR: Alejandro González Iñárritu • WRI: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo • PRO: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole • DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki • ED: Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione • DES: Kevin Thompson • MUS: Antonio Sanchez • CAST: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton

 

The French New Wave erupted in France during the 1950s, chucking all the formal rules of filmmaking out the window. A postmodern and critical cult began with the likes of Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer, who soon paved the way for American filmmakers such as Scorsese, Spielberg and De Palma. After the collapse of the studio system in Hollywood, young directors were left to their own devices and audiences were given a breath of fresh air.

 

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman is an American movie with European sensibilities, focusing more on mood and style rather than narrative. Birdman unfolds like a French New Wave film with its idiosyncrasies and philosophical dialogue. Even the title sequence is reminiscent of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Birdman doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the table, but it is bursting with so much energy that it can’t help but win audiences over and create the sense that they are watching something entirely fresh and original.

 

The sense of the movie being shot entirely in one take with its complex tracking shots, fused with its rapid-fire dialogue keeps the audience alert and excited. It possesses a vibrant pace that challenges viewers to keep up as it races before our eyes on the screen.

 

And even though the movie is highly eccentric – whether it’s the cinematography, acting or fantasy sequences –  it never leads us astray. In fact, because of its technical tracking shots we feel part of the entire process. The film’s characters are preparing for a Broadway play and as the camera follows them through the hallways, dressing rooms, stage and streets of Manhattan, we feel like we are right there with them. It’s a voyeuristic wet dream. Hitchcock must be jizzing in his grave.

 

From a technical standpoint, Birdman is clearly a tremendous achievement, but we must not forget the actors, who had to stick out the gruelling shoot and not only make it work, but actually enhance it to the next level. Wonderfully cast, Birdman is a commentary on various subjects and one of those is acting itself. In this movie the actors are playing actors and at times it nearly becomes a game trying to figure out if they are in character for the play or not.

 

The acting method and process is superbly demonstrated in a sequence involving Riggan (Keaton) and Mike (Norton), who attempt to get into character during a rehearsal, which is so perfectly timed and natural I just sat there smiling like an idiot.

 

Throughout the film there is a struggle between reality and fantasy, whether it’s Riggan and his Birdman persona, Mike wanting the performance to be so real that he must actually drink real gin or really fuck on stage to succeed, or a strict critic trying to separate (real) high art from Hollywood.

 

Birdman had all the potential and possibility of being a pretentious art-house flick, but because of its sheer vigor and humor it has become a crossover hit and serious Oscar contender. Much like the struggle in the film’s subtext, I’m racking my brains trying to decide if it’s a great fantastical Hollywood picture or a real original film. Can’t win them all I guess.

Cormac O’Meara

15A (See IFCO for details)
119 minutes.
Birdman
is released 2nd January 2015.

Birdman   – Official Website

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