BIRDMAN MEETS KINGSMAN: A MATCH IN MISCONCEPTION?
I’m looking today at two recent Cinema ‘hits’ now transitioning their way to download / DVD / Blu-Ray / a special place in ready-made nostalgia of tomorrow. Both were well received. Birdman won Oscars including Best picture. Kingsman has a sequel in development.
I’m not going to be so silly as to imply that either is a ‘bad’ film or that any of the adoring fans are ‘wrong’ in their perceptions (though why the hell shouldn’t I? Pistols at dawn, sir. BRING IT ON! ).
No, rather: a forensic ‘devil’s advocate’ style dissection. These films could not be more different on the surface of it. And yet, both engage in a kind of meta-textual exercise; with cinema culture effectively disappearing into itself: the ‘original’ becomes derivative and vice versa.
Dare I suggest that either film, if not both films, might perchance be..-shock horror – over-rated?
No turning back now..buckle up!
Actors: Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Story: Actor(Keaton) stages a play and descends into madness. En route, he faces a pretentious rival, a troubled daughter and the world’s harshest critic.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Actors: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L Jackson
Director: Matthew Vaughan
Story: A top-secret and independent organisation (‘The Kingsmen’) police and protect the world. They need a new recruit. Cue a race to become the new agent and save the day in Savile Row suits.
Birdman won best picture at the Oscars and was lauded for restoring Michael Keaton to the Hollywood establishment. Kingsman was pitched as both tribute and challenge to the James Bond films. Both efforts model great craftsmanship in brief pockets, yet collapse under self-congratulatory pretensions, compromising any sparks of invention. What are the actual stories / plots/motifs in either movie? Could one actually pitch the projects without the back-up of star names and established meta-mythology? I am daring to say ‘no’.
But let’s start with the good points. One Oscar winner here; one massive box office franchise in waiting. Cannot be all bad, right? Agreed. Birdman allows Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Emma Stone to remind us of their star quality. They are moving, funny and charming.
Kingsman features at least two stars of tomorrow: Taron Egerton and Hanna Alstrom. Egerton simply has an innate leading man’s charisma and charm and you want him to win at every stage of the film. Both films also have excellent lighting, sound and a good sense of location with perfect photography to match. The scenes with the Princess at the film’s end are pure movie star magic. Egerton might even be the new Han Solo in a Star Wars spin-off (he’s on the list of contenders, apparently and one can see why, based on his turn in Kingsman).
But that’s not enough to sustain either popcorn entertainment or some stab at higher art. I might enjoy Kingsman or Birdman based on the leading performances and that’s great. But is it ENOUGH to sustain a reputation as a great movie? Matter of debate. At the very least, if a movie is marketed as an actor’s ‘best’ work, then it should at least deliver on that promise.
Birdman is sold as Michael Keaton’s apotheosis. It really isn’t. You are spending an entire film with a performance that simply isn’t one of Keaton’s best. He growls and scowls and sulks and huffs and puffs. It’s uncomfortable viewing.
Keaton was once able to capture an entire character in one look. Witness Batman Returns (1992):he sits in the darkness, brooding. Head in his hands, he is awakened by the Bat-signal. It’s a comic book film and the kind of franchise piece that Birdman looks down on so self-consciously with the smug stench of pretension. But those two seconds of Keaton’s Batman are better than an entire two hours of Birdman.
The Keaton of Batman was a potential pretender to the Pacino acting crown (his brooding Batman in chair echoes Pacino’s Corleone at the end of Godfather2). The Keaton of 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing was a comic genius with real command of Shakespearean comedy. Keaton in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights is a hypnotic personification of menace.
1994’s The Paper shows Keaton’s everyman under pressure, Jack Lemmon/Jimmy Stewart credentials. In Clean and Sober, My Life and One Good Cop he invested otherwise soap operatic material with genuine gravitas. He has always been a consummate actor. And he always will be.
It’s therefore a shame that Keaton is being praised highly for a film that showcases his talents less effectively than his previous work. I would not usually judge one film on memories of its lead actor’s better times. But that is the whole pitch of Birdman: an indulgent, meta-textual nod to actors’ personas.
Kingsman has an identical problem. It is pitched as ‘the kind of Bond film they used to make’. That’s simply not an accurate pitch. The tone of Bond films does shift with the times, of course. But in each era, there is some consistency to that tone. Kingsman by contrast wants to be all things to all people. Its moments of energetic fun are blurred by a pervasively muddled tone.
If Kingsman is trying to be some camp throwback: why include brutal kitchen sink / council estate drama? If an escapist romp, why include references to real-world menaces like extremist religious groups and gratuitous violence in their place of worship?
There is a hilarious joke at the film’s close, but like everything else, they simply push it too far. Critically, Kingsman lacks the one thing it supposedly hinges on: STYLE! Matthew Vaughan could make a great Bond film in the future. He showed that potential with Layer Cake and X Men: First Class, which have both style and substance. But he fails to display such aplomb in Kingsman.
The common lessons from these two seemingly disparate films? Don’t patronise your audience; Stop being ‘meta’ and just make a real film. And when seeking a charming performance: there’s nothing wrong with simply enjoying the original Bonds and Batmen. Don’t be conned by upstart imitators or swayed by pretentious detractors.
Just to be clear: neither is a truly ‘bad’ film. I’m not that stupid or foolhardy as to even attempt such a suggestion. But they are over-rated. Be careful of what you class as a ‘great’ movie or even a ‘fun’ / ‘stylish’ one. The bar appears to have dropped and is in danger of going even lower if Birdman and Kingsman are now templates for ‘great’ in their respective genres.
Grade B for both. #Must try harder. Back to school. ‘Manners Makyth Man’