In Birdman, Michael Keaton inhabits the role of a middle-aged Hollywood star, whose glory days as a big screen superhero are long behind him.
It’s the role of a lifetime for Keaton, nodding and winking to his two stints behind Batman’s cowl under director Tim Burton in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Art and real life playfully blur in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s technically dazzling comedy, which was shot on location in New York.
In one of the film’s bravura handheld sequences, Keaton strides purposefully through crowded, neon-lit Times Square in just his underpants as tourists clamour with their mobile devices.
Literally and figuratively, he bares his soul.
Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who deservedly won an Oscar for sci-fi thriller Gravity, meticulously splice together each interlude to resemble a single, unbroken 119-minute shot.
If you look closely, you can see the joins but, as a feat of split-second timing, balletic choreography and directorial brio, Birdman is jaw-dropping - right down to the moment the camera casually pans to a drummer on the street playing the same beats and rolls of Antonio Sanchez’s improvised jazz score.
Accompanied by a rambling voiceover from Riggan that reflects the character’s mental unravelling, Birdman is a wickedly funny satire of a world of overinflated egos and barely concealed vices.
Performances are uniformly excellent, from Keaton’s career-revitalising turn to Emma Stone’s fearless portrayal of a recovering drug addict and Edward Norton’s hilarious embodiment of an artist, who believes that “popularity is just the slutty little cousin of prestige”.
Peppered with affectionate verbal barbs aimed at Hollywood’s current glitterati, Inarritu’s picture is crammed to bursting with self-referential treats that demand a second and third viewing.
Birdman is the post-Christmas gift that keep on giving.
Star Rating: 4½
The Theory of Everything
In Scottish novelist JM Barrie’s most beloved work, Peter Pan famously contemplates his mortality on Marooner’s Rock and observes, “To die will be an awfully big adventure”.
For more than half a century since he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has – happily – pushed aside his awfully big adventure and astounded the medical community.
Defying the short life expectancy associated with the rare condition, he has married twice, raised a family and altered our narrow perception of the universe including the publication of his worldwide bestseller, A Brief History Of Time.
As Hawking remarked at a press conference in 2006: “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”
Those inspirational words are repeated verbatim in The Theory Of Everything.
Based on the memoir Travelling To Infinity by Jane Wilde Hawking, James Marsh’s deeply moving drama charts the romance of Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and first wife Jane (Felicity Jones) from fleeting glances at a party at mid-1960s Cambridge University through their subsequent battle against MND.
The Theory Of Everything is anchored by two of the year’s best performances.
Redmayne is simply astounding, affecting a mesmerizing physical transformation that surely warrants an Oscar.
He brilliantly conveys every raw emotion or flash of impish humour with his eyes or the twitch of a facial muscle.
Jones is equally compelling as his soul mate, who sacrifices everything in the name of love.
Director Marsh uses simple visual motifs to illuminate the complex cosmology, such as a swirl of cream in a cup of coffee to represent a spiral galaxy in Stephen’s mind.
With its delicate balance of tear-stained drama, deeply felt romance and comedy, The Theory Of Everything hits upon a winning formula.
Star Rating: 4/5
The Woman in Black: Angel of Death
Hammer Horror’s 2012 film version of The Woman In Black, based on Susan Hill’s celebrated horror novella of the same name, certainly hit a raw nerve.
Blessed with a post-Harry Potter leading role for Daniel Radcliffe, the resolutely old-fashioned haunted house yarn became the most successful British horror film for 20 years.
When those box office tills started ringing, Tom Harper’s sequel was a foregone conclusion.
The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death is bereft of original ideas and resorts to a familiar array of ominous creaks and groans to herald the arrival of the eponymous spirit.
Fox’s plucky heroine puts herself in harm’s way with such foolhardy regularity, you have to question her suitability as a teacher.
Meanwhile, Helen McCrory purses her lips for portentous remarks like, “Our worst enemy is ourselves: our fears, doubt, despair. That’s what will destroy us.”
In response, perhaps, to complaints from parents about the 12A classification of the first film, Harper’s sequel sports a 15 certificate and a warning about strong horror and threat.
Ironically, the original was scarier and shoe-horned more jump-out-of-your-seat boos into 90 minutes.
Star Rating: 2½
In selected cinemas…
Jake Gyllenhaal plays dual roles in Denis Villeneuve’s psychological thriller, loosely based on Jose Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double.
Bookish college professor Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal) watches a film on the recommendation of a friend and is startled to glimpse an actor called Daniel St Claire, who is his physical doppelganger.
Further investigation reveals the actor’s real name is Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal again) and Adam tracks down his double, spying on Anthony and his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon).
Anthony and Adam eventually meet and they are startled by the physical similarity down to a scar on their abdomens.
Personality wise, they couldn’t be more different: while Adam is shy, reserved and pensive, Anthony is impulsive, passionate and intensely sexual.
The doppelgangers infiltrate each other’s lives, creating surprising reactions from Helen and Adam’s girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent).