We review the new year’s first releases, including BIRDMAN and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING…

BIRDMAN (USA/15A/119mins)
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan.
THE PLOT: Haunted by his most famous box-office role, Birdman, and the fact that his career is in the doldrums, a plainly distressed and distracted Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is hoping for a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver production on Broadway. Quite clearly a man teetering on the edge of a freefall, Thomson regularly converses with his 1990s comic-book persona Birdman, and even experiences the occasional superpower moment. We first meet Thomson seemingly levitating in his dressing room. Moments later, as his co-lead male actor whines once too often, Thomson uses his telepathic powers to have a stage light drop on his head. Or did the light just fall? Thomson’s anxieties continue to mount though, even when the brilliant Mike Shiner (Norton) is drafted in as replacement. Shiner is a loose cannon, seemingly willing to do anything for his art, and he is soon pushing Thomson to do the same, both artistically and professionally. Shiner acts and behaves like a man with nothing to lose; Thomson is in constant fear of losing everything, not only all the money he’s invested in the production and his career, but also the waning respect of his disgruntled, rebellious daughter (Stone), his possibly-pregnant co-star (Riseborough) and his long-suffering ex-wife (Ryan).
THE VERDICT: A film that’s not quite as good as it thinks it is, BIRDMAN is nonetheless another fascinating slice of cinema navel-gazing, with Michael Keaton going full Meta in the title role, as the fallen box-office giant hoping that being a big deal on a small stage might just relaunch his career. Hey, it nearly worked for Kevin Spacey.
As much about celebrity versus creativity and credibility, the current cult of branding in Hollywood, and that old chestnut, the mid-life crisis, as it is about a bunch fo actors banging heads backstage, BIRDMAN is full of flights of fancy. Some soar, others play like a penguin dressed up as a phoenix, but even when BIRDMAN fails to fly, there are plenty of sweet moments and perfectly-formed put-downs to keep you chuckling.
Ultimately no more revealing about the actor’s life than Woody Allen’s sublime BULLETS OVER BROADWAY(and only half as funny), BIRDMAN has pockets of brilliance (most of them involving Edward Norton), but it never truly lives up to its Oscar-baiting pretentiousness.
Review by Paul Byrne

Directed by James Marsh. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Harry Lloyd.
THE PLOT: Stephen Hawking has changed the way we look at the night sky, and this week Eddie Redmayne takes on the role of the famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist in a film that takes a look at the man behind the theories.
THE VERDICT: Motor Neurone Disease was thrust into public awareness earlier this year, with the Ice Bucket Challenge craze sweeping the globe, and Stephen Hawking is perhaps one of the most famous living people with the disease. Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking, both before and after the disease left him confined to a wheelchair, is simply extraordinary. It seems as though Redmayne, in order to play Hawking, embraced the challenge and plays the role as a brilliant man who is determined to find something new and wonderful in the world, and does not allow his diagnosis to deter him. Redmayne never allows his performance to feel like mimicry, instead this feels like an organic performance; one that is hugely touching and engaging.
The rest of the actors in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING are cast in Redmayne’s shadow, but equally give strong performances; Felicity Jones is strong and warm as Jane Hawking, Harry Lloyd is at once carefree and caring as Brian, and Christian McKay and David Thewlis shine as Hawking’s mentors.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s book Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, and it focuses on the personal life of the man whose theories are groundbreaking. In this way, the huge personal struggles that Hawking has faced become the truly groundbreaking aspect of the film, and the public persona of Hawking; one we are familiar with, is allowed to fade into the background. The screenplay allows the audience to see a different, funny and self-deprecating side of Hawking, but if there were to be a problem with THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, it would be the fact that somehow, the story feels a little unsatisfactory at times. Perhaps it is the dream sequence toward the end, which is certainly not needed, or the fact that a true balance between work and life is never struck, but for a film with such an inspirational character and such an incredible performance from a leading man, there are times when the whole affair falls a little flat.
Director James Marsh, whose previous films include SHADOW DANCER, MAN ON WIRE and the wonderful PROJECT NIM has created a world where the audience feels at home, and Stephen Hawking shines. The cast do a great job and, although the film meanders at times, it is, on the whole, engaging and emotionally wrought.
In all, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a touching and engaging story that is anchored by an extraordinary performance from Eddie Redmayne. There are times when proceedings fall a little flat, but this is a story about overcoming the things that life throws at us in order to be great, and to be happy, which is just about the most human story of them all.
Review by Brogen Hayes

ENEMY (Canada | Spain/16/90mins)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent.
THE PLOT: Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) has an ordered and normal life; a job he likes, a girlfriend he loves and a place to call his own. When watching a movie, however, he realises that one of the actors is his exact double, and goes about seeking him out.
THE VERDICT: In 2014 we had Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE, and now PRISONERS director Denis Villeneuve brings us another take on the idea of doppelgangers with ENEMY, based on The Double by José Saramago.
Jake Gyllenhaal is on fantastic from in the lead role as Adam and Anthony. It is in the little gestures that the characters work, and Gyllenhaal reminds us of his strength as an actor, as he carries the film ably. Sarah Gadon and Melanie Laurent play the wives and girlfriends of Gyllenhaal’s characters, and Isabella Rosselini turns up as Adam’s mother.
The story, adapted for the screen by Javier Gullón, is all about Adam and, to a lesser degree, Anthony. Adam’s intrigue, paranoia and fear run through the whole film, and director Denis Villeneuve makes sure that the atmosphere is tense and uncomfortable, yet utterly gripping, throughout. There are times when the film’s 90 minute running time feels like it is a lot longer, but Gyllenhaal is so magnetic on screen, this feeling quickly falls away. Villeneuve sustains the mood of the film throughout, as we drift from scene to scene. Yes, there is a linear narrative of sorts, but the film is more a collection of scenes suffused with a mood, than a quest to get to the end and learn the answers. In fact, precious few answers are given throughout the film, which means this is a film to be talked about and discussed, one that is not easily explained away and one that is going to stay with audiences long after they have left the cinema.
In all, Denis Villeneuve proves that the dark, oppressive feel of PRISONERS was no fluke, creating a film that is as much a psychological thriller as it is an examination of what it means to be human. Gyllenhaal is at the top of his game here, Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography is beautiful and although the pacing lags from time to time, ENEMY is a film that does not pander to its audience, and is as gripping as it is perplexing.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Heln McCrory, Jeremy Irvine, Phoebe Fox, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy, Oaklee Pendergast, Jude Wright, Eve Pearce.
THE PLOT: London, 1941, and the Blitz sees schoolteacher Eve Parkins (Fox) taking a group of schoolchildren out of bombs’ way by ferrying them away to the derelict and isolated Eel Marsh House, deep in the English countryside. Where, almost immediately, things start going bump in the night. Luckily, Eve had befriend local RAF pilot Harry (Irvine) on her journey to Eel Marsh, but the budding young lovers are no match for the spooky spectre causing havoc, horror and hairy, scary hide-and-seek games. Particularly troubled is little Edward (Pendergast), a young boy who has remained mute since witnessing his mother’s death in a bomb raid. The biggest frights, of course, come from within, as dark secrets begin to surface, and suffocate…
THE VERDICT: It’ll be interesting to see if the brand can beat the lack of star power here, WOMAN IN BLACK returning without the Potter boy, or, indeed, any bona fide star to replace young Radcliffe. Chances are, given that people are just happy to get as far away from Christmas, relatives and frozen turkey sandwiches at this time of year, a franchise horror film should pick up a healthy audience. Initially. Once people see WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH, they’re unlikely to recommend this FRANKENSTEIN-esque slice of schlock horror. Having started out as a mediocre screenplay that spawned a badly-received novelisation in 2013. From such stunted acorns a mutant, muted tree is born, ANEGL OF DEATH having little or no redeeming features. The acting is mediocre, the plotting painfully predictable, and the camerawork only occasionally giving rise to an actual fright. Avoid.
Review by Paul Byrne