Birdman

Birdman photo starrating-4stars.jpgVivid, flashy meditation on fame has Michael Keaton as a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson, once known for playing a superhero character named Birdman in the movies – three times in fact. Now he is desperately wanting to re-invigorate his career with the mounting of a Broadway play. He is both directing and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The parallels between Keaton’s real-life celebrity as Batman and Riggan’s role as Birdman are just as overt as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Keaton is perfect in the part because he IS this guy. And the opportunity to send-up his own reputation allows the actor to give the finest performance he’s possibly ever given, or at least since Beetlejuice. The production is a dizzying look into the backstage shenanigans of the theater, from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night. Truly Birdman is the best film “All About” Broadway since that movie with Bette Davis.

Riggan is supported by a coterie of oddball characters. On the day before previews, the co-lead is injured and he must quickly scramble for a replacement. Riggan’s slightly off-kilter female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, theater critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He turns out to be a completely bonkers method actor that has an ego unchecked by his unrelenting bravado. It’s a masterful performance – one that cleverly draws on the star’s own notoriety gained after starring in The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Idiosyncratic actress (and Riggan’s girlfriend) Laura also stars in his play. She is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter who now works as his assistant. Then there’s Riggan’s best friend and theatrical producer Jake. When Zach Galifianakis embodies the most sane person in the ensemble, you know you’re surrounded by a zany lot indeed.

What really sets director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force apart is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The film is shot, or made to appear like it was shot, in one single long take with no edits over the course of a few days. The result is a you-are-there heightened sense of realism.  The proceedings have an immediacy that is exhilarating. Iñárritu directs his cast like a symphonic piece, each one carefully entering and exiting the scene at various parts of the 119 minute movement.  It’s similar to a musician awaiting their cue in an orchestra. The locale is almost exclusively set inside the St. James theater in New York City.  The lens navigates the cramped cavernous halls of the Broadway institution.  The camera swoops and turns, doubles back and around through the stage show separately focusing on assorted conversations at different times throughout the venue.  The display occasionally induces claustrophobia in the observer but the effect can be breathtaking as well. It’s a spectacular feat that could have become a gimmick, but the manipulation here is so effortless that it is a welcome and, dare I say, vital component of the production. The achievement makes this Iñárritu’s most accessible work since Babel.

Birdman is a densely layered comedy that is open to numerous interpretations. It’s a dissertation on acting vs. celebrity. It’s a rumination on show business and the fleeting nature of fame. And it’s a satire on the acting profession. Regarding that last one, this is a pretty savage portrait on the existence of an actor. There is an element of fantasy to this too. Michael Keaton as Riggan has a constant interior monologue in the guise of his alter ego Birdman. These Shakespearean soliloquies add to the experimental feel of the spectacle. The drama opens with him meditating, seated in the lotus position, floating in midair. Later he’s moving objects with his mind. The drum heavy score by jazz artist Antonio Sanchez, accentuates many scenes with a thudding percussion beat. The stylish flourishes are to subvert reality. It adds to the manic tension that continues all the way to the ending. It’s one of those head scratchers that leaves the audience with a big question instead of closure. That’s ok because with Birdman it’s about the journey. The chronicle takes the viewer on a wildly inventive and smartly written ride. Hold on tight because once it starts, it doesn’t stop.

10-23-14

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14 Responses to “Birdman”

  1. The only negative reviews that I’ve seen of this are from people who hate the director. Otherwise, it sounds like one of the best movies of this year. And that poster…what a beauty!

  2. The characters are insufferable. There’s too much speechifying vitriol. The direction and writing are too circular and repetitive, offering little to keep us interested. Dick jokes from Edward Norton didn’t cut it, and the ending made absolutely no sense.

    • The cinematography is a wow. It complements a hilariously dark dissection of the cult of celebrity. Birdman isn’t for everyone apparently but it’s extremely innovative and that’s exciting to watch.

  3. I liked the story. Made complete sense to me. I liked the realism as well as the fantasy segments. This kept me engaged. All the actors were outstanding. I loved having to guess what the ending was. Fun. 4 stars

  4. Nice review, I actually am split between Nightcrawler and Birdman as to which one is my current favorite of the fall. And possibly of the entire year. There’s so much to like about this one, in particular that unique drum score and a restrained Galifianakis. The obvious appeal is Michael Keston. But this is a production littered with surprises. Wonderful experimental movie

  5. I saw it today but have yet to find my way towards beginning my own review.

    I agree with Marlon’s comments above that the characters were insufferable. At least I am willing to pin that label on Riggan, Mike Shiner, and Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter. But not on the other characters.

    I really admired the single take style even if it really wasn’t. Still haven’t figured out the shot from up in the riggings down right onto the stage set of the kitchen where the characters are talking.

    Nor the exterior shot of the buildings which went right through the ironwork straight into Riggan’s dressing room.

    On the other hand, I found the drumming annoying.

    Question for Mark – since you had already mentioned Bette Davis did you consider a similar but different closing sentence for your review using that Margo Channing famous quote – ??

    • “Insufferable” is clearly a criticism, but the characters were meant to be a bit outrageous, especially Mike. I don’t think it’s necessary to like them to enjoy the movie.

      “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
      Oh that might have been a missed opportunity huh? Ah but I don’t want to be too predictable, right?! 😉

  6. Great review Mark. Birdman was one of my favorite films of 2014 for many of the reasons you discuss. The immediacy of the proceedings are exhilarating. So are the sense of urgency and claustrophobia created by the camera movements and the score. Stone, Norton, and Galifianakis are fantastic, but I agree that this might be Keaton’s best performance yet (or at least since Beetlejuice).

  7. I really struggled to enjoy this film. Almost straight away, even though I like much of Iñárritu’s work, I felt the style of the film jarred with me and the mix of fantasy and ultra-realism didn’t really work. I can see the parallels between Keaton’s career and that of Riggan, the acting was really good and it scored points in terms of originality, but as much as I wanted to get on board with it, Birdman is not a film I’ll be revisiting anytime soon.

    • It’s gotten such widespread acclaim that I actually got some flak from people for not including it in my Top 10. I admire the film a lot, but it’s not something I want to embrace and just love. It’s far too acerbic for that.

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