Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
2014. Rated R, 119 minutes.
Cast:
Michael Keaton
Edward Norton
Emma Stone
Naomi Watts
Andrea Riseborough
Zach Galifianakis
Lindsay Duncan
Amy Ryan
Merritt Wever
Jeremy Shamos

Once upon a time, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was a big deal. He played the titular character in the highly popular "Birdman" series of movies. That time was over twenty years ago. Now, he's an aging actor trying to regain past glory, or at least stay relevant. He's put everything he's got into a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Thomson wrote it, and is also the director and star of the play. It's getting close to opening night, but he is not happy at all with the person playing the next biggest role. When an accident knocks that guy out of commission Riggan gladly replaces him with Mike Shiner (Norton), darling of the Broadway media. Of course, Shiner proves difficult to work with. Our hero has to deal with him, plus drama with his girlfriend, and Mike's ex-girlfriend, both of whom are in the cast. Riggan's daughter Sam (Stone) gives him a ton of trouble, too. And then there is the voice in his head, that of Birdman constantly mocking and/or antagonizing him.

For viewers of a certain age, Birdman becomes an exercise in self-awareness as soon as we see Michael Keaton. Without question, his biggest success came playing the lead in Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns. Since then, he's remained active, but has honestly been just another actor. He's made a couple of decent sized splashes over the years, but nothing approaching the global phenomenon he was during his time as The Caped Crusader. Riggan Thomson has reached the same heights. He is in a place where Keaton himself might have been in his quietest moments. He channels all of the needed fears and hopes into a marvelous performance. He even makes his most over the top moments work. These are the times when Birdman is talking to him, planting impulses for him to act upon. Keaton plays it perfectly, fully epitomizing a man at war with his own legacy.

What aids Keaton is that he has excellent actors to work with. His scenes with Edward Norton are showstoppers. They provide the movie with its most bombastic moments. While our star is in a volatile state throughout the entirety of the picture, Norton sets him off by lighting up the screen whenever he's on it. It's the best I've seen Norton in years. However, he's not alone in giving Keaton great support. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough add lots of relationship melodrama as Mike's and Riggan's girlfriends, respectively. However, it's a brand of melodrama that works because it's in the hands of performers giving themselves over to it. Emma Stone brings the movie some much needed weight to counterbalance all the antics of the rest of the cast. Her scenes with Keaton are what makes Riggan a whole person and not just the stereotypical guy relentlessly pursuing a goal with little or no regard for his fellow man. On the contrary, Riggan is very caring. We can tell he's a person with a big heart. He just occasionally loses sight of others because he tends to be a bit self-centered. When dealing with his daughter and all of her issues, Riggan is forced to consider someone else's feelings. In turn, we become further invested in his.


The other virtuoso performance in Birdman is turned in by its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Ever since his first feature, Amores Perros, Inarritu struck me as a director willing to take chances. This is his most ambitious work, to date. By now, you've probably heard that the movie is shot to look like one long continuous take. It's truly a unique experience that grounds the movie in reality even as amazing things are happening. The illusion of being there is created by this tactic. It also adds to our sense of wonder when the seemingly impossible takes place. Most notable is the flying sequence that essentially kicks off the third act. More than looking great, though, it helps emphasize the pressure Riggan has put on himself to make his play succeed. That functionality carries over to the rest of the film. It informs every aspect of the movie. How we see something is every bit as important as what we see.

Our hero's plight and the issues with his cast are not the only thing on this film's mind. Birdman is also a critique of critics. The fate of the play they are working on appears to be in the hands of influential theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Duncan). It is said that her reviews are often singularly responsible for a show's success or failure. It's a nod to the tenuous relationship between those who create art and those who write about it. Similar ground is covered in Chris Rock's Top Five. Both are excellent films that can function as companion pieces. In his movie, Rock also plays an aging star trying to move forward in a career where audiences crave his stagnation. In his case, they want to see him continue playing a cop dressed in a bear suit. Here, of course, audiences still only know the protagonist as Birdman. Top Five cuts out the middle-man, and has him speaking directly to a critic for nearly the entirety of the film. In both Top Five and Birdman, people on both sides are portrayed as disdainful of each other and working their own agendas regardless of the quality of what's being produced. It's a cynical stance that only becomes more so during the movie's last scenes, beginning with opening night of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The difference between the two is that Top Five starts off on the pessimistic end of the spectrum and works toward hopefulness while Birdman seems to travel in the opposite direction. This leads to an ambiguously played finale. The final moment of Birdman is triumphant in surface appearance, but lined with an inescapable sadness. A movie filled with dark humor ends on its darkest punchline.


18 comments:

  1. For me, this is a real crowning achievement for Inarritu in which I think he takes on the idea of art and why there are those that struggle to do something that matters as well as contend with critics who really don't have anything good to say about them.

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    1. Very well said. He takes on that idea head-on and creates an outstanding dissertation on the matter.

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  2. Great review! I absolutely loved this film. The performances are excellent, and the score is a standout for me. It fits perfectly.

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    1. Yes. I didn't mention the score, but it did fit perfectly. Thanks.

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  3. I cannot wait to talk about this with you (and Britt and Kevin and Jeffery) in a few weeks! Great review!

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  4. You know I don't know how to feel about this film. I heard all of these great reviews, but I didn't really enjoy it. It felt a little self-indulgent to the NY theater crowd. Maybe I need to see this film again b/c the first time I saw it I didn't like it. I did love Keaton and Emma Stone. They were great.

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    1. I can definitely see why some might call it self-indulgent. However, it worked for me.

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  5. Love this film. Great performances all around, and Inarritu's direction is breathtaking. Great review, my friend.

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    1. Inarritu really outdoes himself with his work, here. And yes, those performances!

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  6. I felt detached to what the characters were going through, yet I admired the camera work. I did appreciate the 'critique of critics' aspect you mention, which felt important. A message to all the critics out there to be more respectful and careful with their words.

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    1. I suppose it's easy to feel detached since these people's reality is different than most of us. No denying that camera work.

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  7. Loved everything about Birdman. It gets so much right about the theater world, too, which I loved being a theater person since birth. And it's wickedly funny. Not a single bad performance (I even liked Zack Galifianakis) and stupendous camera and effects work. It's brilliant and I'm so glad it won the Best Picture Oscar.

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    1. Glad to hear that about it being accurate to the theater. The camera work is truly outstanding. And yes, Galifianakis is excellent.

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  8. What a great review! I loved this movie, including the ambiguous finale, which my husband found off-putting.

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    1. Thanks! I can see why your husband didn't like the ending. It really could be interpreted as a major downer.

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  9. Not a perfect film, but adventurous, imaginative and highly creative. I wasn't thrilled with the ending. The kiss between the two ladies seemed unnecessary. It just seemed out of touch with the rest of the film. Edward Norton was astonishing. All of the acting was incredible though.

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    1. You've hit the nail on the head pretty much. The performances were brilliant. Honestly, I didn't even remember the kiss until I read your comment. I'd say that supports your argument.

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