Saturday, February 21, 2015

#1,650. Birdman (2014)

Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton

Trivia: Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast had to adapt to Alejandro González Iñárritu's rigorous shooting style, which required them to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a perfect storm of creativity, a film that fires on all cylinders - execution, performance, story - to create a work of art that is positively stunning.

It’s been years since actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) portrayed Birdman, the popular comic book hero whose exploits were featured in several blockbuster films. Since that time, his career has stalled, and in an attempt to get it rolling again he has written a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”. 

The play is set to debut on Broadway in a few days’ time. Alas, things are not going well for either Riggan or his opus (which he is also starring in and directing). For one, his supporting actor (who, truth be told, wasn’t very good) was struck on the head by a falling light during rehearsals. For a moment or two, this tragedy seemed to have a happy outcome when co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) announces her boyfriend is none other than Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Broadway’s hottest star, and that he may be interested in taking the part. 

After refinancing his house to meet Shiner’s salary demands, Riggan is horrified to discover that his new co-star is a prima donna (Shiner's method acting ruins a very important preview). On top of this, Riggan’s attempts to reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is now working as his personal assistant, aren’t going as he’d hoped. 

Worst of all, however, is the very real possibility that Riggan is losing his mind. He is hounded, night and day, by his alter-ego, Birdman, who wants the aging actor to don the costume again and appear in another film. Hus best friend and business partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) assures him everything will be OK, but as opening night approaches, Riggan Thomson is convinced that his life and career are about to come crashing down around him.

As crafted by Iñárritu and his team, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) plays as if the entire film was shot in a single take. While this isn’t the case (special effects were utilized to achieve what appears to be a seamless flow), the director did subject his cast and crew to a series of extended scenes, during which the camera roams freely around the playhouse, following one character after another as they prepare for the show's upcoming debut. Aside from giving the movie a “real-time” vibe, this method also enhanced the various performances, introducing a level of tension that served the story perfectly; a flubbed line or miscue by any actor meant an entire scene, many of which stretch for minutes on-end, would have to be re-shot. 

The supporting cast is extraordinary. Edward Norton delivers one of his best performances as the egotistical Mike, an actor willing to give everything he’s got to achieve perfect realism on the stage. While performing a bedroom scene, Mike suggests that he and Lesley actually have sex, which leads to one of the film’s funniest visual gags. Also excellent is Emma Stone, taking what could have been a clichéd character (a troubled daughter angry with her absentee father) and bringing her convincingly to life.

As for the lead, Michael Keaton is damn near flawless as Riggan, a man pushed to his limits as he tries to salvage what is left of his dignity. The parallels with the actor’s own past are hard to ignore: Keaton played the title character in Batman and Batman Returns, only to struggle once he hung up the cape. I’m sure this touch of reality worked to the actor's advantage, but the depths to which he takes his character (Riggan’s conversations with his mind's manifestation of Birdman are troubling, to say the least), coupled with his confidence in some of the picture’s lighter moments (in one scene, Riggan is locked out of the theater during a preview performance, forcing him to dart through the crowded streets of New York in his underwear) prove that Keaton dug considerably deeper for the role, relying on more than real-life experience to give his character the needed intensity.

There are some strong contenders in this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees, with a number of films poised to compete with Birdman for Oscar’s highest honors. If I were a betting man, I’d lay money that Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, will beat out Keaton for Best Actor, while J.K. Simmons, so good in Whiplash, will trump Norton’s bid in the Supporting Actor category. And I’ll be shocked if Linklater’s Boyhood doesn’t capture the top prize as the year’s Best Picture. 

But regardless of whether or not it’s a big winner at this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony (Iñárritu could walk away with Best Director, and either this movie or The Grand Budapest Hotel will win for original screenplay), Birdman is a remarkable achievement that will stand the test the time.

Years from now, people will still be talking about Birdman, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if it shows up on a few “Best of Decade” lists at the end of 2019. It truly is that good.


Tommy Ross said...

Hey, thanks for posting this, I was not even aware of this flick, Can't Wait to see!

Sonia Cerca said...

One of the best films of 2014

Sonia |