To help you understand how little I knew going into this film, there was a time where I seriously thought Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was a film adaptation of the old Hanna Barbarra cartoon character. I later found out it wasn’t (to my disappointment), but that it was a Michael Keaton movie helped to keep my interest. If Harvey Birdman is what you’re expecting, stop right there. You’re looking for the wrong film.
Here’s the short of it:
If you enjoy the Theatre, Birdman may be right up your alley. With a focus on a play, it takes the view through the nuances of getting the play into action. There are terrific, funny performances throughout (particularly from Keaton and Edward Norton) and it just flows so incredibly well. Birdman explores what it means to be into your craft (in this case, acting), the nature of what Fame actually is these days, and how much a person is willing to get/keep it. You could basically watch this back to back with Black Swan.
From a script by Iñárritu, along with 3 others, Birdman is the tale of a once famous actor dancing a fine line between total irrelevance and greatness. Hoping to reclaim that fame, he attempts to produce, direct and star in a Broadway play, but not everything is going to plan.
Forget any promos and just see it. I skipped a lot of the advertising for this and after watching the movie last night, I saw a commercial for the film that already feels like it gives too much of the film away. If you’ve followed them all, you’ve seen most of Birdman. Had I not already watched Richard Linkater’s “Boyhood”, I might consider Birdman one of the best films I’ve seen this year, especially in terms of the way it was made.
The Long Haul:
Let’s start with the Cinematography, but this will the element that stands out more than anything with this film. Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) is at the top of his game here with the use of a seemingly single tracking shot that lasts almost the entire movie. The camera moves from scene with such fluidity that I wonder if it’s entirely CGI. Most of those shots have to be.
Remember that part in Goodfellas where the camera stayed with Karen and Henry Hill on their first date, moving with them through the back of a restaurant all the way to when they took their seats? Or more recently, True Detective’s fantastic shot of an escape/arrest that had McConaghey moving behind houses and over fences? Or the opening “unpacking” tour of the haunted house in The Conjuring? Those are tracking shots. It’s one long take from Point A to Z, instead of cuts at B, C, and so on. If anyone makes a mistake during filming, the crew has to move back to the start of the take and try again if they want the entire shot to be seamless. I have no idea how it was pulled off in Birdman, but it’s beautiful to behold. If the movie gets nothing else come Awards season, Cinematography should be theirs, right now. One could argue it moves like a found footage film sans the shakiness, but you’d have a hard time selling me on that one.
My only nitpick about Birdman, the only problem I had with it was the representation of Critics. Not that what’s said about them is entirely incorrect, but I kind of hunkered down in my seat at some of the commentary. While I wouldn’t consider myself a Critic, I do share my opinions on films. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all out to gut the next release on Friday.
It seems almost too appropriate that Michael Keaton – once a Dark Knight himself – has this role. He’s had his ups (Batman, Beetlejuice, and my personal favorite, Johnny Dangerously), his downs (That horrid Robocop remake, blech) and his in-betweens with Need for Speed earlier this year. He carries the character with a depth that rivals Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master. It’s strange, but it works.
At one time, Riggin Thompson (Keaton) was famous in Hollywood as the superhero Birdman, but after passing on a second sequel (much like Keaton leaving Batman behind and passing the baton to Kilmer and Schumacher), he hasn’t found much fame since then. The story starts with Riggin hoping to reclaim his former glories with a revival of “The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. When one of his theatre cast members are injured on set, they recruit a popular actor (played with a slightly over the top Edward Norton) that may prove too much to handle. Add to this Riggin’s shaky relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), an off again / on again love interest (Oblivion’s Andrea Riseborough) a lawyer trying to keep him afloat (Zack Galifinakis), and a voice in his head reminding him of the problems he faces…well, he’s just a mess. Then again, everyone here is a mess in their own way and maybe because of it, they all kind this good sense of chemistry.
The film is backed by a percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, which doesn’t get in the way at all. I’m not sure I’d call it a soundtrack, though. The music sounds great outside of the scope of the film, but you probably won’t recall the music afterward in the way you would for a soundtrack with a full on orchestra.
Birdman is the first film I’ve watched by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I remember that he was nominated for an Oscar with either Babel or 21 Grams. I feel like I’ve missed out on something grand because Birdman is good. Not that “good” you say when when someone puts a broken bone back into place (“Yeah, I’m good.”, he cried), but that “good” that comes from your first taste of creamy Tiramisu. (“Omigod, that is goood!”, he purred). It’s definitely one I can consider catching one more time before it ends it’s run in the cinema.