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Reviewing the movies of 2014, Part VIII: Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Updated on February 14, 2015

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Much like last night's reviewed film, Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman is a film I have waited eagerly for months to see; also like Kaguya, it is a bold artistic statement from a talented auteur, and it more or less actually lives up to the hype. Much has been made of the film's central artistic "gimmick"--that more than 90% of the film appears to be shot in one long, continuous take. On first viewing, this is a bit distracting, simply because you wonder if it could actually be done; the answer is yes, yes it can. The film got a much-deserved nomination for Best Cinematography for this effort; however, am I wrong that film editing is equally to thank for this presentation? How in the EVER-LOVING HELL did this film not secure a nod as well for Best Film Editing? It's more baffling than The Grand Budapest Hotel getting just as many nods but not a Best Actor nod for Ralph Fiennes (a criminally egregious snub, by the way). Anyway, much has also been made of how Michael Keaton's central role of Riggan Thomson seems to have eerily similar baggage to his own, at least insofar as the similarity of Batman to Birdman and the fact that Thomson cannot escape the burden of his most popular role. Keaton and Inarritu have both played this off as little more than coincidence, but the fact remains that it will color most audiences' perceptions of Keaton's performance (which is brilliant, by the way), as well as his character. Similarly, audiences familiar with co-star Edward Norton's reputation will see a lot of HIS own demons seemingly being exorcised onscreen; his character Mike Shiner is a perfectionist, Deep Method actor who DEMANDS that others give him the same level of truth onstage that he demands of himself, which makes him difficult, infuriating, and even a bit dangerous--Norton certainly has a reputation as an intense actor who has been known to hijack productions to meet his criteria. In Shiner's first reading with Thomson, he steadfastly refuses all attempts at direction, ending up offering direction himself before the reading is through. I do not mean to imply that Edward Norton is like this in real life, simply to note that his character here seems to be an exaggerated take on his reputation. Like Keaton, Norton knocks his performance out of the park; the other performances are also solid, particularly Naomi Watts as Lesley, the actress in the play who brings Shiner on board, Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Thomson's put-upon friend and producer, and Emma Stone as Sam, Thomson's somewhat estranged daughter, who is fresh out of rehab and doing odd jobs for her father's play in an effort to keep out of trouble. It is little surprise that this film garnered three Oscar nods for acting, though it is a slight surprise (and a delight) that Keaton and Stone garnered their first nominations, and Norton's is the first in 16 years. Everything else about the production was also top-notch, including some pretty impressive makeup work, solid art direction, etc. Even the rather staccato drum score fit the tone of the film perfectly, though I was not enamored of it, and count it as one of the film's few debits. Also, there was a bit more cursing than was strictly necessary, though I've certainly heard worse; overall, I was quite impressed with the screenplay.

As to the story itself, this film takes place almost entirely on a single block on Broadway, in and around a theater in which Thomson is attempting to stage a career resurgence by adapting, directing and starring in a play based on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Throughout, he is forced to face the perceptions and prejudices of others--who almost entirely remember him for starring in a 20-year-old comic book franchise--as well as his own feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, given voice (and later form) as Birdman. Meanwhile, he has to juggle an increasingly flustered producer (Jake), two actresses dealing with various insecurities and issues (Lesley and Laura, the latter played nicely by Andrea Riseborough), a demanding and self-righteous actor (Shiner), a snarling daughter (Sam), a prickly ex-wife (Sylvia, played by an understated Amy Ryan), a litigious former actor, a nasty critic, two disastrous preview showings, and so on. This is EASILY the most focused film I've seen yet from Inarritu; both Amores Perros and 21 Grams took place within a relatively small area but had several loosely connected plotlines running together at certain points in the narrative, while Babel took this approach and broadened it to include the U.S., Mexico, Morocco and Japan, and indeed was one of the most impressively international efforts I've ever seen. I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing Biutiful, but Birdman certainly bolsters my opinion of Inarritu as one of the most talented and exciting directors working today. It is a powerful meditation on the artistic process, as well as the things that artists must go through to make their voices heard; there is also an underlying theme here of the importance of family. Oh, and I almost forgot the coolest part; Birdman is one of the few live-action films I've seen that could genuinely be called "Magical Realism." The ways in which Thomson's world works are most intriguing, and that final shot is one heck of an intriguing ending to the film--Emma Stone's expression reminds me a bit of the look on lead singer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir's face at the end of the video for Of Monsters and Men's "Little Talks," and to my mind that is not a bad comparison at all.

Final Analysis

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 9/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), Actor (Michael Keaton), Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Supporting Actor (Zach Galifianakis), Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), Supporting Actress (Naomi Watts), Supporting Actress (Andrea Riseborough), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Visual Effects, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Best Supporting Actress (Amy Ryan). Nominated for Best Picture, Director (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), Actor (Michael Keaton), Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing. A fair argument for Best Use of Music in Film.

Will purchase? Hells yeah! This is an absolutely essential film on several levels.

Another day, another movie down. I am excited that I got to hit two top-priority movies in as many days; I can't wait to see what else the next week will bring. I certainly hope I might, if nothing else, be helping some readers go into the Oscars a bit more informed this year. Naturally, I also am always trying to spread the word about great films and shows, and I hope that this hub is useful to that endeavor. As always, I welcome feedback regarding both my opinions on these films and my reader's opinions on what films I need to see. In the meantime, happy viewing!

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