Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Birdman (2014) – Review

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is to some extent sheer madness. Also, it is a very funny and incredibly ambitious drama.

The film is about Riggan, a former movie star who came to fame through his portrayal of the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s. Now, Riggan is a washed up has-been. He is not satisfied with his dwindling career, however, engaging in a revival by way of writing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of a classic stage play. With the play just days away, Riggan begins to feel overwhelmed with everything, as the tumultuous play begins to resemble his own life and vice versa. Meanwhile, his Birdman character begins speaking to him. At first, Riggan just ignores this inner voice, but then he starts listening, as things just spin out of control.

The first thing that needs to be said about Birdman, and I would guess Michael Keaton was cast for this role because if the character’s similarity to his own background (in addition to Keaton being just right for the part), is that the character of Riggan is like an exaggerate version of Keaton, who played Batman for two films (Batman in 1989 and Batman Returns in 1992 – and really, Batman…Birdman…come on). Keaton is also known for playing his characters on the verge of a complete mental break (sometimes over the edge, in the case of Beetlejuice). Keaton, too, is looking for a career resurgence. He is brilliant in Birdman, hopefully spring-boarding his comeback.

The next thing that needs to be said about Birdman is just how insanely ambitious and aesthetically magnificent it really is with its long takes and ultra-kinetic style. It is utter madness, yet works wondrfully. Writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made something truly special with the film aesthetically. The film should be among the awards favorites in terms of directing, cinematography, and production design.

One last thing to say really quickly before diving more into an analysis of the film, Inarritu captures many of the best performances of 2014 in Birdman. It is a film that excels principally as art in many ways. The kinetic, yet highly structured shooting style seems to breathe so much life into the performances, allowing the actors to live in the moment, having the freedom to just perform without all the cuts. It is electric to watch (and it must have been incredibly stressful and difficult to produce). The whole film is made up of a series of long takes, in-between which time jumps forward, as the narrative progresses.

One reading of the film might see it as Riggan’s decent into madness. He is already on the edge as it opens, but as the narrative plays out he is pushed out further and further until he has no choice but to jump. Inarritu plays with his audience in this regard as well, making Riggan feel like he is on the precipice of suicide – that he could just end it all at any moment. This makes everything feel a bit tense. On top of that, Riggan is delusional, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad boyfriend (to his new girlfriend), a bad director, and probably even a bad actor. He begins to realize each of these things as he also realizes that he has no control of his own life. The play is everything to him. He has put everything he has and is into it in the hopes of sparking new life and it is a disaster. As he begins to accept he has no control, he gives up trying to fight the madness growing inside him, instead reveling it, encouraging the madness to come in and hand-in-hand leading it to the precipice, taking it all in.

Inarritu plays with parallels in the film: shared imagery or feelings that are later expressed visually. At one point Riggan is shown to jump off a building (playing on the feeling the audience has that he might commit suicide at any moment) only to soar through the streets of New York City unhurt, flying all the way back to the theatre (although, it is then revealed that he really just took a cab back). There is a similar moment later in the film that plays off this. In the play Riggan is putting on, there is a line of dialog early on about how Riggan’s character in the play cannot even commit suicide properly, shooting himself in the mouth but messing it up and not dying. This comes back into play again as well. All these similar images begin have the audience questioning what is real in the film.

Birdman opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room. He is also able to move things telekinetically. Yet, Inarritu undercuts these presumed superpowers, that the audience always sort of questioned anyway, by showing the cab as being what really returned Riggan to the theatre instead of him flying. But, does he really have superpowers? The film makes you think that it is all in his head, easily explainable. No other character sees him do anything incredible. But in the end, the audience is asked to question what they believe. Can Riggan actually fly? Is he really Birdman?

Another interesting aspect of the film is its commentary on contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, which is ruled by big franchises, mostly feeling like superhero sequel after superhero sequel, endlessly, crushing and minimalizing good work. The system is rigged to only make films that make money and appeal to the average theater-goer, who are often viewed as the lowest common denominator by the industry (based on the terrible, mindless stuff that is put out there in mass, and often does well; they probably are not wrong). The characters of highly acclaimed theatre actor Mike and theatre critic Tabitha represent this distain for what cinema has become, studios betting on franchise blockbusters and squashing originality, art and true emotional/dramatic resonance in favor of noise, explosions and mindless frantic entertainment. While this is not universally the case, as auteur filmmakers continue to thrive within the system making excellent work (Birdman is in part funded by New Regency Pictures, which is a medium sized studio and has a distribution deal and is owned in part by 20th Century Fox, for example). Many of the stars of the film have successful careers in Hollywood and themselves have starred in blockbuster franchises and big Hollywood films (as well as made superhero films) themselves (Emma Stone is in The Amazing Spider-Man series; Zach Galifianakis is in the Hangover series; Naomi Watts is in King Kong; Andrea Risenborough is in Oblivion; Ed Norton is in The Incredible Hulk; and Amy Ryan is in Green Zone). Thus, their condemnation of Hollywood feels hypocritical. But, like the film itself, these personas are much more satires of theatre snobs than a serious feeling of contempt for Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood churns out terrible films, but they also make spectacular films (the superhero genre alone has seen many brilliant releases lately with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel’s strong output during their MCU Phase II).

As aesthetically ambitious and narratively unique as Birdman appears on the outside, in many ways it is simply a film about a man having a mid-life crisis that has been jazzed up with aesthetic bells and whistles. It is a film of relationships that Inarritu weaves together and in and out so well with his interlocking long takes. Riggan is at odds with his daughter, maybe still in love with his ex-wife, finding it challenging to be completely there for his girlfriend, and is completely overwhelmed by his play, especially managing an egotistical dramatic actor. Riggan has a hard enough time just taking care of himself. All the chaos in his life seems to push him over the edge, letting the madness consume him (yes we may have come full circle on this review). Although, it is also probably safe to say that he is already on the edge, ready to jump, before we even meet the character. Structurally, the film finds Riggan as a man who had everything and then lost it. Now he is trying to get it all back. But like many mid-life crisis narratives, he realizes that he cannot have it back – that the past is the past and everything has changed in the present; he cannot go back; he can only move forward – which means that he might just begin listening to the Birdman character voice in his head, for better or worse. Everything around him has changed, now he must embrace it and acknowledge that he too must change (or already has changed), or not and end it all rather than face the truth. Yet, the film’s ending seems to only raise more questions and can we even trust what Inarritu is showing us?

It might be too easy to just place this film into a nice neat narrative box. Inarritu plays around with fantasy to such an extent in the film that it begins to blend with reality. The film could all be a fever dream. It seems just as likely. How much of Riggan’s life is delusion? What is real? These are the questions that begin to populate the conversation when a narrative’s protagonist is unreliable. These questions also ultimately make Inarritu’s narrative all the more interesting.

Even with everything that works so well, Birdman is not without some minor faults. The first act is especially kinetic, aided by a score of nervous jazzy drumming that if nothing else builds tension, as Inarritu sets up the narrative and the character relationships. It is so flashy and vital as the camera floats effortlessly around the often claustrophobic theatre that when things become a bit more dreamlike in the second half of the film and the score becomes much more classical, losing the drums for periods of time, some of the narrative’s moment is lost. These slower moments take the viewer out of what is otherwise a very rich drama. As much as I love the aesthetic style of the film, in these slower moments it seems like it all suddenly collapses on itself. The great characters, tension and narrative flow keep the viewers engaged, despite this grand artifice being constructed around them; but in the slow moments, the artifice suddenly becomes much more apparent and even distracting.

There is also no real resolution between Riggan and Mike (who is maybe his greatest antagonist, though one might say that Mike’s nemesis role switches to Tabitha at the end of the second act). Mike is the element of chaos that seems to have finally pushed RIggan over the edge; yet in the end when our hero is revealed as such, the audience is never given closure to Riggan’s conflict with Mike (as we are with Tabitha). Thus, the ending feels ever so slightly incomplete, but then again that is life.

All in All, Birdman is a masterfully made film. It features many of this year’s best performances and is aesthetically one of the most magnificent things I have seen (in some ways it reminded me of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, another film I found to be aesthetically highly compelling). It is one of the few must-see film of 2014.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is part of the ‘Three Amigos’ with Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro – three auteur Mexican directors that came up together. Inarritu made his debut with the critically acclaimed Amores Perros. He has since tried to live up to the praise of that film with his work in Hollywood and then in Spain (21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful). While each is a good film in its own right, none quite reach the same level of cinematic excellence as Amores Perros. With Birdman, Inarritu has seemingly made his first comedy, or at least film that actively tries and succeeds at being funny. It is a very funny film, on top of being a great character drama. This change of pace seems to have given him new life, so to speak, as Birdman feels alive and vital. It is his best work in my opinion. The ambition and brilliance of his direction also reaffirms his place not only as an auteur but also as one of the best filmmakers currently working.

Newcomer composer Antonio Sanchez supplies Birdman with a score that is very different than what is typically found in such films. It is mostly made up of jazz drumming that seems to insistently be building towards something and thereby creates this sense of tension, only forwarded by the tension felt between the characters. The sound design also plays a role in this as well, as Inarritu uses a ticking clock at times to add an extra layer of tension to the film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seems to be on a mission to shame all other photographers with his work. Birdman has wonderful long takes (a specialty of Lubezki – who is a frequent collaborator with Cuaron, by the way) and Lubezki’s hand-held camera work is practically flawless as the camera seems to seamlessly drift between hand-held and crane shots. The technical quality of this film is maybe its chief achievement (though, its performances are a very close second). Lubezki’s lighting is also just right, as the film flutters between reality and fantasy. Kevin Thompson’s production design is also top notch. His theatre set is superb, as it mirrors many of the dramatic themes and emotions at play in the narrative with its claustrophobic hallways, dingy side rooms and rooftop that has beautiful view on the city.

As stated many times above, the performances in this film are astonishing. Lindsay Duncan and Merritt Wever are very good in small supporting roles. Amy Ryan is good as Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia. She is very supportive and sweet, playing the victim of his past antics well. She is also his strength to go on, however. Andrea Riseborough is lost in the mix a bit playing Riggan’s actress girlfriend Laura. She does have some fantastic vengeful gazes when he says something despicable though. Naomi Watts plays Lesley an actress who always dreamed about being on Broadway and has now finally made it. I remember thinking that Watts was very good, but she too is a bit lost in the mix, especially since her character is not that interesting by comparison to all the deeply damaged people wandering around in this film. Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s lawyer and co-producer of the play. He has great comedic timing (something we all already knew) and some of the best lines in the film. His back-and-forth with Riggan reminds me of the shouting matches between Orson Welles and John Houseman (played by Angus Macfadyen and Carey Elwes) in Tim Robbin’s under-seen Cradle Will Rock. Edward Norton is extremely good as Mike, Riggan’s nemesis of sorts. He plays an actor who can only feel real on the stage, caring little for everything else. Norton is absolutely electric. He demands attention whenever he is on camera. It is the best performance I have seen so far this year. Emma Stone is also excellent, giving us her best work to date playing Riggan’s damaged daughter Sam, who has recently been released from rehab. Without Stone’s top performance, the film does not work. She is a key part to understanding Riggan’s current state and her wondrous eyes sell the final moment. And finally we have Michael Keaton playing Riggan, which could be called a warped version of himself (or at least a warped version of his public persona). Keaton is a master of playing characters on the verge of losing it. I am not sure anyone could have played this character better. The wild look in his eyes during the film makes everything believable, even as thing start to spin out of control and the narrative feel more fantasy than real. I will be shocked if Keaton, Stone and Norton miss out on Oscar nominations.

Summary & score: Birdman is just about everything a cinephile could want from a film: brilliant and ambitious aesthetics and directing, as well as an ensemble cast of excellent actors putting forth some of their best work, that all comes together in a dramatically interesting and challenging narrative. And, it is funny too. 8/10

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