19th Nov2014

‘Birdman’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts | Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone | Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

birdman-keaton

So contrary to popular belief director Alejandro González Iñárritu is actually capable of having a sense of humor.  The man who gave us the two hour misery fests like BabelBiutiful, and 21 Grams is now shockingly making a comedy – well as close to a comedy that he can get.

His latest film Birdman is an all-out assault on the comic book movie culture of today’s Hollywood. Along with an indictment of the current movie going audience that favors the popcorn fantasy over the cold hard truth.  Also taking aim at the idea of celebrity and the warped mental state one can find themselves in when seeking universal artistic glory.  Birdman’s true personality comes from its abrasive style that is like an exploding shotgun shell of cinematic techniques that assaults you in nearly every frame. Some may be turned off by its surreal design, but if you are like me you will find yourself thoroughly engaged by the unique experience Birdman offers.

What really drives the success of Birdman is the career redefining performance by Michael Keaton. In no way is casting Keaton as a washed up actor who has been unable to escape the shadow of his previous role as an iconic superhero a subtle choice. Clearly this role as Riggan Thomson shares a strong connection to Keaton’s own life. Riggan, who is now in the midst of debuting his very own Broadway play production where he directs, writes, and our course stars, is finding the world is far more interested in his past than his present.

Keaton works as this frenetic character that is always out of his comfort zone. There is no doubting Keaton’s comedic talent, as it was that very talent that made people question his role as Batman when it was first announced. Here he brings unhinged persona that is consistently on the precipice of every human emotion. He carries a perpetual sense of self-doubt that eats away at him bit by bit as the hours to his debut draw closer.

We first meet him back turned in deep meditative state floating peacefully above the ground with the gravel voice of Birdman echoing throughout. Right from the start it is clear he is man of many issues. With the debut of the play a day away pressure is at its highest, and complications ensue when one of the major actors is hurt in a freak accident. Hope arises when a high acclaim actor, played by the highly acclaimed actor Edward Norton, emerges as a replacement. This could lead to the play Riggan has always dreamed of as long as everyone’s egos can stay maintained.

Iñárritu brings us straight into the crumbling mindset of Riggan. Making it impossible to decipher what is real and what is a byproduct of his twisted imagination. Events unfold in a stream of consciousness like manner where we follow Keaton inch by inch as he traverses the backstage area. Through some clever cutting it is as if the entire film is composed of three or four long continuous shots.

Some may argue this choice is nothing more than a dressed up gimmick, but what makes it more is how conveys the fragility of Riggan’s sanity and more importantly how Iñárritu plays with the perception of time. Without cutting we will move from a backstage that is hours away from show time to a center stage that is a addressing a fully engaged audience. Not only does this allow them to keep with long take format and still cover a wide scope of time, but also keep the audience on edge by taking away comforts we have come to always expect.

When you have a camera that is so busy it can become difficult to focus on anything else, which makes the times it slows down all the more important. On a number of occasions conversations are completely one sided. By that I mean that even though two people are conversing the camera remains fixated on one person’s face. Situations that would typically lead to a reaction shot are hauntingly static. The best example of this is a scene between Riggan and his disenfranchises daughter played by the wonderful Emma Stone. She berates Riggan with a viciousness that would be harsh for your worst enemy let alone your own father. After the words are spoken we stay with Stone watching a wave of regret consume every fiber of her face. Making us imagine how just how impacting those words truly were.

Beyond camera techniques, Iñárritu uses Antonio Sanchez’s score to interesting effect. At times it is unclear if the score is a result of t surrounding natural environment, or just a normal part of the movie. A loud obnoxiously bagging drum perpetuate a number of different scenes. Unquestionably it is a choice that will irk you to no end, but there is no doubt that was the intention—permitting us to share with Riggans unyielding need for escape from the mounting pressure that surrounds him.

Obviously Iñárritu wants us to see the world through the eyes of Riggans, which makes the moments we move away from his story all the more questionable. Unnecessary subplots of a potential pregnancy or surprising love affair come off as nothing more than time wasted. It is not that the other actors give poor performances. In fact Edward Norton’s performance as the overly pretentious method actor may even be better than that of Keaton’s. The issue is Iñárritu  banks too heavily on his thematic merit to make many of the scenes work fully. Specially an intimate moment between two female actors is creepily off-putting, and adds nothing to what  Iñárritu was trying to say.

Taking down the audiences’ obsession with explosions, special effects, and bloated budgets is on the forefront throughout. Iñárritu is not shy of letting his opinion be known. In reality the crux of what makesBirdman  work is what it has to say about the hallow nature of celebrity. How those seeking utter truth on-screen are unable to find it in their own lives. When it comes down to it the obsession for fame is utterly meaninglessness, because of what you have to do to yourself to give the audience what they really want.

Pretentiousness is a dangerous word to use, and despite that it tends to be bandy about with little disregard by audiences and critics alike. Still, it tends to be fitting for much of Iñárritu’s past work. Aforementioned movies like Babel shamelessly bask in their own importance. At times that mindset does seep in here, especially in  dream sequences that comes off as a failed attempts at abstract humor. Luckily show a restraint he is not known for. Keeping those moments few and far between.

Birdman is a movie that will infuriate some audiences and it is clear Iñárritu would have it no other way.Brash and unhinged with a directional style uniquely its own it is unlike anything else you will see this year. It may not take down the movie status quo it so richly criticizes, but at least it starts a discussion that is worth having.

**** 4/5

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