Release: Friday, October 17, 2014 (limited)
Written by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu; Nicolás Giacobone; Alexander Dinelaris Jr.; Armando Bo
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Michael Keaton as Birdman as Batman, is awesome.
Behind him, a coterie of memorable characters, some fictitious and others parodies of the performers playing them. There’s Ed Norton in his underwear, Emma Stone in a drug rehab phase (if you thought she was good before, Birdman demonstrates that there is another level of impressive that she’s capable of reaching), and Zach Galifianakis, subdued to the point of being unrecognizable. There are so many elements to carry with you out of the theater, but it is these individuals who will preoccupy your thoughts more often than anything else.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the fifth film from Mexico City-born Alejandro González Iñárritu and my first experience with his work. It tells the tale of a desperate and washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson, trying to salvage his career by mounting his first Broadway play, one based upon American writer Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When one of the play’s star performers is ‘accidentally’ injured on set, Riggan stumbles upon what first appears to be his ideal candidate, a well-established actor by the name of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) for the part. But in the days leading up to opening night, a string of on and off-set snafu’s threatens to shut down the play before it has even debuted.
Two decades after Riggan decided to step away from the role of the popular (and fictional) superhero Birdman he is found succumbing to hair loss and possible mental instability while scrambling for a way to revitalize himself. The film unequivocally runs parallel to Keaton’s own Hollywood experience, particularly the years after he exited Tim Burton’s take on Batman. Now, Birdman doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of the actor’s history but every little bit of familiarity is likely to enhance the experience. For those who know, the struggle is indeed very real.
Birdman is a film student’s guide to establishing creative shots. Cameras spend much of the time following Riggan around the cramped interior of the famed St. James Theater in New York City, occasionally ducking out of the building to deal with side stories involving his troubled daughter Sam (Stone) and to put into perspective Riggan’s dual identities — as an aging actor and a former superhero. He’ll have you know that there are distinct differences, unique burdens and even particular liberating powers. And what better way to try and visualize the concept of a man struggling to accept who is than by hiring the incredibly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (don’t take it from me, check out his work in Gravity). Once again, his cameras find some of the most beautiful imagery in difficult and unusual places.
There’s one technical aspect that really separates the film from other tales of ill-conceived attempts at career resuscitation, and that’s Iñárritu’s wanting to give the impression the movie is cut as one long, continuous take. Thanks to Douglas Crise’s crucial editing, it’s much easier to feel a part of the process because we never feel as if we’re watching a series of scenes strung together. There’s a flow to the proceedings that could very easily be overlooked in favor of the impossible dynamic between its cast and setting.
If the unexpected virtue of ignorance does have fault, it’s just that: too many things to ogle over and become infatuated with. It might be too dynamic a picture, but that’s more a passive-aggressive compliment than a sleight against a director who simply has a wealth of strong ideas surfacing at once. In some ways Iñárritu’s imagination is like that of a child’s: exploding with ideas and bright color, an obsession with the fundamentals of existence, things like popularity. Self-identity. Awareness of the place that has you contained. In Riggan’s case, it’s more a fear and confusion over these things from his past than apprehension and curiosity about what the future holds.
Riggan is a complex and massively entertaining character. But he is merely one piece of a fascinating jigsaw puzzle that crams stellar performances — Galifianakis, as Riggan’s best friend, lawyer and producer Jake, deserves a second mention perhaps more than Stone — as well as a passion for theater, and positively thrilling and adventurous storytelling into a relatively taut two hours. Is this the part where I am supposed to mention something about the score as well? Surely the jazz-drum score laid down by Antonio Sanchez will linger in the mind well after the end credits have rolled.
Here’s a production that is as uniquely bizarre as it is efficient and deceptively straightforward. Actors are, more often than not, some pretty insecure people. Actors want to be liked. They ideally would like to be adored by all. While that’s never going to be true, one is still allowed to dream. Here are those dreams visualized, distorted and shaped as if made of something tangible. As far as Iñárritu and Birdman are concerned, anything is possible through the magic of performance art. I absolutely loved this movie.
Recommendation: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one whacky ride. Its outward appearance is likely to scare away a few who aren’t too impressed with kinky stories. For god’s sakes we have Ed Norton fighting Keaton in his undergarments, actresses making out with each other for the hell of it, and a man seemingly possessing an ability to control things with his mind. (If that wasn’t telekinesis, whatever the director’s doing with that little extra bit certainly propels the film further into the weird.) But it’s such weird, good fun and if you are game for a movie that is a little different from the rest, I can’t recommend a better one right now than this.
Running Time: 119 mins.
Quoted: “Sixty is the new thirty, motherf**ker.”
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