Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton has been out of the limelight for a while now. His last memorable role might be 1996's Multiplicity. He is probably best remembered for portraying Batman in two Tim Burton films which makes 2014's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) an appropriate comeback vehicle for him. Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is the story of Riggan Thomson, a has-been actor (mirroring the career of Keaton) who is best remembered and most loved for playing the titular superhero role. This movie is entertaining and thought provoking for the most part but very slow at times and not very memorable.  However, the performance of Keaton and the technical wizardry of Iñárritu is worth the price of admission alone.

Birdman focuses on the production of a Raymond Carver play that Thomson (Keaton) has decided to direct and star in to revive his stalled career. With the assistance of his agent/friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis in a semi-serious role), he ends up casting Broadway it-actor Mike Shiner (the always great Edward Norton) to co-star in the play. We see the preview nights leading up to opening night and a wide variety of events occur that test Riggan's moxie and leaves him wondering if there's any way to remain relevant in Hollywood anymore.

The real genius of this film lies in the direction of Iñárritu who uses extremely long takes and camera magic to make the audience feel like they are right there with Riggan as he experiences all these events in real time. The camera follows all the main actors through the back stages and dressing rooms of the Broadway theater, moving in and out of windows seamlessly, even showing a virtual 360 degree view of a dressing room mirror without the camera being reflected. I really feel that Mexican auteurs like Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) are pushing the envelope of cinematic direction in modern movies. I don't know what it is about creativity in Mexico (maybe it's the water), but it's great to see these visionary directors take risks in camera movement that add a sense of immersion in these films. It helps that Iñárritu utilized the talents of Oscar-winning Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in this film.

Keaton is amazing as Riggan and he really gives a total effort in making you believe that he wants so bad to be relevant in an industry that seems to have passed him by. Norton balances Riggan's plight for stardom with his own sense of bravado. There's a hilarious scene near the beginning of the film where Norton is standing in front of a mirror totally naked and not at all embarrassed or ashamed. He exudes confidence, which as the film goes, on we can see is mostly misguided. The film takes a stand against the current trend towards big budget comic book films and presents the idea of delivering quality over box office grosses. The entire film is set to a drum-riff score with virtually no music other than the jazz beat of random drumming.  I found this a little off-putting and felt like it never let the audience get totally settled into the plot of the movie.

Overall, I just didn't love this movie as much as most people. Yes, Keaton is awesome in the role of a lifetime for him and the supporting turns by Norton, Emma Stone (as Riggan's daughter) and Naomi Watts are all good, but I just wasn't drawn into the story that much. Watching the inner-workings of a Broadway play just isn't my personal cup of tea. And a lot of the liberties that Iñárritu took with the voices in Riggan's head and his "supernatural powers" didn't really work for me.  That being said, the "no-take" camera work in this film is amazing and worth seeing. Keaton owns this film and will probably be rewarded by the Academy next awards season.  I would recommend waiting for video on this one though. You definitely don't need to see it on a large screen. A lukewarm 3.5 out of 5 JRs for Birdman, one of the more unique movies I've seen this year.