Dr. Donna Copeland’s
MICHAEL KEATON EDWARD NORTON EMMA STONE
NAOMI WATTS ZACH GALIFIANAKIS AMY RYAN
It’s hard to go wrong with an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film. His previous films 21 Grams, Biutiful and Babel have all earned Oscar nominations and Birdman will be no different; except for the fact it will be hailed as his greatest achievement. Each award season there seems to be at least one film that is intellectually smarter than all the others. A film often too smart for it’s own good; at least where getting accolades from out of touch voters are concerned. It’s not that Birdman requires you to understand the real life parallel of casting Keaton (or even Norton for that matter), or pickup on the subtle references to Keaton’s career in conjunction with Birdman’s, or even decipher the multiple layers presented in the format. However, if you do pick up on these elements, Birdman will be an endlessly fascinating experience.
Riggin Thompson (Keaton) is trying to transition his career away from the billion dollar blockbuster franchise Birdman, that made him a star. Instead of doing Birdman 4, he has decided to adapted a play on Broadway, with critics and associates questioning not only his ability but sanity. Riggin can’t get Birdman out of his head, every moment he isn’t rehearsing on the stage, there is an urge to seep back into the character that the fans on the street yearn for. Can he truly ever shed the character that made him the actor he is today, and does he really want to?
Word has it that Mike Nichols (Closer, The Birdcage) told Inarritu that using extremely long takes (filming over 15 pages at a time with no cuts) would be near impossible and a grueling experience for the project. Inarritu did it anyway and you can feel the intensity of the actors and crew following the story without a cut. It’s a brilliant technique and Inarritu is just the magician to pull it off. The cinematography is beautifully fluid, spinning around a group of four actors as they interchange dialogue giving us the viewer nearly unprecedented perspective. What editing there is also adds to the film’s dreamlike effect, transitioning seamlessly from one time period of the day to another. Technically Birdman is a near perfect blend of special effects and reality. The one drawback, I couldn’t help but think of Darren Arronofsky’s Black Swan in the third act with some of the elements I won’t mention here thrown in.
It’s rare to have a director so good at the technically orchestration of a film and yet consistently able to cast and deliver the performances out of his actors, which is always does (see endless acting nominations in his previous films for example). Keaton without a doubt delivers the performance of his career. Such a layered and difficult performance, Inarritu gives us a reason to love Keaton again. The entire cast surrounding Keaton is also terrific including Norton doing some of his best work in years alongside his Painted Veil co-star Naomi Watts; who was nominated for Inarritu’s 21 Grams back in 2003. Emma Stone really steps out of her comfort zone as an actress and proves she is more than rigid and interesting than the well rounded characters played previously. All the actors are also dealing with choreography due to the long takes, staying in character for long period of time which appears to only add to their depth, development and the genius of the project.
Final Thought – Birdman is endless layers of fascination and ambition brought to fascinating life by Inarritu and an Oscar worthy performance from Keaton.
By: Dustin Chase
Few films are as well structured, layered, and thoughtfully produced as well as Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, co-writer and director, goes into self-exploration with themes of an aging actor’s psyche, marriage, fatherhood, personal integrity, and existential questions about why we are here, and what legacy we will leave behind. Apropos of that, a street person is seen quoting lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Inarritu’s creative filmmaking techniques are largely responsible for the impressiveness of Birdman. For instance, in an interview on the Charlie Rose television show, he explained the purpose of having only one take throughout the story (Birdman may only have one or two cuts): To get the viewer into the reality of the picture much more profoundly. Every frame serves the story—whether camera shot, musical strain, or script, he says. He’s sold on this as well because it eliminates the need for editing.
Michael Keaton, in a highlight of his career, plays the lead role of Riggan, a former Batman, whose fame has lost its luster, and he is determined to regain it by staging a comeback in the form of a Broadway show entitled Birdman (making reference to Keaton’s once playing the role of Batman). He will play the role himself as well as direct. The company has had difficulty retaining actors for one of the male roles, and soon after the film opens, the character has to be replaced. Lesley (Naomi Watts), the female lead, suggests a current box office idol, Mike (Ed Norton), who happens to be her husband. He joins the troop and it looks like they are off to a good start again, but when Mike appears for his first rehearsal, Riggan is thrown off balance by Mike’s self-assurance, prodigious memory and cockiness; a rivalry immediately develops, which throws Riggan into deeper self-reflection.
Self-reflection is one of the major themes of both the movie and the play. “We all have a birdman, “a tortuous, creative process of questioning one’s own resources and possibilities”, says Inarritu. In the play, Riggan describes such self-reflection as “like a little me following me around, hitting my balls with a tiny hammer.” Inarritu says this is a function of humans having a tendency to try to be something they’re not—measuring up to some ideal in their heads.
There is so much more going on in this play-within-a-film, as well as among the actors, it makes for clever—and funny—storytelling by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Not only that, there are multiple realities—sometimes occurring simultaneously—on the stage, the screen, and in real life. Sometimes the viewer can’t be sure whether the action playing out applies to the characters in the play, or to those in the film, or even to the actors personally. It’s a bit like Russian dolls within dolls.
Birdman is no respecter of persons in its lampooning of actors, directors, fans, and show business in general. Another delightful aspect of the script is frequent reference to other movies, other actors, and other directors. For instance, at one point a character refers to movies like “Martin Scorcees’ [sic!].” Lesley, at one point complains to Clara, “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” Clara: “Because you’re an actress.” Mike, who has been hired primarily because of his box office draw, tells Riggan in another context, “Popularity is the slutty cousin of prestige.”
The scope of Birdman is so broad it’s hard to categorize; it’s a drama, a satirical comedy, and a psychic fantasy. For sure, it is entertaining, fun, and thought provoking. Supporting actors Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Andrea Riseborough round out the superb cast.
Entertainment value high.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland