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As I mentioned in MM's reviews thread a while back I really struggled with this review. I was working on it off and on for a good 2 or 3 weeks. There were reasons for that; health, depression, time constraints etc. Plus I also left it to write a few other reviews at the same time. Beyond that though I just found it a tough review to get a handle on. Perhaps it's because I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the film for quite a long while. I was just sort of rambling along, looking for a point. In the end I just kind of called time on it and decided enough was enough



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Year of release
2014

Directed by
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Written by
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone
Alexander Dinelaris, Jr.
Armando Bo

Starring
Michael Keaton
Edward Norton
Emma Stone
Naomi Watts
Zach Galifianakis
Andrea Risenborough

Birdman

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Plot - Riggan Thomas (Keaton) was once one of the world's biggest movie stars, famous for playing the iconic superhero known as Birdman in a blockbusting trilogy on the big screen. But that was many, many years ago. Now washed-up and largely forgotten he puts everything on the line in one final attempt to escape the shadow of Birdman and reinvent himself. He finances, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. In the lead-up to the show's premiere however there is very little that is running smoothly. One of the production's actors is injured on set and is then replaced by Mike Shiner (Norton), an acclaimed method actor who arguably proves to be more trouble than he's worth. In addition to this headache New York's pre-eminent theatre critic has already decided to destroy the show before she's even seen it, the production's funds are running short, he is having a tough time trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Stone) and his own mental state seems to be very much in question. Riggan's dreams of crafting a massive hit are very much on thin ice; in fact will the show even be able to make it past opening night.

I certainly liked, but did not love Birdman. On a technical level it really is quite a marvel. Between Iñárritu's direction and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki it is a film of tremendous vibrancy. With the freewheeling camera always on the move in the footsteps of its characters it creates a sensation of great energy, with the digital trickery creating the illusion that the film is unfolding almost exclusively in a single shot. Of course it's not the first time Lubezki has aided in the choreography and creation of such sequences, he was also responsible for the lengthy tracking shots in Children of Men and Gravity. Nor is fabricating a film to resemble being made in a single take an original idea; hell Alfred Hitchcock managed to do it with Rope more than 65 years ago and he didn't have anything close to the technology at his fingertips that Lubezki and Iñárritu have.

Trying to pigeon hole their creation into a definable genre is a near impossible task. Amongst the many labels you could bestow upon it are that it's a satire of actors and celebrity, a backstage expose, a drama, a character study of a desperate man, and a comedy of both a dark and a rather farcical/slapstick nature. On that last point on a couple of occasions the camera pans over to reveal that the film's jazz score is actually being provided by a guy sitting at the drums. It's the kind of gag you'd normally find in the films of Mel Brooks or Abrahams and the Zucker brothers. It is also a film that will delight viewers who enjoy their movies to be open to individual interpretations, and frustrate viewers who crave clarity and obvious answers. Trying to determine just how much of the film is 'real', how much is a delusion, how much is a dream, how much is allegory etc is quite the task and certainly up for debate. Hell I think it's even very possible to make the argument for the entire film being the fever dream of Riggan as he lies prone on a beach thanks to being stung by numerous jellyfish; a brief, almost imperceptible flash of jellyfish on a beach is actually the very first image we see.

Its often been said of South Park that the reason it can get away with such close-to-the-bone, offensive humour is that it doesn't discriminate. It goes after everyone and anything with the same relentless zeal, meaning that no single person or group is actually being singled out. And there's a similar sort of approach present in Birdman in that there's pretty much not a single person involved in the entertainment industry who is given a free pass. Actors are of course the primary target. The majority of these points are made through the character of Riggan (which I'll look at in detail later) but the film's aim extends wider than just him. It takes shots and mocks both 'real' actors who take themselves deadly seriously, and those who have 'sullied' themselves by appearing in superhero films and massive blockbusters. It depicts actors as these vain, narcissistic creatures who crave the love and admiration of strangers. Each actor featured in the film appears to be drastically flawed and broken in some way. There's a terrifically pointed stab at the mindset and personality of actors when Naomi Watt's upset actress asks “why don't I have any self respect?” The answer from her friend and fellow actress is, “because you're an actress, honey.” And it's delivered in such a matter of fact manner as if it's that most obvious thing in the world.

It skewers the journalists who cover the entertainment business, depicting them as either pretentious, philosophy-spouting douchebags or as a gossip-obsessed bimbo whose main line of questioning for Riggan concerns twitter rumours that he had received injections of semen from baby pigs. Then there are the critics, represented by the monstrous and reprehensible Tabitha Dickinson, as played by Lindsay Duncan. She is depicted as this merciless and vindictive bitch who speaks about theatre only in labels who sets out to destroy Riggan. She sees the theatre as this precious thing and is affronted by the notion that this spandex-wearing film star can come in to her world and play. I do think there's a valid point in here about the purpose of criticism, particularly when it comes to New York theatre critics who appear to hold such incredible power. When people have put so much time, effort and money into producing something they care about is it right that another person can come along, type at their laptop for 30 minutes and completely destroy it? And don't think that we the audience get off scot free. We seem to be depicted as suckers, and when Norton's Shiner accosts the audience with the line, “stop looking at the world through cell phone screens” you get the feeling that this may well be Iñárritu talking to us directly. In fact you're left wondering how much of the film is actually just Iñárritu's manifesto of a sorts just dressed up as film.

Beyond its visual creativity and innovations the real selling point for Birdman seemed to be its performances, and almost across the board they are indeed fantastic, with the cast delivering a series of raw and naked showings; in fact in a couple of instance we are talking literally naked. Michael Keaton's history as Batman obviously adds an extra meta-heavy layer to proceedings but he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is no mere example of stunt casting. It is an honest, stripped down performance of an actor who has just put aside any sense of pride to deliver a frequently unflattering performance of sensitivity and humour. His Riggan feels somewhat reminiscent of a drug addict. He's this desperate junkie just trying to get another hit, except in this instance it's not drugs that are the issue but a need for acceptance, relevance and fame. He is desperate to be beloved again. He is a man who measures his self worth by his level of celebrity, as evidenced by his fears that had he died in a plane crash where George Clooney was also on board his death would not have made the front page. Oh yeah and he also appears to be in the midst of a completely mental breakdown.

Just as has been the case for the likes of Adam West, Christopher Reeve and Keaton himself, Riggan is an actor who has become trapped behind the mask and cape he donned for the Birdman series of films. He has been unable to escape the long shadow the character has cast. In fact he quite literally cannot escape him. There's a lovely symbolic shot where Riggan is eyeing himself up in the mirror of his dressing room, and in the background looming over his shoulder is the Birdman character on a poster on his wall. Not only that but through Riggan's delusions the character actually talks to him, representing his ego and self doubts. All he wants is to be seen for the actor and person that he truly is, not just the superhero costume that he donned on screen. There's a lovely little touch stuck on his mirror in his dressing room. It's a little piece of paper or a sticker with the affirmation, “a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”

Film Trivia Snippets - To adapt to Iñárritu's rigorous shooting style the cast found themselves having to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time, whilst simultaneously hitting preciously choreographed marks. /// Given Birdman's unusual style of filming with all of the long takes it because a game of sorts to see who made the most mistakes. Edward Norton and Michael Keaton kept a running tally of the flubs made by the actors. Emma Stone made the most mistakes while Zach Galifianakis made the least. /// Just prior to the start of shooting, Iñárritu sent his cast a photo of Philippe Petit doing his famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. He told them, “Guys, this is the movie we are doing. If we fall, we fail.” /// Because Birdman was such a heavily rehearsed film that was shot both in long takes and in sequence it meant that the editing process was an astonishingly short two weeks. By comparison it's not unusual for editing on huge blockbusters to run upwards of a year. The film itself was shot in just under a month. /// During a number of the film's backstage corridor scenes you can see that the carpet is the same iconic, hexagonal design as used in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. /// During the scene where Riggan is being interviewed by a group of journalists in his dressing room, he mentions that he hasn't played Birdman on screen since 1992. That was the same year in which Batman Returns was released, the film which marked Keaton's last appearance as Batman. /// The film was shot almost exclusively inside St. James Theatre, long considered one of Broadway's most prestigious venues. As a result the numerous references to the theatre being crummy and a bit of a dump are an inside joke.
Alongside Keaton the other actor who has been getting the majority of the plaudits is Edward Norton and he certainly deserves them. He plays the douchetastic Mike Shiner, and it's a lot of fun to see Norton (a method actor) basically taking the piss out of method actors. In fact given Norton's own reputation for being somewhat difficult to work with he is almost parodying himself. He is somehow able to heighten the already energetic tone of proceedings, and when he largely disappears during the final act the film does miss him. There's also solid support from talented individuals such as Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan. Oh and Zach Galifianakis impresses too in a substantially straighter and more reserved performance than I think he's ever given before.

However the other performance I would really like to focus on is that of Emma Stone as Keaton's daughter. I thought she was just terrific as this extremely damaged, fragile and scarred individual who is just bubbling with anger and resentfulness towards her father. I found her to be very emotionally engaging, with her large evocative eyes proving to be a fantastic weapon in that respect. With the likes of Easy A, Crazy Stupid Love and her time as Gwen Stacey in the Amazing Spider-Man films she was already a proven commodity when it came to comedies with a very likeable personality and fine comic timing. Here she shows however that she has a lot more in her locker than just that, and that she could be a really fine dramatic actress. If Birdman acts as comeback for Michael Keaton, then for Stone it acts like an announcement that she really could be a force to be reckoned with. I know everyone is high on Patricia Arquette taking the Best Supporting Actress award for her commendable efforts in Boyhood, and it does seem a pretty sure bet, but personally I would love to see Stone take it.

It wasn't all plain sailing however. The film is jam-packed with visual tricks and gimmicks, so much so that it more often than not resembles a music video (they still make those right?). However on a number of occasions I wasn't entirely sure what if anything they actually added to the film. As a result they had a tendency to feel like Iñárritu was just showing off at times, resulting in the film coming off as superficially flashy and just a bit smug. While it is a great piece of artistry what does the illusion of filming in a single take actually bring to the film other than the aforementioned sense of energy? Yes it's very cool and terrifically well done, but what's the point? If it had a storytelling reasoning behind it that would be one thing but it just came across as flashy and really draws attention to the technique itself instead of really furthering the story. It would make sense if the film unfolded in real time but that's certainly not the case, it occurs over the course of several days. It works in this fashion during the first act which does largely unfold in real time, with the approach helping to heighten the sense of chaotic urgency and off-the-cuff immediacy involved in creating a production and staging a live performance. It would also make sense if the film was seen entirely through the eyes of Riggan but it doesn't. On a number of occasions the film breaks away from him to focus on the characters that surround him so it doesn't really work there either, not unless the entire film is all the delusion of one single man, namely Riggan.

As for the film's content, Birdman has a lot to say, and I do mean a LOT. To say it's multi-layered doesn't really begin to cover it. Around every single corner is another issue to deal with or another target to take a pointed jab at. At its core is an examination of the life of an actor and the pitfalls and dilemmas the profession can incur. The film posits the question of what is, or what should be, more important to an actor; achieving fame or creating 'art'. What is the difference between an actor and a star? Is it more noble to create work that artistically impresses a small group of people or a film that delights millions? It postulates on the close relationship often found between creating art and madness. Through Riggan we also see how an actor can struggle to escape the shadow cast by an iconic role they have become synonymous with. But that's not all, the film also deals with father-daughter issues, marital strife, the definition of celebrity and its difference from actors, the purpose of critics, the emergence and point of social media, theatre's reliance on big Hollywood stars to sell tickets, the quest for relevance and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting about.

So as I said it's a hell of a lot. As a result the film tends to feel rather scattershot in its approach, arguably stretching itself too thin to really examine some of those issues in any great depth or detail. With so much to address the film also doesn't have much time for subtlety or subtext, very much spelling everything out for us in quite broad strokes with the characters commonly expounding every single one of their thoughts and feelings in very literal style. Some of the characters and moments are also rather under-developed; I'm thinking predominantly of a lesbian incident that feels kind of pointless. As another flaw I also felt the film dropped the ball a touch when it came to the conclusion. I think it had a really good, maybe even a great ending in its grasp but then it decided to stick around for a further five minutes and rather undermine it.

I'll be intrigued to see what I make of Birdman on repeat viewings. I can certainly see it being the type of film that could grow on me with repeat viewings. The film is a lot to take in, both visually and thematically, in one go. Conversely I could also see myself enjoying it less when I return to it. Without the novelty and wow factor of its visual splendour perhaps it may fail to enthral as much.

Conclusion - Birdman is certainly quite an intriguing, indeed a fascinating film to behold. It's choreography and direction certainly dazzle, as do the performances of its stellar cast. It's an inventive and unique piece of work that has the ability to enthral on occasion. However I'm not so sure it's the masterpiece that many people are proclaiming it. For me personally I'm not sure it was able to fully escape feeling just a bit gimmicky and shallow.