Monday, October 27, 2014

[Review] Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a strange film that might scare a lot of people away. Ironically, it arrives in theaters just as the internet explodes with the leak of the new Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer. Birdman is actually an anti-superhero movie... movie of sorts, but it's also so much more than that. It isn't the most accessible piece of work to hit the big screen, but it possesses an undeniable brilliance, and there are almost too many layers and genre-bendings to digest in one sitting.

Riggin Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed up actor (the cameras make sure to shoot him the most unflattering of ways). He was once the star of a big superhero franchise (Birdman), and he's attempting to revive his career by directing and starring in a Broadway play. It's an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Carver's influence plays a significant role in the film itself. Not only does it open with one of his quotes, but there's also a lot of whiskey consumed, and the essence of his writing style fits into one of the thematic pockets--cryptic, yet expounding in meaning when you fill in the blanks. Zach Galifianakas plays the producer. Edward Norton enters the supporting cast as someone who is "only truthful when he's acting." Emma stone is Thomson's rebellious daughter, who just got out of rehab.

The film opens with an impressively long continuous take, but wait... it keeps going on and on, and then you realize it's actually the illusion of a long take that lasts for the entire movie. It's an interesting choice for a movie of hallucinations and delusions, surrealism and magical realism. Early on, the story feels a bit tedious, as if you're just watching play rehearsals, but eventually things start to resonate and an innate cleverness breaks through. You can never quite tell if the play is any good (actually, it probably isn't), but it's all the behind-the-scenes drama that makes for compelling viewing.

Birdman is a show-business satire, a commentary on the state of entertainment, and an exploitation of artistic creativity, as well as criticism. It's a comedy that's blacker than black. There are moments that will make you laugh while you question if you should be laughing. It's metaphysical and philosophical. It's both primitive and ingenious. It's bizarre and whimsical, yet hideously honest. At times it's ambiguous, and other times it's clear as the sky. There's an interlude where the narrative busts out into some big budget effects and superhero movie action, as if Alejandro González Iñárritu is saying, "I could do this if I wanted to, but I don't." But it's less pretentious and more playful.

A handful of the performances are surefire Oscar contenders. Keaton is incredible as the lead, demonstrating a sporadic mixture of great stage acting (and sometimes possibility intentional bad stage acting), as well as screen acting. It's a crazy, layered range of emotions as a complex character in crisis. It's encore-worthy. (He even looks like a bird when he squawks out.) Edward Norton is the best he's been in a while and he's almost too perfect for his role. Emma Stone is impressive and could very well land her first Oscar nomination. Let's just say that this role and performance is a far cry from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

There were points in the film where I thought I wasn't going to like it, but by the end, Birdman won me over.


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