Monday, October 27, 2014

Birdman is Visually Stunning, and the Most Creative look at the Arts and Modern Celebrity

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (5 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams)
Written by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams), Nicholas Giacobone (Biutiful), Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo (Biutiful)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and Zach Galifianakis 

About 25 years ago in 1989 Michael Keaton was at beginning of what seemed like a star studded career.  Flash forward to the present day and he is known as the first guy to play Batman on the big screen, in a credible way.  Sure you could give the credit to Adam West for his 1966 adaptation of the television series, but does anyone remember that was a movie?  Either way both of these men are known as "the guys who played Batman."

As super hero films are taking center stage at the box office it seems odd that these men, who were at the forefront of this trend were cast aside, their acting chops cut down by their role as super heroes, and mere celebrities that no one took seriously, because their roles lacked depth.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the perfect allegory to modern celebrity, and the evolution of a career like Michael Keaton's, and funnily enough the central role, Riggan is being played by Michael Keaton.

 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows Riggan as he attempts to mount a play as director, writer, and star. Riggan is attempting to bring to life the dramatic play "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" from Raymond Carver.  Ironically released in 1988, I am talking another Batman connection, but maybe in this one is in my head.  As the play goes into previews Riggan is forced to bring in a new actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who tries to re-write, direct himself, and use his acting clout to steal the spotlight from Riggan.  Interesting if you know anything about Norton's alleged behind the screen antics.  Birdman focuses on the re-birth, in the mix of creating art in a modern society.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, this film feels different from each of his other films.  Iñárritu has always been a director I respected, getting the some of the best performances from his actors.  Just watch 21 Grams and tell me the ensemble of Benicio del Torro, Sean Penn, Melissa Leo, and Naomi Watts (who also stars in this film) don't make you feel every emotional wrinkle in their lives.  Iñárritu did the same commanding the sweeping drama Babel, and while that had Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it was the lesser known actors like Adriana Barraza, and Rinko Kikuchi who stole every moment of that film.   Iñárritu is an actor's director, and its no surprise that his best film would be about the craft of acting vs. the modern day celebrity.

Iñárritu is working with screen writers Nicholas Giacobone, and Armando Bo from one of his last films Biutiful. Add Alexander Dinelaris to the writing mix, and you have one of the emotionally satisfying, not to mention wittiest screenplays of the year.  These men worked to create a world where the celebrity is under a microscope, the man question Riggan is a failure at life; he focused on his career, that was and has been the love of his life.  Riggan cheated on his wife Sylvia, played by the always fantastic Amy Ryan, and was an absent father to his daughter just out of rehab Sam, played with deep intensity by Emma Stone.  

Iñárritu and his team show Riggan at the make or break moment with the love of his life, acting.  Riggan is the guy known for playing Birdman; he takes photographs with adoring fans, gets kissed on the cheek, but not one person recognizes the talent he hopes/believes he has.  The one person who pointed this out to Riggan was Raymond Carver who saw him in an adaptation of his play while Riggan was in high school.  Keaton will get a lot of work because of this role; he is both heartbreaking, and hilarious.  In the past Keaton has shown, his take on Beetlejuice was great, and his TLC quoting cop in The Other Guys was fantastic.  In this film Keaton gives one of the performances of the year, and proves he is no longer just Batman, I mean Birdman...

Riggans like Keaton had a lot to prove, but when Edward Norton comes into the play at the 11th hour as Mike Shiner he provides he hilariously starts to provide direction for Riggan, knows Riggans part, and takes over the stage.  Mike is a buffoon, but his talent and ability to handle the craft make people like the critics take him seriously, even if he shows his boner on stage.  Norton is a talented actor; he is always recognized for doing magnetic things on camera since his first role in Primal Fear (1996).  Since this role expectations are always high for a Norton film, and the same can be said for Mike, even leading to a little ED.  Norton's Mike may may be a joke off stage, but Norton gives the character a true sense of depth that could have been missing, he also makes you like a true asshole. Mike and Riggan represent the contrarian image of celebrity, the popular versus the talented, and how each must compete in different ways.

The film uses words to wound, critics are reviled, they are talent less people who could not master the craft.  Social media is maligned, Sam creates a twitter account for Riggan, and its his celebrity, his antics that sustain his fame.  While this film cuts, it also makes you laugh at the absurdity of the this world, and the people who take everything too serious. Iñárritu pushes the boundaries with his direction, and the screenwriting team take this to new heights, but the visuals heighten every aspect of this film.

While the story is genius its the visuals from Emmanual Lubezki, the cinematographer of the moment that take this film to a higher level.  Lubezki just won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Gravity, and the thing I love about his work is that he gives each film a singular feel.  In this movie Lubezki's signature camera move makes moment feel like a continuous shot, much like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  Lubezki plays with these transitions blending reality and illusion.  There is a perfect transition as you walk through the theatre where you move from each characters interaction to the next moment in the play, or when you watch Riggan use what he believe is telepathy to destroy his dressing room or summon a giant Birdman to level New York City.  These moments mixed with haunting score from first time composer Antonio Sanchez hold you to edge of your seat until the final moments.

Birdman is near perfection, the ensemble is one of the best of the year, the deliver the great depth needed to make this dark comedy a success.  Birdman soars to new heights, taking you on an adventure of the soul, and is an exploration of both the mind and the craft of acting/theatre.  Birdman is simply one of the best films of the year.

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