Birdman (movie review)

In the last few years we’ve seen the extended, uncut shot used in fascinating ways. Alphonso Cuaron is famous for this technique, using it in Children of Men then topping his own work with Gravity. But, unlike many annoying techniques (ahem, 3D) this is one I welcome with open arms. Now, in one of the most daring and unique movies of the year which utilizes one uncut shot (save for the last 10 minutes), director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu takes the cake with pure cinematic wizardry in the near-masterpiece that is Birdman.

The movie follows the actors of a play as they rush around from their dressing rooms, through narrow backstage corridors, onto the stage itself and into the streets of New York City, sometimes leaving one character to follow another one and then back again, creating a sense of chaos that occurs backstage during a production. As in Gravity, the camera is incredibly fluid, like it’s floating through the air like a bird, documenting what it sees without limitations.

Even though the filmmakers probably use digital effects to create the illusion of continuation, the amount of effort and precision that go into the process still must be phenomenal. To be honest, there’s no way a movie with this many great performances, this much snappy dialogue and this much attention to detail could have been shot in one take. You can guess when expert cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar for his work on Gravity) stops filming: maybe in a dark stairwell? Maybe when the camera whips from one direction to another? You can guess, but you’ll never know for sure because the movie looks utterly seamless.

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The mayhem starts with an idea from a washed-up Hollywood actor. That actor would be Riggan Thomson played by Michael Keaton in a triumphant comeback performance. Riggan once played Birdman in three blockbuster films. Sound like anyone familiar? You may recall that Keaton also played a famous superhero, Batman, in two blockbusters before his career gradually faded. Both the character, Riggan, and the actor, Keaton, seem to have the same goal: to put on an outstanding show to breathe some life into their careers. Although, Keaton only stars in Birdman: Riggan writes, directs and stars in the adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” So, he’s taking on a lot.

Going in, you might think it’s going to be a fairly straightforward story about the importance placed on fame in our society, but there’s so much more to it. For starters, Riggan seems to have powers. You find out in the very first scene as Keaton levitates in his dressing room. It leaves you stunned until you quickly sit back and go along with the beautiful, chaotic onscreen action which is supported by an equally chaotic score from Antonio Sanchez composed of abrupt, uneven percussion contradicted by beautifully inspirational melodies. Riggan also displays telekinesis at certain points and other powers I won’t ruin. Is this real? Has he become so crazy that he’s imagining it? Does it matter? Innaritu leaves us guessing right until the end. There’s also the question of whether or not he can merely hear Birdman in his head, building him up or tearing him down, or if he’s actually a part of him.

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What could become merely a series of unfortunate events behind the scenes of a play blossoms into a rich character study of some truly unique individuals. As if Riggan doesn’t have enough to deal with, he’s at risk of losing his daughter, Sam, who, unfortunately for her sake, acts as his assistant. She’s a recovering drug addict who hates her father for loving the spotlight more than her. In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, Sam lambasts her father and tells him that he doesn’t matter, an almost sacrilegious idea in a generation defined by ‘me’. This movie zips around the sets often, but Innaritu knows exactly when to hit the brakes to allow the characters and drama to emerge.

Riggan also has to deal with the producer of the play, his best friend and lawyer, Jake, played by Zach Galifianakis in a career-changing performance. The usually hilarious, overweight comedian trims down and straightens up to play the tightly wound producer who observes Riggan’s behaviour and other obstacles as a bundle of nerves. Edward Norton provides some competition in one of his best roles playing Mike Shiner, a famous Broadway actor called in at the last minute whose ego and talent threaten Thompson’s dreams of being relevant once again. The casting of Norton is also appropriate considering his exit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Joining the dysfunctional characters is a wonderful Naomi Watts as Lesley, an emotionally fragile actress, Andrea Riseborough as Thomson’s girlfriend, Laura, and Amy Ryan as Sylvia, Thomson’s ex-wife.

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There are many Oscar-worthy performances in the movie, including that of Michael Keaton. After being away from the spotlight for years, his work here is sure to cause some buzz in the industry. The paranoia, frustration and neuroses he imbues in Riggan produces a perfect train wreck of a character. And even though you shouldn’t, he makes you feel sympathetic toward this man who laments the mistakes he’s made over the years.

This is a movie that may be even more enjoyable with a second viewing once you’ve processed everything that you’ve seen in the first viewing. There’s a point near the end that you might think would be the perfect ending, yet, unfortunately, the camera keeps rolling for another ten minutes or so. When it ends, you might struggle to make interpretations and find a greater meaning in it all. There might not be a simple explanation, but that’s usually a good thing. Some of the best movies make you think well after the credits roll. I haven’t stopped thinking about this whirlwind of a picture.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

NR 4_5 Atoms - A-

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