Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan
I was very, very skeptical about Birdman when it was first released in the fall. I put off seeing it until practically one of the last screenings. The story as I understood it didn’t interest me, the gimmick with Michael Keaton literally having superpowers seemed too much to bear, and the only reputable person on the project that I was aware of was Immannuel Lubezki. Eventually the attention it was getting from critics was just too much to ignore so I reluctantly made my way to the theater and ended up loving just about every minute of Birdman.
Riggan Thomson, a once-famous actor for his role in the blockbuster franchise ‘Birdman’, is attempting to reinvent his acting career with a troubled broadway production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The story weaves the interactions of Riggans’ cast and family into the final stages of rehearsal and performance. Birdman is woven together through magnificent performances in the supporting cast including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Risborough, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.
Emmannuel Lubezki is a brilliant cinematographer! Seriously he can do no wrong. Some of his past credits include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and his work on Gravity was the only thing that made that movie watchable. Lubezki is also a Terrance Malick favorite; he’s worked on all of his films since about 2005: The New World, Tree of Life, To the Wonder…the man has got an eye for aesthetics. Birdman is an impressive series of long takes. The average shot length is anywhere from 10-15 minutes; there are films where the ASL is less than 10 seconds! This mission to achieve fluidity in the film’s movement is credited to Lubezki but requires a mega-attentive cast, crew, director, and editor to pull off. They created a theater and backstage area that felt like an indecipherable maze because of the way we navigate it through the camera. Long takes aside, some of the imagery in Birdman is stunning. There is one scene in which Riggan enters a liquor store which is decorated with an absurd amount of lights, they are just overwhelming the frame. As Riggan enters the store these lights frame him like a tunnel with this bright, overpowering color that has this etherial presence as it sort of crowns him. Unbelievable. (The Hollywood Reporter published a very interesting piece on the ‘Single Shot’ look the film was able to achieve. Check it out here).
Without solid acting performances this movie would be lost. When you first look at the cast it doesn’t scream ‘Oscar Gold’ as far as acting talent is concerned. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts have shown solid performances in other challenging roles, but what about everyone else? Michael Keaton made a great Beetlejuice, but can he do more? Emma Stone is always good, but I’ve never seen her in a role that is complex enough for her to really shine. Zach Galifianakis? My skepticism turned out to be completely misplaced because everyone was lovely, particularly Emma Stone as Riggan’s troubled daughter; she delivers a marvelous monolog in the first third of the movie that you will not forget.
I would imagine that this screenplay was written with Keaton or some other former superhero star in mind. Much of the film is focused on the ‘meta’ aspect; Keaton is playing a version of himself. Because of the similarities between actor and character the real world bleeds directly into the world we are viewing on screen, making them harder to separate. Riggan has this same experience; the blurring of fiction and reality are at the heart of his character’s internal conflict. This is by far Keaton’s best performance and he has earned his Best Actor nomination, but I still felt like there was something missing. Keaton is at his best when he is defending his work to a New York theater critic hell-bent on destroying the play and during his tender moments with his ex-wife played by Amy Ryan near the end of the movie. Keaton has shown far more emotional range than I knew he was capable of but I still just wanted a shade more.
Final Verdict: Birdman is just a wonderful, wonderful film. It made me feel something: sometimes it was awe, some times in was humor, sometimes it was confusion but it left me with just the right taste in my mouth when it was over. It grasps at some fairly hefty thematic material in a whimsical way; it grapples with the human understanding of reality and fantasy, using a main character who bends the rules of both. This definitely adds some supernatural elements to the story that some could find off-putting, but I thought they were elegantly done. Even though Riggan is arguably insane, his fears and motivations are very relatable: he wants to leave something behind that matters, something that makes him feel validated and respected. With an ending that rivals the ambiguity of Inception, he find that he seems to achieve that…or does he?
Awards Potential: Birdman has big, big awards potential, with it’s strongest competitor being Boyhood. Birdman is nominated for 9 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing) 4 of which compete directly with Boyhood. Based on the results of the many preliminary awards given out in the last month it seems like there is strong competition between the two films in the Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay categories. If I were one to gamble, I would bet on a Cinematography win at the Oscars for Birdman, but I am reluctant to commit to a result in the other categories until we get the results of both the Directors and Writers Guild Awards in the next couple of weeks. Regardless of who wins, Birdman is a triumph that I’m thrilled is getting more exposure.