Birdman reviews

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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby Sonic Youth » Thu Dec 18, 2014 7:12 pm

Mister Tee wrote:
Like you, I'll be interested in hearing from those who've expended so much energy on hating Innaritu, and seeing if their opinions are changed any by this new, uncharacteristic effort.

Nope. I have headaches that are like this movie: sustained, unedited and in a single-take. And this movie gave me one of those. I'm not sure I would have guessed this was an Inarritu film, but I don't think I would have been surprised to learn it, either.
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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby Okri » Sun Nov 02, 2014 7:33 pm

I guess you could say I've spent energy hating Innaritu. 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful are all among my most hated films of their years. But the reviews and feeling surrounding this film negated a good portion of my negative feelings heading in - indeed, much of the talk around the film had me rather excited.

It's the type of film you want to damn with superlatives. It's definitely an astonishing technical achievement. It's definitely a major work worth seeing. It's easily my favourite Innaritu film. And yet, I didn't quite go whole hog for it the way that people here have. Firstly, it's just exhausting to watch and not productively so. That technique is certainly thrilling at times, and it works in terms of completely blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, but I was so constantly aware of it (contrast that to my feelings regarding other Lubezki shot efforts - the motorcycle flipping onto the car in Children of Men had me jumping). And it made me aware of other things. Like the fact that an audience member in the crowd I was a part of left at the exact same moment Tabitha left the production. Like the guy the dropped a candy (?) and it rolled for 20 seconds or so (the the floor under the chairs weren't carpeted, so you could hear it very clearly). I'm sure these things were meta-commentaries planned by Innaritu et al, but damned if I know what they meant. The film doesn't add up to much to me.

It's funny - very funny at times. The performances are generally very good (Keaton, Ryan, Stone) and sometimes more (Riseborough, Norton). I was never not interested and I'd definitely like to see it again. But it's not the unqualified success I'm reading about.

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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby danfrank » Sat Nov 01, 2014 7:38 pm

I think this is one terrific film that mostly fulfills its (considerable) ambitions. It's just dazzling to watch. Lots of themes explored, though none of them may be particularly profound. I really liked the way it frequently plays with the tension between the worlds of theatre and film in a film that is itself very theatrical. This is why I think Lubezki's use of the long take--and the creation of the theatre-like illusion that the film is just one super-long take--serves a very specific purpose here: it mimics the one-take nature of the theatre, where everyone has to hit their cues. That's why it's especially funny during the on-stage parts where cues are missed or nearly missed, and when one of the scenes breaks down completely during one of the previews. The frequent close-ups serve to amplify the actors' performances much the way that theatre performances are amplified. It also plays with the very current invasion of Broadway by Hollywood stars, some of whom, it turns out, are are actually quite good. Lots of fun visual details: the drummer, the brief glimpse of the reindeer slipping by as Riggan makes his last walk down to the stage. Great ensemble acting (as in a play). I'm looking forward to watching this again.

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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby Sabin » Tue Oct 28, 2014 12:23 pm

"Major achievement" seems to be the appropriate phrase. I haven't been a big fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu before but I've never denied how talented he is. Birdman is a major accomplishment of form, gimmicky for sure but inexorably tied to Riggan's state of mind and in service of a terrific New York backstage atmosphere. How he pulls this all off is extraordinary and that's where the film thrives, in the first half or so when we're just following people around. This is one of the most spontaneous calculated films I've ever seen. Everything is planned and the film is at its best when it doesn't feel that way at all. I'm going to criticize the film's script in a moment but the film begins with an asteroid plummeting to Earth, then quick cut to Riggan levitating in his tighties with a disembodied voice taunting him, and the next thing we know it and an awful actor has been struck down and Riggan is confiding to his producer/lawyer (these things are more common than you'd think; I live with one) that he made it happen. Like Nightcrawler, Birdman catches you off guard with character and necessity, and that's a very smart choice.

Funny enough this tangents into one of my complaints. When this actor is struck down, they need a replacement and that's Edward Norton. He's a Broadway nightmare who evokes not so much James Dean as every actor who thinks every performance he gives is in the company of James Dean, Marlon Brando, and all the Broadway ghosts. It's a tremendously funny performance that works because the film establishes quickly that he's not a fraud. This is very much an a clef performance by Edward Norton in which he knowingly skewers his nightmare on set image -- at least, I hope he knows that's what he's doing. His Michael Shiner is also impotent off-stage because he needs to be on-stage for anything real to happen. I was gong to write this is a funny idea, but I'm not terribly sure it is. I think Woody Allen would give this notion the screen time it warrants as a throwaway part in Bullets over Broadway. I like watching Edward Norton and Emma Stone flirt with each other. They are very strong actors who are at their best when they're being very salty with each other. I don't like their relationship culminating as a means for Shiner to (pardon) "grow" as a human being even if it is to the sounds of Riggan's voice. I like what their relationship does in the film, and I like what this part enables Edward Norton to do, but it's impossible for me to feel sorry for Michael Shiner because he can't get it up in real life. The film wants me to take it seriously, just like it wants me to take seriously all of these characters. This is a very theater-minded film, everybody gets their aside, their speech, their moment. For the most part I find that to be pleasantly earnest.

Somewhere around the second visit between Edward Norton and Emma Stone on the roof, I subconsciously mildly checked out because I saw where things were going. Not exactly but the wonderful feeling of tracking people from here to there (Birdman's strength) slightly dissipated. I didn't quite mind that happening. Were that to not happen, it truly might be the best film of the year. The third act is devoted fully to explaining Riggan and without giving anything away, that part failed to land for me partially because Riggan never entirely comes into view so he never seems more or less than a selfish dick. He remains a persona that Michael Keaton evokes rather than a flesh and blood human being, and despite his napkin, despite the jellyfish, despite it all...I kinda stopped caring about him.

Running out the door. Final paragraph devoted to across the board superlatives all of which indicating that I'm not sure the film has much to say outside of fame toxicity and reiterating that I think this film is once again a major achievement. Kaw.
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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Mon Oct 20, 2014 9:10 pm

The Original BJ wrote:Oh, and are we taking bets on whether or not some critics group might, with a smirk, recognize the drum-only score, which was admittedly a hugely effective element contributing to the movie's rollicking energy?

I was thinking it was a natural for LA, where I think the category is "Best Use of Music".

And it IS a pretty impressive, unique idea, using just drums (except for those few, euphoric moments when the soundtrack is flooded with classical); how many scores can you think of that truly changed your idea of what a score should be? This is almost on a par with employing the zither in The Third Man. (It also provides a wonderful visual surprise late in the film)

Not that I'd ever expect the Academy's music branch to follow suit. A claque of composers is unlikely to view this as actually being music (I bet they think of drums as some secondary instrument, like cymbals). But the score is yet another thing that sets this film apart.

Like you, I'll be interested in hearing from those who've expended so much energy on hating Innaritu, and seeing if their opinions are changed any by this new, uncharacteristic effort.

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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Mon Oct 20, 2014 4:13 pm

I've probably been one of the bigger supporters of Alejandro González Iñárritu (or is it now G. Iñárritu?) around here, so it probably shouldn't be surprising that I think Birdman is a pretty major accomplishment. But I think even folks who have disliked the director's work in the past might very well find much to enjoy here. I was getting worried the director was descending into more and more miserable territory, especially after Biutiful, a film I didn't care for all that much. But Birdman almost feels like the work of a different filmmaker entirely -- certainly one with more of a knack for comedy than we'd ever seen from G. Iñárritu before -- and in fact, I think it's his best movie to date.

As everyone has been saying, the film's technique is a total wow -- the one-take wonder aspect of most of the movie is thrillingly conceived and executed by director and Lubezki (who seems likely to put up a strong fight for a second consecutive Cinematography prize), with swirling camerawork that somehow manages to feel both casually relaxed and overwhelmingly precise at the same time. And I agree completely with Mister Tee -- I think the underlying material is so strong, at no point did I feel like I was watching technique simply in service of itself. (In contrast, I found aspects of Russian Ark impressive, but there were many times when I felt the technical feat pretty much BECAME the content.) Instead, it seems like the perfect fit for the movie's various tones -- from the dream-like energy of the more fantastical sequences to the fast-paced, throttling-forward pace of the backstage scenes.

And, perhaps most surprising of all, the script is just so funny, with many terrific one-liners ("We share a vagina"..."Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige"...and probably the biggest laugh of the movie: "You're an actress.") but also a lot of throw-away lines that land with real poignancy -- Norton's comment about wanting to rip out Emma Stone's eyes so he could see the theater-lined street in the same way he did at her age, Riseborough's off-hand remark about thinking she would have been a good mother, Watts's overzealous thrill about FINALLY making it Broadway.

And the cast is pretty much wonderful throughout. This is the best work of Michael Keaton's career -- pathetic, funny, unhinged, even (in his Birdman persona) self-parodistic to an almost frighteningly hilarious degree. Edward Norton gives his best performance in at least a decade, narcissistic to outrageous degrees but also allowing a career's worth of regret to bubble to the surface as well. And Emma Stone is touching throughout, with one great scene where she tells off Keaton, a moment made more impactful by the fact that the camera isn't cutting away from her for even a beat. I think the awards prospects for all three are pretty high. But everyone else is pretty terrific too -- Watts hasn't been so unexpectedly funny since Huckabees, Riseborough has a sweetly sarcastic edge throughout, Galifianakis is a hoot, Duncan's scene where she tells Keaton her plans for her review was a deliciously malevolent kick, and Ryan provides the movie some necessary heart. And what a pleasure to see -- thanks again to director and cinematographer -- these actors actually performing in the frame TOGETHER.

In terms of what the movie "means," I assume there will be many different interpretations for the curious ending. But on the whole, this is a story about people struggling to let go of past versions of themselves, and the challenges of creating a new identity. It's a struggle most of the characters are dealing with in some way -- Keaton most obviously, as a man trying to move on from his superhero celebrity past and become a respected artist. But in addition, Stone spends much of the movie trying to get past her history as an addict, Ryan clearly is working through the pains of her divorce, Norton struggles to reconcile his career as a working actor with the preconceived ideas he had about what it would be, Watts is paranoid that her Broadway debut go off without a hitch (so that she, too, can put her struggling actor past behind her), even Duncan has to deal with the difference between her preconceived attitude toward Keaton's play (in which she must respond as a barometer for cultured taste) and her surprising reaction to it (which she finds groundbreaking in its way.)

I think what made me respond so well to the movie was the fact that it pulled off such a grand technical feat, but did so in service of material that was both supremely entertaining as well as consistently insightful. We talk a lot on here about certain movies being "writer's films" or "director's films" or "acting showcases," but this movie seems to be the rarity that provides the audience the entire package. Something that's firing on so many cylinders pretty much automatically merits praise in my book as one of the best movies of the year.

Oh, and are we taking bets on whether or not some critics group might, with a smirk, recognize the drum-only score, which was admittedly a hugely effective element contributing to the movie's rollicking energy?

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Re: Birdman reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Fri Oct 17, 2014 8:51 pm

It might be a few days before I can boil down my reaction to Birdman into any concise opinion/rating. In the interim, I can say:

The film is a bracing experience, one I am not finding easy to shake.

The cast is superb from top to bottom. It’s always hit-and-miss if the right film takes the SAG Ensemble prize, but I can’t easily imagine another film topping the achievement here. Michael Keaton is moving across a wide range; he has multiple potential Oscar clips. Edward Norton is pretty hilarious playing (like Hoffman in Tootsie) the nightmare version of his reputation. Emma Stone is WONDERFUL – justifying the faith I had in her after Easy A. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan and the luminous Amy Ryan also make major contributions. Even Galifianakis is good.

As has been widely reported, the film is technically astonishing, but the best news is, the virtuosity doesn’t seem to exist simply as a way to show off. It feels of a piece with the storyline: the no-cuts style reflecting the lack of boundaries in the mind of Keaton between memory, fantasy and reality -- the fantastic/absurd elements somehow rendered less jarring by the hypnotic way the camera keeps moving forward. And, simply as a piece of craft, it’s just gorgeously, compellingly shot – to borrow a phrase from Richard Corliss’ review, the whole film is like a guerrilla raid choreographed by Bob Fosse.

Any issues I have in forming my ultimate opinion arise at the script level, but even there I have a great deal of praise to offer. There are many funny moments, much razor-sharp dialogue, and quite moving scenes, almost never descending to the bathos that has bothered many here about Innaritu’s earlier films. (And certainly bothered me in Biutiful) My only real problem is deciding how well the film hangs together as a whole, and whether it actually has that much to say in totality. (Though there’s plenty of insight on a moment-by-moment level) As I say, I’ll have to work that out on my own. In the meantime, I can certainly recommend the film as unlike anything else out there, and well worth seeing out to form one’s own opinion.

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Birdman reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Wed Aug 27, 2014 9:22 am

Well, Jesus Christ. This gets the season off to a rocking start.


Michael Keaton pulls off a startling comeback in Alejandro G. Inarritu's blistering showbiz satire.

Peter Debruge
Chief International Film Critic@AskDebruge

A quarter-century after “Batman” ushered in the era of Hollywood mega-tentpoles — hollow comicbook pictures manufactured to enthrall teens and hustle merch — a penitent Michael Keaton returns with the comeback of the century, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a blisteringly hot-blooded, defiantly anti-formulaic look at a has-been movie star’s attempts to resuscitate his career by mounting a vanity project on Broadway. In a year overloaded with self-aware showbiz satires, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s fifth and best feature provides the delirious coup de grace — a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.

Keaton was a controversial choice to play the Caped Crusader back in 1989, though the role was the best and worst thing that could have happened to the “Mr. Mom” star, who became world-renowned but never found another role of that stature — and who didn’t get nearly the same boost from working with Tarantino (on “Jackie Brown”) that John Travolta and Bruce Willis did (from “Pulp Fiction”). As Riggan Thomson, Keaton isn’t playing himself so much as an archetype that few other actors could have fit: an insecure celebrity whose Faustian decision to embody a superhero called Birdman subsequently made it impossible for critics or audiences to take him seriously in anything else. Riggan is one of those roles, like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.,” that relies heavily on the actor’s offscreen persona, and it works because audiences know so little about Keaton’s private life, though they find him endearing even when he’s playing narcissistic characters.

It’s hardly the first time the movies have cannibalized themselves for subject matter, and yet, Riggan’s dilemma seems larger than that of one actor. His crisis is somehow universal, possibly even cosmic, as suggested by the apocalyptic sight of a dying star flaming comet-like across the screen at the outset of the picture. Cut to Riggan, levitating calmly in his dressing room the day before previews begin for his big play. It will be more than half an hour before the next obvious splice — a trick that d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki learned on “Children of Men,” and here he extends the illusion of long, uninterrupted takes for nearly the duration of the entire feature as the behind-the-scenes tension escalates through to opening night.

For his Broadway debut, Riggan has selected Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” adapting the short story in such a way as to give himself all the glory, from the bathetic monologue that comes just before intermission, to the ballistic finale (invented for the play), which sees his character blowing his brains out moments before the curtain falls. This is a movie-star approach to theater, where truly great stage actors let their co-stars shine. But then, Riggan has something to prove, surrounding himself with pros — including a respected old friend (Naomi Watts) and the much younger actress he happens to be shagging (Andrea Riseborough) — in hopes that they make him look better. And when an accident allows Riggan to replace a weak player with someone better, Mike (Edward Norton), he leaps at the chance, clearly unprepared for what sharing the spotlight with a real actor entails.

If agreeing to play Birdman represented some sort of artistic sellout earlier in Riggan’s career (a compromise compounded when he agreed to make two sequels), then this Carver play ought to earn back his cred. Or so he figures, surrounding himself with a yes-man producer (Zach Galifianakis, in masterfully subtle control of his comedic impulses, except for one moment, where he inexplicably mispronounces “Martin Scorsees”) and other sycophants. Riggan has even gone so far as to convince himself that he has telekinetic powers, using his mind to move objects and taking advice from the disembodied voice of Birdman (Keaton’s own, lowered a register). But his druggie daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Stone), calls his bluff, eviscerating his irrelevance in a rant sure to win over a generation too young to have seen Tim Burton’s “Batman.”

This is perhaps one of the unexpected virtues of ignorance referred to by the film’s evocative full title: Riggan approaches the Carver play without all the baggage of a traditional Broadway actor, but then, theatergoers approach it with different expectations as well, ranging from the spiteful prejudgment of a jaded New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan, trying to seem her Meryl Streepiest) to the naivete of youth. (Oh, to pluck out Sam’s eyes and see Broadway through them!) The film virtually overflows with references, to contemporary blips such as Justin Bieber and established minds like Roland Barthes, managing to be simultaneously crude and urbane, while speaking to different audiences on whatever intellectual level they prefer.

As for intent, Inarritu and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo are clearly taking a generational stand with this script, which mourns a time when Hollywood actors had the chance to play flawed and fascinating men, as opposed to one-dimensional supermen. Like last year’s “The Great Beauty,” “Birdman” finds itself parsing a deep creative and existential crisis, never allowing its justifiable cynicism to drown out what idealism remains, even as it observes that our finest screen actors — Michael Fassbender, Robert Downey Jr. and Jeremy Renner among them — are all cashing comicbook paychecks these days (even as it conveniently pretends that Norton’s “Hulk” never happened).

Norton very nearly steals the show from Keaton at one point. Revealing body and soul alike, both stars are inviting us to laugh at aspects of their real selves, though Norton initially seems the more impressive actor, amplifying his own intense commitment to realism to absurd extremes — with the hilarious result that finding himself in the moment during an early performance proves a rather dramatic cure for his character’s offstage impotence. At first, Keaton doesn’t seem capable of reaching as deep, either in reality or as Riggan, though that’s before the humiliation of wandering through Times Square crowds nearly naked.

“Birdman” offers by far the most fascinating meta-deconstruction of an actor’s ego since “Being John Malkovich,” and one that leaves no room for vanity. From the moment Keaton first removes his wig to the sight of him wrapped in Batman-like facial bandages, his performance reveals itself in layers. The role demands that he appear superficial and stiff onstage, while behaving anything but as the character’s personal troubles mount and his priorities begin to align — at which point, he appears in a dual role, donning the ridiculous Birdman costume to hover, seen only by Riggan, like a cracked-out version of Broadway’s own “Harvey.”

Judged by Howard Hawks’ quality standard — “three great scenes, no bad ones” — “Birdman” features at least a dozen of the year’s most electrifying onscreen moments (scrambled, so as to avoid spoilers): the levitation, the hallucination, the accident, the fitting, the daughter, the critic, the ex-wife, the erection, the kiss, the shot, the end and Times Square. Most films would be lucky to have one scene as indelible as any of these, and frankly, it’s a thrill to see Inarritu back from whatever dark, dreary place begat “21 Grams,” “Babel” and “Biutiful,” three phony, contrived melodramas engineered to manipulate, while posing as gritty commentaries on the harsh world we inhabit.

With “Birdman,” the director has broken from his rut of relying on shaky handheld camerawork to suggest “realism,” or an invasive Gustavo Santaolalla score to force the desired reactions, instead finding fresh ways to delve into the human condition. (He has even altered his onscreen credit, condensing “Gonzalez” to a mere “G.,” as if to acknowledge this new chapter.) Yes, the film is preoccupied with an aging actor’s psyche, but it also addresses fatherhood, marriage, personal integrity and the enduring question of the legacy we leave behind — as in an amusing scene in which Riggan imagines being upstaged by “Batman and Robin” star George Clooney in his obituary. Above all, it is an extremely clever adaptation of Carver’s short story, simultaneously postmodern (ironically, a rather retro label) in its meta self-parody and cutting-edge, owing to the dynamism of its style.

Circling shark-like around Keaton, then darting off to stalk other actors, Lubezki’s camera is alert and engaged at all times, an active participant in the nervous backstage drama. Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the meticulously blocked shoot cleverly finds ways to mask cuts, using invisible visual effects to stitch together various scenes so it appears that the entire film is one continuous take, even though the events take place over several weeks and in various uptown Gotham locations — primarily Broadway’s St. James Theater, but venturing out anywhere that Riggan can walk or Birdman can fly.

In addition to being a virtuoso stunt in its own right, this single-shot illusion serves to address the critique that screen acting is somehow less demanding than stage acting, since there are no conventional editing tricks in place to shape the performances. The cast has no choice but to ante up, which everyone does in spades, and the film is built generously enough that everyone gets ample time to impress (although it should be noted that none of the background sexual intrigues amount to anything).

Inarritu’s approach is mind-boggling in its complexity, nearly as demanding on Lubezki as “Gravity” must have been, such that even seemingly minor jokes, as when the camera spies the drummer responsible for the pic’s restless jazz score (by Antonio Sanchez) lurking on the edge of the frame, had to be perfectly timed. It’s all one big magic trick, one designed to remind how much actors give to their art even as it disguises the layers of work that go into it.

Hollywood Reporter

'Birdman': Venice Review

2:00 AM PDT 8/27/2014 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

Birdman lives

The film's exhilarating originality, black comedy and tone that is at once empathetic and acidic will surely strike a strong chord with audiences looking for something fresh that will take them somewhere they haven't been before.

Dating back to his international breakthrough with Amores Perros 14 years ago, Inarritu's films have always coursed with energy and challenges embraced. Here, he and his indispensable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have gone the extra mile to make a film that, like a far more complicated and sophisticated version of what Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope in 1948, tries to create the illusion of having been filmed all in one take.

Birdman, which bears the rather enigmatic subtitle “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” is not only centered on the world of the theater but takes place almost entirely within or very near the venerable St. James Theater on West 44th Street. This is where faded big screen luminary Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews for what he hopes will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability, ego boosters that have eluded him in the two decades since he decamped from the Hollywood mountaintop upon saying no to Birdman 4.

Of course, Riggan knows he's fated to always be Birdman; he still keeps a poster from the franchise on his dressing room wall and the character's voice sometimes squawks at him like a challenging alter ego. But he's now put everything on the line, including his own money, to mount a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he's written, is directing and is co-starring in with Lesley (Naomi Watts), another film star making her Broadway debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a sometime lover who's more keen on him than vice versa.

When the other male actor in the piece startlingly becomes incapacitated, Lesley's boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a major film name, immediately volunteers to step into the breach. This is a godsend for the box office but a wild card in terms of the quartet's dynamics, as the quicksilver Mike is a fiendish manipulator (quite the jerk, actually). After unsettling Riggan at his first rehearsal by having already memorized his part and then demanding rewrites, Mike detonates the initial public preview by drinking real gin (this is Carver country, after all) instead of water onstage.

More raw nerves are supplied by Riggan's straight-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whom Dad has perhaps misguidedly engaged as his personal assistant. Riggan has to listen to Sam's tirades about how his resistance to Twitter and blogging make him even more a has-been than he was already, this on top of Laura's news that she's pregnant and his concerns over what outrage Mike might provoke at the second preview.

There are enough awkward predicaments, secret liaisons, theatrical pranks, opened and closed doors and offenses given and taken in Birdman to fill a Feydeau farce. But while Inarritu, who wrote the script with his Biutiful co-screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone, playwright Alexander Dinelaris and The Last Elvis director and co-writer Armando Bo, certainly triggers any number of dark and even catch-in-your-throat laughs, he's out for bigger game here on several fronts.

Riggan's struggle to regain self-respect and a sense of accomplishment is an ambition attacked as sheerest vanity by Sam and Mike, who enjoy provoking him further by pursuing a little dalliance. Beyond this central subject, the film takes vivid X-rays of such matters as creative egos and insecurities, spontaneity versus careful planning, what one does or does not do with power and influence, the positives and negatives of fame and the contrast between the public impact of a controlled event like a theater performance and an impromptu happening such as Riggan’s sprint through a jammed Times Square wearing nothing but his underpants (don't ask).

Propelled by outbursts of virtuoso jazz drumming by Antonio Sanchez, the story's action spans several days but plays out in a visual continuum of time unbroken — until the very end — by any evident cuts; it's as if the already legendary opening 13-minute take in Gravity had persisted through the entire movie. It's no coincidence that the same cinematographer, the incomparable Lubezki, shot both films, although the effect here is very different; as lucid and controlled as the camerawork may be, it's also bold, propulsive, even raw at times and invariably in the right place at the right time to catch the actors as they dart in and out, get in each others' faces or ponder the effect of what they've just said or done to someone else. The scene transitions are handled with breathtaking seamlessness and, once you realize what's going on and stop watching for signs of cuts as the camera goes through a door or enters a dark space, you get into the groove of a film whose rhythms are entirely controlled by the movement of the performers in relation to that of the camera — without the subtle visual disruption that even the most graceful cut must make.

If there is a problem from a dramaturgical point of view, it's that the roles of the play's other actors, to some extent Mike but more so Laura and Lesley, recede instead of deepen as opening night approaches. And one scene, which feels more like score settling than anything real, simply doesn't ring true: in a theater district bar, Riggan runs into the formidable Tabitha (a withering Lindsay Duncan), the all-powerful drama critic for the town's (once) all-powerful leading newspaper; when he quietly offers her a drink, she tells the man to his face that he's an unwelcome Hollywood interloper on her turf and promises that, even though she hasn't seen it yet, “I'm going to kill your play.” Vendettas of this sort might have been pursued on occasion in the old days, but for a critic to announce one's intentions like this directly to the artist seems all but impossible, even ridiculous, today; the victim would likely call the paper's arts editor at once.

An actor who himself has waited a very long time, and perhaps with diminishing hope, to make a comeback, Keaton soars perhaps higher than ever as a thespian with something to prove when not wearing a funny suit. Casting any sense of vanity out the window — every vestige of aging skin and thinning hair is revealed by the camera — the actor catches Riggan's ambition and discouragement and everything in between; he's criticized and beaten down, even, and perhaps especially, by those closest to him, although he does receive some reassurance and understanding from an unexpected source, his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Keaton skillfully conveys how this old bird can let even the most alarming setbacks just slide off his once-feathered back to get on with the show, one his whole future rides upon — unless, of course, it doesn't.

Norton is crackerjack as the bad boy actor whose gigantic ego does constant battle with equally large insecurities, while Stone stands out among the women, particularly in two nocturnal theater rooftop scenes she shares with Norton (in one, they play a nifty little session of Truth or Dare). Zach Galifianakis plays it straight as Riggan's exasperated producer and attorney.

Shot in 30 days almost entirely at the St. James, this is a film that will excite discerning viewers but will likely electrify professionals in the popular arts, primarily because it's a work that seeks to go beyond the normal destinations for mainstream films — and manages to make it to quite an exciting place.

Screen Daily


27 August, 2014 | By Mark Adams, chief film critic

Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu. US. 2014. 119mins

A magnificent and enthralling film that fits into no easy genre bracket, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) – to give it its full title – is a technical tour de force, a beautifully performed and smartly scripted black comedy that will leave its audience keen to head back for more, perhaps just to work out how Alejandro González Iñárritu staged some of the film’s more striking moments. Plus it finally offers the talented Michael Keaton a role that really shows off his range and charisma and one that should see him in contention when it comes to awards season.

If Michael Keaton is very much the moving, complex and troubled face of Birdman, there is no getting away from the sheer polish and precision that Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the film.

Mexican-born Iñárritu – who helped launch the new wave of Latin American cinema with his 2000 film Amores Perros - follows hot on the heels of his countryman Alfonso Cuaron, who opened the last year’s Venice Film Festival with awards favourite Gravity.

Birdman might lack the ‘wow’ factor Cauron’s disaster-in-space film, but it is just as technically complex in its own right, while also allowing for a series of striking – and often very funny and insightful – performances to drive its enthralling story.

While apparently traditional – the film is the story of a successful middle-aged actor at a creative crossroads and investing all he has on a risky Broadway show – Birdman (which is set to open in the US in October) is a real delve into the mind of a man who is battling internal and external forces (from his ego and dark imagination through to troublesome fellow actors) as he tries to pull together family, career and his own fragile sanity.

What helps give the film its intriguing edge is that Iñárritu attempts to present the story largely in real-time, meaning long and complex takes, extremely clever cutting and intricate staging.

Keaton stars as former cinema superhero star Riggan Thompson, who hopes that staging an ambitious Broadway play (he has adapted a Raymond Carver story, funded the production and also directs and stars in it) will revive his career and see him taken more seriously.

Haunted by his ‘Birdman’ superhero character (in more ways than one – he hears Birdman talking to him, is distracted by the Birdman 3 poster in his dressing room and simply wants to move beyond his Hollywood past) he hopes treading the boards will legitimise him as an artist.

When one of his actors is injured in a freak accident with opening night looming he finds a replacement in the form of loose cannon actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who is guaranteed to help sell tickets but has a reputation for being trouble. Shiner is in a relationship with the play’s lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), but Riggan’s best friend – and the show’s producer – Jake (Zach Galifianakis, playing things pretty straight) knows his profile will help sell tickets.

As the show heads towards opening night Riggan must deal with Shiner’s massive and challenging ego; the gentle demands of his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough); worries about his fresh-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is also working as his assistant; visits from supportive ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), as well as trying to convince famously barbed theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) not to savage his Broadway debut.

The play that Riggan mounts at New York’s historic St. James Theater on 44th Street is based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, with the story reflecting Riggan’s own search for love and acceptance. The theatre – from its weaving corridors to its roof-top views over the city – is a vital character in the film, just as are the teeming New York streets and dingy bars when the characters make brief outside trips from the venue.

Michael Keaton is superb as the tormented Riggan. Clearly the fact that he played Batman in Tim Burton’s two Batman films carries considerable resonance, but he has a rare ability to easily blend comedy and drama as well being a great physical performer, seemingly at ease with the complex shooting style of the film. He is perfectly balanced by Edward Norton’s delightfully monstrous Mike Shiner – the pair may be character mirror images, but they also provoke, challenge and bring out the best in each other.

Norton has a lot of fun with the role – Shiner’s hilarious on-stage erection is a classic moment – and dovetails perfectly with Keaton’s easy comedy style. In fact, the rest of the cast are also impressive. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough have gently powerful moments, while Emma Stone’s Sam takes on a larger role as the film draws on.

But if Michael Keaton is very much the moving, complex and troubled face of Birdman, there is no getting away from the sheer polish and precision that Alejandro González Iñárritu has brought to the film. The pure sense of control – working in beautiful tandem with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – is astounding, with the film likely to feature strongly when awards are being handed out.

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