Monday, 3 November 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu 

I’m one of those people who has become pretty tired of superhero movies. I have just a handful that I really enjoy, and gave a big sigh when Marvel and DC announced their line ups for the next 6 or 10 years or whatever it was. And while I know that no one is making me see superhero movies, it still is tiring and a little disappointing that our culture is inundating themselves with so much of the same thing, over and over.

This is kind of the idea behind Birdman. It’s more about an idea than an actual story. It’s about an experience and about our culture. Or at least that's what I think, anyway. Riggan Thompson played Birdman back in the 90’s. But now, 20 years later, he’s opening a play on Broadway (that he adapted, directed and will star in), trying desperately to prove that there’s more to him than just Birdman. It’s a film about human existence, and trying to prove that you matter, to try and do something great.

Riggan, obviously, is the most interesting. He’s constantly battling Birdman. He battles it while he walks on the street and people ask him for his autograph and a photo, even though Birdman ended 20 years ago. He’s trying to open a play, but the cities top critic is already planning to write a terrible review, simply because he’s Birdman and he’s taking up the place of people who are more talented than him. He goes viral when he finds himself needing to walk through Times Square in his underwear. He finds himself butting heads with the newest cast member, who is a very respected and brilliant (though somewhat crazy) Broadway actor. But mainly, he finds himself, seemingly literally, haunted by his superhero alter ego. Every moment alone, Riggan finds his head filled with the growls of Birdman. Birdman tells him he isn’t good enough, and that Birdman is all he’ll ever be. And while he tries to convince himself that he had a great time filming the Birdman films, he also finds himself hating the association, so many years later. Hating that nobody seems able to move past it. And so many people seem to write him off because of it. Riggan is constantly trying to separate himself from Birdman, and seems to always find himself constantly entangled and going back.

But there is also those around Riggan. There’s Mike Shiner, the brilliant but crazy Broadway veteran. Very well respected, but drives the cast around him crazy, Mike seems to be the opposite of Riggan. He doesn’t care at all what people think of him, and finds he is the most honest when he’s out on stage, playing someone else. His performances are honest, and he wants everything to be as real as it can be. His ex-girlfriend Lesley is making her Broadway debut in this play and is begging that he doesn’t mess this up for her. She just wants her Broadway dreams to come true. But then there’s also Sam, Riggan’s daughter. She just got out of rehab not that long ago, and her relationship with her father is strained from many years of her father not being there.

But all of this comes back to Riggan, and his inability to separate himself from Birdman and his desperation to do something that matters, to prove himself, to do something great. He doesn’t want to just be Birdman anymore, but it doesn’t look like anyone will let him.

I enjoyed this film. The commentary on superhero and blockbuster action movies is incredibly biting and is very honest. It’s something I’ve been feeling exasperated with for some time now, so it’s been interesting to have a film come along to say some similar things that I’ve been saying. I often find myself a little annoyed with superhero films, often wishing that the actors involved would put their great talents to actual use, and that they would do it somewhere else, almost feeling as though they are wasting their time. I often feel this way about Andrew Garfield, who has incredible potential, but hasn’t done very much since doing the Spiderman films. Meanwhile, there’s people like Chris Hemsworth who seems to be able to balance doing his Thor films, but also doing a variety of films in the off-time (Rush was fantastic, and Hemsworth was very good, showing a lot of potential for great things). Superhero movies have inundated our culture so much that it hardly leaves room for anything else. There are so many people out there that will go see every superhero film, but never want to have time to sit down and watch a drama movie with a lot of talking (I believe Mike Shiner made this point, as well, at some point in the film). We have this weird disinterest in things that don’t have a lot of action or quick moving “plots” that it starts to not leave room for different, more serious films.

Everything in the film is very deliberate in trying to continue to make its point. Even the cinematography, which is filmed as to look like it is one long take, seems to almost be a shot at action films that are obsessed with having hundreds or thousands of cuts in them, while this seemingly none. Indeed, this way of filming, winding through the backstage hallways and streets of New York makes it feel as though it is spinning out of control. The brilliant jazz drum score, as well, aids in this.

Everything has this sense of teetering on the edge of chaos. Michael Keaton’s performance, especially, leaves us spiraling. It’s such a stunning performance, and one that feels so incredibly honest and heartbreaking. He really embraces Riggan as probably only Michael Keaton could. A reflection of Keaton’s own career, having starred as Batman in the 90’s and having done nothing too remarkable until now, Keaton is inspired casting and his performance matches. Keaton his given everything to the role, and you can tell. Edward Norton as Mike Shiner is absolute perfection, doing a balancing act or brilliance and insanity but with a soft core buried somewhere deep underneath. Norton seems to completely understand Shiner and brings intensity, but also a lot of fun, to the role. As well, Emma Stone as Sam is never better, finally in a dramatic role that she shines in. It’s the performances, more than anything, that are pitch-perfect and will leave you stunned. Even down to Zach Galifinakis, whom I thought was perfectly cast and did an excellent job, and to Naomi Watts as Mike’s ex-girlfriend about to make her Broadway debut. Everyone seems to have given their everything to the role’s assigned, and it makes the movie that much more remarkable.

I may have raved a lot about this film, but, personally, it’s one I don’t need to see again anytime soon. It's definitely a film that has some commentary that is hard to swallow, and definitely won't be a crowd-pleaser with the everyday audience. It steps on a lot of toes and many people will disagree, but there's no doubting the film is well made. However, this is not what makes me not love it. Indeed, these things are what make me like it as much as I do. Though, something just didn't quite completely capture me, though it has gotten me thinking so much about it for the last 2 days since I walked out of the theatre.

The performances and technical's were stunning, with fantastically real dialogue. But by the end, things just seems to become a bit of a run on sentence. And while this does seem almost deliberate (though it feels less so than everything else), it does spiral a little too out on control. I feel like this accurately sums up how I felt about Birdman overall. It may have some lovely language being used, fantastic words and eloquent phrases, and you may even agree with everything that is stated. But in the end, while everything presented may have been wonderful, it simply just could've been articulated a bit better, and runs on past the point that it should've. And really, with a film that had as high hopes for itself as this one did, it could've been much, much worse than just being a perfectly acted and well-written run on sentence. It could've had no substance or artistic integrity at all.

Update (3/27/2015)
Birdman is a film that, upon second viewing, I enjoyed much more. It's a fantastic story of wanting to feel like you mean something and have made an impact. Michael Keaton was fantastic, though I feel he was probably outshone by Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who were absolutely fantastic. The commentary and messages are biting but the imagery and parallels that go along with it are so stunning. The ending is fantastic, and all the foreshadowing and allegories are so perfectly done. It's a film I respect very much, it's also one I've come to actually enjoy, especially upon second viewing, knowing how it all ends. Knowing the ending didn't detract from a second viewing, but actually added to it. There are so many small things that the film does, in reflections of mirrors or even just the reflections the play itself has on the actors involved in it.

While it wouldn't have necessarily been my choice to win Best Picture, it's something very different to win. It's a film about a mid life crisis, with fantastical elements (and it's up for debate whether they were real or not) with smashing performances from every single person involved.

Acting- 9/10
Directing- 8/10
Screenplay- 8/10
Visuals- 8/10
Music- 8/10
Emotional Connection- 7/10
Entertainment- 7.5/10
Rewatchability- 7/10
Overall Enjoyment- 8/10
Overall Package- 8/10    

Total: 79/100

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