Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: As a Character Study, "Birdman" Has Wings

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 45 (of 2015) by Leroy Douresseaux

[A version of this review originally appeared on Patreon.]

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Running time:  119 minutes (1 hour, 59 minutes)
MPAA – R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
DIRECTOR:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu
WRITERS:  Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo
PRODUCERS:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, and James W. Skotchdopole
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Emmanuel Lubezki (D.o.P.)
EDITORS:  Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione
COMPOSER:  Antonio Sanchez (drum score)
Academy Award winner, including “Best Picture”


Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifanakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan with Lindsay Duncan

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a 2014 drama and black comedy film from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.  The film focuses on a Hollywood actor, who once starred in a series of popular superhero movies, as he tries to forge a comeback with a Broadway play.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), commonly known as Birdman, won four Oscars, including “Best Picture,” at the 87th Academy Awards (February 22, 2015).

Birdman introduces Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton).  He is a washed-up Hollywood actor and former movie star best known for playing the iconic superhero, Birdman, two decades ago in a series of blockbuster films.  Riggan hopes to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway production.  Riggan's play is a loosely based adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a short story written by the late Raymond Carver (and first published in the former literary journal, Antaeus, in 1981).

Unfortunately, Riggan's play is beset by complications.  The play is produced by Riggan's best friend and lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifanakis), who is very demanding and high-strung.  The film's two actresses are Riggan's girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who claims to be pregnant, and a first-time Broadway actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who has a worried mind.  Riggan's daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), a recovering addict, serves as her father's assistant.  The other male actor in the play is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a brilliant actor who is also volatile, disruptive, and attention-seeking.  The biggest complication, however, is the spirit of Birdman, which haunts Riggan with a mocking, critical voice, and that voice wants another Birdman movie.

Taking what the movie gives us, which is a little over one hour and fifty minutes of film narrative, Birdman is an extraordinary character study about the life of a struggling actor in a particular moment in time.  This moment in time is a two-week period, of which we only observe in select pieces.  People who watch this movie have to take Riggan at face value because the film is vague about whatever happened to Riggan's life prior to the two-week period that it depicts.

This situation helps to make Birdman ambiguous, and I think the director and his co-writers wanted their film to have many ambiguities.  Is this film a true black comedy?  Is it a drama about domestic and professional failures?  Is it real, or surreal, or both (when considering Riggan's powers)?  Is the last act and the ending a resolution via rebirth or by closure?  Birdman is a complex, different and fascinating work of cinema.

Considering its subject matter, that of a failed movie star in the tailspin of a midlife crisis, it is fairly obvious why the film was so attractive to so many Oscar voters.  How many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which votes on the Oscars, have experienced something similar to Riggan's experiences or how many know they will... eventually.  I think that this is a tremendous movie, and I can see why it won the Oscars that it did.

On the other hand, Edward Norton and Emma Stone are good in Birdman, but there is little in their work here, in terms of substance or character portrayal, that says that either one of them gave a top five performance in the respective categories for which they were nominated for Oscars.  I also find Michael Keaton a little uneven.  He is at his best when he is emoting without dialogue and when he is giving voice to Birdman.  When he tries to give voice to anger and frustration, he is over-the-top, in his now trademark manner, familiar to us who remember him as Batman and as Beetlejuice.

Many people seem to think that Keaton was perfect for the role of Riggan Thomson who played a superhero at the height of his career and fame in Hollywood because Keaton played the title role in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) at the height of his film career.  Keaton's career seemed to diminish after Batman, gradually though, until he had seemingly disappeared from Hollywood films.  The truth is Keaton is a good actor whose full talent has rarely been utilized.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gives him a chance, and there are moments in which Keaton shines.  This film is unique and has many moments of brilliance, in which Alejandro G. Iñárritu shows us that cinematic magic is indeed real.  Birdman has it, revealing that drama need not be tied to the ground nor to be framed in notions of stiff realism.  Birdman has a sense of wonder and of curiosity, believing that it is as exciting to explore a man's life as it is to explore a faraway magical kingdom or an island full of dinosaurs.

9 of 10

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

2015 Academy Awards, USA:  4 wins: “Best Motion Picture of the Year” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole), “Best Achievement in Directing” (Alejandro González Iñárritu), “Best Writing, Original Screenplay” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), and “Best Achievement in Cinematography” (Emmanuel Lubezki); 5 nominations: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” (Michael Keaton), “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” (Edward Norton), “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” (Emma Stone), “Best Achievement in Sound Mixing” (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, and Thomas Varga) and “Best Achievement in Sound Editing” (Aaron Glascock and Martín Hernández)

2015 Golden Globes, USA:  2 wins: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical” (Michael Keaton) and “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo); 5 nominations: “Best Director - Motion Picture” (Alejandro González Iñárritu), “Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical,” “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Emma Stone), “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Edward Norton) and “Best Original Score - Motion Picture” (Antonio Sanchez)

2015 BAFTA Awards:  1 win “Best Cinematography” (Emmanuel Lubezki); 9 nominations: “Best Film” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole), “Best Leading Actor” (Michael Keaton), “Best Supporting Actor” (Edward Norton), “Best Supporting Actress” (Emma Stone), “Best Editing” (Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione), “Best Original Music” (Antonio Sanchez), “Best Sound” (Thomas Varga, Martín Hernández, Aaron Glascock, Jon Taylor, and Frank A. Montaño), “Best Original Screenplay” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), and “David Lean Award for Direction” (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

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