November 19, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It seems that anytime we get to see Michael Keaton on the big scree, it is a treat. I did not always think that. Frankly, there was a lot of time when I really didn't give Keaton much thought at all. Still, over the years I have found his screen presence to be fascinating. The man is quirky, talented, and knows how to be his character. Even when he appears for a few scant minutes in the barely mediocre Need for Speed is a treat. Even White Noise sees Keaton working some magic. While it seems he is rarely on the big screen, he has been working steadily for the better part of four decades. Birdman may be one of his best performances.

Michael Keaton is the perfect actor to portray Riggan Thomson. I would actually not be surprised if the role was written with him in mind. Seriously, the role is that of an actor who was on top of the world playing a superhero, then finds himself fighting for relevance twenty years after hanging up the tights by staging a Broadway show. No, I don't think Keaton has ever had to fight for relevance, I am not sure he cares, but he seems perfect to portray someone who wore a superhero costume and looking at where he is twenty years on. There is a synchronicity, a blurring of fact and fiction.

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He is an interesting director who has also brought us Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros. With this release, which he also co-wrote, he has reached a new level. With this movie he looks at a man's life, confronting his relevance and self worth by examining his life's work and his personal life, actor versus celebrity, Hollywood versus Broadway, love of family versus love of the public. It is pretentious in an unpretentious way. It is a grand film, bravura filmmaking, perhaps even a little bit daring.

The film follows Riggan as he struggles to stage this play, based on the writings of an author with influence on his career. Besides starring in the play, he also wrote the adaptation, is directing it, and has sunk all of his own money into it. It has to be a success. We watch as he lands an actor, the egotistical Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), we watch his strained relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), we see him deal with his attorney (Zach Galifianakis), we watch as everything that can go wrong does go wrong in the preview days leading to opening night.

With Birdman we have the blending of reality and fantasy. Yes, at times other characters own the screen, but it really is Riggan's story. We see the struggle prey at the edges of his sanity, slowly fraying it over the course of the two-hour movie. It is fascinating to watch, especially where the reality and the fantasy become the same thing, like the flying cab ride, or when the voice in Riggan's head pops in to offer a different perspective. Everything is filtered through Riggan's psyche and I do not believe we can trust the moments we spend away from him.

I am not sure this is a movie that can be properly analyzed with only one viewing. It is a movie that will reveal different layers and perspectives with multiple viewings. Beyond that, I do not believe there is one specific way to interpret the events. I am sure Inarritu has his perspective, what he believes it all to be, but he is an intelligent filmmaker and made a movie with different ways to interpret, make it a little nebulous. Very clever.

My suspicion is that there never was a play, that the whole thing is playing out in his head, the fever dream of a dying man. It is his way of trying to make peace with his family, or at least his memories of them. On the other hand, it could all be happening for real, and Riggan is just deteriorating mentally, trying to keep the play on track and find his relevance in a rapidly changing business. Maybe we are watching a movie about a play and none of it is real and we are meant to look at the artistic battle between artist and celebrity or Hollywood and Broadway is the real story and the people involved are just there to tell it and not be analyzed themselves.

Aside from the story, which is pretty interesting, there is a lot more to like about the movie. There is the fact is largely faked one take, meaning much of the film is shot from a single perspective. The camera follows the performers, veers off to catch other parts of the story, arrives mid-conversation, but is always one continual movement. Yes, you can see where cuts and transitions were made, fine, it is not actually one take, but the style, the illusion of the single take is very involving, I felt more like a fly on the wall, involved with the action than I would have with more traditional editing. Then there is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez, it is one of the more interesting and original approaches I have seen in awhile.

Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is better than I had expected. Of course, I was not quite sure what to expect. It is a movie that involves with its narrative, invigorates with its inventiveness, and just excels on many levels on both technical and artistic levels. Plus, on top of it all, Michael Keaton is fantastic in the lead.

Highly Recommended.

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