Feb 2, 2015

[Movies] Birdman (2014)

At the end of the ear the awards season for movies and television really begins to kick into high gear and suddenly we find all these movies we've never heard about getting nominated. You know those sorts of movies - the ones that either were released and didn't get a lot of buzz since they're "serious" movies that have been traveling the indie circuit or they were released late in the year to coincide with the nomination season.

Birdman is precisely one of those movies that just totally slipped past my radar and I really didn't know what to think about it based on the title of the movie. I mean come on, the only Birdman that I know of is the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon character that saw greater humor as the Adult Swim character Harvey Birdman, Attoryney at Law.

And while there is a superhero in this story that dresses up like a bird, that's not quite the main focus of things. It's really about a guy who was popular because of a bunch of superhero movies but now he's trying to redefine his career with more serious stuff and he just happens to be played by Michael Keaton. So meta.

Synopsis: Birdman is a 2014 comedy drama movie co-written, directed and produced by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Other writers include Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo. The movie has already received a significant number of nominations for awards and as of the time of this post has already won Best Actor at the Golden Globes while the cast won  for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is somewhat of a washed-up actor who was only really famous for a series of superhero movies where he played the hero, Birdman. Now he's trying to make a name for himself in the world of traditional theater by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is performing the role of his assistant while his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifanakis) is producing the play.

The whole time however, Riggan seems to be hearing the voice of his Birdman character in his head and the voice is constantly criticizing the sad state of his life thus far. He may also be hallucinating certain things like his ability to levitate or feats of telekinesis, which only seem to happen when he's alone. To make matters worse, his play includes the highly method actor Mike (Edward Norton), who threatens to upstage Riggan and his whole comeback effort given his eccentric ways.

What is immediately striking about the movie is how the whole piece is shot to appear like one long take. We've seen this trick before with classic movies like Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, but this time the transitions between sequences were done really well that it's hard to tell when the switching around actually happens. Of course this is really all thanks to digital editing techniques and thus the end result is a pretty creepy feeling of us following the actors around over the course of the entire movie.

Michel Keaton is stellar in this movie and the intensity of his performance is pretty phenomenal. Sure, the casting of this character is a little too close to home for comfort, but the end result is some pretty powerful stuff. And more than the acting, Riggan is written in a manner where his flaws really go a long way to define him as a character. He's clearly struggling with a lot of pressure including the effort to get this play off the ground and of course the need to get away from the shadow of his most popular character. And all the more the power that Birdman seems to have over him since his internal voice is of that character. It's literally a part of him that actively identifies with the Birdman identity as much as the rest of him is trying to get away. There's so much to dig into there that really, there's no perfect analysis of what makes Riggan tick.

The supporting cast was brilliant selected, and this goes beyond personal favorites like Edward Norton and Emma Stone. We already know that they're going to be great in a movie, but when even Zach Galifanakis pulls out an impressive dramatic performance in a largely serious role says a lot about this project. I usually dismiss him as a low-brow comedian who has a penchant for toilet humor. Here he totally made sense as the man bankrolling this operation out of loyalty to (and concern for) Riggan as a friend.

Once you get back the mild surprise of how scenes seamlessly blend from one to the other, the story is pretty compelling. You barely get a chance to breathe since we no longer invest time in those transition periods and what not - you're always following a character in motion or a character engaged in one action or another and like the camera it feels like you're struggling to keep up. The camera puts us in the movie as unseen observers who are right in the thick of things and yet unable to interact or interfere. And it's all done quite beautifully.

Birdman is a unique movie experience and a great example of a creative effort to create a new and unique movie experience with the various tools available to filmmakers today. It's a rather tragic tale but one that I think a lot of people can relate to as we live in the shadow of our fears and regrets. This movie definitely has to get 5 crazy Birdman interjections out of a possible 5 and I really hope this movie wins out versus the likes of Boyhood.


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