Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

Produced by: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
John Lesher
Arnon Milchan
James W. Skotchdopole

Screenplay by: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
Nicolas Giacobone
Alexander Dineralis, Jr.
Armando Bo

Starring: Michael Keaton
Edward Norton
Andrea Riseborough
Amy Ryan
Emma Stone
Naomi Watts

Music by: Antonio Sanchez

Cinematography by: Emmanuel Lubezki

Editing by: Douglas Crise
Stephen Mirrione

Studio(s): Regency Enterprises
Worldview Entertainment

Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Release date(s): August 27, 2014 (Venice Film Festival, premiere)
November 14, 2014 (United States)
January 1, 2015 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 119 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $18 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $25, 320, 413

Alrighty, judging by my work rate of late, this'll be the review that takes me into the New Year, so Happy New Year, blah blah blah, etc. etc. So, over this bracket I have seen twelve films, five of which I still have to review, including this one, The Zero Theorem, Under The Skin, The Lego Movie and Nightcrawler. I have a whole litany of pictures to look at in January, and I can guarantee reviews for The Basement, Calvary, Nymphomaniac, The Wind Rises and Stranger By The Lake. I also imagine I'll get to see the final Hobbit film, The Theory Of Everything and Inherent Vice, and I'd like to watch Boyhood, Noah, Life Itself and The Homesman before the year goes out, but I suppose we'll just have to see how that turns out. Even though this is by all means the busy period of the calendar year for movies, I always find myself buoyed by the excitement and general buzz around the film world during this time. So, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Birdman, or rather as it's known under the full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This has been one of the big players I identified in my review for The Grand Budapest Hotel in the running this award's season. Right now, as for the critics' circles, film societies and awards juries, it's a three-header between Birdman, The Imitation Game and Boyhood, though as my friend over at Danland Movies so succinctly pointed out, all of that could change in the near two months we have 'til Oscar night. Birdman is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a favourite of mine who first burst onto the international film scene with his blistering firecracker of a debut Amores perros, and went on to make two other films of a similar vein, 21 Grams and Babel, all of which feature intersecting story-lines and stylistic overtones, thus making them an informal trilogy on the theme of death. He then went on to direct 2010's Biutiful, which featured Javier Bardem in a performance that garnered him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival. His work has been both critically acclaimed and very divisive over the years, Babel in particular had a lot of notable detractors, including Peter Bradshaw, who argued that the film was "machine-pooled for the dinner-party demographic," Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mick LaSalle. I for one thought it was a masterpiece and should have beat The Departed for Best Picture in 2006, and although I acknowledge and respect how people may be put off by his work, I've been largely impressed by his oeuvre as a whole. Birdman is his first comedy, and stars Michael Keaton in the lead role, a performance for which he has garnered a lot of buzz in his own right (if Cumberbatch doesn't win Best Actor, Keaton will). Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood star who played the character of Birdman in three action blockbusters before he left the franchise. Twenty years later, we enter his life as he is on the cusp of realising the reinvention of his career, writing, directing and starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the numerous issues involving in bringing it to life. Produced by his friend and lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), it also stars his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Broadway first-timer Lesley (Naomi Watts) and method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). You've also got his assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict, his ex-wife and Sam's mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who's always a voice of reason in this, the challenge of impressing Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), a notoriously tough theatre critics, and all the while Riggan is fighting a mental battle with his Birdman alter-ego. Got that? Good!

Starting off with the good regarding Birdman, the first thing to say is that the ensemble cast is uniformly on form and that they together comprise perhaps the best collection of actors and performances in a film from 2014. There has been a number of films released in 2014 with strong ensembles, such as X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Gone Girl, but as a collective this lot trumps them all. In the supporting cast, you've got good work from Galifianakis, Riseborough, Ryan, Watts and Duncan, all of whose performances would have been more noteworthy were it not for the fact that there are two supporting players who stand out. In a performance which is not dissimilar to the numerous stories that have circulated the actor over the years, Edward Norton hits the ball out of the park with his explosive energy in the part of method actor Mike Shiner. There is something about art imitating life in this wild and exaggerated part from Norton, a notorious perfectionist known for his clashes regarding the artistic direction of his projects, and he puts all of that into an absolutely scenery-chewing, glory-hogging and yet quite brilliant performance. It's also subtly multi-faceted, in that for all of his bravado, Norton's Shiner is a wounded animal, quite clearly behaving so eccentrically as a way to mask his insecurities. This other side comes out during the strong scenes alongside Emma Stone, which bring a change of pace and tone to the film. These scenes, and in particular Stone, brings a poignancy to Birdman that might otherwise be absent in such a stylistically overt film. Stone, for all the fragility of her character, manages to give her real strength and honesty. The blunt truthful quality of Stone's Sam, makes her not only a believable focal point for the other characters to reflect upon themselves, but also in her own right a credible character. Finally on the cast front, the film is fronted by an excellent leading turn from Michael Keaton. I've always felt that Keaton is a horrendously overlooked actor, for although he had his time in the sun as Batman, in retrospective countdowns, lists and what have you, he usually fails to make an appearance. The power of his work in Birdman is exactly the kind of performance that is going to make people change their minds and remind of his talents. In many ways it's a showcase for all of the many facets of Keaton's acting palette; he delivers a sensational combination involving his natural charisma, superb comedic timing, the stinging flair of his line delivery and a genuine underlying tenderness as he depicts the multitudinous fracturing of the cracked actor Riggan Thomson in his struggles. As I said with regards to Norton, there is obviously the life imitating art aspect, what with Keaton's history in fronting a superhero franchise, but he is utterly convincing in the scenes involving Riggan's debating with his titular alter-ego, voiced in with aping omnipotence by Keaton. Between marching through the street in his underwear, flying through New York City, fighting with Ed Norton and all manner of escapades, Michael Keaton is simply sensational. There are many a number of things which are notable about Birdman. Most films are lucky if they only have one aspect which is particularly noteworthy. This has about three or four, one of which I've already dealt with in the Altman-esque cast. The second major aspect I'd like to discuss is the meta-modernist content of the film, which emerges from the script by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo. Twice already I've mentioned life imitating art, and that certainly plays a part in this meta-modernity. The way in which the script is constructed ensures that Birdman is a highly dexterous picture with numerous levels of intricacy. It's a film about the production of a stage play, the performance of which begins to take on slightly disturbing qualities when the characters' lives actively begin to impact upon their work. The underlying thematic content, depicted in Riggan's struggles, is ultimately upon people trying to find meaning in their lives, their true calling. However, the way this comes across onscreen is comedic, and many people have made mention of the black and gallows humour, which I will not deny, but I see a lot of absurdist humour in there as well. The thing that it actually reminds me of as a whole is Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett's play in which two men spend the duration standing by a tree waiting for the titular character to arrive. While this is by no means as pared down as Beckett's work, the comedy ensures that we are left an unopened layer of mystery to be investigated as we ponder the movie's overall meaning. The modernism of the film even extends to the interjection of the film's musical score. It is a minimalist work by Antonio Sanchez, a Mexican jazz drummer, and it plays out like an improvised jazz piece. At a couple of different points, the drummer appears behind the drum kit, at first out in the street, then inexplicably backstage at the theatre, suggesting that the character is not only the film's heartbeat but a figment of Riggan's imagination. Also noteworthy is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki. Much has been made of this aspect, for the vast majority of the film is manipulated via editing to give the impression that it consists of one long extended take. Lubezki is a truly great cinematographer, one of the best DPs working in the movies, and a noted master of the long take, as we have seen from his work on Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men and Gravity. So, obviously he is the right man for the job here, filming with real technical proficiency. However, make no mistake, this 'long take' is not a gimmick, and not only is brilliantly executed from a technical standpoint, but the grace of the camera's movements, weaving in and out of the story, is a highly important part in how the story of the film is told. It's a movie filmed with such flair and inventiveness that this alone makes Birdman worthy of seeing. Two times over the past three years Lubezki has won my Christopher Doyle Award for Best Cinematography (in 2011 for The Tree Of Life, in 2013 for Gravity), and he's put himself among the front-runners once again! The cinematography was written into the film by Innaritu with the express purpose of not becoming a gimmick but being a major part of the storytelling method. Finally, I mentioned Innaritu in relation to that storytelling method, and one cannot overlook his major imprint on the overall production of the film. It's quite a feat from his standpoint, in that as a producer, despite all of these different aspects which, as Christopher McKittrick points out at the beginning of his article on the film (linked at the bottom of this review), made for "more than enough room for disaster to derail the project," but he keeps control of all the tangible elements. Furthermore, as a director, he that while Birdman is a controlled film, it doesn't lose any of the zany and more eccentric qualities which make it such a unique, fascinating picture. Innaritu actively encourages these traits and sees that Birdman remains a film with real personality. 

However (the big however!), while I must say that I enjoyed Birdman immensely, I think that it just falls just short of being a masterpiece. It's a movie of real audacity and distinction, and I've had to put a lot of thought into this, despite the fact that I felt this way immediately after seeing it. What I concluded was that despite it being a dense, richly textured piece, there was something missing that would make it enter the upper-upper echelon of movies from 2014. It wasn't that all of the more stylised aspects smothered the human story there, far from it, but I do feel that I didn't have the emotional connection to the film as I did to, say, his debut feature Amores perros. That two-and-a-half hour picture is an emotional rollercoaster that is comparable to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or Anderson's Boogie Nights in terms of not only how masterfully controlled all the elements are, but also how they manage to keep you emotionally invested in the characters. I personally felt that the writers on the film (Innaritu included) failed to give these characters that additional sense of pathos, that extra bit of emotional investment which I think is so key to making a film not just a great film but a certified masterpiece. Three times over, Innaritu and his then-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga manage to get you wholly invested into their characters and moved to tears: here, while I was greatly impressed by the work, I didn't feel as much of myself going into the movie as I think there could have been.

Well, there you have it with my opines on Birdman. I must admit that whenever it comes down to expressing an opinion on a work of art on the basis of feeling, as opposed to more obvious and transparent aspects, that's when the job as a reviewer starts to get harder. Hopefully, I got my point across appropriately. Despite my reservations about not feeling emotionally invested enough to call it a masterpiece, Birdman is still a remarkable film. It has the best ensemble cast in a film from 2014, the standouts being Edward Norton, Emma Stone and a terrific central performance from Michael Keaton, I really dug the meta-modernist content and the absurdist humour, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, making this a unique comedy. The concept behind the extended long take in practice works to perfection, marvellously executed by Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the finest DP's in cinema today, is key to the film's storytelling method, and as a producer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu exemplifies both control and artistic ambition. One of the stronger and more ambitious in this year's Oscar hunt.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.8/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - In need (of a slash!)

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