Sunday, November 02, 2014

Movie review: Birdman


Alejandro González Iñárritu's new flick, Birdman, is nothing short of it. Two minutes into the film, hypnotized by Antonio Sanchez's pulse-quickening drum score, held rapt by the vision of a fiery, portentous comet burning through the sky, I was entranced. I stayed that way throughout the film's entire 119 minute run time.

Birdman is the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a has-been actor, best known for his decades-old performance in a superhero flick called The Birdman. The role made him famous and type-cast him for life. Ever since Riggan turned down an offer to play the lead role in a Birdman sequel, his career has stalled. (The parallels between fictional Riggan's Birdman, and real-life Keaton's 1989 Batman flick are obvious, n'est pas?)

In an attempt to reestablish his relevance, Thomas undertakes to write, direct, and star in a Broadway production of a work by Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." When the film begins, opening night is three days away and Riggan is struggling to put the final touches on his production. It's an exercise in disaster management. At the same time, his personal life teeters on collapse, as his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) attempts to reenter life after a stint in rehab and his sometime girlfriend and co-star, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) informs him that she might be pregnant.

Iñárritu places enormous demands on his cast. Although Birdman conforms to the classic five act play structure, there is no break between scenes. It's all done in one "shot," with each scene leading into the next. Intimate camera work reveals the most minute facial expressions of the actors. The dialog is sharp, complex, and rapid-fire. 

Naomi Watts, who plays Lesley, the female lead in Thomas's production, said "[Birdman]'s the hardest thing I've ever done," and it's easy to see why.

All of the cast delivers. Zach Galifianakis plays producer Jake superbly in a role I never would have expected from him. But I can't say that any one performance outshone the others (they were all over-the-top great). My favorite was Emma Stone's portrayal of Riggan's troubled daughter. Check out this discourse she delivers in Act III.

As I said, the lines come hard and fast and there are no throw-aways. Everything is significant. And there are some great lines:

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend" quips Riggan's co-star, Mike (Edward Norton).

"Why don't I have any self-respect?" wails Lesley. "You're an actress, honey," consoles Laura.

Birdman is funny, touching, and disturbing by turns. Riggan's struggle is a struggle we all know: the struggle for significance, the struggle to believe that we matter. It's an old story that's been told countless times, but rarely so effectively. In one particularly surreal scene, Iñárritu inserts an homage to the Bard, when a raving, other-worldly voice delivers my favorite Shakespearean soliloquy.

When I first saw the (rather perplexing) trailer for this flick I didn't imagine I would bother to go see it. But I thank my lucky stars that a rainy Portland morning with nothing else on the schedule had me give it a go. This is the most excited I've been about a flick since No Country for Old Men, back in 2007.

Michael Keaton's performance is iconic. Iñárritu's acheivement is dazzling and awesome.

I'm going to see it again next weekend.


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