REVIEW: “Birdman”

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Boy it’s nice to see Michael Keaton finally getting a meaty starring role. He was a favorite of mine in the 1980s and early 90s but after that his career hit a significant lull. In “Birdman” he gets a chance to spread his wings (abysmal pun intended) and dive into a layered and complex role. He’s up to the task as evident by the slew of rave reviews and awards nominations. But while Keaton is fantastic, what about “Birdman” the movie? Is the movie itself as good as the performance of its star?

“Birdman” is a bit of a change for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His previous films are known to be gloomy and emotionally heavy dramas. “Birdman” maintains the gloom and it tinkers with several emotionally heavy subjects, but at its core it’s really a black comedy. It dabbles in a number of things including strained family dysfunction, the stresses of the creative process, and satirizing the blockbuster movie culture. As with Iñárritu’s other films, some of these concepts work better than others, but he still manages to put together a strikingly unique and incisive film.

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Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plays a once popular Hollywood star who made his name playing a character named Birdman in a series of popular superhero blockbusters. In an effort to revitalize his floundering career Riggan is writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story. But Riggan doesn’t really have an environment conducive to success. One of his lead actors is out of commission after a stage accident. His replacement is a pompous, explosive but accomplished method actor named Mike (Edward Norton). His lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is a nervous first-time Broadway performer. His lawyer and agent (Zach Galifianakis) is panicky and always on edge.

But there are also a series of relationship issues that make things even more difficult for Riggan. His estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and serves as his assistant. He has a tense relationship with his ex-wife and Sam’s mother Sylvia (Amy Ryan). And then there are a number of complications with his current girlfriend and co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Riggan also has internal struggles. He is constantly searching for affirmations of importance, relevance, and self-worth. In his head the gravelly voice of Birdman constantly insults him and showers him with expectations of failure.

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Needless to say Michael Keaton is brilliant and his Riggan character is the most compelling of the bunch. Keaton has always had panache and “Birdman” gives him a chance to flaunt it. Riggan is such a wild card – a swirling ball of emotional chaos. He’s constantly on edge and you get a sense that his Broadway production has become his own private hell. It, and him for that matter, seem to be careening towards disaster. Keaton manages all of this with a manic tenacity, yet he always gives us convincing quiet moments. Keaton gives us so many layers to his character. Is he a raging egotist? Is he having a mental breakdown? Is he a bit of both? All of the supporting work is good, but for me it all comes back to Keaton.

Another attention getter is the kinetic cinematography from the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Most of the film visually presents itself in one long continuous state of motion. The camera snakes down hallways, prowls behind characters, hovers and rotates during conversations. It’s all done with some pretty clever bits of trickery which gives the illusion of a long unending take. The ever-moving camera feels in tune with the hectic, turbulent atmosphere, and I loved how it made every nook and cranny of St. James Theatre familiar to us. But at the same time I was happy when the camera would just stop, be still, and just let us focus on the actors.

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There is no denying the technique and smarts behind “Birdman”, but despite its bold and fresh appearance, in terms of narrative is it doing anything we haven’t seen before? And I don’t think all of Iñárritu’s satire works. His shots at entertainment media and criticism, his look at entertainment versus art, none of it really clicks. I also found it pointlessly crass at times and surprisingly low on humor even during the scenes where it’s really trying to be funny. Perhaps the funniest thing about “Birdman” is having Michael Keaton, an actor whose career went downhill after playing Batman, play Riggan.

“Birdman” is an interesting entry into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmography. It’s not quite as miserable and tragedy-driven as his past films and that’s refreshing. But Iñárritu is still a director who can suffocate his story with his style and high concepts. In this film I think his technique is one of the strong points. It’s clever, well implemented, and it feeds the frantic chaos of the wonderful setting. And while the film is a bit smug at times and the story is stuffed to the gills, I still found myself hooked. As I said, there’s something hypnotic about “Birdman”. Oh, and did I mention Michael Keaton?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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26 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Birdman”

  1. I found the movie to be pretty engaging and sometimes a bit fast to catch up with, especially the earlier part, also I found the screenplay slacking in the later half. However as you mentioned Michael Keaton was phenomenal as Riggan. I found Birdman to be pretty surrealistic, I feel there was a nice mix of fantasy and reality in the film.

    I think the only problem I had with the rhythm, the one long continous take was a great concept but I thought it broke the rhythm of the story sometimes. The last time I saw someone maintaining the rhythm with such techinique was Hitchcock in Rope, or is this the only other movie to use the techinique?

    Anyways I found the movie to be original and very innovative, not the story of course but the presentation. Oh yes and then there was Michael Keaton of course.

    I don’t like to rate films with stars but yes I would agree to your rating of 3.5

    • I think you sum it up wonderfully. The presentation and Michael Keaton are the real stars. But as you point out, the technique can trip up the film’s rhythm. Yet there is something about the story that engaged me. Perhaps it’s the setting. Maybe it’s the chaotic angle about the Broadway creative process. Several things about the story interested me. Unfortunately several things about the story didn’t.

      Thanks so much for the great comments.

  2. Interesting! I really bought into this one, thought it was fantastic, even if it is prone to disappearing up its own nether regions every now and again. I can completely understand your reservations (and those of others, though). But I’m glad you enjoyed the acting and cinematography. And as you say, great to see Keaton get a great part like this; he’s more than up to the job.

    • I had a hard time writing this review. It was difficult wording my attraction to and frustration with the movie. In fact, I don’t know if I would even call it frustration. I’m just not sure it’s doing anything as profound as many think (story-wise). Yet at the same time there is something magnetic about the story – elements that really resonated me while others didn’t.

      The camera work can be a bit exhausting, but I think that’s the point. It fits really well with the tone and pace of the movie. Technically it’s very impressive.

      • I think the review comes off as balanced. To me anyway. I agree with the camerawork…coupled with the drums it kind of makes for an uneasy experience. I really liked the moments where the action suddenly went outside as it felt like temporary relief.

      • It really did feel that way didn’t it? It almost felt as if we were stepping outside to get some fresh air along with the characters. Whether it be on the rooftop or strolling down the block to the bar. That’s a really good observation.

  3. Excellent review, bro. We agree on many points here but I think it enjoyed it a bit more. I’d give it another star. The only thing that put me off was the ending. Without giving too much away, I would have proffered it to remain ambiguous on Riggan’s abilities and I don’t think it done that and disappointed me a little just as it was going out on a very high note.

    • Thanks man. That’s interesting though. I did see the ending as a bit ambiguous. I’ll dance around it but we see a character look two ways. They do smile at one direction but I didn’t really take that as a definitive answer. Did that make any sense? 🙂

      I don’t know man, Iñárritu can be a smothering actor who is more interested in promoting his high concepts. That happens here but I do think to a lesser degree. Thats why I liked it a bit more than I expected. I do think he tries to do a too much though. Still, at the same time there is something tragically beautiful about the story.

      • That does make sense and it’s an interesting view point. I never considered that. I’ll try and dance around it too. I took the glance in one particular direction to mean that they were aware of what Riggan was capable of yet it was always cleverly left in question throughout the film. Ill need to see it again begore i can make my mind up on that but you’ve given me food for thought.

      • I wasn’t keen on it but after this brief discussion, I suppose it’s never a bad thing when a film can be interpreted different ways. I only took it one way but now I’m not so critical of it. Cheers for that, my man! 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree more that Michael Keaton is the star of the show and he’s what makes Birdman so good. I also dug the score, and I thought the cinematography was great too. The film really is a bit all over the place. I scored the movie high, and I stand by it, and at the same time I don’t feel like it will be super high on my top ten list (which I’m still coming up with). It’s such a mixed basket of emotions, characters, and plot, that I had a hard time figuring out what is the actual, singular focus of the film. But I did like it a lot!

    • To be honest I’m not sure it’s saying much of anything. It does look at several things in the creative process and in family relationships. I almost wonder if it tried to do a bit too much. Still I think it’s a good and entertaining movie. Keaton is simply fabulous.

  5. Hey Keith, I think you already know I LOVE this one, which is surprising as there are some vulgar parts here I don’t care for. But hey we agree about Keaton and YES it’s nice to see him get a chance to show his chops in a meaty leading role. I actually think the film itself is as worthy as the performances, and I like the fact that it’s not as bleak and like you said, miserable, as Iñárritu’s other films. I think you said the word there, hypnotic, which I can’t really say about a lot of other movies I’ve seen this past year.

    • There is a lot of craft behind this film. I have read some reviews that have dismissed it as irritating and overblown. I guess I can see where they’re coming from but I think that’s cutting the movie short. While all of it didn’t work for me there’s certainly a lot there that is very well done. And there’s something about that hectic, claustrophobic theatre setting that I found very, very appealing.

    • I can completely see where you’re coming from. There were certain elements of the movie that left me wanting. I definitely liked it, but maybe not as much as a lot of people.

  6. Dude, I thought this film was astonishing. Everything I thought couldn’t be beaten with Boyhood (until I saw this, my Best Picture shoe-in) was soundly eviscerated here. Acting, visual panache, the seamless editing, the soundtrack – Birdman is one of the best films of the last decade. That’s how highly I rate it. My review is up the week before the Oscars. Hope you check it out.

    • Wow, that is high praise. I didn’t quite go for it that much. Technically and from an acting standpoint it is fabulous. And a lot of the story is strong. But I think its a little all over the place. And it didnt effect me the way Boyhood did. Boyhood still has me looking myself as a parent, lamenting the moments I’ll never get back, and trying to see the world as my kids may see it.

      Really anxious to read your review. I’ll be watching for it. Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Watching this over the weekend. Can’t wait. Even though I have heard all kinds of things about it being everything from just average to being flawless, so I am curious to see where my opinion will land. Thanks for the review, Keith. Good work.

  8. Pingback: » Movie Review – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) Fernby Films

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