Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Movie Review: "Birdman" Soars High on Talent

Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Mike (Edward Norton) square off in "Birdman".

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. USA, English, color, 119 minutes) Living in a time where thoughtless superhero action moves dominate the box office, is there any hope for those actors who have become icons after their starring role in the franchise ends?

Imagine Robert Downey Jr. 20 years from now after the Iron Man franchise is over and he's trying to break back into the acting world with a serious performance. Will he always be remembered as being Iron Man, or will people think he has real acting chops?

This is the basis for the comedy "Birdman", starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor trying to revive his acting career by writing, starring and directed an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" for Broadway.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) was one of the biggest celebrities at one time for playing a superhero named Birdman, and now he's trying to be a real actor by taking to the rialto. Working with a cast of colorful characters including Riggan's show producer and lawyer Brandon (Zach Galifianakis), the wannabe Broadway star Lesley (Naomi Watts), her over-confident actor boyfriend Mike (Edward Norton) and a meddling of others, nothing seems to be going right before opening night.

Using his telepathic powers, Riggan drops a light on an actor before the previews so they can hire a better one for the part. Enter Mike, whose critical acclaim in the world of theater is sure to bring in the crowds. However, he is commanding of Riggan's production, trying to overshadow the lead actor with publicity and artistic control.

Professionally, Riggan's a mess, and on top of that he has to deal with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a love interest in another actress in the show, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan). After a few disastrous previews and an encounter with a bitter theater critic, everyone tries to get all the pieces together for the show's opening night.

A biting look at the current Hollywood model of brainless entertainment over substance, "Birdman" is a crowning achievement on every level, due largely in part to its outstanding cast. Who would have thought you'd see such a great, varied group of actors working on an Altman-esque project like this?

Galifianakis surprised me the most, who leaves behind any remnants of his "Hangover" days with this seriously funny turn. As his recovering addict daughter, Emma Stone gets her meatiest role yet even while fading in and out throughout the film. She was one monologue in the first 30 minutes of the film that she delivers in such a raw, intense matter that I've yet to see from her. Oscar-caliber stuff from that three-minute scene alone.

The true star here is Keaton, who has laid low for a while but is back with this great performance. His character ins't even a down-on-his-luck guy, he's just the product of the Hollywood system of being discarded when you're not doing mainstream junk anymore. It's unfortunate what has happened to Riggan, but Keaton plays the role with sympathy and honesty, even when in his most unfortunate happenings.

"Birdman" is a film that takes the drama of personal and professional conflicts of the world of acting and gives ripe laughs throughout. The talented cast is great with the comedic delivery of their lines, and even some of the physicality. I'm sure we've all longed to see Keaton and Norton have a pathetic squabble in a dressing room, or Keaton walking around Times Square in his underwear. Oh, you haven't? Well here it is, and man is it funny.

One problem I had with the film was it's continuous long takes. It was great to see how perfectly the actors did with no cuts, if few through clever editing, in shots that go all over the theater, but was the film more about technical achievement or the acting it captured perfectly?

The long tracking shots were overkill after a while, and it may be cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's trademark but it's tired and not as effective when used for every shot as supposed to sporadically.

"Birdman" is sublime entertainment. Very well put together and featuring probably the best ensemble of the year. It might poke fun at how people don't appreciate real art and real acting, but Edward Norton's character says it best in the film: "Popularity is the slutty little cousin to prestige." Hear, hear.

Rating: A-


  1. Good review Kevin. Absolutely loved this movie. It moved like how you think a Broadway play, but with all the right amount of heart, fun, and humor to go along with it.

  2. Yes, it was a very good film. Maybe a smidge slow for my liking, but nonetheless entertaining.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. This weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

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