Sunday, April 26, 2015




After all the controversy about the films SELMA and AMERICAN SNIPER, (which I wrote about here and here), the Academy finally decided to award Alejandro G Inarritu's BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) as best picture of 2014.  While it's an odd, openly surreal film full of in jokes about it's star and Hollywood in general, it's victory was not that big a surprise given the recent trend of the Academy to award films that deal with film making itself in some way or another (like 2011's THE ARTIST).  Looked at in a simple way, the Academy, like most audiences, enjoys movies that have characters that they can relate to. In any event, although I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of 2014, I do think it's a wild, creative and enjoyable satire that rewards repeat viewings.  It also shows the continuing influence of Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece  8 1/2, still the best film about film making ever.

The idea for the film first came to Mexican born director Inarritu when he decided that he wanted to do a comedy after making heavy dramas like 2010's BIUTIFUL, and conceived of a film that dealt with the backstage drama of producing a play. He consulted screen writers Nicolas Glacobone and Armando Bo, along with playwright Alexander Dinelaris for backstage experience.   Right from the start, he wanted to shoot the movie in what would appear to be one continuous take, even though his co writers were dubious about this idea (and he himself would later admit he his own misgivings about it).  The script was worked on for two years, with Inarritu feeling that only former BATMAN star Micheal Keaton could play the lead role of former superhero star Riggan Thomson, and, fortunately for them, Keaton agreed.  The rest of the cast filled in quickly, with Ed Norton also making fun of his image as a difficult star by playing pompous stage actor Mike Shiner.
Meanwhile, Inarritu was still working on trying to set up a single take film; although this wasn't a completely original idea, Alfred Hitchcock shot the film ROPE in 1948 in just 10 takes with carefully placed fades to give the illusion of seamlessness, while 2002's RUSSIAN ARK pulled off a single shot 99 minute movie, those films were set in enclosed places where camera placement and movement could be tightly controlled.  But BIRDMAN was to be set in and around a Broadway theater in New York City, and feature many different characters and settings.  To shoot this difficult film, Inarritu hired cinematographer Immanuel Lubezki, and the two first started to shoot a practice version of the film to see if it was technically possible.  They quickly realized that a real Broadway theater would be needed for all the backstage locations, so  actual Broadway theater the St James was used for most of the film.  Even using modern digital cameras, the two month shoot was difficult, with each movement of both the camera and the actors having to be carefully choreographed.  In the end, there are sixteen visible cuts in the film, but most of them are easy to miss. (The lack of multiple takes meant that the film was edited in a mere two weeks!).  Not surprisingly, both Inarritu and Lubezki were given Oscars for their ambitious work.  And the film, while not a huge hit,  made over forty two million dollars in the US alone, on a relatively low budget of sixteen and a half million.

Micheal Keaton and Ed Norton

It tells the story of Riggan Thomson(Keaton), a one time Hollywood star who played the superhero character Birdman in two movies before walking away, a decision he's not sure was the right one.  Now he's making his debut on Broadway, starring and directing in a play version of the Raymond Carver story WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE.  As opening night approaches, he is plagued by doubt, difficult actors, and his even more difficult family.  More and more he imagines his Birdman persona coming to life and goading him, perhaps pushing him towards suicide.

My immediate reaction to the film is that Inarritu's bold decision to use long tracking shots pays off wonderfully, as we see the camera prowl through every corridor and cranny of the theater it adds to the authenticity of the story.  And, since this a backstage story, having actors perform in long, live theater like takes seems appropriate.  And there is a raw directness to all the acting and often brutally honest dialogue throughout.  Even if Keaton and Norton are playing characters based on their own images as celebrities, they never become parodies or wink at the audience.  Every performance rings true in the film, even the small ones like Lindsay Duncan as the New York Times Broadway critic who plans to destroy Riggan's play before she's even seen it ("You're no actor, you're a celebrity").
It's really surprising that the film won best picture and that Keaton did not win for best actor, he really dominates the film, and pulls off scenes where he rages against the Birdman voice in his head or apologizes to his wife Sylvia(Amy Ryan) daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and girlfriend  Laura(Andrea Riseborough) with ease.  He also  plays the role with out a trace of vanity.  Although he has said in interviews that Riggan is nothing like him, the character clearly reflects  how much of the public probably think that Keaton's life must be like now: a washed up movie star who walked away from the lucrative BATMAN franchise to mostly fade out and always be known as the guy who played Batman for two movies.  As if that weren't enough, it becomes a running joke in the film that nearly every other character verbally assaults him in the harshest possible terms at some point. Keaton also allows the camera to catch every wrinkle and flab in his aging body and, in a now famous scene, he finds himself trapped in nothing but his underwear in Times Square and must sprint back inside the theater to not miss his cue.  Not only is this scene hilarious, it also wonderfully shows the high wire nature of live theater, where there are no retakes and actors have to keep going, even if they're running onto the stage in no clothes!

Micheal Keaton

Ed Norton is just as good as the egotistical Mike Shiner;  I love the way that the first time we see him, he's standing on the edge of the stage, wearing a perfect hat and scarf, extolling the history of the theater to Riggan, every inch the serious, intense actor.  I also enjoy the way he jumps into a rehearsal of the play right away, and then pauses to dissect Riggan's delivery of a single line.  Or the way that he  literally flexes his naked body in the mirror during a costume fitting and  insists that he drink real gin on stage like his character during a preview of the play.  Another nice touch in the performance is that he loses his pompous actor pose twice, when he talks to Riggan's daughter Sam  on the theater's rooftop (when he's both not in the theater and not talking to a fellow actor).
To me, the biggest flaw of the film is that Norton's great character mostly fades from the latter part of the film as we get more and scenes of Riggan retreating into his own world.  Although an inevitable scene at the end in which Riggan actually comes in contact with the Birdman character flying around him, before taking flight himself has some nice special effects and well placed jabs at Hollywood's current infatuation with super hero movies ("Give the people what they want."  Birdman yells, "Old fashioned apocalyptic porn!"), it goes on far too long and takes away some of the dramatic momentum of what the film should be building to: the all important opening night of Riggan's play.  Even worse, the film mostly ignores the fact that Riggan becomes aware that Mike is making romantic moves on his daughter; this should be a major conflict between them, but instead it's never really dealt with.
One nice touch in the film is that we see the final scene in Riggan's play, which features his character wielding a gun at his unfaithful wife and lover (played by Mike) before shooting himself, being performed three times, and each time the context and emphasis is different.  The most dramatic version comes at the end, when a seemingly despondent Riggan brings a real loaded gun on stage; for a moment he appears ready to shoot Mike before he turns the gun on himself and fires.  But the movie throws a last twist at the audience:  instead of dying, Riggan survives the gunshot (which blows his nose off) and, as his friend and lawyer Jake (Zack Galifianiakis)  tells him in his hospital room, the resulting media attention over his "accident" appears to have revived his career.  Riggan takes the news silently, and then, alone, he walks over to his hospital bathroom to look at his new, larger nose (which now resembles, yes, a beak), sees Birdman next to him one last time and then walks over to his hospital window to jump out.  In an incredibly ambiguous last shot, Sam walks in, looks out the window, and looks upwards and smiles at....what?  Has Riggan actually become Birdman?  Throughout the film, we see Riggan using telekinetic powers, but only when he's alone, and, it's clearly implied, those powers are all in his head.  But this ending now seems to show that he really had  Birdman powers all along.  Or is it possible that he did commit suicide and his daughter just hasn't seen his body yet?  Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?  Clearly there's no easy answer here, and I'm glad that the Academy decided to award a film that had such an unconventional ending, given their usual penchant for neat story telling and uplift.


I've already mentioned that I don't think BIRDMAN was the best film of the year, and there are basically three films that I enjoyed more: Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL which was the most entertaining film of the year, Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD which was the most innovative, and Ava DuVernay"s SELMA which was the most moving.  Still, BIRDMAN is certainly a well made and acted film, and I enjoyed it more than other stodgy films that were nominated like THE IMITATION GAME, so, overall, it's certainly not a bad choice.