Saturday, 3 January 2015

Birdman (2014)

or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

There are times when it's hard to simply sit back and watch Birdman. It's so busy, so layered, and so consistently technically accomplished that the experience becomes slightly exhausting. This is, however, another fine example of form perfectly matching content.

On the surface, Birdman is about actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) trying to gain respect and attention through a new play that he has written, directed, and will also star in. He is supported in this endeavour by a great suppporting cast: Lesley (Naomi Watts), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and talented-but-infuriating Mike (Edward Norton). There's also his friend, and right hand man, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). And his personal assistant/daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). These people all want the play to succeed, but don't always seem to be on the same page as Riggan. To be fair, that may be due to Riggan's many flights of fancy, involving him hearing advice from the superhero character that both made him his fame and fortune and then kept hanging around his neck like a dead weight, the titular Birdman. This film could have just as easily been titled Albatross.

Created to look almost like one continuous take, Birdman is dazzling and dizzying in the technical department. The edits are all hidden away, and many scenes are filmed with camera angles that shouldn't be possible (e.g. any showing characters conversing in front of a mirror as the camera moves around them). Yet it's this mix of long takes, great acting, and skilled camerawork and editing that helps to hammer home both the similarities and differences between actors and stars, between worthy works of art and entertaining movies. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu shows that one doesn't necessarily rule out the other.

The script, written by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Armando Bo and Alexander Dinelaris, is as sharp as can be, mixing in some fantastic one-liners with no small amount of melancholy and great characterisations. It's smart too, packing every scene with huge amounts of information and detail without ever feeling too dense.

But nothing would work without the central performances lifting the whole thing from the great to the sublime. A lot of praise has already been heaped upon Keaton, and rightly so. He carries most of the movie with a performance that riffs on a public perception of him, playing the vanity and vulnerability with equal accomplishment, and often glee. Norton also riffs on a persona that, rightly or wrongly, he has been given over the years, and he easily holds his own alongside Keaton, although he also benefits from being allowed many of the bigger laughs. Watts and Riseborough both play women who seem to want very different things, but in very similar ways, and Stone gets to do her best stroppy young lass act, putting up defensive barriers when there really isn't anything, or anyone, out to hurt her at this time. Galifianakis joins the long line of comedic performers who can step up to the mark when called upon to try something more dramatic. His role isn't without humour, none of the roles are, but it's far removed from anything else we've seen from him in recent years. Which is a very good thing.

Birdman looks at ego, art, criticism, the difference between being famous and being famous for something notable. It looks at delusion, even illness, and doesn't necessarily write it off as a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with fantasising about flying high up in the air. As long as you don't rush to dive out of the nearest window.


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