BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) review

Starring: Michael Keaton (Batman), Edward Norton (Fight Club), Emma Stone (Zombieland), Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover), Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), Naomi Watts (King Kong), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone)

Director: Alejandero Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel)

Writers: Alejandero Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone (Biutiful), Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo

Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes

Release Date: 17 October (US), 1 January (UK)

Films about celebrity status can be a real pain when handled poorly. Too often, they are made by people who are so caught up in their own bullsh*t that they don’t realise that their issues are pathetic when compared to the rest of the world’s; the purest definition of ‘first world problems’. Birdman does tackle the issue of celebrity, but does so from a dissolusioned perspective, and then proceeds to also tackle subjects like the Hollywood system, criticism, the art of acting, social media and society at large in general. Birdman leaves no stone unturned, no topic undiscussed. It is a brave and beautifully crafted piece of cinema that balances that perfect line of appealing to the cinephile and the general moviegoer.

Birdman is an incredibly cynical film from the word go, but that’s the entire point and it doesn’t even shy away from criticizing that element of itself. The tale of Riggan Thompson (Keaton) and his struggle to find relevance is not for those wanting a simple laugh, though it does have more than enough great humorous scenes. This is about as black as a movie can get without moving into morbid territory, but the film is at its best when it’s bitter. Scenes like Riggan’s argument with his daughter Sam (Stone) or a snobby theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) are highlights that really dig deep into the rich subject matter before ripping every detail to shreds. All in all, it’s less a story about a man trying to reclaim his glory days and more about a man trying to figure out if that glory was any good to begin with. It’s this spiteful but honest and tongue-in-cheek tone that really defines Birdman as a movie unlike any you’ve seen before. It certainly does delve into clichéd and predictable moments, but it almost seems self-aware of that fact and it plays with it. It could also have been trimmed a little, as Riggan’s relationship with his girlfriend (Riseborough) or Sam’s with Mike (Norton) don’t end up going anywhere, but for the most part Birdman is a brutal but sincere and ingenious satire of a number of media and societal problems that really do deserve a good kicking up the arse like this.

The casting of Michael Keaton in the role of an aging film star whose most famous for playing a superhero in the early 90’s is no coincidence, and whether drawn from real life or pure invention it is the performance of a lifetime for the venerable actor. Keaton has always been good at playing charming but off-kilter and somewhat disturbing characters, and Riggan Thompson effectively works as a summation of his entire career; every great element from all his performances meshed into one character to create a figure made of pure ego and insanity. He’s a character you completely understand yet can’t always comprehend as he switches from calm and intellectual to self-centred egomaniac to fits of deluded, self aggrandising anger, all of which coalesce to create one hell of an act. Always keeping up, though, is the equally brilliant Edward Norton as a pretentious but empty-headed and difficult actor who is so lost in his performance that the real world seems fake to him. Again, how much of this is drawn from Norton’s own notoriety for being hard to work with is up for debate, but he holds his own with Keaton in every scene and both are certainly worthy of the awards buzz they’ve been getting. Emma Stone is also fantastic as Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter; her scene where she bursts out at her father and calls him our for his selfish ambitions in an impressive monologue ranks up with some of her best work. The rest of the cast is also impressive but not quite as noteworthy mainly due to a lack of focus, but it’s great to see Zach Galifianakis stretch into some more dramatic territory and to see more of Andrea Riseborough in general (seriously, she needs more work).

Plenty of films have done the gimmick of making themselves look like they’ve been done in one take, but Birdman is by far the most ambitious example I’ve ever seen accomplished. The cinematography rarely stops moving as it floats around our characters, getting every single angle and detail on screen without breaking the flow, and the transitions between scenes are some of the best I’ve seen this side of an Edgar Wright movie. It’s not completely seamless, as it’s obvious at certain points where they’ve cut or you can tell when footage has been stabilised in post, but it never becomes too distracting and the effect is otherwise seamless and beyond creative; kudos to Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for having the balls to even try it. The special effects are impressive for a film of this size (even though the flight effects are a little iffy at times) and the jazz-infused soundtrack is impressive but a little loud and distracting at times, but it’s mainly the astounding camerawork on display that makes Birdman such an impressive technical feat.

Birdman is a film that needed to be made in this current cultural climate and it accomplishes its goals with high honours. The screenplay is sharp and quotable, the cast is impeccable in every way, the direction is imaginative and the cinematography is among the best of its kind. It’s a movie that goes beyond asking “what does it mean to be famous?” and delves into the far more interesting question of “what does it mean to be human?” without becoming the same pompous, over bloated piece of arthouse that it itself criticizes. If you’re a fan of cinema in any facet, this one certainly deserves your viewing pleasure.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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