Monday, October 20, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

In the 15 years Alejandro González Iñárritu has been making films, I’ve learned that there is a direct correlation between Iñárritu’s work and my cognitive gratification. The masochist in me is enamored with the emotional brutality of Iñárritu’s films, and the filmmaker in me is continually inspired by his audacious methods of storytelling.

I was in high school when I saw Iñárritu’s first feature, Amores Perros. I started the film late one night, and when it ended in the early hours of a new day, I was unable to form a coherent thought. I was so moved by its power, so troubled by its intensity. A few years later, I walked out of a screening of 21 Grams in a haze, my mind stuck in the emotional hell that film created. From the moment Babel finished, the film became, and remained, one of my top films of the decade. My experience with Iñárritu’s Biutiful was different. Biutiful wasn’t as raw and alive as Iñárritu’s other work. But it grew on me. And with time, I came to love it.


My love for Iñárritu’s latest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), took hold about 25 minutes into the film. That’s when I became acutely aware of what it was doing. The technique of the film has already been discussed endlessly, and that’s because there’s no way to avoid mentioning it. If you’ve managed to keep Birdman’s style hidden, then cease reading this review. Because here it is: the entirety of Birdman occurs in one unbroken shot. As lensed by our best living cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar winner for Gravity), the camera in Birdman never cuts away. It stays present, dancing in the moment, the tension constantly mounting. Many will likely to cry afoul to the film’s style. It’s smug, it’s garish, it’s style over substance. I disagree. A long take is destined to be noticed and admired and criticized. But Iñárritu isn’t the type of filmmaker who begs you to notice, he’s interested in having the film wash over you and transport you somewhere.

Any mention that Birdman takes place in one shot needs to be immediately amended with the fact that Birdman actually appears to take place in one shot. The film is 119 minutes long, but was not captured in a single 119 minute take. A few hidden cuts were masked digitally, but this is something the film embraces. The movie often jumps forward in time within one extended shot. For example, a character may be finishing play rehearsal, walk off the stage, go to their dressing room, and when they come out, the stage is now in the middle of a full production the following day. Trust me, it makes far more sense when you see the film, but the point is, Iñárritu wants to create the illusion that we’re there, in the moment. Now.
The moment, as it were, is the few days before Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) opens his new play on Broadway, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan wrote, stars and is directing the play, all in an effort to rid himself of his image as a washed-up Hollywood icon. Riggan became famous for starring in three films as a superhero called Birdman. And, in the most literal sense, Riggan has yet to rid himself of his alter ego. Occasionally, Birdman speaks to Riggan as a Devil on Riggan’s shoulders. Birdman fuels the actor’s rage, talking directly to him in a deep baritone voice, or even appearing next to him, tempting Riggan to break bad.

The play is meant to act as Riggan’s resurgence. To bring him back to life. To allow him be taken seriously as an... artist. Helping with the production is Riggan’s lawyer/confidant, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s recently rehabbed daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), and the play’s main cast, the hot tempered Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Mike’s fragile girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), and Riggan’s own love interest, Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Needless to say, pre-production of the play is not going well. Mike often disrupts preview shows with his wild antics, while Riggan’s limitless narcissism and insecurity plague his nearly every waking moment. But the show must go on, and Iñárritu and Lubezki are there to catch every glorious and hilarious second of it.

It would be impressive for any film to dare to attempt Birdman’s technical style. But camera trickery will only get you so far. To make a great film, you have to have a great story. Such is what Iñárritu and his co-writers, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo have achieved here. They’ve created a wonderful story about a disastrous production, and managed to flesh it out beautifully. Every member of the cast delivers a performance that rivals the best work they’ve done. Under the tutelage of Iñárritu, they all spent two weeks filming in Broadway’s St. James Theatre, and their collective dedication to Iñárritu’s style is evident. Emma Stone, in particular, is a young actress I’ve always liked, but never expected this from. She has a monologue in Birdman that is pure pile, spewing insults at her father, the closeness of the camera in direct proportion with her temperament. The tighter the camera pushes in, the more furious Stone gets. It’s truly astonishing.
But in addition to Iñárritu and Lubezki, the real showstopper here is Michael Keaton. Throughout Birdman, Riggan Thomson’s emotional stability is a freight train threatening to derail at any moment. Keaton, who I’ve always considered one of my favorite actors, had to reach as far as he could to realize this character so profoundly. There isn’t a weak moment or false note to be found in this performance. Keaton will likely be showered with praise and awards attention for months to come, and it will all be more than well earned. The man has simply never been better.

Movies like Birdman justify a lifetime dedicated to cinema. The film singlehandedly proves that unique stories (and revelatory methods in which to tell them) still very much exist. A few days ago, I watched Iñárritu, Keaton and Norton on Charlie Rose. It was an insightful interview, a must watch for any admirer of the respective careers of the three interviewees. But something Iñárritu said about Birdman has stuck with me. In justifying the film’s shooting style, Iñárritu said that in life, there are no cuts. You can’t magically jump to later in your day, or to a month earlier in your life. Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck in your life, with no cuts allowed. Yes, exactly. A

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36 comments:

  1. Dude. The color in those shots. Wow! I can't wait to see this movie. And I've actually never been a big Inarritu fan, but this one just looks great. Loved Amores Perros but found 21 Grams and Babel amazing but just way too draining to fully appreciate. Never saw Biutiful. Great post, man.

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    1. Seriously man, this movie looks amazing. I didn't want to be hyperbolic, but it rivals The Tree of Life as the best work Lubezki has done yet. Such an achievement.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it!

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  2. I hope it comes to my town this weekend as I want to see this and hope that Inarritu can pull off something different and daring despite my issues with Biutiful.

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    1. I really think you'll love this one, my friend. It's on another level of good. Seriously.

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  3. Stone really impressed me in this film (and i've been waiting for her to do so for a while). The technique, as you mentioned, is amazing as well as keaton and norton's performances.

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    1. I thought Stone crushed it here. In a way, it's as if this is role she's been waiting for. But everyone was tops in this film.

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    1. Nice! A tough film, but wow, so powerful.

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  5. Great review! The style of Birdman is one of the reasons I'm looking forward to seeing it. It sounds so interesting. Plus, I gotta see Emma Stone's performance. Everyone is raving about her.

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    1. Thanks Brittani! The style of this film is other worldly. I'm so thankful that people like Iñárritu and Lubezki are making movies. And Stone... wow, girl's got game.

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  6. Very keen to see this one (as I also think that Babel is one of the decade's best, and Michael Keaton is a favourite too), but unfortunately it doesn't come out in Australia till January 15. Which happens sometimes. At least Interstellar is coming out here next month the same as everywhere else.

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    1. That is definitely a bummer that you have to wait until January, but man, I promise Birdman is worth the wait. So pumped for Interstellar!

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  7. I'm so happy this movie is getting great reviews. It's definitely one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I can't wait for it to open here now. This review just made me even more excited. I really hope this is a comeback movie for Michael Keaton. He is definitely one of my favorite actors.

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    1. I'm thrilled that it's being received so well too. Keaton... call it a comeback, a return to form - call it whatever you want, that man is BACK. In a big damn way. Love it.

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  8. I loved 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful, and this one has a great cast! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I will be back to read the review. :-)

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    1. I'd love to know what you think of this one. It's so unique and incredible!

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  9. I read somewhere that Riseborough is a bit underused, so that's a shame - hopefully this will help her get into better movies anyways. The whole thing looks a bit too much like a gimmick for me with way too much meta stuff thrown in - the similarities to Keaton's own fame etc. - but hopefully I'll find some emotional power known from Babel or 21 Grams in it, great review and I cannot wait to see Stone, she deserves demanding roles.

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    1. I disagree about Riseborough's contribution to the film (she's great), but so it goes. The reviews I've read that refer to the film as smug because Keaton last played Batman 22 years ago are hilarious to me. If he hadn't been in anything substantial since 1992, then yeah, fair enough. But to hold his (very good) performance as Batman over his head for his entire career is just silly to me. But, you know, oh well. Either way, you'll love Stone here. She's a fuckin' force.

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    2. I'm not sure they are against Keaton, just the very idea in the script. And it still is his most famous role, I'm sure some people only know Keaton from this. I've seen Riseborough in some films where she was lead, so I'm hoping she is at least has several scenes here, she really deserves to be a lead of big movies, she is kinda like more talented, less...tainted with B class camp movies Eva Green.

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    3. I only remember seeing Riseborough in Happy-Go-Lucky, Oblivion and Disconnect. Liked her in all three but she crushes it in Birdman. Very strong work.

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  10. Oh man, I'm so jealous of you getting to watch this film. I can't wait to see it! I have a feeling it is exactly the kind of film I'm going to love.

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    1. You're gonna love this one man. Really hope it makes it your way soon. Such a great film.

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  11. Can't wait to see this one! It looks so amazing. The one take thing is probably being overstated by people, I think anyway and I assume it's similar to how some people think Russian Ark is all style and a gimmick, but like that film, the material, from what I've read and seen, speaks for itself.

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    1. Yeah, I don't really know what to say to the people who think the long takes in Birdman (or Russian Ark, for that matter) are all style over substance. Only that I wholeheartedly disagree. Really excited to hear what you think of Birdman!

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  12. I just saw this on Sunday. It was amazing. I agree with you, it's a film that achieves the perfect marriage of style and substance. I know everyone talks about Keaton for the Oscar, and he definitely deserves it, but the same could be said for the rest of the cast itself. I mean, Galifianakis is unrecognizable! The score was really good, too. It really captured how chaotic the events in the film were. And what Inarritu said, about being stuck in the moment, I don't think I've heard a quote that so perfectly summed up a film. Great movie, and great review, Alex!

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    1. Thanks Nickolas! Honestly man, I'm all for this movie getting as many nominations as possible. I'm sure the studio will push really, really hard for a Keaton nomination, but I hope they don't hold back on worthy supporting performances as well. My god, what an achievement this movie was.

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  13. Great review! It looks amazing visually, and the performances seem terrific. I should be seeing this very soon, and I can't wait!

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    1. Indeed. It might be my new #1. Really hope Keaton snags an Oscar.

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  14. This one took a little while to make it to my neck of the woods, so I put off reading your post, but I absolutely loved it! So intense and exciting and other exclamatory words like that!

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    1. Thanks so much for jumping back and letting me know that you liked it! I loved this one so much.

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  15. I know what I'm saying is really bat-shit-crazy but.... Birdman might be Alejandro González Iñárritu best film. Although all his films are flawless acted and magically screenplayed, this film gets better the technical achievements. Yes Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel are beautiful shot but which one have better special effects?

    This film was amazing. Great acted, great scored, great shot, great paced, great edited, great wrote, with great effects and great directed, and also no flaws. I didn't saw one flaw. I liked the WHOLE film but one thing I didn't liked, THE END. It's establishes the whole film that he's insane but at the end, apparently, he is...Birdman. I didn't pay attention the whole film because I was sleepy but I liked what I get from it.

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    1. Awesome man, so happy you loved it. It's definitely a tough call, but I can't argue with anyone who calls Birdman Iñárritu's best film. It's just SO goddamn good. Man, I really hope Keaton wins the Oscar. I'm getting nervous.

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  16. Great review, Alex! It is SO good to see Keaton back on top of his game and better than ever.

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    1. Thanks! So happy you liked this one too. Such a good movie.

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