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Josh Reviews Birdman

Let me cut right to the chase: this film is phenomenal!

In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson.  Riggan was once a world-famous Hollywood super-star who played the super-hero Birdman in three wildly successful films.  But he made waves by refusing to return to the role for Birdman 4.  In the years since, his career has gone into the toilet.  Now, Riggan is funding with his own money a play that he wrote and is starring in, adapting a Raymond Carver story.  Riggan hopes this play will give him the success and critical acclaim that he has long been striving for.  But, of course, things are going from bad-to-worse as the unstable Riggan and his troupe careen towards opening night, and Riggan begins to feel the pressure of what he sees as his last chance.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows Riggan through the final few days of previews leading up to his play’s opening night.  The film is shot to look as if it was one continuous, unbroken shot.  The entire film.  Let me say that again: the entire film is structured to look and feel like one continuous, unbroken shot.  This is not only an astounding, jaw-dropping technical accomplishment, it’s a device that gives the film an enormous, vigorous energy.  This, combined with the visceral, hand-held (or made to look like hand-held) camera-work, in which the camera is constantly flying along right behind Riggan and the other characters, and the film’s propulsive, amazing jazz-drum score, give Birdman an incredible edge-of-your-seat energy from start to finish that is unlike any other film I can recall.

I saw 21 Grams back in 2003 and it was clear to me that Alejandro González Iñárritu was an incredibly skilled director.  And yet, while I immensely respected Mr. Iñárritu’s skills, the film was such a dour affair that it’s not a movie I was ever interested in revisiting.  Though his follow-up, Babel, was critically acclaimed, I avoided seeing it for the same reason: it just felt like too much unpleasant misery for me.  What a 180-degree switch Mr. Iñárritu has made with Birdman!  This film benefits from every ounce of his significant technical competence, while also being incredibly fun and joyous.

Which is weird, because when you think about it, Birdman is actually a pretty sad story.  But I found it to be a film that was alive with joy.  Alive is a great word.  This film is alive, positively pulsing with energy in every moment.  You the viewer feel like you’re right there with Riggan and the other characters, bouncing back and forth through the tiny back-stage theatre corridors right along with them.  The camerawork is amazing.  Thinking about the precision that must have been necessary to sell the illusion that the film is one continuous shot boggles my mind, but it’s even more than that.  I loved how alive and energetic the camera-work was in the film.  I loved how the Mr. Iñárritu’s camera would get right up in the face of his actors.  You might not think that this is a film that demands to be seen on a big screen, but I implore you to see this film on the biggest screen possible.  On a huge screen, with the actors’ faces several stories high, you will be, like I was, absolutely bowled over by the power of these performances.  Mr. Iñárritu’s camerawork sets up the shot, and then good lord do these actors deliver.

Let’s start with Michael Keaton, who has never been better.  Never.  After watching this film I was pained, wishing that Mr. Keaton had been given more opportunities like this in the last twenty years.  Mr. Keaton’s career didn’t go south post-Batman the way Riggan’s did post-Birdman, but still, it’s been quite a while since Michael Keaton was an A-list actor.  He’s popped up here and there, and he’s done some great work, but he hasn’t had such a juicy, complex leading role in years.  This is an incredible performance, one that sucks you right into Riggan’s increasingly unhinged psyche.  I was captivated.  Mr. Keaton forgoes most of his usual tricks to give a very honest, open portrayal.  Riggan is put through the emotional wringer in this film, and Mr. Keaton pulls the audience along with every beat, every emotional high and low.  This is an incredibly skilled piece of work.

Edward Norton also kills it as Mike Shiner, the talented actor brought in at the last minute to replace an injured member of Riggan’s cast.  When he arrives, the talented Mike seems at first like salvation for the play.  But it turns out that he might be even more unhinged that Riggan.  Holy cow is Mr. Norton amazing in the film.  (I wrote that Michael Keaton has never been better, and I stand by that.  I’ll adjust my statement somewhat for Mr. Norton, to say that he has SELDOM been better.  I’m not sure if I can assert that this is the best performance of Mr. Norton’s career, but it is certainly up there.)  Norton’s Mike Shiner is a live-wire, a hugely talented actor who is also a total loony-tune, wreaking destruction wherever he goes.  Mr. Norton lands some huge laugh moments in the film, and also some hugely dramatic ones.  He allows the audience to loathe Mike in one moment, and then find ourselves feeling surprisingly tender towards him in the next.  This is a hell of a performance.

Now, I knew that Michael Keaton and Edward Norton would bring it, but Emma Stone was a huge surprise to me, playing Riggan’s damaged daughter Sam.  Ms. Stone has proven herself to be a great comedienne, but I’ve never seen her attack a dramatic role the way she does here.  She is amazing.  There are some moments in which she plays some hugely dramatic beats while Mr. Iñárritu’s camera is right up in her face, I mean right up in her mush, and she is completely convincing and compelling.  Her huge eyes are beautiful and also, in such extreme close-up, enormously emotive.  I was blown away by her work in the film.  I wish she’d had lots more scenes, and more than any other character hers is the one I wonder about what happened to following the last scene of the film.

I should also devote full paragraphs to everyone else in this astounding ensemble: Naomi Watts (always amazing), Andrea Riseborough (the best thing about Oblivion), Zach Galifianakis (funny but also more grounded than usual), and Amy Ryan (hooray for The Wire!) are all phenomenal in the film, absolutely note-perfect.  Each one of them turns in a spectacular performance, and together this ensemble has incredible energy and chemistry.

I mentioned the film’s jazz-drum score above, and I want to re-assert how amazing it is, and how central it is to the film’s visceral energy.  (The soundtrack was composed by Antonio Sanchez, and it also features several pieces of classical music.)  This is a huge part of the film’s unique feel and incredible, almost manic energy.

I strongly recommend this film.  Find a theatre where it is still playing, and try to see it on the biggest screen possible.  This is a unique wild ride, and I loved every single minute of it.  Alejandro González Iñárritu, working with an incredible cast, has crafted a true masterpiece.

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