7 January 2015

Birdman Review

Out of all the films getting major attention for the current awards season, Birdman has been the one I've been looking forward to most. Whilst I'm not familiar with the filmography of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the idea of the film looked really interesting and I'm a fan of Michael Keaton, with him putting in entertaining work even in terrible films. After watching the film, my anticipation was justified. We're a few days into 2015 and this is already one of the films to beat.

The film is about Riggan Thomson, a washed out actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman in the 80s and 90s, trying to revive his career by directing, writing and staring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. The production is plagued with difficulties from one of the actors being injured requiring a replacement to be hired who is an extreme method actor who starts to take over the production to constant issues with the previews. As all this goes on, Thomson regularly hears the voice of Birdman telling him what he should have done in his career and that what he's doing will not work. What I love about the film is how it completely deconstructs the ego of Thomson. Throughout the film we see that Thomson is doing the play as a vanity project and is using it to revive his career, staging elements of the story at certain points so that when the audience is allowed to think, all they are doing is thinking of Thomson. We also see that Thomson is not a good person, tearing down people he considers friends, offering very little support to his daughter and generally being unpleasant to everyone he meets. In this respect we can see how Thomson would be unable to translate his success as Birdman into a more substantial career and the voice of Birdman in his head shows how all of his doubts are manifesting. It's also at these points when we see hints that Thomson actually does have special powers, but there is also an indication that they may not be real, and this sense of doubt over whether or not the powers are real helps to sum up the overall feeling of doubt in the character. The sparing use of Birdman in the film also highlights this point, it's only when things are going wrong that he hears Birdman's voice, indicating that, in his mind, Birdman has been his greatest failure. This also serves to highlight one of the major critiques the film has about the state of the modern film industry, that being there being too many blockbuster films, with particular focus being placed on superhero films, that focus more on carnage and destruction than in telling a good story. Whilst I am a fan of a lot of these films, I also cannot deny that all of them do devolve into action spectacle in the third act whilst losing sight of the characters (Man of Steel and the Transformers series coming to mind). This film argues that the attention given to these types of films has led to brilliant pieces of cinema being ignored because they are too dialogue heavy and arty for the public and the studios won't give them wide releases and this is definitely true. Some of my favourite films of last year (Pride, Frank, Only Lovers Left Alive, Under the Skin etc) did not receive wide releases in America and even the more arty films that do become successful need to build up their success because the studio didn't market them well (a good example being The Grand Budapest Hotel). I also really like the scenes regarding the critic, showing the disdain critics have for certain people, regarding certain actors and directors as lesser and how critics spend more time focusing on one liners to enable the film to be remembered rather than focusing on the technical and structural aspects of a film. Even critics I love have done things like this and I have to admit it as well, I do have my prejudices against certain directors (eg Michael Bay) and this does distract me from focusing on certain films as a whole. On the other hand, I do try and watch each film with an open mind and try to talk about the technical aspects of a film and I don't really aim for one liners, at least not to my knowledge. All of these elements could make the film incredibly pretentious, and to be fair it is a bit, but they all work incredibly well with the overall plot of the film, bringing some very interesting ideas into the frame.

The acting meanwhile is incredible. Aside from the Batman connections, Michael Keaton is perfectly cast as Thomson. He brings across this great sense of arrogance to the character that informs his desire to direct, write and star in a major Broadway production. Under the surface however, as stated before, there is a lot of doubt in the character that what he's doing is going to work and this leads into a lot of self-loathing and regret, feeling that he missed the most important moments in his life because he was too focused on his career. He also shows that Thomson is a man struggling to adapt to the modern world, not even knowing about Facebook and Twitter, which brings across the idea that he is out of touch with modern sensibilities. We see the mind of this man crack as the film goes on, with the interactions with Birdman getting longer and longer as the film progresses, which makes us feel sorry for this man, even when we know he's a bit of a dick. Edward Norton is also perfectly cast as Mike Shiner. The reputation that Norton has as being uncontrollable and demanding on film sets is brought across here, with him getting angry that Thomson doesn't allow him to drink gin on the stage (as the script says the character is drinking gin) and bringing in a sunbed to give himself a tan. However, it also shows the downsides of an actor being so method, with it being clear that he has trouble in his relationships because he cannot fit in the real world, with him getting an erection on stage being the first time he got one in months, he's so used to being other characters that he cannot be himself. Not all of his work is serious though, with a lot of the funniest moments in the film coming as a result of Norton's performance, which I won't spoil here. These two characters also highlight something about the modern stage world, with trained stage actors being shoved aside for major roles on the stage to make way for film stars in order to increase the profile of the play, regardless of whether the actor is right for the part, highlighting that some actors have to go as method as Shiner in order to even get substantial parts. There's also great work done by Emma Stone as Riggan's daughter Sam, showing her as incredibly vulnerable, along with indicating how all the stuff that happened in her life turned her towards drugs and showing resentment towards Riggan. She also brings across some optimism about the entire Broadway scene, showing how the youth can see more of the positives in the world. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan give great performances in supporting roles, with their interactions with Thomson and Shiner showing the negative influence those two have on people. I was also really surprised by Zach Galifianakis as Jake, Riggan's lawyer and friend, who gives one of the more subdued performances in the film, showing that, whilst he does care about Riggan, he will put Riggan's career over his personal state and is focused more on the money and promotion over the artistry of the project. Finally, Lindsay Duncan is really entertaining as Tabitha Dickinson, a critic at the New York Times who vows to destroy the play. She plays the part with this sense of glee and self-importance, which gives me the indication that, whilst she considers herself above Riggan, she falls foul of the same arrogant and egotistical tendencies as him, indicating that the critic and the artist are not too dissimilar.

The technical aspects of the film are incredible as well, mainly due to Inarritu's decision to make the film look like one continuous take. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I love long takes, I feel like these can be a great show of the skill of the writer(s), director and actors if they are done right and it is definitely done right here. This could have very easily felt like a gimmick but the way it's done, and the context of the film, put me in the mindset of the characters in regards to the play, seeing everything unfold in one go. The editing meanwhile makes sure that you never notice the cuts used to transition between certain scenes, relating to the location of the actors and the time which the scene takes place in. It's an incredibly bit of filmmaking from Inarritu, aided by excellent cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki who continues his trend of brilliantly shooting long takes from Gravity and Children of Men. The music is also excellent, the drumming in particular putting us in the frantic mindset of Riggan, with each drum stroke timed perfectly. This reminds me a bit of Neil Young's score for Dead Man, which Young famously improvised watching the film so the score would fit the film. The perfection of where the drum strikes are placed makes me think that the drummer played along to the film, with the playing being matched up to the film. I may be completely wrong about this but that's the vibe I got from the score.

Overall, Birdman is an excellent film. Brilliantly written and directed by Inarritu, perfectly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and expertly acted by the cast as a whole, with Michael Keaton and Edward Norton being the obvious standouts, this is an incredible piece of cinema. I may have found my favourite film of 2015 a few days into the year.

My Rating: 5/5

No comments:

Post a Comment