Monday, 19 January 2015

Movie Review: Birdman (2015)

We all have moments in our lives when we doubt ourselves. Whether it's out of fear of what may result of our actions or just as a backlash from what others expect from us, no-one can be entirely sure that they are doing the right thing. This way of thinking gets even more muddled when it delves into the creative world, where the entire reason for doing anything is out of a need for an outlet for creativity but still being required to adhere to what the higher-ups ask of you. Today's film tells the story of one man who tries to make something out of his creative endeavors while still fighting with his environment, his peers and himself. This is Birdman.

The plot: Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of blockbuster superhero movies. He decides that he wants to branch out and become a theatre actor with his own written and directed production of a Raymond Carver short story. As he wrestles with backstage and on-stage drama, he is determined to make something meaningful out of it all as he wrestles with his own self-doubt and slowly becomes crazy as a result.

While it would extremely easy to just denounce Keaton’s casting in the lead role as stunt casting, given Keaton’s own history with superhero roles with Batman, it goes a bit deeper than that. True, his previous role in those movies definitely gives this a certain air of “art imitating life”, but there’s no denying that Keaton is an amazing actor with this film alone being proof positive of that. Keaton has built a great pedigree for more manic roles, as shown with his performances in Beetlejuice, Much Ado About Nothing and even last year’s Need For Speed, and he takes full advantage of that experience here with a performance that should stand the test of time as one of the finest of his entire career. He does an expert job at balancing the desperation to be remembered that fuels Riggan’s character with the controlling id that whispers to him in the form of a mostly disembodied Birdman, where Keaton gets to break out his Batman voice once again as if to answer the prayers of fanboys who have been annoyed by Christian Bale’s smoker’s growl for so long. Riggan’s struggles with his self-doubt, inability to believe in his own power and thirst to make something meaningful despite the obstacles is something so recognizable that audiences will easily be able to connect with him and understand his determination to make his creative endeavor work.

Of course, while Keaton’s performance is just that good that he could have gone full Atlas and carried this film on his back for the entire running time, the rest of the cast all give career highlight-level performances here as well. Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s daughter, works great as his counterpoint and being able to talk some blunt sense with him while still showing that she does care about the man, a skill honed from playing Gwen Stacy in the Amazing Spider-Man films. Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend Jake does a surprising turn here as a reflection and enabler of Riggan’s own ego, surprising in the way that he is mostly known for his rather grating role in the Hangover films. Naomi Watts, finally putting her acting chops to proper use after rather embarrassing turns in films like Diane and Movie 43, is very sweet and endearing as first-time Broadway actress Lesley, easily being able to act off of Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner.

And while we’re on that note, if there is anyone in this film who comes even close to being able to touch Keaton’s outstanding performance, it’s Edward Norton who might be on another planet entirely but is absolutely mesmerizing nonetheless. Mike Shiner is the kind of actor who takes method acting way too far, similar to Elizabeth Hurley in Method, only you could easily believe that he would kill someone on stage if it would lead to his definition of a real performance. His entire impotence story arc, culminating in one of the most bizarre yet hilarious moments of the film, is one of the few times in recent cinematic memory that jokes about erections have actually been funny and not just embarrassing to witness. What makes his performance here even funnier is that this is yet another example of art imitating life as Norton has built an unfortunate reputation for being difficult to work with because of how seriously he takes everything. It takes some real guts to make fun of yourself as rigorously as Norton does here by essentially playing a hyper-realistic version of himself. Watching any scene where Mike and Riggan are having dialogue with each other is like watching the unstoppable force meet the unmovable object and it is all kinds of glorious to witness.

As Riggan’s mind unravels further as the film progresses, his ‘superpowers’ make for some of the funniest moments in an already very darkly funny film. He goes through moments when he imagines that he is in a big budget blockbuster superhero movie, flying through the air with giant robotic birds attacking the city, all while the Birdman voice feeds his ego through voiceover. The over-the-top nature of these scenes is a breath of fresh cheesy air considering the current cinematic takeover by Marvel Studios. Actually, speaking of Marvel Studios, this film takes a couple of sly jabs at said takeover by showing how, because of how many films come out of that studio each year and how far ahead they have mapped everything out, quite a few Hollywood actors are too busy with their projects to be working on anything else. Even without the showbiz commentary, these scenes are still hilarious because of the small comedic stabs revealing what might have actually happened during those scenes, and yet these scenes are played that straight and focused that it could easily be taken in either direction.

There is one scene in particular that left a very heavy impact on me after seeing it, involving Riggan talking with theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). Put simply, she represents the kind of critical elitism, the way of thinking that treats the form of thinking as an exact science with a very cold, calculated and extremely ‘in-crowd’ approach to their work, that makes me take umbrage with some more professional critics out there and why I have doubts about ever being able to turn this blogging venture of mine into anything financially fulfilling. However, it appears the filmmakers here have an equal problem with critics judging by this scene. Upon hearing Tabitha’s rationale for not liking Riggan’s play, Riggan then proceeds to dress her down in quite amazing fashion and mock her for just slapping labels onto everything as that’s the only way the world makes sense to people like her. Very rarely do I feel that true connection with a film, where it feels like a film is speaking directly to me in the audience as I watch it, but this scene was one of those moments.

As for the magic that we don’t get to see from behind the camera, this is a very impressive looking production. The cinematography and editing have both been done in order to make the film look like one long continuous take, save for a few moments in the beginning and end of the film. While this is admittedly a production gimmick, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t pay off as it gives the film a very hypnotic feel that draws the audience in for the entire duration. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has done very fine work for films like Gravity and The Tree Of Life (even if the latter film was a steaming pile save for looking nice) and he brings the same love and attention to this film. Actually, this film’s cinematography feels a lot like that in Gravity with the emphasis on slow pans and zooms in order to set the mood. The gimmick itself may lead some viewers to look out more for the spots when the edits happen but the overall package is just that good to largely distract from that idea. The soundtrack is minimalistic but very effective, making great use of jazz drumming throughout with some occasional uses of orchestral pieces for comedic effect. It’s lively and manic, serving as a perfect companion to the portrayal of Riggan.

All in all, this is a true feat in technicality and creativity for filmmaking. The cast all do wonders in their roles, with Keaton and Norton leading the pack with their equally insane performances, the writing does black comedy right with enough humanity to latch on to even the most cynical of viewers, the production quality is impressive with great camera work and direction overall and the music is great all round. It’s the kind of film to explore the more egotistical sides of the human condition while still having naked people as an Easter egg; it’s weird but there is a definite method to the weird in order to tell its very impressively-written story. Undoubtedly better than Taken 3 on pretty much every level and the new film at the top of the list, only this time it’s difficult seeing anything touching it for a while yet. Definitely one to check out for lovers of more oddball comedies or even for those who have been keeping up with all the superhero fare of late.

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