Friday, October 31, 2014

Unpredictable ‘Birdman’ is director’s triumph

By Steve Crum
There has already been much positively said about Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), with good reason. First, its story is fresh and unpredictable. Reason two is the terrific acting. A superb Michael Keaton leads a talented ensemble that includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan. 
Then there is the solo drum-dominant score full of jazz riffs that keeps both the plot and hand-held camera in steady motion. Speaking of camera work, add incredibly demanding cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. 
Most of all, Birdman is a directorial triumph for Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also helped write the screenplay. In short, this is a serious movie fan’s movie. Despite the title, do not expect a superhero movie, even though Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood star once famous for portraying the superhero, Birdman. But that was decades ago, sort of like the real life Michael Keaton who was Batman in two movies, decades ago. Make no mistake, casting Keaton just layers in the somewhat whimsical irony. 
After a self imposed retirement from show business, Riggan desperately wants a comeback, but not in a redo of his Birdman character. Instead, he has chosen to direct and star in a hopefully Broadway-bound drama, “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.” Birdman opens on stage during play rehearsal, and there are immediate obstacles involving egos and equipment malfunctions.  From that point, Birdman’s story line careens from backstage to onstage, with most of the action occurring in various dressing rooms and narrow hallways. Do not confuse this sketchy description with the farce Noises Off, which is comedy dominant. However, there are some outrageously funny bits in Birdman, particularly a couple of ribald scenes featuring Norton’s Mike Shiner, an eccentric method actor who is a last minute play replacement. 
An extended humorous sequence involves an embarrassed but determined Raggan having to walk through crowded Times Square in his briefs and dark socks. It turns out to be a prettier picture than one might envision. It also speaks to celebrity and technology in our culture. 
Backstage dialogue is delivered crisply at fast pace, appropriate to the seamless camera work that appears to have been shot in one gigantically long take. In one scene the camera follows a briskly walking Raggan as he talks to his producer (Galifianakis), crosses paths with his daughter (Stone), then his ex-wife (Ryan), and on and on. Incredibly, the tag team technique works. It obviously took a lot of precision rehearsal. 
Some moviegoers might have trouble with dreamlike plot devices, like the actual Birdman character frequently talking to Raggan as his alter ego. Then there are a couple of flying sequences. Or three or four.
How masterfully reality and fantasy overlap here, echoing Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” Then again, the surreal Birdman says much more. 
This is the most fascinating, original film I have seen in recent memory.
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GRADE on an A to F Scale: A

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