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Birdman, or:
(The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

A near perfect film, although it might not get the mainstream recognition it deserves because it is so bizarre. [Obviously, I was wrong about that.] Think Terry Gilliam crossed with Samuel Beckett as interpreted by Salvador Dali. It has already received nominations for six Independent Spirit Awards, along with two for the Gotham Independent Film Awards, which might lead to a few Oscar nods, but it doesn't really matter. I'm content just to sing its praises here since it's the best thing I've seen this year, nudging Boyhood out of the top spot. As for a numerical rating, I couldn't place either above the other since they are entirely different types of films, so each are just shy of a perfect 10.

This is not science fiction of course, but it does come close to being fantasy if viewed from one particular angle. Michael Keaton portrays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood actor hoping to make a comeback on Broadway. His claim to fame was as "Birdman," an iconic superhero he played in a trilogy of films back in the '90s. His marriage has failed, he's gone through most of his money, and he's been forced to partner with a lawyer friend to produce a play in order to prove (mostly to himself) that he really is an actor. He is not only the lead in the play, he is also directing, and he wrote the adaptation from a short story by Raymond Carver, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." I don't think I've read that, or anything by Carver, but I gather it is somewhat of a noir story, and it is possible Thomson has added a fantasy element, perhaps a dream sequence, which is glimpsed briefly a couple of times from off-stage.

The fantasy element in this film is the possibility that Thomson has taken on some of the attributes of his alter-ego, Birdman. When we first see him he is in his dressing room in a meditation posture, only he's floating about three feet off the floor. On several other occasions he exhibits telekinetic powers, and we see him flying over the theater district. Of course, all of this is (probably) just in his head, since he also hears Birdman talking to him from a poster on the wall. Just before he begins flying, he looks up to witness a scene that is probably from one of the Birdman movies, with a giant dragon-like creature on the top of a building and assault helicopters in pursuit, yet when the camera pans back down to Thomson on the sidewalk there is no evidence of destruction the battle raging above him should have caused. In the scene after his flying, we see him land just outside the theater and walk in, but he's followed by an angry cab driver demanding his fare. I won't discuss the final minutes to avoid spoilers, but it is possible it's another hallucination...but in the mind of which character is debatable.

Whether or not Riggan Thomson proves to anyone that he is a genuine actor, there is no doubt that Michael Keaton has, and yet I can't honestly say that his is the best performance. Edward Norton and Emma Stone also deserve special mention, and the entire cast blends together seamlessly. However, highest praise is reserved for director Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff. I'm anxious for the video release so I can watch the bonus footage and find out how many takes they went through for the final product. The majority of the scenes are long takes following the actors through the corridors backstage and then onto the stage for either a rehearsal of the play or an actual performance, and most scenes include complex dialogue between characters or just a long monologue by one of them. These are blended seamlessly with other Steadicam and/or crane shots that follow the action to other characters, into and out of dressing rooms, out of the theater, onto its roof, or weaving in and out of the crowds on the bustling streets outside. For sure, transitional shots are noticeable, mostly when someone goes through a doorway or a quick swish-pan as the camera follows the action around a corner, but it is done so well it is easy to view the film as one long continuous shot from the opening until the last scene on the theater stage. What happens after that is the part that I won't talk about, except to say that it does mark the end of that flowing camera movement.

Lindsay Duncan plays a theater critic who states before the fact that she will be writing the most scathing review of Thomson's play that anyone has ever read. She looks down her nose at Thomson as a hack, a celebrity but not an actor, since that art is reserved for those who dedicate their lives to the stage. She's wrong. Film is the ultimate art, combining the acting profession with the author's words, the painter's eye for composition and color, the musician's ear for sound and rhythm, with the director the conductor who brings all the elements together in an harmonious whole. Birdman is an excellent example of the ultimate collaborative art. I'm not sure many people read my reviews, but if you have in the past you should have some idea of my taste in films. Let that be your guide as to whether it would interest you. Based on the slim audience when I saw it yesterday I doubt it will stay much longer, and that is likely to be the case in most places. So if you have the opportunity, my recommendation is to take advantage of it and put off seeing the more popular films until later.


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Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone
Alexander Dinelaris
Armando Bo

October 17, 2014

Michael Keaton
Emma Stone
Zach Galifianakis
Naomi Watts
Edward Norton
Andrea Riseborough
Amy Ryan
Lindsay Duncan

4 Oscars
2 Golden Globes
1 SAG (ensemble)
2 Gotham
3 Nat'l Board of Review + many film critic and film festival awards

Full Credits at IMDb

Now on
DVD & Blu-Ray