Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Birdman (2014)

Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton

I enjoy Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu films because of the level of realism they have, they have immediacy to them that attracts me to them, they feel like real life and not like many of today's color filtered, fake looking films. If you don’t believe me go rent Amores Perros (2000), a film that tells five stories that are all connected by one catastrophic car accident, an idea that Paul Haggis borrowed heavily from for his film Crash (2004). Amores Perros is shot in this hyper realistic documentary style that just blows me away every time I see it, actually all of Iñarritu’s films are shot this way which is what I like about them. So anyways, I always look forward to Iñarritu’s films, because he is one of those few directors with a pitch perfect record, he hardly ever makes a disappointing film. The only time I wasn’t blown away by one of his films was with Babel (2006), and even that film has its merits. Iñarritu’s the kind of director that even when he makes a “bad” film, it’s still good. When I heard about Birdman I was immediately attracted to it because of its premise, I thought it was a novel idea, but I have to admit I was more than a bit curious as to what Iñarritu was going to say with this film. What would it be about? 

Birdman is all about Riggan, an aging actor trying to gain the respect of an audience that has forgotten all about him. You see, at one point in his life Riggan was the biggest star on the planet when he starred in a series of comic book films called Birdman; a series of films about a super hero with wings, which by the way is a pretty cool looking character. Point is Riggan stopped making Birdman movies and is now fading away from the spotlight. His plan to regain the audiences approval and attention is putting on a play called ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’.  When the movie begins, the play is days away from premiering in a theater in New York City and he is all kinds of nervous looking for a new actor to take the lead role. Will he get to premiere his play successfully? Does he still have what it takes? Will the audience accept him once again?

Various elements make Birdman one of the best films of 2014, but let’s start with its obvious technical prowess. Here’s a film shot in a way that makes it look like its one long continuous shot, and though this might fly undetected by the common moviegoer, those with a more keen sense of observation will realize just how difficult it is to make a film this way. The big problem is that when an actor messes up a line, you have to start filming the shot all over again. Also, shooting a film with long continuous shots proves difficult in the editing room, because through editing you can establish certain beats in the rhyme of the visuals and the storytelling, you can even add comedy through editing, but if it’s all one continuous shot, things become just a little more demanding. Performances and shots have to be incredibly well choreographed and timed in order for this technique to work well, so this is why I applaud Iñarritu for achieving this technique so well.  Alfonso Cuaron also used this technique effectively in Gravity (2013). And it’s not that they don’t ever cut, they do, but the cuts are placed in a way that you hardly notice them, and they are very few. Entire sequences will go on and on and on without cutting, it’s quite amusing for those interested in filmmaking. It certainly makes things more demanding for everyone involved. Some shots are amazing, keep your eyes peeled for them, there’s quite a few of them.

Iñarritu directs a scene

Another area in which this film excels is in its themes, you see this is one of those films that’s about film. It’s not unlike Hugo (2011), The Big Picture (1989) or Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which are films that explore the nature of filmmaking both from the filmmakers view point and from the actors view point. On Birdman filmmaking is explored from the point of view of the actors, it’s all about the never changing fact that “Hollywood takes you in, chews you up and then spits you out”. There’s a reason why that saying hasn’t faded away and it’s because it still remains true. Hollywood caters to the young, the beautiful, the ‘now’, what’s in and what’s hot is what matters. You get old, suddenly you’re not getting as many roles as you used to. The movie addresses this idea that in Hollywood, unless you become a raging icon to the masses, you are more than likely going to fade away, quietly into the night. And sometimes that “fading away” ain’t a pretty sight because it’s hard for actors to let go of the fame and the spotlight. The film focuses on that frustrating moment when the actor simply doesn’t like the fact that he or she is no longer “popular”. What makes things even more interesting is the fact that Michael Keaton used to play a comic book character himself, same as the character in Birdman. It’s no wonder Keaton’s performance rings so true, I’m sure a lot of his own frustrations were channeled into his performance, because while Keaton has never stopped working, he isn’t as popular as he was when he made Batman (1989) or Bettlejuice (1988). There’s this amazing moment when Riggan is locked out of the theater by mistake and he’s in his underwear, the scene comments on how acting is a very vulnerable profession, you expose your soul to others through your performance, so I loved the metaphor there, an actor desperately baring his naked soul to his audience, humanity, the masses. You can expect a real heartfelt performance from Keaton. Could the critical success of Birdman spell a comeback for Keaton? It certainly feels like it, from what I hear, he’s gonna be reuniting with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice 2 next! It will be interesting to see how they make that one work after so many years have passed.   

The film also speaks about how aging actors have to adjust to the changing of the times, and the way things are marketed nowadays. For example, there’s a moment when a video of Riggan becomes popular on You Tube and is ‘trending’ and his daughter shows him how many people have viewed it and tells him “this is power”, a fact that Riggan is completely clueless about. The film also talks about how a lot of Hollywood films are aimed at a young audience and that what the masses love is action, blood, explosions and special effects. Which is true, just ask Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. The masses don’t want “philosophical bullshit” and the filmmakers behind Birdman are obviously frustrated by this.  I agree with them to a certain extent, because while I enjoy big fx spectacles, I also love brainy, artistic films. In my book there’s space for both types of films; the escapist summer movies as well as the more philosophical, story driven films. But of course, what the masses like, which is to say what the grand majority likes is brainless action and effects like the next Transformers movie, this in turn speaks volumes about the kind of people that make up the majority, which in turns is a sad state of affairs. When we get down to it, I think what the filmmakers behind Birdman are really frustrated with is the level of education of the majority, in other words, if we’re to read between the lines, there’s a genuine frustration with how many brainless zombies exist in the world. So yes my friends, we have an amazing film here, certainly deserving of being called one f the best of the year and one that I’m sure will garner Michael Keaton an Oscar nod, and quite possibly an Oscar win, here’s hoping.

Rating: 5 out of 5 

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