What happens when you cross a has-been actor, a critically acclaimed director and the world’s best cinematographer with a slick black comedy script? Great things happen, great things indeed.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (21 Grams, Babel) first foray into comedy was never going to be a simple slapstick catering for the lowest common denominator. Instead a deceptively simple plot about a former action actor trying for a more serious second career act, allows for rumination on subjects such as belonging, pride, relevance and suicide while alluding to and referencing Raymond Carver’s most famous works and Hamlet. Heavy.
While all of the cast are a perfect fit for their respective roles and play them well, three performances stand out.
Edward Norton after proving to be too much of a perfectionist and/or insufferable prick to star in The Avengers, has had greater success of late staring in quirky Wes Anderson films. Here he plays a method actor who frustrates almost everyone he interacts with, I’m sure it wasn’t a stretch for him to play this role.
Emma Stone manages to portray a depth and intelligence that seem to go beyond her young age. She should have a bright future ahead of her if she doesn’t keep getting stuck in shite like The Amazing Spider-Man.
MVP award however; belongs to Michael Keaton, I was on board with the premise of Birdman the second I heard it; Ex Batman actor plays washed up superhero actor – Man that should be fun to watch him ham it up! Instead what we got was a subtle and powerful performance, all things being equal; Keaton should get an Oscar for this.
A comedy movie that doesn’t make me laugh is like a dwarf fight that doesn’t give me an erection, utterly pointless. Luckily then that Birdman had me giggling like a Japanese school girl in a Hello Kitty store for much of its runtime. There is a comedy set piece in the middle that felt like it should have been funnier, but other than that there isn’t much to complain about on the comedy front.
Emmanuel Lubezki has been around forever, working for the likes of Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers. Ever since Children of Men (2005), he has been famed for using fewer cuts or hiding his cuts to make it seem like a longer take, this unique style won him an Academy Award for Gravity (2013).
Here we reach peak Lubezki; a movie without a cut. Each scene flows into the next, giving the film a frantic pace (that is helped along by a score composed of pounding drums) that doesn’t allow you time to breathe. This while exhausting, makes the two hour film seem to fly by while adding an enormous sense of tension.
There is a fine line between arty, pretentious, hipster-wank and bold, creative filmmaking; mercifully Birdman belongs firmly in the latter.
Of course the first good movie I saw during “Fuck You, it’s January”, was actually from December (everywhere else but Australia, of course). I have to be honest in saying that I wasn’t racing out to see Birdman, for no other reason than my own laziness. However, I am forever thankful to Lumpsky (don’t ever tell him that, he’s not someone you want to owe ANYTHING to) for kicking my arse into going.
So what happens? Well, Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor most-known for a series of Superhero films from the early 90’s known as Birdman, who desperate to be relevant again, writes, directs and stars in an adaptation of a relatively little-known Raymond Carver short-story ”What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (never heard of it? Exactly!) on Broadway, in a last-ditch attempt to be taken seriously, and gain some commercial relevance again. The script gleefully leaves his reasoning whether this career-move is an actual artistic endeavour or shallow, pretentious excuse for at a dramatic comeback and shedding of his former image deliberately vague, and holy fucking shit, is it funny. This movie is incredibly, gut-bustlingly funny, thoughtful, dramatic, and at times depressing (not unlike my workout routine to be honest).
It is the genius of Birdman can be summarized in the impossibly perfect casting of Michael Keaton. Everything you need to know about his character, and essentially the plot, is ascertained from simply knowing who Keaton is. The blatant references to his career-defining role in Tim Burton’s Batman and sequel are joyfully thrown at the audience to such a point you wonder would the film have worked without him. Yes, he’s THAT good. Probably not good enough for the collectively self-congratulating elitist circle jerk known as the Academy Awards, but so convincing in every way that we may as well be watching a barely-disguised biography.
It’s not just Keaton either; every actor (Norton, Watts, Stone and a particularly noteworthy Galifianakis) thrives in a richly populated universe of characters that actually feel real and each have their time to shine in an organic, naturalistic manner.
Translation: EVERYONE IS REALLY FUCKING GOOD.
Other than the airtight scripting, sharp-as-nails dialogue, multilayered characterization, and incredible performances, there are two undeniably technical aspects of the film that MUST be discussed, the first of which being the cinematography. In case you somehow don’t know yet, the entire film is presented as one long single take (obviously it’s not, but they disguise it well). The camera sneakily weaves up and down the corridors, jumps off roofs, and stalks characters through the streets of New York (also a testament to brilliant direction by writer/producer/director Alejandro G. Inarrito), catching conversations, interactions and private moments in a manner that deliberately makes you feel voyeuristic. It is a crime against humanity if cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get an Oscar.
Finally, the score. Wow. Completely improvised by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez (ironically and frustratingly “not valid” as an entry for a Best Score Oscar due to its solely percussive nature), the drums perfectly follow the action, mood and pace of the plot in a manner that seems to go beyond any “tribal” or primalistic connotations, and just seems to be the perfect musical accompaniment to the images on screen. Absolutely fan-fucking-tastic.
Very few film experiences in recent memory have pulled me in as much as Birdman has managed to; this was the art of cinema being pushed to its creative limit in such a unique manner on multiple fronts that I almost feel like I couldn’t comprehend it. If you haven’t done it already, please watch it, as I feel this will be one of the very few times in which I’ll have an opportunity to be this positive (contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate everything).
P.S. Yes I did have a bat over how good this movie was. You’re lying if you say you didn’t.