I know it’s been a while – don’t worry, I haven’t neglected you. Had some non-blog related issues to sort out. Whilst I’ve probably missed the opportunity to see some recent summer blockbusters at the cinema, I decided to do a post-Oscar film catch-up, films that have been on my watchlist for weeks and only just got round to watching them.
The first film on that list belongs to Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. The film won four Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards early this year.
Honestly, it’s one of my favourite films of the year.
Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who battles against his ego, his family and his career in the days leading up to the opening of his Broadway play.
“No! I’m not finished! There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons… You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything… So I tell you what, you take this fucked malicious cowardly shitty written review and you shove that right the fuck up your wrinkly tight ass.” – Riggan
Woah, woah woah – steady on! No need to get harsh with that quote Riggan – my reviews always have purpose and structure 🙂
But on a serious note – Birdman is an enjoyable and entertaining film that manages to be thought-provoking, relevant and shines a light on Hollywood culture (on how we perceive it and for what it really is). It’s the perfect satire which unconventionally mixes truth and the surreal, right from the word go. It embraces a dream-like fantasy that becomes a cinema art form whilst incorporating a very distinct way of storytelling. The fact that the editing is kept to a minimum and told in one, long and continuous camera take is very impressive.
The camera follows each of the main cast like a fly-on-the-wall reality TV drama. It invades their privacy by capturing their motivations, life perspectives and at times the chaotic drama of their lives. Despite some elements being dark in nature, the balance of the magic and the comedic timing between the cast brings the film to life in the most satisfying way.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise but Birdman also works as an exaggerated parody of the cast, in particular Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. Riggan’s character can be argued as being loosely based on Keaton’s career. Keaton played a superhero (Batman) and maybe “washed up actor” is a little extreme but felt like he had disappeared from mainstream consciousness until a couple of years ago. Edward Norton is notorious for being the most difficult man to work with in Hollywood (according to gossip) and that notoriety is played up to eleven with his manic method acting and antics in Mike Shiner.
On a personal note, it’s great to see Keaton again in a major Hollywood film. From playing a bio-exorcist (Beetlejuice), a comic book legend (Batman) to multi-tasking through life (Multiplicity), his films were a part of my childhood and Birdman was the perfect vehicle for him. His eccentric style of acting whether he’s delivering something dramatic or comedic is something I believe he doesn’t get enough credit for.
“People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” – Birdman
There’s no question that Riggan is a tortured soul. Every facet of his body language and his internal motivations borders on the edge of being in control to going completely insane, a feat illustrated by the excellent and addictive percussion soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez.
Whilst trying to fix things with his play (which comically goes wrong at every stage of rehearsal) or being estranged from his drug rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan is his own worst enemy. He’s mentally tortured by his own ego in the shape of Birdman, his superhero alter-ego of a character he used to play which made him a star. Channelling a Christian Bale like Batman voice, Birdman unapologetically taunts him for making the wrong decisions.
That is the backbone for the entire film – Riggan’s inner conflict about what it means to be an actor.
After “selling out” making a living off superhero movies for majority of his career, Riggan wants to do something meaningful, something that will define his acting legacy. By ambitiously adapting, directing and starring in a play by someone who gave him his acting inspiration, he hopes it would bring him success. Yet trouble follows both personally and professionally and no one can take him seriously because for all intent purposes, he’s a former superhero actor “trying to act.” His inner Birdman ego thinks he should forget this nonsense of proving he’s a good actor. He should go back to doing what he does best – making more Birdman movies. But he fights against that urge and the industry labels.
If there’s one thing that Birdman identifies with modern society is that it demonstrates how insecure the acting world can be which immediately contradicts our own perception and expectations of celebrities. It’s an industry that has a constant desire to be relevant, always seeking positive approval about an actor’s work in whatever shape or form. They want to be respected. Not every actor or actress is blessed with a career like a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Helen Mirren, but what Birdman accomplishes is to hold up a mirror to the acting world and show (at times) the harsh reality of the business and environment.
Riggan went from an actor who was top of the world to essentially a person who was struggling to bankroll his Broadway play. In between those years, the roles dried up and the world forgot about him and therefore, his self importance diminishes. He wants to re-invent himself but the cultural stigma of his Birdman role constantly shadows him. A case example is the scene where Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre and has to walk in his underwear through Times Square, New York. Any other day, Riggan’s behaviour as he desperately tries to avoid attention might seem like a cry for help. However, it doesn’t stop people from filming it or in the case of one persistent fan, asking for his autograph.
Furthermore, Riggan is not the only character that suffers from this feeling of acceptance and relevancy. Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is an intolerable method actor who wants everything to feel authentic and real because if it’s not, then you’re not living and breathing the art.
Norton’s performance is hilarious which borders on his brash, outspoken, living in the moment, crossing that LINE, dream crushing persona to something vulnerable when he’s not putting on that act when he’s around Sam. He’s obviously chasing the same thing as Riggan but he’s not afraid to steal his limelight and cause conflict to advance his own reputation.
Lesley (Naomi Watts) always dreamt of being on Broadway since she was a little girl. For this play, it’s her dream coming true but because of the awkward exchanges between her and Mike, she feels undervalued as she craves self-respect.
By having these characters baring their soul wonderfully offsets between the comedic adventure with something unique and heartfelt.
Sam: “Do you really think you’ll be ready for opening tomorrow?”
Riggan: “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, previews were pretty much a train-wreck. We can’t seem to get through without a raging fire or a raging hard-on. I’m broke. I’m not sleeping like, you know, at all. And um, this play is kinda starting to feel like a major deformed version of myself that just keeps following me around, hitting me in the balls with a tiny little hammer. I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Sam: “Never mind.”
The ending (which I won’t spoil) is where your ultimate enjoyment of the film will reside. For a film that craves closure, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu leaves it with you and your own interpretation to regard the ending as either optimistic or pessimistic. To give you a hint, the third act of the film holds the key on where you think reality ends and the magical, delusional dream takes over.
Did Riggan actually have telekinetic powers or was that in his mind and what he perceived it to be?
If you think of the ending as pessimistic then it’s a sad way to see a character devolve in those circumstances. If you think of the ending as optimistic, then Riggan is free (like a bird) of the torment and pressure of what fame endures. His legacy is cemented.
Does the ending feel a bit like a cop out – maybe. It’s hard to tell and because the whole movie is surreal and dream like within a set reality, the boundaries of truth becomes blurred. But it certainly doesn’t make the film less enjoyable.
Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a highly imaginative film that delivers on a compelling story and brilliantly executed technique with the camera. All the cast (including a star performance from Michael Keaton) are excellent in a very challenging role that constantly asked for them to be on point and timed to perfection.
What more can I say, the film is a treat.