Movie Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

I know the awards season is just starting to declare winners en route to the Oscars. I will have a lot of movie watching to catch up with. I finally did see Birdman, one movie with a lot of big buzz, and I’m glad I did.

Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood movie star who hit the big time as Birdman: a movie that propelled his fame and had him act in two more sequels. However he soon became yesterday’s news after he left the Birdman franchise and he’s aiming for a Broadway comeback. His plan is a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he plays lead, directs and writes. However something is knwing at him. He hears a voice and he has telekinetic powers.

Upon rehearsal, he is pissed off with the male lead actor. Suddenly a stage light lands on his head. Everyone is shocked and fearing for his life except Riggan, who just walks away. He soon admits to his lawyer friend Jake that he rigged the light to fall on him to get popular stage actor Michael Shiner into the play. Getting Michael came from him refinancing a house that should belong to Sam, his recovering drug-addict daughter and assistant.

However friction eventually happens. Riggan is unhappy with how Mike does a scene during rehearsal and he storms off violently. Even Mike’s suggestion of using a more realistic gun for the suicide scene doesn’t sit well with him. The feelings are justified when Mike is scene in a news story and how he mentions Raymond Carver made him want to become an actor. On top of it, reviews of the dress rehearsal are not impressive at all and it hits Mike bad.  Meanwhile the voice inside his head is either supporting him or mocking him for turning his back on Birdman. Adding to it, Sam is unhappy with him and tells him that his play is garbage and that he doesn’t matter. Not in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, media streams he consistently rejects.

Things actually take a turn for the better but through some of the most unlikely of methods. Right in the middle of a preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre with the door accidentally catching hold of his robe. He impulsively walks around Times Square in nothing but his underwear to get back to the theatre and catches the notice of everyone whom he walks by and even enters the theatre leaving the audience confused and delighted. After the show, he gets drunk and encounters theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson who says she will crucify his play because of her detest of Hollywood movie stars trying to pass themselves off as legitimate actors. The next day, a drunken Riggan actually has a hallucinative conversation with Birdman and he gains powers including flight. It’s like he became Birdman again as he’s flying all around Manhattan.

Then opening night for the play happens. Riggan uses a real gun for the suicide scene shooting himself in the head in front of the audience. Everyone in the audience gives him a standing ovation but Tabitha just walks out without emotion or applause. Turns out Riggan didn’t kill himself. He survives but wakes up in a hospital bed learning the bullet badly damaged his nose. On top of that, he learns from Jake that Tabitha gave the play rave reviews. He’s even able to spend a poignant moment with Sam in his hospital bed. After Riggan is left alone, the film ends in a way I don’t think most people will understand. I guess the point was to have you the audience decide the ending. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

This film is a unique method of telling a story and giving portraits of the characters. The film’s method of following characters around and often appearing like one non-stop shoot adds to the film and can make the audience curious to what will happen next. However the most striking thing for me about the film is how it shows actors and even those involved in the whole showbiz scene. We have a lead actor who’s a former movie star now struggling to re-establish himself. We have a daughter who’s loving but ill-tempered and frequently at odds with him. We have a supporting actor who isn’t as big a name but well-respected and tries to use this opportunity to promote himself further. We have both an ex-wife and a current flame struggling with personal issues with him. We have a theatre system that demands the movie be a hit for the sake of the show, the sake of the theatre and for the sake of Thomson’s finances. We have the fame system which has had major changes in the ‘fame game’ in recent years thanks to online technology giving us video sites and personal homepages. We have media critics who not only make judgments about plays but are egotistical enough to unapologetically trash a work if they see fit. It’s no wonder an actor/director like Riggan Thomson drinks a lot. Heck I’ve frequently said: “Actors and drinking go together like ham and eggs.” Here I’m finally shown why!

The funniest thing about the film is that while I was watching, I was constantly sensing that Birdman may be about Michael Keaton himself. For those that don’t know, Michael Keaton was the first Batman when the franchise was revived on the big screen in a big way back in 1989. He also starred in the second Batman movie Batman Returns from 1992. The role of Batman has since gone onto Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. Michael Keaton had some continued commercial success for a few years after his last Batman movie. Actually he even had some healthy commercial success before thanks to 80’s movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. So it had me wondering if Riggan’s struggle of coming back while having the baggage of being famous as Birdman was a parallel reflection of Michael Keaton being famous as Batman. I found it odd because I’ve never heard of Michael having a struggle with it. I even looked over his biography and info of his personal life at Wikipedia to see if it was. Although I saw some parallels, I was still left without a conclusion. I haven’t even seen an interview of Michael Keaton where he publicly declared it synonymous.

I will say that Keaton did an excellent performance as Riggan. This is not like any performance I’ve seen from Keaton and this is the best acting I’ve seen from him. Possibly the best acting performance of the year. Edward Norton was also great as Michael Shiner and did a great job of showing ego conflict between actors. Emma Stone also delivered her best ever performance as a daughter who’s also an assistant with the same showbiz-style nastiness to her own father. Zach Galifianakis gave what I feel to be his best acting performance and one where I actually end up liking him in a film. Additional standout supporting performances are Amy Ryan as the ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as the new girlfriend and Lindsay Duncan as the theatre critic who did a lot in that one scene of hers.

The technical aspects are also excellent and one-of-a-kind for this film. Emmanuel Lubezki did a smart job with having the follow-around method of filming. Usually such a method is risky in the storytelling aspect of film making but it works to near-perfection here. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione also did an excellent editing job especially in how they made it look like there was a single non-stop scene for over an hour. Of course modern technology can do the film fakery to make it look like a non-stop scene but Crise and Mirrione did it all right and made it work. Also kudos to composer Antonio Sanchez. I like how he delivered a score that was a jazzy style of music for the stageplay scenes and then our typical grandiose orchestrated score for the Birdman scenes. That score that corresponded with the themes was an excellent choice for the film.

Birdman is not your typical Hollywood fare but it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but would make more sense to those who see it twice or even those that know acting or showbiz as a whole.

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2 responses

  1. […] Birdman – It seems like this Best Picture race has been two at the top: Boyhood and Birdman. Now Birdman appears to be a clever but eccentric film. However you will start to understand Birdman if you understand the career of Michael Keaton. This could have you guessing. Although I feel Boyhood will win Best Picture, I feel Birdman has the best chances of being the Most Likely Upsetter. It looks like this year’s Best Picture race may end up being as too close to call as last year’s. […]

  2. […] was excellent as it both succeeds as a film and as a movie. I’ll admit I was unhappy about Birdman winning Best Picture last year because it didn’t give much for a film audience to either […]

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