Sunday, November 02, 2014
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Inarritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Nicolas Giacobone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of a once-famous film star who tries to mount a comeback by staging a production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as he deals with professional and personal issues. The film is an exploration into the day of a life of a man whose greatest claim to fame was playing a superhero on film as he struggles with his ego, failures as an actor and as a man, and all sorts of things just days before he tries to make his comeback. Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, and Naomi Watts. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a sprawling yet engrossing film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
The film explores a week in the life of a once-famous film star in Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) who is trying to make a comeback by directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Yet, Riggan’s life starts to spiral downward as he copes with the bad decisions he made in his life as an actor and as a man while his attempts to gain legitimacy as an actor has him questioning his worth. It’s a film that explores a man who is at a crossroads where the play that he’s doing starts to mirror the chaos of his own life while famous alter-ego that he played many years ago is stalking him about the decisions he’s making. Even as parts of his own life from his troubled relationship recovering drug-addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) to who he is play into this turbulent week as he struggles with his past glory and the fear of failing as he’s putting everything on the line.
The film’s screenplay is quite complex in the way it explores a production that is quite chaotic where Riggan is trying to do everything he can but there’s a lot that isn’t working. After purposely taking out an actor from the production because he sucks, Riggan would bring in the very popular but pretentious theater actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who would do whatever to usurp Riggan as he would also make first-time Broadway actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) insecure as she had previously dated Shiner. Riggan’s relationship with another actress in Laura (Andrea Riseborough) starts to fall apart as she feels unappreciated while Riggan’s relationship with his daughter Sam is often filled with tension as Riggan blames himself for not being there for her. With his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) appearing to see what is going on with him while his friend/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep things under control.
The script also showcases much of Riggan’s reasons to want to make this comeback and why he chose Raymond Carver as his comeback vehicle. Yet, his reasons only gain questions from Shiner who also knows Carver’s work as he believes that Riggan isn’t authentic enough to do Carver justice. Adding to Riggan’s own self-doubt and low self-esteem issues is the notorious theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who despises Hollywood and its actors believing that they’re not good enough to do theater. It all plays to ideas in Riggan’s head in his attempt to find legitimacy and shake off the Birdman character that he had played a long time ago as it leads to questions of existentialism and art. Even as it plays to the idea of one man against the entire world.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction is truly astonishing as it is presented in a mostly one-continuous shot that follows the turbulent week of Riggan trying to mount his production. While it is a feat that is quite amazing, Inarritu does use some editing and visual tricks to make it feel like a film that is presented in an entire take. It is quite engaging for the way it explores a theater production coming together as the usage of steadicam and hand-held cameras in intimate, cramped-up spaces such as hallways and dressing rooms. Much of it has Inarritu use a lot of medium shots and close-ups where the compositions are engaging such as a scene between Lesley and Laura talking about Shiner. There’s also these smooth transitions where the camera is often moving in a crane shot or on a dolly track where it would have a character in a scene and then be seen again in a few seconds in another scene.
While the film is shot on location in New York City in its Broadway setting, there is something that feels loose in its direction such as a scene of Riggan walking through the city at night in his underwear. Even in the scenes where much of the theater performances has this sense of energy where it would evolve into something more authentic as well as daring. Especially in its climax where it is about this opening night performance as Riggan will do whatever it takes to become the star of the show in this mentality of me against the world. There’s also elements of surrealism in the scenes involving Riggan struggling to get Birdman out of his life as it would play into Riggan thinking about returning to the character as an act of defiance where a sequence of him flying and saving the world plays into Riggan’s desire to act and prove that he has what it takes. Overall, Inarritu creates a very thrilling and mesmerizing film about a man trying to mount a comeback against all odds while dealing with his ego and is troubled personal life.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does brilliant work with the film‘s very entrancing cinematography from its colorful approach to theater lighting in some of its scenes to more low-key yet naturalistic look in its interiors plus some unique lights for the exterior nighttime scenes in New York City. Editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone do fantastic work with in a few montages that is created in the film‘s opening and a sequence near the end while using some tricky editing skills to make the film feel like an entirely continuous shot. Production designer Kevin Thompson and set decorator George DeTitta Jr. do excellent work with the set pieces from the look of the theater sets as well as the bar next to the theater where Riggan would wind down as he has to endure Shiner in one scene. Costume designer Albert Wolsky does amazing work with the costumes from the clothes the actors would wear onstage to the casual clothes behind the scenes as well as the design of the Birdman costume.
Special effects makeup designer Mike Elizade does nice work with a few of the minimal makeup work that the actors would do for the play along with the look of the Birdman mask. Visual effects supervisors Jake Braver and Adam Howard do terrific work with the fantasy sequences that involves Birdman in a reminder of what Riggan used to be and what he could be again. Sound designer Martin Hernandez and co-sound editor Peter Brown do superb work with the sound from the sparse sounds that happens in the theater to the raucous sounds of the locations including the bird screeches that remind Riggan of Birdman. The film’s music by Antonio Sanchez is just incredible as it‘s mostly this very hypnotic and energetic jazz-based score led by drums that is either played on location or in the scene while music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein brings in a soundtrack filled with some classical pieces from Piotor Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, John Adams, and Sergei Rachmaninoff to play into Riggan’s own sense of fantasy.
The casting by Francine Maisler is great as it would feature some notable small roles from Merritt Weaver as the assistant director Annie, Benjamin Kane as the Birdman character that stalks Riggan, Jeremy Shamos as the original actor that Shiner would replace, and Lindsay Duncan in a wonderful performance as the very vicious theater critic Tabitha who adores Shiner and hates Riggan and everything he’s about. Zach Galifianakis is excellent as Riggan’s friend/producer Jake who is trying to make sure nothing goes wrong as he deals with legal issues as well as the money that Riggan is giving away making Jake nervous. Naomi Watts is fantastic as Lesley as a girlfriend of Shiner who is eager to star in her first Broadway production as she becomes very insecure due to Shiner’s arrogance as she is annoyed by Sam’s presence. Andrea Riseborough is amazing as Laura as Riggan’s girlfriend who feels unappreciated as she tries to reach out to him amidst his own issues while helping Lesley with her insecurity issues.
Amy Ryan is brilliant as Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who tries to understand what Riggan is going through as well as expressing concern for Sam and their troubled relationship. Emma Stone is incredible as Sam as Riggan’s recovering drug-addict daughter who is working as her father’s assistant as she tries to deal with her dad while flirting with Shiner to cope with her anger towards her dad. Edward Norton is superb as Mike Shiner as this arrogant theater actor who craves for realism in every aspect of the performance as he makes Riggan insecure while being a dick to everyone but Sam. Finally, there’s Michael Keaton in an outstanding performance as Riggan Thompson as this once-famous film star who tries to mount his comeback on Broadway as he deals with his ego, his issues as a man, and all sorts of things as it’s a performance that has Keaton be quite funny but also lay it on the line with monologues and scenes about the art of acting as it’s really a performance for the ages.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a magnificent film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that features a tour-de-force performance from Michael Keaton. Along with a strong supporting cast as well as amazing technical work from Emmanuel Lubezki and Antonio Sanchez’s brilliant score. It’s a film that definitely blurs the line between the world of art and reality as well as being a film that features technical feats that isn’t seen very often in mainstream films. In the end, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a gloriously tremendous film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Films: Amores Perros - The Hire-Powder Keg - 11'9'01-September 11-Mexico - 21 Grams - Babel - To Each His Own Cinema-Anna - Biutiful - The Revenant - The Auteurs #45: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
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