Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Birdman" Review - Despite Some High Flying Performances, Birdman Never Really Takes Off

Birdman features a lot of great actors doing great work, but does that mean the film itself is great? That is the number one question that ran through my head as this story about a stage play directed by latent action film star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) plays out over the course of the few days leading up to its eventual opening night. Filmed almost entirely as one continuous shot as the camera follows random characters around backstage, on stage, out on the street, on the rooftop and eventually into the local bar around the corner, writer/director has crafted a film that is beautiful to look at, sporadically engaging to watch, but ultimately is little more than an examination of an aging actor's fractured psyche which despite Keaton's brave performance doesn't really amount to much. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: Digital 2D          
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 59 min
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: October 17, 2014

Loves: The entire cast, the cinematography
Likes: Single shot films
Neutral:  The story of film actors versus stage actors
Hates: That jazzy soundtrack was just killing me by the end
Michael Keaton was actually Batman right?: Yep, can you taste the irony?

Riggan contemplates his decision to become a stage performer.
The second the slightly off key and jumbled drum solo jazzy soundtrack kicks in the audience is quickly lulled into the extremely peculiar world that Thompson lives in. Filled with all sorts of exaggerated, but sprinkled with some truth, character types played by top tier talent such as Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galafinakas (in his least annoying role to date) and Emma Stone, Iñárritu's film plays out like an eccentric actor's wet dream. Norton in particular goes for broke here, playing a role that doesn't seem to far from the personality he has been labeled as on real film sets which he seems to be taking this opportunity to revel in the irony.

But for the other actors this often feels like one of those films where everyone has come on board because the characters are so full and rich with detail, but what does it mean to have interesting characters in a story that ultimately doesn't amount to much more than a statement on film versus theater and how actors on film are viewed as low rent by their on stage pedigree. Sure, there is probably someone out there, actors most likely, who will find this material evocative of their own lives, but for the rest of us it just comes off as over indulgent and almost preachy to some extent.

Whatever problems the film has, the cast isn't one of them.
This is a problem with a lot of films that get released each year around the hallowed awards season. We often get a number of films that are stuffed with actors in roles that are sure to garner a lot of attention, but the films themselves hardly ever match the talent they draw in. Last year we had American Hustle which featured an enormously talented cast but came up a little short on the story front. No other film is as guilty of this unfortunate moniker than Black Swan though which featured an Oscar caliber performance from Natalie Portman in a film that despite Darren Aronofsky's greatness was just a turd of highest order.

Like most of those examples though Birdman has other attributes to fall back on which is a winning combination of stunning camera work, production design and every actor's ability to keep up with the kinetic action. There were more moments where the visual beauty of the film's cinematography stood out more than any particular performance. If Birdman doesn't win every award for best cinematography this year then they might as well just forfeit the category altogether because there was no other film released in 2014 more worthy of that trophy than Birdman despite its other shortcomings.

Riggan demonstrates our hypocrisy as a movie going audience.
All of this may come off as though I did not care for Birdman, which isn't true. There are a number of reasons to respect the film aside from its visual fidelity and number of great performances. While it doesn't carry the weight that was likely intended, the story of an aging film actor returning to stage to rekindle his lost ambition is not only extremely ironic in the casting of former Batman Michael Keaton in the lead role, but also kind of moving from time to time. It's also important to note that even though Keaton is getting most of the praise for the film, Norton steals the show every time out the gate with an outlandish performance that is easily the most memorable out of the ensemble. It is an extremely competent piece of work that is just the victim of being oversold as one of the best films of the year.


Birdman is a difficult film to sum up because depending on your what you want out of the film it can either be labeled as a success, a let down or even a complete failure. While certain aspects of it didn't come together in a way that worked for myself, such as the story, the slightly annoying jazzy soundtrack and an over abundance of actors playing up their Oscar reel, it's gorgeous cinematography and overall production won me over. Think long and hard what you expect out of Birdman before seeing it and perhaps you will enjoy it more than this reviewer did as a result.

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