WRITTEN REVIEW – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2015)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone & Naomi Watts
Music: Antonio Sánchez
Certificate: 15
Release Date: January 1st 2015

In the late 1980s, Tim Burton directed one of the most influential blockbusters of all time; ‘Batman‘. At the time of its release, it was one of the highest grossing movies ever made and it re-shaped the mainstream movie-going landscape. It also sparked off a comic-book movie adaptation revolution, the effects of which are still being felt to this day with at least 30 high-profile comic-book superhero movies being released between 2015 and 2020. ‘Batman‘ starred Michael Keaton as the titular caped-crusader and now, over 20 years later, he’s also playing the lead-role here in ‘Birdman‘. Is this superhero/blockbuster deconstruction and character study worth the heaps of praise and Oscar-hype it’s been receiving?
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Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood star who is famous for starring in a fictional movie trilogy as the superhero Birdman. 20 years after walking away from the multi-billion dollar series, Thomson is hoping to gain some credibility by directing and writing a high-profile broadway production which he also plans to star in. ‘Birdman‘ follows Thomson in the lead-up to the show’s opening night as he starts to baulk under the pressure as his family, cast and friends start to show concern for his behaviour.

The technical conceit of ‘Birdman‘ is that it’s shot to resemble one-long continuous take. While some of the cuts between the 5-10 minute takes are frequently easy to spot, its effectiveness cannot be understated. Usually, directors and cinematographers attempt to film scenes in one-take just to show off, but ‘Birdman‘ uses this concept to get into the relentless head-space of its main character. Riggan Thomson’s broadway show opens in 3-4 days after the movie starts and as the takes get longer and the theatre-previews are progressing, there’s the sense of impending doom as the clock metaphorically ticks down and opening night draws closer and closer. As an audience member, it’s easy to feel Riggan’s frustrations as he’s placed everything on the line for this production and you experience all of the problems he encounters in faux real-time.
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That’s right, while the movie attempts to give the illusion of a single take, ‘Birdman‘ doesn’t take place in real time. Frequently the movie will transition to the next day by panning across a wall or pointing the camera towards the sky for a time-lapse to represent the passage of time. It’s a deceptively simple concept, but it works wonders for having the audience relate to Riggan and get into his headspace, but it’s also in no small part thanks to Keaton’s Oscar-calibre performance.

This could potentially be the best performance of Keaton’s career, as his character truly runs the gamut of emotions and the fact that he’s transitioning from them in the faux real-time aspect shows his state-of-mind deteriorate before your eyes. He’s sympathetic, but also tough to love as he’s not really doing this broadway production for the right reasons and Keaton’s natural likeability as one of our most underrated character actors allows Riggan to walk that thin line. But you’d probably act like a bit of a dick too if you had your former success constantly whispering in your ear as his former-character, Birdman, is on-hand to comment on what’s going on trying to convince Riggan to return to the spotlight and have a Hollywood superstar revival since superhero movies are all the rage at the moment.

Early on, Riggan comments that he can’t find any actors to replace their out-of-commission co-star because they’re all starring in superhero movies (Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender get name-checked) and ‘Birdman‘ reveals itself as a stinging critique of Hollywood’s current craze of superhero comic book movies. But more on that later.
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While this is unquestionably Keaton’s show and he holds together the enterprise, the supporting cast are terrific as well. Emma Stone (a co-star of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man‘ movies) as Riggan’s daughter, Sam, who has gone off the rails thanks to a drug addiction gives a career-best performance, Edward Norton (Bruce Banner in 2008’s ‘The Incredible Hulk‘) is deliriously entertaining as the shameless, antagonistic, egotistical but beloved method-actor brought in last minute to help Riggan’s show and surprisingly Zack Galifianakis is almost unrecognisable but very endearing as Riggan’s lawyer/best friend Jake.

Bit of trivia; apparently, due to the nature of filming, the cast kept tallies on how many mistakes they made when filming the long takes. Emma Stone made the most mistakes, whereas Zack Galifianakis had the least amount of flubs.

Naomi Watts also gives career best work as a first-time Broadway actress who is also struggling to cope under the pressure of this outrageous production and Andrea Riseborough plus Amy Ryan give great, though under-stated performances as Riggan’s current partner and ex-wife respectively. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu does an impeccable job at getting the best out of his actors in ‘Birdman‘ and the filming style compliments their performances by focusing on their expressions and torment as this theatrical-style production (including behind-the-scenes costume changes like a stage play) lets them put their souls out in the open.
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I must stress this point before I proceed – I really like ‘Birdman‘. It’s got a terrific, naturalistic screenplay with brilliant dialogue, great performances and thought-provoking subject matter concerning the dualities that each of the main characters are dealing with. It’s an impressive character study for Riggan as he tries to cope with being a washed-up “actor” and it’s incredibly well filmed and its a technical marvel. HOWEVER, what trips up ‘Birdman‘ from being a true masterpiece is its petty nature.

Let me explain.

Birdman‘ specifically has its eyes set on modern comic book movies. Not just mindless blockbusters in general as the movie ‘Birdman‘, and by proxy its director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu, are focusing on comic book movies EXCLUSIVELY due to its casting decisions, scathing lines of dialogue early on and a strangely out-of-place “artsy” dream sequence near the end. There’s a hallucination sequence that starts the 3rd act where Birdman flies in front of the camera, stares directly into the camera as a giant mechanical bird attacks New York City and says;

 “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”

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Now, let me make something clear. I’m not a fan of superhero movies. I’m a fan of good movies. If a movie is good, it doesn’t matter if its source material came from a comic book. I praised the hell out of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘, ‘Avengers Assemble‘ and ‘The Dark Knight‘ but ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘, ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace‘ and ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘ can suck it. However, ‘Birdman‘ seems to decry the mere existence of these comic book action movies and questions if an actor is starring in a movie like that then are they really an “actor”.

Here’s the thing though…

Not only is ‘Birdman‘ and its director decrying the existence of movies that DON’T EVEN EXIST ANYMORE, but when those types of movies DID exist, they paid the price by getting poor box-office returns.

Marvel Studios with their recent run of movies as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy have done a terrific job at giving audience dramatic themes, compelling characters and stories that resonate. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘ earlier this year didn’t becoming the highest grossing film in the USA because it had “blood” or mindless “action”. It resonated with people because they loved the characters, their arcs and the themes the film presented of where home truly is and how a group of people can be in a Universe so full of character but still feel utterly alone. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘ laid down the hard-to-learn lesson of not trusting authority, ‘The Dark Knight‘ analysed the pros and cons of order and chaos and ‘Iron Man 3‘ followed the re-building of a man who was literally carrying around the baggage of his past.
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This is the current comic-book movie landscape. These are the movies that Alejandro González Iñárritu is chastising and calling out for being watered-down and mindless. Iñárritu may have had a point in the 1990s with ‘Batman & Robin‘, or ‘Steel‘ or ‘The Phantom‘ but even if ‘Birdman‘ was referencing that time-capsule of movies (which it isn’t because Robert Downey Jr’s success in the ‘Iron Man‘ movies is directly referenced) those movies not only did incredibly poorly at the box-office, but their infamous legacy are ones that the movie studios that made them and the actors that starred in them would like to forget.

Ask George Clooney how he feels about ‘Batman & Robin‘ if you ever meet him.

It feels like director Alejandro González Iñárritu is complaining about movies…that he hasn’t even seen. And that makes ‘Birdman‘ come across as very petty. There’s a short moment near the end of ‘Birdman‘ where Alejandro González Iñárritu shoots people in cheap-looking superhero outfits while a small army of drummers perform on a broadway stage. It’s as if Alejandro is saying “Look how stupid these comic book movies are next to my artistic brilliance!”. Ironically, one of those comic book characters is Bumblebee from the ‘Transformers‘ movie franchise which was a series that originated as a toy-line, not a comic book franchise, which doesn’t make sense because ‘Birdman‘ makes its distain for superhero movies EXCLUSIVELY explicitly known early on.
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Another stumble on the part of the movie is Lindsay Duncan as an influential theatre-critic who promises to give Riggan’s production a bad review…just because. And because she’s going to give it a bad review, it essentially means that his production will be taken off broadway and the entire success of Riggan’s show will hinge on her review. This is one of the straws that breaks the camel’s back for Riggan’s emotional breakdown towards the end. The problem is that ‘Birdman‘ exists in the 21st century where social media runs rampant and superhero movies are the top-dog of the entertainment world. As a result, the existence of an influential theatre critic of this nature (not to mention one who will drop all professionalism and honesty because of poorly defined personal biases yet SOMEHOW have become influential in the first place) doesn’t ring true for a moment. This wouldn’t be much of a problem, but because her scene with Riggan in a Broadway-bar is one of the biggest turning points for the story, it needs credibility and while Duncan is fine in the role, it simply doesn’t work.

A long, but memorable rant from Riggan at the critic feels like director Alejandro chastising any prior critics of his work as opposed to something that’s genuinely coming from the character. After all, the fictional Birdman movies seem to be beloved by audience members over 20 years after they were released. Popular, mainstream blockbusters simply don’t earn that long-time admiration without being critically well received (we still talk about ‘Die Hard‘ after almost 30 years, but no one talks about 2007’s ‘Transformers‘, for example), not to mention, the audience don’t have a frame of reference for Riggan’s frustration at critics in the first place.

What’s frustrating is that these two complaints will make ‘Birdman‘ essentially critic proof overall. ‘Birdman‘ calls out the pretentious art-house critics that this type of movie will appeal too while simultaneously criticising mainstream blockbusters that the same crowd loves to hate solely because they’re popular. It’s almost admirable in its ignorance (hence the full title ‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance‘, perhaps?) but it also makes ‘Birdman‘, an incredibly well accomplished and memorable movie, feel immature and petty at its core.
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Technically incredible with brilliant camerawork, a near-perfectly handled filming conceit with a phenomenal improvised jazz-drum track underscoring the film adding intensity to already brilliant actors working with a natural script makes ‘Birdman‘ a great, must-see movie despite its almost immature and grossly misinformed intentions. Its easy to imagine ‘Birdman‘ becoming a movie that’ll be studied in film-school in the coming years and decades when it comes to cinematography, lighting, costumes and set design, which I’ve barely mentioned here because this review is already running pretty long.

The superhero movie genre has grown up a lot in the past decade and audiences have responded for a very good reason. But ‘Birdman‘ seems to wilfully fly in the face of that progress for egotistical reasons on the part of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who seems to be flying completely blind with that approach. But on a technical and artistic filmmaking level, ‘Birdman‘ is hard to fault.

I give ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 2nd Jan 15