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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 35.71%
Average: 7.14%
Pretty Bad: 7.14%
Total Crap: 3.57%

3 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Bird On The Highwire"
5 stars

Every once in a while, a movie comes around that contains some element--an intriguing premise, a unique visual approach, an attention-grabbing performance or two--that manages to genuinely electrify critics and audiences alike. The big question, of course, is whether the film can continue to stand on its own two feet after the initial rush of excitement has passed (as was the case of things likes "Pulp Fiction" or "Being John Malkovich") or if a second viewing reveals a certain hollowness that wasn't quite as evident the first time around ("American Beauty" is a prime example of a film whose essential shallowness became gaspingly apparent upon a repeat viewing). The latest cinematic cock-of-the-walk to grab the attention of all who encounter it is "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," a surreal dark comedy that contains, among other things, the aforementioned intriguing premise, unique visual approach and any number of attention-grabbing performances, including one that is already being penciled in by many observers as a sure shot for not just an Oscar nomination but the award itself. On first glance, it deserves all the accolades that it has been receiving and then some because it is some of the most undeniably bold, stylish and enormously entertaining filmmaking to hit the screens this year. Since I have not yet had a chance to see it a second time at this point, I cannot say as to whether or not the giddy sense of excitement can still be felt upon multiple viewings but I can say that it is one of the few films to come out this year where the notion of seeing it a second time sounds more like a pleasure than a chore.

The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomas, an actor who became one of the biggest movie stars in the world when he signed on to play the part of comic book superhero Birdman in the enormously successful film version and who then shocked the industry when he decided to walk away from the franchise rather than do "Birdman 3." (Sound familiar?) As a result, his career plummeted back to Earth and as the story opens, he is in the middle of a move that will either restore him to the heights of superstardom or destroy him once and for all in the industry--he has shifted from Hollywood to Broadway to adapt, direct and star in a stage production of the very serious Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." To do any one of those job successfully would be a huge challenge but to attempt all three at the same time, in the midst of one's stage debut, no less, is to paint a huge target on one's back and essentially wait for the shots to come fast and furious. Not surprisingly, things are not going well--the show is eating up all of Riggan's money and the advance ticket sales are not promising, the final rehearsals are less so, co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough) thinks that she may be pregnant with his child, the press covering the opening is only interested about the possibility of him doing "Birdman 4" and there is every reason to believe that the drama critic from the New York Times (Lindsay Duncan) is preparing to annihilate the show in print on the basis that she feels that it is another example of a Hollywood jerk stealing space and air from real actors who could be practicing their noble craft instead of being forced to support an ego run amok. Oh yeah, there is also the possibility--suggested by the opening shot of Riggan literally floating in his dressing room--that he may have some sort of extra-sensory power to go along with the voices in his head.

Riggan finally catches something resembling a break when the second male lead is injured during a rehearsal and the other female co-star, Lesley (Naomi Watts), suggests that her roommate and lover, celebrated Method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), is available to do the part. At first, it seems as if the arrival of Mike might save the day--not only is he already off-book but has only been rehearsing with Riggan for a few seconds before making a handful of suggestions that even Riggan has to admit improve the scene considerably. Alas, while Mike is undeniably talented, it doesn't take too long for Riggan to realize that he is also borderline crazy and that his dedication to depicting absolute realism on the stage is so pronounced that he brings a preview performance to a destructive halt in mid-show when he realizes that someone has switched out the real gin he has been swilling on stage during a drunk scene with water. After that, Riggan wants to fire him as well but is informed by his increasingly beleaguered manager (Zach Galifianakis) that not only would this put him and the show in serious legal jeopardy, they cannot afford to let him go since the advance sale doubled in the hours after his participation was announced. As tensions with the show in general and Mike in particular increase exponentially, especially when his onstage antics anger his costars and his offstage antics with Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan's ex-junkie daughter now unhappily working as his assistant, Riggan is on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown by the time Opening Night arrives and when it does, his own survival seems almost as much in doubt as that of his show.

Considering that behind-the-scenes media satires are practically a genre to themselves these days, some people may be wondering what the big deal about "Birdman" is, especially if they happened to catch a little film called "JCVD" that featured action star Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a washed-up version of himself trapped in the middle of a hostage situation straight out of one of his movies (and if you haven't, you should because he has a mid-show monologue that is legitimately and unironically brilliant). However, director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican filmmaker best known for such increasingly dour dramas as "Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and "Babel," has no just simply given us another extended in-joke that will amuse media types and those who want to at least feel as if they are in the know. Instead, he and co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo use Riggan's situation as a way to explore far more universal feelings of despair, alienation and the loss of control that will resonate just as strongly with people who have never once picked up a copy of "Entertainment Weekly." It is a satire, to be sure, but one that manages to be both caustic and humane and when all is said and done, it says more about the human condition in more moving and thoughtful ways than Inarritu was able to accomplish in more ostensibly serious-minded works like "21 Grams" and the borderline unbearable "Babel." In fact, I suspect that most viewers will emerge from the film more moved by what they have seen than they could have possibly anticipated.

This is not to suggest that "Birdman" is a depressing experience because while it is examining the complexities of the human condition, it is also tickling the funny bone and dazzling the eye with some of the flashiest and most hilarious filmmaking to hit the screen in a while. It does an amazing job of capturing both the chaos of putting on a show in the face of one disaster after another (it takes the old joke about an actor being locked out of the theater just before he is to go on and inflates it to epically amusing proportions by having him both nearly naked and forced to walk through the heart of Times Square to get back inside) and the madness of a cultural moment in time when the greatest thing that a contemporary actor can aspire to these days is not a starring role on Broadway but a role in a comic book-inspired film franchise that requires them to parade around in goofy costumes in exchange for tons of money. Never the most reticent of filmmakers, Inarritu pulls out all the stops here but for once, his flamboyant approach actually serves the story instead of merely interfering with it. As you may have heard, Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have elected to shoot the film in a manner that, thanks to a few judicious camera moves and surreptitious cuts by the editing team of Douglas Prise & Stephen Mirrione, makes it look like nearly the whole thing has been filmed in one continuous take in the manner of "Rope" or "Russian Ark." At first glance, this may seem like just another empty gimmick--the story doesn't even unfold in real time and takes place over the course of a few days--but it proves to be an especially clever approach in that it not only helps to put us further into Riggan's fragmenting mind but, as some other commentators have pointed out, the use of long takes and the absence of judicious editing helps to reinforce the notion that screen acting can, in its own way, be just as challenging and risky for its practitioners as what is done on the stage and their accomplishment can be just as significant.

As for the actors, they do their part to support this hypothesis by turning in a gallery of stellar performances that are all the more impressive for the technical obstacles that they needed to work around in order to get to those performances. As the Method-mad and just-plain-mad actor who is seemingly convinced that all of his bad behavior, on stage and off, is ultimately justified and accepted because of his prodigious talents, Edward Norton turns in arguably the loosest and most immediately entertaining performance that he has done since the glories of "Fight Club." Working in a much less manic mode than usual, Zach Galifianakis gets a lot of big laughs as Riggan's increasingly stressed friend and manager (not necessarily in that order) who is trying desperately to keep things from completely falling apart on his watch. As the various women in Riggan's life and work, Watts, Stone, Riseborough (who is virtually unrecognizable here) and Amy Ryan (as Riggan's ex-wife who only needs a few minutes back in his orbit to remember why she left him in the first place) all manage to carve out strong performances without getting subsumed by the chaos surrounding them.

However, when all is said and done, "Birdman" is ultimately Michael Keaton's show and he responds to the challenge of the best showcase for his prodigious talents in a long time with the knockout performance of his career. One of the few actors working today who can pull both outrageous comedy and serious drama, Keaton has been a favorite performer since he burst onto the screen to the strains of "Jumping Jack Flash" in "Night Shift" and the cooling of his career after leaving the "Batman" franchise is more of a testament to the failure of Hollywood to find anything worthy of his talents. With "Birdman," he has found just that sort of role--one that allows him to display his skills with madcap comedy and powerful dramatics--and the result is arguably the triumph of his career. Yes, the parallels between Keaton and Riggan are uncanny in both the most obvious aspects (such as his superhero past) as well as the tinier details (Keaton also tried directing himself, a film that went badly for all involved) but this is not simply a case of an actor essentially playing himself--this is a performance as original and nuanced as any you have seen and not only is it set to win practically every imaginable award over the next few months, it deserves them.

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originally posted: 10/24/14 07:44:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2014 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2014 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/10/15 Ionicera enjoyable, predictable ending 4 stars
8/02/15 mr.mike Held my interest with some very good acting. 4 stars
5/25/15 Brittany Petros So so movie but Keaton was good in it. 3 stars
2/26/15 deajeng oh thank you academy boyhood didn't win major oscar 5 stars
2/25/15 Helen Bradley-Jones A really very boring film, just no engaging story. 1 stars
2/24/15 stanley welles a pretentious, painfully boring and kooky wannabe artistic film with an annoying soundtrack 2 stars
2/05/15 Loulou Rather disappointed - felt 'forced' at times and didn't get the ending. Keaton was good tho 3 stars
1/13/15 Langano A great piece of filmmaking. 4 stars
11/07/14 Bob Dog This is a classic 'emperor has no clothes' scenario - this is a dull/overly artsy movie. 2 stars
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  17-Oct-2014 (R)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2015

  26-Dec-2014 (15)

  15-Jan-2015 (MA)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2015

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