Film review of the satirical drama about a washed-up Hollywood star launching a vanity project on Broadway, starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts and written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu. Fox Searchlights/New Regency/M Prods et al (15)
Cast & credits
Producer: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole.
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinerlaris, Armando Bo.
Camera: Emmanuel Lubezki.
Music: Antonio Sanchez.
Sets: Kevin Thompson.
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos.
Riggan (Keaton) is the former star of the Birdman films, box-office smash comic book movies made decades ago. To up his artistic kudos, he is staging a self-written vanity play based on a Raymond Carver short story which could be the very thing to make his name again. But, after hiring the volatile and unbalanced method actor Mike (Norton), it could also destroy him.
I usually get my annual Oscar predictions correct each year, especially with the Best Film award. With a combination of background and historical information such as voting trends, media coverage and general showbiz gossip doing the rounds, I comfortably sit within my own smugness as I launch my list of anticipated winners onto the world (in reality, a small band of merry followers).
This year completely took me by surprise. I, like quite a few people, was sure the Best Picture and Director statuettes would confidently go to the warm, well-observed and epic halcyon drama Boyhood, filmed at intervals by Richard Linklater and cast and crew over an astonishing period of 12 years.
A slow-burner and maybe not of the highest standards, but still a great movie and I thought (or, knew for certain) it would win big.
But no, I was wrong! Smugness quickly wiped from my face when, next day in the office, I see the winner was actually this hitherto unseen artistic effort about a has-been comic book film star (played by the relatively quiet of late Batman star Keaton. Ironically, the last Birdman film for his character was in 1992, the release year of Keaton’s own last entry in that series, Batman Returns) by the Mexican director of Babel (2006).
Was I upset? No. Surprised? Yup. Pleasantly surprised? Absolutely, as this is without a doubt a towering achievement, satisfying in just about every way and deserving to be seen.
A metaphysical, existential satirical drama encompassing such elements as the difficulty of the creative process, the relationship between the artist and critic and a leading character who is able to fly, levitate and even possess telekenesis, Birdman is a soaring film that covers the whole possible kit and caboodle of human existence and endeavour in what looks cleverly like a single tracking shot of a group of people racing around and about a New York theatre (think Noises Off, but classier).
Single-take films are a funny oddity. Hitchcock experimented memorably along these lines in Rope (1948), but it seemed like too much showing off and, indeed, the film is as throwaway as ‘the master’ saw it, a mere prop to hang his technical trickery on.
Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick both infamously used extended single tracking shots in their classics Touch Of Evil (1959) and The Shining (1980), the former movie making great use of the then fairly new technique of Steadicam (more about this on Wikipedia) for stabilised mobile camera movements.
All of those films required meticulous pre-planning, but to maintain it effectively for what amounts to nearly two full hours is phenomenal and breathtaking. Iñárritu and his crew must have been intimately familiar with all of the nooks, crannies, corridors and recesses of their production design to maintain the illusion of a continuous free-flow of movement at all times. Of course, it isn’t one continuous shot, the switching between shots is just seamlessly choreographed, photographed and edited (for more, read this Sound and Picture article, as intricately as the film itself), but the effect is as grand as any CGI scene.
There are some chronological inaccuracies with this approach: we start the film in bright daylight but are led to believe that within 40 minutes we are in the pitch black of night, but this is probably the only quibble with the whole film.
Also to savour is the whip-smart dialogue that abounds throughout the film: the toe-curling interview that Riggan gives with assorted, negative journalists; Watts explains how she knows Norton by saying the two “share a vagina” and when Watts, sick of her lot with men, exclaims “Why don’t I have any self-respect?” is reminded by Riseborough “You’re an actress, honey”. This navel-gazing, self-important luvvie claptrap is an unmitigated joy to hear throughout.
It’s difficult to single one performance out as being far and above any of the others (it won a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for best ensemble cast, as well as others in this category) but it’s fantastic to be reminded how intense an actor Keaton can be when given the right material.
He may be slightly overtaken at points by an explosive Norton as the brilliant but arrogant and destructive method actor who can help save his play, but their scenes together are pure dynamite, grabbing you by the collar and shaking you around vigorously and easily the best moments in the film.
Brit Riseborough impresses as Keaton’s supposedly pregnant girlfriend, but Watts and Stone also have their time in the sun with some knockout moments.