Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Birdman

by Adam Riske
This might be a great movie but I would need to see it again.

Birdman is intriguing, provocative and full of ideas. It’s a movie I’ve thought a great deal about in the two days since I saw it. And yet, it’s a movie I’m reticent to embrace. It’s easy to admire but tough to love. In fact, I suffered a minor bout of writer’s block just attempting writing this review. I haven’t had feelings this complex over a movie since Spike Jonze’s Her (a movie I now love but didn’t in my initial review).
What makes the latest from Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel)easy to appreciate is the performances, which are excellent across the board. This is even more impressive because the characters the performers are playing are, in most cases, vain and unlikeable. What makes the movie tough to love is that some of the movie’s technique is draining and its messages a little too on-the-nose. Then again, Birdman is essentially a satire of actors and the current state of the entertainment industry (especially superhero movies), so should it be punished for doing what it intends to do? For example, Birdman is an art-house movie but it is pitched at the level of a blockbuster and is, in fact, tries harder than most Marvel movies, which are a little more laid back. Was that intentional?

The plot in brief: A washed-up actor (Michael Keaton), known for playing the superhero Birdman, aims for the admiration and respect he’s always wanted by mounting a Broadway play which he is writing, directing and playing the lead. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and self-doubt as well as fellow cast members and crew.

Some of the movie did not work for me, namely the technique. At times, it feels similar to someone telling you a fascinating story in the douchiest way possible. Birdman is shot to approximate that the movie is filmed in one continuous take, which lends immediacy and vitality to the proceedings but can be fucking exhausting. I was honestly worn out at the 30 minute mark and had to regroup. On top of the photography, certain elements (such as the drum heavy score) call attention to themselves. In fact, there’s a shot where we think we’re listening to the score and the director cuts to show us street drummers are the ones actually drumming the score. It might be cute to some, but to me that’s a show-offy move that makes me appreciate the director less. I also think there’s a leaden speech midway through the movie which is intended as a takedown of critics (because they risk nothing, unlike actors) which is so short-sighted it’s insulting. Most critics are critics because they want to champion movies and filmmakers to the general public and not to decimate art. Birdman would not agree...or has at least not thought about that.
I also don’t know if I agree with the targets it’s going after – namely, the superhero movie. If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have agreed with much more of what Birdman is saying; however, in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m not as down on the superhero movie as I used to be. They’re fun, so who cares? They are not cultural poison, which is what Birdman claims that they are but, whatever, to each their own. I still don’t enjoy Iron Man though.

Yet my reservations about Birdman all melt away when I consider the performances. This is an actor’s movie above all else, and I love actor’s movies. Much of the movie is shot is close-ups, which give an immediacy to the emotions at hand and that’s a brave thing to do with a cast of largely hard characters. If it wasn’t for that lack of separation, I don’t think we would have been able to feel these actors’ performances as much and understand their characters fears, dreams and confusion (e.g. selling out to Hollywood or keeping it real on Broadway). It’s also brave of the performers to send up their real life personas, which they do in Birdman -- and I’m not talking about just Michael Keaton (who is good, btw). I’m talking more specifically about Edward Norton (and his notorious reputation of being difficult on set) and Naomi Watts (and her sometimes mannered performances). Those three actors certainly go out on a limb. Norton, in particular, is sensational and reminds me of why I once thought he was going to be THE next great American actor back in the late '90s. Also worth noting is Emma Stone, who is so freaking charismatic it’s unbelievable. Stone has always been good, but I’ve seen her improving as of late. I am a fan.
Birdman is over-the-top, energetic and audacious – everything I’m normally looking for in a movie despite the misgivings I might have in this case. There’s definite authorship at hand (this is my favorite Iñárritu to date) and the movie is full of some great performances. I can’t think of another movie with its specific brand of mood, style and pace. You truly get under the skin of these characters and feel their sadness and ego while they keep bopping around the theater preparing for the play. It’s entertaining and there’s nothing quite like it. I don’t love Birdman right now, but I suspect one day I might.


16 comments:

John Murphy said...

I'm so incredibly interested to see this movie, I just need it to make its way a bit closer to me, which I think might be happening soon. If nothing else, I love that the lead is Keaton, he himself who has felt kind of washed up to me and of course known for once playing a superhero.

The story sounds interesting and apparently a lot of the acting is really great, so I'm on board for now. Great review, Adam!

Heath Holland said...

Nice, Adam. This opens here on Friday and I can't wait to see it, for better or worse.

Adam Riske said...

Is Keaton washed up though? I never thought so but everyone is saying this is his comeback vehicle. I'm not so sure. He's been solid in supporting parts for a long time now.

Patrick Bromley said...

Plus the dude's inbox is white hot.

Adam Riske said...

Don't go chasing waterfalls. He ain't to proud to beg. He's just been creepin'. Creep. Creep.

John Murphy said...

Well, for me at least, he's just not an actor I've really cared about for a long time. And you mentioned supporting roles, which I suppose he has done (he was just in Robocop, and I remember him in The Other Guys a while back), but I guess I was just thinking more in terms of starring roles. This seems like a comeback for him in that regard.

Adam Riske said...

I see what you're saying. The funny thing is he's good in Birdman but I think he's overshadowed by some of the his co-stars who have arguably the showier supporting parts. Keaton's work is very point guard esque in Birdman; he's making sure everyone else gets theirs before he gets his. In fact, he doesn't even seem to take over the movie until the last third or so.

Patrick and JB have talked about it in the past about Brad Pitt but I'd say this applies to Michael Keaton as well - he's more interesting as a character actor than a leading man.

janbottig said...

Really interesting take on the movie, Adam. I liked it much more than you did, though many of your sticking points are mine too. As you suggest, even those directorial decisions seem to be made in support of the movie's overarching point of view, and that worked for me. My response to the critic scene was much different than yours -- to me, it seems to be specifically calling out a certain kind of critic, in a way that totally meshes with the movie's ideas about ego, self-importance, and the commerce of power/power of commerce.

I love when a movie tries to be its own thing, and say its own thing, in a new way -- even if it doesn't quite hit every mark. So I wonder if I might actually love Birdman less when I see it again! We actually had walkouts in our showing. I thought to myself, "Philistines!" then I felt kind of douchy for thinking that, and realized part of why I felt bad was because of what the movie was saying about hubris, and then I loved the movie a little more for being able to make me feel bad for being unloving toward people who didn't love it as much as I might... then I walked home in the rain in my underpants.

John Murphy said...

I like the idea that many of them, from what you described, seem to be portraying their own public perceptions. I all the talent in the movie, so I'm glad to hear many of them shine.

I definitely agree on Brad Pitt. I love what he does as a character actor more so than what he's done as a lead. Although I will say I also felt he was great with his prominent role in Fury.

Adam Riske said...

I think the critic scene is interesting but SPOILER

his point about labeling things is something I disagree with because critics (amateur ones like myself) have to label things in order to make the writing interesting. It's our responsibility to also comment on technique, intention, structure etc. but labeling is part of a writer's prose, right? It's shorthand and makes a piece entertaining or gets a point across quicker.

I can't believe people walked out. I had a similar experience with Nightcrawler where when it ended someone said "well that wasn't what they promised me in the commercial" and I thought "yeah it was exactly what the commercial said it was except even better." What was his moonlight desire to begin with?

bruuno said...

My brother works for a film presentation organization in NYC and got to see a preview showing about a week or two before it was released. He immediately texted me when he got out saying "Don't believe the hype-Birdman not nearly as good as people claiming". He echoed much of what you said though in perhaps a little harsher terms. While he said it was well acted and some interesting things were done filmmaking wise, he felt it was a film that was way too full of itself and was eventually brought down by its own pretensions.
I haven't seen it myself and certainly plan on doing so soon. However, the more I read about it the more I think my brother may be on to something. On the other hand he also claims that Jaws doesn't really hold up so what the hell does he know.

janbottig said...

Haha! I don't know WHAT his moonlight desire was - only that it haunts him, and it wants him. It wants him.

Anonymous said...

Saw it last weekend. While I can see why critics and film aficionados adore many aspects, this was a flat film emotionally for me. I may have to see it again to appreciate it more. The acting was great but the story just didn't engage me. I was much more emotionally invested in Babel.

Adam Riske said...

I agree that it is more of an academic than emotional movie for me as well.

Dennis said...

Cheers Everyone and of course to Riske. My interest is peaked. I gotta see this movie

John Murphy said...

It's funny how much my opinion seems to be in line with yours here, Adam. I thought the movie was very interesting, often darkly funny, and exceptionally well-acted, but at the same time, something doesn't seem to make the movie a complete home run. I want to love it so much for all those reasons, but I think I just don't. I like a lot of it, though. If nothing else, it's totally worth a watch for the performances. I'm really wrestling with if it might at least go at the bottom of my current top-10 of the year or not.