Introduction

Birdman

Birdman
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2014
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
  • Running time: 119 minutes
 

Birdman is the fantastical, genre-defying depiction of actor Riggan Thomson (MICHAEL KEATON), who is famous for portraying the film superhero of the title, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. This latest from director ALEJANDRO G. IÑÁRRITU (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) is an ‘expertly delivered black comedy’ (Derek Malcolm, Evening Standard). ‘Beautifully performed and smartly scripted’ (Mark Adams, Screen International), it is a ‘breathtaking technical achievement’ (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine) and has been nominated for seven Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

Shot mainly inside New York’s St James Theater, Birdman ‘kicks off as a dizzy backstage farce’ (Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly). The anguished Riggan juggles directing and acting in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story and coping with the various demands of his girlfriend co-star (ANDREA RISEBOROUGH), his manager (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), his ex-wife (AMY RYAN) and his acerbic daughter, a recovering addict who is working as his PA (EMMA STONE).

With opening night approaching, an accident incapacitates one of his actors and Riggan hastily casts Mike Shiner (EDWARD NORTON) in his place. He is brilliant but is sleeping with another member of the cast (NAOMI WATTS) and, with an ego to match Riggan’s, he provides a ‘delightfully wacky monkey wrench’ to the already chaotic proceedings (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post).

While a barbed theatre critic (LINDSAY DUNCAN) vows to close the show because Riggan is not a “serious actor”, he is haunted by his Birdman character, who reminds him of his movie star status. The film plays, according to The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, like ‘an extended actor’s nightmare’.

This ‘blistering showbiz satire’ (Peter Debruge, Variety) is a narrative of ‘exhilarating originality’ (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter).

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Birdman

FLIGHT OF FANCY

Iñárritu ‘has staged and shot the movie so that it looks like everything that happens, from airborne beginning to end, occurs during one transporting continuous take. The camera doesn’t just move with the story and characters, it also ebbs and flows like water, soars and swoops like a bird.’

(Manohla Dargis, The New York Times)

Defying Gravity

The action spans several days but is presented in what appears to be one unbroken shot. This feat, first attempted by Alfred Hitchcock in Rope (1948), creates the illusion of the story occurring in a continuum, as if in real time. Meticulous planning and extensive rehearsals enabled director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot even longer takes than he famously did with Gravity (2013), for which he won an Academy Award and a BAFTA, and Children of Men (2006).

Flying through the wings

The scene transitions are ‘breathtakingly seamless’ and, ‘as lucid and controlled as the camerawork may be, it’s also bold, propulsive, even raw at times’, said Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter. ‘The camera circles, stalks and swoops. Emmanuel Lubezki’s friction-free cinematography constitutes a virtuoso turn in its own right’ (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal).

Sound, too, is incorporated into Birdman’s illusion of continuity and immediacy, through Antonio Sanchez’s persistent, diegetic drum score, which reflects Riggan’s increasing anxiety. The result is ‘a precision ballet whose most impressive effect is that it plays out like real theatrical life’ (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine).

Riggan plays out the egos and insecurities that actors are prone to. The film’s tone is correspondingly both ‘empathetic and acidic’ (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter). Writing in The Independent, Geoffrey Macnab wrote: ‘There is heroism as well as monumental vanity in Thomson’s Quixotic project to re-invent himself as a “serious” actor... Birdman starts like a flippant theatrical in-joke but the tone gradually changes. Late on... the film has somehow developed a tragic grandeur of its own... Thompson is also ready to face extreme pain, humiliation and the threat of bankruptcy in pursuit of his art.’

He praised Michael Keaton’s performance for ‘brilliantly’ capturing ‘the arrogance, vulnerability and downright desperation of his character’. Joe Morgenstern commented in The Wall Street Journal that ‘Keaton makes Riggan’s desperation anguishing, his bewilderment pitiable, his fear of failure palpable’.

Keaton summons up the manic comic energy of his early work in films like Night Shift (1982) and Beetlejuice (1988), as Robbie Collin remarked in The Daily Telegraph. His ‘rare ability to easily blend comedy and drama as well as being a great physical performer’(Mark Adams, Screen International) make for some rousing set-pieces, such as his character’s scantily-clad dash through Times Square.

Of the other actors, ‘Norton is uproarious as a preening, Method-acting nightmare; Watts and Riseborough note-perfect as actresses jangled by daft insecurities; Stone tremendous as the lone voice of reason, faltering and defiant’ (Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph). For Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter, Emma Stone ‘stands out’ among Birdman’s ‘exemplary cast’. ‘Often found on the theatre roof, perched on a perilous ledge’ (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker), her performance  is ‘raw and real’ (Ian Freer, Empire).

Batman

The film is replete with knowing references. Riggin’s Birdman alter ego takes a swipe at Robert Downey Jr.’s lead role in the Iron Man trilogy (2008, 2010 and 2013), saying, “That clown doesn’t have half your talent, and he’s making a fortune in that Tin Man outfit.” Just as Riggan is best remembered for his role as Birdman, Michael Keaton is best remembered for his role as Batman in the two movies directed by Tim Burton in 1989 and 1992. Not to be out-done, Edward Norton played The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Emma Stone appeared in both The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and its 2014 sequel.

Some critics had their doubts that the melodrama, intricately connected sub-plots and clever tricks that are Iñárritu’s stock in trade amount to much of substance. ‘There’s no doubt it makes for a jubilant ride, a galvanic first blast. But it remains a film which feels deeply thought rather than deeply felt; a brilliant technical exercise as opposed to a flesh-and-blood story... It’s a depthless, self-absorbed film about a shallow, self-absorbed man; jittery and relentless from the first to last gasp. We come scurrying up narrow corridors and up darkened stairwells, through the exploded stage-set of Riggan Thomson’s own head.’ (Xan Brooks, The Guardian).

Black Swan man

Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty suggests that Birdman’s anti-formulaic nature may be too much for some. Nashawaty describes the final act, in which ‘the taunting voice in his head grows louder until it’s sometimes unclear what’s real and what’s imaginary’, as ‘jack-knifing into a trippy detour that audiences will either go with or not’.

Whether seen as a ‘twisted and surreal dark comedy’ (Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly) or a ‘frenetic, buoyant and rambunctiously showboating entertainment’ (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times), Birdman is undoubtedly highly original. The Daily Telegraph’s Robbie Collin concludes: ‘Birdman isn’t much like anything else at all. Think Black Swan directed by Mel Brooks and you’re in the vicinity, but only just’.

Rachel Brook

 
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Birdman

 
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Birdman

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