By James Hancock October 16th, 2014
Of all the films being released in 2014, few have given me the anticipation and excitement of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I must have watched the international trailer over twenty times and nearly every time I watched it the hairs on my arm stood straight up from the goosebumps I experienced watching what I feel is one of the best trailers ever made. I repeatedly told people that if the film did not live up to my expectations that I would likely exit the theater sobbing. I’m happy to report, that I left the theater beaming but I did not see the film I expected to see. “Birdman” was altogether different from my expectations but I was riveted from start to finish by this incredibly unusual, unpredictable gem, a film that tackles so much material so effortlessly. Iñárritu has managed that rare feat in filmmaking of making a movie unlike any movie I’ve seen before. This is a film about the theater, the movie biz, celebrity, social media, artistic integrity, family, suicide, mental illness and my favorite of all topics, superheroes. My favorite movie of the year so far remains “Jodorowsky’s Dune” but “Birdman” is definitely in the mix and I’ll be in line soon to watch it again.
My screening almost didn’t go down as planned this evening. I bought my ticket in advance, but like a complete dumbass I went to the wrong theater. I quickly checked my phone to confirm where I was supposed to be and proceeded to set a new land speed record by bicycle from Union Square down to the Angelika. Disaster nearly struck again with one of the most incompetent displays of how to run a movie theater I have ever seen. The film was sold out and the theater was filled to the brim with hardcore film freaks. We watched what felt like about a dozen trailers before an entirely different feature film began, “Kill the Messenger” starring Jeremy Renner. I’m sure that I’ll get around to seeing that film at some point but we were ready to watch fucking “Birdman” and the crowd proceeded to go berserk screaming at the projection booth. After several minutes of chaos we were told to return to our seats only to learn a few more minutes later that we were all going to have to get up and head two screens over. I had a perfect seat in the first screening room but I knew I would be screwed by the time I made it through the crowd into the next theater. Once there, I got a crappy seat in the very front row and readied myself for neck and back pain. They started the film from the beginning but kept the lights on for the first few minutes. The crowd roared in protest whereupon the theater turned on what can only be emergency lights. They were as bright as the surface of the sun. With the first few minutes of the film ruined, I was prepared to leave entirely but finally the lights went down and I settled into watching the movie.
There is so much to love about “Birdman” it is difficult to know where to start. The story takes place primarily in the historic St. James Theatre in New York as Michael Keaton’s character prepares a play that he has adapted and is now directing as well as starring in the lead role. His back is against the wall financially and he is standing on his last leg professionally. Decades ago he was a massive movie star starring in the successful Birdman franchise but now he is just barely hanging on to his career and his sanity. Along with Keaton we also have Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, & Naomi Watts all turning in some of the finest performances of their careers. I was unfamiliar with Andrea Riseborough prior to the movie but she nails her role as well. My favorite scenes are between Emma Stone and Edward Norton, scenes that I think are their best moments ever on screen. Without question, this is the best ensemble cast of the year that I have seen and they perfectly capture the frenzied madcap energy of trying to get ready for opening night all while dealing with the chaos and unpredictable disasters that beset all film and theater productions. Iñárritu’s camera floats effortlessly throughout the narrow hallways and hidden alcoves of the St. James Theatre following one character after another without cuts. This is the kind of camera work that would make master directors such as Max Ophüls, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman drool with envy. On top of all this, the film enjoys playing with the idea of whether or not Keaton’s character actually has powers of telekinesis and flight or if he is just insane. There is evidence in the film supporting both ideas. A lot of people are going to toss around terms like magical realism or super realism, but suffice to say in the context of this story the ambiguous approach completely works.
Before closing I do have to dig into the way the film handles the topics of superhero franchises and how they affect our culture. Apart from the obvious fact that Keaton, Stone and Norton have all starred in major superhero movies, this film captures everything amazing and ridiculous about our complete embrace of superhero movies. On one hand, we have the film’s New York Times theater critic who articulates in withering terms exactly how pathetic our obsession with pornographic cartoon characters can be and what an insult these projects are to the people devoting their lives to wrestling with the complex emotions of creating art in the theater. On the other hand you have the voice of Birdman himself growling incessantly to Keaton about how he was once a God and how it is time for a comeback and to show the world what they are capable of one last time. When Keaton meets a fan they go into a genuine state of complete bliss and awe and the film “Birdman” appears to readily embrace and sanction the joy these franchises bring to people’s lives. ***Mild Spoilers Ahead*** All I’ll say about the ending is that for me it confirms the value of a really great superhero flick. After a decade and a half of many superhero movies, great and small, “Birdman” is the first film to offer real insight into the phenomenon that has taken over cinemas around the world, a phenomenon that will only intensify in the years to come judging from the production schedule of Marvel and DC. Never in a million years would I have expected a film like this from the man who directed “Amores Perros” (2000) and “21 Grams” (2003). I have not seen “Babel” (2006) or “Biutiful” (2010) but from I understand they are even more obscure and bleak than his earlier films. With “Birdman” for the first time Iñárritu seems to be having a blast making movies. Watch the Q&A with the cast below at the New York Film Festival and it is clear that Iñárritu and his cast enjoyed an incredible rapport resulting in an amazing collaboration. Whatever Iñárritu decides to film next, I’ll be the first person in line.
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