Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)": Seamless Brilliance

Now In Theaters
Well, folks, award season is officially here.  Critics are beginning to tally up their picks for the best films of the year, and that means it’s time for me to switch gears and actually get out to the theater so that I can see what all the fuss is about.  And I’ve started right out the gate with a big one.  Birdman is a powerhouse of a film.  The direction, the writing, the acting, the editing and cinematography: this is the real deal.  Birdman is a film that unabashedly toys with you, and you will love every second of it because every tiny detail is so fantastically realized.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an aging former movie star most famous for his trilogy of films as the superhero Birdman.  He has adapted a play for Broadway, and is now starring in and directing the production.  When a (possibly) freak accident debilitates Riggan’s co-star, acclaimed actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) offers to step in.  However, Mike is an egomaniac who treats the stage as a playground and seems intent on derailing Riggan’s production for the sake of grabbing all the attention himself.  Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is just out of rehab, and Riggan’s attempts to be close to her are shunned.  This, and a variety of other dark (and often hilarious) circumstances begin to push Riggan to the verge of mental collapse, with his very grip on reality becoming increasingly tenuous.  To say much more would be to spoil much of the film’s charm, but I would like to say that just about every time you think you know what’s going on, you should be prepared to have that expectation subverted right until the very end.

This is often achieved through some phenomenal acting talent on the part of Keaton, Norton, and Stone.  Keaton very gradually lets the stress of producing the show alter him from passably sane to less-than-such; Norton makes what is ostensibly an antagonist into one of the most sympathetic (and in some ways pathetic) characters on screen; and Stone, though not playing an actress in this film, has created layers of depth to her character that slowly peel away the more she speaks.  However, Keaton’s and Norton’s exchanges are perhaps the best realized in the film; since both actors are portraying actors, their scenes capitalize on the nature of their craft, flawlessly shifting between realistic dialogue and performance, blurring the line between them so that it is difficult to tell what the story’s true reality is.

On the technical side, I can almost guarantee that the folks in charge of editing and cinematography are due for their Oscars this year, because I highly doubt that any other film is going to top the grace and precision necessary to pull off this film’s grandest illusion: the uninterrupted cut.  The majority of this film exists as one long, continuous shot, following actors down hallways, playing with mirrors to show two faces at once during conversations, and moving around the actors in a surreal blend of reality and cinematicism.  And it never stops.  If you’re paying attention, you can pick out the moments where the scene likely ended and was resumed at a later time, but it is all done so seamlessly that the illusion is mind-bogglingly impressive.

I could likely go on and on about why I found this film so extraordinary, but this is a review, not an analysis.  If you are looking for a recommendation, Birdman has most certainly earned it.  It seems I chose a hell of a movie to start off awards season with.  Here’s hoping that the other contenders have what it takes to compete.

What award-nominated films would you like to see me tackle in the coming weeks?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below. 

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