Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BIRDMAN review

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is not exactly known for his sense of humor. So, in many ways, "Birdman" feels like a necessary breath of fresh air. It's an attempt to inject some new life into his career, into his filmography... which started to falter over the last 8 years. If you've been following this site for any length of time, you'd know I'm a huge fan of Inarritu's debut film "Amores Perros" and I very much enjoyed his follow-up film "21 Grams" as well.

But after "Babel" and "Biutiful," two films that seem to wallow a little too much in its misery and seem more concerned with its "message" than the characters that appear on screen, it seemed Inarritu had hit a bit of a crossroads. From the announcement of "Birdman," however, and to the unveiling of the first trailer of his latest movie, it soon become quite clear that this was going to be a very different beast. Is it a good kind of beast? Is it up there with his debut film? Does it show a lot of promise, a hint at a new and promising direction? Personally, my answer is both yes... and... no.

Yeah... unfortunately, a week after seeing it, I still have not been able to fully embrace "Birdman" in spite of my overall admiration of the film. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who's trying to get his career back on track by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, adapted from the work of Raymond Carver. "Birdman" is unique is that it was made to feel as if the entire movie was captured in one take. For long stretches, we are right up in Riggan's face. We are forced to be sucked into his world for nearly two hours (or, well, the movie spans over the course of 3-4 days). In that time, we're introduced to his stoner daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his agent/lawyer/assistant (Zack Galifianakis).

And then there are his fellow players on the stage, including Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike Shiner. Lesley catches a big break by starring in this play as it's her very first time on Broadway. Meanwhile, Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton in easily one of his best roles of the last decade) is her boyfriend, a method actor who is a natural on stage but a complete asshole in real life.

"Birdman" features an array of colorful characters, but they're largely filtered through the eyes of Riggan Thomson. Everything's filtered through his eyes, as a matter of fact. And there are some fascinating sequences that show just how unstable Riggan Thomson's mind is.

The long takes are impressively made, exquisitely shot. There's no doubting that, but I can't help but feel that this method of filmmaking has some limitations. While the characters around Riggan are rather colorful, they are not as interesting when they are left by themselves. There is a subplot between Sam (Riggan's daughter) and Mike Shiner that didn't really fit, for me, with the overall scope of the film. Sure, you know Mike Shiner for a minute and you immediately understand that he should not be anywhere near Riggan's daughter and while the time Shiner spends with Sam does give the character some sense of humanity, he doesn't really reveal anything that we don't already know about him.

In other words, with a movie shot like this, it's very important that this story unfolds in a largely visual way. This is why long takes are so effective when they are used in certain films. But when the film is only a series of long takes, the dialogue doesn't really feel as cinematic or as vital as it should be. The characters, aside from Riggan Thomson, do not seem to matter as much.

So while I loved the way the film uses these different sets and locations inside this Broadway building that the movie takes place in, I am not quite sure the long takes services the story and these characters that well. It services Riggan pretty well and we certainly get to learn much about him, but even with him, when he reminisces about his marriage with his ex-wife, the emotional beats do not really have the same effect as they would have, if the dialogue was shot differently.

Long takes can be an immersive cinematic experience, but what I realized with "Birdman" is that it can also push you away from having a real emotional connection with the story. And while I certainly enjoyed most of this film and it has plenty of great, funny moments (including a fight scene between Norton and Keaton), I just did not connect with it. I say this knowing that many people will connect with this film and I know it's been getting mostly critical raves from many different sources, but "Birdman" is a case where I admired the makings of the film much more than the film itself.

As for Inarritu, this movie may show a lighter side of him, but there is a suffocating effect to this movie that is similar to "Babel" and "Biutiful." While the film mostly pokes fun at Riggan's self-seriousness and self-examinations, it's hard not to feel a little suffocated when you are strapped to such a self-absorbed character for nearly two hours. For some, this movie will be an incredible cinematic ride; personally, while I enjoyed the ride, it didn't exactly sit right in my stomach afterwards... and I'm not sure I'd get back on that ride anytime soon.

Grade: C+

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