Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance)

A mash-up (or mix-up?)
or styles in a powerhouse comedy

     We saw Birdman two weeks ago and I’m still not certain how I feel about it.  For one thing, it’s two movies rolled into one.  There’s the tight paced, hyper-energetic backstage comedy that most reviewers have made a big deal about and then the more intriguing mid-life crisis fantasy that keeps cutting in and then finally takes over.  Actually, Michael Keaton is sixty-three, but he could pass for a decade younger.  This is his best work
since 1988 when he blew up American cinema with his range in the double-header of Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober and was roundly ignored, except by the National Society of Film Critics.  

Michael Keaton and Birdman
     Much has been made of the similarity between Keaton’s history as Batman – he was the best superhero ever because he knew to play Bruce Wayne with understated wit and that the Bat suit would take care of itself – and Riggan’s, whom he plays, major success as the Birdman, which he’s never equaled.  Keaton has proved himself and he seems like he’d be fine living in Montana.  The role is a coincidence and probably fun for him, but that’s as far as it goes.  What hasn’t been pointed out is that Birdman owes a heckuva lot to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), which were also mid-life crisis comedies with surreal elements.  

The Opening Scene
     Alejandro Iñárritu has been a primary proponent of hyperlink cinema with disparate characters connecting with each other through various plotlines in Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2002), and Babel (2006).  Missed opportunities and reappraising misspent lives was a reoccurring theme in these and in Biutiful (2008).  It is here as well and the grotty interiors, which set my teeth on edge.  Where Birdman takes 
Backstage Drama
off is the mix between realistic comedy and fantasy becoming an eventual reality.  It left me uneasy, though it’s set up from the very first shot.

Special Effects and Cinematography
     The visual imagery in Birdman is breathtaking.  Again, the invisible cuts and long takes have been crowed about and they are remarkable, but the camerawork including what seemed like 360 degree somersaults and explosions onscreen that look to have actually happened were jaw dropping.  And this isn’t a movie with green screens or obvious CGI exercises.  Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer of Gravity (2013), The Tree of Life (2011), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and A Walk in the Clouds (1995) may be the best of an incredible generation right now.  He’s probably a genius.

Emma Stone
     Each cast member has great moments.  Emma Stone actually gets a deep role to play, unlike the mediocre Woody Allen Magic in the Moonlight earlier this year, and she runs with it.  Her eyes are creepy wild and in playing Riggan’s daughter, a young woman who’s both admirable and irksome, she seems to be on the verge of nailing a screen persona.  Amy Ryan brings a resonance to her part as the raisonneur, telling truth to her possibly mad ex-husband Riggan.  Edward Norton nails the subspecies of 

Keaton and Norton
Method Actor.  He displays the character’s incredible talent in the first scene and the fact that he’s an arrogant asshole, who’d probably prefer to direct; his character constantly gives notes to Riggan.  Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis capture the simultaneous intense focus and ceaseless multitasking of creative theatrical types, but Lindsay Duncan plays yet another hag as a critic.  What happened to Duncan’s career choices?  Her character might as well be Miss Havisham, viciously getting back at a film actor because – why?  She couldn’t act?  She couldn’t write for film?  I don’t know, but though I believe that critics are looking for something new, electrifying, and for sacrifice on the part of artists, I don’t believe that she would speak so outrageously to Riggan.  It would be truer for her to simply walk away from him.

    I wish there was some ethnic or sexual orientation diversity in the characters.  The New York theatre has been way ahead of other artistic communities in welcoming and awarding a variety of artists, but a viewer would never know it from Birdman.  Woody Allen didn’t seem to know it either in Bullets Over Broadway (1994) – the last major backstage comedy movie – but then none of his other movies have displayed any diversity, besides Italians.  Birdman works, but maybe not for the reasons it’s been publicized.

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