Monday, November 17, 2014

*NEW* Birdman

BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) * * * *
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

 A former movie star from a popular superhero franchise wants to make a comeback through the legitimate theater, but he is haunted by the decision to leave that lucrative career. The star's name is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), and for this task he has chosen to adapt Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a tribute to the author who once encouraged him.  As each day progresses closer to opening night, Riggan becomes more insecure about his ability to realize his goal and descends into a kind of madness where he battles his alter ego Birdman.

Meanwhile, the world around Riggan is also a wreck.  An injured co-star is replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a respected stage actor who appears intent on sabotaging the show.  Every time they have a preview, Shiner causes mischief by breaking character and questioning the direction of the production.  Shiner got the part due to his connection to the show's leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts), and eventually trains his eye on Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is a recovering drug addict.  Riggan considers firing Mike, but his producer-lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) persuades him that this would be a terrible idea.

 Another area of discontent for Riggan is the growing realization that he hasn't been a particularly good father.  We come to suspect that one reason for Sam being part of the crew is to try to re-connect.  But he is still consumed by his need to prove himself as a true artist, a notion that is raised in a conversation he has with a theater critic at a bar one night.  She assures him that he is a mere celebrity, not an actor, and that nothing he says will persuade her to give his play a fair shake.  All of this distracts him from prioritizing, leading him further into a depressive state of wondering if his existence matters anymore.  To him, this play is his last chance at redemption for his mistakes.

Despite its downbeat themes, "Birdman" has an energetic style.  Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera swoops around corners and over buildings, helping to give the illusion, along with Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione's editing, of a long continuous shot.  This gives the film a feeling of freedom that more noticeable cutting wouldn't, creating an intimacy with the events unfolding.

The cast is uniformly impressive.  Emma Stone has a scene where she assesses her father's situation quite accurately, but seems to regret saying it immediately after.  Then another where she invites Norton to play an intensified game of "Truth or Dare" while perched on the roof of the theater above the city streets.  Edward Norton shows us a fairly complex character, outwardly mean-spirited but internally uncertain.  His interactions with both Keaton and Stone are compelling.

Then there is Michael Keaton himself.  The character he plays is fascinating, as it plays with our knowledge of Keaton's own career, but it also allows the actor to explore a range of emotions.  Riggan Thomson wants to prove he is more than what people expect of him, but is not sure if he can be.  Part of the reason the film works so well is that we actually care whether he succeeds or whether he succumbs to his demons.

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