Last Autumn when buzz was really starting to build for Birdman I was practically giddy with excitement. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu trying his hand at comedy with an audacious shooting style. Michael Keaton playing what sounded like a version of himself whilst mixing in elements of magical realism. Word of mouth promised it to be one of the finest films of the year. I was skipping to the motion picture house the weekend it came out. Then I watched it. I thought “huh, okay”. To steal the non-sensical opinion Peter Griffin has toward’s The Godfather it just felt like it “insisted on itself”. I never knew what that meant until Birdman. All the pieces were there. It just felt like everything that should have made it great was it’s undoing. The constant flowing camera, heralded by so many became like a barrier between me and the film. Inarritu was so in love with his idea for one long big take of a film that it felt the action served his camera’s whim rather than the other way around. The acting at times was overly shrill, going from deep and meaningful one minute to broad the next. Story wise I couldn’t ever get invested in the story of a man trying to achieve transcendence and know his place in the universe by putting on a play. Overall I came out grossly disappointed.
Now it’s here on Blu-Ray and DVD. Time to return to the scene of my crushing disappointment. Damn it, wouldn’t you know it? That damned continuously moving camera is still there.
Forgive me, I’ve not actually said what the film is about. It did win Best Picture at the Oscars so I assume you’re up to speed but long short of it is: Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson a washed-up Hollywood star who was in a large superhero franchise and is now directing, producing and acting in his first broadway show in order to find some importance in the world. Edward Norton plays a douche-bag version of himself as a great theatre actor, Naomi Watts one of his leads, Emma Stone his ex-junkie daughter and Zach Galifianakis his weary manager.
Back to the review – there is much to admire about the choreography involved in this filming process. It does help bring out the hussle-bussle of life behind the scenes at a theatre. When the camera stops flowing though, when it just sits in one room moving from one character to another it just becomes apparent that the gimmick is still there, especially scenes on a rooftop between Stone and Norton where their faces are almost obscured by poor lighting. I’m still trying to work out exactly why this trick was employed as a way to tell this particular story. I can’t think of any other the Inaurritu’s passion for it. It feels as though he would have shoe-horned it on to whatever he made next. That being said the photography does have moments of beauty, mostly down to the colour palette of DOP Emmanuel Lubezki.
Keaton is a triumph. There is no denying it. His performance reigns in all the elements that have made him a compelling star over the years. A combination of light and manic comedic timing, sad eyes and demented grin make it hard to really bother with anyone else on screen. Emma Stone is also a highlight. Her scenes with Keaton range from flat out melodrama to genuinely touching. Elsewhere Watts is given a frankly thankless role and Norton is as annoying as he usually is.
There are funny moments in the film. But as a comedy – as it was intended – it doesn’t hold up well. A drama with a few light moments is a closer assessment. It is after all a relatively dark subject of a man reaching his spiritual nadir and trying desperately to not let the dark side of his soul eat away everything he holds about himself… all in the fabulous world of the theatre. As a satire on theatre and actors it makes for an entertaining view. But do we really need to be told again that actors can be egotistical and callous? The moments of magical realism go from being a genuine delight. Riggan’s figurative and literal flights of fancy across New York City are wonderfully done but his “mind powers” (yes they’re metaphorical) feel pointless. Oh and the final shot, that final bloody shot no doubt meant as a Lost in Translation style “what did he say?” here meant as a “what does she see?” can go to hell.
Let’s not end on a downer. Certainly a big improvement on second viewing. If you allows yourself to be swept up in the craftsmanship of the photography chances are you will be swept up by the story and stand along those who hail Birdman as a masterpiece. If you can’t get over that hurdle though, Birdman may forever remain a brave attempt at creating a truly theatrical and cerebral film. A story that’s not groundbreaking, an overall alienating conceit are saved by some fine performances.
SPECIAL FEATURES (BLU-RAY)
- Birdman: All-Access
- A Conversation with Michael Keaton and Alejandro G. Iñárritu
- Gallery: Chivo’s On-Set Photos
SPECIAL FEATURES (DVD)
- Birdman: All-Access
- Gallery: Chivo’s On-Set Photos
Dir: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu
Scr: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough
Prd: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole
DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki
Music: Antonio Sanchez
Run time: 119 mins
Birdman is available on Blu-Ray and DVD via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on May 4th 2015.
Check out a scene taken from the Birdman: All Access documentary available on the Blu-Ray and DVD.