By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Like one of Tony Stark’s Jericho missiles, the new film by writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros) launches a razor-sharp satire that splits up and decimates all of its intended targets. That is not to say that there is no love involved in this film. Iñárritu dishes out tough love for what he truly adores, but does attack conventions he despises with extreme prejudice. Birdman definitely is a challenging film that will most certainly rub some people the wrong way. However, considering the state of modern cinema today, people cannot deny the truth behind his message. That fact that Iñárritu boldly attacks and does so in such a brilliant way makes me respect him that much more.
Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor most famous for playing the superhero Birdman. Now considered a C-list celebrity, Riggan hopes to reinvigorate his career and his love for performing by adapting a Raymond Carver play for Broadway. In addition to battling his own personal demons, Riggan must also contend with an accident on the set and the issues of his cast members Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and Leslie (Naomi Watts). As the opening night approaches, Riggan veers closer and closer to having a nervous breakdown while having to put out more fires caused by his cast members and the monkey on his back known as Birdman.
This movie not only wows on a technical level, but also awes with an excellent screenplay by Iñárritu , Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. On the technical and visual side, the movie flows at a near constant rhythm seamlessly. It truly is a marvel of superb cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and exceptional editing (Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione). The work of the talented crew helps Iñárritu achieve his vision of a film that has the flow and rhythm of a play. Enhancing the action on screen is the fiery hot improvisational drumming of Antonio Sanchez.
The dialogue flows beautifully with a near improvisational style as well. The outstanding writing in the screenplay sets everything up so wonderfully. The wit, the goofiness, the satire, the pathos all play out superbly. I laughed heartily, sat enthralled by the artistry of the filmmaking and writing, and felt appropriately sentimental during its more poignant moments. I can honestly say that I experienced a wide range of emotions watching this film, but the one singular, constant feeling I had through this experience is awe. I sat in awe of this truly amazing film that is superbly written, shot, edited, and performed.
In addition to the directing and writing accolades it deserves next year, I sincerely hope that all of the lead actors receive the nominations they unquestionably deserve. Michael Keaton, so far, has delivered the performance of the year. Keaton, who sadly has had to settle for supporting roles in recent years, makes a long overdue comeback as a lead actor. He puts his heart and soul into this role and never hits a sour note. The choice of Keaton is not just ingenious casting because of his history as Batman, but is perfect, simply because he has the talent and utilizes it exceptionally. Emma Stone also delivers what may be her most mature performance as Sam, Riggan’s daughter and assistant. Her brassy attitude fits the character well, but Stone also brings a lovely vulnerability to her character that audiences have not previously seen.
Offering some zany and somewhat insane comic relief are Naomi Watts and Andrea Risborough as Lesly and Laura. Their characters offer different shades of crazy with Laura showing a more dark and twisted side, and Lesly often expressing her insecurities. Both actresses radiate in these roles. Edward Norton is always exciting to watch on screen, and this turn as intense method actor Mike Shiner is no exception. When Norton is on screen, he fires on all cylinders and never falters once. The Shiner character personifies the madness and passion that comes with method-acting and this makes for some hilarious comedic fodder. Still, like all of the main characters in the film, Shiner is developed like a real flesh and blood person and not a caricature. So on the flip side, Norton effectively uses his charisma and natural fragility to reveal the inner child beneath the facade. To portray all of these characters, the actors knowingly self-deprecate, but do so in the name of sending an important message.
This message, that critiques movies that dominate the box-office and the obsession with celebrity, will probably turn some people off, particularly those who love superhero movies. The movie may even offend artists and business people in entertainment. Iñárritu pulls no punches, and I respect him highly for that. I may not whole-heartedly agree with every single indictment he makes, but I can absolutely understand why he takes this stance. Iñárritu obviously doesn’t like how money skews the priorities of filmmakers and actors and he acknowledges the madness behind the artistic and business sides of drama. Because he unconditionally commits to his message and does so with such great skill and artistry, he has made Birdman one of the best films of 2014.