Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone, Armando Bo.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Craig Mums Grant, Frank Ridley, Bill Camp.

“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is not normally known for his jeu d’esprit and has seemed more comfortable while dealing with heavily pessimistic and sombre themes. His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful are all excellent works but they require serious commitment to get yourself through their excruciatingly downbeat material. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that his latest effort in Birdman is ultimately about the fractured and fragile psyche of a man on a seemingly downward spiral. However, Birdman shows another side to Iñárritu’s talents; black it may be but he now surprisingly displays a great talent for comedy.

Film Review Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once a massive Hollywood star that made his reputation playing the superhero Birdman. However, his career faded after the third instalment of the franchise and he now finds himself working on the Broadway stage. He’s determined to prove his worth as a real actor and director by adapting a Raymond Carver play but problems with his cast, his family and his own fragile mental state threaten to sink his ambitions.

Films within films have often been a theme throughout filmmaking. To become self-referential is a bold move. Robert Altman’s The Player or the surreal work of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are notable works that have toyed with the life imitating art imitating life structure. It can be hard to pull off but these films are just a couple of examples of when it’s done right and Iñárritu’s latest can now consider itself to be on the same level.

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On previous evidence, Iñárritu has proven to be a very clever director. He has always had a grasp on his material and delivered their fractured structures and timeframes with deftness and consummate skill. His work on Birdman is as impressive as he’s ever been but it’s the handling of comedy that’s impresses most. Not only is he able to capture the absurdity and quirks in human behaviour and competing ego’s but he also utilises these behaviours to create an inventive and original farce.

Employing the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki as director of photography is also a genius stroke. In a short space of time, Lubezki has become one of the most respected cinematographer’s in the business and if you look at his work on Gravity last year or his work here, you can easily see why. He manages to keep the camera constantly moving throughout the films entirety; one minute we’re focused, up close and personal, on the actors before sweeping through claustrophobic corridors, upstairs and down to find another dramatic moment. The film wasn’t shot as one continuous take but it’s miraculously made to look like it and credit must go to editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for their seamless work on Lubezki’s constantly mobile camerawork.

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As the long, seemingly continuous shots grab your attention, though, so too do the performances. Across the board, everyone delivers. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough are given small roles but they’re by no means ineffective. Naomi Watts produces the emotional quality she always does and Emma Stone really sinks her teeth into the conflicted and tortured daughter role. Again, Zach Galifiniakas is given a small role where he only sporadically appears throughout the story but whenever he does, he commands a surprising range of emotions. I was very impressed with his dramatic work when he’s normally considered a comedy actor. From the supporting players, though, it’s Ed Norton who shines brightest. It’s been a while since Norton has had a role that he’s able to reaffirm his talents but he finds it here. Again, self-referential, Norton sends himself up. He has a reputation for being difficult to work with but bravely embraces a character that similarly reflects his acting methods. As a big admirer of Norton, I can only hope that this sees him back where he belongs. Which brings me to the leading man; I’ve never really been too kind or retrained on my dislike for Michael Keaton. I’ve often found him to be quite a self-conscious actor and could never shake off the feeling that most of his work is nothing more than a performance. He never allowed me to suspend my disbelief and for any actor that is a major demerit and (to be brutally honest) unforgivable. That being said, as Riggan Thompson, Keaton wonderfully parodies himself and I have to hold my hands up here… he’s absolutely outstanding in Birdman. It’s by far his finest work to date and a role that’s tailor made for him. Having successfully donned the Batsuit in Tim Burton’s take on the dark knight, Keaton never really reached those heights again. He had the occasional role that provided him with reasonable supporting hits but, for the most part, Keaton had had his day. This is the film that will, no doubt, bring him more work where his fans will rejoice in seeing his solid return.

I was honestly one for passing Birdman by. I do enjoy the works of Norton and Iñárritu but when I heard about Michael Keaton headlining a film, I considered giving it a wide berth. However, the buzz surrounding it left me with no choice but to check it out. I’m glad I did as it’s an accomplished piece of work that explores the weighty themes of the human ego, past successes and the inability to come to terms with failure. Meanwhile, it satirises showbiz, and in particular, the superhero hero genre. Everyone from Woody Harrelson in The Hunger Games to Robert Downey, Jr in his “tin-man get up” takes a dig but ultimately the film is one big in-joke that manages to tread a fine line between fantasy and reality.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Given the unusual style of filming long takes, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton kept a running tally of flubs made by the actors. Emma Stone made the most mistakes, Zach Galifianakis made the fewest.

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49 Responses to “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

  1. Great review, Mark! Glad you enjoyed this (much more than I did). Sorry to hear of your dislike for Michael Keaton, though. Oh man – I like Keaton! He really is great in this film – I’d be happy if he gets the Oscar. 🙂

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    • I did have reservations on the ending and it almost undone the whole thing. I thought a good bit about the film since I seen it last month, though. and it really is very well put together. Despite my usual dislike for Keaton, I thought he was superb and I wouldn’t argue with him taking the Oscar either. His performance was a big surprise for me!

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  2. Good review Mark. The ensemble is great, but it’s Keaton who fully walks away with this one. Let’s hope that this means that the Oscar is next in his sight.

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  3. Good read man! It seems like the comedy impressed you a lot and it’s definitely spot on here. I thought the interplay between Riggan and Mike was best of all. Wouldn’t begrudge seeing this film walk off with a few awards next week as I really enjoyed it but I do have other preferences in all of the categories!

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    • Cheers Stu! I did enjoy the humour here and that predominantly came from Riggan and Mike. I have other preferences in most categories too. I would love Norton to get one but I can’t see past Simmons and I can’t see past Boyhood for best film. It’s a hard call but I reckon there’s a good chance for Keaton and for Emmanuel Lubezki’s sublime camerawork.

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      • Yeah, same here, I’m really keen for Boyhood to win. Just my own simple preference really, but ultimately if this takes it, or something else, then I won’t grumble too much. Keaton definitely has a good chance though as does Lubezki, but If Dick Pope doesn’t get that Oscar I’ll be kicking off.

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      • Yeah, I wouldn’t grumble too much myself. It’s a strong year again and most of the candidates are worthy. I do think Birdman will take something (possibly Dick Pope) but I reckon The Grand Budapest hotel will be the big loser on the night.

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  4. Good review, I agree the ending was really disappointing.
    Learning is an arse, should have stayed with beetlejuice in my opinion.
    That ugly Deviant better not get an oscar!

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  5. YES!!! Glad we’re in the same camp on this one too, Mark! It’s my #1 film of the year so naturally I LOVE this.“Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige” is such an awesome quote, in fact all the scenes between Keaton/Norton are such a highlight, though I also like the quieter moments of Keaton alone and with Amy Ryan. I feel the opposite as you about Keaton, I’ve always been a fan of his, but glad we agree on his astounding performance here.

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    • Yeah, I’ve never been one to praise Keaton, Ruth, but it’s hard not to on this occasion. I can honestly see him taking the Oscar. I think Eddie Redmayne is the only one standing in his way.

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  6. Rock solid review bro. Lots of love out there for this one. I did like it but I wasn’t quit as enamored with it as most. I do really appreciate it but I don’t think its quite as profound as it thinks it is. A few parts didn’t work (such as the over-the-top theater critic scene) and there were times when I wanted the truly amazing cinematography was a tad much. I wanted the camera to just stop and let the actors work.

    Still I found myself hypnotized by the film. It never lost my attention or bored me. Definitely a good movie.

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  7. I truly loved the film for the issues presented about art and artist. It was over-the-top fascinating and as mind-blowing philosophically as ‘Being John Malkovich’ … I’m glad for Keaton and Norton to give fine performances worthy of their talent. Nice review, Mark.

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    • Absolutely Cindy. The art and artist issue is always a winner for me and this explores that fine line brilliantly. You’re spot on again by mentioning Being John Malkovich. This is a film that could easily be taken from the warped mind of Charlie Kaufman.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very good stuff. You seemed to take to this more than I. I can’t quite work out why I didn’t love it. Glad you did though mate.

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    • You’re not alone there, mate. I know of many who didn’t take to it as much as they expected to. I had some issues with the ending but overall, I thought it was brilliantly crafted and acted. Quite an original piece.

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  9. Really nice write up Mark even if we disagree on this one.
    I did think all of the actors did a good to great job though and at times it was really fun to see what the movie would do next.

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  10. I am itching to watch this one again. I was a little underwhelmed with the characters upon first viewing (though Norton and Keaton gave great performances), but the overall style of the film was so damn invigorating. I am hoping that the film will gel better for me upon second viewing.

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    • I’m looking forward to another viewing too, Courtney. I loved it first time around but it was the end that I struggled with. I don’t normally mind ambiguous endings but the answers I kept coming to didn’t fully satisfy me. I reckon it a film that will benefits all round with a revisit.

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  11. Stellar review, man! I absolutely loved this one and I’m very glad to see it’s been getting a lot of praise. Second Oscar in a row for “El Chivo” Lubezki! Although he was ROBBED of one for Tree of Life.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Nice review Mark, really need to see this film ASAP. I mean what a supremely talented cast.

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  13. Glad you gave this one a shot Mark and enjoyed it. Iñárritu is one of my favourite directors and I was excited, but also a little nervous, to see such a change in direction. As it turns out he pulls it off with ease – I have a feeling this could become my favourite of his films to date.

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    • Yeah, I’d say he pulls it off and it’s probably my favourite of his films too, Natalie. I’ve enjoyed all his others but they are a bit grim and it was great to see him be so funny here.

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  14. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this. Iñárritu’s films are always interesting but can tend to be on the heavy side. Touche on your spot on quote about his films “they require serious commitment to get yourself through their excruciatingly downbeat material”. 21 Grams may have been one the most downbeat film I’ve ever seen.

    The directing and cinematography was a tour de force. As admirable as Linklater’s idea was for Boyhood it was no match for the audacity of Birdman. Besides Michael Apted has been doing the documentary version of this idea for 50+ years with the UP Series.

    Seeing Keaton make a comeback was cool but the unexpected return of Norton to form was a nice bonus.

    Not a fan of Keaton? Try the movie Clean and Sober. A hustling drug addict checks himself into rehab to escape trouble with the law, and realizes that it’s exactly what he needs. It’s from ’88 staring Kathy Baker, M. Emmett Walsh and Morgan Freeman. Here’s a short clip:

    Have you ever see the film Russian Ark? It was a period piece, documenting 300 years of Russian history, done in one shot with a Steadicam. It took 3 takes get the 96 minute shot right. Amazingly they only had 36 hours to complete the shot or the film would have to be scrapped due to the museum needing to reopen. It used 2000 actors, 3 live orchestras and covered 33 rooms of The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersberg, Russia. They ended up dubbing in the sound later because of the difficulty of recording real-time sound. Now that my friend… was pretty impressive. The quality of the trailer doesn’t capture the beauty of the film. It’s one of those films as a film buff, love it or hate it, you just kind of have to see.

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    • The directing and cinematography were indeed top class, Dave. Great contenders for the oscars but I still reckon the ambition of Boyhood was more impressive (despite Apted’s project). I would also say that Birdman is more entertaining than Boyhood yet I was still more taken with Linklater’s film overall. Still, I thought Birdman was top class right up to its ambiguous ending. The ending really bothered me. I’ve since accepted it and mulled it over which has made it a bit more palatable.

      As for Keaton, I’ve seen Clean and Sober and wouldn’t say that he necessarily bad. It’s just that his style of acting doesn’t appeal to me. I often see through it and it always strikes me a “performance”. Really good actors can embody a character but I’ve never really got that with Keaton. I think that’s why I liked him in Birdman though. He was allowed to be himself in some senses and it seemed to fit the role perfectly.

      As for Russian Ark, that’s is very impressive, man. I do need to see that!

      Cheers, as always, mate! Nice one!

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      • I know what you’re saying about Keaton. I went back and looked at his filmography and I there were plenty of films I liked him in. Night Shift, Beetlejuice, Batman, Clean and Sober, Pacific Heights, The Paper, Birdman and, fun fact, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown, where he played the same character Ray Nicolet.

        Maybe it’s because he’s from my hometown Pittsburgh that I have a soft spot for him. But you’re right… he’s kind of a one trick pony with his acting.

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      • I do think he’s a one trick pony, Dave. Or at least I did until Birdman. Probably the only other time I liked him was in Beetlejuice.

        That being said, I understand you supporting a home player. I do the same with many Glaswegian actors. McAvoy for example.

        I do remember seeing an interview with Keaton a while back, though, and he spoke of his proud Scottish heritage. His original name being Douglas is also a good Scottish name! I should probably support him more! 😉

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  15. Great review! So glad you liked it, I just fell in love with this movie instantly. I’m really hoping Keaton wins Oscar for this – he was so excellent.

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    • Thanks Sati. I really enjoyed this one (despite the ending) but I have a sneaky suspicion I’ll enjoy it even more second time round. As I mention, I’m not a big fan of Keaton but this is a role that he excelled in and I wouldn’t mind him winning the Oscar either.

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  16. G
    reat review Mark. Although I must admit I was surprised that you were so favourable to the film, given the comment you made on facebook, which seemed to suggest you were underwhelmed. I loved the film personally, but I have always had an interest in films that reflect on the strange reality of life in show business and the warped-psyches of those who are lucky(or unlucky) enough to have had fame and success. Getting the former Batman to play, what is essentially a satire of what being type cast as a big super-hero character does to your mind, was both fascinating and amusing. I drew attention to that in my review too. I can only imagine what the likes of Chris Henderson and Robert Downey Jnr were thinking. I, I don’t think it has translated as well with the general public. At least not here in Taiwan anyway. I think people tend to buy into the idea that being rich and famous resolves all their problems. I think the film confuses some people as it is an abstract examination of how that industry can fuck you up. We are sold too many images of glitz and glamour for the average punter to relate to what is going on in this film. Meanwhile in Hollywood they are lapping it up and singing it’s praises. You can see why as it must be therapeutic for them. Who knows hat goes on in their heads when the cameras turn off? This film gives as a possible glimpse into how troubled they really are. I was a fan of Keaton in the Beetlejuice era, but he spectacularly lost his way. I don’t think this film will make him a phoenix rising from the ashes – I think this will be his err, swansong. Here is my review for you interest. https://darrenmoverley81.wordpress.com/2015/01/25/birdman-film-review/

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    • Cheers Darren. I wasn’t overly impressed with ambiguous ending but as a glimpse into the nature of fame and past successes it was very well delivered. Keaton is perfectly cast and he really pulls it off. I think that’s what surprised me the most considering I normally detest the man. I’ve never been overly fond with his style of acting. You could be right on his comeback. As much as it would seem that he has returned to the fore, will he ever really find another role where he can be as effective as he is here? It’s doubtful.

      I’ll swing by on your review a little later buddy. Thanks again! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  17. The “one-shot” take truly elevates this film. It adds so much.

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  18. Excellent review Mark! I watched this recently and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really do love watching Edward Norton’s work, and I thought it was exceptionally entertaining that his character mirrored his reputation at times. I thought that all worked, and the humour was sharp. Stone was (as always – I might be a bit biased) amazing, and Keaton was fantastic here. A solid flick all round, and I think the camera work was good. In fact, it was something my other half specifically commented on – how it made him feel and the way things looked, which he rarely does.

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    • I echo your and your other half’s thoughts here, Zoe. Norton was superb. It’s great to see him acting properly again and Watts is always reliable. Keaton, on the other hand, really surprised me. I normally can’t stand him but I couldn’t fault him at all here and Lubezki’s camerawork was a thing of genius. Along with Simmons for Whiplash, Lubezki was the other, hands down, deserved Oscar winner.

      Liked by 1 person

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