Thursday, January 8, 2015

Birdman Review

When I think back to Academy Awards from last year, I don't recall what the many beautiful people were wearing or the speeches that went on far too long or the comical quips of anyone, host or presenter. It isn't to demean the physical appearance of the brightest shining stars of Hollywood or to suggest that they didn't make me laugh then as I watched the ceremony. It's just that so much of a night like that is fun but fleeting, with only a few special moments that for whatever reason manage to resonate with me. A certain person I was rooting for taking home the trophy or a touching, eloquent speech hitting all the right notes emotionally, these are the things I often times remember for years to come.

Oddly, my fondest memory of the 86th Academy Awards was one that most people wouldn't even want to remember, a piece of the ceremony that likely served as an opportunistic bathroom break more than a special and important slice of cinematic history. Even though it was not only expected, it was pretty much a guarantee, I still recall the joy I felt when Emmanuel Lubezki was announced as the winner for his astounding work as the cinematographer on Gravity, a film that means so much to me and his genius handling of the camera and wondrous grasp of the aesthetic is a vital reason as to why.

I remember learning that Lubezki would be doing the photography for Birdman and I was excited to see what he could come up with next. For the second year in a row, my jaw was practically resting on the floor as I witnessed the work of a man functioning at the top of his craft. Perhaps back to back Oscars will be enough for me to forgive his baffling loss for The Tree of Life. What he achieved here with Birdman is unlike anything I have ever seen before, which is becoming a repetitive thing to say every single time he shoots something new. A little bit of brilliant trickery was used in order to portray the entire Birdman experience as a single, sublime long take, a camera that smoothly follows characters down hallways, into and out of rooms, inside and outside, and we never notice a traditional cut.

What makes this perceived single long take all the more unique and ingenious is that it doesn't just carry us through a narrative that takes place over a small, set amount of time to establish realism. We are watching characters talk in one room, and with a quick journey down a corridor those very same people are now performing their play later that night. To the viewer only a few seconds have passed, but that sweeping camera serves simultaneously as a means to deliver an image and also a time machine. Not only that, we also travel from a scene grounded in reality to a bizarre moment of illusion taking place inside a man's mind and then quickly back again, but it somehow is never jarring or hard to follow. Everything makes sense, even when it makes no sense at all. Impossibly all of these pieces fit, and both director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki are to be deeply admired for making this happen.

On a performance level, my two personal favorites from 2014 now have a third to keep them company. Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, say hello to Michael Keaton, who so beautifully and cleverly and confidently portrays Riggan Thomson it simply must be the finest moment of his entire career, one that seemed to be essentially over with as I can't recall the last time I watched Keaton in a lead role that mattered. The fact that I can question the relevancy of Keaton is what makes his casting here all the more smart and inspired, as the character he plays seems awfully familiar, a man who has seen his star status fade away after walking away from his gig as a superhero many years ago. Sounds pretty similar to the arc of a man who once portrayed Batman, right? Absolutely, and this is done intentionally, and Keaton absolutely nails his turn here with a supreme level of nuance. If he accepts the Oscar next month for this role, I will be quite happy with the decision.

I found it interesting that the other two stars of this film, both of whom are being recognized for their roles (and rightfully so), are Edward Norton, who played Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before being replaced by Mark Ruffalo, and Emma Stone who was a vital piece of the last two Spider-Man films. At a time when the superhero sub-genre absolutely dominates the box office every single year, this brilliant, beautiful and completely original wonder comes along about a man who cannot escape nor rise above the shadow of this one former masked hero character that hangs over him, and the three stars of the film all can relate in some fashion.

On a narrative level, I wasn't moved by Birdman, but I was constantly compelled and I honestly think a lot of the depth of this may have been lost on me since I spent the entire film drooling over the technical achievements like 14 year old me was doing over the Playboy under my mattress. Overall though, the film is a work of art, an unforgettable movie that absolutely everyone should take two hours out of a day to admire. I already can't wait to watch it again.



  1. 5 without the narrative gripping you? This puzzles and confuses me. Without the narrative gripping you, I don't understand how something can be a 5.

  2. Brian, because everything else was absolutely perfect, and it wasn't as if I was bored or anything, I just meant that I rate a few other films higher in 2014 because I made a personal connection, where as this was mostly me admiring the fact that it was so well made and incredibly executed. I can't think of a score less than 5 that would feel right.

    Right now I have it sitting as the 5th best of 2014, where as if I made some deeper emotional connection to it, there is no doubt it would be the best of the year.

    1. 4 stars. Reserve 5 for the very best. Only the ultimates should get 5. I would say rarely would any movie truly get 5 unless they are unforgettable, timeless, and well, perfect.

    2. Surprisingly I still haven't given out a whole lot of 5/5 overall, despite the fact that I seem to post a lot of positive stuff. I think I have given 140 or so out of thousands of movies. I sort of see it as I can give two different films a 5/5 and one can just be a stronger one than the other, rather than them both being perfect.

  3. Only the best you have ever seen would I expect to get five. You know, like ROTY or HB.