"Birdman" Soars to Glory

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Josh Axelrod

It’s been about a week since I viewed Birdman, the artistic, magnificently-directed, camera-clever, overwrought-with-symbolism, tour-de-force film and I still don’t really get it.
 
This tale of a washed-up actor trying to revamp his career by adapting a play for Broadway stars Michael Keaton in an uncomfortably close-to-real-life portrayal as Riggan Thompson — past star of the “Birdman” franchise. Sound familiar? Keaton was the first to play Batman on the screen, long before the days of Clooney and Bale, and hung up the cape after one sequel. Thompson has gone years without playing a leading role and pines for the spotlight, acceptance of his peers, and critical acclaim. And in the birth of his attempted reinvention we meet our very layered protagonist; the film starts with a shot of the actor meditating and that shot never really stops until the film’s end.
 

 
Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of the highly-praised Babel, creates Birdman to appear as a single take. Most films are comprised of thousands of shots. The camera might show an actor talking then cut to another person and then cut back again. Instead, Iñárritu uses clever editing and long precarious shots to present the film as a single unending stream of images. The movie’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki experimented with this style in the Alfonso Cuaron films Children of Men and last year’s Gravity but takes it to an entirely different level here. The effect it has is incredible. The audience watches these events unravel as if they never stop; floating through the narrative with wide-eyed awe and an entirely new film-viewing experience that is both unsettling and astonishing.
 
Emma Stone, who plays Thompson’s sarcastic daughter is a standout. The young actress has been stealing scenes since her breakout in 2006’s Superbad. But this is Emma Stone like you’ve never seen her before. Keaton moors the fantastic ensemble acting with the best performance of his career. The irony of his character trying to mount a comeback, and Keaton achieving one through this film and a probable Oscar is all part of the fun.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton): “I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters.”

Keaton is phenomenal but Edward Norton almost outshines him in a supporting role as a pretentious and psychotic actor. Norton sputters out a thousand words a second and moves like a hummingbird in a simply genius performance as Mike Shiner the broadway actor who is known for delivering simply genius performances. Feeling meta yet? Despite juggling several themes, Birdman deals primarily with the praise and critique of acting, the decline of movie star careers, and how we view Hollywood and culture.
Birdman does not just hold a mirror up to its audience members, who sit in their seats gripping their armrests with white knuckles. Birdman throws the mirror, picks up a broken shard, and holds it to the neck of each audience member. This is the extent of Inarritu’s piercing and relevant new film.
I cannot even begin to analyze the symbolism or explain all the themes in this busy intellectual film but that never takes away from the enjoyment of witnessing such an intensely original directing style and watching these actors work at the height of their abilities. If Boyhood is the instant classic of 2014 then Birdman will surely be the cult classic in years to come.