Birdman (2014)

Oh, where do I start with Birdman. It was so different, so bold, so ambitious, but it pulled off what it was looking to achieve so perfectly.

The thought I had consistently throughout this film was how meta it is. The film was a really thoughtful satire about acting, theater, Hollywood, critics, Michael Keaton’s career, and more. Extremely self-aware, extremely reflective. So good.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of my favorite things about this film was how it played with audience expectations. I’ll talk more about it after the trailer, but let me tease you by saying it reminded me of Magritte. This movie was so introspective that it made me think of surrealist art. My friends and I left the theater feeling like we had left one of our humanities seminars in college.

First of all, it stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor who previously found fame starring in comic book superhero films “Birdman”. You did hear me mention that this film satirizes Michael Keaton’s acting career, right? Maybe it would have been a more subtle satire if they had cast a different actor, but it was so perfect with Keaton playing the role himself. (For those not in the know, Michael Keaton is most famous for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s films Batman and Batman Returns.) The movie mirrors his career very closely; at one point, he cites how the last Birdman movie he did was in 1992, which is the year that Batman Returns was released.

Michael Keaton is great. What a stupendous performance. I really know him best from Beetlejuice, actually, but this has really opened my eyes to Michael Keaton as an actor. Amazing comeback performance. He delivers so simply but deliberately. Just excellent work on his part.

I loved this movie stylistically. The pseudo-one-take style made for really great transitions that I was a big fan of. One criticism is that the shakiness of the camerawork would get distracting. It really lent an indie film feeling to it, not really in a good way. It would seem amateurish at times, to have tight shots that were wavering over an actor’s face.

But speaking of these tight shots, I really appreciated the emphasis on the actors’ monologues in this. Combined with the seamless cinematography, the monologues added to the theater feeling of this movie, which I found refreshing. How often do you watch a movie that feels a bit like watching a play? Even when Hollywood adapts plays for films, you lose that. I loved this.

I also have to really commend Edward Norton. I haven’t seen a film of his in a long while and this performance is pretty different from the ones I’ve seen in the past. He plays Mike Shiner, a diva stage actor who is incapable of much else but acting. I forgot how much I love watching Edward Norton. He is the secondary protagonist, I would argue, for this film. While he is the source of most of the comic moments in the film, there’s this darkness in his character that we see slowly being resolved over the course of the movie. This is the kind of role that makes you an Edward Norton fan, trust me.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu did a great job and I appreciated many of his little deliberate touches. For example, in the opening shot, we see a brief glimpse – maybe a one-second cutaway – of jellyfish on the beach. If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t have know what it was or you would have missed it completely. By the end of the movie, we know what this moment was, it is significant. Little things like this are so pleasing to me in movies, tying little ends together at the beginning and end of a film.

More comments after the trailer:

One of my favorite motifs used in this movie was Riggan’s powers. It was an opening shot, seeing Michael Keaton meditating and — more importantly — levitating. Throughout the film, we see him use this telekinesis in small ways, like moving objects around on tables. He never does this in front of other people, so it’s a bit difficult to understand if these powers are real or not.

Opening shot, featuring Michael Keaton floating in tighty whities

HERE IS WHERE WE GET ALL MAGRITTE UP IN THE PLACE.

It isn’t real. You must remember, this is a movie. There are no powers. This character isn’t real and his powers aren’t real. So ultimately, it doesn’t matter if his powers are real. We never see any real confirmation if they are real or not. Sure, he doesn’t fly to the theater, as evidenced (or is it?) by the cab driver chasing after him demanding his cab fare. But what happens at the end, when he disappears from his room, seemingly out the window, and his daughter looks up and smiles?

Closing shot, featuring Emma Stone

Another way that the movie toyed with these expectations was in places like the scene when Riggan gets a real gun for his character’s suicide in the play. Previously, he had been using a toy gun that Mike mocks for not being threatening enough. We then see him load and cock this gun in his dressing room. He is standing before his entranced audience with the gun to his head and as the movie’s audience, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s this element of dramatic irony that we have but the movie audience doesn’t, where we know that the gun is real.

Or do we? At this point, it’s not difficult to question what events are actually happening in the story and which ones aren’t. Did he really load the gun? Did he really bring it on stage? Did he really fly through Midtown? We hear a tension-building drum beat through several scenes, and then sometimes we’d see the drummer. Was this drum beat “real”? Was it just something that we, as movie-goers, take for granted as being part of the movie experience? Was it in Riggan’s head, like the swelling orchestral music that he was able to cue? Who knows? There was this great meta layer of who the audience is. Is it us, the movie-goer? Is it the audience in the theater, watching the play? Is it the people in Times Square? Is it the crew members watching Riggan and Mike wrestling on the ground? There’s a lot of watching the audience, art imitating life imitating art.

Emma Stone, while her character underwhelmed me in this movie (although her performance didn’t, I just think she didn’t have anywhere to really take it), has my favorite monologue of the movie. She is yelling at her dad about relevance, and how every person in the world is scared of not being important. Celebrities are not exempt from this fear, although they seem to have an easier time conquering it by pretending that they are important. It’s an intense, shouted monologue about whether or not you exist. There’s an interesting point about how Riggan doesn’t exist because he’s not on social media. Of course, by the end, who knows what Riggan’s legacy will be. The Birdman movies? This play? Or the viral video of him running through Times Square in his underpants? Maybe all three and maybe he will have no legacy.

Do you understand why I love this movie. I mean, celebrity actors talking about celebrity, about acting, about critics. It’s incredible, it’s poignant, it’s relevant. I mean, I even liked Zach Galifianakis in this, and I rarely like his performances.

Even my least favorite scene in the movie, the girl-on-girl kiss, served a purpose. I could be reading too much into it, but it was so out of place that I think I’m possibly only misinterpreting. We see so many critically acclaimed films with not just sex scenes but same-sex scenes. It serves only to sensationalize the movie, to bait people, to keep them watching. I especially think to Black Swan, which my friend said is a movie she was reminded of watching Birdman because it is difficult for the viewer to understand what is real in the film and what is in the protagonist’s head.  This was a beautiful movie about ballet and perfection and battling inner demons but all anyone could talk about was Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman making out. And after a comical-until-it-isn’t attempted rape that isn’t addressed too much, we get this out-of-seemingly-no-where girl-on-girl kiss. The movie is laughing at us, people. It’s laughing at the audience.

I have so much to say about Birdman and I don’t know if I can fully articulate all my thoughts. I still need time to continue to digest, to keep running my mind over these thoughts until they’re smoother.

But I walked out of that theater so energized. I felt challenged intellectually by this film without feeling overwhelmed or drowned in pretentious artsy-fartsy stuff. Just the multiple layers of introspective satire were great, the acting was great, the cinematography was great.

I usually hate dark and black comedies, and I also don’t often like movies that lack closure. But I loved Birdman and I highly recommend it. It didn’t shove these themes that I extrapolated down my throat on a spoon, but I felt like they were being presented so clearly to me. I want to see it again and keep going through what was happening.

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