Thursday, November 27, 2014

Birdman (2014) ****

Where is the line between madness and genius? What is the difference between art and entertainment? Who has the right to make art? These questions and more are tackled in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's wild, free-jazz movie “Birdman.”

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor famous for having played the superhero Birdman. After establishing the Birdman franchise, Riggan had shocked Hollywood by refusing to make more sequels. If this all sounds familiar, it may be because Michael Keaton is famous for playing Batman and for walking away from the franchise. In the fictional Riggan's case, his career never again reached the heights it did in his Birdman days. Desperate to regain a sense of artistic relevance, he is in the process of putting on a serious play on Broadway when we meet him. Naturally, everything is going wrong that can go wrong, but he finally gets a decent actor for a co-star (Edward Norton), and the play might actually be good if Riggan can hold his sanity together.

We all sometimes hear within us a voice of negativity and criticism. In Riggan's case, that voice is relentless. He is constantly hearing the gravelly, haranguing voice of his Birdman character, mostly telling him to give up his stage aspirations and make another Birdman movie. Besides that, Riggan seems to secretly have telekinetic powers, including the power of flight, and we are constantly kept guessing as to whether these are real or simply part of his fantasy of having unrecognized gifts. Riggan, like all of us, wants to believe he is special, but as his daughter points out, he is blind to a whole world of people trying to prove every day that they are relevant enough just to survive.

“Birdman” deserves a place among the great films about making art. I'm thinking of movies like Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman's “Adaptation,” Bob Fosse's “All That Jazz,” and Fellini's “8 1/2”. All of these movies delve into the mind of the artist, exploring the mix of genius and madness, arrogance and self-doubt that go into the creative process. In “Birdman,” Riggan has some genuine talent, despite his self-doubt. He is also relentlessly self-destructive, however, and his talent and his self-destructiveness are constantly at war.

I haven't been attracted to any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's other films, which include “Babel” and “21 Grams.” I tried to watch”Amores Perros,” but turned it off because of the stomach-turning dog-fighting scenes. Inarritu must have some cache in Hollywood, however, because he was able to assemble a stellar cast for “Birdman,” including Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts, and he gets excellent performances from them.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also pull off a cool trick, creating the illusion that the film is shot in one, long take, even though we know that the story actually covers several days. Lubezki is known for pulling off similarly impressive, prolonged, one-shot scenes at the beginning of "Children of Men" and “Gravity”.  He had this to say about that process:

It felt contrived, like we were pushing it. I don't like it when a movie becomes a series of 'tour de force' shots, and in a way, I was disappointed that with Children of Men (2006), people noticed that the car scene was one shot with no cuts. If people notice that, it's like they're noticing my trick, you know what I mean? I'm doing it so people will get immersed in the movie, not to show off...

In “Birdman,” I think the trick is worthwhile, as it helps us identify with Riggan's manic, disoriented mental state. The camera moves us and Riggan from one crisis to the next, seemingly with no rest in between.

I don't expect “Birdman” to be a massive hit, or even a cult classic. This is the kind of arty, meta project that is simply never going to draw people in droves. A few people actually walked out of the theater. I'm not sure why. Nothing particularly offensive occurs; I guess they just weren't expecting something so weird and thought-provoking. Maybe they were expecting a superhero movie.

4 stars out of 5

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