November 27, 2014 -- This is a very unusual movie, not so much from a story standpoint, but from a technical standpoint. The story is about show business, and there have been plenty of movies about movies and the stage, including very famous ones, like “A Star is Born”, “Singing in the Rain” and “The Player.”
Technically, this film is a marvel, like Alfred Hitchcock's film “Rope,” this film was shot and edited in such a way as to look like one camera shot, uncut from beginning to end. In a normal movie, you have multiple cameras and multiple “cuts” where you cut from one camera shot to another. For instance, in a normal movie scene with a conversation between two people, you might shoot it with several camera angles, from the sides and over the shoulders to show closeups of the faces, cutting back and forth from one angle to another every few seconds. In the movie “Armageddon” you will see many more cuts in any 10 second clip than you'll notice in this whole film.
Maybe the writer-director of this film, Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”) is using this film's unusual structure to mimic the way actors might be seen in a stage play, or to make a statement about the way other films are made these days. As difficult as is it is to make a film that looks like this, it is way more difficult to do it, like Hitchcock did, with film cameras instead of digital cameras, which allow seamless editing. This form also shows off the technical skill of award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Think of the difficulty of making a movie like this. The actors have to do much longer scenes than in a normal film. Any mistakes, and you have to go back to the beginning and start over. This makes it a premium to cast actors who remember their lines and are not prone to other kinds of gaffs that screw up a scene. Fortunately, there are excellent actors in this film, led by Michael Keaton (“Multiplicity”) who plays Riggan, a washed up actor who used to play a popular movie superhero named Birdman. The similarity here of course is that Keaton played “Batman” in 1989 and hasn't really achieved that level of fame since he stopped playing “Batman”.
Riggan has written his own stage adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He is also starring in this play on Broadway, which is being produced by his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifankis of “The Hangover”). Riggan has sunk everything he owns into the play, a heavy existential drama which ends with a suicide. He knows that without a good review, his play will sink and he will be ruined.
The pressure mounts as opening night approaches. He discovers to his dismay that the city's most influential critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan of “About Time”) plans to deliberately and viciously pan his play just because he is an outsider in the city's theater establishment. This movie portrays critics and entertainment reporters in a very negative light.
Riggan rigs a light to fall on an actor he hates just to get him out of the play, then gets a hotshot replacement, Mike (Edward Norton of “Moonrise Kingdom”) who turns out to be an egotistical troublemaker on stage. Not only that, but Mike starts having an affair with Riggan's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone of “The Amazing Spider-Man”). The actor who was injured by the falling light threatens to sue Riggan. Riggan's girlfriend unexpectedly announces that she is pregnant.
Riggan keeps hearing the voice of Birdman in his head (the voice sounds husky, a little like a well-known Batman voice). The voice tells him he should go back to making Birdman movies. He doesn't belong on Broadway. Riggan seems to have super powers. When we first see him, he is hovering above the floor in the lotus position. He can move things with his mind, or can he? There are scenes, some of which are dream sequences, and some maybe “real” with Riggan flying around in the air. Riggan talks to himself a lot.
There are some scenes with a lot of visual imagination in the film, including what looks like a clip from a big-budget superhero movie. This is the kind of the movie that the Birdman in Riggan's brain wants to do. The impulses to do big films, versus “serious” theater are at war in Riggan's head. Which side will win?
In a sense, this battle between Hollywood and Broadway theater seems a bit dated. A number of Hollywood actors have had success, and won awards in both venues. The late writer and director Mike Nichols had multiple successes and awards in both Hollywood and Broadway. Many Hollywood actors got started in show business in the theater. Another conflict in Riggan's mind seems to center around the relative anonymity of theater actors in relation to film or television actors. Yet another conflict has to do with social media. Riggan is oblivious to social media, while his daughter thinks it is all-important.
Riggan is on a quest for relevance and to validate himself as an actor. He is torn by self-doubt. None of this sounds funny, does it? In fact, there is plenty of humor in the film, including some slapstick bits. Much of the humor in the film is built around the absurdity of Riggan's quest and the strange images that manifest in his imagination. There is also humor in Mike's massive ego and those of his fellow actors.
This is one of those films, like “The Artist,” which might win an Academy Award for best picture, not so much because it is a great film, but because it makes people in show business, especially Academy voters, feel good about themselves and their professions. This is a funny film, an absurdest comedy with great acting, solid writing and interesting visual effects. It is also a remarkable technical achievement in terms of acting, cinematography and editing. This film rates a B.
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