Monday, November 3, 2014

Connquering Your Inner Demons

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the latest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is for anyone who's had to to tackle their inner demons at one point or another in their life (I think that includes just about everybody). At times very funny, at times introspective, the film features an excellent screenplay, first-rate work by the entire ensemble cast as well as imaginative and remarkable direction and cinematography. It's as original a film as I've seen in some time.

The film deals with an actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who is looking to shed his super-hero film image (he was the fictional Birdman in several films more than a decade before this story begins) and take on the Broadway stage. He's adapted a short story by Raymond Carver and is starring and directing in it as well. I love the way the story opens in media res, as we see him in his tiny dressing room, trying to sort out the craziness of a rehearsal, balancing his time and efforts among the other performers as well as his press agent Jake (Zach Galifianikis, in a nicely tuned low-key performance). Even now with his dream project about to take off, reporters still want to ask him about his Birdman days, though Thompson clearly wants to rid his psyche of that period in his life.

The rehearsal and prevue performances are wonderfully handled in a very matter-of-fact style by Iñárritu. His camera tracks and flows across the stage and through the tiny corridors of the theater passageways, giving us a personal feel to what's going on, both for the audience as well as in Thompson's mind. That remarkable camerawork is that of Emmanuel Lubezki, who is one of today's most gifted and imaginative cinematographers (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men). 

The film is presented as one long take and unless you are properly trained in this, it's very difficult to see any cuts (I only noticed two and hard to look hard for them). The setups for each sequence must have been incredibly painstaking, but the results are spectacular. There's one sequence on stage where we follow Thompson, who walks downstage to address the audience; at the same time his wife in the play is in bed with someone else. The camera moves with Thompson, but effortlessly and without a cut, the next moment, the camera is under the sheets, hovering over the characters in bed. It's just one example of the work turned in by Lubezki on this film; it's not simply a bag of tricks, it's innovative work that seems natural and heightens the emotional turmoil of Thompson's character.

There are several excellent performances, most notably Edward Norton playing a vain, eccentric actor (a parody to some extent of his real-life persona?) and Naomi Watts, as a actress with a sweet naiveté about the acting business; this is among her finest performances. But the star here (literally and figuratively) is Keaton as Riggan Thompson. He just can't seem to get the past out of his mind; indeed we hear the voice of the Birdman character several times in the film telling Riggan that he's a bit crazy to take on his new endeavor, especially given the fact that he's still well recognized for his superhero film roles. Keaton has a balancing act in the film, moving back and forth between the present and the past, trying to convince himself that he's not entirely crazy, and yes, he is a good man who just happened to make a few mistakes along the way in regards to his daughter and wife. It's a roller coster ride of emotions and Keaton delivers in brilliant fashion.

Without giving away too much of the last section of the film, Birdman poses the belief that you can conquer your demons by literally soaring above your problems. It's a message that resonated with me and made this a memorable work. It's the best film for Iñárritu since his captivating Amores Perros (2000). Highly recommended!

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