Sunday, February 01, 2015

Birdman (2014)

8/10 – Birdman begins with an epigraph by Raymond Carver set against a credit sequence taken from mid-1960s Jean-Luc Godard and a musical score that sounds like a Rashied Ali solo from late Coltrane (performed by a drummer who suddenly appears at times during the film), and then cuts to Michael Keaton meditating in his underwear while actually levitating in his dressing room, a washed-up actor who once played a superhero named Birdman (that regularly converses with him) and who is now trying to put on a Broadway version of Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” that includes a dream sequence with women wearing elk antlers and co-stars a snotty, preening method actor (Edward Norton) who demands to have a tanning bed in his dressing room because he’s "playing a redneck" and who reads Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges while sunning himself. And that’s the kind of film Birdman is. A frenetic mess of a movie. It veers wildly between dark humor, fantasy sequences, backstage Broadway dramedy, Hollywood satire, (interesting) commentary on social media, questions about the nature of art, and some good old fashioned, slightly twisted, existential crisis. It’s basically a Theatre of the Absurd piece about the conflicted mind of its protagonist as he faces life without meaning. The quick visual reference to Borges and Labyrinths is no accident. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki structured the film so that (in theory) it feels like one long take, and the camera’s multiple dizzying turns down the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre replicate the complex, tortured mind of the protagonist as he tries to sort through his life as an actor, artist, celebrity, father, husband and overall human being. Luckily, it’s a crazy, often hilarious mental and spiritual crisis. I thought Birdman was one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, but it’s probably not for everyone. It’s a strange, gleefully over-the-top affair. Not perfect by any means, but crackling with energy. What seemed like a wild, sometimes bumpy roller-coaster ride for Alexandra and I will probably, for some, feel like a convoluted tale signifying nothing. Most likely you’ll know by the first scene which way it’s going to go for you. I hated Michael Keaton as Batman and never liked his other films (not that I bothered to watch many of them), but I thought he was very good in this. And the rest of the cast also excel. (The film just won the Screen Actors Guild’s highest award of Best Ensemble Acting.) Besides Norton’s terrific turn as the arrogant “pure” stage actor, Zack Galifianakis does great in a (thankfully) very different kind of role for him. I also liked Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter. Some great writing throughout. Lubezki’s camera work is often beautiful, especially on the big screen. And the musical score – often just drums – is a refreshing change of pace from the Alexandre Desplat-ization of Hollywood. If you’re a Raymond Carver fan with a sense of humor, there’s the added pleasure of watching the frequently awful attempts to stage one of his greatest stories. (And a nice “Thank You” to Tess Gallagher at the end of the movie.) I should knock off a half-point for the disappointing ending, but I had such a fun time during the rest of the ride that I’ll cut it some slack. There’s an awful lot going on in Bridman, and not all of it works, but I look forward to re-watching it later to sift through the craziness. It was one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while.

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