When you write a weekly (or even a daily) blog or column, there inevitably comes the times when you struggle with what to write or fail to get excited about whatever it is that once inspired you to put that pencil to paper, or finger tips to keyboard. It happens to all of us, and it’s okay. It’s just part of the slog, grind, that makes what I and other content creators do a labor of love.
For me, a movie comes along every now and then that changes the whole perspective of what I do, gives me a new energy and makes me look forward to writing this blog. I keeps me up at night, consumes my thoughts when I should be daydreaming and makes me fall in love with movies all over again.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one of those movies. My girlfriend even had a dream about it, so it clearly impacted the both of us. I’ll get to that dream soon.
Birdman, the 2014 Best Picture winner directed by Alejandro Iñárritu is the rare movie on this list that I had seen before, but not since 2014, and I certainly didn’t see it in the context within which I view movies now. In short, Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone is, quite simply, a masterpiece and a truly one-of-a-kind achievement in cinema.
It’s shot like the whole movie happens in one single take and that’s certainly the movie’s gimmick. But, as stunningly beautiful as the movie may be, there’s much more to Birdman than what meets the eye. It’s at once a stinging criticism of not only modern Hollywood, but Broadway snobbery, and also a tender, sweet, and rich rare character-driven movie with deep and complex themes. It’s filled with people who are all detestable in their own way. It’s truly brilliant.
Just as a note, Birdman is a brutally honest movie with no regard for holding back profanity or very dark themes and humor. Some of these video clips reflect that. Now, for the rest of the movie.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood actor whose career peaked 20 years ago. He still lives 20 years ago, too. Thomson is trying revive a long since faded career by writing, directing, and starring in his own play, a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Thomson’s most notable work are three Birdman superhero movies where he played the hero 20 years ago. Driven by unhappy marriages, alcoholism and general depression, we find Thomson at the start of the movie levitating in a dressing room in only his tighty whiteys. He’s wrestling with his Birdman persona, his alternate ego that keeps him stuck in the past and berates him, keeping him down.
The day before his first previews, a headline actor goes down in a freak lighting accident. Pressing that the show must go on, Riggan hires Mike (Edward Norton) to fill in. Each of the three previews goes from bad to worse as Riggan slowly descends into madness and obsession at proving himself. His already terrible relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) gets even worse and his one true, yet anxious friend/lawyer/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) almost leaves the show all together.
Birdman’s story is one that will keep you engaged and enthralled from the opening shot until the last. It moves along at an impressive pace, with little down time. But there’s no McGuffin (an object that drives the plot) and it only moves forward due to the unceasing beast of Broadway, always insisting that the show must go on. Instead, Birdman’s intensity is driven by a deep set of characters, people who are unpredictable, chaotic, and each broken. 1.
Perhaps what jumps out to me first is how honest the script is on each of the characters. They won’t hesitate to hold anything back, finding that honesty is the best policy on Broadway. This includes everything from calling out Riggan on his vanity project (which is really what this play is) to the sarcasm that comes from dealing with drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and frayed nerves.
All of this leads to some very vibrant and personal exchanges between each of the characters. One of the best examples of this is the below clip, in which Sam, a former drug addict, calls out her father for trying to matter in a world in which he doesn’t, having washed up on the shore 20 years ago. This is probably the best scene in the movie.
This script is nothing short of genius, and I can come up with a hundred clips that demonstrate this very thing. Much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the dialogue is driven by intense human conflict. 1.
I think it’s probably a good time to mention that, for as much as I love this movie, it’s still an unquestionably odd movie. And that’s reflected in its score. Normally, I’ll recommend you to have a listen. But don’t on this one.
Composed by Antonio Sanchez, the score is literally drums. That’s it. That’s not to say that it’s not good, though. The drums are disjointed and chaotic, not unlike Riggan’s mind, and fit perfectly with the feel of the movie. 1.
Taking place at the St. James Theatre in New York, Birdman is true to its form. The movie is shot in and around the theatre, featuring its narrow hallways of its backstage scenes and it’s glittering lights of its stage, Birdman gives us the whole Broadway feel.
But more than that, the set is one of the many ways that the movie gives us a sense of intimacy and chaos, with the characters almost smashed together in the dressing rooms and tight halls. This exchange between Riggan and Jake demonstrates that perfectly. 1.
Alright, now we get to the fun part. Winning a very deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography was Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki. Without a doubt, this is the most innovative movie to come out of Hollywood since Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane in 1941. Nearly the whole movie is shot to appear like it was one in one take, one long shot, just like a Broadway play. There are cuts, obviously, but they are so well hidden in transitions between scenes that there might as well not be. I can’t begin to fathom how much of a logistical pain in the butt this must be to do. In fact, a mock theatre was built to help with rehearsals for the scenes.
Additionally, the camera is always moving, either from tracking or usage of steadicam shots, or both. Again this demonstrates the chaos inside Riggan’s mind. But the cinematography is invasive, intense, and intimate. All the reactions are visceral; all physical characters flaws are seen. Just like in the earlier scene between Sam and Riggan, the anger that turns to regret after she finishes berating him is a real enough reaction that it pulls us into Sam’s head, and into Riggan’s disappointment in himself.
One more quick thing of note in this movie: the lighting. Iñárritu and Lubezki wanted Birdman to be naturally lit. The lighting is often soft and changes temperature throughout the movie. But the natural lighting also adds depth and makes for some truly breathtaking scenes. 1.
The long takes in Birdman serve a dual purpose. The first one I mentioned above, the chaos in Riggan’s head. But the second is that it brought out the best in each of the actors and crew. They didn’t want to do the entire scene over again. This is clearly evident in the performances themselves. Every single actor pours their heart, and bears their soul into this. This is particularly true for Keaton and Stone.
Michael Keaton plays a man haunted by his previous superhero persona, and it’s his alter ego that tortures him throughout his life. There, lying within himself, is his past life, coming back to him, telling him he’s a worthless nobody, eviscerating him for walking away from the Birdman franchise after three movies. His Birdman character is his driving force, both into depression, rage, and regret, but also is his bedrock and helps his ambition for making something of himself. This gives him a superhero origin as we come to understand it, but he’s really someone who’s self-obsessed with his own career and his own image. He even believes he has superpowers.
While he’s constantly seeking affirmation that he’s doing the right thing, Riggan slips lower and lower and lower. He’s angry at the world for passing him by, sure, but he’s enraged at himself, too, for being a bad husband and a terrible father to Sam. He ruined her life and sent his own spiraling out of control, squandering his youth, his money, and his relationships. Because of this, he’s launched his comeback attempt to revive his career, to become relevant again. He’s his own villain, but needs to be Sam’s hero, yet he’s not ready for it.
Riggan is an unbelievably complicated character who is not as morally right as we want him to be. Combining tragedy with comedy and dry sarcasm, Riggan deals with his personal problems by facing them head-on, and this is his most redeeming characteristic; it’s what keeps us engaged with him, and makes us fall in love with him as a character.
During one scene, he’s locked out of the theatre during a preview in just his underwear. So, he does the only thing he can do: walks through Times Square in his underwear and shoes around to the front door of the theatre, humiliating himself and becoming a viral sensation in the process. But his show must go on, the dream must never die. It doesn’t matter that he’s a terrible person, hell-bent on reviving his career for his own benefit, he tries to be a better person to his daughter and repair that relationship and that’s really what counts. He tries, after all these years, to find himself once and for all, to be the hero.
This performance, which earned Keaton a Best Actor nomination, reflects Keaton’s own life in a way, and the lives of all those who are followed by their previous lives as superheroes in the movies. Playing Bruce Wayne in the 1989 Batman. It’s probably his most known role. After Batman Returns in 1992, Keaton disappeared, playing a lot of lesser-known roles while never really going away. Playing Riggan Thomson was a revival for him, too, starring in the Oscar-winning Spotlight in 2015.
Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s troubled daughter, a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Sam, who for an unknown amount of time, was a drug addict, who recently had a stint in rehab. Trying to repair not only her life, but her relationship with her father, agrees to be his assistant while putting on this play. She’s witty and darkly sarcastic, broken by years of drug abuse and living a life currently devoid of any meaning. She’s impulsive and says what’s on her mind, even without engaging the brain-mouth filter.
She too is filled with regret, not only from her dark past, but for actually being Riggan Thomson’s daughter. She’s his assistant, sure, but that doesn’t mean that she’s happy about it. She’s in desperate need of a solid foundation in her life and she’s just trying to maintain her sanity in her battle against addiction. She’s the driving force behind the big theme of the movie (which I’ll get to soon) and her struggle with herself is part of what makes this cast so interesting to watching. She and Riggan change the most throughout the film. They’re constantly at odds with each other even as they continue to try to let bygones be bygones. 1.
Alejandro Iñárritu is the Mexican-born director of Birdman who has won his first of two consecutive Best Director Oscars for this movie. The monumental challenges of creating a movie like this that works and is interesting so that the logistics alone are enough to earn him the award.
But Iñárritu’s movie goes much deeper than just making it look pretty. He uses dark comedy and broken human beings to make a movie about peeking in on the human spirit – about love, family, ambition and the dark side of. He criticizes Hollywood’s obsession with superhero movies by making a truly original one. He criticizes the “look-down-your-nose” attitude of theatre critics and actors towards movies and movie making. He makes a movie that is artistic because it’s chaotic.
But, mostly, it speaks to all of us. The day after we watched the movie, my girlfriend Laci confided in me that she had a dream that Riggan’s mind works like the endless staircase, or Penrose Steps. Always climbing and overcoming each obstacle but never getting any closer to his goal of reviving his career.
I think that’s a perfect metaphor for Riggan.
But it should not be the only thing that characterizes Riggan, either. Sure, overcoming his Birdman persona is a battle that may not end until he’s dead, but that doesn’t mean he needs to let that define his own life.
At the crux of the entire movie is Riggan’s relationship with Sam. It’s not about him reviving his career, putting on a good show, pleasing the critics, or anything else. Birdman is about repairing once was broken, repairing the father/daughter relationship before it is lost to a pit of bitterness and regret. By becoming, in his own way, the hero his daughter needs, only then can Riggan truly fly, repair his own life, and finally end his wrestling with his own past. Sam, the one good thing he’s done in his life, needs a father more than ever in her state. That can be like the Penrose Steps, to be sure, but it doesn’t have to be either. 1.
I’ve giving a bonus point to the cinematography, acting, and directing.
Final Score: 10/10
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) won the 87th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 22, 2015 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash for Best Picture. The award of presented by Sean Penn and accepted by Alejandro Iñárritu, John Lesher, and James W. Skotchdopole, producers. Birdman had the most nominations of the night with nine, taking home four Oscars.
Other notable winners were Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore winning Best Actress for Still Alice, J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash, and Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood. The ceremony was hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.
It’s great to be back! I’m in it for the long haul now. Next week, I’ll have my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. After that, it’s Moonlight, In the Heat of the Night, Gentlemen’s Agreement, On the Waterfront, The Bridge one the River Kwai, and then Lawrence of Arabia.