Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: "Birdman" Flies Very High... Most of the Time

Michael Keaton
Long takes is the last great cinematic art form. Effects can be thrown in to make anything look fancier, but what is missing is a performance or kinetic energy moving on screen. The power of films such as Code Unknown are made more impressive with the stakes feeling higher after every second. The longer a scene is held, the more that it captures something stronger. Gravity elevated the basic thriller nature and now director Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu has done it to the meta drama category. The results are staggering and capture something profoundly complex about a familiar story. Birdman flows like a stream of consciousness experiment: a play about theater that is strangely like Rear Window. However, just as much as there's greatness, there's the lull that connects these moments and turns the third act into something absurdly over-the-top. Does it work as a story? Not really. However, as an experiment of craft and ego, there's fewer films that are this ambitiously weird.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero named Birdman in three films before giving it up. Now performing a Raymond Carver play, he must stage a comeback with a cast that outshines him and critics who are out for vengeance. He wants to fail and succeed. It drives him to keep challenging and find something authentic. He is an actor who needs his fame back. His daughter (Emma Stone) is a former drug addict and Riggan has enough trouble controlling his rage while everyone hooks up backstage in between the scenes. As his mind deteriorates, he begins to be consumed by the Birdman persona, longing to capture his glory days. It is a meta commentary on Keaton and those who immediately think of Batman won't be too off point. This is a love letter to comebacks and hasbeens alike in which our society, namely the theater, have come to embrace though not always reward.

As stated, the real charmer is the technical achievements of Innaritu. Set with making a two hour film that looks like one long continuous take, he succeeds for the most part. Save for a few spliced in moments, the look is flawless and even as it transitions between hours and days, there's an authenticity to it. It feels like a stage show brought to life in and around the St. James Theater in New York. As he walks through hallways and in the streets, we piece together the entire setting. We know what everything short of the bathroom looks like. The transitions are creative and are a spectacle that lasts as long as Thomson's mentality. For the most part, Inarritu has created something visually impressive. Save for the third act when more special effects are clearly applied, the film's realism adds to the drama and makes us care. It is the subtle touches of trick photography that end up impressing the most.

By comparison, the story is a little too familiar and Keaton's performance is deservedly boisterous. Along with great supporting roles by Edward Nortion, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis, the kinetic energy flows with humor and sexuality. It feels personal and exploitative despite at times being heightened while fighting men in underwear and floating in air. The film is driven on ego and thus excels as long as you believe that Thomson is a troubled genius. Frankly, the supporting characters are at times more compelling and don't get enough screen time. When they're around, there's an unexpected absurdity that works. We all have to deal with Thomson. Thankfully, we just have to watch him get around the St. James Theater.

The one downside of a long take concept is that there are moments that will have to inevitably drag. There will have to be a transition down a hall and through a stairwell that has nothing interesting to say. Thankfully, the film cuts around this well enough to not be too distracting. However, when the novelty fades, the story is left on its own and the magic becomes less impressive. Thankfully, the power lasts for 85% of the running time. When it begins to wrap things up, there's nothing interesting to say besides flamboyant imagery and broad concepts. In terms of long takes, Birdman is impressive, though he isn't a master of it like Michael Haneke with Code Unknown, which isn't nearly as flashy but knew how to milk the tension. Still, for an English speaking film, this is pretty fantastic.

Birdman exceeds well enough to be just above average fare. The technical craft outshines the actual story. With a surprising dose of humor, the film never loses a personality and works in not drawing attention to itself. Its portrait is boisterous and Keaton is expectantly compelling. However, the film as a whole doesn't work so well outside of its novelty approach. Yes, there's plenty of kitsch to enjoy, but it doesn't revolutionize cinema. All it does is encourage a change in how we create the medium. That alone is a great enough reason to like. 

Emma Stone
While it sounds like I am down on the film, don't get the impression that I hate it. I really come away impressed by it. However, there were times where I felt like the efforts weren't entirely worth the execution. This is my first Innaritu film, so I cannot compare his aesthetic. However, he is a director that seems more ambitious than his writing. He wrote a film about a Keaton-esque type making a comeback while itself being a Keaton comeback vehicle. I can see how it could be. In fact, he emotes quite powerfully and I can see him getting somewhere with this. However, I was more into the supporting cast such as Stone (in her best role to date), Norton, Galifianakis and Watts. They may have been archetypes at times, but when they were allowed to be intimate, they shined in ways that I wanted the film to do. Boisterous is fine, but I wanted something more personal beyond Thomson saying "This room smells like balls." At the core is a father-daughter relationship that works, but never feels like a fulfilled concept. I may be alone in thinking that Birdman comes up a little bit short, but that shortness is still better than most people's extent. 

It could just be that I adore the long take, but I am rather critical of how it is shot. Gravity did it to amp up thriller tension. Code Unknown did it as a meta commentary on film making. The Master did it to amp up Joaquin Phoenix's tension. What does Birdman do it for? While I get the stage play concept, I think it is more to show off how creative Inarritu can be. I don't feel like it benefits the story, especially in the third act. By that point, it is committed. However, when he loses his mind, it results in some unextraordinary concepts and reality blurs too much with fiction. By then, it only seems like a commitment than a grand artistic statement. Maybe upon further viewing, this won't be as much of a problem. For now, it bugs me.

Will the film do good at the Oscars? I really think so. It won't win. My money is still on Foxcatcher. However, the film has a lot of other great things going for it. For starters, Innaritu seems locked for Best Director based solely on history. Last year's winner was Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity, which was notorious for long takes. If this is the route that cinema is going, then Best Director is a necessity. No film is likely to approach his ambitions. Best Picture seems as well likely because of its self congratulatory theater nature. I can see Michael Keaton maybe getting into the Best Actor competition, though Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher is going to be tough to beat. Of the supporting roles, I want to see Emma Stone get in the race because she was surprisingly great. I am not as wild about the Antonio Sanchez score. It works within the film, but out of context is unlistenable percussive improvising. 

It's going to be a rather big contender from what I assume. I like Birdman and am not offended by the buzz that it has built. However, I just wish that it gave me something more tangible to enjoy from it that would have made it perfect. Maybe it succumbed to too much hype. I don't know. I wasn't as impressed with Keaton as most. However, for its ambitions and craft alone, I kind of hope this succeeds just so that the possibilities of more films like Birdman can exist. Fingers crossed.

Will Birdman become an Oscar darling? Is this Michael Keaton's shot at a Best Actor nomination? Who is the most likely to get a best supporting Oscar?

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