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Birdman (2014)

May 3, 2015

Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros, Babel)

Bottom Line: Birdman is a brilliant piece of filmmaking from director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s shot and edited in a way that makes it seem like the first two hours of the film were done entirely in one take. While the reality is a bit different, this format still required several long takes and tedious acting and timing from the film’s performers. What results is a seamless journey through a New York theater and the mind of a former Hollywood action star named Riggan – played wonderfully by Michael Keaton – as he tries to reinvent and endear himself to the masses by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway show.

While Birdman isn’t my favorite film of 2014, it’s easy to see why the Academy and critics seemed to agree that it was the best one. From a technical standpoint, they are probably right. It’s also a great character study, as Keaton’s Riggan is quite mystifying – it can be difficult to tell reality from fantasy. What is clear is his desire to break free of the character that made him famous years before, as Riggan is in constant battle with Birdman’s voice in his head. Riggan is certainly more focused on his relationship with his “celebrity” than he is with those in his own personal life. He barely notices his daughter (Stone) even though she works with him in the theater and his love affair with one of his co-stars hardly seems to register with him. This is a man that is highly self-involved. He’s too entrenched with his own demons to notice anyone else’s.

Birdman gives us great performances across the board. It’s the best performance I’ve ever seen from Keaton – by a large margin. It’s hard to imagine that Riggan could have been played by anyone else. Edward Norton gives the film’s best performance, however, as Mike Shiner, an established Broadway star that is hired at the last minute to replace one of the show’s actors after an unfortunate “accident.” Shiner is a difficult person and wastes little time in making an enemy of Riggan – suggesting changes in dialogue during his first read through and insisting on drinking real alcohol during rehearsals. Norton plays the role gleefully and provides numerous laughs in the film. The rest of the ensemble cast is sharp and everyone does well with the difficult shooting format.

I thought Birdman was a great film. It’s one that is tough to digest after one viewing and requires a bit deeper thinking, so it’s possible I could one day view it as a masterpiece. The one take style is unique and adds to the film’s wonder instead of coming across gimmicky. Keaton and Norton give stunning performances. I don’t think Birdman is for everyone – it’s a bit grimy and plenty difficult – but for serious filmgoers, it’s a clear must see.

Replay Value: Multiple viewings required.
Sequel Potential: None.
Oscar Potential: Crushed the Oscars, winning statues for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, while being nominated in five other categories, including acting noms for Keaton, Norton, and Stone. Interestingly, Birdman did not receive a nomination in film editing, which kind of boggles my mind.

Grade: 7.5/10 (Must See/Excellent)

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