Welcome to 2015! It’s been quite a year in the world of television and film, but as new releases hit the streaming and cinematic venues, we still have unfinished business with award ceremonies concerning 2014. As such is the case, I didn’t want to finish out 2014 without seeing “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” an artistic triumph from co-writer and director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film leads in nominations for this year’s Golden Globes. It’s quite possible that “Birdman” will swoop in easily to take awards in most, if not all, of the following categories in which it’s nominated:
- Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
- Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
- Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
- Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
- Best Director – Motion Picture
- Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
- Best Original Score – Motion Picture
I imagine that every kid relishes that first time when he or she gets to join the rest of the family at the movie theater. In my case, the year was 1992 and the film that my older brothers were dying to see was none other than “Batman Returns.” Maybe you weren’t absolutely terrified of Danny DeVito’s Penguin by the end, but it’s difficult to read the names “Birdman” and Michael Keaton without thinking of Tim Burton’s first and second “Batman” films.
I would agree with Keaton that delving in too deeply to that connection would be a bit much. Michael Keaton plays the role of Riggan Thomson, an actor who hit the pinnacle of his career as the superhero Birdman. Riggan is only a couple of days out from opening night of a Broadway play that he wrote, directed, and stars in. It’s a last-ditch effort to revive his career that is riddled with craziness and obstacles in the form of a rehab-released daughter (Emma Stone), a supporting actor bent on realism (Edward Norton), a questionably pregnant co-star (Andrea Riseborough), and an iron NY critic (Lindsay Duncan).
If that wasn’t enough to contend with, Riggan wrestles with his own ego and vanity, which curiously manifests in both the voice (Michael Keaton) and “physical” form of Birdman (uncredited Benjamin Kanes). This particular aspect of the film is one reason “Batman” and “Birdman” cannot be equated, made clear from the first shot when Riggan is shown levitating in his dressing room. As his mind is overcome by a nervous breakdown, these fantastical elements or a certain magical realism continue to creep in, as he levitates items against the wall or soars through New York City in his regular street clothes. He can even command the music to stop.
In spite of his large ego, Riggan comes off as a likeable and humorous if sometimes an uncomfortable protagonist. Simply put, these moments resonate with viewers because it’s quite a creative way to morph the ordinary into the extraordinary, actual flights of fancy for Riggan. How many of us turn a dull commute in a cab or train to work into an amusing time with our imaginations? We’re completely absorbed into his consciousness in these moments in a way that dialogue can’t capture, a momentum that is brilliantly embodied through the simple soundtrack of drums, jazzy beats, and the sounds of New York City.
“Birdman” is one of best films of 2014 for many reasons: a solid cast, an excellent soundtrack, and fabulous screenplay. The cinematography is also quite a spectacle to behold, delivered by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who garnered an Oscar for his work on “Gravity.” The camera is alive and very active as an eye for the viewer, following characters in Steadicam fashion but also drifting in and out of what characters themselves see. Most of the time, it occurs with Riggan but slides into Mike’s (Edward Norton) perspective as well. It has the effect of maintaining the pace of the narrative and making confrontational moments even more edgy by putting the action so close to the frame of the camera.
Lastly, there’s the way the scenes are cut so seamlessly to appear as if the film was made in one continuous shot, working wonderfully with the active camera aspect. Additionally, it gives the story the feel of a play, an ingenious presentation as the film’s events surround the ups and downs of a play. Thus, as Riggan’s break from reality hits a critical and admittedly absurd junction, the climaxes of both his life and the Raymond Carver play merge together so effortlessly.
If you haven’t seen “Birdman” yet, make it one of your New Year’s resolutions.