Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie Review: "Birdman"

Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

Operating in a highly ambitious structure almost unheard of (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” is a very rare example), Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s darkly funny and expertly crafted “Birdman” is a film in which choreography is so essential, yet nary a dance step is performed.

Michael Keaton, who rises to the high quality of the material, stars as Riggan Thomson, a struggling actor seeking a professional resurgence by adapting, directing and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Having long since left behind his role in Birdman, a popular superhero franchise, Thomson sees the play as a go-for-broke chance to validate what’s left of his career and bring him back into relevance.

He’s hardly helped by a mess of a personal life, what with an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a potentially pregnant co-star in the production he’s sleeping with (Andrea Riseborough) and a temperamental personal assistant who also happens to be his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone, in a standout performance). That’s to say nothing of the very disruptive voice of Birdman that only he hears, which might be signaling his gradual loss of sanity.

The aforementioned choreography doesn’t come specifically from scenes in the play, although several are dramatized in rehearsals, disastrous preview performances and opening night. Instead, the superb craftsmanship of “Birdman” is a result of its meticulously planned and executed filming style that incorporates long, unbroken takes — a challenging demand for any actor. That complexity is magnified here, as the camera swings, swoops and glides, seemingly following the cast inside every square inch of the theater, as well as numerous locations outside. It’s a bold filming decision, but one that avoids being unnecessarily showy. In fact, it seems to aid in the storytelling, as the characters cross paths in hallways, dressing rooms, backstage and even the rooftop.

The casting of Keaton (whose past experience as Batman brings a knowing wink to the proceedings) is inspired, as the recently underutilized actor digs deep into his role as a bit of a jerk and admittedly bad father who is willing to risk everything to resurrect his career. The rest of the supporting cast shines, particularly Edward Norton as a self-aggrandizing stage actor, and Zach Galiafianakis, as Riggan’s manager, who is struggling to keep his client and friend together as the production’s opening night approaches.

Innaritu’s past films (“21 Grams” and “Babel,” among them) have generally been humorless affairs that explored the depths of human emotions. “Birdman” definitely also has its moments of intense emotional exploration, but does so in a generally lighter tone that lifts the material to heights Innaritu has formerly never reached. It’s a film that has lofty ambitions and reaches them without seemingly breaking a sweat.

Grade: A

(Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.)

No comments: