Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [2014]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

This is going to be a bit of a tough one to review.

Movies like Birdman are quite unique, in that they’re a bit hard to talk about in a full review. I hadn’t watched this movie despite wanting to do so for what seems like forever. But I finally did the other night, and while I thought I might have a lot to talk about, I might not be as chatty as usual.

I’ve been aware of what the actual content of Birdman is for some time, now; so, I was expecting a nicely-handled drama about the lonesomeness and challenges faced by a washed-up actor. And that’s what I got, yes. But it was executed in a way that I hadn’t quite expected. Mind you: I had no clue about the tone of this movie.

And did I like what I watched?

Well, let this crow tell you…


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PLOT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SOME [MINOR] SPOILERS

We start with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) suspended in mid-air in a pose of meditation. Riggan used to play – in the days of yore – a superhero named Birdman. Recently, he’s been trying to make a name for himself as a more “serious” actor. He’s been hard at work on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (foreknowledge of this short story will be delightful to people watching this movie [here’s a link to the original story by Carver himself, prior to the edits by Lish]), and is running into constant troubles.

Not only is Riggan starring in the play, but is also directing, writing, and even casting the presentation. His “best friend” Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is producing it – with some of Riggan’s money at stake as well, and they’re almost upon the previews. Almost immediately following the set-up, Ralph – Riggan’s co-star – is injured “on-set” and must be replaced immediately. Following an argument between Riggan and Jake about the finding of a new co-star, leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests the very-popular Mike Shiner (Ed Norton).

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Mike is immediately impressive. A method actoreugh, avians through and through, he seems to be in sync with Riggan to levels bordering on the superhuman (he guesses his own and Riggan’s lines before he even reads them). After their initial bonding, however, on the night of the very first preview, Mike breaks character (method actors… again) because his gin isn’t real gin. On stage. And thereafter, everything (understandably) breaks into chaos again.

(I mean, if someone did that on my stage… that’d be a savage beating out the back.)

The previews continue to be disastrous. The next one is Mike again, who decides to commit to the “method” when having an intimate scene with his real-life girlfriend Lesley (oh, so that’s how things are…) before stepping out to deliver his lines while… erm… turgid. After that disaster, Lesley has had enough of Mike, and essentially dumps him, before going on to share an intimate moment with Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough).

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Running parallel to all of this is the: story of Riggan’s reconnecting with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) by his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), who’s just been back from rehab some time before the movie’s events, and gets caught both smoking marijuana by her father, and coming closer to the bad-boy Mike (which sets off an interesting plot-angle during the third preview which runs until the end of the movie); the conflict he and Mike share with the critic Tabby Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan); and Riggan’s troubles with both alcoholism and the manifestation of his old self: the eponymous Birdman (Benjamin Kanes).

See, Riggan seems to have telekinetic powers at times. Just like he exhibited in the very first moments of the movie, he is Birdman (as Birdman never stops reminding him). He can move things with the power of his mind. He can fly (woo-hoo!). He is super strong and can save the world.

(Until he gets drunk, that is. I mean… just think about it: doesn’t drunk flying sound like the terriblest idea in the world? This crow wouldn’t ever dream of it, let me tell youhic!)

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The plot ends up boiling down to the premiere show. And do things go tits up? Well… no. I don’t consider it a spoiler to let you know that it goes really, really well. But is that a win? Is that a victory for our protagonists? Well, that’s where the plot excels.

Giving that away makes not one whit of difference to one’s enjoyment of the movie. Because, at the end of the day…

there is Unexpected Virtue in Ignorance.

Take those words to heart. This movie is all about them words.


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EXECUTION

Birdman is excellently made. There are simply no real words to describe this achievement outside of labels like “genius” and “stellar” and “spectacular!” and whatever other important-sounding words one can come up with.

Technically, the movie’s presented for about nine parts out of ten as a single take. It’s actually quite cleverly done, to be honest. Simple, yet clever all the same.

Visually, it hits all the right spots. This is one of the things which made me worried would’ve made this review difficult. There’s not much to say apart from the fact that I like it. The cinematography is great, even the visual effects (when they do show up) are great, and the slick editing to make the movie appear as one take is pretty amazing. One thing I’d like to point out in specific is how the camera “lingers” over characters when following them.

As a personal caveat: when I speak about what I call a “2.5D perspective” in writing (which I admittedly haven’t mentioned on The Corvid Review), this is the kind of movement I’m talking about. When writing, this is how I imagine the scenes in my mind, this kind of camera-around-the-focal-character movement. Maybe that’s why I personally liked it so much. [End personal caveat.]

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Each and every one of the principal characters are rendered well.

Keaton is the star: both in the movie, and amongst the cast. And that’s because he has to be. He’s Birdman(!), after all. An interesting question the movie hints at is: is he reacting to the world around him? Or is the world around him reacting to him? The answer’s made quite clear nearing the end of the movie, and I don’t think it leaves much up to speculation (although people are welcome to think so). 

Emma Stone’s character is – as Shiner points out – a “great mess”. Norton just plays… well: Norton, the dickish, overbearing backseat director who always knocks out one great performance after the next. Naomi Watts is a little in the background, as is the rest of the cast, even though their performances are on point.

To say too much about the characters would be folly, because a big part of the movie’s enjoyment derives from how they’re presented. All I can say for now is that they all have a place in the plot of the movie, and that’s just good writing, far as I’m concerned.

And can I just mention how the casting of Keaton, Stone, and Norton is the sort of touch which might send shivers up one’s spine? These are people who’ve all been connected to superhero movies at some point in their lives (with one upcoming intersection!).

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Now, to address the elephant in the room (and thereafter some other things): the critic. Initially, after she – the closest thing we get to a true antagonist in the movie – is introduced, Shiner (who has so far been in a terse back-and-forth with Thomson) defends Riggan and his intentions. Slowly but surely, she comes into her own as someone with a vengeful personal agenda, although it might not be apparent if not for certain key questions asked to her during the course of the movie.

It is after Riggan’s final (and only real) personal altercation with her, he even leaves behind the note from Carver at the bar, sealing his fate. An interesting question is raised during this conversation, one which I myself found a lot of value in. Now, while there are certain styles of reviews I like, there are many more I don’t. But to turn the question on myself (since I’ve already banged my little tin drum enough today):

What happened in my own life for me to become a critic?

Well, I was bored. That’s about it.

Right. With that out of the way, let’s get to the most important thing about this movie:

It parodies every.single.thing in it. It is a superhero movie. Just not the kind we think of when we hear the word “superhero”. It serves as a parody of the actors involved in it (well, at least one big name I’ve already pointed to), and apparently even some of the crew members (anyone notice how Keaton grows more and more Iñárritu-like in appearance, when getting ready for the stage, as the movie progresses?). It parodies character archetypes and stereotypes, the entertainment industry, and even the idea of becoming old and disconnected from the times. In a way, the movie almost perfectly insures itself against hoity-toity criticism, and that’s just lush.

(And then you get numpties like this one, who overdo the job and miss the point.)

To use a label: it’s a work of Genius.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

I’m very, very happy that I saw this movie. Had I watched it first in 2014, I’d have had to rethink my top pick for that year. Iñárritu hasn’t made a single movie (out of the few I’ve seen by him) that has disappointed, yet. Birdman is a movie that’s hard to talk about at medium length (and no: I don’t like limiting myself to 500 words), but it’s a brilliant movie that needs to be seen and not read about.

If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it.

Oh, and before I end up not mentioning it: the drum-track in the movie is amazing. Thanks to me watching it so far down the line, the first thing I was reminded of was a little video series by the King. I’ll leave a link to his latest video here (take care!).

Final rating: 9/10

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