Saturday, November 8, 2014

Do You Own The Role, Or Does It Own You? Review of Birdman

While most people decided to go see Interstellar and Big Hero 6, I went to see a movie that's been called the comeback of the original Joel Schumacher Batman, Michael Keaton. After seeing TV ads for Birdman for weeks, I wondered if this is really an anti-super hero movie, and a cautionary tale about what happens when an actor's iconic role that he has tried to shake just won't let go.

Birdman is that, and more. It's a bizarre and touching tale of Riggan Thomson, who was known for playing the iconic Birdman three times...but not much after that. He's hoping a Broadway play based on Raymond Carter will change his luck. However, he's plagued by accidents, a pompous replacement, disasterous previews, and a critic that vows to destroy his play because she can.
All the while, he hears a familiar voice. It's Birdman, urging Riggan to bring him back.

The story is done as one long take, even though the story covers several days. You can tell where the cuts are, but the way it's shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is just amazing. It wouldn't a surprise to those who remember he won an Oscar last year for Gravity. More praise should be given to director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has put together a tale that's part theater backstage politics, part pressure, and part fantasy. It could almost be an re-origin story not for a super hero, but a guy who wants to remind people he's still an actor, and a good one.

He pins his hopes on a play that he's written and directed, with himself as the star. When a falling light hits one of the actors, he gets Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to replace him. He's a good actor, but also pompous. He makes moves on his co-star Leslie (Naomi Watts) and Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and ruins the first two previews. In the third preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theater, and has to get back in only wearing his briefs.That gives him the kind of attention he wasn't seeking.

While Riggan hopes to be recognized for the right reasons, it's interesting the movie shows people still know him and like him for what he did as Birdman. The attention can be a double-edged sword, due to people taking pictures of him in his briefs with their smartphones. At least one fans asks for his autograph.

The movie also asks if an actor can own the role, or the role can own him. When we first meet him, he's levitating, as if he was Birdman. He also seems to use telepathy, which may may be one of Birdman's powers, to cause major damage to his dressing room. Then there's what he does on the morning of the opening of his play. Is it real, or in his mind? The answer may be obvious, but is it?
There's also a question of what is more important: making zillions in a comic book movie franchise, or having a career that is respected. These days, some actors have managed both, from Daniel Radcliffe to Jennifer Lawrence. That even includes Norton and Stone, who have been part of comic book franchises.

Speaking of which, Norton is really good as Shiner, who can be charming but also difficult. Still, you can't help but like him. Stone was also great as Sam, Riggan's daughter and personal assistant. She loves her dad, but she is still angry at him for his neglect.

This movie should get some attention when award season starts in January. It's a longshot for Best Picture except for the Spirit Awards, but Keaton is a lock for Best Actor, while Norton has a chance for Supporting Actor. Inarritu should be considered for directing and writing too. Can you imagine Keaton swooping in to get an Oscar? It's early, but some just might.

The movie has had a slow but steady expansion, doubling its screens to more than 460 this weekend, and raising more than six million dollars so far. It may not be a billion dollar blockbuster, but Birdman will get both prestige and popularity as a movie that says a lot about art, Hollywood, popularity, identity and eventually self-respect.

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