Alejandro González Iñárritu
Raymond Carver (play based on the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”)
Alejandro González Iñárritu
What to Expect
How far would you go to protect – and in some cases – liberate your artistic integrity? What are the lengths you would go to; the terrains you’d cross to make your voice heard? What would you be willing to do?
Questions as such have been around for a very long time, answered loud and clear by such stalwarts in recent cinema as Christian Bale and Daniel Day Lewis, with their bold attempts at fitting into the characters they’ve played thus far. As far as popular cinema is concerned, one of the best films in the past decade to have covered such terrain is Darren Arronofsky’s acclaimed psychological drama-thriller Black Swan, having effectively driven the point home. Backed by 20th Century Fox’’s sister company Fox Searchlight Pictures, the movie was a thrilling, almost breathless account of an artist’s journey from vulnerability to desolation. It’s no surprise that the distribution company would want to cover similar ground again – a topic Birdman seems pretty adamant at putting through.
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who’s known for the complex, breathless and compelling Babel, the film does seem to have a lot riding on it. Featuring an absolutely mind-blowing cast of characters like Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis among others, and co-written (alongside Iñárritu) by Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, both known to have collaborated with the very director previously on Biutiful, alongside Alexander Dinelaris, the movie seems to have the term “promising” written all over it. Add to that the fairly intoxicating trailer that refuses to reveal what the movie’s up to, and the curiosity levels skyrocket across the roof.
And this is why I was right at the premiere screening of this film at the 11th Dubai International Film Festival, braving the almost insane crowd, attempting to get into the gorgeous screening venue in high anticipation of catching it.
What’s it About?
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton; Need for Speed) is a fading Hollywood sensation, whose chance at redemption is the adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. During a certain rehearsal, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos; Magic in the Moonlight), one of the actors Thomson despises, is suspiciously hit by a falling light. In search of a replacement actor, Thomson comes across Mike Shiner (Edward Norton; Fight Club), an eccentric stage personality who sets the ball rolling for disaster-upon-disaster in every preview screening the audience comes across. Losing his mind, Thomson slips into bouts of dangerously surrealist doubt – which leaves everything he’s ever loved or had a passion for hanging in the balance.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
It’s becoming increasingly easier for me to vocalize how bad a movie is and turn it into prose, with every consecutive glowing review becoming a heart-wrenchingly challenging work. Not that I love beating a film up (which, once a year, comes to it with a few choicest of films), but it’s quite difficult to put all the vivid feelings you’ve got as a film enthusiast on a film you’re in love with.
I’m currently in that very stage right now.
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And What did you want?
To call myself beloved;
to feel myself beloved on the earth
– Raymond Carver; storywriter, poet
These ultimately relevant lines fill the frame of the opening titles, as they sporadically randomize themselves to form the word Birdman. Known also in the movie – quite aptly – as Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the title’s apparent obscurity and the quote are a puzzle, that – eventually – is solved by the end of its last, hopeful frame. Iñárritu, in collaboration with the screenwriters, is able to create a spellbinding technique which combines brilliantly the very drastically different emotions of humor, rage and vulnerability within the different dynamics of its own character arcs. The humor, in particular, is non-manipulative, free-flowing and has the kind of timing that hits the nail right on the head of it all. Take for example the monologue voice over that begins the film on a winning tone that’s basically going to stick around for its entirety:
How did we end up here?
This place is horrible.
Smells like balls.
What – however – makes it so relevant in so many ways is the choice of Michael Keaton in a role that could superficially almost echo shades of real life. By and far, the Birdman plot-thread is the most brilliantly self-aware element of the movie, effectively echoing Keaton’s Batman stint with Tim Burton. To top that, Norton seems to be parodying a spitting image of his rumored real-life actor-with-issues. And when you notice how – coincidence of all coincidences? – Keaton, Norton and Stone have all been involved in superhero films, you’ll chuckle – and chuckle hard.
But once you’re out of that zone, you’re in for a ridiculously involving, highly unpredictable movie experience with an absolutely beautiful marriage of camerawork and editing to make the whole film look like it’s been shot in one absolutely long take, echoing but the only other film popular to have done a similar thing – Hitchcock’s psychological crime thriller Rope. Considering, however, that the late Mike Nichols (Charlie Wilson’s War), who had a conversation with Iñárritu, was fairly apprehensive of the filmmaking technique to have been used to narrate the story (he claimed it would be a disaster), it’s wildly bold that the director went ahead with the almost dazzlingly ambitious idea. And on viewing the film, it’s only clear that he’s has come out an absolute winner in all this.
Here’s the thing though – it’s not just the technique used or the brilliant direction of a rather simple storyline. It’s how layered the storyline is from a micro point of view. The movie speaks about a lot of things – particularly hinging upon the absoluteness of ego and how it drives us as individuals. Using Thomson’s past as the reigning box-office phenomenon playing Birdman effectively, the movie drives home how much can feeling vindicated affect you, and what are the extremes you’d be ready to take as an artist to continue having that standing – whether as an actor or as a newbie in Broadway. Each character in the film is looking for nothing but validation to live in their own different ways, and Broadway is shown to be the melting pot of a combined ego trip for everyone involved in or associated with it, be it a performer with a swagger or an insultingly judgmental theatre critic viewing the productions more from a distance than their respective crews. Every character, every plot thread and every other weird subplot only helps bring the movie to its rather ambiguously hopeful conclusion.
But apart from the exquisite collaborative success between editor duo Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (21 Grams), and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity; but of course) and his team of camera operators, the movie has an appropriate background score by Antonio Sanchez, filled with extensive drumroll through and through, giving us as an audience the vibe of a theatre production, whilst also producing winning tension and the leverage of curiosity in our heads. The movie, however, excels in its realistic production design, giving us as the viewer an added level of enhancement to feel like the third person of this film, being a part of the world they are in, and following the protagonists as they go about their rather flabbergasting preparations for the opening night, which seems to continue looming in, slowly but surely.
The one very towering difficulty I’ve had in attempting to assess the film has been to find flaws in the movie. And this time, I’ve failed. I’m afraid my bias of having been so potently involved in the proceedings of it all might have taken over, but the thing about this jaw-dropping achievement of a film is that, I can’t seem to find any. And for now, I’m going to keep it at that.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Michael Keaton has been doing some obscure stuff in a host of films around this year – Robocop and Need for Speed being prime examples – with most of his previous years not being such great successes. It’s needless for me to say, however, that with this film he’s made a strong, fairly vocal comeback. What an absolutely strong, layered performance this has been; towering around the film and majorly moving it forward. But he’s not alone in it all. Norton delivers an absolutely electrifying performance, standing right next to Keaton, creating a thrilling metaphorical face-off that’s only to be seen to be believed. Emma Stone is flawless, and basically goes by her role so effortlessly. Zach Galifianakis is such a treat to watch, his role being an obvious difference from the ones he’s taken. And while he’s been absolutely bang on with the humor of the film, it’s refreshing to see a different tangent to the humor he’s been doing all along. Don’t worry about the timing though; he’s perfect as always. Andrea Riseborough has a fairly unpredictable character arc, and delivers a graceful performance which thankfully doesn’t look gratuitous (as could easily have been the case) in even a single frame. Naomi Watts is a pleasure to watch. Lindsay Duncan has exactly two major scenes in the film. Her performative power, yet, channels through the movie through those scenes by itself. Others are great.
I couldn’t have been more resounding in my praise of the film than I already am. A movie like this isn’t just ambitious; it’s also successfully ambitious, striking a fantastic balance between technique and storytelling, and going even further than the two superficially main elements in order to explore wider, more psychologically driven themes that need to be understood to be fully absorbed. Iñárritu, as always, proves to be an absolutely dazzling talent in the world of filmmaking, with this looking like a true passion project that is driven by some impossibly strong direction and writing.
I might be overstepping here, but Birdman is the weirdest, funniest, deepest – and to sum all of that up easily the BEST – movie I’ve seen this year (and in a very long time). In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that this is NOT just a movie; it’s an experience waiting for you to be taken for a ride you’ll never, ever forget.
Very, VERY highly recommended.
Watch the trailer
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