20th Century Fox
The Academy Awards were Sunday night. I don’t know if you watched, but needless to say, the show wasn’t all everybody hoped it would be. I can’t remember the last time that the Oscars telecast met expectations. In fact, I’m not sure why anyone has high expectations anymore. Neil Patrick Harris seemed like a no-brainer as host, but, like just about everyone else since the heyday of Billy Crystal, he came off as awkward and a little ill-at-ease. I think it’s the format of the show that’s stilted, not the host, necessarily. As usual, there were few surprises as far as the awards go. The Academy Awards comes at the end of a long awards season, so the big winners have pretty much been spoiled by everything from the Actors Guild to the Golden Globes. I kind of thought “Boyhood” would win more, but all the films it was up against looked to be just as worthy, so it’s no tragedy. This was a year for small, quirky films – good movies, but not the kind that will resonate through the ages. “Grand Budapest Hotel” was my favorite of the nominees, and it won a few, and “American Sniper,” the biggest of the nominees, picked up the expected sound awards but nothing more. The big win of the night went to perhaps the smallest of the Best Picture Nominees, a good movie, but an odd choice for the top prize in my opinion. “Birdman” should be most notable for the triumphant return to stardom of Michael Keaton, but his award was about the only one it didn’t win.
“Birdman” is the story of Riggan Thomson, a former superstar who’s star has faded. After a blockbuster run playing the superhero “Birdman” in three films in the late eighties, Thomson turned down the big money and instead elected to try for a “serious” career. Now, twenty years since he last strapped on the wings, Thomson is trying for a last ditch career save by writing, producing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver novel, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Broke, alone, and staring down the barrel of almost certainly dismal reviews, Riggan may be losing his grip on reality. His cast is a mess, his co-star, a troubled but brilliant actor in the vein of Val Kilmer, is out of control, his daughter hates him, and the voice in his head, that of “Birdman” himself, is an incessant reminder of a life full of wrong turns. As opening night fast approaches, the production goes into freefall, but it could be that freefall is where the most honest performances are found.
“Birdman” is very good, and very intimate. Director Alejandro Iñárritu, and his fellow award-winning cinematographer achieve this intimacy, in part, by employing what, at first glance, seems like an annoying gimmick. The entire film, all ninety-some minutes of it, appears to be one long take. Think of it as the anti-“Taken.” The film takes place over the course of a week, the camera following the characters down stairways and hallways, onto the street, and soaring up and over the buildings as time speeds up and slows down. It sounds a little exhausting and seems like something that would get old quick, but to my surprise the camera work creates a remarkably close, personal feel. So often, the camera is pulled in close to Keaton’s face and the weight of his endeavor is palpable. The continuous-take technique also has the effect of speeding the story along. “Birdman” never lags.
This is, without a doubt, an actor’s movie. The story is interesting, but feels more like a venue for some fairly remarkable scenes. Sometimes this can actually a detriment to the story as a whole, but in “Birdman,” it works. Keaton truly does a superb job – by far the best performance I’ve ever seen from an actor who always seemed like a solid comedic B-lister. Edward Norton, as Mike, is delightfully obnoxious and a huge pain to work with, but backs it up by being a really good actor – just like the real Edward Norton. There are myriad parallels to real life in “Birdman,” not the least of which is Keaton’s real-life run as the 1980’s big screen “Batman.” I have to imagine that Emma Stone, however, is nothing like the bitter, insecure, and ultimately fed-up daughter she plays so well in the film. Also good are Naomi Watts and Zach Galifinakis as co-star of the play and Riggan’s manager, respectively.
“Birdman” is catching flack for some of it’s thematic material, but from what I saw, those with an axe to grind are reading too much into the film. For one, some have said it is unfairly critical of the current trend toward superhero movies and blockbuster effects films. Personally, I didn’t find that at all. The film never really answers whether our hero should have stopped being “Birdman,” just acknowledges that he’s conflicted about it. One criticism that can be fairly leveled against the movie is that it’s really just an hour and a half of Hollywood navel-gazing, but so what? Actors and directors love movies about acting and directing, and so do most of the rest of us.
That said, “Birdman,” though very good, doesn’t feel important or weighty enough to be the Best Picture of the Year. I guess that speaks to the entire nominee pool this year, but I also was disappointed with “Birdman’s” ending. The film comes to a definitive close – I won’t tell what happens other than to say it is somewhat jarring, and perhaps a little cliché. But then there comes another five minutes which, to my mind, make no sense whatsoever. This had the effect of leaving me rolling my eyes rather than applauding, which I would have been more than apt to do had the movie actually ended when it should have. I’m sure there’s symbolic meaning I’m missing. Overall, however, I was pleasantly surprised and legitimately moved by this intricate and intimate little dramedy. Mostly the movie soars, and if it crashes to the ground once or twice, so be it. Grade: A-
“Birdman” is rated R for language, sexual situations, and brief violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.