Tuesday 6 January 2015

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year: 2014 (2015 U.K Release)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr, Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton

Synopsis is here

Wesley Morris in his positive review of Birdman questions whether its director; Alejandro González Iñárritu, has a certain type of artistic insecurity that set him apart from the likes of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. A creator of grand, depressive moral tales such as 21 Grams, or Babel, I would suggest that such insecurity could come from Iñárritu's view on scope. Cuaron's 2001 road movie Y Tu Mamá También, for example, is a tidy road movie, which uses simple gestures to provide its rich emotional message. Its climatic scene delivers a small revelation which brings everything that was previously seen in perspective. Del Toro is also similar. Even within his richly detailed worlds, the people we meet remain simple and relatable.

Iñárritu often wishes to pummel you with an extremely crushing world view, which rears its head even in the films of his I've enjoyed. Iñárritu's Bitiful brings forth so much depression on such a large scale, it streams past overwhelming is descends into overbearing. The film is so bludgeoning it made me want to find a copy of the Bicycle Thieves (1948) and give a class on how to make misery manageable. Keep it simple, and you won't lose the audience.

Iñárritu's latest feature; Birdman, however, seems to work due to a condensing the whole soul crushing globalism angle. Everything is stripped down to the (still quite large) ego of actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), who is leaving vapid blockbusters to produce a small play of personal truth. The conflicts stem from this man not understanding that the audience has changed and his search for truth has boiled down to the laboured binary of social media. Meanwhile the theatrical critical eye may not take too kindly to a man who's built his (now forgotten) fame on some bland franchise. The film holds a Synecdoche, New York (2008) vibe to proceedings. Here is a man whose insecurities are spiralling out of control in such way, that he needs them to be shrunk down. It's almost as if Iñárritu may have been absorbing some of the more negative reviews of his films. Amusingly, there is still a sense of a dominant global regime oppressing everything in its path, but it's slimmed down to merely an ex Hollywood player and his industry as opposed to the all-compassing feelings of awful affecting every orifice of life itself.

Birdman is smart about the state of modern Hollywood film making. At one moment, it's suggested that everyone major player now must don a cape now to gain work, the joke being that Keaton's Riggis not only used to be a superhero in this film, but Keaton himself set the modern ball rolling with his casting in Batman (1989), a film which helped shape some of the worst aspects of modern mainstream cinema. Some of which we now see cynically mutated into their present form by Birdman's hand.  Many of Birdman's humorous moment works when fiction bleeds into real life. The "process" of pretentious method actor Mike Shiner (Norton) becomes amusing when you consider his own background. Not only with comic book movies (he was once the Hulk), but also the rumours of Norton being difficult to work with. Seeing Norton having a ball with his rumoured personality, has a certain charm to his scenes. A wonderful exchange between Naomi Watt's Lesley and Andrea Riseborough's Laura is pitch perfect:

Lesley: "I wish I had more self-respect!"

Laura: "You're an actress."

My mind quickly casts back to when a flustered Watt's exited her interview with Simon Mayo early, while on promotional duty for the much maligned Diana (2013). The film also nails a particular type of critic (an icy Lindsey Duncan), whose more interested in their personal axes to grind rather than the name of art. It's amusing because the element of truth hits the right note. A sense of balance that Iñárritu would struggle with when giving us his more sensitive features.

The films flights of fancy are still grand and preposterous. It features a climax which mimics the opening of 8 ½ (1963). Morris also makes comparisons to Fellini and I'm inclined to agree as the film shares similar elements with the aforementioned title, although Birdman seems less interested in how the women of Riggis' life affect his personality. The film still seems a little bit more entertained with snark, with the film happily dropping the sub plots which prominently feature the female cast. The films largest spectacle: making the film appear as if it is all in one long take, is a brave and often beguiling approach. So much so that it can feel a little more distracting than engaging.

It's when the films injects its dark brand of humour, or allows the camera to settle on the smaller moments which allow the film to be at its most truthful. A sub plot featuring Emma Stone's rehabilitated daughter; Sam and the arrogant Mike is one of the most prominent sequences of the film. It's not so much what they say as opposed to how they say it and how intimately they're framed. Such framing becomes important for a film about a transitional period, which seemingly has no apparent transitions in the sense of film language. Annoyingly, Birdman loses its way, by deeming the stories more engaging sub-plots as unimportant, but spending so much time with them you wonder why they're present. Then again, it may be part of the joke.

Despite this, Birdman's lighter approach is refreshing from a filmmaker who mostly enjoys roaming in the gloom. The craft makes the film worth seeing once. The satirical edge and the sight of Michael Keaton reclaiming some of that edgy, manic energy which made him such a stalwart of the 80's/90's makes gives the film a great amount of heft. But above all this, Birdman's more concise viewpoint doesn't bog us down. After the weighty moralising that clouded the likes of Bitiful, the lightness of Birdman allows a viewer to get on board with its message. No matter how large the egos grow. Strangely, I find it no surprise that Piers Morgan has stated that he hated the film. So to be fair, a man with an ego as big as his despising this movie, definitely makes something like Birdman worth watching.