An Early Bird review of Birdman
Contributor Alex Hannah was amongst the lucky few to see Birdman at it's UK premiere last month. Check out what he thought of it here!
9 December 2014
As I am writing this review, my mind drifts to imagine what would Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) think of me here sitting at my laptop reviewing, or as he’d call it “labeling”, Alejandro González Iñarritu’s latest and arguably most ambitious feature; Birdman. My interest in Birdman flourished from first seeing the teaser trailer and my anticipation has only heightened since hearing rave reviews from its multiple festival appearances earlier this year. When I discovered that it’s UK premiere would be at the Leeds International Film Festival at the prestigious Hyde Park Picturehouse; I knew I had to be one of the lucky few to attend.
Birdman is a jet black surreal comedy that tells the story of former A-list celebrity actor, Riggan Thomson, whose fame derives from the immensely popular and profitable superhero Birdman franchise, who attempts to resurrect his career by staging his own Broadway production that he writes, directs and stars in. Over the course of the film Riggan must deal with unruly method actors like Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the budget and administrative requirements set out by his haggard producer (Zach Galifianakis) and in the midst of all of this he attempts to reconnect with his daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan).
While the year for me has spawned many great films from Her to Boyhood, I feel Birdman is the film of 2014 that will be deemed a true classic in years to come for defining and assessing a particular era in mainstream cinema. Its critique on the current superhero blockbuster trend is not only astute; it is also witty and extremely well executed. The casting decision to include actors from previous comic book movies is an inspired meta choice that showcases different sides and ranges of the performers. Speaking of the cast, it is rare to see an entire ensemble mould together so well and it is even rarer to watch a film where every actor gives their finest performance in years – yet Birdman heroically manages to deliver both. Keaton delivers a scorching turn as the lead who plays his character’s descent into psychosis straightly not ever overdoing or undoing Riggan’s discontent and torment. Edward Norton does a fine job in almost self parodying himself and the delusion of Hollywood and Broadway method actors and in the process delivers a lot of the film’s funniest dialogue and one-liners. Lastly, the most pleasant surprise from the cast came from Emma Stone as Riggan’s disenfranchised druggy daughter who is superb in delivering a stand out monologue that cuts through all of her father’s pretention and BS – one of my favourite dramatic moments in the entire film.
Sitting in a sold out venue and hearing the laughs erupt from the crowd as every joke landed correctly and on cue was a joy to behold. Without a doubt this film is viciously funny and encompasses a broad range of humour from slapstick to volatile language, which allows Birdman to perch shoulder to shoulder with other classic black comedies like In Bruges, Network and Kings of Comedy. In fact, now having seen the film, the full title Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) I believe is certainly a nod to Kubrick’s own black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
When it comes to the film’s construction, the continuous one shot take cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (which make up nearly the entirety of the film) is simply mesmerising and gives you an incredible voyeuristic experience as you feel yourself walking down the theater corridors and in backstage dressing rooms of the stars. I feel as well that the one shot takes also create an almost claustrophobic effect on the audience. The lack of cutting and the lack of breaks I feel really reflect and augment the psychosis and paranoia of Riggan. As opening night draws closer the more troubled he becomes. These shots however wouldn’t have been complete without a good musical accompaniment, which is skillfully provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez creating possibly my favourite commissioned score of 2014. The simple yet frantic solo jazz drumming has the most tremendous and unique effect on the visuals and help increase the stress and tension felt by everyone in the theatre as they go about their jobs in a frenzy to prepare the production for a paying audience and a scathing critic.
With a cost of only $18 million (a fraction of the budget for any superhero movie) and a filming schedule of just 30 days, Alejandro González Iñarritu has far surpassed my already high expectations and has created a showbiz satire that is impressive as it is funny as it is technically ambitious. While we might not see a sequel or a cinematic universe stem from the critical success of Birdman, Iñarritu has proven you don’t need an overindulgent budget and effects to make great cinema. All you need is a good story and fine actors and you can be free to create works of art that will stand up tall and fly for years to come. Birdman is inspiring and I hope Riggan Thomson approves of my “labeling”.
You can find Alex Hannah on twitter at @themopass
Picturehouse at FACT are hosting an exclusive preview screening of Birdman on 28 December before its 1 January release date. Tickets are available now.