Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A Bird on Broadway

Successful cinematography is one of the defining features of any successful film. Some films aesthetic appearance is easily their strongest feature - see Malick's The Tree of Life or Korine's Spring Breakers - but to integrate physical performance, narrative structure, and all other filmic elements within the beauty of photography is another challenge altogether. This is Birdman.

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a washed up star of a superhero franchise - the titular Birdman - and he is attempting to regain his artistic integrity with a Broadway show - an adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, written by, directed by, and starring Thomas. The film opens with Riggan levitating in his dressing room moments before a light falls on one of his cast, leaving him with a role to fill. Cue Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a Hollywood actor who needs the stage to feel real in order to perform. Arriving with his lines pre-learnt, Shiner is shown around by Riggan's drug addicted daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and his supporting performer and some-form-of-lover Lesley (Naomi Watts).As the rehearsal process continues, and without a preview ever going off without a hitch, the show - and Riggan's mental state - could be in real jeopardy.
The actors had to get high for this script to make sense.

Having already scooped up a couple of trophies for Best Ensemble at various awards evenings, there is no denying the talent displayed in Birdman. Firstly, Keaton's outstanding personification of a mid-life crisis as Riggan quite literally puts his mind and body on the line for his production is fantastic. The descent into madness (or continued downward spiral) is one part heartbreaking, and one part satisfying catharsis. Keaton allows us into Riggan's insane life (or it just insanity), treating only the audience to the depths of his psychological struggle. Norton is on top form here too. Over 15 years since his best work in American History X and Fight Club, 2014 shows him performing excellently in two roles (here and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and reaching for those heights he touched before. Whilst the second act almost drops him entirely, he brings the life and vigour to the first, causing conflict, throwing gin bottles across the stage during live previews, and spending a large quantity of time naked. A truly fantastic performance. The pair are supported by a stunning ensemble consisting of a drugged up Emma Stone, a Naomi Watts dreaming of her big break, and a Zach Galifianakis in an unrecognisably brilliant turn as Riggan's lawyer and best friend, Jake. Looks like Jonah Hill is not the only 'fat' comedian that dabble with critical award winners.

Riggan finds out about a club Shiner used to be in

The film's greatest success, as alluded to in the introduction to this review, is its aesthetic achievement. Minus some bookending images, the film appears as one long uninterrupted shot, weaving through the backstage of the Broadway theatre, occasionally swinging into a liquor shop or bar along the way. Not only does that require a huge amount of commitment and dedication from all the performers, but also director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione. Their talent made what could have been a clunky disaster a smooth success. The film boasts a percussion heavy score by Antonio Sanchez, who even appears at occasion for a split second as Keaton passes by him playing, which keeps the film's temp up, but it also provides a slightly chaotic element to even the mundane.

Birdman's successes are not just hidden away in its technical achievement, the performances are some of the finest in a comedy in the past few years and, in true black comedy form, it succeeds in being both hilarious and heart wrenching. It tackles real, human topics in a surreal way and the ending leaves you plenty to talk about on the journey home from the cinema. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has made a wonderful film.

Best Bit? The stage quite literally being screened allowed for some of the most entertaining moments, as well as some of the most captivating performances. Gin bottles were thrown, finger guns were used, men walked close to naked through the aisles. The film's strongest scenes happen on the stage.

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