Tag Archives: Babel

“BIRDMAN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The artist’s struggle, all in one take. 

Birdman, or otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is one of the most mesmerizing films I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most unique, disturbing, shocking, and confusing films I’ve ever seen too. That’s okay. This film was reaching for a specific vision, and director Alejandro Inarritu has expanded beyond it. I admit I don’t know what to expect as far as the public reacting to this, and I also don’t know how accessible it is to non-film aficionados either. But I have seen the movie frame by frame, and I think it’s one of the best films of its kind. On the surface value, it’s about the struggles of Broadway theatre. In deeper insight, it’s about ego and the obsessive human condition.

The film stars Michael Keaton as washed-up actor Riggan Thompson, who has been forgotten by his adoring public after portraying the lead role in a series of superhero films titled Birdman. This is ironic, because in real life, Keaton portrayed a superhero in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Desperate for a comeback, Thompson sets out to write, direct and star in his favorite Broadway play: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver.

Things immediately hit the fan during the week of their first preview. One of Riggan’s actors gets a head injury from a loose light on the set. His replacement, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is a talented but brash and arrogant actor who sees himself as Riggan’s superior. And, as he faces personal problems with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan begins to feel the closing pressures of Broadway when a malicious theatre critic tells him she’s going to “kill his play.” Now Riggan is trying to keep the play and his sanity afloat, and he will make whatever sacrifices he needs to make sure both happens.

Written, directed and produced by Inarritu, Birdman is the first black comedy made by the filmmaker, his most successful films to date being Oscar nominees Babel and Biutiful. Now he has made Birdman, and I am tempted to say it’s the best film he’s made yet.

What worked so well with the film? The first thing is the editing and the cinematography, which was shot so wonderfully by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki that it places you in the moment, in the reality of the film, not making you watch it from a cushion seat on the eighth row of a dark movie theater. Lubezki, who worked with Inarritu on short films in the past, decided to shoot the film and edit it into a continuous fashion, giving off the illusion that the entire film was filmed in one take. Even though the movie wasn’t filmed in one shot, the feeling it gives off makes it feel alive and moving, not unlike the world of theatre that Riggan is trying to prove himself in.

I wonder how much effort this takes, not just from the cinematographer and director’s point of view, but from everyone else involved in the film as well. How many hours did the actors need to rehearse their lines in order to get their roles right? How much pressure was the tech and lighting crew under while they were filming, knowing that if they screwed up, everyone would have to start back to square one? How many hours did film editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione have to sit in front of a computer, making sure the shots transitioned so well that you couldn’t even see the transitions? The illusion not only worked because of the idea that Lubezki and Inarritu offered, but because of the commitment it received from everyone involved with the film. In many ways, their efforts were all worth it: the camerawork here expresses more of the story than the character’s dialogue does.

The parallels in this movie are also ingenious. How does Keaton feel playing as Riggan Thompson in the movie, knowing that he reached international fame as Batman earlier in his career and having since then never been able to match a more recognized role? How does Inarritu feel, going through all of the production pressures Riggan did in making the play as he himself did in making the movie? Did he intend this movie as self-reflection? Is he telling the audience what he goes through daily as a filmmaker? Or is he using his struggles as a platform to tell a much deeper, more important story to the audience?

For me, I don’t get as much joy out of interpreting as much as I do out of experiencing. And make no mistake: Birdman is an experience, surreal, tantalizing, and thought-provoking all at once. I’m still sitting here, hours later, not quite fully realizing what exactly Inarritu was trying to portray in this film. Is he commenting on the artist’s struggle? Commercial vs. independent film? Fatherhood? Friendship? Family? Lost love?

I think it’s all of the above. Or maybe none of the above. I honestly don’t know. In the movie, Inarritu battles labels that are placed on artists and on the art that they produce. Is Riggan Thompson a superhero, or an actor portraying a superhero? Is he a former shell of who he is, or a flower that has yet to bloom? We see in this film how these labels influence his life and how much stress and anxiety it presses upon him. To put labels on the movie would contradict Inarritu’s intentions. It would be offensive to the film.

My bottom line: Birdman is a masterpiece. It is so distinct in its own language and style that I think it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Critics will applaud it for it’s technical and emotional achievements. It will definitely garner some Oscar nominations. It’s a sure contender for visual effects, cinematography and editing. It is also sure to confuse certain people, to which I would recommend stop trying to understand it. Birdman is not meant to be understood. It is meant to be experienced, and if you can help it, interpreted.

Post-script: A thought I had after seeing the movie that I think viewers will also have. Because of how profoundly his role as Birdman affected Riggan, is Inarritu attacking the superhero genre of film? I believe he is, but I choose not to acknowledge that. After all, for every time a superhero film was called too simple, couldn’t you call any art film too complicated? I quote Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad.” 

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An Afternoon With Alejandro Inarritu

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

– Raymond Carver

These were the words that director Alejandro Inarritu (Babel, Biutiful) chose to quote at the beginning of his meticulous film Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. It was also the first words that came back into my head minutes before I was to interview him.

This weekend, I had two great experiences happen to me. Firstly, getting to see Birdman, a viciously unique film that tackles it’s characters and themes with pinpoint precision: a masterwork by a master director. The second you already know. If you don’t, you didn’t read my first paragraph.

Alejandro gave myself, along with about ten other college journalists, the privilege to talk to him about his upcoming limited release. After seeing the movie, this surprised me, because there was a moment in the film where a journalist accuses the main character of injecting semen into his pores to maintain his young features. I suspect Mr. Inarritu hosts a very guarded spirit while being interviewed by the press, and I certainly don’t blame him for that if that is the case. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why Inarritu wanted to host the interview over the phone in the first place.

Anyhow, I had 20 minutes to listen to the director’s innermost thoughts, and while I only got to ask him one question, I enjoyed the experience as much as any other college journalist who participated in the call. While all of these aren’t my questions, these are the ones I found the most relevant to the film, and the ones I believed Inarritu would have preferred to be answered in the first place. So without further adieu, here is Alejandro Inarritu on the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

Question: Your film is unique, hyperactive and full of energy. How do you communicate to your cast the complex tone you’re wanting to portray?

Answer: I always try to be very specific, help them to clarify and simplify things by having a very clear objective. I think every scene has an objective, and every character has something they want to achieve in each scene. When you have cleared your objective, and to try one or two possible ways to get that done through an action verb, I think that would simplify the work not only for me, but for everybody.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced while making the film? 

A: It was a very short shooting — 29 days. We rehearsed a lot before arriving to the set, so basically it was a very intense and meticulous work of precision with actors, camera and crew. Everything was designed and matched the needs of the film that was basically predecided in rehearsal.

Q: You have a big role behind your scenes in producing, writing and directing all of your films. What is it like taking on all of those jobs at once? 

A: I have been lucky to have been the producer and be involved in all of my films in a very personal way. I think there is no other way to make it. I think if you have a film that is personal, if you are doing your own film, there is no other way to not produce it, because I think it’s a part of the film. Producing means a lot of decisions that will impact your film one way or another.

Q: In the movie, Riggan Thompson is overshadowed by a superhero role he played earlier in his career. In real life, Keaton is overshadowed by his role in Tim Burton’s Batman. Is that an intentional casting decision that you made?

A: Keaton adds a lot of mental reality to the film, being an authority and one of the few persons of his work that pioneered the superhero thing. But at the same time, he has the craft and the range to play in drama and comedy, and very few actors can do that. He plays a prick in this film, and I need someone who was adorable, somebody who you can really like. He has that likeness, that likeness that was required. All of these things made him the perfect choice for it. I think he was very bold in trusting me with this role.

Q: One of the things that is particularly interesting with the film is the long take. Can you talk about why you made that visual choice?

A: I wanted the long take to make the people really feel the experience of this guy. I think it’s important for every director in every film to pick the point of view, and in this case I wanted radical point of view, and the people were in the shoes of the character to experience his emotions. I felt that was the most effective way to do that.

Q: Why did you choose to portray mental illness in a film that is at least extensively a comedy?

A: I think ego is a part of our decease as a society. I think the ego is a necessity, but I think when the ego takes over and we attach our personalities to the ego, and he domains a person absolutely without being discovered or controlled. That’s mental deceit, and I see in a way Riggan Thompson suffering from that illusion of ego that’s distorting him. He thinks he does things that he does not do, he’s in like a manic state of mind. He’s an extreme case of ego.

Q: Is that part of the commentary?

A: Everything is part of the tone of the film. That’s why it opens with a guy meditating in tidy whites.

– David Dunn

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