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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
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Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: A
Special Effects: B+


Stories about self-involved and self-important actors are nothing new, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu also finds a new foray into them with the awkwardly punctuated Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). He manages a technical achievement not unlike, albeit not quite as astonishing, as Children of Men (2006), taking the camera in places so unexpected, it's invigorating.

This is all the more impressive by virtue of the limited space in which he does it: nearly the entire film is set inside a Broadway theatre in New York City's Times Square, with a brief interlude in a nearby hospital. And the transition between theatre and hospital, in which the protagonist may or may not be dead, is the only couple of minutes in the film with conventional editing, shots actually cutting to another. Prior to that, and this covers maybe three quarters of the film, Iñárritu manages with far greater finesse what Alfred Hitchcock attempted in Rope in 1948: it's all just one continuous tracking shot, or at least it appears to be.

Perhaps not as noticeable in 1948, in retrospect it's easy to see now in Rope where Hitchcock actually cut his film, such as when he closes the camera in on a character's back until the screen is briefly black. Iñárritu does something similar in Birdman, but doubles the technique to convey the passage of time: the camera will pan up to look at the sky through tall buildings, and we see the sky fade either to dark or light. Then the camera pulls back and moves back inside the theatre.

But this is done so effectively that it's never distracting beyond how noticeably well done it is, as above all, we cannot take our eyes off of the characters. Michael Keaten adds a meta layer to his performance as an aging actor famous for a superhero he played twenty years ago, now starring in a Broadway play he directs and adapted from Raymond Carver. Although Keaton's character, Riggan Thompson, last played the lead in Birdman 3, and Keaten himself only played Batman twice, the reference to the last blockbuster he starred in being in 1992 is no accident -- that was when Batman Returns was released.

Thompson, for his part, is going a little crazy, constantly being talked to by a deep voice in his head that is the voice of the Birdman character. He keeps imagining powers of telekinesis as he picks up stuff and smashes things with his mind, which Iñárritu presents as though it's actually happening. As he attempts to open his new play, with things going wrong all around him, he is unraveling.

The characters around him, all played to perfection, have their own problems. Emma Stone is his distracted daughter just out of rehab and now working as his assistant. Naomi Watts is a young actress delighted by the dream coming true of finally starring in a play opening no Broadway. Edward Norton is her boyfriend Mike, a star actor whose erectile dysfunction only goes away on stage because he only feels like he's "being real" while acting. And Zach Galifianakis, as Riggan's agent and best friend, plays arguably the most straightforward role he's ever done, and proves to be an actor in league with the best of them. You almost forget it's him.

Riggan interacts with all of these others, both backstage and onstage during play performances, taking up the majority of the screen time, although Iñárritu's camera does take frequent detours to other characters amongst themselves. The camera might swoop from the street up to the roof of a building where Mike and Riggan's daughter are hanging out. The camera will also follow characters to bars just a few doors down, or in one rather funny case, follow Riggan in his underwear walking through Times Square to re-enter the play in progress after he accidentally locks himself outside in the alley.

Birdman may not have anything to say that hasn't been said before, but what story does, really? What this movie does have is a singularity of vision and presentation, offering nuance and layers to the bruised and self-absorbed psyche of longtime celebrity actors unparalleled by other films that only think they offer such insights. Keaton hasn't been the genuine star of a movie in a long time, but here he's at the top of his game. The effects that render a few sequences of Riggan's violent imagination are merely good rather than great, but this is appropriate in context. This is not meant to be a special effects extravaganza; it's a window inside this man's head. Riggan is not a great man, but Iñárritu and Keaton himself make him great to watch.

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton duke it out as pretentious thespians in BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE).


Overall: A-
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