Last weekend I was lucky enough to see new movie, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Due out in UK cinemas on January 1st 2015, Birdman is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel, Biutiful) and boasts a cast including Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts. It’s already been nominated for a bunch of awards, including seven Golden Globes, so I was excited to see what all the fuss is about. Read on for my review, and then check out my very first giveaway at the end of this post!
Birdman – Review
Firstly, if you think a film called Birdman sounds like a superhero movie, you’re sort of right – and at the same time, couldn’t be more wrong. Confused yet?
Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood has-been, best known for his role in the superhero franchise, Birdman. Now, years later, he’s trying to make a name for himself as a ‘real’ actor, by directing, financing and starring in a Broadway play. The movie focuses on the last few days before opening night, when everything seems to be going wrong both on and off stage, with both hilarious and horrifying results. Besides dealing with an obnoxious cast member (Edward Norton) and attempting to forge a relationship with his estranged daughter (Emma Stone), Riggan must also face his own demons and work out what he really wants from life.
If you did stumble into this movie by accident, expecting action and adventure, you might not get quite what you’d bargained for. This is not the kind of film you can just sit back, relax and let wash over you. It makes you think, not only while you’re watching it but after you’ve left the cinema too. In fact, it actually feels a bit weird to be reviewing it at all, since one of the main themes is the role of others in defining not only Riggan’s career path but his very identity. No matter what happens on opening night, his play will live or die based on the opinion of one critic for the New York Times, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). Since she’s already predisposed to hate him before she’s even seen the show, purely because of who he is, this doesn’t bode well.
Michael Keaton, himself best known – by me, at least – for playing Batman in the 1990s, is a perfect choice for Riggan. He brilliantly portrays the emotional turmoil of a man who’s so dominated by his most famous role that he can no longer tell fiction from reality, to the point where his Birdman alter ego talks to him when they’re alone, and he genuinely starts to believe he has superpowers of his own. And yet at the same time, Keaton brings laugh-out-loud humour to the role, most memorably when, locked out of the theatre in his pants, he’s forced to run through a crowded Times Square to get back in.
The supporting cast are equally strong, with each having their moment in the spotlight. Emma Stone, in particular, stands out as Riggan’s daughter Sam. Fresh out of rehab, she’s working as his unwilling assistant, and contributes a refreshing honesty and understanding of the outside world that everyone else seems to lack. Edward Norton, too, is impressive as Mike Shiner, a brilliant actor but horrible human being, who confesses later in the film that he only feels like a real person when he’s on stage, performing for an audience.
As a theatre geek, it was fascinating for me to get a small insight into the backstage goings on of a big production. It’s easy to forget, while watching a play, that the actors are real people with real lives, and might well have dramas and insecurities of their own to deal with behind the scenes. This is particularly evident in the scene where Mike and Lesley (Naomi Watts) are in the middle of a bitter break up, and yet still manage to emerge with dazzling smiles on stage to take their bows.
The whole movie has a very theatrical feel to it; for starters, it’s almost entirely one long shot, as the camera follows the actors around the shadowy backstage corridors and out into the bright lights of Broadway. This almost makes it feel like it’s live, with just one shot for the actors to get it right, just as they have on stage.
All the action takes place either in or close to the theatre, and the dialogue, too, feels like it was written for the stage; each scene features a significant interaction between the characters, with no need for explosions or car crashes to make it effective. (In this respect, it reminded me of one of my favourite movies of all time, Once, which defies all Hollywood stereotypes, and in doing so, creates something even more magical.)
The heart of Birdman is the theatre, and as an audience member – let alone a reviewer – it leaves you feeling oddly unsettled, even as it entertains you. Riggan and his cast all struggle with one thing: understanding what it is to be loved. The fact that Riggan’s chosen a play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is obviously apt, and at times it’s hard to tell whether the actors are delivering lines from the script or speaking as themselves, because the two blend together so seamlessly. The play represents not only an attempt to escape from Birdman, but also to understand the world Riggan and his cast live in, a world in which it’s easy to ‘confuse admiration with love’. It makes you realise how much power we as an audience have over the lives and careers of performers, which suddenly feels like a huge responsibility. Thanks to the wonders of social media, everyone can be a critic, and that’s not something we should take lightly.
I feel like there’s so much more in this film that’s worthy of comment, and I haven’t covered half of it. It’s not necessarily always an easy watch, but I’d recommend Birdman to anyone with an interest in the theatre, or indeed anyone who’s ever pondered that weighty (and wordy) question – ‘what do we talk about when we talk about love?’
So, does Riggan succeed in shedding his Birdman alter ego? That would be telling – you’ll have to go and see the film to find out – but as far as I’m concerned, in the future when I hear ‘Michael Keaton’, I won’t think ‘Batman’ any more; I’ll think ‘Birdman’.
Win a Fox Searchlight DVD pack!
***The giveaway has now closed. Congratulations to the winner, Saffy, and runner-up, Helena.***
Now – as if it wasn’t exciting enough for me to go to my first movie screening, today I also have my first giveaway! I’ve got four DVDs from Fox Searchlight ready and waiting for one lovely reader – The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Descendants, Black Swan and – one of my favourite films, so you might have to fight me for it – Little Miss Sunshine. I also have a second copy of The Descendants, so I’m offering this to a runner-up.
How to enter:
1. Leave me a comment below to let me know which DVD you’ve particularly got your eye on and why.
2. Tweet why you want to win – remember to tag me @lizzid82 and include #BirdmanMovie and a link to this review.
Because of Christmas getting in the way, I’ll leave the giveaway open until midnight on Saturday 27th December to give you more time to get your entries in.
The small print: I’ll choose a winner and runner-up at random from the entries I receive here in the comments and on Twitter, and notify you within 48 hours of the giveaway closing.