It shouldn’t come as a total shock that “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” — a very inside acting film — would continue the trend of movies like “The Artist” and “Argo,” winning the Best Picture prize at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Now three of the last five films to win the most prestigious award in Hollywood are about Hollywood, actors or some combination of both, and that’s certain to upset a lot of members of the general public, whether they’re indie die-hards who were mystified by Richard Linklater’s 12-year filming odyssey “Boyhood” or patriotic Clint Eastwood backers supporting a box office smash hit in “American Sniper.” But when you watch or re-watch “Birdman” — now out on DVD and Bluray — it’s important to realize just how complete a film “Birdman” is and what exactly we should be talking about when we talk about “Birdman.”
From the opening seconds, “Birdman” establishes itself as a film that’s going to draw moviegoers in with its visual brilliance, then keep them entranced with stunning performances from its deep and talented cast of actors.
Newly crowned Best Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose previous films include “Babel” and “21 Grams,” provides the initial hook, opting to stage the film in narrow, tight hallways inside the backstage of the St. James Theater in New York City to provide added tension, then flipping cinematic standard on its head by fusing each scene together so that “Birdman” feels like one never-ending, 120-minute shot.
Each scene is stitched together seamlessly thanks to the artistic savvy of “Gravity” cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — recent winner of back-to-back cinematography Oscars — and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione.
Each scene transitions to the next without interruption, mostly done through extended segments of 10 minutes or more. The necessary technique to pull off such a terrific stunt is a beautifully choreographed dance between actors and crew.
A great deal of technical care has been taken in the movie, which rivals “Gravity” as the most forward-thinking and visually dynamic film in years.
This sort of digital skill is becoming commonplace — especially in the superhero film genre “Birdman” constantly derides — but never with such grace. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the technical wizardry of a film accent highly skilled and complete acting performances, rather than having gimmicks or special effects operate as a replacement for quality acting.
Much in the same way that David Fincher used who Ben Affleck is as a public figure to great effect in “Gone Girl,” Iñárritu’s choice of former “Batman” star Michael Keaton as the titular “Birdman,” given Keaton’s struggles to overcome the shadow of his role as Batman parallel his character Riggan’s difficulty separating himself mentally from the super hero character Birdman that made him a movie star 20 years ago.
As a moviegoer, it’s nearly impossible to completely separate Keaton, the actor, with Riggan the character and in the case of “Birdman,” the film takes full advantage of this duality to create a deeply personal and emotionally rich character wanting to prove himself to the world while mistaking adoration for love.
Keaton, who narrowly lost out to “Theory of Everything” star Eddie Redmayne for a Best Actor Oscar, gives the performance of a lifetime in the role, which ironically enough, should redefine Keaton as a passionate actor outside of the comic book realm.
Edward Norton, who would have won Best Supporting Actor in a year where J.K. Simmons didn’t blow people away in “Whiplash,” provides Keaton with a sounding board to lob emotional volleys to, both in the film itself and in the Broadway stage show Riggan is producing, an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Emma Stone — who is slowly, but surely proving herself to be something much more than the limited characters she’s been playing on screen — makes the absolute most out of every second in her performance as Keaton’s drug-addled daughter looking to stay clean while helping her dad reform his own image. The subtle co-dependence the two characters share in their mutual rehabilitation is one of the many great sub-plots in an intricately woven tale.
Outside of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” moviegoers would be hard pressed to find such quality acting from so many talented performers — Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough.
But the question still remains: What do we talk about when we talk about “Birdman?”
How do you explain a meta, highly self-referential dramedy that seems to demean its audience by lavishly deriding the common blockbuster experience?
Quite simply, “Birdman” is the next step forward in a cinematic evolution that began with James Cameron’s visually transformative “Avatar” and continued with Guillermo del Toro’s space adventure “Gravity.”
Adding new depth in acting to lofty and innovative cinematography makes “Birdman” the obvious next step in filmmaking, led by Iñárritu, who is up to the task of making all the moving pieces work fluidly and beautifully.
“Birdman” checks off on all the critical elements of a complete cinematic experience — visual brilliance, acting talent giving top notch performances, elite technical skill and a blue-chip script — and is worthy of its Best Picture statue.