Best of 2014 Movie Review: Birdman

Crawling out of the depths of obscurity, and into the hearts and minds of movie-goers worldwide, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's mindless yet sophisticated tale of a washed-up film actor taking on Broadway has left its mark on Hollywood and the rest of this crazy world in a most peculiar way. Lined with a slick and witty cast of frantic stars baiting for awards in a film that aspires to be both odd and methodical at the same time, Birdman (also known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) brings (somewhat) B-list actors and technical theater to the spotlight, with a flair of originality and satire at every wild turn.


Riggan Thomson (Micheal Keaton) used to be a blockbuster film actor, starring as the costumed hero Birdman in a mildly successful franchise that gave him the spotlight he loved. Three films later, Thomson hangs up the cape and cowl of his winged persona for a shot at Broadway, a life he knows little about. Suddenly in charge of a risky adaptation of one of his favorite stories, Riggan stands divided, with his brooding Birdman persona, and well as an arrogant new cast member (Edward Norton), pushing and pulling him in all directions. As opening night quickly approaches for Riggan's wild production, he juggles the amassing problems of his drug-fueled daughter (Emma Stone), his demanding cast, and his own mentally-unstable issues. 


Another one of the many late greats I saw this year, Birdman was another film that managed to evade my attention until it hit theaters in November last year. Encompassing the world and its critics with its satirical and outlandish style and brilliant cast, Birdman managed to go from a strange-looking work of art to a immense masterpiece of storytelling. Right when I first saw the trailer for this film last year, I thought a mere two things: That this film would either be the forgettable laughing stock of the award season, or simply one of the most intriguing films to be set before the critics and the public. In the end, the film was praised as being both comically frightening and methodically witty, more interestingly odd than intriguing to say the least. 


The cast of the film was equally as frightening and witty as the story, with an amazing range of characters from the crazy to the criminally insane. Leading the pack of conflicted stage hounds is Micheal Keaton, an actor who lives in his role like he was born in it. Playing Riggan Thomson, a retired film star looking for a fresh start, Keaton feels right at home in this role, as he conjures up a mixture of his former Batman persona and his aging actor attitude. This film basically being a comical take on Keaton's real career, with him being one of the former acclaimed actors to play the Dark Knight himself in two successful Batman films, Birdman dramatizes Keaton's career into a mess of psychological and family issues, as he battles himself over his overbearing superhero persona. And with all these growing complications, from his angered family to his overwhelming cast members, Keaton performs fantastically as Riggan, bringing his own edgy and outlandish attitude to make the central character both lovable and scary. 


Another person who shines on-screen, not only for his character's name of Mike Shiner, but also for his arrogant yet memorable performance, was Edward Norton. Known to some as one of Hollywood's most methodical actors, Norton has astonished audiences with his amazing performances in films from Fight Club to Primal Fear, showing no fear as he brings out his complex and witty nature in all of his roles. Lately known for playing the scrawny Bruce Banner in 2008's The Incredible Hulk, as well as having roles in some of Wes Anderson's best films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Norton returns to the silver screen as the devoted yet conceited actor Mike Shiner, opposite Keaton's equally conceited main character. Giving an exemplary performance, definitely worthy of his Academy Award nom for Best Supporting Actor, Edward Norton plays the obnoxious asshole role perfectly, matching wits with Keaton in every scene. 


The rest of the cast, while star-studded, doesn't leave us with many performances as memorable as the two leading men. The ladies of the film, including Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Andrea Riseborough, perform adequately, but never seem to bring out much with their characters. Emma Stone, playing the conflicted daughter of Riggan with a unhealthy drug habit, definitely shines more than her previous role in Sony's Amazing Spider-Man films, but doesn't offer much to the film other than another emotional barrier in Riggan's way. As for Riggan's tiresome producer, played by Zach Galifianakis, he brings his usual bearded comedy to the role, occasionally turning Keaton's Riggan in the right direction, even if he has to deceive him to do it. In the end, the cast is both psychotic and witty, but it's really Keaton and Norton who bring their A-game in this wild ride of a film. 


Moving on to another one of the defining aspects of this film, the score in the film is one of the most ambitious and beautiful scores I've heard in a while. Being ambitious in the sense that it's an almost-all percussion-filled score, and beautiful in the sense that it impeccably sweeps each scene by with its fluent yet brooding sound, the film's music packs a whole lot into some quick drum beats, tying the tale together in a tightly wrapped gift ready to explode. While that all might not make a bit of sense right now, once you're consumed by the fantastic score, you won't be able to describe it either. A former learning percussionist myself, I was in heaven as each scene went by, accompanied by a lovely barrage of drum beats, as well as some classical music here and there.  


The final aspect of the film that shan't not be mentioned is the cinematography. Filmed mostly as one continuous take, sliding into the next scene as fluently as possible for as frantic a film as this, the camera work works wonders for the film, bringing a closer, more personal feel to the audience. Speaking of a closer, more personal feel, the film also does an excellent job at getting into the character's faces, in order to convey their deepest emotions on-screen. While it may make every character seem even more like a psychopath, closing in on their inner craziness, this method works well to bring out the emotional intensity of the film. I wouldn't be surprised if this film went home with numerous awards, one being for its unique cinematography. 


Overall, I'm both glad and disappointed that I waited so long to see this film. I'm disappointed in the sense that it was one of my most anticipated films of last year and I waited to see it, but I'm also glad now because, as the Oscars are nearing close, I have a fresh idea of what film I may like to see win some of the big awards that night. Either way, Birdman was a unique and visually interesting peek inside the inner horrors of stage theater, as well as deep investigation into its meaty characters full of emotions from hate and sorrow to joy and hopefulness. In the end, there's no doubt that this is the strangest film of 2014.


I gave this film an 8 out of 10 for its amazing yet limited cast of crafty characters, its undeniably memorable score, and its somewhat dry but nonetheless humorous plot of satire and sin.   

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