Kyle J. Steenblik
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Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Audaciousness

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birdman_ver2_xlgBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a cinematographic playground.  Beautifully captured by renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in what looks like a handful of extraordinary long shots.  Those long shots it turns out were a combination of long shots and seamless editing.  The effect is nothing short of magnificent, I was intentionally watching for the seams in the cuts and I simply could not see them in the theatre.  Rationally I know they were there, but they were so minimal and camouflaged that they were all but unnoticeable.  While the execution of this was Lubenzki’s hand, with help from the editors, the direction of this falls to Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also shares the screenwriting credits.

I wanted to start with the cinematography because it impressed me so much, but a close second to that is the percussive drum score by Antonio Sanchez.  Coursing through the film like a pulse is a single drum kit giving life to nearly every scene.  The rhythm rose and fell with the film adding tension, pushing the characters toward their final destinations.  This, coupled with the immersive camerawork that dissolved the fourth wall, filled the screen with life.  It was exhilarating.

This film is a black comedy that tells the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) an actor famous for portraying an iconic superhero, Birdman, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play.  Produced by his best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and stars Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and actress Lesley (Naomi Watts).  Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is also part of the production as Riggan’s assistant.  The production grows increasingly stressful on Riggan who begins to hear the disembodied voice of Birdman continuously mocking him and the production.  When one of the lead actors is injured, a last minute replacement is required.  Famed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) picks up the part after conveniently being fired from another production.  Mikes extreme methods push Riggan closer to the edge.  In the days leading up to opening night Riggan continues to suffer physically and psychologically leading to the eventual opening night dubbed “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”.

The performances on display are raw; the delivery of each line feels organically rooted in each character.  Each actor becoming someone no one in the audience has ever seen before.  Michael Keaton becomes nearly unrecognizable in his manic passion to become more than a comic book movie star.  Edward Norton dissolves into an overbearing egocentric method actor.  Emma Stone is every bit a fragile daughter struggling with recovery of drug addiction, and boredom.  None of these actors projects the normal charisma we would be used to seeing on screen.  Keaton and Norton both present the on and off stage versions of their characters displaying an impressive range, while Emma Stone loses her normally bubbly personality to a sullen sulk of a girl in need of a hug.

For nearly two hours, this small cast of performers drives the film near the edge without losing the focus of the audience.  Without the shield of a fourth wall the action and tension pulls you in as you struggle to understand what is happening to the people on screen.  This is a film that almost doesn’t deserve to be as good as it is due to its audacious self-importance.  If the film were not about self-important actors publicly stroking their own egos, it would just look like self-important filmmakers stroking their own egos.  If it weren’t for the ironic alternate title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” the film could simply be called The Unexpected Virtue of Audaciousness.

Birdman is a ride that needs to be experienced, and then dissected.  It is an amazing piece of film, that is amazingly self-aware.  4.5 of 5.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Runtime: 119 min

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