I have noticed that all my Letterboxd followers have given ‘Birdman’ an A+ grade, and a number of my Twitter followers are hailing it as the best film of 2014. ‘Birdman’ will not be on my list of the year’s best films, but despite some quibbles, it is worth seeing. I view ‘Birdman’ as a technical triumph, but it comes at the expense of substance.
Michael Keaton, who is enjoying career rejuvenation (thanks to the huge splash ‘Birdman’ made at the Venice Film Festival) plays a version of himself essentially. He plays a movie star best known for a screen role of a winged, masked crusader. In real life, for Keaton, that superhero was Batman. For Riggan Thomson, Keaton’s character in ‘Birdman’, it is Birdman. Interestingly enough, there are actors from other superhero flicks (Emma Stone from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ series, and Edward Norton from ‘The Incredible Hulk’) and I believe it ties into the film’s commentary about commercial entertainment and the Hollywood blockbuster mentality.
Riggan distances himself from Hollywood – he doesn’t want to be remembered for playing Birdman. So, he scrambles to open a play on Broadway costarring characters played by Norton and Naomi Watts. Riggan is filled with doubt and uncertainty about this endeavor, much of which seems fueled by ego rather than a desire to contribute to the arts. And while I admire director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarratu’s change of pace from weighty dramatic fare (‘Biutiful’, ‘Amores Perros’) and his attack on a film culture that allows movies like ‘Transformers’ and the Happy Madison pictures to succeed while artistic pursuits flounder, I don’t believe ‘Birdman’ has “higher meaning”.
Much of the material is familiar territory. The presentation, however, is something to marvel at. ‘Birdman’ appears as if it is unfolding in a single, unbroken take. As the camera swoops and circles around its characters and the interior spaces of the theater, I didn’t notice a single cut for about the first 100 minutes of the film. From a production standpoint, ‘Birdman’ left me in awe. I wanted to know how it was made. I wasn’t surprised to discover the cinematographer was Emmanuel Lubezki, whose magnificent technical work in ‘Gravity’ also left me in awe. He won the cinematography Oscar for ‘Gravity’, and he may very well win it for ‘Birdman’; Lubezki pulls quite a visual feat here, which makes up for a lot the script’s shortcomings.
I didn’t love ‘Birdman’ but I think it is reasonable to expect Oscar nominations in the following categories: Best Picture, Actor (Michael Keaton), Actress (Emma Stone), Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. QED.