Thursday, November 13, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: BIRDMAN Is Snobby, Sweet and Ultimately Pretty Okay

There will always be people who are against current trends in the cinematic landscape, and since superheroes are the big box office draws these days, it's time to get a film that satirizes and decries them. Birdman is definitely attempting to do that, but fails by taking up a very elitist perspective instead of examining why these stories resonate with so many people. There's an argument being made about "true art" that feels like a pseudo-intellectual playground scuffle. Thank goodness that the behind-the-camera technique and performances in the movie are so fantastic, because if the film was solely focused on its commentary, it would be a dud.

That sounds harsh, but I can't help but dig on the film for critiquing modern superhero cinema when the setting that it takes place in (a Broadway play) can just as easily be criticized for its ongoing devolution into Disneyified fluff. I can understand why critics are loving it because the film is so self-gratifying to an "artistic" crowd that it's downright masturbatory (although I am not one to denounce being masturbatory). Having a villainous critic whose review will make or break washed-up actor Riggan Thomson's (Michael Keaton) debut play is some heavy duty stroking (to be fair, the play within the movie seems pretty awful). In this regard, Birdman is that teenager who desires to be a non-conformist and jabs at anything remotely mainstream. It feels petty and ill-informed, and is easily the weakest aspect of the entire film.

In case it sounds like I hated Birdman, let me assuage you with the fact the film itself seems to be arguing for a focus on performance and technique, and does so not just by having a character say almost exactly that, but by excelling in both of those arenas. Everyone in the film kills it, especially Michael Keaton. Considering part of the film's appeal is it's analogous relation to Keaton's career and public persona, Keaton never feels like he's hogging the spotlight or mugging for the camera. There's honesty there, but the fact that the film is dealing with ideas of artifice as reality keeps it from feeling too personal (watch the fourth wall breaking scene from JCVD if you want something uncomfortably real).

The big star of the show is really director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has taken a page from Hitchcock's Rope and undergone making the majority of the film feel like a single take. I think the intention was to give the film a sense of really being there, but it had a dreamlike affect on me. The floaty nature of the perspective makes you aware of your role as an observer, and the way Iñárritu plays with time is particularly dreamy. Maybe that was part of the reason I felt lulled throughout the film. I wasn't bored, but I was softly mesmerized. The film is beautifully artificial, which could be said about the characters themselves.

As I said, this is a film that really soars (I tried to avoid writing it. I'm sorry) when it focuses on the characters and their simpler issues. Riggan's relationship with his daughter feels like the heart of the film, and when it's zoomed in on that it's perfect. Everyone else's stories are compelling and relatable, but they almost begin to feel like vignettes when you realize that the father/daughter relationship is the film's emotional spine.

Birdman is also pretty funny, but not as funny as the trailers had led me to believe. In fact, I'd say this was an instance where nearly every comedic moment was put into the trailers. I expected more awkward humor and self-depreciation, and that's certainly present but not in the quantities I was lead to believe. I need to stop watching so many trailers.

I actually feel kind of bad because I don't have a whole lot else to say about Birdman. Overall, it's good but not as phenomenal as it's been hyped up to be. It's snarky attitude towards superheroes is devoid of any thoughtful examination (this same argument is made about the villainous critic's reviews, which only hammers home the ignorance of such a commentary), and the story itself is fairly predictable. But, the acting, characters and directing are so good that it elevates the film past these failings.

But what do I know? I unironically love Batman Forever.

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