I can’t believe its been almost two weeks since I last visited the cinema. Only with hindsight have I recognized the symptoms, clucking around my flat like a trapped animal, pecking at my food, squawking in frustration. In that light I’ve been dying to get my talons into Birdman since that rapturous Venice reception, the film has been universally praised as one of the best pictures of 2014, not a bad return to form for director Alejandro González Iñárritu whose stock had plunged to the earth with his last spiritual misery-fest, 2010’s Biutiful. The fluttering centre-piece of this Russian Doll nesting film is a career-best turn from Michael Keaton, he plays washed up actor Riggan Thomson who used to be famous for his superhero series of roles twenty years ago, now making a last frustrated grasp for artistic integrity by funding, starring and directing a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Do When We Talk About Love. Of course we all know that in the real world Keaton was famous twenty-five years ago for a superhero franchise which has received something of a critical pasting during two decades of reassessment, this casting is just the surface level of this exceptionally self-aware meta-film, working with hallucinations, surreal flashes and broad satire to feather a thoroughly entertaining and amusing nest.
They say that directing is 90% casting and if so Iñárritu should be presenting his tailfeathers with pride, this film is infested with absolute note-perfect performances across the wonderful cast, funny, powerful and in equal measure. Naomi Watts is excellent as a fractured, narcissistic actress Lesley whom has been seeing the absolutely loathsome Mike Shiner (Edward Norton trading on his egotistic image), the toast of the critical intelligentsia whose Method inspired, publicity seeking antics wreak havoc across Riggan’s chaotic production. He’s just brilliant as the absolute nadir of antagonistic, self-serving assholism, threatening to steal the film from Keaton’s exhausted war-wounded misery, until other characters get a chance to strut their stuff. Emma Stone holds her own against the more venerable talents as Riggan’s cynical daughter /production assistant, in one scene she unleashes both barrels on her fathers washed up dreams which is as cruel as it’s perfectly pitched. Andrea Riseborough gets the films two best line as Riggan’s maybe pregnant girlfriend in the play within the play, but its Keaton who absolutely holds the entire piece together with the hefty albatross of regrets and mistakes hanging around his neck, suffering a real character arc of descent and possible redemption which characterizes Iñárritu’s cinema.
The definitions of the film was a surprise as I hadn’t appreciated that the vast majority would unfurl only on the Broadway theatre stages and dressing rooms, it’s much more of a theatrical satire than a film-related caricature, although a few well-placed barbs are hurled at the world of ‘children who make kindergarten baubles and then have the disgusting vanity to give each other awards for their shallowness’ – ouch. In one immediately cherished scenes Riggan verbally assaults an elitist theatre critic (an ichorous Lindsay Duncan) and shreds her artistic skills and ambitions with a cavalcade of furiously delivered lines, critics have taken the scene to heart and I join the choir of approval, it’s probably the best criticism of criticism I’ve seen on the screen in years. It’s quite a literary script with references to Barthes and in a meta-touch one of Chekov’s theatrical rules gets a feinted flourish, I was a little concerned that in the first act I was feeling a little claustrophobic squatting in the same sets with similar situations. It was really only when the camera broke free of the shackles of the theatre and started hunting through the New York streets that the film really takes to the air, with some surreal flashes of telekinesis and possible hallucinations pecking the narrative with a curious ambiguity.
It seems that the early millennial generation of Mexican born filmmakers are engaged in some dick-swinging artistic competition to craft the longest single-take, after Cuarón’s dazzling designs in Gravity last year Iñárritu has upped the ante with a film which has been designed to appear in one continuous shot, scenes swirling from one into another in a slightly woozy and wearying state. Truth be told I found this constant steadicam a little distracting and not entirely earned for the first section of the film, the embroidering is smothered in whip-pans and some CGI fakery so you certainly get the sense of an unbroken two-hour single shot, with only a couple of specific moments that DP Emmanuel Lubizski decorates the frame with anything more suggestive than source generated lighting. The technique and sheer skill on display reasserts his pedigree in the pecking order as one of the worlds genius intellectual cinematographers, gilding the film with an anxious, gliding momentum which becomes apparent as Riggan’s character and destiny fully begin to hatch. Birdman is a soaring, singing start to the year which is worthy of its magnificent critical plumage, with Keaton as a strong contender for a little golden bauble come the end of February;