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Movie review: "Birdman" should win the Oscar

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(9 out of 10 stars)

(119 minutes.  Rated R for adult language, sexual content and brief violence.)


I do believe that I saw this years winner for Best Picture last night or at least, in my humble opinion, what should be this years winner. 

And, wow, the amount of quotable lines for the theater-geek in everyone is Caddyshack-esque.

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (heretofore just called Birdman without the rest of the pretentious title), nominated for nine Academy Awards, is a smartly written, extremely well-performed, and brilliantly filmed dark comedy that should serve as an example to all of Hollywood that new and unique storyline ideas for film can be wildly successful. 

Written and directed by famed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, and Biutful), this dark, dark comedy provides its audience moments throughout that are laugh-out-loud funny, and yet seconds later, can give an emotional gut-punch that will put you back onto your heels. 

The story is based around Michael Keatons character, Riggan Thompson, a forgotten celebrity from the 1990s who had two monster action-film blockbusters entitled Birdman (they are clever with these titles). He is attempting to reignite his career while giving himself some degree of validation and self-worth by writing, directing, and starring in a new play ready to open on Broadway. Much like Bullets Over Broadway by Woody Allen, the filmmakers provide conflict by having Keaton deal with his ex-wife, his spurned lover, his recently rehabbed daughter, and prima donna actors at his every turn.

Replete with some of the best actors currently working in film today, the star of this film may well be the writer/director Iñárritu and his cinematographer and fellow Mexican, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and The Birdcage).  Set and shot in the historic St. James Theater in New York City (the past home of such musicals such as Oklahoma, The King and I, Hello, Dolly, and The Producers) over a remarkably quick 30-day shoot, the film appears to be what is one continuous shot. Although an observant eye can see the quick CGI-enhanced breaks, it makes the performances all the more amazing because one wrong step, one forgotten line, and surely the take, which could be as long as 20 minutes, was ruined.

Even after two hours, the theater geek in me wanted to see more of the St. James Theater. The long, extended shots running through the warrens of halls and back staircases inside the theater itself, and even outside on the street, were simply fascinating, and the filmmakers left me shaking my head in wonder at the degree of planning that must have been needed in order to pull something like this off so well.

Michael Keaton once again proved why he is considered one of the best actors working today. The parallel of his character to Keatons own life is not lost on those who have followed his career. Keaton was on top of the Hollywood A-list after two huge blockbuster hits of Batman in the early 1990s, but then subsequently turned down $15 million to do a second sequel. He never rebounded to such levels afterwards.

Throughout the movie, Keaton battles his ego (actually read aloud in a Batman-like husky voice) with amazing deftness and often left me wondering if he was not perhaps battling mental illness. Moreover, Keaton has no inhibitions about doing whatever necessary to tell the story, whether that be with his abilities as an actor or stripping down his 60 year-old body to his BVDs, not once, but twice, in order to get the laugh.

Keaton has been nominated for Best Actor for his performance and, in my mind, he wins given that the depth and breadth of emotions he must portray are much greater than his main competitors, Bradley Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch. While Cooper may well win, Keatons performance was stunningly uncommon.

Supported by Edward Norton (talk about no inhibitions with showing his naked body and dumpy gut), the scenes with those two crackled like they were giving a masters acting class instead of telling this story.  Norton is notoriously a difficult actor with whom to work because of his incessant perfectionism (thus why Mark Ruffalo is now the Hulk) so, like Keaton, his character was not too much different than his own real life.

Performances by Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and long-time Broadway star Lindsay Duncan were all quite impressive. Most impressive was Duncan as a New York Times theater critic.  Perhaps the best scene in the movie is near the end, when Duncan and Keatons character meet in a bar and exchange what I can only imagine are fantasy-driven insults about what Hollywood celebrity actors think of critics and what critics think of Hollywood actors. It was sidesplittingly funny.

The movie is not without its problems. The structure was not quite as linear as I would have expected.  We are given a side-story love diversion between Norton and Stone; while well-written and rather clever, it does not forward the plot and seems rather jammed into the middle of the film. I imagine Norton demanded more screen time and would not be at all surprised if this were the sole reason.

Moreover, the antagonist Norton played so exceptionally well in the first two-thirds of the movie simply went away toward the end. Keaton began to wrestle more disproportionally with his ego and, without giving away too much storyline, it did not seem to generate enough conflict to feed the climax of the film.

However, the film was much more than enjoyable and was extremely clever for the vast majority of its 119 minutes. Given that the concept and premise was fresh, new, and did not involve a Marvel character, I cannot help but encourage movie lovers to go and embrace this film. Then go and scream to the gods of Hollywood to continue to write and produce original scripts such as this one.

Because in 2015, movies this good and this original simply are not made anymore.

I give this film 9 out of 10 stars.


About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!