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Birdman ••••

Birdman_posterStarring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárrit,  Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo
Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: November 14, 2014

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

Riggan: Single, P-PP Emotional, Ant (Self Villain)


reel-4 villain-4  h-logo-5

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, Michael Keaton once played Batman. Now he plays Birdman.

It’s uncanny the parallels between reality and fantasy in this surreal depiction. Let’s recap.

In the opening scene, we meet an aging actor named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who is levitating in a room while practicing meditation. Riggan once starred in the movies as a superhero named Birdman but he has since fallen on hard times. He is now trying to resurrect his career by writing and starring in his own Broadway play called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan uses his telekinesis abilities to arrange for a light fixture to fall on the play’s co-star who is doing poorly during rehearsals. Riggan and the play’s producer (Zach Galifianakis) are now desperate for a name-brand actor to step in and attract an audience.

Enter Mike (Edward Norton), boyfriend to another actor in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who suggests he take the role. Mike is just off another project and needs a job. Riggan is desperate and can use Mike’s popularity to boost the attendance. Mike wastes no time changing his lines and giving directorial suggestions – not to mention hitting on Riggan’s just-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone). Riggan has a lot on his plate trying to get through the first rehearsal when Mike succumbs to an outburst because Riggan switched his vodka for water. After all, Mike wants everything on stage to be real, and if his character is drunk, so should he be.

Greg, I’ll come right out and say it: Birdman is one of the year’s best films. The movie is probably not for everyone; it is odd, edgy, and stylish. Birdman pulls us into the tortured life of our hero Riggan Thomson, grabs us, and never lets go. Director Gonzalez Inarritu’s use of continuous, seamless transitions between scenes is partly responsible for the relentless power of this movie. But mostly we’re riveted because of the Pulp-Fictionesque intensity of the characters and their dialogue.

Birdman’s themes are dripping with irony. Thomson is well-accomplished yet haunted by an inner-emptiness. On Thomson’s mirror is a placard that reads, “A thing is a thing, not what people say about the thing.” Yet Riggan is obsessed with what fans and critics think of him and he is most known for the Birdman role that hid his true identity. He saves a note that he received many years earlier from a fan who admired his honesty, yet Riggan wears a toupee and acts for a living. The enigmatic subtitle of this film (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) hints at the value of self-oblivion, but we’re left unsure. This is a movie of such depth that it begs to be seen twice.

Scott, Birdman is the type of movie that makes you feel stupid for watching it. There are so many references to the Broadway scene, hidden meanings (like the sign you mentioned), and inward winks to itself that I couldn’t really follow what was going on. It was so sly and self-aware that it left me dangling trying to understand what the film-makers were trying to say. Everything was some sort of mystical symbol for something else. Riggan obviously didn’t have the ability to levitate or move things with his mind, but there it was. Was it symbolic of something? I don’t know. And was he able to fly? There were several scenes where it looked like he could – or at least believed that he could.

And then there’s the Birdman character itself that is constantly inside Riggan’s head. He’s there to expose the doubts that Riggan has about himself. Then later, the Birdman appears to Riggan. The Birdman keeps reminding Riggan that he should have done that Birdman 4 sequel. This is fine with me, I can follow the symbolism of the Birdman being the voice of doubt for Riggan. But what does it mean when, at the end of the film, Riggan seems free of the voice, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees Birdman taking a shit on the toilet? Is this some sort of high-brow-low-brow commentary? I don’t know. It’s beyond my capabilities to understand.

I think you’re right, Greg, that this movie is a tough nut to crack, but it leaves enough clues to draw me in, make me think, and inspire me. There are similarities between this movie and Toni Morrison’s classic novel, Song of Solomon. We are thrown into a quasi-magical world and encounter the theme of flight as a means of escape. We witness the self-inflicted forces that drag us down and keep us there until circumstances and self-insight liberate us. Both Song of Solomon and Birdman conclude with a seemingly supernatural flight of redemption that signals either hope or doom, depending on how one interprets the ambiguity of the final act.

The villain structure appears to fall under the category of Man versus Self. As you mention, Greg, Riggan is haunted by the voice of his alter-ego Birdman and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to rise above the dark commands of the voice. Earlier in our review of Whiplash we observed the villain to be a dark mentor figure, and one could say that Riggan’s inner Birdman voice serves as a dark mentor. In this way we have within the same character both a heroic persona and a villainous mentor character.

I think it’s more than just a tough nut to crack, I think it’s purposely cynical both about the audience and the Hollywood system that will nominate it for an Oscar. This is a very slickly produced story that tries so hard to have meaning that the meaning is lost. Which is exactly what is going on in Riggan’s life. He desperately wants the respect of the theater but is still seen as Birdman despite his best efforts.

This is a film that was made for the Hollywood elite to show how much the film-makers understand the inner psyche and problems of Hollywood – how actors are stuck in their roles. But the film is filled with so much introspection that the rest of us are merely along for the ride. In my opinion the purpose of a movie is to entertain the audience, not to share a wink and a nod with your peers. I have no doubt the academy will nominate and possibly even award an Oscar for this film. But for the rest of us, it begs the question: What is this about?

Our hero is a man caught between two worlds. We have his daughter who is telling him that what he really wants to be relevant. But the problem is that none of us is relevant. But then she goes to the extreme and tells him that to be relevant he has to appear on YouTube or Twitter. In other words, get with the times. At the other extreme he’s faced with the movie critic who has vowed to kill his play with the swipe of her pen because he’s not a legitimate actor, just a celebrity. And “we don’t want your kind in our town.”

If there is a physical villain here, it might be Mike. He’s constantly getting in Riggan’s way. Riggan wants to make a play with meaning and Mike keeps telling him to amp-up the reality. I agree with you that Riggan is at war with himself. In the end, he tries to destroy himself, only to create a spectacle that raises him to higher heights. That makes him a redemptive hero.

Birdman is a complex and gripping piece of cinematic art. It is exhilarating, thoughtful, and complex. We are treated to intelligent character exchanges and nimble camera direction. Most notable about Birdman are the extraordinary performances from the cast. Keaton and Norton deserve Oscar nods for their portrayal of two men attempting to overcome powerfully neurotic, loveless lives. These are men who dive into the acting profession because it is a reprieve from the facade of reality. The themes of authenticity and flight to freedom sustain our attention and encourage a second visit to the theater. For me, it’s a no-brainer awarding this film 5 Reels out of 5.

The character of Riggan Thomson is one of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014. With the death of Robin Williams earlier this year, we are reminded of how actors use their craft to mask their inner demons. For me, Greg, Birdman doesn’t wink at us as much as it winces in pain at us. Riggan’s journey rings true to me and his flight of triumph at the end suggests a successful end to his heroic journey. Again, I give the highest rating of 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

The Birdman villain residing with Riggan is the semi-human face of one’s anchors and limitations. We’re not given much backstory about the origins of Riggan’s inner demons, but we do know that the our hero is burdened by a ruthless absence of self-worth and self-validation. The dark self-mentor figure residing within Riggan lacks the depth of Riggan himself and thus only earns a respectable 3 Villains out of 5.

 Movie: reel-5  Villain: villain-3 Hero: h-logo-5

For me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to follow. It was life-imitating-art-imitating-life in a tight spiral. I wanted to like this film but it just seemed so interested in being clever that I never got a chance to appreciate it. The camera work was great. It appeared to be shot on one unending reel. So, well-done. But if you want me to enjoy myself at the movies, you need to think about me when you make your work. To paraphrase that great philosopher Peter Griffin, Birdman insists upon itself. I give it just 3 out of 5 Reels.

Riggan is a tortured hero who is wrestling with real existential demons. He’s tormented about his past, and about how he’s forever tied to decisions he made as a younger man. While the past is gone, no one will let him move on. And as he looks to the future he realizes that the number of days ahead of him are much fewer than the days past. If ever he’s going to do something with his life, now is the time. This is a hero I can appreciate. Riggan gets 5 out of 5 Heroes.

If Riggan is at war with himself then the Birdman inside his head is the manifestation of his inner villain. Birdman torments Riggan mercilessly to the point of insanity. I have to admit I don’t know how to rate such a villain. I’ve already rated the hero a full 5, can I rate his mirror image any less? I don’t think so. I award Birdman 5 out of 5 Villains.

Movie:reel-3 Villain: villain-5 Hero: h-logo-5

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