Editor’s note: Our “Double Exposure” reviews pit two or more critics against one another on the same film to hash out their differences in opinion. Agree with what we have to say or want to offer your own take? Leave it in the comments below.
Final Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Bottom Line: With a free-form, improvisational score that perfectly accompanies Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography, and fantastic performances by the ensemble cast, “Birdman” is a standout for best film of 2014.
Final Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Bottom Line: “Birdman” is nothing less than an original, ambitious, and brave piece of filmmaking, even when the intentions of its characters and its director are sometimes a little too similar.
Laying alone in a bed of money is not exactly what Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), star of the billion-dollar Birdman franchise, thought it would be. No, Riggan wants to be respected as an artist, and as a human being. To do so, he assumes the completely misguided and utterly disastrous task of adapting Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” to the Broadway stage, complete with a manic method actor (Edward Norton), a drug-addicted daughter-cum-personal assistant (Emma Stone), a possibly pregnant co-star (Andrea Riseborough), and a producer (Zach Galifianakis) willing to do anything and everything to watch his friend succeed. In the days leading up to opening night, Riggan is tortured by the inner monologue of his masked alter ego while facing the scorn of the New York theater community, the seemingly endless list of production issues, and a growing desire to fly without any wings. If his play takes off, it could mean a second life in the spotlight. If not, Riggan will undoubtedly end up alone, penniless, and forgotten.
Jordan Brooks: Alejandro González Iñárritu is known for his expansive films that employ a great diversity of settings in order to tell his far-reaching and accessible stories. With a tendency towards the inclusion of various plots and sub-plots in his films (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel”), Iñárritu has a propensity concerning the exploration of human emotion, and the connections that we all share. “Birdman” is a stark change of pace for Iñárritu in both its darkly-comedic subject and its quickly paced, improvisational tone.
I thought the opening scene did an incredible job at setting the tone for the rest of the film. Moving from a calm meditative state, and building into a frenzy of hectic action grabbed my attention immediately, and held it relentlessly through the rest of the film. Iñárritu rapidly disposes with exposition, and crams nearly all of his character background into the first five minutes. The camera movements (which I am certain we will cover in greater depth) add to the frantic pace of the opening, and encourage the audience to “catch up” and really elevate their concentration to match the immense thought put into the planning and execution of the “scenes.”
Josef Rodriguez: “Birdman” is one of those films that, while pretty accessible to most audiences, defies any comparison to really any other film. There’s a little bit of Cassavetes’ “Opening Night,” but “Birdman” benefits from being a film that is truly original, from the script to the cinematography, to even the performances, “Birdman” is entirely a product of a free-thinking, daring, and inventive collection of minds that ended up collaborating on something great.
With that being said, and as much as I liked this film, I think “Birdman” suffers under the weight of its own ambition, and it comes off as being self-serving and pretentious. How ever intentional this may be, and it undoubtedly is, the film suffers from potentially alienating its audience with such larger-than-life personalities telling this larger-than-life story
Josef: It’s interesting that you brought up the film in comparison to other Mexican filmmakers. The Mexican film industry is producing some of the most interesting voices in cinema today, but I do think that Alfonso Cuaron’s big American debut, “Gravity,” compromised a lot of his integrity as a filmmaker, whereas Iñarritu’s film uses its A-list cast to tell this amazing and audacious story that requires the audience to meet them halfway, and then keeps running backwards tauntingly once they begin to approach.
There’s nothing easy about “Birdman,” and it’s a miracle that what emerges is still something wholly entertaining, if a little bit tedious at times. Honestly, and I know I’m in the extremely small minority when I say this, I thought Lubezki’s cinematography was distracting and more than a little unnecessary. I was desperate for a cut and I felt that so much of the film could have been better had there been a variation on the extremely-invading-wide-lens that he insists on using for this entire film. It became uncomfortable and annoying, regardless of its intentionality.
What did you think about the performances? I honestly felt like Edward Norton and Emma Stone came out as the strongest of the bunch, but there’s no denying how Keaton dominates whenever he’s on screen.
Jordan: Mexican cinema is certainly experiencing a renaissance, and producing some amazing directors (although del Toro and Cuarón have both recently made some less-than-breathtaking films). It seems the closer these filmmakers get to Hollywood, the more stained their pictures become (perhaps an allegory for this exists within “Birdman”).
“Birdman” is one of the most challenging movies in recent memory. The (what I consider) beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki has taken his penchant for the “oner” to a whole new level. As opposed to the scenic framing Hitchcock uses in “Rope,” Lubezki flaunts the fact that he hasn’t, and isn’t planning on cutting. He has taken Iñarritu’s narrative “weaving” to a whole new, visual level, creating a tangle of a film that is daunting to follow. Leaving the theatre, I felt like I had just taken the SAT’s, because the filming style forced me to concentrate on every minuscule detail.
Stone and Norton won me over in this film. As good as Keaton was, it was hard to look past the almost too realistic casting choice of a washed-up superhero actor. I really enjoyed Norton as the wild-card Broadway actor, whose on stage truths trumped everything else in his life. In some of those terrace scenes with Stone’s Sam, Norton really bares his soul in a way that is reminiscent of the way his character does so on stage.
Stone’s soliloquy about the insignificance of life really played towards a major theme in the movie (and the other half of the title, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), and was captivatingly delivered — a distinguishing moment of her career. Her rejection of the path her father has taken, and her own self-destructive nature are also torn apart in spectacular fashion by Norton during one of their terrace rendezvous. In a more standardized “Hollywood” world, they would have absolutely been the focus of the film, as their tryst is the most interesting element within it (apart from Birdman).
What are your thoughts on the score? I thought the improvisational, abstract drumming really lent it self to the action, and made the manic, hasty cinematography really pop.
Josef: To give you an idea of how much I loved the score, let me just put it this way: as soon as I got home from my “Birdman” screening, I downloaded the score from Amazon and bought tickets to Antonio Sanchez’s next concert in New York City. I loved the score for this movie. In fact, I’d say it’s probably my favorite part of the whole experience, and the abstract, free-form drumming rivals that of the work in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which is a film entirely about drumming. There was something so unsettling about the drum work that set this really unpredictable tone for the film, and I think Lubezki tried to capitalize on that with the cinematography, which built tension in its singularity.
Jordan: To be honest, that’s the kind of devotion this score deserves. Antonio Sanchez is amazing, and adds a completely new element to this film — reminiscent of what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did for “The Social Network.” It has been an unexpectedly great month for jazz drumming, and my music library is experiencing an uptick in songs devoted to the world’s greatest drummers.
Josef: I think one aspect of the film that may go unnoticed is the chemistry between Keaton and Stone. All of their scenes together, and the tension between them as a result of a rocky past is nearly palpable. Of course the performances must be mentioned, but I think that Iñárritu’s directing in those scenes was in top form, especially considering the massive age gap between the two actors. And in that final scene, it all comes to a head as she stares out the window, accepting her father for the “hero” that he is.
In that sense, the film reminded me a lot of a more optimistic version of Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” in the sense that fame comes as a result of controversy, not art, but those on the receiving end accept it as it is (or isn’t) in the context of the event that had transpired. Of course, Wilder spins this to be a negative as a way to ultimately reveal Norma Desmond’s insanity, but I think Iñárritu frames it as more of a learning experience for all the characters and, depending on one’s interpretation of the ending, the beginning of a new life for everyone involved.
Think Jordan and Josef made some good points? Have a completely different opinion on “Birdman”? Leave a comment below.
Late October 2014 (check local listings)
1 hr. 59 min.
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Merritt Wever