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The Daily Wildcat

 

    Review: Keaton soars as the complex ‘Birdman’

    New+Regency+Pictures

    New Regency Pictures

    Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was a Hollywood movie star known for his mega-blockbuster superhero franchise “Birdman,” which is just a few letters away from “Batman,” the mantle Keaton himself took up some 25 years ago. With his money, popularity and youth all dwindling away from him, the wizened Riggan has decided to forego the easy money grab of a “Birdman 4” to establish himself as a legitimate artist by putting on a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

    His last-ditch career renaissance has a multitude of volatile personalities swirling about, pushing, pulling, and either threatening to derail or save his production. In a delicious instance of casting where art imitates life, Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a theater actor whose extreme methods pose a threat to Riggan’s directing.

    Norton is notorious for imposing his own creative stamp on films beyond his position as an actor, wresting the creative reins away from directors and studios — and his Shiner is an over-the-top, hilarious rendition of this trait.

    Then there’s Emma Stone as Sam, Riggan’s neglected daughter who’s fresh out of rehab. Stone, like all good actors, has the range to at once be quiet and sincere, sitting contemplatively atop a New York rooftop, and loud and confrontational, calling out her father for his delusions.

    Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s agent/lawyer/producer, Jake, a man frantically plugging up the holes in the production, trying to keep the ship afloat. This is a funny Galifianakis, though not in “The Hangover” sense.

    Finally, the person that has the greatest chance of bringing the whole thing crashing down is none other than Riggan himself. His self-doubt manifests itself in the voice of Birdman, a deep, masculine Siren song, teasing how easy it would be to don the mask again and be beloved among the masses.

    Keaton navigates this complex role with expertise, bringing out all of Riggan’s various traits: off-kilter humor, earnest desperation, hubris and alienation. The balance has to be just right among these elements, or the character would risk turning into an unrealistic caricature.

    Apart from the voice inside his head, Riggan imagines himself as flying and controlling things with his mind. These aren’t portrayed as dream sequences Riggan snaps out of; they flow into an uninterrupted reality.

    In a master stroke by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, what insulates this subjectivity is how nearly the entire film is presented in what appears to be a single continuous shot. The first edit I saw comes with roughly 15 minutes left of its 119-minute run time.

    This makes for a seamless experience where both audience members and characters never seem to leave the confines of the St. James Theatre. Time becomes hyperbolic; first rehearsal, opening night, and all the chaos and breakdowns in-between happen over the course of unbroken “real time.” For instance, an actor getting hit in the head, desperation in finding his replacement, Shiner becoming available, and Shiner rewriting Riggan’s script right in front of him are all events that happen right up against each other.

    The camera, sometimes gliding, sometimes careening, goes from interaction to interaction between each live-wire character. All the while, there’s a kinetic, spastic percussion score playing inside Riggan’s mind, which drives the characters forward as they stride the halls.

    The 2002 film “Russian Ark” is another example of an extreme long take, with its 90-minute running time told via one continuous shot. That film is a stately move through Russian history, but, in “Birdman,” the animals are let loose around the vessel of the St. James. This is a movie of pure energy.

    For Iñárritu, Lubezki and the cast — embarking on a journey of telling a feature-length story through a challenging, ludicrous, single-take conceit — there couldn’t be a better example of the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

    Grade: A

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    Follow Alex Guyton on Twitter.

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