Monday, December 29, 2014

REVIEW: Birdman

"Birdman" had me at the credits. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest fever dream opens with a pounding jazz drum solo, the letters of the assorted names popping up on-screen in rhythmic time like be-bop scrabble tiles. From there, the steadicam action starts. Like Alice, you tumble into Wonderland or, in this case, the underworld of Broadway theater. Corridors, rooftops, bars, dressing rooms, a stage. It feels like one long take. And it definitely takes you in.

Submitted for your approval, the tale of Birdman. Actually, the tale of Riggan, the actor who played Birdman (a winged, telekenetic superhero) for three mega-hit sequels then walked away from the Hollywood gravy train. Michael Keaton, of Tim Burton "Batman" fame, is the washed-up, real-life, ex-superhero actor playing the washed-up, fictional, ex-superhero actor in the film. But that's just metafictional icing on Iñárritu's exceedingly layered cake.

Riggan, seeking redemption from Hollywood hackdom, is staging a live-theater adaptation (on Broadway!) of Raymond Carver's "What we talk about when we talk about love" -- "putting on" as in writing the script, directing the play and starring in it. He's taken a second mortgage on his Malibu manse to do it. Industry consensus has it that he will fall. Icarus-style.

Iñárritu (famed for arty downers like "21 Grams" and "Biutiful") pulls out the stops here -- and uncharacteristically crafts an experience on the upper side of the cinematic spectrum. Relentless flick, often funny as hell, but the tension never stops. Fresh from rehab, Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone) has a fondness for perching on the edge of the theater roof. The lead actor gets brained by a falling light. Mike (Edward Norton) steps in as the savior of the show (because Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender and Robert Downey, Jr. are all busy doing superhero movies) and has a histrionic meltdown over a minor point of Method Actor purity during the first preview.To take it up a notch, Iñárritu  shows Riggan smashing objects in his dressing room with the power of his mind alone -- apparently. Either that, or he's batshit crazy. To bolster the crazy theory, Riggan's Birdman alter ego follows him around, constantly hectoring him. And the New York Times' top reviewer (Naomi Watts) decides to tank his play before she's even seen it.

Shit happens. The stakes are raised to insanity and beyond. Failure is ineluctable. But, violating the laws of physics and Robert McKee, Riggan triumphs, and blows his nose away in the greatest self-shooting incident since "Fight Club" on opening night. You think that's weird? The movie ends with a magical realist twist. Riggan flies around. It ain't in his head. He's really flying around, 'cause his daughter sees him. The dude's got superpowers after all.

Iñárritu has, I think the appropriate critical term I recall from "Film Comment," balls.

"Birdman" reminds me of early Quentin Tarantino. Not the style. The audacity.

Like he's saying: "Hey. All you zombies out there. You call that shit you're making a movie? No. You want to see a movie? I'll show you a movie."

And then he shows you.


That's a movie, folks.

That's how it's done.