FlixChatter Review: Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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It’s been nearly a month since I saw this film, but I’m still thinking about it. In fact, I was just telling a friend over coffee this weekend how the more I think about this film, the more I like it.

The story revolves around Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton in an art-imitating-life sort of a role as he’s famous for playing Batman in the late 80s/early 90s. Riggan is a has-been actor, most famous for playing a successful comic-book franchise, Birdman. But instead of opting to take an easy paycheck out of the fourth installment of the franchise, Riggan attempts to reinvent himself and reclaim his past glory by directing/starring an off-Broadway play. Not a light undertaking, especially when one problem after another starts popping up, threatening to grind his play to a halt. It also doesn’t help that Riggan is still haunted by his Birdman character, literally, who constantly berates him in his dressing room.

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The way Alejandro González Iñárritu frames his story is captivating and unequivocally surreal. The camera is told from Riggan’s point of view and the camera often follows him in one long, continuous take. From the cramped dressing room through the narrow corridor all the way to the stage, the film takes place mostly in the confines of the theater’s backstage. The neon sign of Phantom of the Opera is often visible in NYC’s Theater District across Riggan’s theater, one of the things that grounds the film in reality amidst all the surreal elements. Slipping back and forth between reality and fantasy, and often blurs the line between the two, the film manages to keep me entertained and engaged throughout.

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It certainly helps that all his actors perform with equal dexterity. Nice to see Edward Norton get a role worthy of his talent. He’s a method actor who’s a bit of a diva and his on-and-off screen antics are fun to watch. There’s an amusing brawl backstage between him and Keaton that’s worth the price of admission. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Emma Stone all provide memorable supporting role, with Stone perhaps having the flashiest part as Riggan’s daughter. Her performance, especially memorable for her heated monologue, has already earned her a Golden Globe and SAG nomination. Even Zach Galifinakis, an actor I never quite warmed up to, was quite good here as his often-hysterical theater producer. British actress Lindsay Duncan has a small but important role as the critic who could potentially make or break Riggan’s career.

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The real star here is Michael Keaton in a welcomed come-back role as a leading man. I’ve always been a fan of the underrated actor as he can deliver both serious, menacing and comical performance convincingly. He gets to do both here in equal measure as he truly embodies his character. He’s a natural in the more um, batty scenarios, but also genuinely sympathetic in the quieter moments that display Riggan’s vulnerability. Perhaps the fact that he has a similar personal experience helps him in the role, so it’s definitely inspired casting here that works wonderfully for the film.

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This is Iñárritu’s third film that I have seen so far. It could very well be my favorite and one I don’t mind seeing again. He strikes a perfect balance between drama and humor, at times hilarious and off the wall, and others heart-rending and poignant. The film’s a not-so-subtle mockery of Hollywood’s preoccupation with superhero franchises – and some of the real-life actors who’ve been in them– but yet it’s not done with disdain nor contempt as it’s all part of Riggan’s personal story. The movie also provides an interesting commentary on social media and how that affects celebrity culture in this day and age.

On a technical level, Birdman is simply phenomenal. The stunning and unique camera work make you think ‘how did they do that?’ without being too distracting. The percussion music isn’t really my style but it works in the context of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for his astounding cinematography work for Gravity, will likely get another nom for this. I read somewhere that he shot this without artificial light due to space constraints of the cramped theater.

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I have to admit I still don’t know what to make of that WTF finale that seems deliberately left open for interpretation. It certainly makes for a fun discussion afterwards and it’s been fun reading all kinds of theories about it. I won’t say another word on it as it’s best that you discover that for yourself. Despite all the bizarre scenes and all its dream-like eccentricities, the film somehow still feels personal and human, even relatable in a strange way. No surprise that Birdman‘s become the critical darling of the year and has been raking a bunch of nominations left and right. I for one think the accolade is well-deserved as Iñárritu pushes the creative boundaries of story-telling to a new level.

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Have you seen Birdman? Well, what did YOU think?

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54 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

    1. Thanks Mark! Bummer that you’re not a fan of Keaton as I think he’s a terrific but underrated actor. In any case, this one is definitely worth a look though.

  1. Very positive review Ruth. Seems like it has become the critic’s darling (as you mentioned). I’m a huge fan of Michael Keeton and I love seeing him get attention. I still haven’t seen Birdman though. It looked pretty crass which pushed me away a bit. But I may give it a whirl considering the high praise.

    1. I echo Keith’s sentiments. This seems like a comeback role for Keeton and I hope he makes the most of it and starts actively pursuing more roles. Same with Edward Norton–he’s one who seemed to have lost his mojo (your term, Ruth) and the two of them sound like they’ve got great chemistry on stage. I hope it comes near me soon!

    2. Hi Keith! I was going to mention that there were some vulgar moments and some would consider crass, but it’s not so much that it became a distraction [i.e. Wolf of Wall Street]. The focus is still on Riggan’s journey and the performances are excellent across the board.

  2. Ted S.

    I’ll give this one a rent when it hits Bluray. I’m also a fan of Keaton and felt he should’ve became a huge star after the two Batman films he starred in. But his films post Batman weren’t that great, glad to hear this one is good though. I’m not the biggest fan of Alejandro González Iñárritu, he seems to love making what some called “drama porn”. I liked earlier work, 21 Grams and Babel but they’re way too depressing to sit through.

    1. Ahah, drama porn, never heard that before. But I hear ya about 21 Grams and Babel being depressing, but Birdman is a whole lot more entertaining than those two. Plus Keaton is astounding here, hope he wins many awards next year. I know you don’t care for those but I really hope he’d get a career resurrection out of this role.

  3. PrairieGirl

    Great review, Flixy! This is now on my must-see list. I, too, am a big fan of Keaton, all the way back to Night Shift. Die-hard fans of his MUST see Mr. Mom 😉

    1. Ted S.

      Hi Becky, both Night Shift and Mr. Mom used air on TV constantly when I was younger and I’ve seen them many times. I also enjoyed the weird comedy The Dream Team, which came out a couple of months before Batman back in 1989.

      1. PrairieGirl

        VERY cool, Ted! A man after my own heart. I’ve seen both dozens of times and I never get tired of either. I will certainly check out The Dream Team.

  4. I really need to see this! Sorry I haven’t been commenting a lot here. I try and avoid all reviews for films I haven’t seen yet, but I couldn’t help it…I had to read this. Great write up. Now post your characters piece so I can have more to say!!!

    1. Hi Drew! I don’t always have reviews, the other day I posted my thoughts on the GG & SAG awards, I know you usually follow those right? 😉 Yeah I’ll be working on those Top 10 Character list soon 😀

  5. Correction, it’s actually Inarritu’s fifth film. Amores Perros is his first, 21 Grams, is his second, Babel third, and Biutiful is his fourth. This one is my third favorite film of his so far after Amores Perros and 21 Grams but I think it’s his most accessible and enjoyable film so far.

  6. Nice review, Ruth. Yeah, this really is one of the better flicks I’ve seen this year. Keaton’s phenomenal, as is the whole cast, and I too was very impressed by Galifinakis, who may well be the most underrated actor on display here as I’ve rarely seen other reviews even mention him, but I thought he was great. I expect this one will do well come awards season. 😉

    1. Hi Chris! Glad you like this too. I normally don’t care for Galifinakis but I have to admit he’s good here and quite funny too as he deals w/ the chaos of running this play.

  7. Terrific review, now I’m really pumped to check out this movie soon. 🙂 Sounds like there’s a lot of interesting elements going on. I’ve only seen one previous movie, Babel, from this director, so far and I liked it.

    1. Thanks! Yes check it out on the big screen if you can, it’s really unlike anything I’ve seen all year. It’s not as depressing as Babel as it’s more of a satire.

  8. The cast is great here and absolutely keep this movie moving. But also, they succeed in the smaller moments of this flick and make it seem like a lot more than just a standard satire. Good review Ruth.

  9. Great review, Ruth! I feel like Birdman is definitely one of those films that you kind of like and respect more and more over time. For me, it was such an eccentric and odd experience to watch, but the more I think about what I’ve watched, the more I appreciate it. Great review!

    1. Hi Kristin! Eccentric is the word, but it’s not just a gimmick and it kinda works with the story. I certainly don’t mind seeing this again at some point.

  10. Great review Ruth! I am definitely excited to see this, I have been putting it off for quite some time. I actually told myself I am going to see either Birdman or Foxcatcher this weekend, after reading your review, I think I will go with Birdman. Thank u!

    1. Y’know, between Foxcatcher and Birdman, I definitely like this one more. It’s a whole lot more entertaining but also has a lot of substance and riddles if you will, that sparks a lot of interesting discussions afterwards. Let me know what you think after you see this, Mel 😀

      1. So I ended up seeing Foxcatcher last night. We were supposed to see Theory of Everything and the gal I went with changed her mind so we saw that instead. Yes it was dark and brooding and gosh Dupont was so weird. I hope to see Birdman tomorrow and I will let you know what I think about both of those. 🙂

    1. I think you’d enjoy this one Sati! It’s far from boring and for once I agree w/ the critics for all the praise. I haven’t seen Boyhood but I feel kinda the same about WILD that the critics universally love but I find it to be super boring as well. Mostly because I just don’t care watching Reese Witherspoon for 2 whole hours when I don’t really buy her in that role.

  11. Fantastic review, Ruth! I also am still thinking about this awesome film! My favorite of the year so far; I adored the whole cast and Zach was definitely a pleasant surprise. Hoping to see Emmanuel Lubezki pick up another Oscar.

    1. Thanks Fernando! I think Lubezki’s a lock as far as nom, but yeah he definitely could win again so that’ll be a back to back Oscar win if he does. This one will for sure be on my Top 10 of the year!

  12. Due to my travels I couldn’t see this one when it was at the theater, but I’m definitely giving it a shot when it is released on blu-ray. I can’t wait.
    I was always a fan of Tim Burton’s Batman films and Keaton was definitely one of the reasons. After from Christian Bale, Keaton comes in a close second when it comes to my favorite interpretations of the character on the big screen. I’m even a fan of his little dorky film “Multiplicity” which is one of those guilty pleasures I may be a little embarrassed to even bring up in conversation.
    Lastly, it is always interesting to see a director changing skins so much from feature to feature. My experiences with Inarritu are so varied, but I’ve always felt his dramatic interests were always very heavy-handed and tough to watch. By the sound of it, Birdman is of an entirely different nature and I’d be interested in comparing it to his previous work.

    Nice review Ruth!

    1. Hi Niels, glad you’re a big fan of Keaton’s. Oh I LOVE Multiplicity, in fact I might do a review of that at some point, it’s my guilty pleasure too though it’s actually better than most people think. I hope somehow you can see Birdman by Oscar time. I’ve only seen two from Innaritu, well three w/ this one but some of his stuff are quite depressing.

  13. Great review! I’ve seen the film twice, and it remains just as captivating and entertaining, dark and witty, comical and dramatic. I’d love to see Keaton win an Oscar for this.

    1. Oh how awesome that you’ve seen it twice Josh! I have a feeling I’d probably love it on subsequent viewings too. I’m so rooting for Keaton this year!

  14. Very nice review Ruth! This is one of those films where I think it’s absolutely necessary to watch twice. It’s amazing how your reaction to a film can change after you’ve seen it for a second time. I didn’t leave the theater amazed when I saw it the first time. After reading your review, I feel inspired to go watch it again, because I’ve been thinking that I need to give it another watch. Thanks Ruth!

    1. Hello Raul, pardon the tardy reply. Thanks for your comments, really appreciate it man.

      Yes I think a subsequent rewatch of this would be more rewarding I think. When I left the theater I was left w/ a mix feeling of being mesmerized and discombobulated, but the more I think about it the more I like this one.

  15. Great review Ruth!
    I love to watch this but both 21 and blitz don’t have it in coming soon list 😦 I guess I have to wait for DVD.

    I like surreal and unusual movie and reading your review makes me want to watch it even more

    1. Bummer that this film didn’t play in major cinemas in Jakarta. I’m honestly curious to hear what you think of this film. It’s certainly different than a lot of films you’ll see out there.

  16. Stu

    I think you’re right when you say he strikes the perfect balance between drama and humour – it’s really well judged (and I’m glad that a character like Norton’s gets scenes where he gets to show a bit of depth (e.g. on the rooftop with Emma Stone) to compliment his antics elsewhere in the theatre). Good read Ruth – is this your number one of 2014 then?

    1. Hi Stu! Yeah I like that a lot of the actors get to do a nuanced performance where they get to be a bit showy & displaying their antics as you say, but also tackle a quieter performance and show their vulnerable side.

      I’m still working on my top 10 but let’s just say this is in my top 3 😀

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