Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written By: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone
If you haven’t learned your lesson from past Alejandro González Iñárritu films, perhaps Birdman will do the trick. Unfortunately, I have only seen a handful of independent films this year. I say unfortunately, because according to most critics I know and respect, such as the guys over at InSessionFilm, and our own MovieRevoltDan, the majority of the great films this year have almost exclusively come from the indie scene. Instead I find myself currently sixty films deep in 2014, and still wondering if I’ve seen enough to scratch together a Top 3, much less a Top 10 for the year. The buzz behind Birdman and the early returns from critics, not to mention my intrigue over the film since the very beginning of the year, which was only increased after trailer exposure, was screaming at me to like this movie and immediately place it into my year end list. I guess, where I differ from many critics out there, is that I actually still watch the movie before taking such actions. We live in a world where movie critics and movie snobs (who I no doubt am classified as a majority of the time) more than any other group just seem to fall into line in an endless game of follow the leader.
Well, more often than not this year, I simply can’t allow myself to do that. How ironic, that Birdman is the topic of the review in which I decide to take this soapbox stance. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a subconscious decision or not but as movie buffs who want to be taken seriously I feel like we far too often are afraid to like a movie that we know the majority of respected critics and fellow movie buffs will despise and likewise too afraid to praise a film that’s not universally seen in the opposite way. No one, for example would dare putting Transformers 4 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on their Top 10 movies of the year list…that would be like handing in your ‘movie buff’ card and forever ruining your reputation as anyone that knows anything about what makes a film worthy or not. It is the same false sense of a need to validate or justify your movie tastes to the movie aficionados that prevents one from saying anything bad about a film such as Saving Private Ryan, The Godfather or Citizen Kane.
Before everyone gets all up in arms or starts shouting at the screen or sending me tweets that they are never guilty of such things stop and think for a minute. When you were perusing people’s top lists from last year what did you think when amongst the ten you saw a film like The Selfish Giant, The Kings of Summer, Drinking Buddies, The Place Beyond the Pines, Aint Them Bodies Saints or Mud. You probably regardless of what composed the rest of that individual’s list, thought, this person knows movies. Or, this person has some good taste in films. How did you react when you saw someone else’s list a few years prior when they included, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar, The Hangover, and Taken? They didn’t quite stack up right? That first person clearly has a better palette when it comes to movies; surely, it’s obvious to us now.
The truth is no matter what I say, myself and whoever else out there that reads this that writes reviews, or records podcasts about movies is going to claim that this is not the case for them. We will all claim that we judge a movie purely based on what’s put on the screen before us, and that we make up our OWN mind about what is good and what is sub-par. I mean, admitting anything else would simply result in the same thing we are trying to prevent in the first place. Who would be that crazy?
Before, I get too far off track though and turn this into a dissertation, let us get back to the topic at hand. I have listened to more podcasts reviewing movies this year than I have in all my previous years combined. I wish I was making a list of every negative aspect or critique that I have heard from the dozens of film critics I have been exposed to. I say that, because just like there are only five original plots in the history of literature, I believe there are only about ten to fifteen negative aspects that a film can consist of. If there’s more than that, I apologize, but I’ve only heard those dozen or so on repeat this year no matter who I’m listening to, or what they are reviewing. Don’t worry; I’m not going off on another rant. I only bring it up because in Birdman I think ALL fifteen of those negative aspects rear their ugly heads.
The first and usually easiest aspect to fault many movies for is the length or pacing of the film. I realize the film is only two hours in length, but its message was conveyed in about twenty minutes. The director if not so consumed with the message he was trying to convey could have easily cut out about twenty minutes and still ‘succeeded’ in his mission. The pacing did not help as I found myself constantly waiting for us to get to something exponentially more entertaining than the scene I was currently suffering through.
This movie was the climax to a fantastic ‘birthday celebration’ that my gorgeous girlfriend surprised me with. It started with a fantastic brunch, followed by my first ever experience of taking in a show by the Blue Man Group, a great meal and finally a trip to the cinema to see a film we were both excited by. It wasn’t a late showing; we went to the 7:20 show and about half way through the film I looked over to see my girlfriend fast asleep. Her being asleep, in and of itself is not necessarily a judgment against the film, the subtle feeling of jealousy that came over me however, most certainly is.
I’m perplexed as to the films this year in which people have claimed ‘had them on the edge of their seat’ for the ‘entire film’. Perhaps I simply don’t get excited that easily but I hardly found myself at the edge of my seat a single time during this showing.
Another thing that I hear a lot about films is their inability to highlight actors or use characters effectively. Birdman, once again is guilty as charged. In the same way that Casey Affleck was utterly useless and forgettable in Interstellar, all but two or three of the actors in this film could have the same thing said about them. Naomi Watts had the same impact of beige wallpaper when it came to this film which probably shouldn’t surprise me given the last two or three performances I have seen from her. Amy Ryan and Andrea Riseborough literally could have been any one of about a hundred generic or bland actresses looking for work in Hollywood. Heck, even one of my favorite actors of all-time, Edward Norton seemed to be completely phoning this one in outside of one or two scenes. The thought that some people actually think he nearly stole the show is inconceivable. Perhaps they thought they were supposed to say that given his pedigree though. So, I will forgive them for that. Overall though, the cast of characters was a collection of paper-thin colored pencil portraits that never received the full treatment to let them come off the page and give us anything to chew on.
Zach Galifianakis was a pleasant surprise in many of the same ways that Melissa McCarthy was in St. Vincent recently. Michael Keaton performed very well, and no doubt will be the trendy pick for many as a best actor nominee. I’m not trying to downplay his performance, but I would probably cast my vote for someone who wasn’t simply playing a film version of himself when it comes time to hand out the statues. One thing that most critics did get right however, when it comes to this film, is the fact that Emma Stone was fantastic. I do question the shock and awe many of them had in this respect, acting like they didn’t think she was capable of it, questions how much they truly ever paid any attention to some of her previous work.
Wasting characters or even wasting an actor’s potential is not nearly as bad as wasting entire scenes though. Something Birdman does all too frequently. Love affairs, inappropriate flirtations, potential pregnancies, broken families, lesbian experimentations and the like are just a sampling of the numerous unwarranted and unrewarding subplots that Alejandro González Iñárritu throws at us over and over again. I don’t mind a plot that takes us in a lot of directions or requires us to juggle multiple ideas, stories, timelines or relationships. It’s when none of them actually are entertaining or add anything to the overall concept that I start to become annoyed. Calling it convoluted would give it too much credit; it’s not complicated at all. Perhaps muddled and incoherent would serve the point I am trying to get across more effectively.
I will give credit where credit is due. The decision and the intent to capture the atmosphere and setting present in any stage production was something that should be applauded. Unfortunately, like Iñárritu has proven over and over in his career, the term moderately is not in his vocabulary. The camera angles, the long shots and many other techniques were accurately giving us a feel of closterphobia and with that they were successful. It was the repetitive nature in which it was done and the path that the cameras took that took me out of the theatre and out of the film. Not only was it repetitive but it was predictable. I even found myself saying out loud at one point. “Please tell me we are not about to follow the path from the stage back up to Thomson’s dressing room AGAIN…”
By far though, the thing that irks me the most about this film is the pretentious and patronizing way in which Iñárritu feels the need to preach his message to us. This is the part that could have been achieved and really was achieved in a twenty minute segment of the film but was then repeatedly served up to us over and over for 100 additional minutes. I don’t disagree with a portion of what this film is trying to convey. The message it sends in relation to the state of cinema in our generation and the lack of appreciation for the art by the masses, the so called superhero culture, is a great message that hopefully can spark many discussions about such ideas throughout the world. It was the delivery that was so off-putting however. It’s like when you have a great message, such as the gospel for example, but instead of letting people come to their own conclusion and decisions about religion, you see a crazed cult-like preacher standing in the middle of the quad on a college campus berating people about the sins of sex and drinking. The idea might be sound, but the approach and delivery is so heavy handed that the message is most often than not lost on the intended audience.
For the life of me, I can’t come to terms with how anyone who appreciates subtlety can have any ounce of enjoyment from this film. If the message was more of an undertone I totally could have been behind it. Heck, even if it was presented in an epic in your face monologue and then faded into a more subtle avenue I could have even went along with it. Instead, it’s as if you are in a twelve round fight where you opponent is throwing and landing the same right hand jab, over and over and over again. And then right when it gets to the point where you think it can’t get any more repetitious, right at the end of the fight, the boxer ties his left hand behind his back, takes the glove off of his right hand and hits a rapid fire series of jabs until you are pummeled into submission. I almost laughed out loud at the end where, just in case Iñárritu hadn’t made his point abundantly clear he feels the need to even include actual portrayals of Spider-Man, Bumblebee and a host of other blockbuster, or comic-book culture characters. It’s when you reach the point of laugh ability with your complete ineptness to convey a message with any amount of finesse or class that I have to stop listening to your story no matter how much I originally would have supported it.
The most common response to this review will no doubt be that I simply don’t appreciate Indie films, I don’t like Art films, I am anti-Meta or some other ridiculous statement of how I only like films that follow a certain structure, are mainstream, or fit into a preconceived box. I can’t really defend against that accurately without having an in depth break down on all things film, which would be a discussion which I would love to have if someone seriously had the time and patience to listen to my mental vomit for however long it would truly take. For example, those two people referenced early on when comparing Top Ten choices…those were both me if you didn’t figure that out. I assure you there are many black comedies that I love, as there are many art house, Meta, indie or otherwise out of the box films that I love. I could list them all but that’s neither here nor there. I’m not going to give a film credit or rate it highly simply because it is out of the box or any number of other things that make it unique. It still has to be done right. It still has to engage me, the characters still need some depth, the dialogue still has to be convincing when it is present, the director still has to be able to craft the story in way that I can digest it without instantly having heartburn. Unfortunately Birdman does not do any of those things well. Instead, once again, I’m left with just another 2014 film to add to the scrapheap. The search will continue. I still have almost forty-five days to find some top-ten material!