How Birdman actually takes flight

Soaring cinematography, with a slightly unsteady plot.

Birdman is not going to be a film for everyone.

Just looking at the trailer, one finds it hard to classify. Is it an arty-farty, dreamy spectacular a la 2010’s Black Swan? Is it a comedy? Or, going by the visuals of a giant, mechanical bird perched atop a building with helicopters buzzing around it, is it a twisted superhero movie like Kickass and Super?

The film centres around Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up former movie star who starred in a blockbuster series of superhero movies called Birdman. Riggan may have stopped making Birdman movies, but the character continues to haunt him as a taunting, malevolent voice in his head. Riggan also believes he has telekinetic powers – although it is left unclear whether they are merely delusions or actual, superhuman powers.

Image source: Hollywood Reporter

Image source: Hollywood Reporter

In an attempt to prove to everyone that he is actually a credible, talented actor, Riggan decides to direct and star in a Broadway play, with the help of his lawyer and best friend, Jake (Zach Galifanakis) and his formerly drug-addicted daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who serves as his assistant.

Disaster strikes in the form of a stage lamp falling on one of the main actor’s heads, and Riggan decides to stretch his already breaking budget by hiring an eccentric, acclaimed Broadway method actor named Mike (Edward Norton), who immediately begins to steal the limelight from Riggan.

I watched Birdman with a friend who studies film in NTU, and used to study film and production myself in my polytechnic days. While we were in the cinema, you could have held a drinking game based on the number of times one of us said out loud, “Oh my God, what the fuck – how the fuck did they make that shot?” Hell, an hour after we left, we were still raving to each other about how gay the cinematography was.

Have I mentioned how incredible the camerawork is?

The film’s cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki, who was last seen in Gravity, so I guess outstanding camerawork is kind of expected. But seriously, DAMN.

Birdman was filmed in such a manner that 90 per cent of it looks like it was filmed in a single, continuous take. If you haven’t studied film before you’ll probably be scratching your head by this point, so I’ll explain it because I’m kind like that.

Basically, what Birdman aims to achieve with its camerawork is to make it look as if the camera guy just switched on the camera and started recording for the whole 119 minutes of the film’s length without stopping. This is, of course, pretty much impossible to do because actors and crew members are human and can’t film for two straight hours without a break.

Image source: Epoch Times

Image source: Epoch Times

But making the film look as if it was shot that way is, in itself, really, really fucking hard and requires an insane load of coordination and skill. But they have somehow managed to pull it off in Birdman.

And it isn’t just that. The way everything is placed in each shot of Birdman is simply amazing. The props, where the actors are standing, lighting… every single thing tells a little story in itself if you take the time to notice and not a single shot is wasted.

So yes, if you’re a film student, you really have to watch Birdman.

Aside from camerawork, though, the meat and bones of a film lies in the story it aims to tell. This is where Birdman falls just slightly short.

First, the good part. Birdman has some of the wittiest, well thought-out dialogue I have seen in recent cinema. It’s crisp and pretty much completely what real people would say in the character’s situations. One noteworthy zinger occurs when Riggan asks one of his actresses how she knows Blake, to which she replies, “We share a vagina.”

The main storyline, in which Riggan struggles to keep his play and credibility as an actor afloat in spite of disaster after disaster plaguing every step in production, seems rather unoriginal and ever so draggy, and may, after the first 40 minutes or so, be a turn-off for movie-goers who just want to be entertained.

Image source: Huffington Post

Image source: Huffington Post

However, this is supplemented by amazing camerawork and the incredible performances put on by every single member of the cast. If you do your homework, you’ll know that Michael Keaton was the guy who played Batman in the 90’s Tim Burton adaptations of the Batman movies. With how convincingly Keaton plays Riggan Thompson in Birdman, one has to wonder if he drew from personal experience in his own stint as an actor in a blockbuster superhero movie franchise. You can really feel Riggan’s aching need to feel relevant and wanted again, and each scene with him in it clearly paints the picture of a man being dragged kicking and screaming into the future.

If you only know Edward Norton as the meek, unnamed protagonist of Fight Club, you’ll be in for a surprise when you watch Birdman. His character, Blake, can be neatly described as a stereotypical douchebag, diva-like pretentious actor who is way too over-the-top to exist in real life. But Norton really does steal every scene he is in, playing Blake very convincingly as a man who sincerely believes in his pretenses and who has very real struggles with living in the real world.

Image source: screenslam

Image source: screenslam

We’ve all known for some time that Emma Stone isn’t just another pretty, ‘spunky’ celebrity, but her performance in Birdman will raise your respect for her up a notch. The ‘troubled, drug-addicted girl’ is a pretty overused trope in movies, but Ms Stone’s performance as Sam effectively adds layers to what could have been a very stereotypical character by focusing on her strained, love-hate relationship with her father.

So. In conclusion, Birdman will definitely be in the running for a long line of Oscar nominations, but it is no blockbuster hit. If you’re not a film student, and am looking for a film to just sit back and enjoy with your friends, I would recommend you to give Birdman a miss.

However, if you’re a big film aficionado who appreciates top-notch cinematography and acting, or is someone with the patience to digest a film that makes you think a little more about the point of life, you really, really need to make Birdman a priority in your to-watch list.

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