Todd McCarthy has posted his review of Birdman from Venice and it looks to be a solid Oscar contender in the major categories, picture, acting, directing, writing, as well as the techs, like cinematography.
Birdman flies very, very high. Intense emotional currents and the jagged feelings of volatile actors are turned loose to raucous dramatic and darkly comedic effect in one of the most sustained examples of visually fluid tour de force cinema anyone’s ever seen, all in the service of a story that examines the changing nature of celebrity and the popular regard for fame over creative achievement. An exemplary cast, led by Michael Keaton in the highly self-referential title role of a former super-hero film star in desperate need of a legitimizing comeback, fully meets the considerable demands placed upon it by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, as he now signs his name.
The film’s exhilarating originality, black comedy and tone that is at once empathetic and acidic will surely strike a strong chord with audiences looking for something fresh that will take them somewhere they haven’t been before.
Birdman, which bears the rather enigmatic subtitle “Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” is not only centered on the world of the theater but takes place almost entirely within or very near the venerable St. James Theater on West 44th Street. This is where faded big screen luminary Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is about to begin previews for what he hopes will bring him renewed acclaim and respectability, ego boosters that have eluded him in the two decades since he decamped from the Hollywood mountaintop upon saying no to Birdman 4.
Of course, Riggan knows he’s fated to always be Birdman; he still keeps a poster from the franchise on his dressing room wall and the character’s voice sometimes squawks at him like a challenging alter ego. But he’s now put everything on the line, including his own money, to mount a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he’s written, is directing and is co-starring in with Lesley (Naomi Watts), another film star making her Broadway debut, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), a sometime lover who’s more keen on him than vice versa.
When the other male actor in the piece startlingly becomes incapacitated, Lesley’s boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a major film name, immediately volunteers to step into the breach. This is a godsend for the box office but a wild card in terms of the quartet’s dynamics, as the quicksilver Mike is a fiendish manipulator (quite the jerk, actually). After unsettling Riggan at his first rehearsal by having already memorized his part and then demanding rewrites, Mike detonates the initial public preview by drinking real gin (this is Carver country, after all) instead of water onstage.
More raw nerves are supplied by Riggan’s straight-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), whom Dad has perhaps misguidedly engaged as his personal assistant. Riggan has to listen to Sam’s tirades about how his resistance to Twitter and blogging make him even more a has-been than he was already, this on top of Laura’s news that she’s pregnant and his concerns over what outrage Mike might provoke at the second preview.
Next we have Variety’s Peter Debruge:
In a year overloaded with self-aware showbiz satires, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s fifth and best feature provides the delirious coup de grace — a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate arthouse and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to Keaton’s career.
Circling shark-like around Keaton, then darting off to stalk other actors, Lubezki’s camera is alert and engaged at all times, an active participant in the nervous backstage drama. Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” the meticulously blocked shoot cleverly finds ways to mask cuts, using invisible visual effects to stitch together various scenes so it appears that the entire film is one continuous take, even though the events take place over several weeks and in various uptown Gotham locations — primarily Broadway’s St. James Theater, but venturing out anywhere that Riggan can walk or Birdman can fly.
In addition to being a virtuoso stunt in its own right, this single-shot illusion serves to address the critique that screen acting is somehow less demanding than stage acting, since there are no conventional editing tricks in place to shape the performances. The cast has no choice but to ante up, which everyone does in spades, and the film is built generously enough that everyone gets ample time to impress (although it should be noted that none of the background sexual intrigues amount to anything).
Inarritu’s approach is mind-boggling in its complexity, nearly as demanding on Lubezki as “Gravity” must have been, such that even seemingly minor jokes, as when the camera spies the drummer responsible for the pic’s restless jazz score (by Antonio Sanchez) lurking on the edge of the frame, had to be perfectly timed. It’s all one big magic trick, one designed to remind how much actors give to their art even as it disguises the layers of work that go into it.