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“Birdman” has enjoyed a hell of a lot of hype from various YouTube channels, websites, and magazines since its release, but as far as the general public is concerned here in England, it’s nothing more than a momentary blip on their radar. Word of mouth hasn’t spread very far, and I was astonished that one day after its release, at the biggest cinema in my city, it had just four showings over the course of the day. I understand that artistic films, which attempt to transcend any genre and present a social commentary, aren’t for everyone, and it’s perfectly understandable that the masses want to experience a kind of escapism when they enter a cinema. However, I have a serious issue with the fact that the cinema itself decided it should offer an average horror film like “The Woman In Black: Angel of Death” to the public at a frequent rate, whilst neglecting the kind of movie which deserves to be promoted.

This is a review of the movie itself, and I’ll get to that, but there is a bigger issue which has been brought up by the way in which this film has been treated, and it’s an interesting topic to explore in this review because the movie itself tackles issues that come up in the discussion. In recent times, ticket prices at cinemas have steadily increased, and the quality of films being shown (at least in my experience) has dwindled because interesting movies don’t bring in a young audience. A lot of people I know don’t really bother with the cinema anymore, simply because of how much it costs; they only go to the cinema when a well advertised film like “The Avengers” comes to theatres, and I think that’s a worrying trend.

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In a few years time I believe that it won’t be cost effective to distribute less grand movies (which can be genuinely remarkable) in cinemas, because all that matters is what attracts the target demographic, and small films don’t compel movie-goers to fill seats. At the end of the day, people just don’t have the funds to spend on films that haven’t been affirmed as great to them a million times, so they won’t take a chance on an indie film for the sake of supporting an industry which isn’t central to their lives.

To a lot of people this might not seem like much of a problem, and obviously it isn’t earth-shattering, but I do find it incredibly deflating as a person that rarely enjoys the kind of movies which I believe are becoming more and more prevalent. With services like Netflix and Amazon Prime becoming extremely popular (rightly so), it just won’t make sense to distribute films like “The Guest”, “Nightcrawler”, “The Drop” etc., in cinemas, because they could easily gain more notoriety and revenue by being released at a designated time as a Netflix original, and they’d probably achieve greater publicity if they presented quality programming. Again, that seems okay, but while this is happening and Netflix is getting better and better, the price of subscription will increase, and eventually people won’t see it as practical to use that either, meaning that these great movies won’t be seen at all, and their value and beauty will be lost to the world.

My worry is this, if I’m right, there will come a point at which these movies, the ones I really love, won’t actually get made. It won’t be practical to show them in theatres, it won’t be practical to watch them through a subscription service, and suddenly they’ll only be seen by a handful of people on Movies24 on Sky! Obviously, there will always be directors and actors who value their craft and want to make fantastic works of art, but in order to get to that stage in their career these people will have to make a lot of choices which maybe they don’t want to make, and they won’t get the credit they deserve once they finally get to make the movies they love.

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With all that being said, I can finally move onto “Birdman” and what it’s actually about. Michael Keaton’s character (Riggan Thomson) has been at the top of his industry, he’s been the guy on lunch boxes, the action figure, but now he wants his life’s work to be affirmed, and he wants to feel validated as a real actor with ability and credibility. The film chronicles his attempt to gain notoriety as a serious actor, through a stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, which he stars in, writes and directs. Whilst all this is going on, Thomson is also losing his mind and becoming more and more consumed by the fictional titular character’s voice in his head, so much so that he begins to believe himself to be capable of his former character’s superpowers.

It’s an interesting premise, not just because it allows for a critique on actors, critics, film, the superhero genre, and  the general search for success we all go through, but also because it allows for a wonderful character study, which brings the best out of Michael Keaton. Another interesting feature of this film is that three of the main cast have themselves been a part of superhero movies in the past, and therefore they bring a real insight to their roles. Michael Keaton starred as Batman back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Edward Norton played the Hulk in “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008, and even more recently Emma Stone fell from grace both figuratively and literally as Gwen Stacy in “The Amazing Spiderman 2”. Due to how detailed and well thought out this movie is, you have to think that casting actors that could relate to Riggan as a character must’ve been a conscious decision, which is just brilliant, and I’m glad that it paid off so handsomely.

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Despite the fact that Riggan’s situation, and the flawed nature of each supporting character, makes for a dark and slightly unnerving experience, the movie still manages to maintain a sense of fun and bring genuine laughs to each scene. It doesn’t come across as overly preachy, and you don’t feel as though the director suffers from delusions of grandeur, as you might when someone like M. Night Shyamalan makes a film in which he plays a writer being oppressed by an evil critic (“Lady In The Water”).

One of the most baffling things I witnessed whilst watching this film wasn’t seeing Edward Norton put up his dukes wearing only his underwear, or seeing Michael Keaton (also in his underwear) levitate, rather, it was seeing two people walk out after about 40 minutes from the corner of my eye. Now, I don’t want to make assumptions because they may well have had a very valid reason for doing so, but if they did walk out because they felt that this movie wasn’t worth their money then I am truly astounded. I sat through “Lucy”, a film which I consider to be absolute nonsense, and I have only ever walked out of a movie once (“Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” for anyone whose interested); even then I was conflicted. This movie is worth every penny of the ticket price, and I would recommend that anyone with a spare couple of hours on their hands go see it, or if that is no longer possible buy it when it comes out on DVD, because it is definitely worth your time.

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The film has some of the best performances from an ensemble cast that I have seen in recent times; no one in this film is what I would consider to be a weak link, even though the accolades and special mentions are all being heaped on Edward Norton and Michael Keaton. Keaton is the standout in this movie, it has to be said, and he shows no shame as Thomson, giving a performance that is both tragic and hilarious. In one moment he will slip into an angry existential crisis, and in the next he’ll smoke half a joint which has been left out by his daughter. He has a wonderful script to work with, but even so, he brings a depth to the character that’s truly admirable, and makes the most of every scene. Norton is brilliant as Mike Shiner, a self-righteous actor who believes the stage is his home, and is at times far too believable. He’s the complete opposite of Riggan as a character, not caring what anyone thinks of him, full of self-assurance, he controls the screen whenever he’s on it, and steals a lot of scenes from Keaton.

The cinematography is excellent in this movie, as I’m sure you’ll know if you’ve heard anything at all about it, and it really does feel like the director has achieved something with “Birdman”. I’m not an expert on cinematography or direction, but it’s obvious even to me that this is quite special in terms of how the movie has been filmed. “Birdman” is shot in such a way as to give the illusion that it is almost all one continuous shot, and this is done in a truly seamless way. This is not only noteworthy because of the unique aesthetic that it brings to the movie, but also because it forces you to engage with the world and with the characters; you feel as though you’re just following them around in their exploits, witnessing their everyday trials and tribulations, and you can really get behind them when you feel that you’re right there with them. It also adds to the feeling that you’re peering behind the curtain, gaining insight into an actor’s mind, and seeing the problems with both the industry and the people in it. It’s a wonderfully ambitious way to shoot a movie, and it’s flawlessly executed here.

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The script is fantastic, and even though there are scenes in which the dialogue is very complex and verbose, it’s still believable because of the context in which the conversations are taking place and because of the intelligence of each character delivering the lines. I particularly enjoyed an interaction between Riggan and his daughter (Emma Stone), in which she brutally puts him in his place regarding his lack of value in the grand scheme of things, as well as explaining the fact that human life isn’t as significant as we all want to believe it is. Not only was it very poignant, given the state of today’s society, in which both people and objects disappear into insignificance each time the next best thing steps into the limelight, but it was also very well delivered, as Stone was extremely emotional in how she said her piece. There was no part of me that was thinking of her as an actress at that point, she was just the character to me, and that’s always great to see.

Stone acts as the mouthpiece for this kind of idea throughout the film, as she references Riggan’s unwillingness to be a part of social media and his ignorance towards the fact that society is leaving him behind, but even as she tells foreboding tales of humans not mattering in the universe, it’s clear that she has a slight obsession with herself and her own ideals, which suggests that she’s not quite as convinced with what she’s saying as she would like to portray. I only say this because it highlights two things; the first is that through the performances and the script these characters have been given a number of layers which are up for interpretation and well developed. Second, what these characters stand for and what this film really wants to put across to its audience will be talked about for a long time, which is testament to this film’s overall quality; there isn’t one way to explain what “Birdman” is ‘about’, it’s not black and white, and it’s all the better for that fact.

I have very few issues with this film. For me, it deserves all the praise it’s getting, but I still didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would, given all the buzz around it from the media. I’m not part of the world that this movie explores, but those who are assessing the film for major publications are an integral part of it, and so they will connect with it to a greater extent. I’m not saying that this kind of connection to the material should ever be a prerequisite for connecting to a movie, because that’s simply not the case, but I feel that in this instance it did restrict my enjoyment slightly, and I also think that this is one reason why the film has been so well reviewed. I acknowledge the technical achievements of “Birdman”, and I really do like it, but it isn’t the 10/10 I was expecting, at least not for me personally.

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I also wasn’t that enthused by the ending, although I’m sure that the ambiguity involved in the final scene will be one of the many things about this movie which film students will be studying for the foreseeable future. I understand the choice that was made, but if it was my decision I would’ve gone for a slightly different tone with the final scene, cutting things short by omitting it entirely, or ending the movie with what many in the audience might’ve expected to have happened when a certain character looked out into the distance.

“Birdman” is a great achievement technically, the cinematography is really impressive, the script is great, the performances are wonderful, and all in all there are very few faults. This movie is a magnificently realised artistic endeavour, and every choice was clearly carefully and meticulously made. However, I still didn’t leave the cinema with that feeling of astonishment that I had expected given what I’d heard about it prior to seeing it. In giving this movie a score I’m putting across a verdict on how much I actually enjoyed the experience, and for that reason it probably isn’t getting the number which it deserves for its quality, but a number is just a number and I’d be lying to myself if I gave it higher. This is a great movie on all fronts, but I wasn’t riveted by the story, which is still important to me even if a movie is fantastically executed, and despite the unquestionable intelligence on show from all involved in the creation of “Birdman”, I was ever so slightly underwhelmed given my grand expectations.

8.5/10

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