Birdman - Cinema Review

'The familiar setup of a middle-aged man in trouble comes straight from the Alexander Payne school of film-making'

That Alejandro González Iñárritu has become something of an awards darling gets slightly more surprising with each of his new films. Iñárritu is a spiky film-maker who makes uncomfortable pictures. Not necessarily uncomfortable of plot but of syntax; films that can be difficult to pick apart and that sometimes leave you with a sense of oppression. Babel had Brad Pitt's mainstream charms but then hardly let you get anywhere near them. It could be seen as a metaphor for how Iñárritu communicates.

Birdman is, in a way, no exception and in another way, Iñárritu's most accessible film to date. The familiar setup of a middle-aged man in trouble comes straight from the Alexander Payne school of film-making, but the framing device of the film being composed all of one shot and the frequent flights of fantasy (Birdman opens on Michael Keaton's character levitating) do not. On that level - that Birdman is a archetypal narrative suffused through the eye of an atypical director - this can be a thrilling watch.

If Iñárritu sometimes feels out on his own then here he is supported by a terrific cast, who turn in awards-worthy performances. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone are the highlights of the fringe players. The former is inspired as a combative cast member within the film's play-within-a-film, symbolising the young dynamos who have themselves replaced Keaton in leading roles. As Riggan (Keaton) struggles to keep up with Mike (Norton), the meta narrative between the film and real-life Hollywood winds itself ever deeper. Watts, after a dubious run, is back to her reliable best and Stone has something new to show in her repertoire; yes, she's the somewhat troubled, precocious post-teen again, but this one has another level of narcissism and bile. Even Zach Galifianakis convinces and if he can just wind his more faux-dramatic ticks in slightly more, his 'serious' career has a distance to go.

It is Keaton though who holds Iñárritu's ideas and creates the performance to advance them. Riggan is stuck between absurdity, irrelevance and a career high. His past superhero performance literally looms over him, as a feverish press (a little too cartoonishly characterised) seize on his every word that a new Birdman movie might be coming. Riggan is portrayed here as both at the mercy of his own ego and similarly dependant on various idiosyncrasies of the world around him. It is a sympathetic turn but it also hardly excuses Hollywood's role players, nor its current culture and at times it eviscerates it.

Unable to produce something completely at ease with itself, Iñárritu cannot resist touches of self-mutilation that force you to make a judgement call. The incessant drum soundtrack will divide people. It serves a purpose - the drummer is glimpsed within the film on occasion, hinting that he is another figment of Riggan's disintegrating psyche - but it can also be almost farcically irritating. Iñárritu's involvement of the audience too, along with his critic-baiting, feels like it goes a little too far. Their visibility at the finale, madly applauding a Riggan in trouble, perhaps puts the boot in a little too hard. Have we ever really doubted Keaton? The response to his film performance, which appears a lock for an Oscar, suggests we have not.

Birdman is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 1st January 2015.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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