posterMexican DJ turned filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has so far made a name for himself as a director of weighty films with bleakly serious subjects in search of transcendence. Ever since his Spanish-language debut Amores perros, his 1999 Oscar-nominated film that had Hollywood knocking, it has been an uphill battle for the director to achieve the same level of respect. It seems what he needed was a tonal shift. The black comedy of his fifth feature film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), is that shift, as it sends up virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry with dark humor on a meta level. Though Iñárritu has often reached too hard to make big statements, Birdman feels breezy by comparison and still achieves the resonant kind of statement fitting of his aesthetic.

Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson with a complex dynamic of ego and insecurity, as he tries to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis. Just like Keaton, Riggan once played a famous superhero in the movies that spawned a series of sequels: Birdman (fun fact: there is indeed a Birdman superhero). Riggan groans about Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender as they rake in fame and fortune by donning superhero costumes in this new era of movies based on comic books with a mix of disdain and envy. He seems plagued by a bitter resentment that he hasn’t somehow been recognized for paving the way for the superhero movie star in some impractical way (maybe he’s secretly hoping for “Pioneer Superhero Tentpole” Oscar?). Yet, he also desires recognition as an artist, so he decides to adapt Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” for Broadway. Meanwhile, the voice of Birdman, in a husky growl not unlike Christian Bale’s interpretation of Batman’s voice, seems to always belittle him when he’s alone. Oh, and one more characteristic of Riggan’s worth noting: he displays powers of levitation and telekinesis when no one else is looking.

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If the richness of the satirical implications of this character is not enough, there are many others who enter into Riggan’s world with their own quirks. Edward Norton does hilariously self-deprecating work as Riggan’s nemesis, Mike Shiner, the heroic stage actor who will save the play. Mike is literally cocksure. He strips to nothing backstage, in wardrobe, fists on hips, ready for his fitting. While Riggan strains for respect with his grave adaptation of serious literature, Mike oozes confidence in his craft that relies on method-like process. When on stage, he needs real gin to feel drunk and must follow his erection when he lies in bed with his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts), who herself is a bundle of nerves in search of her own respect on Broadway. Riggan only wishes to earn appreciation as an actor with integrity and clashes with Mike over what Riggan sees as inappropriate behavior, but Mike wants Riggan to respect his process as essential to his craft. Hovering over that, Riggan’s best friend/manager/attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) sees integrity in making this production a commercially viable affair, but the constant collateral damage of ego puts him on edge. On the periphery, lackadaisically observing the ship sink and lusting after Mike, is Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s daughter and assistant.

All of these people pine for a sense of their own version of what is essential to their own vision of reality, which they hope will grant them some sense of value, but that means struggling against the other titanic egos that surround them, which is key to the film’s humor and drama. The generalizations are so piled up in this film that it would be image-22891d8e-aa7a-45d2-8221-c72d6a5125cbunfair to fault it for presenting tropes or clichés. This is a movie about demolishing expectations where expectations often lead to disappointment. It thrives on generalization. But beyond that, Iñárritu presents it with a filmmaking style that at times defies the tenets of film language, adding yet another layer of meta reality to this satirical vehicle.

The editing in the film is invisible, but the story does not take place in real-time. Even though the entirety of Birdman seems like one take, with the camera slipping through corridors and other nice moments of trickery to meet the actors at various moments of crisis, the story covers several days. It speaks to the idea of theater where acting cannot lean on editing as a crutch. At the same time, it also speaks to the lack of connection between these people. There is no room for match cuts, associative cuts, shot-reverse-shot, etc. because no one genuinely connects. It’s also a departure for the director, whose films have often depended on action off-screen and silent moments of time trickling past cut and pasted together jarringly to add a sense of levity to the contemplation of his characters. It’s as if the film has lost a superpower, much like Riggan/Birdman.

The film’s musical accompaniment is worth mentioning. In his first film score, Grammy-winning jazz drummer and bandleader Antonio Sanchez  — who, like the director, also hails from Mexico City — gives the film a chaotic, cacophonous rhythm with a free-jazz, percussion-centric score, speaking to the nervous, scatterbrain of Riggan. Sanchez’s presence is so vivid, he even appears in the film at a drum image-83d3ecdf-6887-4c4f-be3e-ad184b9742b6kit on more than one occasion, giving physical form to the harried Riggan’s nerves. The always amazing and fluid camera work Emmanuel Lubezki is also key to the film’s tone. His sharp focus not only presents unforgiving images of the creases of many a weary face but also highlights makeup and styling designed to make some of the actors look like birds. Whether this is intentional or not, it speaks to Riggan’s perception of his world and to the fact that this is also an alienating presentation of reality, keeping the audience at arm’s length, building toward a finale that no one can truly, definitively understand because this is Riggan’s world … and ultimately, just a movie.

In its hyper-real presentation of story, Birdman takes an almost encyclopedic survey of every trope, generalization and prejudice we might have about Hollywood and celebrity culture and in turn lampoons it in some way. Critics, the PR machine, social media, the idea of fame by viral video, sexual relations between actors, clashing egos, it leaves none of it out. Much of it is reductive, but it’s also offered in a spectrum: there is the cynical theater critic for he powerful “New York Times,” the serious journalist with the social/theoretical concerns of the art and the star-struck reporter who will believe any rumor as insight into the unknowable person behind the celebrity. Of course, the film also does this with the colorful actors at the center of the film but still does not forget the personnel behind the scenes, as well. With Birdman, Iñárritu sets out to bite the hand that feeds so hard and with such force so as to dazzle those bitten with stars. It’s a caricature filled with magical realism that never forgets entertainment value, inviting everyone to have a laugh at themselves.

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Though it is implied that Riggan may or may not have super powers, whether or not he does is unimportant. What Iñárritu is doing with this character quirk is offering a metaphor for the power of celebrity, which Riggan is trying to suppress so his craft might be taken on its own terms. Ask any artist worth his or her own work, and they will tell you that they view celebrity with a wary eye. Galifianakis noted as much in his interview regarding the film in “Hollywood Reporter.” Recently, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told me about it as if it exists outside of his control. It’s a double-edged sword that gives actors value, but that they do not have the same kind of control over. Scott Haze, another actor I interviewed, spoke about the prejudice that surrounds the work of his friend James Franco, who directed him in the underrated Child of God.

For all its smart satirical qualities, it’s hard to ignore a sense of genuine bitterness that informs the stories that make up Birdman. Iñárritu himself has had to combat high expectations from the beginning of his work in the U.S. But if you do not care to look behind the screwball farce of the action of the film, you will only be disappointed by this movie. It targets Hollywood as a business that thrives on celebrity to make its fortune at the sacrifice of people whose only dream was to express themselves in front of an audience before the machine gobbled them up, which is the true tragi-comedy of the reality of the entertainment business. What can you do? Enjoy the show!

Hans Morgenstern

Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R (language, sexual humor and pathos). It has already opened in many theaters across the U.S. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Oct. 31. Fox Searchlight invited us to a preview screenings for the purpose of this review.

Update: Birdman arrives at Broward’s indie art house the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Dec. 25.  It also won the Florida Film Critics award for best picture of 2014.

Previous update: On Nov. 7, it will be the premiere film at O Cinema’s newest theater in North Beach, at the former, newly renovated Byron Carlyle. (Update: due to technical issues the O Cinema premiere of Birdman was postponed. It now opens Friday, Nov. 21, and the cinema is honoring tickets from Nov. 7 for any Birdman screening at O Cinema Miami Beach).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Hollywood has plucked up creative, foreign and low-budget indie directors and thrown them into big budget films to varying degrees of success. Phillip Noyce, Lasse Hallström, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant all burst on to the filmmaking scene with very distinctive voices at very small studios. Some of these directors had the fortitude to maintain their voice while others seemed to bury it in the same old classical Hollywood trappings. Marc Webb directed my favorite picture of 2009, (500) Days of Summer (2009’s top 23 films). He took the romantic comedy, a genre so often recycled by Hollywood, and injected it with a quality both honest and artistic. Hollywood snatched him up and put him to work on the re-boot of its Spider-Man tent-pole, the Amazing Spider-Man, which opened in theaters everywhere at midnight, just ahead of the July 4th weekend. Though the film has a lot of flash— as these films should— I was pleased to notice Webb working to transcend the tropes of the superhero film, highlighting the souls of his characters.

As much as I am a fan of indie and world films, I am also a fan of science fiction, raised on not only Star Wars but also “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” on TV. In the mid-eighties, I rode my bike several miles to the newsstand for the latest issue of the Uncanny X-Men. It would be hard to shake that influence as a kid. So when the studio invited me to a 9 p.m. preview screening last night of Webb’s the Amazing Spider-Man, I went.

I arrived at the local IMAX 3D screen with high expectations based on my love of (500) Days of Summer, early critical buzz for the new film itself and news that Webb shot it using 3D cameras with the several-stories-tall IMAX screen in mind (see this Sunday’s article in the “Miami Herald”). The results fall somewhere below Matthew Vaughn’s re-boot of X-Men: X-Men First Class,  but above Joe Johnston’s Captain America. It definitely does not touch Nolan’s re-boot of the Batman films, though, but maybe hovers around the quality of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Thor.

Webb certainly takes his time with the characters and allows them to interact while packing on emotional baggage that subtly informs their behaviors. When Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) kiss, it feels like these are two intelligent, yet clumsy, people falling in love. Between fight scenes involving Parker/Spider-Man, story and character mounts up before the film’s final showdown. Sometimes the smallest things in these flashy, noisy films are the toughest to earn, and Webb knows how to earn them.

I feared nothing good could come out of the number of names involved in the script, which included James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. None of those writers, though well-respected and talented in their own rights, had ever worked with Webb, and his collaboration with his screenwriters in (500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, made for a key partnership, as revealed in the extras of the film’s blu-ray (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Movies written in committee often have the soul drained out of them as distinct voices struggle to be heard in the din of what the committee might assume the mass audience would prefer to see in a movie. But that is not the case with the Amazing Spider-Man. I was glad to see Webb avoid repeating lines from the previous series of Spider-Man films by Sam Rami, which have almost become cliché (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Instead, we watch Parker learn responsibility throughout the film from the most extreme situations fighting the shape-shifting Lizard (Rhys Ifans), a mad scientist-type with his own well-earned baggage, to the smallest gestures respecting his last surviving parental figure, Aunt May (Sally Field).

Webb has lined up some fine actors for the film’s many iconic roles. As in the Social Network, the British-born Garfield assumes the American accent impeccably. Also, despite his age, he carries the goofy/angst-ridden quality of a high schooler well. Stone never looked better in a film, and she brings a lot of charm to the roll of Stacy, an alternate girlfriend in the mélange of off-shoots of the Spider-Man universe from Marvel Comics. The director shoots her with a similar affection as he did Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days. Finally, Ifans deserves acknowledgment for bringing some sincerity and pathos to one angry character in the comics.

One of the problems with these kinds of films is that the acting becomes buried behind masks and special effects. Webb allows his actors every opportunity to show their feelings by often unmasking them. Spider-Man is seen in action as much with his mask off as it is on. The Lizard is not always covered in scales, as whatever chemical he has ingested seems unstable, and there is often some human expression working itself out through the effects.

One final thing on the effects, Webb knows how to earn the IMAX 3D effects. All of his shots are filled with depth, and—like (500) Days— he is not afraid of cluttering a scene with props. Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s drops off the high-rises of Manhattan are stomach-churning. I often have trouble with films on the giant IMAX screen, as the screen feels too large to catch a complete shot, but Webb has used the giant frame in the best manner I have ever experienced in IMAX. I have never felt more comfortable in one of those theaters, despite the film’s two-hour-plus runtime. Webb has earned his keep in Hollywood on many levels while not losing touch of the sense of drama that brought him there.

Hans Morgenstern

The Amazing Spiderman is rated PG-13 and runs 136 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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