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Birdman

Released 2014. Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

WAY BACK IN 1989, LONG BEFORE THE SUPERHERO GENRE became a powerhouse global phenomenon, Michael Keaton was Batman in Tim Burton’s dark and splashy take on the caped crusader. Keaton reprised his role in a sequel before being replaced, failing to make a lasting impression in any major movie since.

Until Birdman comes along, where Keaton plays an actor past his prime whose claim to fame is a superhero called Birdman circa 1992, the same year Keaton played Batman for the last time. The parallels with Keaton’s own career path are curiously interesting.

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), to take its full title, is the comeback story of washed-up actor Riggan Thompson. It’s a movie about self-obsessed actors, made by talented actors, for insecure actors looking for someone to identify with, as well as self-assured actors able to laugh at themselves.

Tough being an actor, it’d seem. For Riggan, he desperately wants to be “relevant”, whatever that means. So he’s put all his money into staging a Broadway production of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. Riggan also writes, directs and stars in the play in an attempt to be taken seriously and to shake off his Birdman persona. The movie is a headlong rush into the frenetic preparations on and off stage. Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly.

Riggan’s agitated mental state is hardly ever at rest. He hears the whispers of his alter-ego and clings to an alpha male delusion. In his mind he can levitate and smash things at will. But is he a real artist or a hack? Can he do justice to Carver as an actor and director? Will his cast and crew take him seriously? Michael Keaton is superb in a nuanced, slightly manic performance of neuroses brought on by insecurity and vanity, in search of his lost masculinity.

Equally vainglorious, Edward Norton is Method Actor in one hyper package. Demanding real alcohol and his own tanning bed so he could look “redneck” for his role, using a loaded gun on set, and a libido threatening to have its own performance, there’s never a boring moment when your co-star insists on being a diva.

As the leading lady on stage, Naomi Watts struggles with her anxiety and ambiguous sexuality. Finding her own identity and self-worth between a director working in his own mysterious ways and an actor given to volatile expressions of his craftsmanship can drive any actress nuts.

Riggan’s daughter, played by Emma Stone, is a star child damaged by her father’s fame and all its emotional trappings. Coming out of rehab, she’s fiercely vocal, perceptive, strong and fragile simultaneously.

Birdman mocks its targets, laughs at their pretensions, but nonetheless sympathizes with them. A movie that belittles its own (in particular the CGI-heavy Transformers type) and asks if movies are less respectable than the theatre.

What the theatre doesn’t have though, is someone like cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Stitching a series of takes into a faux one-take wonder in an impressive technical feat, his Steadicam weaves along half-lit corridors and stairwells, in and out of dressing rooms, up and down stage, to the neon-washed Times Square, even up buildings and across the street. The rich, dark colours of backstage goings-on complement the rich, dark thoughts inside people’s heads as they navigate their artistic pursuit under Riggan’s, um, wings. Antonio Sanchez’s impatient percussive beats drum through the dialogue like a marching drill, adding to the restless photography an energizing momentum.

There are times when Birdman looks and sounds like a massive inside joke. One that winks and nods at the self-absorbed and egotistical. It also aims high and gets up there, perched on a wire balancing ambition and risks.

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