The awards season last year was an unusually strong one, with a cavalcade of high-profile films (mostly biopics) in contention for the big prizes at the Oscars. However, the films that ended up being most rewarded were original films with no pre-existing source material - and the most acclaimed, rewarded and beloved of them all was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’, a spectacular piece of cinema that walked away with Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. If anything, its success is a useful reminder that new and original ideas are still capable of thrilling us in the age of endless sequels, reboots and remakes.
Set in the world of the theatre, ‘Birdman’ follows, in an almost unbroken single shot, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he prepares for the opening of a new play he is writer, director and lead actor for. Over a decade ago, Riggan had hit box office success as superhero Birdman, but now he wants to earn some respect from his family and colleagues and finally step out of Birdman’s shadow. Problem is, he has a crazy co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to contend with, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who despises him, and the New York theatre community baying for his blood.
‘Birdman’ is one of those films that are clearly a classic from its first frame. Executed with staggering imagination and skill by Iñárritu, it hits perfection on every level, from its tightly constructed screenplay to its flawless ensemble to its incredible feat of cinematography, courtesy of the Oscar-winning magician Emmanuel Lubezki. Rather than going for gritty naturalism, ‘Birdman’ is a giddy piece of magic realism, following Riggan and his fellow players through the rabbit warren of a Broadway theatre and their interpersonal relationships. Riggan is a man on the verge of a breakdown, pulled apart by the conflict between his need to be a serious artist and his raging ego, made more real by the omnipotent presence of Birdman. Every twist and turn of the film is a treasure trove of surprises, and while most films about the theatre tend to feel, for want of a better word "theatrical", ‘Birdman’ is intensely cinematic, taking full advantage of the specific tools that cinema offers to storytellers. The shot may never cut, but it fluidly moves between the most intense of close-ups to the widest of canvases, and as Riggan’s mind begins to fracture more and more, so the imagination of the film expands and soars. Michael Keaton is an absolute knock-out as Riggan, beautifully walking the tightrope of his sanity, and he is backed up by a pitch-perfect ensemble that, as well as Norton and Stone, also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Lindsay Duncan, all of whom deliver some of their finest performances. And to top it all off, the film is propelled along by a tremendous score by Antonio Sanchez that is performed entirely on drums. That fact alone perfectly encapsulates what makes ‘Birdman’ so stunning, its unflinching commitment to its originality.
SWITCH: 'BIRDMAN' TRAILER
Alejandro González Iñárritu had been threatening with his early films to deliver something truly special that would put him firmly on the map, and ‘Birdman’ is most definitely the one. It’s a spectacular piece of cinema, executed with breathtaking skill and wildly entertaining from beginning to end. And trust me, on repeat viewing, it just keeps getting better.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘Birdman’ looks particularly striking on Blu-ray, with the 1080p 1.85:1 capturing all its rich visual detail. The colours leap off the screen, and not a moment of the transfer loses its clarity as Lubezki moves the camera through various lighting states and environments. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track leads you by the hand into the immersive aural world of the film, but never at the expense of the dialogue. It’s a beautifully balanced track, ensuring that ‘Birdman’ is as complete aurally as it is visually.
Sadly we don’t have much on offer here, but the behind-the-scenes featurettes give some detail into the making of the film. ‘Birdman: All Access’ (33:28) is a pretty traditional yet thorough making-of, with some detail going into the technical skills required in shooting the continuous shots, and how Antonio Sanchez developed and composed the score. ‘A Conversation with Michael Keaton and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’ (14:03) is a sit-down between the director and the actor, discussing the complexities of Riggan as a character and their process of creation. Rounding off the set is a gallery of on-set photography taken by Lubezki, which is (as you would expect) gorgeous. It’s a pity we don’t have a commentary track though, as I imagine Iñárritu could talk about this film for hours.
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