THE BLOG
10/21/2014 12:41 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Birdman Is an Astonishing New Film

This was going to be a review of two new films, Gone Girl and Birdman... but there has been so much (favorable) press about Gone Girl that I would be spinning my wheels to redundantly rave about it. As you well know by now, it is David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's popular novel. (Incidentally, Gillian told a reporter that she was named after the witch played by Kim Novak in Bell, Book & Candle, which I am in the process of remaking.) I just suggest you see Gone Girl, although I must assume that most of my readers have already done so since, for several weeks running, it was the most successful picture in the world! My favorite columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, did a story about it recently and her piece was so full of 'spoilers' that no one living should be surprised at the startling ending. (Why did you do that, Maureen?) However, I do think that it will be superseded by the new picture which opened this weekend, Birdman, which I saw on opening night Friday at Landmark Theatres. What is interesting is that both of these superb films come in part from a little-known but powerhouse independent film company called New Regency, which is based on the 20th Century Fox lot and has a releasing deal there. New Regency is owned by a legendary Israeli businessman/filmmaker named Arnon Milchan, who is famed for his acknowledged help in assisting the state of Israel to defend itself against innumerable enemies. Milchan is being honored by the Israeli Film Festival at the Saban Theatre on October 23rd with its Visionary Award, a richly-deserved tribute considering what he and his associates have accomplished. The President of New Regency happens to be my nephew, Brad Weston. So be it, their accomplishments are astonishing. You may recall that New Regency stepped in to join Brad Pitt's Plan B Productions and others in the financing of last year's Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, which was released domestically by Fox Searchlight. Before joining New Regency, Brad Weston was President of Production at Paramount Pictures, where he put into production among other hits the G.I. Joe movie, a franchise which has proven to be hugely successful. Point of interest (at least to me and hopefully to you) is that Brad's father, my brother Stan, invented G.I. Joe! Yes, it's true, see my post of last year for the full story.

Keaton and the Director, Alejandro G. Inarrittu

When Weston joined New Regency, Brad Pitt's Plan B soon joined them at Fox, and they have several pictures in development and production, including a now-shooting film, The Revenant, with Leonard DiCaprio starring as a 19th century fur trader, directed by the incredible Mexican-born Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who also directed Birdman. This director did a picture, Babel (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchette) which has remained fixated in my brain since I saw it seven years ago (and before that, in 2000, he had made a small film, Amores Perros, about two young Mexican lads and a sexy older woman on a journey, which was breathtaking.)

The cast of Birdman kidding around at the NY Festival

So I was receptive to the advance buzz on Birdman from the various festivals where it played (Venice and Telluride, as well as closing the N.Y. Festival on Saturday) but I must admit that I was unprepared for what I saw on Friday night... a riotous, powerful, funny, rambunctious tour-de-force by Michael Keaton. Charlie Rose devoted a whole hour to it this week, and someone said it was about artistic struggle and redemption, but that's kind of pompous. Let me set it up, though. It was filmed last spring over the course of a month at Broadway's St. James Theatre on 44th Street. The darkly hilarious film follows the fortunes of Riggan Thomson (Michel Keaton), the former star of the super-heroic Birdman series. (Keaton is the real-life former star of the Batman franchise. Art follows life, or vice versa.) The Keaton character fears that he has become an over-the-hill hack and sets out to prove otherwise. That sets the scene. The actor has decided to write, direct and star in an adaption for the stage of a Raymond Carver story. His opponent/co-star is an obnoxious actor played by Ed Norton. We meet Keaton's grown daughter and assistant, an alienated just-out-of-rehab Emma Stone, and an attractive Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress and Norton's companion, while Zach Galifianakis plays Keaton's sympathetic manager/lawyer. Amy Ryan plays his ex-wife. Andrea Riseborough (Laura) is the leading lady, possibly pregnant by him. Riggan senses that he is headed for a full-out disaster... and that panic sets the tone for the comedy-drama. Doesn't sound like it could be funny? Believe me... it is a riot.

Keaton and Norton square off in the dressing room.

The director, a true original genius, tries something so daring that it actually works. He shoots it like it was one or two long, long takes. You don't see the cuts. Imagine what it took to prepare the set, cast and crew to do this? Unimaginable. (I'm sure glad I wasn't the producer on this one.) Cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki (remember Gravity, which he did with Sandra Bullock, for which he won an Oscar) follows the actors with a steadycam as they move through the theatre and outside to Times Square, swooping, swaying and dipping as the real-time drama plays out. On Charlie Rose, Alejandro told of a lunch he had with director Mike Nichols just before they began shooting, where Mike grabs him and warns him that the concept is impossible and will be a disaster. Keaton laughingly commented that the director agreed... but went on anyway. (This technique was done before in Hitchcock's Rope and Alexander Sokuov's Russian Ark, but never to this degree.) How well it works I will leave up to you... but my friends and I were happily dumbstruck by the whole effort. I only hope that the members of my Academy have the sense to agree with this reaction. Co-writers with Alejandro were playwrights Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo, all Argentinians.

Keaton and Norton in front of the marquee for the show.

The fantasy element of the film begins with the first scene, where we see Keaton levitating/floating two feet above his bed in his dressing room at the St, James Theater. And he demonstrates his 'Birdman' powers with moving an object across the room with a flick of his finger as we hear his 'inner voice-alter ego of the feathered franchise' moneypot telling him unsettling truths. Inarretu shuffles his characters and stories like a magical deck of cards as we watch the two couples on stage drink gin in bed and debate the nature of love. Incidentally, for someone like me who hates heights, the scenes on the theatre's rooftop were frightening in their reality as Emma Stone lingers on the edge. My companion gripped my hand and I gripped back as we gasped about the reality of the scene.

Birdman and Keaton

Duncan meets the female theatre critic for the New York Times, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) in a bar and listens as she shatters him with a statement about why she will destroy his show even though she has not yet seen it. Her powerful talk, with many truths, is an attack on the vacuousness of Hollywood and many of its inhabitants. (Ouch). I hope that there are no 'spoilers' about the weird, lovely ending... but I won't count on it. Keaton mentions on Rose that the subtitle of the movie is Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance but don't expect me to explain that since Keaton couldn't. I find Ed Norton to be an actor who always seems to be full of himself (pomposity?) which works well for him in the picture. I think Naomi Watts is an enticing presence, as is Emma Stone. There's a percussive jazz score by Antonio Sanchez which heightens the drama. The name of the unknown Carver short story which is being put onstage is "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which hardly fits on the theater marque. Carver's widow read the script and loved it, giving them permission to use the piece. I am told via producer John Lesher that the picture - financed by Fox Searchlight, New Regency and Worldview Entertainment -- cost about $16 million, much less than I would have guessed, with everyone working for what amounts to scale.

Yes, this is a surreal movie experience which will leave you laughing, reeling and talking incessantly as you leave the theater. And that's what it's all about, isn't it?

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.