The Unexpected Virtue of Self-Awareness Or (Birdman Movie Review)

The Unexpected Virtue of Self-Awareness Or (Birdman Movie Review)
Quite often when a film performs well at the Oscars a certain level of cynicism is unduly attached. Some of the movies that initially avoid this appear the incorrect choice further down the line. This year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to a movie that took home a further three of the famous golden statuettes. In a strong field it towered over the others like a bird in flight.
The movie opens with Michael Keaton’s character, the faded, former Hollywood star Riggan Thomson, meditating. What is instantly striking is the sight of him doing so whilst levitating cross-legged three-feet up from the floor. And so the almost continuous camera stream rolls on from there, giving us the first metaphor for Riggan’s mental state and perception of the world.
Keaton’s character is hounded by self-doubt, the need for validation, and the voice of the Birdman character he successfully portrayed in a three-movie franchise. His last roll of the dice, financially and from a career perspective, is a Broadway production of the Raymond Carver short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. From the start we see the turmoil descend into madness, dragging Riggan down in the process.
Strong performances from each member of the cast help the pacing remain concise. Not since Pulp Fiction has a movie felt so unique, fresh, or a redefining moment within the rules of the cinematic experience. Just like that movie, star-studded names give career defining characters. Admittedly, Pulp Fiction had more of those names, but the handful here are plentiful for the scope of the story. Edward Norton reveals another side to his range as he balances what could possibly be Michael Keaton’s grandest creation to be caught on celluloid.
Unlike Pulp Fiction, a movie that cut back and forth, we are thrown headlong into the story that never looks back and each step forward presents a new danger. As this occurs the inner voice of Birdman grows more dominant. There are moments that have clearly been lifted from real-life experiences. The director has worked backstage on Broadway productions, Keaton himself the lead in 1989’s Batman, the movie that arguably restarted the superhero craze for movie goers, and the scathing monologue from Lindsay Duncan as a Times movie critic encapsulates how “real” actors see the Hollywood extreme.
With such a statement being made in the film it could be easy to assume Birdman is a piece trying to defend mainstream movies. However, it is far too intelligent to pause on this singular issue, it merely acknowledges the point of view. Its moments of dark comedy also divert the mood away from a self-absorbed two-hour reflection.


Thanks to the perfect balance of cinematography, story, performances, soundtrack and the direction of the movie, few should argue with its awards haul. Sadly, it’s this recognition that has started to take away some of the shine. The rating on IMDb continues to plummet as people load the lowest rating possible to its tally. But make no mistake: this is a 5 star, 10/10 flick. It is the closest we’ll come to mainstream art. Anyone that denies its brilliance is displaying ignorance. Without it being a virtue.

Seriously Occupied

Seriously Occupied

Before I begin, I should point out how I’ve never read a Harry Potter book or seen any of the movie adaptations. To me J.K. Rowling was identifiable for creating a cultural phenomenon that’d I’d deliberately swerved. I’ve just never been drawn to wizards and dragons. Not that I haven’t ever read fantasy novels, but the idea of getting on the Potter bandwagon never appealed. The dismay people gave me was always followed up with: “Read them. You’ll enjoy them. She’s a good writer.” It was the final part of that endorsement which made me pick up The Casual Vacancy.

Upon its release it received a mixed reception, as one would expect from a children’s author dipping their toe into the world of adult novels. The endorsement from Stephen King – my favourite author of all time – made me take notice. He had always preached the power of great story telling. Surely children’s books are the purest form of this. So I approached the tale regarding the fictional town of Pagford with the idea it’d be a simple yarn. Pure storytelling. It was much more than this.

To cut to the chase – in my opinion – it represents a turn as a literary piece. The best evidence of this is how the snobbish literary reviewers tried to pan it. There’s nothing more they hate than a commercial author stepping on their toes. Had the authors name been the always excellent Julian Barnes we’d have seen a different response. Other negative comments could stem from the dark themes that casual fans hadn’t been prepared for.

One review I saw lambasted Rowling for using the word “cunt.” The implication being, she used it to enforce an adult view, that it wasn’t her natural mode. I’d argue that a novel focusing on addiction, rape, and neglect quite easily can use the word as a matter of course. As for the grimy nature, that’s life. She wasn’t giving us a Disney version of the world.

Her master stroke is how she makes each person’s individual struggle relevant whilst keeping everything graded correctly in the larger context. Samantha Mollison’s bland life, passionless marriage, could easily seem trivial compared to the struggles of Krystal Weedon, but we can see the personal loss in both. Admittedly, the story of Krystal is the one that will move you most.

This weekend the BBC starts their three-part version of show, which was produced in partnership with HBO. Early reports indicate they have given it a lighter ending. This aside, I’m hopeful they do the novel justice. They have a strong cast including Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes and Rory Kinnear. It will be a tall order to condense the thirty-plus characters from the book into a television show and maintain the feel of depth across them all.

Casual Vacancy

The book may have been underappreciated and this new show may not be one for the mass audience. But the rewards will be rich if it meets the standards of the novel. For those that fail to connect: there’s always the Harry Potter movies.

(Main photo: Chloë Walker, Flickr.)