DirectorAlejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date(s)2014 (February 17, 2015)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was released in 2014 to almost universal acclaim, giving Michael Keaton’s career a serious boost and director Alejandro González Iñárritu one of his most well-received and widely-seen films. The film was nominated for and won several awards at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, including awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Despite having somewhat of an independent flair, the film was a big success, based mostly on the towering performance of Michael Keaton. (Keaton didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar, sadly, though he certainly deserved it.)
Birdman tells the story of washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton), who decides to gamble everything he has on directing and acting in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in order to revitalize his career. He hires his recently de-toxed daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant and his best friend Jake (Zach Galifianakis) as his coordinator and producer, as well as struggling actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), her cocky actor boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), and fellow actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough). Thomson must try and keep this group on track in order to give himself the chance at the performance of his career, while also attempting to ignore the advice of his alter ego, Birdman, a character he became famous for playing before losing his mind.
The idea of taking a former superhero actor, who had basically a somewhat obscure career after his superhero movies had long passed, and making a meta-statement about that actor, as well as acting, fame, theater, and both film and theater criticism seemed like a risky move. Birdman had the potential to become far too precious about its ideas and pretentious in its execution. When director and writer Alejandro González Iñárritu first conceived of Birdman, he ran it by fellow filmmakers and screenwriters Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó. They were skeptical of it, and they weren’t the only ones. Iñárritu was told many times that this film just wouldn’t work. The screenwriters were also worried because the film was going to be shot with long takes and very few edits, giving the appearance of one continuous take from the beginning of the movie to the end. The script thus had to be very carefully written and mapped out, meaning that almost nothing could change once shooting commenced – a tall order indeed. In other words, the script was the final word and, in essence, the film became a play of its own.
Iñárritu said that early on that he wasn’t entirely sure about who to cast as the lead, but once Michael Keaton’s name came up, there was no other choice for him. He would either get Keaton to do it, or the film wouldn’t have been worth doing. Naomi Watts came aboard easily, having worked with Iñárritu previously on 21 Grams. Edward Norton apparently pursued the project when he first heard about it second-hand, and both Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough were a perfect fit in the other supporting roles. Zach Galifianakis was the only unsure choice for Iñárritu until he saw how sensitive Galifianakis could be in his performance, which earned the director’s trust. These actors were placed under a great deal of pressure because of how complicated it was to film the movie. Even though they were given lots of rehearsal time, it sometimes could take up to twenty takes to film one scene, which was quite a lot of work for such lengthy scenes.
For my part, I think this is one of the most compelling films I’ve seen in a long time. Of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous work, I had only seen Babel, which I didn’t care that much for. Even when it was announced that Michael Keaton was playing the lead, I didn’t give it much thought, despite how much I like Keaton as an actor. I think he’s given a lot of top performances in films like Clean and Sober, Jackie Brown, Desperate Measures, The Paper, and one of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Dream Team. And of course, he was terrific as Batman and Beetlejuice, there’s no denying that. But now that I’ve seen this film, my only wish is that I had seen it sooner.
In my mind, Birdman is perfect. There’s just no other way to describe it than that for me. It’s not a gimmick movie, it’s not a pretentious or philosophical movie, nor is it a special effects movie. It doesn’t merely tell the story of one washed-up actor trying to make it in the theater because he has nothing else left. It’s about all of those working in show business and how their careers and lives change over time, in ways both good and bad. It’s a father/daughter story, a jilted lover story, a lost friend story, a disappointing life story... it’s a lot of things. This film also never gets overly melodramatic. It has the perfect blend of humor and pathos. But above all, Michael Keaton is simply amazing in it. If nothing else, you should see Birdman for his performance and be reminded of what an amazing actor he is and has always been.
Fox’s Blu-ray presentation of Birdman is one of near perfection as well, especially when it comes to the look. Shot digitally, the film uses a variety of different lighting and color schemes, due to the very nature of free-flowing camera movement. There are many different environments and filming conditions here: inside, outside, day, night, dawn, dusk, bright light, low light, and a variety of different color temperatures. Luckily, the filmmakers planned ahead for this, so every shot is pulsating with a massive amount of foreground and background detail. Skin tones and color reproduction are always consistent, as are black and contrast levels. Nitpickers may find fault with very slight banding or softness issues due to the mixing together of the CGI and other visual effects, but both of these items I can overlook, considering that the CGI may have very well been a deliberate style choice. Even if it wasn’t, it’s small potatoes compared to the overall visual quality.
As for the audio presentation, you get several options: English 5.1 DTS-HD, English 5.1 Descriptive Audio, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Turkish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and French DTS 5.1. For obvious reasons, I’ll be reviewing the DTS-HD track, which is nearly flawless. It packs quite a wallop with crystal-clear dialogue, but also gives a very nice immersive experience. Everything sounds great, from the thousands of voices and traffic sounds around Keaton’s character during his famous underwear run through the streets of New York to the in-film stage performances. There’s plenty of ambience and score in the surround speakers to keep you right in the moment. There are also a few impressive low end moments that have plenty of kick. The score, composed of classical selections and fantastic drum instrumentals, blends in beautifully. It’s not a bombastic soundtrack by any means, but it does have such moments here and there. Subtitles are available on the disc in a number of different options, including English SDH, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese (Brazil), Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified), Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Turkish.
For the extras selection, there’s the long-form Birdman: All-Access (A View from the Wings) behind-the-scenes featurette, the A Conversation with Michael Keaton and Alejandro G. Iñárritu segment, a still gallery entitled Gallery: Chivo’s On-Set Photography, and the usual paper insert in the packaging with a Digital HD code. If you pick it up during its initial first release, it will come housed in a red Blu-ray case with a fold-out slipcase surrounding it. That’s not essential, of course, but it’s a nice touch.
Even though this Blu-ray doesn’t feature an enormous amount of extra content, it’s definitely one of the must-own releases of the year. A perfect film with an almost flawless presentation, Birdman is one I plan on watching multiple times. Astonishing performances and beautiful, crisp images make this one of the best films of 2014 and one of the most exciting Blu-ray releases of 2015 thus far. Highly recommended and essential!
- Tim Salmons