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Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Year: 2014
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Producer: Alejandro González Iñárritu/John Lesher/Arnon Milchan/James W Skotchdopole
Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu/Nicolás Giacobone/Alexander Dinelaris/Armando Bo
Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan

There haven't been many parallels drawn between Birdman and the work of Woody Allen, but both are ultimately about the self-absorption of the privileged with the thirst for artistic recognition (and fear of artistic irrelevance) thrown in, a scathing satire on how Hollywood, stardom and what one character calls 'cartoons and pornography' isn't real art. And of course, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) , as it's more formally called, is set in Allen's traditional home among artistic New York types.

But it's told with such a singular sense of style and verve thanks to Alejandro González Iñárritu it moves and feels like a Woody Allen movie the way Merchant Ivory films remind you of the work of Michael Bay.

In an example of the best possible collusion of casting and story, it's the tale of former Hollywood star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), 20 years on from the superhero franchise – Birdman – that made his name. Desperate to finally prove himself a serious actor and show the world what he can do, Riggan is mounting a play in New York.

But a car crash of personalities and circumstances threaten to derail the whole thing before it begins. First is the cast, a group of superficial and insecure misfits like Lesley (Naomi Watts), a leading lady who can desperately hear the clock ticking on her career. There's costar Laura (Andrea Riseborough), whom Riggan might have got pregnant. There's Riggan's daughter and assistant Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and the only one who seems to be able to speak the truth to him. And finally there's leading man Mike (Edward Norton), a narcissistic blowhard who might be even more egotistical than Riggan himself is.

With an all-powerful critic who could torpedo the whole thing ready to pounce, a cast who can't seem to realise he's in charge and a grab-bag full of accidents and incidents that range from the slapstick to the tragic, the play seems set not only to make Riggan a laughing stock as well as yesterday's news, but financially ruin him as well.

On top of all that, he seems to be completely insane, half-living a fever dream where he can move objects with his mind, fly, and where everybody still loves him – just like Birdman. Using some very inventive visuals, Iñárritu show us what Riggan sees as he flies through the skies of the city and sweeps things off a table in a temper using telekinesis. And all the while the low, gravelly tones of Birdman himself speak in Riggan's mind, taunting him about the fame and adulation he once had.

The picture, including a couple of scenes of special effects, is beautifully crisp and the camerawork puts you right in the action both on stage and behind the scenes. It's all delivered with a collection of long single takes where the camera follows the characters throughout the bowels of the small theatre or across nearby Times Square, and a crazed, almost experimental soundtrack using a single drum kit provides the nervy, free-wheeling backdrop.

Not every aspect of the film hangs together successfully, and despite the brisk running time you'll find yourself drifting a little when Iñárritu spends what seems like a little too long on certain aspects of the story (like Mike and Sam's burgeoning and slightly creepy relationship).

The mind-bending aspects of the plot are also more David Lynch than Chris Nolan. There's no sudden reveal that brings it all into focus and makes sense of the fantastical aspects. It might just be that Riggan is simply so deluded we don't see the joins between reality and his fantasy world any more than he does.

But it's a brilliant move by Keaton, possibly a meta-comment on his own life and career, and you'll likewise wonder where he ends and Riggan Thompson begins. It's a slice of satire on movies, a look at the psyche behind former stardom, and much more.

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