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For Your Consideration: 'Birdman'

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Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, M. Keaton
Birdman is Alejandro González Iñárritu's first feature since Biutiful, and although it is just as quirky it will probably reach a broader audience. The screenplay, co-written by the director with three other writers (including two who worked on Biutiful), is a meta-Hollywood story. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomas, a washed-up blockbuster movie actor, known for having starred in, and then having tried to break away from, a cinematic superhero franchise called Birdman (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). In an attempt to resurrect his non-superhero career, he has rented out the St. James Theater on Broadway to star in and direct his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Not much is going well in Riggan's life. Separated from his wife (Amy Ryan, of The Wire), he struggles to make a connection to his smart-mouth daughter, Sam, whose attempt at recovery from drug addiction, while she works as her dad's personal assistant, is played with incisive resentment by Emma Stone (Superbad, The Help). When a lighting instrument falls on the head of Riggan's male costar, it looks like the production will go down in flames, causing his manager and producer, Jake (a surprisingly contained but still funny Zach Galifianakis), to lose his cool. Nowhere is this movie better than in the artistic seduction and conflict between Riggan and Mike Shiner, the method-besotted stage actor brought in to take over the role, played with vicious relish by Edward Norton. In fact, the movie is likely to resonate the most with actors and perhaps not all in positive ways, as in the back and forth with the two crazy actresses in the play, Lesley (Naomi Watts, from J. Edgar), who brings Mike, her boyfriend, into the production, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is sleeping with Riggan. "Why don't I have any self-respect?" the former asks the latter after one emotional crisis. "Because you're an actress, honey," is the knowing response.

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In a way, the film is about the collision of acting, an art that relies on human-to-human connection in the most primitive ways, with the technical wizardry of modern cinema. At first, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, The Tree of Life, Gravity) seems to be obsessed with following the actors physically, with many long tracking shots through the rat warren of corridors in the backstage of this great old Broadway theater. Eventually, you realize that the film is -- or rather seems to be, through digital sleight of hand -- one long Steadicam shot, continuous from beginning to end in a way that is physically impossible.

This technical aspect is also where the movie founders, used to show the extravagances of Riggan's fantasy life (without giving away any of the specifics, which would spoil the effect). Presented subtly and sort of in his mind at first, this element of unreality is blown wide open at about the two-thirds point, where the film loses its edge. It is perhaps to justify the venom of the (fictional) New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who threatens to shut down Riggan's play before she has even seen it, solely because she hates all that Hollywood shit. (As always, the critic is right if you think about it.) The original score by newcomer Antonio Sanchez, involving lots of improvised, buzzy, agitated drum breaks, is supplemented by whiffs of our favorite music: pieces of Mahler (9th symphony, the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen), Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and even John Adams (including, if you keep your ears open, a section of the "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" from The Death of Klinghoffer).

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