After hearing much acclaim about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, starring Michael Keaton in a role that's garnering a lot of Oscar buzz, I finally saw the theatre-centric flick. Almost a treatise on what it means to be an actor and the state of theatre today (most the film is even set in the storied St James Theatre, where you can currently see Side Show), Birdman follows Keaton's Riggan, an actor who hit it big 20 years ago as the titular caped crusader and is now trying to make a comeback as an actor by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway show. He's also attempting to mend his relationship with his not-entirely-rehabilitated daughter, Sam, played by an emaciated Emma Stone.
Throughout, Riggan's actor-cred is challenged by Edward Norton's Mike Shiner, a beloved theatre actor who's a mess in his own right. (Mike boards the show after the other actor, played by the great Tony nominee Jeremy Shamos, is injured. Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough are the other actors in the play.) He's also challenged by the prospect of a New York Times review from chief theatre critic, Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan). It is Riggan's interactions with Mike and Tabitha that bring out the best state-of-the-theatre speeches. (In addition, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan appear intermittently as Riggan's lawyer/producer and ex-wife, respectively. Galifianakis proves a good straight man for the spiraling Riggan, and Ryan's understated portrayal packs a powerful emotional punch.)
I'm pretty sure that's what was happening. I can't be entirely certain because of the distractingly good technical achievements. The sound design is effective, with a ticking clock heard throughout and original drum solos punctuating Riggan's emotional state. (Original score by Antonio Sanchez.)
The truly great feat is that it looks like the film was created in one extended tracking shot. Of course, we know there are edits because (1) it would be impossible to make a film in just one shot and (2) because of continuity errors that frequent theatergoers like me can't miss. But it looks like it's all one shot and that's phenomenal. It keeps the story moving—literally—no matter what happens. It's supposed to make you focus on what's happening because you aren't being subjected to edits every three seconds (sort of the anti-American Idiot treatment). Sure, the actors' performances are good (truly: welcome back, Michael Keaton; nice to see you, Edward Norton), but it's director of photography Emmanuel Lubzeki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione that really make Birdman take flight.