'Birdman' review: Stunning, surreal take on a very real existential crisis

'Birdman' review: Stunning, surreal take on a very real existential crisis

"Birdman" isn't merely a showcase for Michael Keaton's triumphant return to greatness - this stylized dark comedy is a compelling character study, existential crisis drama and - above all things - a story of legacy and expressions of love.

In short: Washed-up movie actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton) tries to revive his failing career by writing, directing and acting in a dramatic Broadway stage play - the farthest thing from the comic book franchise that made Riggan famous. As open night nears, Riggan must deal with his recovering drug addict daughter (Emma Stone), the play's desperate producer (Zach Galifianakis), a volatile method actor (Edward Norton) and "Birdman," Riggan's derisive and ever mocking inner voice. (Watch the trailer)

The latest from director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("21 Grams" and "Amores Perros") is arguably the most complete and complex cinematic experience of 2014, driven by incredible performances, a compelling character study, sharply-written dialogue and beautiful/daring cinematography.

The centerpiece of "Birdman" is Michael Keaton, who delivers a near perfect performance worthy of all the Award Season hype. For an actor whose best known roles were in the late 1980s, Keaton embodies the cynical, hopeful and desperate actor attempting a career rebirth. Strong character stakes creates strong drama, and Thomson is all-in with one last-ditch gambit to salvage his career via Broadway play. And if the play fails, Riggan's personal relationships and personal worth are all on the line. And the entire time Riggan relentlessly pushes forward, willing his play to its opening night, a nagging and bitter inner voice dooms Riggan to failure and temps him with a simple solution: right all the wrongs in his life by once again becoming 'Birdman.'

This heady flick addresses the metrics of celebrity - how adoration and self-worth can be measured in box office weekends or the number of Twitter followers. How fickle fans cling to their beloved characters and the difference between an artist creating something personal versus simply donning a franchise's costume for a payday and instant adoration. And Keaton brilliantly captures a conflicted man earnestly trying to reignite his stardom, as he also harbors a deep frustration by the massive celebrity of modern comic book film stars.

Edward Norton and Emma Stone lead perhaps the strongest ensemble cast of the year. Norton is a chaotic, unstable element that threatens to combust in every scene he's featured. Stone delivers her sharp, acerbic dialogue with absolute ease -- while also nailing a nearly perfect acting moment: after delivering a very hurtful monologue, her face instantly switches from righteous glee to deep regret for saying those words to a person she loves. It's a quick, subtle moment that pretty perfectly epitomizes "Birdman": incredible dialogue executed by great performances that convey each character's rich complexity.

And if "Birdman," with its hyper-realized hallucinations and Riggan's menacing inner monologue, wasn't already flirting with wandering into esoteric territory, now comes the gimmick: "Birdman" is shot to look like it's one long camera shot with zero cuts. Of course "Birdman" wasn't shot in one 120-minute long single take -- but its impressive execution of recording lengthy tracking shots in a single take, and blending them together to appear as though no edit cuts were made, is astounding. The result is a movie that maintains kinetic energy that keeps the movie compelling, yet surprisingly still allows characters quiet moments (where the bulk of this film's acting genius occurs). And to give the director of photography his full credit due - the long-tracking shots of "Birdman" are also highlighted by some brilliantly framed shots. The camera work of the tracking shots is only surpassed by its stunning cinematography.

The only real weakness of "Birdman" is its lack of subtly when it comes to its themes. Riggan's play is a stage adaptation of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" -- where the nature of love and adoration are explored, and the main character commits suicide when his love isn't returned. These too nicely and perfectly reflect the values and themes facing the characters. Iñárritu's screenplay is sharply written and elegantly created -- but at times, it does hit the audience over the head it its attempt to convey exactly what the character and story values/themes are within "Birdman." This innovative and awesome film almost tries too hard in letting the audience know just how innovative and awesome it is.

Final verdict: This bleak, psychological comedy-drama is one of the most original, exciting, refreshing and sleek films of 2014. This film will absolutely receive Award Season attention for its director, lead actor, supporting actor (Norton), original screenplay, score, editing and cinematography.

Score: 5/5

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 24 and is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.

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