Bird in the belfry

Batman vs. the Hulk. What? You guys don't remember that Edward Norton was once the Hulk?

Batman vs. the Hulk. What? You guys don't remember that Edward Norton was once the Hulk?

Rated 5.0

Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and an amazing cast turn Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) into an instant classic, a film like no other.

Pulling out all of the technological stops, director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) has made this movie as if it were all one seamless shot. The movie doesn’t happen in real time; it passes through locations, with hours and even days going by between the tricky transitions. So, the camera can track forward from a hallway to a backstage area, and while mere seconds in film time have gone by, 12 hours in the film’s world may’ve passed in those 10 feet. It’s extraordinary.

Keaton plays Riggan, an actor on his last legs. In his heyday, Riggan made millions as the title character in the superhero blockbuster Birdman and its sequels. At the height of his popularity, he walked away in hopes of finding more creatively fulfilling projects.

His other film pursuits have not panned out, and he finds himself in previews for a Broadway play, a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that he’s financing, directing, and starring in. The stakes are high, and Riggan is showing signs of coming apart in the head.

When one of his actors takes a falling stage light to the melon in what may or may not have been an accident, Riggan casts hotshot actor Mike (Norton) in a crucial leading role beside him. Mike is certified box office gold, and this should help him make the play a hit. Problem is, Mike is also a method actor who uses real booze on stage and isn’t afraid to break character and challenge Riggan before an audience.

The whole situation causes Riggan to have breaks from reality, often conversing with his superhero alter ego (also played by Keaton), who is not at all pleased at the state of Riggan’s existence. The ego has taken some hits, the money has dried up, and the place where he lives “smell like balls.” Riggan has moments when he believes he might have telekinetic powers in moving things around in his dressing room, but the reality is he’s probably just throwing crap around in a rage.

The scenes when Keaton and Norton square off are the best-acted scenes, pound for pound, you will see in a movie this year. Obviously, Keaton’s role is semi-autobiographical, in that he was once Batman and ruler of the box office. Norton’s role seems to be somewhat based in his own history, in that he is a notorious perfectionist and method man.

This contributes to making their clashes seem quite authentic, and even a little scary. You get a true sense that Keaton and Norton are really pissed at one another, and any punches thrown are the real thing. Both actors should be solid contenders in the Oscar race.

As Riggan’s rehabbing drug addict daughter, Emma Stone makes her own bid for Oscar contention with compelling, intense work. She has a speech in this movie when she eviscerates Keaton’s character, and it’s a real stunner. Zach Galifianakis has shown major dramatic chops in the past to go with his usual forays into comic lunacy. As Riggan’s agent and lawyer, he shows he’s far more than a laugh-getter. There’s also Naomi Watts and Amy Ryan in small but important roles, so this is basically the best cast of ’14.

The movie works on so many levels. It’s an intense drama, but it’s very funny and satiric. It’s also an interesting take on one man going insane, while being a scathing indictment of celebrity culture. It’s even a pitch perfect depiction of the rigors of putting on a play.

You’ve never seen anything like Birdman, and I doubt you will ever see anything like it again.