“Flying dreams mean that you’re doing the right thing with your life.’

— Douglas Coupland

I once told a Buddhist friend in Japan that when I was a little boy, I had run down an alley in the dark one night, put my arms out, and felt like I was actually flying. He said, “You did fly, but you grew up and forgot how to do it.” True story.

Michael Keaton once flew. He flew in “Beetlejuice” and “Batman Returns” and as the hilarious “Bill Blazejowski” in “Night Shift.” Then one day, he forgot how, got grounded and walked away. He made lots of money doing voice overs like Ken in “Toy Story 3” and video games. But deep inside, Michael remembered what it was like to fly, and feelings like that never go away.

Then a wonderful thing happened. Master director/writer with the best name in films, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, (“Babel”) cast him in the new, amazing film “Birdland,” and taught him how to fly again.

In “Birdman,” Keaton becomes Riggan Thomas, a faded movie star who became an international cult hero as “Birdman,” a kind of feathered Batman/Superman, got rich and bored and refused to do the fourth and walked away. Now, Riggan is back, well, almost back. He has written a play based on a short story by the great short story writer Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and has hocked his entire life, cars, house and marriage, to open it on Broadway with himself in the lead.

We know we’re in something shamanistic when the film opens in the shabby dressing room of a big Broadway theater, and we see our hero meditating in lotus position whilst levitating above the floor. Okay.

Riggan is unhappy, and his play is in crash mode. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu gives us a real backstage Broadway theater, where everything is in chaos, where it all goes wrong.

Riggan’s co-star isn’t working out, and then an OMG thing happens, and the co-star is out of the play.

Enter the leading lady, (a heartbreaking Naomi Watts) who brings in her boyfriend (Edward Norton) who has a reputation on Broadway as being brilliant but dangerous. Still, his name is golden in New York and they need him. Norton lights up the screen.

Inarritu surrounds Keaton with a cast seemingly drawn from a theatrical asylum: an agent and co-producer (Zach Galifianakis), who tells him as he goes on stage that she’s pregnant. Andrea Risenborough is a scene stealer.

There is Riggan’s wounded daughter, (a stunning Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab and assigned as his assistant, so he can keep an eye on her. Emma likes to perch on parapets and spit on bald people.

Add assorted stage hands, prop masters, electricians, a famous, respected and dreaded alcoholic theater critic who hates movie stars and promises to destroy Riggan.

“Birdman” is undeniably the very best movie so far this year, a surprise ball right out of left field. Besides being in the hands of a great imaginative director, there is the blessing of having Oscar winning Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity”), behind his magic lantern.

Lubezki takes us out of our seats and places us squarely in the middle of the action. His shots are dazzling and flawless, as he takes us through the corridors, the dressing rooms, to the ledges above the street, into the bars, holding our hats in our hand and trying to keep our hearts from falling from our mouths, all the while rocking to Antonio Sanchez’s mind-blowing drum score, featuring a drummer who keeps appearing in the streets and backstage like an ominous arc angel.

The film flows in what appears to be one, absolutely long tracking shot. Day becomes night then day, in soft flowing dissolves. Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese, eat your hats.

Each actor is a special bulb in the neon marquee of this film: Amy Ryan as the forgiving ex-wife is soft and touching.

Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, all astounding. And It must be said that Zach Galifianakis, in the role of Riggan’s agent/friend, has rescued himself from SNL clown and turned himself into a first-class actor.

Master editors Douglas Prise and Stephen Mirrione have assured themselves of matching gold statues. “Birdman” is the cinema version of an eight-course meal at the finest restaurant in Paris. I can imagine the elite who viewed its opening at the Venice and Telluride and New York film festivals knew at once they were in the presence of movie greatness. I know I did. Go see Michael Keaton remember how to fly.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and sceen actor.


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