Sunday, October 12, 2014

Birdman (2014) — New York Film Festival 2014

Birdman premiered this evening and was heavily promoted at both this weekend's New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con — two worlds in whose Venn diagrams I have my boots firmly planted in as observer, fan, and critic. Watching it at the New York Film Festival, I wonder what the Comic-Con crowd thought of it, because for what looks superficially like it could be a big-budget blockbuster superhero epic it's (as described at the Q&A panel) "the most elaborate bait-and-switch ever pulled on ComicCon." (Which is not to denigrate superhero fans...I think they're gonna love it.) It's the most original, most daring, most immediate film I've seen in 2014.

Most extraordinary is the decision by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) to tell the story in virtual one continuous scene: except for a brief montage sequence, the entire film is framed as one unblinking take. It's no mere cinematic gimmick. In aid of the plot — movie superhero actor Riggan Thomson (Keaton) plans his comeback in serious Broadway drama but is haunted by the spectre of his winged avenger character — it's an exceptionally apt and thought-provoking choice. The sheer amount of planning, blocking, rehearsal and technical work to achieve the illusion of one continuous visual narrative (any necessary edits are exceptionally well-hidden) is compelling and mirrors the prep process for a stage play: everything must be pre-composed prior to the performance. The technique provokes startlingly immediate, on-the-move work by an exceptional cast. Keaton burns with piercing energy in his every scene, Edward Norton and Emma Stone are electric — everyone in the cast has an important moment and a profound presence.

Score and sound are likewise impressively integrated: Antonio Sanchez's persistent and arresting percussion score rat-a-tat-tats out an insistent countdown to a surely disastrous opening night and an unseen clock in Riggan's dressing room ups the tension. (Hear Sanchez's "Doors and Distance" and "Strut Part II" from Birdman on Soundcloud)

Iñárritu ties all these diverse elements into an intricate weave of drama, dark humor, and magical realism. Birdman may get acclaim for its innovative cinematography, themes of fantasy life in reality, or Keaton's startlingly hilarious quick-step through Times Square in his underpants, but this brave, funny, savage portrait of an actor with a rubber-suited alter ego monkey on his back adds up to so much more than the sum of his already capable parts. Birdman shocks, shatters and soars.

Read MondoCurry's piece on and the Birdman Comic-Con panel.

Birdman is featured at the New York Film Festival 2014, and opens in limited release on October 17, 2014.

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