Friday, October 17, 2014

NYFF Spotlight: Birdman

I had the distinct pleasure this year of covering a few of the films that were shown at the New York Film Festival, which took place September 26th-October 12th.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Released October 17, 2014

There’s nothing quite as enticing as a comeback story. It’s even more appealing when one comeback story serves as another in its own right. “Birdman” follows Riggan Thomson, an acting actor known only for playing the title superhero in a film series decades earlier, as he prepares for the opening night of the dramatic play he has directed and in which he stars. Michael Keaton, who hasn’t done too much of note since playing Batman in the first two franchise films twenty years ago, stars as Riggan, embodying a character with whom he can undoubtedly relate. Though there are surely parallels to Keaton’s own life, Riggan’s story is considerably more fantastical, an inventive and mesmerizing journey filled with theatre, madness, sex, superheroes, and much more.

“Birdman” begins just before Riggan’s play is set to begin previews, and an accident on set forces Riggan to recast one of the roles in his four-person play. Lesley (Naomi Watts), who can’t wait for her Broadway debut, brings in her friend Mike (Edward Norton), who matches his lofty reputation with a wild unpredictable streak, to join Riggan and his costar Laura (Andrea Riseborough), with whom Riggan has entertained a romance. Pressure about the performance of the play are only enhanced by the presence of Riggan’s fresh-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone) and the fact that he hears Birdman talking to him, telling him that he needs to take control of his life before he loses his grip entirely.

“Birdman” is a film that walks the line between reality and fantasy, and what’s terrific is that both are equally fascinating. Watching Mike derail the first rehearsal with a drunken diatribe directed towards the audience is just as alluring as seeing a frustrated Riggan throw and break nearly every item in his dressing room using Birdman’s telekinetic powers. At times it’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s in Riggan’s head, and usually, it doesn’t even matter. This is a fiercely engaging and thought-provoking look at performance, celebrity, relationships, and honesty that exudes excellence in all of those areas.

The cast in “Birdman” is stellar all around, and it’s hard to pick a favorite from the supporting cast. Watts, Norton, and Riseborough all shine as actors playing actors, each contributing something different to their layered craft. Their roles may be small, but it’s important to recognize the work of Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s agent, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, and Lindsay Duncan as a theatre critic. Emma Stone, who has been bumping up against serious roles for several years now, is magnificent as Riggan’s daughter, who oozes attitude but also seeks to find meaning in the midst of people pretending to be other people. And then there’s Keaton, who proves to be alternately frenetic and focused in just the right way, perfectly embodying an actor trying to show that he’s made something of his life. All of the actors embellish a strong, creative script and act to a rhythm completely in sync with Antonio Sanchez’ hypnotic jazz drum score, which sounds continuously throughout the film. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has previously made films like “21 Grams,” “Babel,” and “Biutiful,” opts for something wholly different here and succeeds wildly.


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