New York Film Festival: Manchester by the Sea


manchester-seaFew directors are able to make a film that successfully blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, while also maintaining a tone that is unquestionably dramatic. It helps that the film is set during an overcast snowy New England winter; that its set in a working class environment; and has an score that features some heavy pieces, including Albinoni’s classic funeral hit,“Adagio in G Minor.” Director and writer Kenneth Lonergan has seamlessly blended the dramatic with the comic, not only through his direction but also through his well-crafted script. You don’t walk away confused about you they just saw—it’s a definitely a drama, a devastating drama with many moments that capture the clumsiness that add to daily life with humor.

Manchester by the Sea came out of Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals as a favorite and it’s getting the same love at this year’s New York Film Festival. Lonergan directs with careful detail and allows the scenes to run as long as necessary without feeling indulgent, but with enough emotional intensity that it feels honest. The performances possess the same quality of subtle intensity. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman living in a working class neighborhood of Boston. He’s essentially given up on life after suffering a tragic loss some years earlier. Following the death of his older, more stable brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee learns that is the sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Affleck is the conflicted center of this film and gives a career-high performance that is a case study of quiet restraint, and subtle emotional depth. This is an honest performance that is successful for it’s nuanced and controlled quality, yet it’s not dull or boring—it’s authentic.  Lee is ultimately a likable guy, mostly because, although he is very damaged and lonely, he is in need of help, he is a good man who is responsible and does the right thing. Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife delivers one of her most powerful performances in years, despite her too little screen time. In an unforgettable scene later in the film, Williams and Affleck are remarkable and heartbreakingly honest as she is awkwardly tries to talk to Lee about their tragic past, but through polite restraint, Lee is unable to let go and succumbs to avoidance as his only tool. In the hands of any other director this scene would have been a sappy, get-out-your-handkerchief moment, but here it’s a simple, frustrating (you want reach out and help them), and truthful moment. Affleck and Williams handle this scene masterfully.

kyle-chandler-casey-affleck-credit_-claire-folger-courtesy-of-amazon-studios-and-roadside-attractionsAnother stand out performance comes from Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest Hotel) as Lee’s nephew who finds himself suddenly alone, and at odds with Lee’s desire to take Lucas back to Boston to live until he is of legal age to receive his inheritance.  With his teen angst and rampant horniness, he’s the perfect counterpart to Casey’s emotionally muted (yet volatile given enough alcohol) and sexually stalled state. Their relationship is a pleasure—with the right amount of pain—to watch.

Manchester by the Sea, with its Oscar caliber performances, mature writing, masterful direction and a score that—despite coming dangerously close to overpowering the film—effectively enhances the over all tone of the movie, will likely stand out as one of 2016’s best films.

–John David West



New York Film Festival: Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is the one to see at this year’s New York Film Festival. Writer, director Kenneth Lonergan’s film is deeply moving, honest, and surprisingly funny. Casey Affleck’s truthful performance is detailed, restrained, and refreshingly organic. He is surely this year’s Oscar front runner.



5 New York Film Festival Movies to Catch when they Hit Theaters


The New York Film Festival may have ended a couple weeks ago but the movies that premiered at the festival continue to roll into theaters including Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Steven Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies, featuring Tom Hankes; and Steve Jobs directed by Danny Boyle. In the weeks and months ahead more NYFF movies will be released in theaters. While the above-mentioned features are good, here are five films that are not to be missed and I hope to see, once again, in theaters.

—John David West

The Lobster

Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

As one of my most anticipated movies of 2015, I had high hopes for The Lobster. How could I not? Yorgos Lanthimos—who brought us the Oscar nominated Dogtooth (2011) —directs his first English language film starring a middle aged, pudgy Colin Farrell and a short-sighted Rachel Weisz in a movie whose title begs the question, “what the hell is this about?”

Set in the near future, The Lobster is about how single people are arrested and transferred to The Hotel, where they must find a mate and fall in love or they will be forever transformed into an animal (or crustacean) of their choosing. Essentially it’s a love story that explores the human condition and examines the ubiquitous fear of there’s something wrong with you if you’re single. Beyond the film’s absurd, bleak view of a world where people are failures unless they’re in love (and become a voiceless animal), it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy—sad, but funny: violent, but smart and oddly hilarious. It leaves the viewer with much to ponder the big questions, like does being coupled matter that much and what animal would you choose to be?


Son of Saul

son of saul 2
Géza Röhrig as Saul. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by László Nemes and featuring Géza Röhrig as Saul, this film won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize of the Jury. Nemes’ first feature film is a powerful and unique look at the horrors of Auschwitz. Shot in 35mm, in academy ratio, with shallow focus, and long tracking shots; Son of Saul provides an immersive human experience that sticks with you long after the film is over. This should be an Oscar front-runner for Best Foreign Language film.


The Martian

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in THE MARTIAN.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s best selling book of the same name, Matt Damon plays astronaut and botanist Mark Watney who is left behind on Mars and thought as dead when the crew encounter a violent sandstorm and are forced to abandon their mission and make an emergency lift off from the red planet.

The Martian is both a crowd-pleasing movie and a smart science fiction film. It’s action packed fun and gorgeous to watch, and arouse rebellious thoughts like “come on NASA, let’s get back into space travel” —perhaps The Martian will inspire future missions to Mars astronauts and scientists. Unlike Gravity, Drew Goddard’s script succeeds in making the events plausible. The movie is packed with interesting science facts that don’t feel jarringly expositional, perhaps due to the comedic script and Damon’s charismatic performance. Ridley Scott succeeds in weaving a complicated story that is, at times visually poetic, at other times hilarious, but always consistently engaging. His use of is 3D is subtle and thankfully not distracting by being annoyingly self-aware. It sometimes comes dangerously close to having moments of schmaltzy Hollywood-feel-goodness (a few too many shots of cheering crowds in the control room and on the streets), and many characters are rather one-dimensional, but once you get past that The Martian is just elegant, fun, filmmaking.



Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett

In typical 1950s tradition Carol, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, lives in a world where everything is seemingly perfect, ordered, and definitely stylish. All is as it should be or at least it appears so on the surface, as Carol conceals the secret of her sexuality. She is more progressive than one might expect, as her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) is aware of her past relationships with women. Living in the repressed ’50s, a mother and a beautiful wife to a wealthy man her sexuality is a secret that must be concealed despite herself. Todd Haynes has explored this world before, in the luscious Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven (2002), a film filled with colorful autumn-rich wide-angle shots. Carol is a bit more subdued, honest, and quite cold. Rather than vibrant shots, Carol is filled with close-ups, notably of faces, toys, and shiny vintage 1950s cars; and it’s a cold lonely winter that fills the screen. Perhaps this is not the most inviting world for the viewer, but Blanchett’s brilliance for conveying great depth without saying a word is evident in the film’s final shot, a simple yet impactful, delicate moment that lives beyond the life of this movie.


The Witness


A thoroughly engrossing documentary by director James Soloman that unpacks the details and misinformation surrounding the events and iconic death of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was reportedly killed in front of 38 witnesses in Queens, New York.

The Witness is a powerful look at the devastating results of irresponsible journalism. Over the years, the Genovese murder became the subject of numerous books, news reports, themes on episodic TV crime shows, and case studies; her brutal murder shocked the country and its myth has remained alive through the world over the last half century. What is most refreshing in The Witness is how the film brings Kitty to life and reveals the person behind the grotesque murder. For the first time in 50 years, we see her as a beloved sister, popular friend, and a never-forgotten lover.

—John David West

Review: The Martian (Dir. Ridley Scott)

the Martian 2Last night the 53rd New York Film Festival presented a sneak peak screening of The Martian directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Based on Andy Weir’s best selling book of the same name, Matt Damon plays astronaut and botanist Mark Watney who is left behind on Mars and thought for dead as the crew encounters a violent sandstorm and are forced to abandon their mission and make an emergency liftoff.

The Martian is both a crowd-pleasing movie and a smart science fiction film. It’s action packed fun and gorgeous to watch, and arouse thoughts of “come on NASA let’s get back into space travel” —perhaps The Martian will inspire future mission to Mars astronauts and scientists. Unlike Gravity, Drew Goddard’s script succeeds in making the events plausible. The movie is packed with interesting science facts that don’t feel jarringly expositional, perhaps due to the comedic script and Damon’s charismatic performance. Ridley Scott succeeds in weaving a complicated story that is, at times visually poetic, at other times hilarious, but always consistently engaging. His use of is 3D is subtle and thankfully not distracting by being annoyingly self-aware. It sometimes comes dangerously close to having moments of schmaltzy Hollywood-feel-goodness (a few too many shots of cheering crowds in the control room and on the streets), and many characters are rather one-dimensional, but beyond that, it’s just elegant, fun, filmmaking.

Score: B+

—John David West

The film features: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Chiwetel Ejiofor. The Martian opens in theater on October 2, 2015


53rd New York Film Festival’s: Shorts Program – Animation, International, New York and Horror

Shorts PicMonkey Collage
This year, the New York Film Festival  has created four distinct categories for the NYFF Shorts Programs: Animation, International, New York and Horror. The NYFF Shorts Program 1: International will spotlight a selection of mostly North American premieres from around the world, with voices from Argentina, Australia, Chile, and more. The new Shorts Program 2: Horror will scare up some screams with a handful of tales from the dark side, including Territory by Vincent Paronnaud (co-director of 2007’s Cannes winner and NYFF45 Closing Night, Persepolis), about a sheepherder and his dog witnessing unspeakable terrors. Shorts Program 3: Animation section will showcase stunning and bold recent works, including the World Premiere of Pixar’s latest gem, Sanjay Patel’s Sanjay Super Team, about modern superheroes and Hindu traditions clashing in the daydreams of a young Indian boy.

Shorts Program 4: New York is a new category celebrating the short-form works produced in New York by local filmmakers. The festival is thrilled to announce that the inaugural edition of this program will be sponsored by the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. This year’s exciting selections include the World Premieres of Zia Anger’s black comedy My Last Film, starring Lola Kirke, Mac DeMarco, and Rosanna Arquette; and Pacho Velez & Daniel Claridge’s Dragstrip. Velez is the co-director of Manakamana, which screened at NYFF51.

“We at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment are proud to support this year’s NY Shorts program at the New York Film Festival,” said Commissioner Cynthia López, Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. “Our City has a rich cinematic history, and the talented local filmmakers whose work will be showcased at the festival are a testament to our thriving creative community.”

Tickets for Shorts are $20 for General Public and $15 for Film Society members and students; Tickets for On Cinema are $15 for General Public and $10 for Film Society members and students. NYFF Directors Dialogues are free and open to the public—tickets will be distributed day-of on a first-come, first-served basis starting one hour prior to showtime.

Tickets for the 53rd New York Film Festival will go on sale to Film Society patrons at the end of August, ahead of the general public. Learn more about the patron program at Becoming a Film Society Member offers the exclusive member ticket discount to the New York Film Festival and Film Society programming year-round plus other great benefits. Current members at the Film Buff Level or above enjoy early ticket access to NYFF screenings and events ahead of the general public. Learn more at


Featuring films by a selection of new talents, this year’s lineup of shorts includes lyrical work from Australia and Chile, a pair of Buenos Aires–set romps from Argentine co-productions, and a bittersweet goodbye story from Austria. Programmed by Sarah Mankoff.
La Novia de Frankenstein


Agostina Gálvez & Francisco Lezama, Portugal/Argentina, 2015, DCP, 13m
Spanish with English subtitles
Ivana works for an agency that rents out apartments out to English-speaking tourists, but her sticky finger side-hustle suggests self-employment might be more her style. North American Premiere
David Easteal, Australia, 2015, DCP, 13m
A young man goes door to door in search of an automotive apprenticeship, and spending his free time kicking up dust doing donuts with his buddies in the outskirts of Melbourne. North American Premiere
Carry On
Rafael Haider, Austria, 2015, DCP, 22m
German with English subtitles
When his donkey gets sick, an old farmer is hesitant to betray his fondness for the animal to his matter-of-fact wife who insists on putting the donkey down.
Marea de Tierra

Manuela Martelli & Amirah Tajdin, Chile/France, 2015, DCP, 15m
Spanish with English subtitles
On the southern Chilean archipelago of Chiloe, a lovelorn teenage girl on vacation swaps tales of heartbreak with a group of local women who gather seaweed. North American Premiere
The Mad Half Hour
Leonardo Brzezicki, Argentina/Denmark, 2015, DCP, 22m
Juan suddenly balks at commitment, prompting his boyfriend to lead him on a romantic night of wandering city streets. Named for the time of day when house cats go inexplicably wild. North American Premiere


In a program brand-new to the NYFF focusing on the best in genre film—horror, thrillers, sci-fi, twisted noir, and fantasy shorts from around the world—this handful of tales from the dark side features a period piece of terror in distant lands from the co-director of Persepolis, a haunted psyche that reveals itself in very strange ways, a lesson in being bad, horror-film love turned life-threatening, and some silent but deadly revenge. Programmed by Laura Kern.
Territory / Territoire
Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2014, DCP, 22m
French with English subtitles
A sheepherder and his trusty dog witness unspeakable horrors in a remote valley of the French Pyrenees in 1957.
We Wanted More

Stephen Dunn, Canada, 2013, DCP, 16m
Laryngitis may be a singer’s worst nightmare, but battling deep anxieties about life’s sacrifices can be even more terrifying.
Percival Argüero Mendoza, Mexico, 2015, DCP, 19m
Spanish with English subtitles
Upon viewing the mysterious, bone-chilling titular film, a young woman’s horror obsession—taken far from seriously by her boyfriend—blends dangerously with reality. U.S. Premiere

How to Be a Villain
Helen O’Hanlon, UK, 2015, DCP, 16m
In this delightfully demented homage to the golden days of monster movies, Supervillain (a perfect Terence Harvey) leads us on a thrilling guided tour of the ways of evil.

Andrei Cretulescu, Romania, 2015, DCP, 20m
One dark night, a no-nonsense blonde carries out a mission of brutal vengeance.


An eclectic mix of styles and themes, this program of animated shorts brings New York audiences a selection of stunning recent works from around the globe. Please note: this program is not for children! Programmed by Matt Bolish and Sarah Mankoff.
Lingerie Show
Laura Harrison, USA, 2015, HDCAM, 8m
Drug-addict Lorraine and her boyfriend Caesar are having a nightmarish 24 hours until Lorraine calls up her sister, CiCi, for help.
Hot Bod
Claire van Ryzin, USA, 2014, DCP, 4m
When a lonely man accidentally ingests a grow-your-own-girlfriend expandable water toy, he becomes extremely popular with the coolest dude in town.

William Reynish, Denmark, 2014, DCP, 12m
Danish with English subtitles
After a bad breakup leaves her heartbroken and depressed, Mira goes on a psychedelic trip in search of her spirit animal in order to feel whole again.
Denis the Pirate
Sam Messer, USA, 2015, DCP, 11m
A man tells the story of his great-great-great-great grandfather, Denis the Pirate, and his sidekick monkey, Babe Ruth, with whom he terrorized the Caribbean islands. World Premiere
Sanjay’s Super Team

Sanjay Patel, USA, 2015, DCP, 7m
In the latest short from Pixar, modern superheroes and Hindu traditions clash in the daydreams of a young Indian boy. World Premiere
Palm Rot
Ryan Gillis, USA, 2014, DCP, 7m
While investigating a mysterious explosion deep in the Everglades, a crop duster’s discovery of a lone surviving crate sets off a series of unfortunate events.
Siqi Song, USA, 2014, DCP, 4m
We are what we eat—from cheeseburgers to chocolate-covered pretzels—in this stop-motion documentary that explores how we choose the foods we consume.

Matt Christensen, USA, 2014, DCP, 3m
A blissed-out squirrel rolls through a meadow of objects.


A new addition to the New York Film Festival, this program showcases recent short-form work from some of the most exciting filmmakers living and working in New York today, an eclectic mix of familiar faces, established names, and unheralded ones to watch. Programmed by Florence Almozini and Dan Sullivan and sponsored by the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.    
Jason Giampietro, USA, 2015, DCP, 12m
Jason Giampietro’s latest hilarious short follows neurotic hypochondriac Rudy (Stephen Gurewitz), who is convinced he is suffering from a hernia, as he heads out into the night in search of sympathy from his friends, all of whom have lost their patience with him.

Nathan Silver, USA, 2015, DCP, 4m
The hyper-prolific Nathan Silver’s first documentary draws on his family’s home movies to revisit his directorial debut at the age of 9, as his efforts to dramatize the 1992 L.A. riots are undermined by an uncooperative cast and the intrusions of his mother. U.S. Premiere
Sonya Goddy, USA, 2015, DCP, 7m
In this impeccable cringe comedy, an irritated mother drives around in an unfamiliar neighborhood bribing her taciturn 5-year-old son with ice cream in exchange for crucial information. World Premiere
Pacho Velez & Daniel Claridge, USA, 2015, DCP, 4m
Comprised of images of racing aficionados—drivers, mechanics, and fans alike—in New Lebanon, NY, as they behold the sport they love, this film offers a rare opportunity to look at others in the act of observation, transforming the screen into a kind of ethnographic mirror. World Premiere
Special Features
James N. Kienitz Wilkins, USA, 2014, DCP, 10m
James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s funny and heady work of lo-fi sleight-of-hand centers on an interview between the filmmaker and a man describing a unique experience, but his entertaining reminiscence proves to be not at all what it seems.
Six Cents in the Pocket
Ricky D’Ambrose, USA, 2015, DCP, 14m
This hypnotic work of contemporary cinematic modernism—something like Robert Bresson in Park Slope, but not exactly—concerns a young man apartment-sitting for friends as talk of a plane crash ominously lingers in the air. World Premiere
Bad at Dancing
Joanna Arnow, USA, 2015, DCP, 11m
The Silver Bear winner at this year’s Berlinale comically chronicles the psychodrama and boundary-testing that arises between a needy young woman (Joanna Arnow) and her more confident roommate (Eleanore Pienta) when the latter gets a boyfriend (Keith Poulson).
My Last Film

Zia Anger, USA, 2015, DCP, 9m
An exhilarating whatsit and freewheeling black comedy, Anger’s latest takes aim at the independent film scenes in NY and LA with no-holds-barred ferocity, formal ingenuity, and an eyebrow-raising cast that includes Lola Kirke, Mac DeMarco, and Rosanna Arquette. World Premiere
Dustin Guy Defa, USA, 2015, DCP, 4m
A young woman recounts a story to a group of friends who listen with rapt attention, but the tale sounds very familiar… Another masterful and clever work by one of the world’s premier shorts filmmakers. World Premiere

53rd New York Film Festival’s: On Cinema Master Class and Directors Dialogues

Direct PicMonkey Collage

The 53rd New York Film Festival’s annual master class, On Cinema, will feature a conversation between NYFF Director of Programming Kent Jones and one of the world’s greatest living directors, Hou Hsiao-hsien, on Saturday, October 10. In a rare visit to New York, on the occasion his latest film The Assassin screening at NYFF53, the director will discuss some of the works that have marked, haunted, and influenced him as an artist. In the Revivals section, the festival will also present his 1983 Taiwanese New Wave drama, The Boys from Fengkuei.

The popular FREE Directors Dialogues returns with three diverse, notable filmmakers, paired with a NYFF selection committee member as they discuss their careers, their craft and views on their own approach to making movies, as well as the current state of filmmaking. This year’s lineup will feature sit-downs with Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart) on Tuesday, September 29; Michael Moore (Where To Invade Next) on Sunday, October 4; and Todd Haynes (Carol) on Saturday, October 10. All of these director’s newest films are screening in the Main Slate of the NYFF53.

On Cinema

Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-hsien directed his first film in 1980, after years of assisting and writing for other filmmakers. Three years later, he made the autobiographical The Boys from Fengkuei, which he considers to be the real beginning of his work as an artist in cinema. From there, he went on to create several of the defining works of the Taiwanese New Wave, one of the greatest moments in the cinema of the last decades, and then to make one astonishing film after another. With every new movie from The Puppetmaster (NYFF 1993) on, Hou redefined the very idea of what a movie was, for himself and for the rest of us. Immersive, grounded in history and change but tuned to the smallest nuances of gesture, light, color, and atmosphere, every individual Hou film arrives as a shock. And his new film The Assassin, his first in eight years, is no exception: audiences in Cannes were left open-mouthed. It’s been a long time since Hou has been in New York, and we’re very pleased that this true master accepted our invitation to discuss some of the movies that have marked him in his life as a filmmaker.
Saturday, October 10, 3:30pm

Directors Dialogues

Jia Zhangke

EN-TIFF-JIAZHANGKE TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 12 - Chinese director Jia Zhangke poses on the Ryerson campus. Zhangke whose film about the brutality of daily life in China, A Touch of Sin, won the screenplay award at Cannes this year September 12, 2013. Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star

If, hundreds of years from now, anyone wanted to know what it was like to be alive at this moment—what life felt like and what changes were occurring and the ways in which they affected us as individuals—they could get the whole picture from watching the films of Jia Zhangke. From the moment he burst on the scene with Xiao Wu in the late ’90s, this artist has given us a river of films, made with a team of regular collaborators (including his wife and principal actress Zhao Tao and his cinematographer Yu Lik-wai), each film as pungently human but wide in scope as a Breugel canvas. The world itself is a character in Jia’s films, urging the characters on and informing the speed of life. NYFF has shown many of his movies over the years, from Platform in 2000 on, and are proud to have him here with his newest movie, Mountains May Depart, and  very happy that he’s agreed to join the series for a talk about his extraordinary body of work.
Tuesday, September 29, 6:00pm

Michael Moore

“Democracy is not a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event,” said Michael Moore at a 2009 press conference. “If we don’t participate in it, it ceases to be a democracy.” Moore has been an active participant since his childhood in Flint, Michigan, where he was raised in a union family—his uncle was actually a UAW founder and a participant in the great General Motors sit-down strike of 1936. In 1989, Moore’s participation took the form of a film called Roger & Me (NYFF 1989), a spirited, funny, white-hot attack on GM, which had by then moved most of their jobs out of the country and devastated the once-thriving region, a scenario that was repeated many times throughout the country. In the years since, Moore has been launching brilliantly planned comic attacks on the NRA and the gun industry (Bowling for Columbine), the American response to 9/11 (Fahrenheit 9/11), the health-care industry (Sicko), capitalism itself (Capitalism: A Love Story), and, with his new film Where To Invade Next, the divide between America’s lofty self-image and the less impressive reality.
Sunday, October 4, 3:00pm

Todd Haynes


A genuinely independent filmmaker, Todd Haynes has an impressive body of work that is grounded in the pressures of conformity, bearing down on individuals and sometimes resulting in illness (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Safe) or other forms of entrapment (Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce), sometimes in transcendence (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There). With Carol, his remarkable new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Haynes has given us a delicately nuanced work about the slowly evolving romance between two women in 1950s America, and found a reverberant emotionalism with his actors (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) and his cinematographer (the great Ed Lachman) that is a wonder to behold.
Saturday, October 10, 12:00pm

MoviefiedNYC Review: The Curious Case of Birdman

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Let me make something perfectly clear: Birdman is totally worth seeing. It is bizarre, beautiful, and mind-blowing. It is without a doubt a fantastic film, striking a strange balance between the supernatural and the mundane. Michael Keaton is in the role he was born to play as a washed up actor famous for playing a superhero, and Ed Norton plays an art-house terrorist hell bent on destroying his sense of self-worth–both are absolutely stellar. However, and it’s a big however, something is wrong in watching the film. It hits all the right spots, yet doesn’t leave you breathless like you know it should. Right from the pretentious credit sequence, you notice that something’s up.

I saw Ed Norton speak about Birdman the day before I was due to see it at New York Film Festival with its cast, and he said “film schools will be talking about and dissecting this film for years to come”, and he is absolutely right. The entire film is one take, or rather, it is the illusion of one take. Without a single cut the film covers the rehearsal period and opening night of the production, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that Keaton’s character is attempting to put on. If you look very closely, you can perhaps see where the camera lines up between each scene, but even so the film is largely seamless. You have to give him props for trying something so original and never-before-seen in one hundred years of cinematic history. The score is equally unrelenting: a non-stop, eccentric, jazzy drum beat, which maximizes the film’s almost clausterphobic backstage setting, creating an immersive and slightly stressful tone—which definitely works

Despite the psychological depth in the unconventional cinematic techniques of the film, the plot itself is chronological and completely comprehendible. You might let out a “huh?!”or a “what!” every now and then but never a “why am I here?”. The protagonist’s descent into madness runs through the DNA of the film–in every transition, angle, and close-up. And in here lies the essence of the movie: that with fame and success comes a series of breakdowns and crippling insecurities that shatter the Hollywood image we have come to love. It shows us a world beyond the movies and the cameras and the lights—or rather behind the curtain—where the actors are ripped from their pedestals and held to public ridicule. Inevitably it all falls apart, and they are stuck with the same problems we all have. Not to sound like a frat-boy, but the word ‘meta’ springs to mind.

Yet there is something that still doesn’t quite add up for Birdman. While it has everything a moviegoer like myself could wish for–spellbinding performances, intense, psychological filmmaking, innovative story–it still doesn’t quite leave you speechless. Perhaps it’s the elements of realism in the film, where the problems of marital breakdown, drug addiction, terror of being considered obsolete are all lain out with absolute honesty that it is sometimes hard to watch. [SPOILER ALERT] Or maybe it is the ending. With so much building to the final performance, it seems a shame when the director breaks his pattern and has his first cut in the film. This is where the problem lies: we are shown a world so close to ours, and therefore so capable of touching us in our very souls that once it is suddenly all mended and Keaton can literally fly away in the end we are left deflated and unsatisfied. This is not what we signed up for–not what we connected to for an hour and a half. It’s too easy, and too Hollywood. So while Iñárritu might have changed the game, he certainly leaves the player unchanged.

–Lottie Abrahams


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