*Closing Night Film*
Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a wash-up actor who was once a huge star two decades ago when he played the lead in the superhero film "Birdman." He gets a chance to experience a resurgence of his career by writing, directing and starring in the Broadway play adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" which is will soon have its opening night. Egos clash between him and his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while his daughter/assistant, Sam (Emma Roberts), fresh out of rehab, has more than a few harsh words for him. To top it all off, Riggan communicates with his alter-ego, Birdman, his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) admits to him that she's pregnant, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), his ex-wife, re-emerges, and there's some tension between Shiner and co-star Leslie (Naomi Watts). Shiner happens to also flirt with Riggan's daughter concurrently. Besides Sam, the main voice of wisdom and reason amidst all of the chaos in Riggan's life is his lawyer/friend, Jake (Zach Galifianakis).
By far the strongest elements of Birdman, the Closing Night film at the festival, are its strong performances and the way that the talented actors play off of each other. Michael Keaton gives one of the best performances of his career as does Edward Norton, but the real stand-out here is Emma Stone who anchors the film with pure, unadulturated tenderness and really knocks it out of the ballpark despite that she's in a supporting role. The way that she convincingly displays sadness, anger and frustration when she confronts Riggan is one of the few emotional highlights of the film. If her character were there protagonist instead of Riggan, Birdman would have been much more emotionally engrossing. Hopefully she'll be recognized come Oscar time. Another great "performance" (so-to-speak) is that of the camera which becomes a character of it own as it captures the intensity of the days leading up to play's opening night. You truly feel like you're right there witnessing all of that chaos.
The screenplay by writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo feels uneven, but it could have turned into more of a convoluted mess given that it combines the very different genres of dark comedy, drama, satire and magical realism. It pokes fun of actors, Hollywood and Broadway while at the same time it attempting to balance that with more serious moments, i.e. during Sam's confrontation with Riggan and the brief interactions between him and his ex-wife. Could Birdman have been more biting, surprising and subtle? Yes. Much of the film hits you over the head, i.e. the inclusion of Riggan's alter-ego or Riggan's confrontation with a vicious theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) at a bar. The critic's monologue, while honest and compelling, goes on for too long and explains too much when less could have been more. Even the jazzy drum musical score, gets a bit repetitive eventually. Jabs at pop culture, i.e Justin Bieber, come across as rather facile, obvious and cheap. The same can be said for an initially comical scene that lasts too long where Riggan locks himself out of the theater with just boxer shorts on. Birdman wants to be both poignant/realistic and darkly comical/satirical concurrently, but those two roads don't meet smoothly nor do they go far enough thereby preventing Birdman from even coming close to being a masterpiece. The ending, though, which won't be revealed here, does somewhat compensate by briefly allowing for some ambiguity and, most importantly, room for interpretation.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Upon traveling with her assistant, Val
(Kristen Stewart), to accept an award on behalf of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, actress Maria
Enders (Juliette Binoche) learns that he has just died and now must cope with not only his death,
but also the memories from her past the resurface. He was the playwright who penned "Maloja Snake",
a play that jump-started Maria's career when she was 20-year-old. Now in her 40's amd going through
a divorce, she's approached by a film director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to star as an
older character in the film adaptation of that very same play. Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) has
been cast to play her younger co-star.
Writer/director Olivier Assayas tackles many issues in Clouds of Sils Maria regarding to the
emotional struggles that actors go through, but none of it comes across as preachy or contrived. The
crux of the movie is the relationship between Maria and Val both of whom are complex, strong and
interesting female characters. The way their relationship evolves feels believable as does their
character arc. That believability is a testament to the wise, honest and tender screenplay as well
as to the raw, well-nuanced and convincingly moving performances by both Juliette Binoche and
It's refreshing to see Stewart in a role that allows her to display a wide range of
emotions, so kudos to casting directors Antoinette Boulat and Anja Dihrberg for choosing her. She
has just as much charisma and "presence" as Binoche does, and it's fascinating to see them playing
off of one another. Moretz is quite funny and amusing in her role as Jo-Ann Ellis. Enriching the
film even further, the symbolism, i.e. the haunting images of the titular clouds, provide some thought-provoking room for interpretation. At a running time of 124 minutes, Clouds of Sils Maria is sophisticated, profound and well-acted drama about actors that's far better than the overrated, pretentious and sophomoric Oscar-winner Birdman.
Miles Teller delivers the best performance of
his career as Andrew Neyman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music who aspires to become a
professional jazz drummer. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at the school, conducts
the jazz band at the school and picks him as a new member of the band. He leads Neyman through
physically and emotionally strenuous experiences as he pushes him to his limits in his many attempts
to acheive perfection. Meanwhile, Andrew has to deal with his not-quite-supportive father (Paul
Reiser) and the challenge of balancing his fervent passion for jazz drumming with his blossoming romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist).
Writer/director Damien Chazelle might change the way you look at drumming or at relationships between students and teachers for that matter. Andrew and Terence have plenty of talent, but, just like any complex human being, they're infallible. Terence instructs Andrew and other members of the band much like a drill sergeant would push a soldier. He's domineering, emotionally abusive and draconian. It's equally moving, fascinating and thrilling to observe how the dynamics between he and Andrew evolve over time. Moreover, the camera work during the drumming scenes, particularly the final scene, captures the intensity and helps it to emerge on a palpable level. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of awe and suspense throughout those scenes.
Fortunately, Chazelle knows that the meat of the story lies in Andrew's stress-inducing journey as a jazz drummer, so the subplots involving Andrew's dad and Andrew's girlfriend aren't in the forefront or distracting, and it's clear how they affect and shape Andrew on an emotional level. It's also refreshing that Terence doesn't become a caricature or a villain/monster per se because there's more to him than meets the eye as you eventually learn about events from his past that haunt him. Much of the film rings true and feels organic except for one minor, unexpected scene toward the end that lacks plausibility given the consequences which seem too "Hollywood". Still, despite that minor flaw, Whiplash remains an emotionally-charged, captivating triumph brimming with powerhouse performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deserve an Oscar nomination. Bravo to casting director Terri Taylor for selecting them. You've never seen them in roles like this before, and they truly hit it out of the ballpark while helping to elevate the film into greatness.
The doc Citizenfour is among the most frightening and important films of the year. Director Laura Poitras travels to Hong Kong to meet whistleblower Edward Snowden who's known leaked many classified NSA documents including clear-cut evidence that the U.S. government has been spying on its citizens as well as individuals abroad, and has a "Watch List" of U.S. citizens. The corruption and subsequent cover-up goes all the way up to The White House, so it's no surprise that the U.S. government wants Snowden to be arrested. The U.S. government is essentially like a bully that has finally finally been exposed. Shame on the government for being part of corruption and covering it up! One can only wonder what other corruptions it's trying to hide. Poitras wisely steps back and lets Snowden do the talking without judging him. Regardless of whether you think that Snowden is a traitor, patriot or both, Citizenfour humanizes him in a way that brings out his charisma, intelligence, honest and warmth. His observations about the status quo of America, although harsh, are very apt, especially when he says that the relationship between citizens and government isn't the "Electorate-Elected" but rather "Ruled and Rulers." Implicit in that is that we're living in a police state much like Germany was in the early 1930s. Yes, it could be worse, but it could be a lot better. It's very easy to lose democracy, but to gain democracy it takes whistleblowers like Snowden. Every U.S. government official should undergo mandatory mental health evaluations before continuing to run this country to the ground with their corruption. Chances are that many if not all of them probably suffer from various degrees of Narcissistic Personality Disorder which explains why they can't handle criticism when their ego has burst and their lying has been exposed thanks to Snowden, a modern-day Daniel Ellsberg. Part of what makes this doc so effective, though, is that while it's filled with many enraging facts, it's all presented rather calmly without trying to tell you how to feel. We should be thankful that Snowden contacted Poitras to meet up with her and not with the so-called "journalist" Michael Moore who's always too angry and heavy-handed in his approach to sensitive topics. In other words, Poitras is a true journalist. For the sake of democracy, every American should watch this documentary, especially before Hollywood waters down Snowden's story by turning into a dumbed-down biopic at some point. It would make for a very interesting double feature with The Lives of Others. RADiUS-TWC opens Citizenfour at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on October 24th, 2014.
Gone Girl, the Opening Night film, is a crime thriller about a seemingly happily married man, Nick (Ben Affleck), whose wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), disappears all-of-a-sudden after a fight with him, and he gets suspected of murdering her. The plot starts out very intriguing and suspenseful, but soon becomes preposterous and uneven with twist after twist that don't feel organic. The screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel, seems as though it were merely rushing to get from Point A to Point B. Everything aesthetic from the sound design to the cinematography looks and sounds top-notch, especially during a scene where Amy looks like a spider devouring her prey. You can really sense that this is a David Fincher film. It's quite unfortunate that Gone Girl completely falls apart when it comes to suspense and intrigue by the third act because Fincher's last crime thriller, Zodiac much more smart and gripping. 20th Century Fox opens Gone Girl nationwide on October 3rd, 2014. In
Inherent Vice, the Centerpiece film , private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello's (Joaquin Phoenix) starts investigating after his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), shows up to tell him that she's worried that the wife of her married boyfriend is trying to send him to a mental hospital so that they could inherit his great fortune. He often crosses paths with Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a police officer. The screenplay by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pinchon, is messy, convoluted, confusing and more headache-inducing than exciting or riveting. Even the use of a narrator doesn't help much, although the set designs, lighting and use of color do elevate the film a smidgen. To be fair, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with being confused as long as it doesn't happen too often. Much like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Inherent Vice gets so lost within its labyrinthian plot and trying to outsmart you every step of the way that it becomes exhausting by the time the end credits roll. For a much more effective and entertaining adaptation of a Pinchon novel, see The Long Goodbye starring Elliot Gould. Warner Bros. Pictures opens Inherent Vice at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on December 12th, 2014 before expanding wide on January 9th, 2015.
In Eden, Paul (Félix de Givry) gives up his studies to become a DJ. Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve depicts 20 years of Paul's life as he forms a DJ collective called Cheers. Cue lots of drugs, music and sex. The screenplay by Hansen-Løve, based on her brother's life, gets repetitive very fast and begins to drag. Better editing would have helped to minimize redundancy. The music sounds good, and the performances are decent, but too much of the film drags and feels dull. You're better off just buying the soundtrack instead of wathing the film. Broad Green Pictures opens Eden on June 19th, 2015 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. For a much more engrossing and captivating drama with plenty of sex, there's The Blue Room, directed and co-written by Mathieu Amalric who stars as Julien, a married man having a steamy affair with Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), a married woman. Esther's husbands gets killed either by murder or accidentally. Did Julien murder him? Given his affair with Esther, he would certainly have a motive. Part courtroom trial, part erotic bedroom drama, The Blue Room is quite suspenseful and surprising. Almaric moves the plot in achronological order which might make it confusing at first, but it makes more sense as it progresses. Both he and Cléau give very raw performances as they bare themselves emotionally as well as physically. Sundance Selects opens The Blue Room at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on October 3rd, 2014. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, based on a true story, follows Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a wrestler, who agrees to be trained by John du Pont (Steve Carell), a multi-millionaire. He moves into Foxcatcher Ranch, leaving his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), behind. Gradually, du Pont leads Mark on a downward spiral. The dynamics of their complex relationship makes the film quite fascinating and provocative. Unfortunately, though, a sluggish pace and a rushed third act leave a lot to be desired and make it hard to be fully captivated from start to finish. Carell gives the best performance of his career, though, and Channing Tatum shows some range for a change, but that's not enough to turn the film into a must-see. Sony Pictures Classics opens Foxcatcher in select theaters on November 14th, 2014. NYFF has three more films with superb performances: Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Jack O'Connell in '71" and Timothy Spall in Mr.Turner. The weaker film of that bunch is Two Days, One Night, by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, a.k.a. "The Dardnenne Brother." The thin plot focuses on the struggles of Sandra (Marion Cotillard) to convince her co-workers at a factory to give up their bonuses so that the company wouldn't have to let her go. The vast marojity of the film shows her going door to door begging them to give up their bonuses. Some agree to do it immediately, others hesitate and then do it, while others refuse to. Two Days, One Night probably would have worked better as a short or with a meatier story because it gets tedious and overstays its welcome. Cotillard, though, breathes life into her character and deserves an Oscar nomination for such an emotionally charged performance. IFC Films oppens Two Days, One Night at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema on December 24th, 2014. '71, directed by Yann Demange, is set in Belfast, Ireland when the British army was sent in to keep the peace as a violent group called the Troubles caused unrest. Jack O'Connell gives a bravura performance as Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets injured during the clashes with the Troubles. He wanders the streets of Belfast unarmed and not sure of who's his friend or who's his foe. Taut and intelligent, '71 is an exemplar of a lean film that succeeds on an emotional level while gripping you from start to finish. Part of it feels like an edge-of-your-seat blockbuster war film while the other half feels like a tender, atmospheric arthouse film, so it should be able to entertain both audiences. It could use subtitles at times, though, because the Irish accents are quite thick. Roadside Attractions opens it on February 27th, 2015 at Angelika Film Center and AMC/Loews Lincoln Square. In Mr.Turner, Timothy Spall gives a powerful performance as he disappears emotinally and physically into his role as British painter painter J.M.W. Turner. Writer/director Mike Leigh depicts the last 25 years of Mr. Turner's life. He has a sexually-charged affair with his maid, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and romances his landlady, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom he marries after she becomes a widow. Meanwhile, he leaves behind his ex-mistress, Danby (Ruth Sheen), with whom he had fathered two illegitimate daughters, Evelina (Sandy Foster) and Georgiana (Amy Dawson). Just as expected, Leigh's screenplay brims with humanism and wit while giving his talented actors plenty to chew on. On top of that, the cinematography looks exquisite as does the costume, lighting and set designs, so be sure to expect Mr. Turner to get nominated for many awards for its art direction. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film on Dec. 19th at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.