Telluride Dispatch 2: Birdman, Mommy, and other weekend screenings/events...


The 41st Telluride Film Festival has wrapped up the weekend screenings and festivities, and there seems to be one movie in everyone's collective consciousness; Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.) Following its Venice premiere earlier this week, Birdman screened for a lucky crowd in the packed Werner Herzog theater Saturday night. In addition to journalists and critics, festival goers and patrons, there were many recognizable industry names as well as stars in attendance. I spotted the Life Itself director Steve James, Rosewater star Gael Garcia Bernal, and Wild's Laura Dern among others. It is a strange privilege and responsibility to be among the first to view a movie. When all eyes are on Twitter for the word to drop after a premiere, anything one decides to say inevitably becomes part of an early narrative. And that narrative right now points that Birdman is a masterpiece (just search "Birdman" and "Masterpiece" on Twitter to see what I mean.) And I am fully with that consensus.

Iñárritu's work, like the jazz drums that accompany the film in almost its entirety, is rapturous, unruly and profoundly human. Remember Michael Keaton, who was once the star of a superhero franchise called Batman before he somewhat faded from the majors ranks? Here, he portrays a washed-up actor who was once a Hollywood star in a superhero franchise called Birdman, and leads a terrific ensemble of actors including Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Lindsay Duncan (none of whom were in attendance at the screening yesterday night). Keaton (along with the rest of the cast) delivers a wondrous performance, earning every bit of his highly anticipated and desired comeback. His character, Riggan Thomson, desperately struggles to find relevance in the art world once again, and produces/directs and stars in a Broadway play in his conquest of a comeback. The film is set during the show's preview period through its opening night and is shot in a seemingly single take, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock's The Rope at once. (In Contention's Kris Tapley noted on Twitter that he counted 12 or 13 shots, one of which was about 40 minutes long.) During the post-screening Q&A, Iñárritu said: "I sent my actors a photograph of Philippe Petit crossing the wire between the Twin Towers and told them 'This is the movie we're making.'"

One might wonder whether the "single take" ambition is more a gimmick than a necessity. Well, may I dare suggest the uninterrupted slice of life that Iñárritu puts on screen with Birdman is precisely why the film is packed with an almost explosive level of urgency. So much is at stake with Riggan's life. And so much is at stake with a long single take, which has to continue, uninterrupted, like life itself. Thus, Iñárritu's vision is not just a senseless ambition. It is a fully realized execution (with Emmanuel Lubezki's masterful cinematography) that enables Birdman to fly contemporary cinema to new heights. This is too great a movie to measure solely by its awards prospects, yet it's safe to say that Michael Keaton will be the actor to beat this year, and the film itself will score multiple nominations in several of the major categories.

Following the Birdman screening Saturday night, Fox Searchlight put on a big, invite-only party at The Sheridan and in attendance were several of Searchlight's talent including Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée and of course, Iñárritu. With some luck, I managed to briefly chat with Witherspoon and Vallée along with my friend, the inimitable Sasha Stone of Awards Daily. Witherspoon noted (as she's often asked) she would like to perhaps try a long hike one day, having gotten inspiration from her character Cheryl Strayed (who was also at the party.) Vallée said one of the aspects of the story that drew him to the project was the relationship between the mother and daughter. "At one point, Cheryl says 'My mother is the love of my life,'' he reminded us. "I mean, who says that? I thought that was really beautiful and I wanted to tell this story" he added. As the night went on, Fox's party became the social hub in town when crowds from the annual Sony Classics dinner migrated over to the Sheridan. Xavier Dolan, Channing Tatum, Annapurna's Megan Ellison, Gael Garcia Bernal mingled with invitees in a laid back environment that is the signature Telluride vibe.

Of course, Birdman is not the only movie I caught during a very busy weekend. The precocious French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's Mommy, which tells the story of a single mother raising a problematic teen in agony until a new neighbor moves in, was a highlight with top-notch performances (especially from Laurence Anyways' Suzanne Clément) and, as expected, a superb soundtrack. It seems like Dolan is continuously experimenting with something new. With Mommy, he parallels his story's mood to the aspect ratio on screen (big portion of the film is set in a square 1:1 aspect ratio.) Once you see the film, it will be obvious why he chooses to switch back and forth (I don't want to give away spoilers). To be perfectly honest, it took some getting used to for me, but somehow, Dolan pulls it off and makes his stylistic choice work to the film's advantage.

Among the other films I caught over the weekend (which includes Jon Stewart's well-intended but problematic Rosewater and Nick Broomfield's eye-opening Tales of the Grim Sleeper), Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary and Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost are especially noteworthy. Despite a widely negative reaction from critics, I found Barthes' adaptation of Flaubert's classic to be an immensely satisfying one (this is actually the first time a woman has adapted this story for screen), with a persuasive performance from Mia Wasikowska that bursts with a fiendish aura as well as lush cinematography with a painterly eye.

Escobar: Paradise Lost, which is one of this year's sneak previews (also in the Toronto line up, but in its second week, thus not breaking any "rules"), is a competently pulled off, intense crime drama set in Colombia in the early 90s. Telling the story of a fictional young Canadian who marries into Pablo Escobar's family, the film maintains an impressive pace throughout and dials the tension considerably in its final 20 minutes. The boyish Josh Hutcherson is an interesting, if not entirely convincing, casting choice here. But he gives it his all and holds his own alongside a stellar Benicio Del Toro in the role of the drug lord Escobar.

I will probably manage to fit in one more screening before I call it a weekend today (eyeing Xavier Beauvois' The Price of Fame), and spend the day tomorrow catching up with highlights I didn't get around to watching. And who knows, maybe I'll score one final #OnlyInTelluride moment, that could top my Werner Herzog encounter today, which involved watching him order a custom hot dog from the town's signature stand.