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The most coveted ticket at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival, so far, was easily one to Saturday night’s North American premiere of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s Birdman. The genre-defying pic arrived at the Werner Herzog Theatre after opening the Venice Film Festival days earlier — just like last year’s Gravity, from Inarritu’s Mexican compatriot Alfonso Cuaron — and the rave reviews that it received overseas (several labeled it a “masterpiece”) created a clamor to see it stateside. In the end, 650 lucky people got in, while hundreds more were turned away.
When the end-credits rolled, though, applause was warm but not massive, and debates between pundits immediately began about what, exactly, they had just seen. Some saw a profound critique about the decline of society’s interest in art and artists and concurrently growing obsession with celebrities and superheroes. Others felt the film was merely a visually beautiful pastiche of a lot of ideas and episodes without a discernable message or point. I suspect that this debate will continue throughout the Oscar season.
Subtitled …or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, the film by Inarritu — who has previously attended Telluride with his films Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010), plus several other times just for pleasure — does do one thing that everyone can agree about: It gives former A-lister Michael Keaton his best role in years. Moreover, the role has a built-in awards season narrative that the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, has already sold once before with The Wrestler‘s Mickey Rourke: The actor is, in a lot of ways ways, portraying himself and his own personal and professional failings in the film, which certainly takes a fair degree of courage that will evoke admiration on the part of the acting branch of the Academy and probably lead to a best actor Oscar nomination.
The soon-to-be-63-year-old, who became world-famous through Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) before largely dropping off the map in recent years, plays Riggan Thompson, an actor who, around that same time period, starred as the title character in a blockbuster comic book franchise called Birdman. Birdman made Thompson a rich and famous movie star, but it also caused him to have an inflated sense of ego that led to the break-up of his marriage, a strained relationship with his child and the loss of any sense — certainly in the minds of others, and perhaps in his own mind, too — that he might actually be a creative artist. Now, as a balding and out-of-shape sexagenarian with money troubles and limited cinematic prospects (as well as the voice of Birdman constantly in his head), Thompson has decided to invest his own resources and energy in mounting a serious Broadway play. But will anyone take him seriously, or will it turn into a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-like debacle that will bury his career once and for all?
Keaton’s comeback is only one of several must-see elements of this film. Two others include the excellent supporting performances of its entire large ensemble, but especially Edward Norton (where has he been?!) as Thompson’s prick of a co-star and Emma Stone (who has been everywhere and was outstanding in this summer’s Magic in the Moonlight) as Thompson’s brooding daughter.
Also, this is yet another film that features remarkable work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (the winner of an Oscar earlier this year for his work on Gravity), who, in partnership with editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, creates the impression that it was shot in one continuous and constantly moving shot. (Even though it wasn’t, very long stretches of it were, and the effect is quite remarkable.)
And, as for Inarritu, this is unlike anything that he has ever done before — and it certainly reaffirms that he is one of the most inventive and interesting filmmakers working today. Birdman features a number of wondrous and/or hilarious scenes and sequences that I won’t soon forget. (A particular favorite of mine involves an awkward walk through Times Square.) And if you like movies that offer behind-the-scenes stories about the movies (i.e. The Player) or backstage accounts of life on the stage (i.e. All About Eve), you’ll get a kick out of a lot of the references in this film. (Having just spent months of my life crisscrossing Broadway while covering the Tonys, I certainly did.) But that’s not to say that it won’t leave you a bit frustrated and trying to figure out what it’s really trying to say. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not.
You can form your own conclusions after it goes into limited release on Oct. 17.
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