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NYFF ’14: Michael Keaton’s Birdman

October 12, 2014

birdman

I’ve spotted Michael Moore shambling through the crowd twice during this year’s New York Film Festival, and the sight made me sad. Not only because he seems like he’s having difficulty walking—in both cases, he was accompanied by younger, more physically fit females—but because his presence reminded me of what the New York Film Festival used to be. Twenty-five years ago, soon after I first moved to the NYC area, I saw the NYFF premiere of Moore’s Roger & Me, which marked the emergence of a major new American filmmaker. In the years since, the Festival has turned into yet another arm of the studios’ marketing divisions, hoping to position their fall releases for Oscar consideration. (Consider: Last year’s “Centerpiece” was Ben Stiller’s middlebrow The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and this year’s Opening Night selection was the potboiler Gone Girl, hardly groundbreaking art films.)

So I was a bit skeptical going into this year’s Closing Night feature, Birdman. Like Gone Girl, it’s scheduled to hit theaters within days of its NYFF “premiere” (in fact, it’s already shown at other festivals), and the Oscar-buzz machine has already gone into overdrive with predictions that Michael Keaton will be up for Best Actor. As the film began, with an unbroken-take visual gimmick done before by Hitchcock in Rope and, on a smaller scale, Welles in Touch of Evil and Scorsese in GoodFellas, I feared for the worst: a showy stunt that keeps elbowing you in the ribs with its cleverness.

Once I settled into the film’s jazzy, insistent rhythm (powered along by Antonio Sanchez’s aggressively effective drum score), I found it to be a thrillingly audacious satire of celebrity culture. Keaton’s self-referential tour de force—he plays a former big-screen superhero who’s trying to remain relevant by staging a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway—should come as no surprise to fans who’ve felt he was capable of award-caliber work since his pre-Batman ’80s triumphs in Night Shift and Clean and Sober. (In one of the film’s many wicked in-jokes, the evil Birdman voice inside Keaton’s head sounds an awfully lot like Christian Bale’s gravelly Dark Knight.)

But Keaton’s isn’t the film’s only superheroic performance. Edward Norton (in a merciless portrayal of Keaton’s narcissistic costar), Zach Galifianakis (as a deeply shallow showbiz agent), Emma Stone (as Keaton’s raw, recovering-addict daughter), Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough (as prototypically insecure actresses) and Amy Ryan (as Keaton’s sardonic ex) deserve supporting-category consideration.

Watts has worked with cowriter-director Alejandro González Iñárritu before, in his previous creative high-water mark 21 Grams, but Birdman marks an invigorating departure from his heavy earlier dramas like Babel and Biutiful. This daringly surreal fairy tale—along with other standouts Time Out of Mind and Inherent Vice—has restored my faith not only in the New York Film Festival, but in the possibility of films to take flight into the artistic stratosphere.

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3 Comments
  1. I am dying to see Birdman. I’ve loved the dorector’s work going all the way back to Amores Perros, so this will be a treat for me. Glad to hear it doesn’t disappoint …

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