Venice Film Festival: Keaton soars in Birdman - Film - The Scotsman

FILLING the opening night slot of a film festival is a delicate business. Get it right, like Berlin with The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the press will love you.
Get it wrong – think Cannes and Grace of Monaco – and you could be wiping egg off your face for days. One of the questions coming to the 71st Venice Film Festival, then, was where Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) would land.
The first comedy from Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – whose feature output thus far has comprised the grim-and-gritty laugh-free dramas Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful – the film arrived on the back of surreal online trailers that had largely produced a mixture of bafflement, curiosity and anticipation. In Venice, on the Lido, posters showing a painterly image of Michael Keaton’s face, with a crouching Birdman figure on his head, merely added another layer of bizarreness.
The film eventually screened to warm applause at the first of two pre-gala press screenings on Wednesday morning. Arguably less strange than the trailers, Birdman (****) showcases a layered performance by Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a former comic-book movie star trying to gain crediblity and self respect by penning, starring in and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About. He cannot escape his former alter ego, however, which constantly berates him as a gravelly voice in his head, revealing his self-doubt and insecurities.
Swirling around Keaton is a talented ensemble, including Edward Norton as a method actor for whom life on stage is more real than real-life, Naomi Watts as an actress who has finally achieved her dream of appearing on Broadway, and Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter, fresh out of rehab. Almost everyone needs the play to succeed, but the trouble-hit previews suggest failure looks more likely.
Along the way, Inarritu explores the conflict between art and commerce, the relationship between artists and critics, and between art and criticism; the relationship between actors and their roles, between film-makers and their audience, to name a few. A thick vein of cynicism runs through the film, which may not be to all tastes.
As a barbed commentary on the state of contemporary culture and the impact of social media, the film is stingingly of-the-moment. It berates audiences for favouring sensation and spectacle over ideas, and tries to give the viewer both, reflecting the Riggan-Birdman duality. There is a degree of finger-wagging that can become too much at times.
But although flawed, Birdman is ambitious, elegantly directed, quirky, and unlike anything else in today’s multiplexes – and you don’t often get to say that about a film.
New York also features in Before I Disappear (***), writer-director Shawn Christensen’s stylish expansion of his 2013 Oscar-winning short, Curfew. Set mainly at night, the handsomely-mounted production stars Christensen as Richie, a chain-smoking, heartbroken, debt-ridden loser, who is interrupted while attempting suicide by a call from his estranged sister, who desperately needs him to look after her 11-year-old daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours. Before long, he finds himself bouncing from one seedy location to another, with his precocious, over-achieving niece – who’d like to be anywhere but with him – in tow. That their initial frostiness will thaw is a given. But while the final destination is predictable, Christensen’s assured control of the film’s surprising tonal shifts, offbeat sense of humour, and effective use of music, including Bowie’s Five Years and The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, make the journey worth taking. Ptacek is a real find. Expect to see much more of her.
From this side of the Atlantic, Guy Myhill also makes a noteworthy debut with The Goob (***), an immersive drama about a 16-year-old boy’s first love and troubled relationship with his mother’s stock-car racer lover (Sean Harris), during a hot summer in rural Norfolk.
Myhill creates a strong sense of place, observing his characters and their community with the eye of an anthropologist, while newcomer Liam Walpole is quietly engaging as the eponymous teen. Harris’s sleazy, rutting alpha, who treats Goob’s mother’s roadside cafe and surrounding beet fields as his personal fiefdom, and the women who work there as his playthings, is hard to forget. And difficult to like.
It’s not growing pains that the characters in the wonderful The Farewell Party (****) are struggling with, but the pain of old age. Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit’s film explores the ethical minefield of euthanasia when an amateur inventor, Yehezkel, living in a Jerusalem retirement home, creates a machine – amusingly built around a Sabbath timer – to allow a sick friend to painlessly take his own life. Soon, others find out about the device, forcing Yehezkel to decide whether or not to extend his illegal services.
This sounds grim. But despite dealing with such gloomy topics as death, dementia, the debilitating effects of old age, The Farewell Party unfolds with warmth, wit, whimsy and irreverence, without ever understating the seriousness of its themes. It is a difficult balancing act which this heart-warming gem pulls off perfectly.

Knockout punches absent at Venice Film festival - Film - The Scotsman

Al Pacino in The Humbling

Comedy captured the Golden Lion, but really big hits were missing, says Stephen Applebaum
The 71st Venice Film festival began on an avian note with Birdman and ended with the event’s top prize, the Golden Lion, going to Roy Andersson’s absurdist comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence. In between, there was often more fizzle than sizzle, in a selection of films that failed to deliver a knockout blow.
Off screen, things were not much better. Normally, the streets around the Palazzo del Casino on Venice’s Lido heave with people day and night at festival time, but this year felt relatively underpopulated. Screenings, too, seemed more empty than usual.
There were stars, of course. But while some flew in just for a press conference or red carpet appearance, the festival’s biggest name, Al Pacino, was more than happy to stretch out meetings with the press to a schedule-shattering degree, as he warmly reflected on his life and work. He was a dream for journalists but a nightmare for publicists, who had to stand by impotently as their careful planning fell apart.
Pacino had much to be happy about. After the indignity (he doesn’t see it that way, naturally) of appearing in Adam Sandler’s dismal Jack & Jill, the 74-year-old legend was on the Lido with two projects far worthier of the star of some of modern American cinema’s most iconic films.
First up was Barry Levinson’s loose-and-woozy, reality-skewing adaptation of Philip Roth’s recent novel, The Humbling (* * *). Pacino is perfectly cast as Simon Axler, an actor struggling with his craft, what may be incipient dementia, a young lover (Greta Gerwig) and unwanted visitors. The actor kisses the masks of tragedy and comedy at the top of the film, tipping us off about where he will be taking us in one of his rangiest outings for some time.
He was also on fine form in David Gordon Green’s offbeat character study, Manglehorn (* * *), playing a grouchy locksmith who clings to the memory of an old flame while keeping everyone except his cat at arms length. He commits fully to the role of an old curmudgeon who has locked his heart (and any chance of joy) away for so long that he doesn’t realise he holds the key to release it, with a dour, low-key performance that’s sprinkled with flashes of brilliance.
Another veteran, Peter Bogdanovich, made a lively return with the frothy screwball farce, She’s Funny That Way (* * *). Owen Wilson plays a Broadway director whose habit of giving call girls large sums of money to change their lives comes back to haunt him when one of them (a delightful Imogen Poots) auditions for his latest play. Think Woody Allen minus the angst, with lashings of Ernst Lubitsch and others thrown self-consciously into the mix. Fun for fun’s sake.
Many thought that Joshua Oppenheimer was robbed when his harrowing documentary The Act of Killing was beaten to this year’s best documentary Oscar by 20 Feet from Stardom. He may get a second chance with its companion piece, The Look of Silence (* * * * *)– winner of five awards in Venice – which returns to the subject of genocide in 1960s Indonesia. Whereas The Act of Killing focused on the perpetrators, this time a man whose brother was brutally murdered is given an opportunity to confront people with different degrees of involvement in the killings. Formally, The Look of Silence is more conventional than its predecessor. However, it is an angrier, more combative film, with just as much power to horrify and appal.
Abel Ferrara followed Welcome to New York, his thinly veiled roman a clef about former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, with another portrait of a controversial figure, Pasolini (* *). Willem Dafoe brings warmth and intelligence to his portrayal of the murdered iconoclast Pier Paulo Pasolini, during the last day of the film-maker’s life. However, his American accent, perhaps deliberately, makes him appear alien among the Italian cast. Meanwhile, Ferrara pitches his opaque film so specifically at viewers familiar with Pasolini that it’s virtually impenetrable for anyone else.
At the other end of the spectrum, Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex (* * *) was a refreshing splash of silliness. Screened to wild applause, the gleefully trashy zombie rom-com finds Anton Yelchin’s horror geek caught between the living and the dead when his clingy ex (Twilight’s Ashley Greene) returns from the grave, just as he is embarking on a new relationship with a like-minded ice-cream seller (True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario). Dante never lets good taste get in the way of a good rotting flesh or embalming fluid gag in a film that’s ready-made for cult status.
Finally, drug movies don’t get much more authentic than Heaven Knows What (* * *), a grimy drama about the lives of junkies living from fix-to-fix in New York. Starring newcomer Arielle Holmes – a former heroin addict playing a warts-and-all version of herself – Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) and a supporting cast of real street people, the Safdie brothers’ unflinching vision of life on the margins is a kind of 21st-century version of The Panic in Needle Park. Tough but compelling viewing.

Nobel Prize Winner & Holocaust Survivor Imre Kertesz On Lajos Koltai's Film Adaptation Of Fateless

There are some people who suffer from this "[Auschwitz] disease" for life, simply because of the experience they have gone through. Another group simply doesn’t talk about it. And a third group of people have learned to come to terms with these events. I’m a writer, so I don’t belong to any one of these three categories. I view my experience as being raw material and I process it in the process of writing. And as I go along, I get rid of this experience. You know, this is how I go on and on and on and on, until I reach a stage, as a writer, where I will have run out of raw material. Then it’s time to die.

Did you have any reservation about your semi-autobiographical novel, Fateless, being turned into a movie? 

“In the beginning I had a lot of reservations, I must admit, and then I changed my mind and decided to write the screenplay myself. Then I was able to put an end to all my concerns. So I’m happy with the outcome.” 

What were your reservations? 

“Of course there were some reservations on my part because a film is a completely different genre and I didn’t want the novel, and the structure of the novel, to be changed in any way. So I think this is just a basic instinct on the part of writers.” 

How did you approach the screenplay in order to retain the integrity of the novel’s structure? 

“Right from the beginning onwards, it was impossible to use the same language I used in the novel in the film as well, or to transform it or transfer it in any way. That was simply inconceivable. In the novel I use a rather fictitious, analytical, and kind of reluctant language which cannot be used in film in any way. So what I tried to do was to translate one layer of the story of the novel into the film. I wanted to pick up the narrative and focus on a linear development in the film, by telling the story of a person who loses his personality.”  

Does the actor in the film look like the hero in the novel, or like you at that age? 

“The hero in the novel doesn’t have much in common with me. I gave him a lot of my own personal history but we differ significantly in nature. And the main actor in the film, who is a boy like an angel, also doesn’t have very much in common with me.” 

The boy survives by conforming to the concentration camp system. Is our ability to adapt a weakness as well as a strength? It was that conformist attitude which, in a sense, allowed the Holocaust to happen, as well enabling people like the boy to survive. 

“It always depends on your personal viewpoint and your personal angle. It is positive in the sense that people are simply able to conform to almost anything which helps them to survive. But you can also look at it from a negative viewpoint by saying that people are able to conform almost completely.” 

Yes, the ability which enables him/you to survive also brought about the Holocaust in away, didn’t it, because people adapted to Nazism? 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a very interesting question that an old English writer, Mr Sterne, once put to himself: did he use his suffering and his pain well enough? And that is also a question that people put to themselves after having gone through a concentration camp, for example. Does it contribute to your life, does it enrich your personality, or do you lose a lot? That always depends on the individual.” 

At the end of the film the character expresses nostalgia for the camps. Is this something mankind needs or is it a particular nostalgia of this character? 

“I think it’s generally true to say this is the case and it’s nothing unusual. If somebody was imprisoned in a labour camp for a long time, once he’s released the feeling of freedom and liberty leaves him too much space that he actually starts to yearn for those times when he was captured and when he was locked up. So this nostalgia, which refers to a written passage at the end of the novel, reflects a certain kind of upheaval of writing on the part of this young boy. Now, he’s travelling this world of confusion, this boy, on his way home. He’s full of disgust and disdain because he doesn’t understand the world anymore, and therefore he’s longing for the times when he was still locked up in the concentration camp. We, as viewers, don’t know whether he feels like going back because the feeling of upheaval is stirred by the heat of the moment, or whether this is of a more general nature.” 

Are these invented emotions or did you experience these feelings? 

“I personally do not remember the feelings that I had back then. But in the novel, the hero was supposed to feel homesick in a way.” 

How much did you contribute to the production of the film? 

“I was not involved in the filmmaking at all and I was not contributing to selecting the actors either. I think the director was more apt to do that and, honestly speaking, I’m clueless concerning the Hungarian actors and their specific features or capabilities. So I didn’t want to interfere either when the film was shot, because that’s always the wrong place to be for a writer. He’s always in the way. So I stayed away.” 

Three years ago your screenplay was distributed in Vienna with the title Step By Step. 100,000 copies of it were distributed. Was it exactly the screenplay that was used for this film, or how much of it was amended and edited? 

“That’s exactly the one we used. The test was not amended.” 

You have talked about the “Auschwitz disease” and I wonder if you consider this to be a condition which is curable? Also, has anything been learned from these events, do you think? 

“It always depends. It depends on your individual personality. There are some people who suffer from this disease for life, simply because of the experience they have gone through. Another group simply doesn’t talk about it. And a third group of people have learned to come to terms with these events.”  

Which group do you consider yourself to be in? 

“[Laughs] I’m a writer, so I don’t belong to any one of these three categories, because my metabolism with reality differs significantly from the metabolism of most of the people you normally meet. I view my experience as being raw material and I process it in the process of writing. And as I go along, I get rid of this experience. You know, this is how I go on and on and on and on, until I reach a stage, as a writer, where I will have run out of raw material. Then it’s time to die. Just like the fate of Sisyphus, which I described at the end of my novel called Fiasco, there is this man standing on a rock with three gravel stones in his pocket, and he’s on his way home.” 

Lajos Koltai, the film’s director, says the boy experiences a kind of beauty while spending time in the concentration camp. Do you agree with that? 

“Yes, I very much share this particular view, because that is part of the whole story. Nature remains unchanged no matter what. The sun is always there, shining. There are the trees bearing fruit. Although I’m not the one who can pick them, they’re there. And the more beautiful nature, the stronger is the horror and pain.” 

This film is more neutral, emotionally speaking, than Hollywood films like Schindler’s List. Do you believe that this is a better way to deal with this kind of subject matter? 

“Yes, I think it really makes sense to be a bit more neutral, because if you’re too emotional you won’t get anywhere really. People keep on complaining, grumbling, but nobody wants to listen to them. That’s the problem. You have to find the right format, especially if you want to convey a message that relates to so much significant personal experience. If you want to reach out you have to find a different way. You have to stop complaining, you have to stop asking for people’s compassion, because that won’t get you anywhere.”

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2006