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October 23, 2014
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Venice Film Festival kicks off with Birdman

From left, actors Edward Norton, Emma Stone, director Alejandro Gónzalez Iñarritú, actors Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, and Michael Keaton pose during a photo call for Birdman at the 71st edition of the Venice Film Festival.
By Jill Lawless
AP
Over the next 10 days, directors and actors will present their works to international audiences

VENICE, Italy — The Venice Film Festival brings red-carpet premieres, innovative movies and Hollywood glamour to the Italian city, until September 6. Twenty films are competing for the coveted Golden Lion prize — 19 of them world premieres — and several dozen more will jostle for the attention of critics and audiences at an event that mixes adventurous fare from international auteurs with mainstream movies seeking awards-season momentum. Alejandro González Iñarritú’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) opened the 71st Venice Film Festival yesterday.

Keaton hailed. Well before the turn of the millennium, Michael Keaton was the first 21st-century superhero.

Keaton’s role as Batman in two Tim Burton-directed blockbusters a quarter of a century ago made him a global star, and helped spawn a Hollywood obsession with comic-book franchises that has put a generation of leading men into spandex.

Whether that was good for the movies, or the stars, is at the heart of González Iñarritú’s Birdman.

The soul-searching supernatural comedy-drama stars Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an over-the-hill actor, once famous as avian superhero Birdman, struggling to regain his self-worth by mounting a heavyweight Broadway play.

So how much Michael Keaton is there in Thomson?

“That’s the giant elephant in the room,” the actor conceded in a Venice press conference. But, he added, he’d recently been to Africa and was very fond of elephants.

Keaton, 62, insisted he’s happy with his place in movie history, but said the credit for reshaping superhero movies should go to Burton.

“It’s been copied, sliced up, what Tim did — more than cocaine from a cartel,” Keaton said. “He changed a lot and I was part of that, and proudly so.”

The movie gets much of its verve from the major parallels between the careers of Keaton and his character. Thomson worries that he is stuck in the 90s — “I’m an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question,” he laments — and has had to watch younger actors such as Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender take his place.

Iñarritú, whose earlier films include Babel and 21 Grams, said he cast Keaton in part because he was one of the “few people in the world (who) has authority to talk about that” experience.

Birdman is one of 20 films competing for the Golden Lion top prize at the festival, which runs to September 6. Whether or not it wins, many critics predicted it would be a hit — and re-energize Keaton’s career.

It is a genuinely unusual film that mixes backstage comedy, philosophical musing and explosive special effects.

Keaton’s character is torn between his desire to make high art — with a stage play based on a story by Raymond Carver — and an instinct to tell art to take a hike and focus on fame. His baser instincts are voiced by his Birdman alter-ego, who seems to live inside his head, and at times follows him around.

“I wanted the humour to come from his solemn ambitions to succeed, despite this reality that is proving to him that he will never do it,” Inarritu said. “Which is basically the story of every human being, every one of us, every day.”

Keaton said his character is “wonderfully pathetic and at the same time noble,” and his foibles are matched by those of the other characters.

Edward Norton plays an actor who is talented and obnoxious in equal measure, Emma Stone is Thomson’s disillusioned daughter and Amy Ryan his ex-wife. Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and Zach Galifianakis play members of the troupe trying to put on the play.

Birdman’s cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Academy Award for Gravity, but it’s style is light years from that high-tech space thriller.

Shot in long takes full of movement and zingy dialogue, the film sometimes feels like it could be by Robert Altman or even Woody Allen, though Iñarritú’s surrealist sensibility adds spice.

Keaton said he was frequently “petrified.” Stone — no stranger to superheroes from The Amazing Spider-Man films — fared even worse: “I developed an eye twitch.”

“I was terrified,” she said. “And when it ended all I wanted to do was go back and do it again.”

Fest supports imprisoned filmmakers. There were two empty chairs at yesterday’s news conference to introduce the jurors who will be handing out the festival’s coveted Golden Lion and other prizes.

Festival director Alberto Barbera said the seats were left vacant to draw attention to the incarceration of filmmakers Mahnaz Mohammadi and Oleg Sentsov.

Mohammadi, a director and women’s-rights activist in Iran, was arrested in June and sentenced to five years in prison for anti-state propaganda and offenses against national security.

Sentsov, a Ukrainian who opposed Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, was arrested in Russia in May on suspicion of plotting terrorist acts and is in prison awaiting trial. Filmmakers including Pedro Almodovar, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh have called for his release.

Barbera said an empty chair “serves to point out the absence of a filmmaker who is in prison for political reasons. Unfortunately, this still happens all too frequently.”

French film composer Alexandre Desplat leads a jury that includes British actor Tim Roth, Chinese actress Joan Chen and US novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. Prize-winners will be announced on September 6, the final day of the festival.

Korean director backs ferry disaster families. Always-provocative South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk wore his message on his chest at a news conference to promote his new film One on One.

Kim wore a black shirt emblazoned with the words “The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol” — in support, he said, of relatives of the 300 people, most of them high-school students, who died in a ferry disaster in April.

The families are demanding an independent inquiry into the disaster, and one father went on hunger strike until he was hospitalized.

Kim said the father’s act had a parallel in his own movie, in which the suspects in a brutal rape and murder are subjected to grisly torture by a gang of costumed avengers.

Kim said the father had made a peaceful sacrifice for his cause.

“My characters,” he said through an interpreter, “are doing it in a very violent way.”

That will be no surprise to those who watched Kim’s past films, including Pieta — a brutal story of revenge and redemption that won the top prize in Venice in 2012 — and the castration-horror shocker Moebius.

“I wanted to deal with the oppression that has been put upon poor people, ordinary people’s shoulders,” Kim said.

“I wanted to find a way to fight violence with violence.”

ap

@jilllawless

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