New York Film Festival 2014 – Critic’s Choice

\J.K. Simmons on left, Miles Teller on right.
"Whiplash" is J.K. Simmons' movie, writes Brokaw. (Simmons on left, Miles Teller on right.)

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw reviews his favorites from the 52nd annual fest’s features, shorts, revivals, projections, and convergences.

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw watches the entire New York Film Festival slate in order to choose the best and brightest entries each year.

(Damien Chazelle. 2014. USA. 106 min.)

In his warm, definitive 1991 biography of drummer Buddy Rich, Traps, the Drum Wonder, author/singer (and fellow drummer) Mel Tormé quotes musicians from the volatile jazz musician’s big bands: “Buddy made it tough on some people for a variety of reasons, but he just wanted the band to be perfect,” says one. “When Buddy disapproved of our playing, he would call for an 8 am rehearsal the next morning; we called these ‘hate’ rehearsals. He wanted his music rendered to ‘perfection’,” summarizes another. “Working for Rich is like walking through a minefield,” reflects a third, “yet I achieved a level of self-respect and musicianship I might not have attained had I not played with a legend like Buddy.”

Tormé himself adds: “To say Rich was tough on his men would be a massive understatement. His vitriol was so startling, he was so abusive, that I was afraid the band would rise up in a body and beat him to death.”

Tormé also quotes from several of Rich’s own noisy harangues: “I’m accustomed to working with number one musicians, I’m not accustomed to working with half-ass kids!” Or, “How dare you call yourselves professionals? Playing like children up there. Nights off, nothin’ to do and you play like this for me? Screw all of you! You try screwing up the next set and when you get back to New York, you’ll all need another job!”

Rich rained profanity-laden diatribes in capital letters on his silent, humbled sidemen. This writer, the former creative director at RCA Records, knew Rich well in the late 60s and early 70s, when he was a premiere label artist; he could be the sweetest cat in the room, but his volcanic temper was as widely recognized in the music industry as his press and single-stroke rolls.

In Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle’s portrait of a New York jazz conservatory orchestra is an escalating give-and-take, played at sonic stun, between a 19-year-old drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), whose idol is Buddy Rich, and the orchestra teacher, Terence (J.K. Simmons). Chazelle, himself a jazz drummer in a high school orchestra, masks the parallel between Simmons and Rich. His script contents itself with an incident in which legendary drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker for messing up a chart, which pushed Parker to better his craft. But Simmons is clearly standing on Rich’s shoulders. “The two most lame words in the English language are ‘good job,’” storms Terence, who slaps, berates, insults, and savages Andrew into becoming a superior young drummer.

Whiplash is a feature-length expansion of Chazelle’s 2013 industrial-strength short of the same name, a standout on the festival circuit. As a feature film at 106 minutes, it’s overstuffed with under developed characters and rickety plot turns—Miles’ meet-cute girlfriend, his supportive but unsuccessful dad, his two jerky brothers, a car crash in which he’s injured before a performance, a meandering makeup with the sacked teacher who’s returned to playing piano with a jazz quartet, a thrilling drum crescendo that showcases the boy’s considerable soloing skills in concert.

Simmons patiently waits out most of the movie’s padding and awkward asides, and fortunately he’s in full frontal attack mode a lot. Whiplash is his movie. There are a handful of character actors who by sheer artistic brute force can transcend the archetypal limitations of their roles. Think of Andy Serkis as the rocker Ian Dury in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (2010), with his pouty, rubbery lips, full nostrils dripping, eyes popping with longing, snorting up one poor girl after another. Think of Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur (2011), a raging alcoholic who kicks his dog to death in the opening scene and then gets meaner and meaner.

J.K. Simmons joins this gallery of grotesques as the maniacal, almost lunatic teacher/conductors for whom “first is first and second is nothing,” (like Richard Conte says in The Big Combo). Simmons builds his tirades the same way Buddy Rich built his solos, only Simmons is armed with a vocabulary of obscenities that would make Henry Miller blush—and then grin. He’s another nightmare you won’t be able to shake for years.

Whiplash will be shown September 28th at 9 pm and September 29th at 6 pm at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center.

Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air
(Phillip Warnell. 2014. UK. Belgium. USA. 71 min.)

One essential component of the festival for the past 17 years has been “Views From the Avant-Garde,” a showcase for experimental short films and videos by mostly unknown and often first-time filmmakers. Wags quickly dubbed these obscure offerings as the “Watching Wet Paint Dry” category, and this year the Film Society has officially changed the category name to Projections, perhaps suggesting a more accessible and robust style of programming. To be sure, there’s a lot of wet paint drying on the screens of the comfy/cozy Elinor Bunin Monroe cinemas tucked across the street from Alice Tully Hall and the Walter Reade Theater. But Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air signals a clear move towards the more popular stop-me-if-you’ve-seen-this style of filmmaking.

Ming’s story grows out of a New York story for the ages: Antoine Yates, a 36-year-old construction worker living on the 5th floor of the 21-story Drew-Hamilton Houses in Harlem, was arrested and jailed for five months in 2003. Known in the neighborhood as “Dr. Doolittle” for his love of wild animals, his crime was having raised and sheltered a 450-pound Bengal-Siberian tiger named Ming in his apartment, along with a 7-foot Caiman alligator named Al. (There was also a dwarf rabbit stowed away somewhere, but he seems to have disappeared, and neither Ming nor Al are talking.)

Yates’ neighbors appeared to have no issue with his companions, and NYPD was only called by local hospital officials when Yates checked in with bite marks in his thigh that looked too big to have been caused by the pit bull Yates claimed bit him. A police officer carrying a rifle was lowered by rope to the 5th floor window of Yates’ building and barely escaped Ming lunging at him, “practically shaking the building.” Ming and Al were tranquilized and safely removed to an animal shelter in the midwest. All this is compactly put together by Yates, on-camera and in news footage from 2003, and then, Warnell’s doc gets really interesting.

What the filmmaker has done is re-create Yates’ apartment in an Isle of Wight zoo where a full-grown Bengal tiger (a stand-in for Ming) now lives, along with a nearby grown alligator (a stand-in for Al). We watch the tiger drinking from the bathtub, nosing around a fully operable kitchen looking for the chickens Yates once fed Ming, climbing up into the bed and pawing out a cozy spot to go to sleep in, as Ming did for several years next to Yates. Al the alligator’s alter ego wallows around his more unfurnished room, sliding on and off a raised platform and keeping a huge, unblinking eye on us and the world at large.

“In this fantasy world of peculiar domesticity, a merger takes place between geometry, architectural form, and sound; the apartment itself becomes a protagonist,” explains Warnell. That’s one acute way of defining a feature film that walks a finite line between documentary realism and surreal contemplation—maybe one of the new essences of the Film Society’s Projections series. Editing, cinematography, and an ominously playful music score are first-rate.

Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys In The Air shows October 3rd at 5 pm at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

Beloved Sisters
(Dominik Graf. 2014. Germany/Austria. 170 min.)

Few festival pleasures can rival sinking into a lush, romantic, historical biopic. The costumes, the intellectual grappling, and oh-the-suffering! Recent festival critic’s choices have included Charles Dickens’ affair with ‘Nell’ Turnan in Invisible Woman (2013 NYFF); Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s late-life infatuation with his ravishing model Andrée, in Renoir (2013 Rendez-vous with French Cinema); and the tangled, headstrong struggles of the teenage Nannerl Mozart, in Mozart’s Sister (2011 Rendez-vous with French Cinema).

Joining this must-see list is Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters, a retelling and imaginative speculation on 20 years in the life of Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), Germany’s most popular poet/playwright next to Shakespeare. Schiller is played by the trim and attractively vulnerable Florian Stetter. When we first encounter him in 1788, he’s penned and enjoyed early success with his best-remembered play, The Robbers, focused on two competitive brothers (one an anarchist, the other a power broker). Schiller is thus primed for his approaching love affairs with not one but two aristocratic sisters, Caroline von Beulwitz and Charlotte von Lengefeld. They’re noblewomen on a downward mobility slump, he’s a commoner on the way up.

Charlotte (Henriette Confurius, smart though outwardly less attractive than her slightly older sister) has been appraised by her godmother as “not knowing her market value.” Both she and Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung, the wife of a stuffed shirt Army officer) are drawn to Schiller the budding aesthete, especially when he dives into a cold river, knowing he can’t swim, to save a child from drowning. The sisters protectively surround the frail and shivering Friedrich in the woods, ever so gently pressing against him as he sheds his clothes to dry naked in the sun. This delicate scene, staged with tippy-toe taste and decorum, seeds the beginning of their shared love relationships.

Director Graf understands that the route to a successful biopic covering broad swaths of history is keeping as many cultural plates spinning on sticks as long as possible. Flurries of notes with coded names are penned and exchanged by the three principals. Movable type and printing presses roll out Schiller’s plays as he helps Caroline edit a novel. Charlotte eventually marries Friedrich and bears him four children, as Caroline stays distant from the two of them for several years. The characters sometimes use direct address to the viewer, updating their finances and romances (Schiller calls his ladies “two flames burning in my heart”).

Graf’s rapid pacing never flags, and one gorgeous locale after another (primarily Thuringia plus Saxony, North Rhine-Westfolia and Tyrol) frames the events. Finally, the hope of the Enlightenment years dissolves into the approaching French revolution, wafting dark currents over an approaching new century. This is all traditional movie-movie staging, but we rarely see it done with such vitality. The film’s title, Beloved Sisters, is scarcely reflected in its one-sheet advertising poster, which boldly positions Schiller upfront with the sisters embracing in the background; thankfully Graf’s 170-minute theatrical cut belongs equally to the two fine actresses assaying Charlotte and Caroline.

Still, it’s Friedrich Schiller that history remembers. He was a multi-platform artist, and four of his plays inspired Verdi operas. With Johann von Goethe he founded the notorious and brazen Weimar Theater. Like Ralph Fiennes’ beguiling and ingratiating performance as Charles Dickens in Invisible Woman, Stetter’s Schiller is an artisan dedicated to sexual as well as spiritual freedom. He equated ardor with wisdom, and his amorality is dazzling in its open defiance of convention: “It is criminal to steal a purse, daring to steal a fortune, and a mark of greatness to steal a crown,” wrote the German scholar, adding “the blame diminishes as the guilt increases.” Today we call that rationalized denial. It’s easy to see why the wily Schiller has trudged through the centuries as Germany’s literary darling.

Beloved Sisters shows September 30th at 8 pm at the Walter Reade Theater, and October 1st at 6 pm at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Theater.

Gone Girl
(David Fincher. 2014. USA. 145 min.)

This review will assume you’ve sweated through Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling novel, which has sold six million copies in over 40 hardcover printings, is available in three dozen different languages, plus 250,000 e-books, and doesn’t even count the mass market paperback released earlier this year. Our critique is going to assess plot essentials in the movie, which mirror the book in every important way. You have been cautioned.

As you’ll recall, starting on page 218, Flynn sucker-punches the reader. Suddenly the Missouri couple (ex-Manhattanites feeling hard times) who has been trying a reader’s patience like a downsized version of those annoying fictional couples in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, become malevolent. Flynn pulls us to rapt attention with the slickest revenge turn in modern crime fiction. You find yourself engrossed in a true page-turner—one of those rare novels that holds you through too many sleepless nights, dissecting a mangled marriage that can haunt you even during working hours.

Fast-forward to last week in Lincoln Center: Looking like 50 million bucks as she faced a huge audience, author Flynn talked about how she adapted her tale of “the treachery of intimacy” into David Fincher’s opening night festival barnburner. Flynn radiated confidence. She has the poise, acuity, smashing good looks and lightning quick instincts of Gone Girl’s shape-shifting Amy (a superbly multifaceted Rosamund Pike). Like Pike, this novelist looks and sounds like a woman Ben Affleck would court and maybe marry out of lust, friendship, admiration, intellectual curiosity, and a veiled desire for eventual parenthood—and then betray with a sloe-eyed, high-maintenance college cutie he’s screwing outside his literature class.

Authors sometimes know their characters because they are their characters. Flynn appears as outwardly normal as Amy, who is everything in the world but normal. Early on and for a long time, she’s disappeared—vanished from their home in which real or faked evidence (broken furniture, bloodstains) points to a possible kidnapping or worse.

Uh, uh. Amy’s out there plotting to destroy her husband with that revenge turn. As in the novel, her steel-trap mind is thinking dozens of steps ahead of her husband as well as the reader and now the viewer. The one thing Amy doesn’t count on is husband Nick offering everlasting repentance from his ended affair so persuasively on national television. He pleads with her, wherever she is, to somehow find her way back home from gone. That’s when she decides she still loves him and longs to return home. But first she has to invent and execute a totally new set of events that will un-do all the mechanics she’s engineered to hopefully put him away forever.

And so she does. She murders for him, and gets away with it. He knows it. He’ll know it forever, in all those hours of the wolf when he’s lying awake next to her in their reawakened marriage. This is the literary and filmic genesis and genius of Gone Girl. Fincher’s film bears comparison with Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, which was the opening night selection of the first New York Film Festival 52 years ago; in Bunuel’s film, guests were trapped at an elegant dinner party they couldn’t leave, an existential hell. In Gone Girl Nick is trapped with a mate who’s already slashed one old lover to bloody bits in a scene that rivals the carnage in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, another weirdly riveting festival selection.

Fincher has assembled a knockout cast that looks thrilled to be on this bloody red carpet ride. Affleck and Pike are pitch-perfect as the foundering couple. Tyler Perry’s super sleek Manhattan attorney makes “if there’s no body, there’s no case” the ultimate defense weapon. Neil Patrick Harris dies an anguished death as Amy’s original heartthrob who’s still carrying a sickly torch for her. Kim Dickens registers strongly as the careful, intrepid detective on the case, as does Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister who tends the empty bar they’re supposed to be running as a small town business. Echoing his prior films, Fincher uses Trent Reznor’s buzzy, busy score as an ominous, shimmeringly effective rug under scene after scene. All the tech credits follow suit.

Gone Girl is another version of The Exterminating Angel, 52 years later. This time around Amy is the angel of death.

Gone Girl had its world premiere on September 26th at Alice Tully Hall and opens nationally on October 3rd.

(Abderrahmane Sissako. 2014. France/Mauritania. 97 min.)

A new genre of movies—any genre—starts with one bold pioneer willing to attempt the risks of establishing a cinematic beachhead. Timbuktu is the first major contemporary drama to show-and-tell the repressive effects of radical jihadism. In a season of kidnappings and wrenching assassinations, this handsomely mounted and confident movie, replete with intrepid camerawork, precision editing, and creamy smooth sub-Saharan vistas set in vast CinemaScope panoramas, may be exactly the right commercial movie at the right historical moment.

Sissako announces his agenda in two startling opening sequences: the pursuit of a gazelle across West African plains by armed men in an open jeep, who don’t want to kill animals but, rather, “tire them.” This is followed by a startling sequence in which we view rows of beautiful statuary—the storied antiques of a culture—set up for target practice and blasted to bits by high-powered bullets. These prologues, unsettling without being upsetting, set the stage for the re-creation of the invasion of the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012 by armed Islamists, who announce the resetting of workaday rules and customs. Carrying bullhorns, cell phones, and video cameras as they bustle through the streets, these ragtag Tuareg rebels and Islamic militants are quick to order 24/7 bans on music, singing, sports, and smoking. Their goal is to establish total adherence to shariʿah, their Islamic law.

The local imam is not consulted and feels humiliated. Demonstrating the breadth of this crackdown on human rights, Sissako stages scenes of a defiant fish seller being ordered to wear gloves (she angrily refuses, challenging her oppressors to cut off her hands; they back off), but later showing a loving but unmarried couple who are seized and buried to their necks in sand, then stoned to death. Sissako’s template for Timbuktu was the latter real-life incident, dramatized here with admirable discretion.

The director’s primary intent, echoing his first scene of an animal fleeing a jeep-full of boastful pursuers, is showing a population being “tired” and tamed, slowly watching their freedoms being eroded and chipped away by a regime far more radical than the region’s theocracy. Unable to shoot in actual Timbuktu streets because of security concerns—even the famed nearby Festival of the Desert in which tribes gather annually to perform indigenous music and at which Robert Plant guested in 2003, was cancelled this year—the writer/director filmed Timbuktu in his neighboring Mauritania, in Oualata and Nema, close to his own hometown.

Timbuktu bookends its scenes of encroaching censorship with the stresses and vigilance of a local herdsman, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their preteen daughter who live in a desert tent. A fisherman spears Kidane’s cow, prompting an act of revenge by the shepherd. How Kidane and his family’s lives are impacted by this one-on-one retaliation in a changing society, where one set of rules must fit all, is the drama’s arc.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s <i>Timbuktu</i> invents a new genre, writes Brokaw.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu invents a new genre, writes Brokaw.

With its sleek, almost big-studio look (photographed by Sofian El Fani, who lit all those entwined lesbian bodies in Blue Is The Warmest Color), Timbuktu follows in an honored Hollywood tradition, established just prior to and during the early years of World War II, of alerting moviegoers in America and throughout the world to the approaching dangers of fascism and Nazism.

MGM’s The Mortal Storm, released in 1940, was the first early warning signal raised against the chilling rise of the Nazi war machine beginning to enfold Europe. Just as the humanist director Sissako has stated that even radical Islamists are a mix of good and bad, The Mortal Storm’s director, Frank Borzage, took the radical step of casting four of Hollywood’s most popular leading actors (Robert Young, Robert Stack, Dan Dailey, and Ward Bond) as Nazis dedicated to racial purification, book burning, and the removal of controversial professors from their university. That picture showed an entire Austrian community swept under Hitler’s spreading reign of intimidation and terror.

Sissako told a New York audience he wasn’t aware of this early cycle of American films (All Through the Night with Humphrey Bogart standing off Nazi brown shirts in Manhattan in 1941 was another, and this festival includes a revival showing of 5 Fingers, the memorable war drama in which James Mason plays a real-life Nazi spy who posed as the valet to the British ambassador, secretly photographing allied war plans). In his Lincoln Center Q&A, Sissako agreed that the growth of fascism and Nazism have parallels today with the growth of extreme Islamic policies and actions. He’d be encouraged to know that Hitler banned all MGM motion pictures from being shown in Germany throughout World War II—a sure sign that the MGM movie based on Phyllis Bottome’s prophetic 1938 novel was getting its message out.

It will be instructive to watch what kind of pushback the Cohen Media Group, which is distributing Timbuktu, may experience if and when Timbuktu—spoken in Bombara, Songhay, and Tamasheq dialects as well as French, English, and Arabic—shows in Africa’s troubled spots. Sissako’s game-changer, glossy and accessible, is a facsimile of our own studios’ pioneering efforts in wartime 75 years ago. It’s thinking-outside-the-box that’s thrilling to watch, as it lights up some of Africa’s darkest corners.

Timbuktu had its US premiere on October 1st and will open in select theaters January 28, 2015.

Clouds of Sils Maria
(Olivier Assayas. 2014. Switzerland/German/France. 124 min.)

Time to salute and dish on select female movie stars approaching iconic status, some of whom are gamely acting away in films that denigrate their age.  Hanna Schygulla, now 70, was currently seen in this fest’s short film, Ophelia, as an aging actress sequestered in a darkened room running 16mm films of her glam youth, and wandering through a graveyard, perhaps selecting her burial plot.  Shown here as a one-reel wonder, Hanna still registers as the one-time muse and leading lady of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1982.

Ophelia was preceded by a misfire in another festival, The Congress, in which Robin Wright played an aging actress who accepts being digitized for eternity into a cartoon.  And before that, another bitter festival short, The End, starred Charlotte Rampling playing an aging actress watching one of her older movies on late-night tv, in which she’d been replaced by a much younger actress digitized into all her scenes—“the new Charlotte Rampling”— replacing her.  (Dumbfounded, Ms. Rampling is later shown, heartbroken, outside a sound stage, where she literally dissolves, limb by limb, into nothingness.)

Now here’s Juliette Binoche, working under the wizard Olivier Assayas, as an aging film/stage actress, Maria,  who once “starred opposite Harrison Ford in a Sydney Pollack film,” but who’s been reduced to “swinging on vines in front of a green screen” to maintain her expensive standard of living— which gets complicated when the rich husband she’s divorcing suddenly dies of a stroke.  And so Maria  agrees to co-star in a stage version of a drama, “Maloja Snake,” that launched her career decades earlier.  This time around, however,  she’s reluctantly agreed to play opposite a bad behaving tabloid train wreck of a cutie named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Monetz), who’s been cast in the lead Juliette once played.

The core of Assayas’ film turns on Maria’s  conflicted script readings with her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart, known worldwide from the blockbuster Twilight  series), a cold, brittle micromanager.  Valentine reads with her boss in a chalet next door to the majestic Maloja river near the gorgeous village of Sils Maria, Switzerland.  Every so often a snakelike trail of clouds swirls up the Maloja, covering the adjacent mountains (and eventually Maria) like a shroud. That’s where the torturous title, Clouds of Sils Maria originates (though its filmic inspiration is a 1972 lesbian trope by  Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant).

The lesbian angle has been lost here—Maria and Valentine are straight, and Maria thinks the bratty post-teen Jo-Ann is a joke, both in her schlocky multiplex movies and her drunken party escapes.   But when the cloud-motif curtains on the stage scrim open and we watch Maria and Jo-Ann finally play a dramatic scene together, it’s Jo-Ann who cruelly cuts down the older actress who once preceded her and might have become her mentor.

Assayas is sinking into a crowded, muddy ditch, and not a healthy one.  His message echoes the films starring Schygulla, Rampling and Wright, that the world of entertainment will always, forever, belong to the young, and that older actresses today (as throughout a century of movies)  are too often wisps of clouds taking a slow fade to black.  Like her screen-wise sisters, Ms. Binoche has to transcend that perception, even though she’s barely 50. She’s chosen her roles with care throughout a long and luminous career; Certified Copy and Words and Pictures, two recent films prior to Clouds, show her in top form, an eternally seductive, poised and confident woman who’s usually smarter than her co-stars, male or female.  That persona registers here, too; Binoche never plays for sympathy, and she holds the screen easily against  Stewart and Monetz,  both of whom struggle to maintain credibility in their roles as high-maintenance cultural ditzes.

That stunning river and mountain scenery around Sils Maria can make you feel you’re revisiting The Sound of Music, waiting for Julie Andrews to run on.  Binoche and Stewart spend a fair amount of time here in rehearsal breaks, and Juliette takes a nude swim in the ice-cold lake.  Ironically and appropriately, when those clouds finally do roll in over the landscape, it’s Binoche who’s left alone, calling out for her assistant—for reasons you’ll discover, Stewart has disappeared from both the scene and the movie.

Clouds of Sils Maria had its U.S. premiere October 8 and will open in select theaters in March, 2015.

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
(Alejandro Gónzalez Iñárritu. 2014. USA. 119 min.)

The pre-title card in the opening seconds of this fabulist roller coaster of a ride is a quote from one of Raymond Carver’s last poems, in which the 50-year-old dying poet and short-story master asks this question: “Did you get what you wanted from this life?He answers himself: I did. [I wanted] to call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”  

Carver would surely have felt himself beloved and probably astonished if he’d been alive to watch a riotous, raucous version of his story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,”  adapted to the Broadway stage and performed to capacity audiences at the legendary St. James Theater, by a marquee cast including Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Andrea Riseborough.

Carver was often described as a “minimalist,” a term he deplored, and here’s his tale of two coiled couples running on empty,  sitting around  a cheap kitchen table—full of barely-held-in rage as they drink themselves into oblivion. But Carver’s  bite-size story and the primitive play fashioned from it are expanded to supersonic proportions as the launchpad and framework for Iñárritu’s jaw-dropping dissection of show-biz lives and how theater and film, art and artifice, reality and fantasy can collide— backstage, in and around Times Square,  and look! Up-in-the-air-it’s-Birdman!

Showcased as the closing night selection at the fest, Birdman is an exhausting jim-dandy of a movie, a career turn of unimaginable magnitude for 63-year-old Michael Keaton, and a savage  demonstration of how what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-love can be interpreted at warp speed,  hilarious and weepy in the same nano-second, by a cast, crew and filmmaker who seem delirious enough to be hospitalized,  yet are totally in control of their artistry for two solid hours.  That’s a long  time for a filmmaker to test an audience, walking a high wire between sanity and  something more suspect, without any safety net. Iñárritu does it with no fear, and he triumphs.

When we first see Riggan Thomson (Keaton), we figure he must be feeling beloved on earth, because he’s literally levitating above it,  cross-legged in midair, in his theater dressing room.  On the wall is a framed one-sheet of Riggan as the movie superhero Birdman he once played.  You may recall Keaton donned the Batman cape twice in 1989 and 1992, and here he is, reinventing himself in step with  Riggan’s theatrical actor/ writer/director’s attempt at his own career comeback.  This is complicated by Birdman’s intrusive voice-over and occasional on-camera appearances with Thomson (Keaton plays his alter-ego splendidly), baiting, badgering and occasionally conspiring with his beleaguered thespian.  Are you taking notes on all this?

Though Riggan the actor has the supernatural ability to move  objects at will, just as his Birdman persona once did, everything’s working against him.  The director’s  smart-ass, newly sober daughter Sam (Emma Stone, salty-mouthed and funny-tough, like Mia Wasikowska in Only Lovers Left Alive), thinks he’s the same old sham and luddite of a dad.  Worse, the lead theater critic for the most influential newspaper in town has vowed to deep-six the play in her review.  Even worse, Thomson, clad only in “tighty whities,”  locks himself outside the stage door during a preview, and has to jog across 44th street and through massive Times Square crowds, trotting back into the theater where the Carver adaptation is playing to a full house.  And even worse than that, the Norton character has decided to substitute a real gun for a fake gun that Riggan’s character will use in the play’s last violent moments. My God, will nothing go right for this poor fellow?

Poor fellow nothing.  Iñárritu and his bold co-screenwriters (Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo) have gleefully immersed Thomson not only in a physical rabbit-warren maze of theatrical

passages that he endlessly navigates,  but a mental stasis of dread and calamity that becomes his rite-of-passage into a theatrical underworld all its own. It’s the role of a lifetime for Keaton and he’s up for it—better, he unleashes all its frenetic, non-stop antics and shenanigans with a robust, warts-and-all bravado that breaks out into soaring flights through blue New York skies.

You’ll cheer Keaton’s Birdman more than you applauded Ben Stiller in the far kinder and gentler Secret Life of Walter Mitty, because Keaton’s pulling out every acting tool from his lifelong career toolbox. He gets rich ensemble support from Norton, Watts, Riceborough, Stone,  Zach Galifianakis as his harried lawyer/producer, Amy Ryan as his supportive ex-wife, Lindsey Duncan as the nasty news scribe.  The insistent jazz drumming soundtrack, rat-tat-tatting away like next-door construction banging on your head, is by Antonio Sanchez, and Iñárritu’s ace cameraman, Emmanuel Lubeski, is your Steadicam behind-the-scenes tour guide.

Raymond Carver’s stories started enjoying a second life through Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and the Will Ferrell dramedy, Everything Must Go.   Birdman will add a lustrous new burnishing to an indelible career.  Carver the minimalist has met Iñárritu the maximalist, and the winner this time isn’t just the reader, but the viewer.

Birdman had its New York premiere Sat. Oct 11 and opens nationwide October 17.

(Laura Poitras. 2014. USA 119 min)

Laura Poitras – CITIZENFOUR Director

Edward Snowden doesn’t make his first on-screen appearance as “citizenfour,” his encrypted code name, for the first 24 minutes of Laura Poitras’ heart-in-your-throat documentary.  Poitras has added heavy-hitters like exec producer Steven Soderbergh and suspense-music impressario Trent Reznor to her team, and she’s learned you prime your audience for the big reveal just as movie-makers have done ever since King Kong.  

Snowden’s Skull Island isn’t very spooky; it’s a nondescript 10th floor hotel suite in Hong Kong.  And Snowden, a slim, handsome, soft-spoken 29-year-old in a black tee, looks no more threatening than any Silicon Valley nerd. His North Carolina roots are gentle and appealing.  But as Snowden patiently, precisely leaks out the most jarring government secrets to Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill for a solid week, it may dawn on you that you’re being informed and instructed by a titanic force unleashing itself on humankind— the most notorious whistleblower on the planet and easily the 8th wonder of the cybernate world.

 “They’re going to have a heart attack, because I had access to everything,” Snowden warns in his even, low-key seminar voice. He’s a one-time Central Intelligence Agency  computer security expert and National Security Agency systems administrator, who’s been called “a genius among geniuses.”   The essence of his revelations is that NSA gathers “metadata in aggregate” by everything from supercomputers to conventional cookies—that is, all the information on metrocards, debit cards, bank cards, smart phones and land phones, emails, texts, tweets, snapchats, vines, instagrams,  any and all viral and experiential communications—all of this on  millions of  U.S. residents.  Yes, “citizenfour”was once an expert at manipulating info on the women and men he’s reporting as being targeted.

Most anyone can have her/his every move, conversation and purchase captured, stored and searched, as well as every location visited online and on foot.  This is on top of all the data from major internet providers—like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft—that have been surrendered to NSA through classified agreements.  Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have already handed over thousands of Americans’ daily phone records.  The agency’s Tempora program, also referenced in the doc, has tapped into the transatlantic fiber optics networks of major telecommunications giants.  In his sweeps of what he believes should be public knowledge, Snowden may have downloaded over a million documents.

What’s more, Snowden learns at the end of CITIZENFOUR that he’s not the only “inside outsider”  leaking secrets from the highest government levels.  There appears be a second whistleblower, someone who might be close to, or perhaps, inside the White House.   We (and Snowden ) get a jolt when Greenwald  enigmatically diagrams how this other person has just revealed that there are another 1.2  million  citizens—surely including Poitras and Greenwald— on an NSA ‘watch list.’  Snowden and the viewer are shown a simple box diagram/ chain of command that leads to “POTUS” (The President of The United States).  Mercy.

 Poitras filmed over a solid week of Snowden’s  surveillance bombshells last June.   Unlike the government that’s branded him a traitor and a felon, Snowden views himself as a patriot and a martyr; he’s willing to be “nailed to the cross” and his followup to “whatever happens, happens” is to welcome a potentially dark and uncertain future.  He’s ended up being given refuge in Russia, of all places, with a three-year residency permit, kind of a man without a country.   His m.o. is ‘bring it on’.

Snowden is incredibly normal in bearing and appearance.  He frets over his appealing stubble—he needs a new shaver— and slicks back his hair.  He misses his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, a dancer he abruptly abandoned  in Hawaii on his way to China (though we see them together in the Moscow flat they’re occupying near the doc’s conclusion).   Everything he’s brought with him to Hong Kong, mostly electronic gear, seems to fit in two shopping bags.  He’s training to travel fast and light between ‘safe home’ locations.  And then he learns he’s wanted in the U.S. for theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense info, and willful communication of classified intelligence to an unauthorized person (the world’s free press).

citizenfour poster
CITIZENFOUR Marketing Materials

A roomful of dispassionate civil rights and First Amendment lawyers discuss Snowden’s possible invasion-of-privacy defenses if he ever returns to America to stand trial, and ruefully conclude he’ll be found guilty and sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.  In the meantime, Snowden just missed being Time magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year (losing to Pope Francis).  NSA reporting by The Guardian and The Washington Post won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. And if the New York Film Festival had gotten a rough cut of CITIZENFOUR before the summer instead of right at their September deadline, he’d have been the perfect poster boy for the fest’s annual poster.

Poitras’ documentary demonstrates how well-versed this filmmaker is in drawing out individual lives entangled in global conflicts.  She made an early short on William Binney, a retired NSA crypto-mathematician who appears here as the whistleblowers’ elder statesman  (Binney advises Poitras to conduct meetings like the original ‘Deep Throat’ during the Nixon Watergate scandal, passing information to reporters in the lonely basements of parking garages.)  Poitras also directed two post-9/11 feature docs, My Country, My Country, following a Sunni doctor in the Iraq War, and The Oath, tracking  a Guantanamo prisoner and taxi driver.  All of these films convinced  Snowden to begin contacting Poitras in early 2013 to become his filmic messenger,  eventually leading to their summer rendezvous at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong.  While Poitras filmed, Greenwald segued into the role of lead journalist doing the Q&As and writing the initial journalistic disclosures—a pioneering blend of print and film linked to gather the news while simultaneously crafting the documentary backstory that becomes CITIZENFOUR.

This is the second NYFF selection (and critic’s choice) to include the eerie droning synthesizers of composer Trent Reznor, whose mood-altering contributions with Atticus Ross should be recognized.  Reznor’s background music is from his Nine Inch Nails album, Ghosts, and like Henry Mancini’s use of a Theremin  over a half century ago in the thriller Experiment in Terror (remember Lee Remick in the clutches of a heavy-breathing murderer, while the Theremin scrapes down her spine like the killer’s hand?),  Reznor’s music is hair-raising.  Poitras regularly implants his sinuous score into scenes like a steady, slow drip that ratchets up the tension, a stealth rug under her own softly urgent voice-over narration—all of which layers further vulnerability into Snowden’s  disclosures.   Little wonder NYFF’s erudite fest director Kent Jones has called CITIZENFOUR an experience I’ll never forget—a character study, a real-life suspense story, a chilling exposé.”

As you’d imagine, Silicon Valley hasn’t been sitting on its hands waiting for Laura Poitras’ doc to roll onto your local indie screen.  Following Apple and Google’s announcements of new software that would automatically encrypt cellphone content—using codes that even the companies could not crack—F.B.I. director James B. Comey was quoted by The New York Times David Sanger and Matt Apuzzo on October 16 that the “post-Snowden pendulum” had “gone too far.”

Comey hinted that “the administration might seek regulations and laws forcing companies to create a way for the administration to unlock the photos, emails and contacts stored on the phone.”  The Times reports that Silicon Valley’s giants will accelerate their efforts to offer encryption and that “they would develop algorithms that would take the government months or years to crack, and then insist that consumers themselves create their own encryption keys that companies would be unable to provide to the government.”

For his part, says the Times, Mr. Comey wants to make sure that Apple, or other phone manufacturers, do not “throw away the key” that allows that information to be un-encrypted. You may recall that in 1933, the year the original King Kong was released, Son of Kong, a sequel also starring Robert Armstrong, was rushed onto the nation’s screens.   If CITIZENFOUR finds the audience it surely deserves,  can CITIZENFIVE (or perhaps Son of Snowden) be far behind?

CITIZENFOUR premiered October 10 at Alice Tully Hall and releases nationally October 24.

This concludes critic’s choices.  Watch for Brokaw’s picks in the 5th annual DOC NYC, Nov 13-20

(Originally published September 24th with additions on October 3rd, 8th, 13th and 23rd.)

About :

Kurt Brokaw joined The Independent in 2010 as Senior Film Critic, covering New York’s six major film festivals and reviewing individual features and shorts of merit.  He was Associate Teaching Professor at The New School for 33 years, and has taught courses on film noir, early lesbian fiction and Jewish-themed cinema at The 92nd Street Y for 15 years. His memoir, The Paperback Guy, was published in 2020.