Wait, but have you seen Birdman yet?
I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally saw it two weekends ago. You guys. I’m still freaking out. I don’t know the last time I came out of a movie that wired.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up movie star famous for playing Birdman in the superhero franchise. Three movies were made, and he hasn’t been able to catch much of a break since the last one was released in 1992 (“Batman Returns,” anyone?). Now he’s attempting to make a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play at the St. James Theatre, all while losing his grip on reality (or is he?).
I could spend this entire blog post raving about the cinematography alone. And on top of that, you’ve got those performances and that script and everything else. I knew going in that many of the takes were going to be long, continuous shots, but I had NO idea just how long we were talking. It’s filmed to look like one uninterrupted shot, and as far as my eye could catch, the whole thing might only be six or seven total. There are likely more tricks of the trade that I missed, but no matter, it’s impressive to say the least. They’re complicated shots, too – through gates, through the depths of the theatre, through the middle of freaking Times Square. During one scene, already a long way into it, we spend a few minutes in the rehearsal of the play on stage with an empty house. After Riggan walks away from that rehearsal and Sorkins his way back to his dressing room with Zach Galifianakis, we eventually make our way back to the theatre (mind you, it’s the same shot), and it’s now the first preview of the play and an entire audience has filled the house. It’s brilliantly set up to let your mind spin about what’s going on “behind the scenes” as they prep what’s coming next.
Then you have the unfathomable cast. Golden Globe winner Michael Keaton, in a lovely life-mirroring-art twist, is himself making a fantastic comeback. Add in Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis, and my girl, Emma Stone. All the performances are so charged, and between the intensity of that, the script, and the style of filming, my senses were turned up all the way; the movie made me feel heightened right alongside it. I think everyone can appreciate the filmmaking taking place here, although I imagine it particularly speaks to artists and those in the theatre. It’s quite the feat, and I highly recommend a viewing. I certainly will be partaking a second time.
I had an enlightening conversation about “Birdman” with my bestie Dina. We both spent the duration of the movie thinking about Riggan’s mental state (when not thinking about the insane cinematography). Both Dina and I couldn’t help but follow along with a psychological perspective. It’s our go-to; I majored in Psych in college, and she is studying it in grad school as we speak, er…blog. So, early on we learn that Riggan has the ability to move things with his mind, Carrie-style. He has these powers, gifts, whatever you want to call them, which meant one of two things to us: either he’s having a mental breakdown and has lost his sense of reality (à la Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”) or we’re breaching into fantasy territory. But what we began to propose in our convo is that maybe there’s something else going on here, something not so black and white, however much we want to fit it into a category. Perhaps it’s not so simple as these two possible explanations. Maybe this is less about the psychological and more about the philosophical. Maybe…there’s a third option. By the end of the film, I don’t know if we’re even supposed to know what’s real and what’s not. It certainly left me wondering.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo, Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Pictured: Edward Norton and Michael Keaton
Now THAT is how you play Sally Bowles. I mean no offense to the very talented Michelle Williams, but this was the burst of energy that was needed last year whenever Alan Cumming departed the stage.
Yes, I went back to see Cabaret. Yes, I went because I’m a huge Emma Stone fan. When the revival was announced, she was actually originally slated to be the first Sally but had to back out due to scheduling issues. Man, am I glad they were able to work her out as a replacement.
If you recall from my review last spring, the trouble I, and others, had with Michelle’s interpretation was there was too much vulnerability and fragility too early. When we first met her, it was like Hitler had already taken over, the game already lost. Act 1 is supposed to be a party and we’re all invited, but she was playing the end at the beginning. Of course Sally is troubled and distressed and has serious issues to work through, but she, like the rest of the characters, is in total denial, and that should carry through until close to the end of the show. And arguably, even then, when facing the reality head-on, she still turns the other way. But until that point, Sally Bowles is the life of the party. Like (random reference alert!) Angelina Jolie’s character in “Girl, Interrupted,” she’s the girl you want to hang out with even though she’s going to be a terrible influence on you.
I like to jokingly take credit when I predict that someone is going to be a star. When I saw “Easy A” for the first time, I said to my roomie, “That girl is going to be the next ‘It’ girl.” Mostly because of this clip which I still watch on a regular basis. Cue Oscar nomination.
Emma Stone is absolutely infectious as Sally (here is an all-too-brief montage). How can I explain it? She makes you…lean in. She takes her time with her lines in such a way, it’s as if every word she says is going to be the one to change your life. She tells her stories and delivers her jokes slowly but surely because she knows you’re gonna wait.
And then to see all that fade as the world around her begins to crumble is all the more effective. Her emotional journey is powerful and her physical transformation also striking. By the end, once that fur coat is gone, we see a frail woman. Her petite frame revealed, she looks small and defeated but is still holding on by the grit of her teeth. Her desperation to cling to the status quo is actually pathetic and even harder to watch knowing she is also plagued with self-awareness. To all the people out there who claim that musicals don’t hold the same weight as plays, I ask them to watch the last scene between Sally and Cliff in Cabaret.
The poor thing had the flu this week (aren’t I fancy with my inside information?), but I think the sickness, if anything, gave her more drive. She struggled through her songs in the best way possible, giving it her absolute all, particularly for the 11 o’clock number.
See her if you can, performing through February 15th. Until then I will be crying out from Astoria, Emma: bleibe, reste, stay!
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Joe Masteroff, Co-Directed by Sam Mendes, and Rob Marshall
Studio 54, Closing March 29, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emma Stone and the Kit Kat Girls of Cabaret
Picture a fight you have with someone and how it can go ten different ways. If you had only said something different or used a different tone of voice, you may have ended up with an entirely different outcome…or not.
This is exactly what Nick Payne’s Constellations explores. Not just the concept, though; the 70-minute play examines the actual possibilities, the numerous pathways two characters can take in their relationship – all the potential ways a conversation can go when they first meet at a BBQ, when they consider spending the night together, when they’re faced with life-altering events.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland and (Golden Globe Winner!) Ruth Wilson as Marianne give wonderfully warm, generous, and connected performances. Watching this play is like being in an acting class with them because they’re playing these scenes over and over with a new interpretation each time. It’s all about tactics. When an actor approaches a scene, he or she has to figure out a) what do I want? and b) how am I going to get it? That’s what these two are doing in real time. They do eventually shift out of a certain scene and into another as they move forward in time (or do they?), but even when they’re saying the exact same words as the time before, it’s still fresh. And I believed them each time. The audience adapts to the new circumstances just as quickly as the characters do, and that is a testament to the writing.
When I go down the rabbit hole of thinking about other universes and how many lives I might be leading elsewhere, I start to get dizzy. The play asks questions like: do we have control over our fate? Does free will exist if we are just one version of ourselves and all the other “choices” we could make are simply playing out in another universe? And what about time itself? Are the past and future merely fabrications, only kept alive in our own minds?
There is an element of the play building on itself – the sound and lighting designs (both enticing) growing more intense and cutting – as things develop and the story(ies) become more clear. I did think, however, that it was building to something, and I don’t know if that something ever arrived. Should there be a catharsis of some kind? Is there an ending? How can there be an ending when there are over 50 stories potentially being told? Because of this, the play as a whole feels somewhat incomplete. Unfinished even.
But maybe that’s exactly the point.
Written by Nick Payne, Directed by Michael Longhurst
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Closing March 15th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson
If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.
I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).
I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?
So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.
And that’s just Act 1.
I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.
Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.
I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.
Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”
And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”
Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas
Let’s talk Into the Woods, shall we?
First, some history about this show and me; I feel it’s important that you know where I’m coming from. I grew up watching Into the Woods. If you don’t know the story, the Stephen Sondheim musical puts all of our favorite fairytale characters in the same world and shows us what happens after “happily ever after.” As I mentioned in my last Video Friday, the 1987 original production was filmed live and aired on TV in 1991. My parents, in one of their wisest decisions ever, taped it, and I wore that VHS tape to bits. The video quality was so bad that when the DVD was released, I remember watching it for the first time thinking, “Woah, Bernadette’s dress is PURPLE!” If there’s one thing I’ve seen more than anything else in my 30 and a half years on this planet, it’s this stage version.
When the Rob Marshall film was announced, I tried to remain as neutral as possible, not wanting to get my hopes up. But over the past few months, the more clips and interviews I saw, the more excited I got – I couldn’t help myself! It actually looked like they were going to do it justice. There are many reasons why it’s exciting to put a musical (or any play for that matter) on film. It’s an opportunity to do things on screen that are too difficult or expensive to execute on stage. Into the Woods is a great example of the possibilities that open up once you are allotted a Disney budget: a 64-piece orchestra, a stunning forest, a real palace, a real COW, etc.
Okay, enough stalling – let’s get to the heart of the matter. Bottom line? I loved it. There, I said it. They did a damn fine job. It looks and sounds beautiful, and I already went back to see it a second time with my friend Little Red. A lot of the success relies on the cast, and they knock it out of the park. Two years ago upon the release of Les Misérables, many complained (myself included) about some of the casting. I love Eddie Redmayne, but there are better singers out there for Marius. Objectively speaking, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe don’t have the same vocal talent as Hugh Jackman and Aaron Tveit. These key casting mistakes hurt the movie, but Marshall gets it right with Woods. There’s talent across the board. I’ll highlight a few of my favorites (please note: I am intentionally not going to talk about Johnny Depp because I truly do not know how I feel about that wolf).
If I hadn’t previously heard Chris Pine sing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, I might have thought his voice was dubbed. Who would’ve guessed that man could croon? He’s so brilliantly cast as Cinderella’s Prince, with that fine-looking coif and just as fine-looking a face, and gives a perfectly balanced over-the-top performance. “Agony” is one of those songs that can crash and burn if you don’t have the right actors. Pine, and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince (Spike of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), had me laughing up a storm.
I’ve learned recently that there are people who don’t like Anna Kendrick (Cinderella). I did not know this was possible! I think she’s great in everything, and this was no exception. “On the Steps of the Palace” is excellent. Period. I adore the changes they made to this song: tweaking the lyrics to present tense and first person, stopping time as Cinderella sifts through her options, and putting her literally on the steps of the palace. These adjustments make the song more active and packed with discoveries. I also enjoy seeing Cinderella choose to deliberately leave the slipper behind.
I love seeing actual kids in the roles of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). More often than not, on stage you’ll see actors in their 20s, or even 30s, who “look young” playing these parts. Having children play children, especially in a musical about children, brings a whole new level to the piece. “Your Fault” becomes more pointed when you see adults arguing with little kids about who’s to blame. Little Red’s dare to Jack holds more weight because dares mean more at that age. “No One is Alone” resonates all the more when you see young children who’ve lost loved ones.
I’m on such an Emily Blunt kick right now. Gosh, I love her. And she’s damn good in this. It’s hard to take on a role iconized by Joanna Gleason in my book, but she makes it her own and is a joy to watch. She and James Corden play off of each other well, and they’re a pair you want to root for (“It Takes Two” = adorable). Side bar (SPOILER): I appreciate the extra emphasis placed on the Baker’s Wife’s interest in Cinderella’s Prince. There are multiple hints in the script that she’s drawn to him, but on stage, I’ve only seen them delivered as punch lines or portrayed as a surface attraction. Blunt’s interpretation felt like a legit, tangible fantasy of hers, making it more believable that when he’s wooing her later on, she caves.
Do we even need to talk about Meryl? I mean, really. The woman is unstoppable. The bitch can skate. Moving on…
On to my negative feedback (SPOILER alert for the next three paragraphs). My major critique has to do with the shifts in mood in the second half. There was much concern leading up to the opening of this movie that the musical would be “Disneyfied” (although, you could argue that other Disney films are just as dark – how many protagonists actually have two living parents?). Regardless, people feared that Disney would suck the darkness out of these doomed fairytale characters. After seeing it, I would say that yes, it is not as dark as the live show, but it was not nearly as “Disneyfied” as it could have been.
One of the reasons the “second act” isn’t as bleak is the off-screen deaths. The punch to the gut is less effective when these deaths are merely suggested. For example, I genuinely did not know whether or not Jack’s Mother died. In the original version, it’s a much more deliberate strike by the Prince’s Steward, and we witness her last words. Now she’s awkwardly pushed, and her death is only implied. As a result, I did not head into the next scene with the same heaviness I typically feel. On stage, when we first meet the Giant in person, the Narrator (who has been cut from the film), Rapunzel, and Jack’s Mother all die within five minutes of each other. It’s traumatic, overwhelming, and happens so quickly that we barely have time to register it all. Now that the Narrator is gone, Rapunzel doesn’t die, and Jack’s Mother’s death is unclear, I found myself taking the dramatic turns less seriously.
The change I can’t support, and my biggest problem with the film, is the end of Rapunzel’s story. It is a mistake to let her live. Her death is crucial for the weight of the second act, particularly the Witch’s arc. Her “Lament” is not about Rapunzel running off with the Prince (which is typically at the end of Act 1); it’s about real loss. The Giant steps on Rapunzel right in front of her mother’s eyes. This tragic loss of her daughter is what drives the Witch the remainder of the show. Why else would she be so desperate to find Jack and feed him to the Giant? Why else would she stick around with these people who make her crazy? All that exasperation builds to “The Last Midnight” when she finally explodes. The song is less earned without Rapunzel’s death. Don’t get me wrong – Meryl is fantastic and it’s a good number, but it doesn’t feel grounded without the backstory. The stakes are a lot lower when sh*t doesn’t go down.
As for the song cuts, they make sense to me. It’s a hard thing to cut a half hour from a musical. Of course I’m sad that “No More” isn’t included, and it’s odd not to have the opening of Act Two. I wish (ha) the passage of time were still there so we could see these characters wanting more all over again, even though they just got their wishes. Here is an interview with the book writer, James Lapine, in which he discusses the process of adapting the stage script to film.
I know there are upset fans who are angry about the changes, saying the movie could never top the original. To that I say, of course it wouldn’t be the original musical; that’s not the intention. The movie isn’t here to replicate the stage show – rather it’s one more interpretation of this wonderful story. It’s a chance to shine new light on it for the fans, and perhaps more importantly, for the people who’ve never had the chance to see it. I read on Playbill.com that “in its first weekend, “Into the Woods” was seen by four times the amount of people than those who saw both Broadway runs combined.” We have to treat this movie like a revival – a creative team trying something new. So as far as this attempt goes, I say, “Brava.” Brava for staying as loyal to the script as possible, casting actors who can sing, and having Lapine and Sondheim involved every step of the way.
You know, another thing I’ve noticed in reviews is an odd contradiction regarding how people feel about the latter half of the story. Like I said, fan are disappointed that it’s not as dark (I, too, lean in this direction). But then there are the people who are upset that the second part even happens, saying quit while you’re ahead. Why does it need to get dark when a perfectly good ending has already been established? Why not wrap things up at Happily Ever After?
But isn’t it more interesting to go beyond and see what’s next? Because that is when real life happens. And shouldn’t we want to sing about that, too?
Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Screenplay by James Lapine, Directed by Rob Marshall
Pictured: Emily Blunt and James Corden
Friends! I promise I’ll be returning in the blink of an eye with more reviews. I’ve got Honeymoon in Vegas and Constellations on deck, and let’s not forget “Into the Woods!”
But since we’re all on holiday, let’s step off the interwebs for a bit this evening and look forward to the New Year approaching. My pal Dina and I create a slogan each year to pump us up. This tradition started on NYE 2007 back when it was easier to rhyme – we had “Great in ’08,” “Divine in ’09,” “Zen in 10,” “Leaven in ’11.” Ya know, some real classics. It’s been trickier lately with these darn teens. Nonetheless, this year we ask that you…drumroll please…glean. That’s right: “You betta glean in 2015.” Gather gradually bit by bit. Gather what, I hear you say? Anything, my friends. Knowledge, love, art, anything.
Oh! Before we abandon the Internet, I’ll leave you with one video in honor of tonight’s celebrations –goddesses Laura Benanti, Kelli O’Hara, and Jessie Mueller singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors for Tom Hanks.
Now…glean. Happy New Year!
Photo Credit: Diana Chan
Pictured: Liz Wasser, Becca Schneider, Nathan Greene, and Dina Percia delving into ’12
In honor of the upcoming release of “Into the Woods” THE MOVIE (keep your eyes peeled for a review of the film), I would like to dedicate this Video Friday to…wait for it…Into the Woods.
This is my all-time favorite musical, hands-down, no questions asked. And one of my favorite tunes from the show is “It Takes Two.” This is likely due to my life-long dream to play the Baker’s Wife. As a result, I’ve always been partial to her numbers and everything related to Joanna Gleason (how about that Newsroom finale?). So to share today, I have two videos of that song.
First is from the 1987 original staged musical (which was aired on American Playhouse in 1991) performed by none other than Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason as the Baker and his Wife.
Second is their beautiful reunion many years later at Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert in 2010.
What are your favorite songs from Into the Woods?