Holy Birdman, Batman!

Birdman

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


Into the Woods: The Movie

Into the Woods

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


You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me

Robin Williams

Robin Williams had one of those careers where you forget just how many momentous films he was in.

Of course, there are always the immediate ones that come to mind, a list that I’m sure varies from person to person. For me, it’s Aladdin, Hook, and Good Will Hunting. But then I scroll through his IMDB filmography, and I’m suddenly going down memory lane as I remember and realize how much my childhood was influenced and filled by his talent, humor, and presence. From watching FernGully on repeat, to Mork and Mindy, to Jumanji scaring the bejesus out of me with those enormous plastic spiders, to the iconic Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin was a constant in my young life.

And as I continue to sift through IMDB, I recall Dead Poets Society. Patch Adams. The Birdcage. Awakenings. One Hour Photo. And then there are the ones I have yet to see like What Dreams May Come, Toys, and Good Morning Vietnam (I know, I know. Maybe now I’ll finally get around to it). And that list doesn’t even touch half of the films he made – films which influenced audiences all around the world.

I don’t know how many of you watched his recent CBS show, The Crazy Ones (obviously not that many being that it didn’t get picked up for a second season). Nonetheless, I watched all of it and believe it was canceled prematurely. It was quirky and weird and maybe a little too out there, but it was hilarious and knew exactly what it wanted to be. Kind of like Robin.

I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I fell down the wormhole of watching clips and kept crying. As much as I’ve been saddened by some of the great actors we’ve lost in the last few years, this hits closer to home, as I imagine it might for many of the folks in my generation. We grew up with Mr. Williams. He shaped us. He taught us comedy, improvisation, voices, joy, and how to do an impression of a hot dog.

After I saw the news last night, I called my mom and said that I can’t believe we’re getting to a point where the generation of actors I grew up watching is dying. But we shouldn’t be there yet. Robin, you left us too soon. We will miss you and will continue to watch your films for years to come. Whenever we’re looking to be uplifted. Whenever we want to be inspired. And most importantly, whenever we’re in need of a laugh.

Bangarang, Peter.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255


Six by Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim

Early in December, a documentary called Six by Sondheim aired on HBO about the life and career of Stephen Sondheim. I watched it the other week thanks to my friend’s HBO GO login information. You know who you are. Thaaaanks!

What’s cool about this documentary is that most of it is made up of interviews with Sondheim himself. He’s never shied away from speaking to the media so the filmmakers were able to collect interviews spanning his career. These interviews are then presented through the framework of six Sondheim songs, the six songs that arguably best encapsulate his career. Within this structure, we move through his writing history as he shares anecdotes, stories about Oscar Hammerstein, what inspires him, his working habits, and from where these six songs stem. The songs are also performed throughout the documentary: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Being Alive” from Company, and “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George.

Sondheim says some pretty wonderful things about composing, acting, and art as a whole. Several of the numbers are presented as mini-performances within the documentary, produced and performed by Broadway folks. A few felt a little over-produced in my opinion. The songs that were most effective were the ones with footage of the original companies (West Side Story, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George). For example, “Being Alive” from Company was a video of the very first Bobby, played by Dean Jones, in the studio recording the cast album. Now I know this song very, very well and have listened to it hundreds of times, but I sat there on my couch and just started crying. I love that a song can affect me in such a way even after all these years of listening to it.

So for the Sondheim fans out there, I do recommend a viewing. On second thought, even if you’re not a fan (seriously, what’s that about?), maybe this will be a good way for you to learn more about where he’s coming from with his writing. If anything, you’ll get a fascinating inside look at the man himself.


Six by Sondheim
Directed by James Lapine
Aired on HBO on December 9, 2013


The Sound of Music Live!

The Sound of Music Live!

Amidst my Christmas holiday week of movie watching (American Hustle, Casablanca, City Island, and Frozen a second time), I managed to find the time to finally sit down and view The Sound of Music Live! I have since been debating whether or not to post about it. I feel like everyone and their mother have already put their two cents in, particularly in the theatre community, and it was quite the mix of feelings. It seemed like this musical broadcast became either a personal affront to viewers or a personal accomplishment. There was a lot of hate and a lot of preaching back to that hate. My Facebook news feed blew up the way it does when there’s a big football game on, and I end up having no idea what anyone’s status means. But I figure things have died down a bit, and I suppose it can’t hurt to throw a couple more pennies into the mix, right?

Let’s start with the good, shall we? There was some lovely singing, smooth camera work, and solid nun talent. Vampire Bill – I mean, Stephen Moyer? He did a pretty decent job! That kid playing Kurt? Great. He was in it. Audra? Clearly. Do we even need to talk about her? Everyone already knows she’s a goddess. It was a pleasure to have real theatre folks involved like Christian Borle as Max. There’s an extra comfort level in watching stage actors do what they do best, especially those who already have TV experience.

But let’s be serious, I’m mostly writing this review so I can brag about Laura Benanti. I love her, love her, love her, and I’m so glad people are finally starting to take notice of her abilities. I was never drawn to Elsa growing up. I didn’t understand the character, but now she’s clear to me. Laura brings a naturalism to the role, to live filming, to song, to everything. And thank god we had her for some laughs.

Of course there were weak links, but I honestly don’t want to dig into them too much. I don’t know what was up with the costumes. Some of the kids were hard to watch. The mountain set was awkward, although the scene changes were smooth and well done.

Listen, I know you’re all waiting for me to rip into Carrie, but I don’t really want to do that. The critics have been cruel enough. I’ll just say this: I feel bad that she and the people who represent her thought this was a good idea. She’s talented and clearly can sing, but she is simply not an actress. This doesn’t make her untalented; it just makes her not an actress. There isn’t an acting instinct in her bones. I was frankly very uncomfortable watching her speak any dialogue. I also feel bad that they yanked all of the “Southerness” out of her. This at least gives her character and flavor. True, Maria shouldn’t be a Southern belle, but without it, she came across as vanilla and bland. I understand that Carrie was cast to draw in viewers. Hopefully next time they’ll find a name that can better carry a show.

All that said I’m thrilled they took on this endeavor. It’s a wonderful chance for people who don’t live in a big theatre city to get to see a musical on screen. To this day, musicals still don’t get a lot of respect. People consider them merely fluffy or lame; they’re all flash and spectacle and couldn’t possibly affect audiences the way plays can. The fact that NBC is going to do another live musical due to the ratings The Sound of Music got is fantastic as far as I’m concerned. Folks associating musical theatre with high ratings?  I don’t know about you, but as a musical theatre fan through and through, I’ll take that any day.


The Sound of Music Live!
Directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller
Aired live on NBC on December 5, 2013
Photo Credit: Will Hart
Pictured: Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti


You Should Be Listening To: Frozen

Frozen
Yes, a new feature! Huzzah! This newly-formed category entitled “You Should Be Listening To” is basically where I tell you about what cast album I’m currently obsessed with, which brings me to our first edition…

Have you seen Frozen yet? It’s the new animated Disney film featuring actual, real voice talent. Unheard of I know. Where’s Russell Crowe as Prince Hans, right? The singers get to speak the roles, too. Crazy talk! The movie broke all kinds of records over Thanksgiving. It grossed $67.4 million over the 3-day weekend, making it the largest opening for a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. It was also the second overall highest in sales for the 5-day weekend after Catching Fire.

The movie is cute and endearing, but what I’m really posting (aka obsessing) about is the music. The nine songs are written by Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. You know Robert Lopez’s music if you’re a fan of Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon. The husband-and-wife writing team also penned Finding Nemo – The Musical (now playing at Animal Kingdom!).

So not only do you have Broadway-caliber writers, but as I said above, the characters are voiced by real Broadway talent, many of whom are Tony nominees. The cast includes Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana (this collection of videos is also worth your time), Idina Menzel, and Kristen Bell. I mean, come ON. And yes! Even Kristen Bell was on Broadway (like in the flop, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)!

Now, my roommate and I are obsessed with all of the songs so go Spotify the soundtrack after you see it. The collection is great. There’s the classic “Be Our Guest”-style group number (“Fixer Upper”), the hopeful ingénue’s number (“For the First Time in Forever”), and the hilarious sidekick tune (“In Summer”). The only crime is Groff doesn’t get a full song. What is that about?

But let me highlight two of the songs. The love song is called “Love Is an Open Door” and is sung by Bell and Fontana. It’s so adorably peppy, full of clever lyrics and melodic surprises, and also manages to poke fun at the form at the same time. Then there is the big power ballad “Let It Go” sung by Menzel. The roomie and I first got a preview of this when we were down in Disney World in November. At Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in Magic Kingdom, there was this epic light show projected on Cinderella’s castle, and we got to see a 30-second preview of this song. I was particularly tickled to hear Idina’s voice ringing out across Disney. She’s come so far!

Now what I’d love to do is link all of these songs so you can hear them, but I’d rather you go check out the movie. I’ll give you one though. I leave you with Let It Go!