Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

10/14/2014

Birdman Is the Very Definition of a Tour de Force

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Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) films the teeming backstage showbiz drama Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in what’s made to look like a single take, transcending time and sometimes space, soaring off into fantasy while essentially remaining—thanks to the illusion of fluidity—grounded in the here and now. The movie centers on the fevered exertions of Riggan Thomson, a fading movie star played by Michael Keaton (he made his fortune, like Keaton, in the role of a superhero), to prove himself on Broadway in a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The camera hurtles after Riggan from his dressing room to the stage (often he’s chased by his harried producer, played by Zach Galifianakis) and back to his dressing room, with glimpses on the way of, among others, a whiny actress (Naomi Watts), her hot-dog actor boyfriend (Edward Norton), and Riggan’s mouthy, fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone). In between his clashes with actors, Riggan is taunted by the voice of his old character, Birdman, who reminds him of his sorry state and how much more deserving he is than the rest of the wretched showbiz world. How the superheroic have fallen!

Birdman is the very definition of a tour de force, and Iñárritu’s overheated technique meshes perfectly with the (enjoyable) overacting—the performers know this is a theatrical exercise and obviously relish the chance to Do It Big. But what comes out of the characters’ mouths is not so fresh. In the course of the film’s two hours, we learn that Riggan wasn’t there for his daughter growing up, that he was lousy to his wife (Amy Ryan), that he has an actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) to whom he can’t make the ultimate commitment. Mostly Riggan marinates in self-pity—for all his energy, he’s a tiresome character. I had to remind myself that, good as Keaton is, he has been so much freer and more fearless onscreen. Though he got rich as Batman, he made his mark as a clown; his Beetlejuice the bio-exorcist remains one of the modern screen’s most rollicking comic creations. The somber Birdman persona doesn’t connect with anything in Riggan’s or Keaton’s personality; it’s just a pretentious literary conceit. How much different this movie would be if...


Telluride '14: Birdman

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*/****
starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough
screenplay Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

by Walter Chaw A benighted, gangly thing midway between a mid-life crisis Black Swan and the Noises Off version of Brazil, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is the lonesome yawp of a limited, one-trick-pony given now to defensiveness and self-consciousness. Assailing the tale of a washed-up former mega-star of superhero blockbusters, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton, check), who's trying to gain a measure of self-respect on Broadway in a Raymond Carver adaptation he wrote, directed, and is starring in, the picture doesn't do anything it doesn't warn us about first and then apologize for after. It covers the three preview performances leading to opening night in one, digitally-unbroken take, making room along the way for Method asshole Michael Shiner (Method asshole Edward Norton)--who steals both the play Birdman is about and the play-within-a-play conceit of the movie by stealing the movie--and tons of narrative melodramatics, including a neurotic leading lady (Naomi Watts), Riggan's burnout daughter (Emma Stone), and his stressed-out lawyer/manager (Zach Galifianakis). The whole story roils with desperation and disappointment, and the film-as-object does the same--the transparency between those two things (cine-reality and sad-truth-of-it reality) cited repeatedly in the screenplay-by-committee in exhausting, self-abnegating fashion. Birdman is an incredible bore. The closest analogue in feel is Todd Solondz's unfortunate riposte to his detractors, Storytelling, but at least that one wasn't all tarted up in attention-grabbing technical pandering. Birdman is about as clever as that Blues Traveler song: the tedious offense of idiots calling you an idiot.

Consider the moment early on when Shiner tells Riggan to cut out the fat in his script and stop repeating things multiple times in different iterations, then marvel as Birdman proceeds to spend itself rubbing the same elitist post for the next two-plus hours. "It's so meta--" the filmmakers might crow, though I wonder if it was intentional that Birdman be...



10/10/2014

'It's Only a Play' review: Smart and funny from Terrence McNally

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If "It's Only a Play" were not so hilarious, it may well have been remembered as the meanest comedy ever to name names -- I mean real-live names -- on Broadway. If the entire dream cast of Terrence McNally's backstage revenge play had less than split-millisecond timing, the merciless inside-showbiz observations about the theater and theaterfolk might wound deeper than they amuse.

Instead, McNally's major update and overhaul of his 1985 work is likely to remind the gleefully unrepentant among us of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's quote that, more or less, said, "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me."

Finding anyplace to sit at this hot-ticket limited run, however, is going to be hard. The production, directed by Jack O'Brien at the sensational top of his game, co-stars Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing,

F. Murray Abraham, Megan Mullally and Rupert Grint (all grown up since "Harry Potter"). Less famous, but not for long, is Micah Stock, making his Broadway debut as the starry-eyed theater newcomer.

He checks coats at the town-house party after the opening of a new play. Everyone who matters has congregated upstairs in the dilettante producer's sleek, silvery beige bedroom (designed by Scott Pask) while guests party downstairs. All await the reviews, specifically that of The New York Times, whose head critic is eviscerated, gratuitously, by name.

Lane revels in the ego and insecurity of the actor with the TV series who turned down a part written for him by his playwright-buddy, underplayed with deft earnestness and panic by Broderick, the comedy's straight man. Channing is delicious as an aging star with drug issues and a parolee's ankle bracelet. Mullally has a dumb-smart way with malaprops as the eager fledgling producer. Grint -- all spiked red hair and raccoon eyes -- is perfectly bratty as the British directing genius, while Abraham skulks creepily around as a vicious critic with an agenda.

Apropos of agendas, McNally appears to set loose all the accumulated hurt and love from his long career. Some targets are as new as the cast of "Matilda." Others -- American playwrights oppressed by the British -- are old gripes in new bottles. And a few -- opening night reviews on TV? -- seem to have sneaked in from the 1985 script. As long as they're not up there laughing at you, however, this is the rare Broadway comedy that's as smart as...


It's Only a Play

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It’s Only a Play. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (see Broadway). By Terrence McNally. Directed by Jack O’Brien. With F. Murray Abraham, Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Rupert Grint, Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, Micah Stock. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.

It’s Only a Play: In brief

A neophyte playwright (Matthew Broderick) anxiously awaits reviews of his Broadway debut in Terrence McNally's bitchy but affectionate homage to show folk, which appeared in various incarnations at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982 and ’85. This revival, directed by Jack O'Brien, also stars the great Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham and Harry Potter alum Rupert Grint.

It’s Only a Play: Theater review by David Cote

“Tonight, everyone’s a critic,” says TV actor James Wicker (Lane), in town to celebrate the Broadway debut of his playwright friend Peter (Broderick). They’re at the opening-night party—an A-list fete thrown by lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally)—and all are nervously awaiting the reviews. Air kisses and extravagant compliments fly, but everyone is mentally tearing the show to pieces. As I like to say, the only people harsher than critics are the ones acting in the show or paying to see it. Wicker’s line is one of the few honest remarks in Terrence McNally’s otherwise cliché-filledIt’s Only a Play. Mostly plotless and spun from the sketchiest of stereotypes and hoariest of showbiz prejudices, this insider trifle is too long, too shallow and not nearly funny enough.

Last seen Off Broadway in 1985 at Manhattan Theatre Club, this compendium of digs at sadistic reviewers, drug-addled divas and Pollyanna producers probably earned its laughs on a smaller, cattier scale. But pumped up to fill the Schoenfeld at top ticket prices, featuring miscast celebrities and a revised script force-fed topical references, the satire sags by the two-hour mark. But that doesn’t stop McNally from airing every grievance and petty peeve he’s accumulated in the intervening 29 years. There are the customary paeans to the nobility of theater artists and their sacrifices for the wicked stage, but the evening’s dominant mood is bitter, out-of-touch self-regard. Practically the only member of the theater world who escapes insult is the audience—unless you count the experience of sitting through such weak tea.

The first...



10/08/2014

Gone Girl movie review

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(MA15+) 4.5 out of 5.

Director: David Fincher.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry, Patrick Fugit, Neil Patrick Harris.

Ben Affleck's naturalistic but nuanced performance in Gone Girl is Oscar-worthy.

DAVID Fincher loves a good mystery, and no one does a mystery quite like him.

Take the depraved killer thriller Seven, or the methodical search-for-a-psycho Zodiac, or the highly effective if ultimately redundant American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - all three of these films have been not only intense whodunnits, but also mesmerising journeys to the dark side that unravel with equal amounts of dread and intrigue.

Add to this collection Gone Girl, another gut-clenching mystery that doesn't so much unravel but rather corkscrew its way through some delicious plot twists.

The credit for this goes to Gillian Flynn, adapting her own novel into a rivetingly kinked screenplay.

It centres on the disappearance and suspected murder of pretty Baltimore housewife Amy Dunne (Pike) and the increasing suspicion that Nick (Affleck) may have been responsible. 

The ensuing media circus and police investigation raise more and more questions, as Gone Girl becomes less about the who and more about the how and why.

Perhaps more interesting is what all these queries say about its many themes, such as the nature of marriage and our dreams and goals, and what happens when they don't go to plan, plus there's a disturbing insight into the power of the media and the potential darkness that exists behind the closed doors of a seemingly happy home.

It's Flynn's plotting that takes the cake, but it's Fincher's direction that bakes it to perfection. Even though much of the film takes place in the sunny outdoors of suburbia or similarly everyday settings, there's an ominous tone that Fincher invokes with ease.

He's ably assisted by regular scorers Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, who turn in their most discordant soundtrack to date, which is predominantly good and aids the sense of dread but unfortunately threatens to overpower the dialogue at times. 

It would all be for nought with the wrong cast. Fortunately, we have Affleck in career best form, which some would say is damning him with faint praise, but if you've ever doubted Affleck's talents, this is the movie that will change your mind. His naturalistic but nuanced performance is Oscar-worthy.

As is Pike's, who deserves to...


TRASHY ‘GONE GIRL’ GETS AWAY FROM FINCHER

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Buried somewhere beneath the button-pushing gender politics and all-too-convenient plot twists in Gone Girl, there are some mildly interesting points being made about modern marriage. But after two and a half hours of soapy ridiculousness that wouldn’t be out of place on TV’s The Bold and the Beautiful, the movie just seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

The film’s title not only refers to the fact that Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has literally gone missing at the beginning of this tonally uneven thriller but also that she checked out of her marriage years earlier. Her emotionally stunted husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), has done the same.

Flashbacks of their sexually charged courtship and early heyday are presented along with the present-day story, where Nick is under heavy suspicion for her murder. He’s also a philandering jerk who’s having a hard time feeling too bad about her disappearance.

Director David Fincher’s masterstroke was casting Affleck, who has his typical hollow look behind the eyes that fits the part perfectly. But when the circumstances change — and they do, wildly so — Affleck doesn’t have the range it takes to be convincing and drive home some of the story’s outrageous turns.

Gone Girl is based on the best-selling novel by former Kansas University student and Kansas City native Gillian Flynn, who also single-handedly adapted the screenplay. Her sexually frank and often mean-spirited outlook on modern relationships is fresh, but too often Amy (in flashbacks) and Nick spout dialogue and narration that seems more agenda-based than character-based.

Fincher (Zodiac, Seven) is reliably dark, infusing the first half of Gone Girl with the appropriate amount of dread and red-herring doubt. Once the film shifts gears into a scattershot serial-drama-cum-media satire, he’s less reliable, however, and loses control.

The final act drags and drags while it struggles to refocus, and the characters become disappointing clichés. Pike is buried under the weight of the script’s wannabe high-minded trash, and Affleck can’t commit to Nick’s unlikely turnaround.

Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also have a couple “look at me” menacing moments in the score, but their contribution, too, is hampered by wildly differing tones.

Gone Girl wants to be lots of different kinds of...



10/01/2014

Rita Wilson Performs in New York With David Geffen, Mike Nichols, Barry Diller In Attendance: Concert Review

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It seems like a daunting prospect to begin a career as a singer-songwriter at the age of 57. But then again, Rita Wilson has something of an advantage. A screen and television actress with extensive credits, she’s also produced such film hits as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mamma Mia! And, let’s face it, being married to Tom Hanks doesn’t hurt. Hence, her two-week run at New York City’s venerable Café Carlyle, the former home, as she reminded us, of such legendary performers as Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch.

Fortunately for audiences paying the stiff cover charge, she proved herself no mere moonlighter. Performing a mix of cover songs culled from her 2012 debut release, AM/FM, and original numbers from her second album due next year, she delivered a winning set before an opening night crowd that included such heavy-hitters as David Geffen, Mike Nichols, Barry Diller,Gayle King, Christiane Amanpour and her cheering hubby.

Clearly jazzed about her making her Carlyle debut, Wilson displayed an infectious exuberance that went a long way towards compensating for any technical deficiencies. Her voice is neither powerful nor particularly agile, but it’s pleasantly husky and serves well her original material, which leans heavily on the pop-rock style of the 1960s and 1970s.

The new songs, co-written with a variety of collaborators, are direct and personal lyrically, ranging from emotive ballads like “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You” to joyously up-tempo numbers including “Strong Tonight,” “Along for the Ride” and “Girls’ Night In.” “Still Gone” was a moving tribute to her deceased loved ones, while “Joni” paid eloquent tribute to one of her self-professed musical heroes, Joni Mitchell.

Played by a tight four-piece band including her musical director/guitarist Andrew Doolittle, the original material was delivered in engaging pop-rock arrangements that matched such well-chosen covers as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Please Come to Boston” and the Supremes’ “Come See About Me.”

Belying her lengthy acting career, Wilson’s onstage patter seemed a bit stiff and overly scripted at times, but her warmth and enthusiasm shone through nonetheless, particularly with an anecdote about having worked...


Rita Wilson Has Personality, but It Doesn’t Mean She Should Sing

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Rita Wilson, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Hanks, has arrived at New York’s swanky Café Carlyle, a sacred watering hole for the rich and tasteful known for celebrating the Great American Songbook, for an act of insipid bubble gum rock that really makes you wonder who’s booking the place. There’s not a pinch of Cole Porter in sight, no whiff of Jerome Kern in the air. Ms. Wilson writes her own songs. They are awful.

With her Technicolor smile and open-hearted personality, Ms. Wilson looks like the kind of lady you’d like to spend a pleasant amount of time with. But not her songs. The problem is, she sings them too, and they’re not worth the effort. Half Bulgarian, half Greek, which she says makes her “Bulgreek,” is an odd mixture, but in Hollywood, where she lives, it’s better than “Bulmeek.” Otherwise, she’s a California cliché—trendy clothes from Rodeo Drive, all muscles and veins from too much gym, and too much sun from too much tennis and too many $90,000 foreign convertibles with the tops down. Think of a sunburned Farrah Fawcett.

The songs: She grew up on a diet of Carole King, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell instead of Mabel Mercer, and she imitates them all. But aside from a trio medley of their own pop-rock compositions, the music on the program features 13 tunes written by her, with a small army of lyricists, that all sound alike. You get hackneyed themes like women being strong after men do them wrong, women forgiving men, women coping with death and the humiliation of getting dumped, women deriving pleasure from each other with no men allowed, women lost, women alone, women grateful, women seeking freedom while desperately searching for love. (“Girls’ night in / it’s no sin…Drink all you want / It’s a girls’ night in.”) They’re loud and pointless, the kind of stuff teenage girls play on boomboxes outside Beverly Hills High School. Blunt rhymes (“It hasn’t always been this way / But now I’m living for today”) and immature sentiments (“When I see a butterfly / I see you and I don’t know why”) dominate. I rather liked a thing called “Talking to Me,” a sincere anthem to friendship, but Lorenz Hart wrote it better as “Talking to My Pal” in Pal Joey. 

Can Rita Wilson sing? Who can tell? She has personality and her self-effacing patter is funny when she...



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