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Monday, November 17, 2014

'Birdman': Keaton's Revenge

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in "Birdman"
Keaton and Norton
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Michael Keaton worked his way up the showbiz ladder, paying his dues in such now-forgotten television shows as Working Stiffs and Report to Murphy before soaring into the stratosphere with films like Mr. Mom, Night Shift and especially Beetlejuice. But when he put on the cowl to play Batman, his career — for better or worse — was never the same.

Now, playing Riggan Thomson in Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant new comedy/drama, Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Keaton takes on a role that very nearly mirrors his own life — and he runs with it. Riggan is a fllm star who lost momentum after playing superhero Birdman in a series of blockbusters back in the ‘90s, and is now trying to gain recognition as a serious actor by staging an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. He’s put everything he has into it, serving as writer, producer, director and star.

Michael Keaton in Birdman

When his terrible male lead (Jeremy Shamos) exits the production after being brained by a falling arc light, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), offers to bring in her man, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a hotshot Broadway actor, as a replacement. Riggan is thrilled at first, but is soon plagued by feelings of inadequacy when faced with a legitimate stage professional. Worse still, he feels that the more experienced actor is attempting to steal the show away. And when Mike is gushingly profiled on page one of the New York Times arts section, his suspicions are seemingly confirmed.

Fueling his paranoia is the voice of his alter ego, Birdman, constantly ringing in his head. He tells Riggin that he’s better than all of this, urging him to just run way from it all and go back to Hollywood. As opening day draws near and they run through a series of disastrous previews, Riggan begins second-guesses everything and gives in to bouts of fury, even as his producer (Zach Galifianakis) assures him that the show is getting good buzz.

He’s also afflicted by hallucinations that make it difficult to comprehend the real world. He’s out of synch with his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is serving as his assistant, and it barely registers when Laura (Andrea Riseborough), his femme lead and offstage lover, tells him that she may be pregnant with his child. Thankfully, as Birdman takes pains to remind him, he has telekinetic powers and the ability to fly…or does he?

In a film populated by fine performances, Keaton shines, providing layered and sympathetic work. He’s still manic, but the years have softened his edginess — perfect for this role. He’s nearly matched by Norton, whose arrogant Mike is a symbol of Broadway’s “superiority” to film as the only true art form. Stone, Watts and Riseborough are all given their memorable moments, and Galifianakis plays against type as the voice of reason. Amy Ryan is also wonderful as Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia, who clearly still adores him and mourns the death of their marriage.

The sharp screenplay by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo, pits not only the stage against film but also old versus new. Indeed, Riggan behaves as if his life stalled out along with his career back in the ‘90s. His refusal to participate in social media as a way of marketing himself to the new generation while hungering for legitimacy in the ancient world of the theater is a useless pursuit that Sam decries in an explosive rant (wonderfully delivered by the doe-eyed Stone).

Birdman is certainly the lightest film the gritty Inarritu has made to date, and yet it’s also his most satisfying. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Gravity) and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone, he makes the film flow as if it’s been shot in one continuous take. Lubeski’s camera constantly roves around the actors and slithers through the corridors of the St. James Theatre, where much of the action takes place. Adding to this sensation of nonstop movement is the unusual but effective all-percussion score provided by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.

The much-discussed fantasy sequences are well-integrated and even essential to the story. Who among us has never imagined, when things got really tough, that we could vanquish our enemies with a snap of our fingers or suddenly soar high into the air, leaving our problems far below us? That’s the universal message of Birdman, one of the year’s best and a sure contender come Oscar time.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Movie Review: 'Nightcrawler'

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a small-time thief who drives a junkheap and sells stolen goods to get by. When he brings a load of hot metal to a construction foreman, he inquires about a job, outlining his qualifications as if he's an upstanding young professional as opposed to a two-bit hustler. Clearly considering him to be delusional, the appalled man tells Bloom that he doesn't hire thieves. Unperturbed, he moves calmly on to his next opportunity.

He passes a car accident on the freeway and is intrigued by camera crews recording the action, so he pulls over. He catches up to one of the videographers, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), and asks him what he’s doing. Loder explains that he runs a freelance operation that  monitors the police band overnight and rushes to scenes of crime and violence that they capture on video and sell to local stations for their morning news shows.

Bloom decides that this could be a good job for him, so he steals a bicycle, pawns it for a camcorder and police scanner, and sets to work. The first scene he arrives at is a carjacking, and he is able to capture gory, close-up footage of the dying victim before being pushed away by the police. Loder is also ordered to stand back, and when he sees that Bloom is the reason for his ejection, he's furious.

Bloom goes to KWLA, the lowest-rated station in town, and talks his way into the office of the overnight news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who at first brushes him off, saying they’ve already acquired Loder’s stuff. But he insists that he was able to get closer than Loder, so she agrees to take a look. Although the quality is low, his footage is indeed more compelling, so she makes the purchase.

As weeks pass, Bloom continues to supply superior footage to an eager Nina, who compliments his "style," and his economic situation improves. He takes on an assistant, the desperate and homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also acquires a new vehicle, a cherry-red Mustang that he races at harrowingly high speeds to crime scenes, and better video equipment. His reputation in the business increases as well, so much that Loder comes to offer him a partnership, which he — of course — refuses.

Constantly pressured over ratings, Nina is willing to air the most egregious content, and the morals-free Bloom has no problem manipulating accident scenes to make them more dramatic. But as he descends into the pit, his confidence continues to increase.

Screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy takes a jaded view of Los Angeles that recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 Drive. As captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit, the streets are dark and dangerous, and the city is populated with characters who are either corrupt or corruptible. Bloom is a blatant misanthrope — at one point he even admits to a chronic dislike of humankind — but he provides the juice that other, equally opportunistic people are desperate for.

It’s always admirable to see an actor take a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and make him fascinating to watch, and that’s something Gyllenhaal has achieved here. Having dropped nearly 30 pounds to portray this parasite, he’s acquired a hungry, feral mien, and his already large eyes become positively enormous and unblinking.

Bloom is a kind of brethren to De Niro’s Travis Bickle, yet even Bickle had altruistic motives. Bloom is a total sociopath, having created his own persona via online study. His self-righteous diatribes alternate between hilarity and hideousness, and the fact that others even take him seriously is a telling condemnation of society.

Russo’s Nina is similarly tainted. Bouncing from job to job and realizing she’s not getting any younger, she enters into a devil’s pact with Bloom to make sure she’ll continue to be first in line for his footage. Her producer, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), attempts to stand in as the voice of reason, but his quiet objections are easily drowned out by the yowling madness of the news machine. Ahmed's Rick is equally appalled at the things he's being forced to do, but his situation and genuine terror of his clearly unhinged employer prevents him from doing anything about it.

Darkly satiric and relentlessly grim, Nightcrawler plays like the bastard child of Lumet's Network and Scorsese's Taxi Driver. It's bleak stuff indeed, but stylishly compelling.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What's the Matter with 'Carrie'?

The curiosity factor is high when it comes to Carrie: the Musical, whose status as a legendary flop still resonates. Its 1988 Broadway debut was met with scathing reviews, and it closed after only five performances with a loss of $7 million dollars. Since then, it's been revised, retooled and updated, but the question remains — "What's the matter with Carrie?"

The Woodlawn Theatre is hoping to answer that question with a production that preserves the essence of the story while peppering the script with modern references to texting and selfies. The familiar cast of characters is here — good girl Sue Snell (Megan McCarthy) and her all-star boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Cody Jones); mean girl Chris Hargensen (Alison Hinojosa) and her asshole boyfriend Billy Nolan (Walter Songer); Chris’s stooge, Norma (Tamara Brem); the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Gardner (Katie Benson); and, of course, Carrie White (Elise Pardue) and her fanatical mother, Margaret (Rebecca Trinidad).

As directed and choreographed by Christopher Rodriguez, Carrie looks and sounds good. Benjamin Grabill’s utilitarian set properly evokes a high school gymnasium, with sections of Carrie’s house on either side to serve as backdrops for key scenes at home. The five-piece band, under the direction of Josh Pepper, sounds great — and the vocal performances are fine.
Elise Pardue as Carrie

The problem lies within composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford’s score. When you’re working with such familiar territory as Stephen King's horror classic, you really need to bring your A-game. Alas, among the 20 songs in the show, only five or six of them really resonate. Too many seem to be treading water, as if they exist merely to fulfill the qualifications of a musical. And since special effects onstage are limited out of necessity, even more pressure is put on the performances to convey the drama.

Here again is where Rodriguez's production comes through. Pardue is fine as Carrie, morphing from timid geek to self-assured young woman with exceptional powers. Hinojosa and Songer are perfect as the high school couple you love to hate, and
McCarthy and Jones effectively represent the other side. Benson brings a lot of heart to the role of Miss Gardner, but it's Trinidad who really stands out as Margaret White. It certainly doesn’t hurt that some of the best songs in the show are given to her, and she delivers them with the emotion and ferocity that the piece needs much more of.
Pardue and Rebecca Trinidad

Carrie: the Musical plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through November 9th at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, San Antonio 78201. Tickets can be acquired online or by calling (210) 267-8388. There will also be a teen version of the show playing October 26-28 at 8 p.m.

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