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Feb 20/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Birdman (Movie); Don Giovanni (Opera); Elementary (TV)

Birdman (Movie) written by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu, Nichols Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo; directed by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu; starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Merritt Weaver, Andrea Wiseborough

Let’s put on a play!

A person could make a fascinating study of all the movies and books that have that suggestion as their launching pad. It provides a great thrust for a drama. You get the build-up to opening night, the backstage antics, the eccentricities and foibles of the performers, the squabbles among them, the theatre lore, the inter-play of illusion and reality as the actors step on and off the stage – all of it very satisfying for those of us who love this kind of thing.

Then why didn’t I enjoy this movie as much as some others of the genre?

Partly because of the fragmentary, explosive style of the movie. Scenes come blasting at you like shrapnel. It’s so in-your-face that I kept wanting to move further away from the screen – even though I was in the back row of the theatre. No question that you, the viewer, are intimately embedded in this story, but there’s not much standing back to get the broader perspective.

Who are these people and what the hell are they trying to do? You gradually twig to the fact that Riggan (Michael Keaton) is the washed-up star of a series of action movies. Decades ago, he was famous for his role as Birdman, a clone of Batman and other superheroes of that ilk. Now, he’s attempting to do something worthwhile on Broadway. His vehicle for accomplishing that is a play cobbled together from some of Raymond Carver’s stories. Not only has Riggan assembled the text, but he’s directing and starring in the production.

Ok, fine. I get that: an artist now wants to do something truly creative, having acquired his fame and fortune from schlock. But it’s by no means clear from the outset – unless you’ve read the publicity about the movie – that that’s the point of it all. To use the term favoured by critics these days, there isn’t a "through-line" to the piece. It’s a bunch of actors bumbling around and you can’t tell what’s up with them. Nothing is explained. We’re continually dropped into the middle of conversations, with the result that we feel like outsiders.

Also, it’s hard to take some of these characters as real people. For instance, Ed Norton plays Mike Shiner, an actor who’s brought in at the last minute to replace an actor who suffered an injury that may or may not have been accidental. Mike is supposed to be megastar whose name on the marquee creates long lines at the box office. But I couldn’t see how this jerk would merit such prestige. During a preview performance of this production, he hijacks the play and takes it in his own direction. Would any company tolerate that? In one scene, he tries to have actual intercourse on stage when it’s supposed to be simulated. He stands around naked in the wardrobe department as if he’s trying to put people on edge. For all this guy’s attempts to be outrageous, I don’t find him interesting or understandable. Part of the problem is the casting: Ed Norton just isn’t a very charismatic actor.

The same could be said, unfortunately, about Michael Keaton: he doesn’t connect with me. However, I do find Riggan’s situation intriguing and he does seem like a real person. So does Zach Galifianakis as his business manager. It’s something of a relief to see Mr. Galifianakis not trying to be funny with that fey persona that was supposed to be so endearing in many of his other movies. And Emma Stone, as Riggan’s daughter, just back from rehab, has an odd manner that strikes a distinctly authentic note.

Granted, this movie is trying to be something other than the typical example of the "Let’s put on a play" genre. There are surrealistic elements. Riggan seems to have some telekinetic powers left over from his Birdman days. He keeps hearing a deep voice that we take to be his thoughts but we eventually find out that it’s his Birdman character addressing him. In keeping with that weird element, scenes backstage and scenes onstage sometimes dovetail by a kind of magical effect. On the other hand, there’s lots of slapstick, farce and just plain silliness – as when an actor is locked out of the theatre accidentally in mid-performance and has to run along Broadway in his underpants, or when somebody apparently wants to commit suicide but only manages to injure his nose.

As with other movies by Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu, there’s a lot of inventive creativity on display, but the overall effect is something of a hodgepodge. You can admire a writer/director for trying something different from the typical comedy about the theatre but, sometimes the iffy results of experimentation show why the tried-and-true formulae work better.

 

Don Giovanni (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte; directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov; starring Andrea Silvestrelli, Jane Archibald, Michael Schade, Jennifer Holloway, Sasha Djihanian, Zachary Nelson, Russell Braun, Kyle Ketelsen; conducted by Michael Hofstetter; Canadian Opera Orchestra and Chorus; February 18th.

It doesn’t take much coaxing to get me to a performance of Don Giovanni, given that it’s almost my favourite opera – second only to The Marriage of Figaro. But my main reason for seeing this production was the radically new interpretation.

Mozart’s music is equally sublime in these two operas, so the reason that Figaro rates more highly in my opinion, is that it works better as a play; the stagecraft is more solid. In Giovanni, by contrast, there isn’t as sturdy a dramatic structure. In bursts of short scenes, people rush on, do their thing, then rush off; then it’s on with another bunch of people doing something else. There isn’t a natural flow in a way that one scene leads to another. Times and situations change abruptly, without a lot of coherence.

That problem with Giovanni seems to have bothered director Dmitri Tcherniakov too. The way he has dealt with it is one of the most innovative aspects of his production. To make the proceedings seem a little less helter-skelter, Mr. Tcherniakov has separated the scenes from each other, imagining each as taking place, not immediately after the preceding one, but some time later. A black curtain comes down between scenes, and white lettering is projected onto the curtain to tell us that the next scene is taking place a day later, or a couple of weeks or a month later, as the case may be. I think this is intended to make what happens in each scene a little more intelligible or plausible, instead of its all happening in one big rush.

Further unconventional touches abound. The setting, updated to our own times, is a vast, airy room in what looks like a baronial manor house. Towering bookcases give the impression that this might be the manor’s library. The introduction of many aspects of contemporary life work very well. Zerlina in jeans and a denim jacket – of course! Leporello showing off with a yo-yo and bubble gum – why not? From time to time, there’s a bit of comedy involving the panel of light switches in the room.

Some of Mr. Tcherniakov’s directorial decisions – such as dispensing with disguises and different locations – work brilliantly and others present major challenges. (Note: plot spoilers, here!) When Donna Elvira first enters, she seems not to recognize Giovanni even though there’s no impediment to her doing so. But I could go with that. It seemed like they were playing a bit of a game with each other; it was as if she was teasing him with talk about that awful Giovanni, in hopes that he would respond lovingly. Fair enough – a complicated psychological game.

I loved the fact that Elvira responded to the end of Leporello’s catalogue aria with a hearty laugh. You usually get a buildup of rage and indignation on Elvira’s part as she’s forced to hear the formidable list of Giovanni’s conquests. How much more interesting that she should laugh it off: it’s all ridiculous to her, because she knows in her heart that she’s the only one for him.

It was also very effective to have the deceased Commendatore show up now and then in the background, as a sort of projection of Giovanni’s guilt feelings, distracting him from whatever was going on around him.

But to have the Commendatore meet his grisly end by getting bonked by a couple of books falling from a shelf? I don’t think so. More troubling, how is it that Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, who are in the room when Don Giovanni kills her father, don’t realize that it was Giovanni who did it? I found it impossible to go along with the charade, later in the piece, whereby Elvira is supposed to be duped into thinking that Giovanni is wooing her when it’s actually Leporello. There was no subterfuge involved, just the fact that Leporello was wearing Giovanni’s camel hair coat. How were we supposed to believe that the woman could fall for that? Further regarding that emblematic coat of Giovanni’s, it’s all very well to have Zerlina ending up ambivalent, even when she’s supposed to be reconciled to Masetto; one can well imagine that she might still feel drawn to Giovanni. But to have her cradling Giovanni's camel hair coat while she is supposed to be telling Masetto that she wants to heal him with her fondling – that doesn’t make any sense at all. To me, this is a case where directorial invention amounts to denying the import of the text.

Happily, some of Mr. Tcherniakov’s best touches involve Don Giovanni. In his aria, "La ci darem la mano" – his seduction of Zerlina – Giovanni is simply sitting in a chair. A tired, ageing rou, he doesn’t have to get up and woo his prey in an intimate, cozy way. The urgency of his lust for her is evident in the intensity of his stare. She, standing half way across the room, backed up against a table, is clearly transfixed. This scene was so different from the more physical kind of seduction usually enacted, that it became one of those rare instances where you feel that something startlingly real is taking place on stage.

Another of the great moments for Giovanni was his equally seductive aria, "Deh vieni alla finestra." Mr. Tcherniakov has Giovanni drunk – staggeringly, nearly falling-down drunk – from the outset of the second act. When it comes to this aria, then, there’s no need for him to be singing, as the traditional staging would have it, to a window where a pretty maid is sitting. This Giovanni thinks he spots some such window, or he imagines that he does. But then he loses track of that idea and he circles around the stage pouring out his amorous vocalizing to whatever image happens to be occupying his alcohol-soaked brain at the moment. In the same spirit, it was perfectly believable for Giovanni and Leporello, rather than encountering the Commendatore’s statue in a cemetery, to be hallucinating the vision of it while remaining in the manor library. Come the final scene, it makes perfect sense that there’s no actual banquet. Giovanni is so sozzled now that he presides at the banquet table with merely a bottle to sustain him and the rest of the company sit in their places at the table, stoically humouring him.

Much of this interpretation of the Don is surely due to Mr. Tcherniakov, but it’s to Russel Braun’s credit that he turns it into the best Don that I’ve ever seen. Instead of the enthusiastic, testosterone-fuelled skirt-chaser, what we have here is a disillusioned, jaded guy who keeps throwing himself into the game simply because he’s programmed to do it and he doesn’t know what else to do. Still, the chase does occasionally produce a spurt of excitement, whereupon he literally bounces up and down with boyish glee. Russell Braun – in sweaty t-shirt for the second act – pulls all this off with great physical energy and commitment, meanwhile managing to produce very beautiful singing (even though an announcement on the night of the performance I attended informed us that he was suffering from a cold).

Given the overall excellence, for the most part, of the musical contributions by all the other participants – singers and members of the orchestra – it was nearly a perfect evening. Except for the matter of those scene breaks as handled by Mr. Tcherniakov. The darkness and the silence between scenes tended to deaden the experience. Instead of making the sequence of events seem more plausible, these lulls made it seem as if we were witnessing a series of short pieces that were struggling to amount to a story. As for the projected notifications regarding the number of hours or days between scenes, in retrospect they look pretentious. How much could it actually matter whether any given scene took place two days or two weeks after the preceding one? Such specifics didn’t help to illuminate anything in the text, as far as I could tell.

I think Don Giovanni works better without the gaps between scenes. It can be a bit confusing when things fly by so fast, but Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, his librettist, knew what they were doing. They were anticipating the effect of the movies.

 

Elementary (TV Series) created by Robert Doherty; starring Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, Aidan Quinn, Jon Michael Hill

You don’t find much commentary about tv on Dilettante’s Diary. That’s because I’m allergic to commercials. But new technology makes it possible for somebody with that affliction to catch up on some of what the world has been watching. Thanks to DVDs, I recently saw about twelve programs from the first two seasons of Elementary. That should be enough to give a person a good sense of how the series has been going.

Very well. It’s clever. Lots of interesting twists and surprises in the stories. Good use of the kind of brainy deduction and analysis that was so characteristic of the original Sherlock Holmes. And Jonny Lee Miller is excellent as the reincarnation – if that’s what it is – of the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. At times, I had to wonder if the scriptwriters’ emphasis on Sherlock as the neurotic, antsy, persnickety, anal-retentive, recovering drug addict was putting the character in a kind of straightjacket but Mr. Miller manages to keep him believably human. If you have any question about Mr. Miller’s superlative qualities as an actor, just watch the scene where he’s struggling with inner conflict when he tries to expresses his condolences to the partner of a gay friend who has died of a heroin overdose.

One thing that this show demonstrates vividly is that the cell phone is a godsend to scriptwriters for film and tv these days. It’s so easy to end a scene emphatically with the tone of that cell phone: Ooops! Gotta go! On to another scene! Of course, we always did have telephones as prompts leading to the next scene, but they weren’t as omnipresent as cell phones are. A detective in the pre-digital days couldn’t get a phone call taking her or him in a different direction when walking along the street or driving in a car.

I don’t know whether it’s because of my being unaccustomed to watching tv crime shows, or whether it’s because of the particular intensity of this one – but I often found the proceedings hard to follow. (That could also be due to the fact that Jonny Lee Miller mutters so much.) Eventually, I did get most of the important points of each story, but I was always scrambling to keep up. It was almost as if – perish the thought – I needed the commercial breaks to reflect on and to digest what was happening.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com