Why you should be binge-watching ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Have you ever danced when no one’s watching? Really danced. You know, the kind of dancing where you’re blasting bad punk rock songs that somehow ends up in jumping on your bed doing ridiculous air guitar solos?

That’s what it kind of feels like binge-watching Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s TV musical rom-com “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It’s heroine Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is the kind of bad-ass that could give Emma Stone a run for her money in “Easy A” – the kind of fearless and impulsive heroine who quits her lucrative job at a big New York City law firm to move to middle-of-nowhere So-Cal to chase after an ex-boyfriend (Vincent Rodriguez III) that she had a brief two-month summer fling with at summer camp when she was 16.

Crazy and stupid? Yes. But on some level, it’s also absurdly amusing to watch. I mean, who hasn’t imagined that prince charming whose kiss wakes you up from your nightmares, that prince who rescues you from imprisonment, that prince who marries you out of poverty and generally makes your life more pleasant? And here’s a gal who’s taking charge of her life and actively trying to find him.

While we know real life doesn’t work this way and that a guy can’t fix our anxieties and depression, Bunch plays out these impossible fairy-tale fantasies — these fantasies that tells us that we can actually make it after quitting that miserable $95,000 job and moving to an island to scoop ice cream. That fantasy that we can be happy somehow and that we don’t have to medicate with pills or alcohol and that all your problems could magically disappear. To add to the fantastical and improbable, the cast at “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” occasionally break into original songs, singing about sexy French depressions, heavy boobs and urinary tract infections.

At times, the lyrics to the music sounds like the whimsical type of things a child would make up when narrating her whole life in song — not that that’s a bad thing. The “I have friends” song is extremely catchy and filled with cheerful optimism and self-denial.

At other times, the musical numbers parodies things we’re familiar with. It’s opening number “West Covina” (and its reprises) is a homage to those big, sweeping, Broadway musicals numbers where a character sings about those life-changing moments. In another number, a troupe of plaintiffs sing “Can you hear a trickling sound?” to the tune of “Les Miserables'” protest anthem “Do you hear the people sing?”

The music’s inspiration is wide and eclectic, though. The actors give a nod to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and old Hollywood in a song about settling for less.

A bartender (Fontana) plays a piano solo at an empty bar on Thanksgiving to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” a one-man boy band (Rodriguez) sings about kissing childhood dramas goodbye, and a pair of Jewish American Princesses perform a rap battle.

Even when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” seems like it’s following fairy-tale conventions, it’s constantly breaking them. The show’s heroine (Bloom) sings about being the villain rather than the fairy-tale princess and a bird abruptly flies away when Bloom attempts to sing to it.

What’s more is that Bunch isn’t some silly, damsel in distress; she’s a smart, resourceful and successful lawyer with degrees at both Harvard and Yale. Her prince also isn’t a white John Smith who kidnaps Pocahontas; the leading man’s a really nice Filipino bro named Josh Chan with white sidekicks like White Josh (David Hull) and Greg Serrano (Fontana).

And while the show’s girl-chases-after-guy plot seems to throw feminism out the window, Bloom and McKenna also insert scenes girls wish would really happen in real life. A musical number showing a guy seeing the ritual a girl goes through when preparing to go on a date with him ends with the guy calling up all his past hookups and apologizing for taking how he took how they looked for granted.

Bloom and McKenna’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a guilty pleasure and binge-watching all 18 episodes of its first season feels eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food all by yourself, but even so, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a refreshing show with substance — featuring a diverse and multiracial cast; witty, self-deprecating commentary; and encouraging the healthy kind of belly laughs that almost tastes as good as gooey marshmallow and caramel swirls with fudge fish.

The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna. The show’s first season is available on Netflix. 

 

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Revisiting ’71 in Belfast

About a half an hour into Yann Demange’s directorial debut, “’71,” we’re seated behind young British soldiers in a classroom. Like them, we’re getting a brief lesson about “the Troubles” in Belfast.

“This is the front lines, boys,” says a commanding officer, pointing at a map of Northern Ireland. It’s sectioned into clashing reds and greens, the color-codes for the civil war’s main participants. “Catholics and protestants living side by side, but at each other’s throats, divided by the Divis flats,” he says.

That, of course, is the cliff notes version of the 30-year conflict — indicative of Demange’s 99-minute movie. This 10-second soundbite is the only bit of context we’re given before we’re thrown into the war-ravaged streets of 1971-Belfast.

Like the film’s protagonist, a wide-eyed British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), we’re strangers to the Troubles of Ireland. The country and its conflict are seized and rewritten by conquering British forces. With each rewriting, their language (Gaelic) and stories become an even more distant memory.

That’s how “’71” handles the Troubles. The “victors” have taken Ireland’s history and have collectively rewritten it into a universal one. Ireland is directed by France (Demange), written by Scotland (playwright Gregory Burke) and filmed in the U.K. (Sheffield, Liverpool and Blackburn). The film is Irish in the way that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day: throwing back those Irish Car Bombs while decked out in green.

There’s plenty of car bombs in this film, but “’71” isn’t really about the opposing Irish factions blowing each other up. The narrative’s hijacked by this young British soldier who’s accidentally left behind by his platoon.

Hook inadvertently becomes both the vehicle for us to see the Irish peoples and a symbol for the conflict. The IRA want him dead. The British troops, stationed to assist the Royal Ulster Constabulary, want him back. It’s a deadly game of capture/eliminate the flag and the players are either fighting for a United Kingdom or an independent Ireland.

Of course, this game isn’t without its casualties. Hook’s British comrade is shot suddenly and violently. Buildings blow up. Cars and busses are set on fire. The boys with guns are kids with mums and sisters.

Among them include a perceptive, young Loyalist boy (Corey McKinley) who’s as spirited as the young Gavroche from “Les Miserables.” McKinley is fantastic, holding his own among men twice his side. With a stick in his hand, he boldly leads a mute Hook through a barricade of Loyalist men, who hand him and his comrade a beer. This self-assured boy’s about the same size and build as Hook’s timid younger brother, Darren (Harry Verity) — who’s waiting for him back in Derbyshire.

Demange and Burke fill their film with wonderfully poetic foils. Hook and his platoon’s first Irish opponents are a group of rowdy children, throwing water balloons rather than hand grenades. The British soldiers laugh when they realize the absurdity of the situation, but in subsequent scenes, children aren’t as harmless and enemies aren’t so clear-cut.

“’71” is a coming-of-age story of sorts, which teaches us as much as it teaches its characters. Like the “Dubliners” in James Joyce’s short stories, these characters are in a state of paralysis. Catholics and Protestants point their guns at each other in a Mexican standoff while the sun sets on both their dreams.

“’71” was written by Gregory Burke and directed by Yann Demange. 

Stammering through ‘The King’s Speech’

As far as problems go, not being able to speak without a stutter is a pretty embarrassing one. Especially if you’re King George VI (Colin Firth); radio speeches are pretty routine for rulers, after all (even for figureheads). Especially after Marconi invented the radio.

“This devilish device will change everything,” says his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). “In the past, all the king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors.”

That’s the premise of Tom Hooper’s (director of “Les Miserables“) 2011 Academy Award-winning picture, “The King’s Speech.”

When the film begins, it’s 1925 and Prince Albert “Bertie” Frederick Arthur George (Firth), the Duke of York, was to make a radio broadcast from Wembly Stadium for his father’s subjects.

It’s long and difficult. But as painful as this poor bloke’s pitiful plight is, “The King’s Speech” isn’t a comedy. None of his subjects laugh as he chokes out the words, st-st-stammering; we don’t even see (or hear) the whole speech.

After years of speech therapy, unconventional speech pathologist and an amateur Shakespearean actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) tries to conquer the Duke of York’s life-long speech impediment.

“I can assure you that no infant starts to speak with a stammer,” says Logue.

Logue angers Bertie, leading him through songs, nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and other exercises.

“Anyone who can shout vowels outside an open window can learn to deliver a speech,” Logue says decisively.

“The King’s Speech” is a fascinating period piece into the private life of a monarch. And that’s one of the film’s real strengths. David Seidler’s screenplay lets us into a world hidden behind closed palace gates. Bertie reluctantly relinquishes his manners and control, getting into shouting and swearing matches with his instructor. Logue expertly eggs him on, and not just on matters of speech. He makes sure Bertie also flourishes with his newfound voice. That’s seen in one brilliant scene when Logue sits on King George VI’s coronation throne, watching as the angry and reluctant king stammers at him.

“I have a voice!” Bertie eventually shouts.

“Yes, you do,” Logue answers.

“The King’s Speech” was directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler. The film won 2011 Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” also won the 2011 BAFTA Award for Best British Film. 

‘Les Miserables’ Lives On

For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.

Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.

While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.

Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.

The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.

Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.

The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.

On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.

Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.

But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.

After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.