Thursday, December 25, 2008


How, some might wonder, could Adolf Hitler convince an entire nation to support his destructive ambitions so blindly, with no regard for the most basic morality? The answer is that not all Germans did, as the World War II espionage thriller "Valkyrie" (MGM/United Artists) effectively demonstrates.

The film is a generally well-made and engrossing re-creation of the true-life plot -- the last of many -- to assassinate Adolf Hitler (David Bamber) and take over the government of a nearly defeated Germany in 1944. The title derives from the code word for Hitler's emergency plan that would have the army reserves stabilize the government in the event of his death. (The story has already had several American and German cinematic tellings.)

Though in early scenes we see an unsuccessful attempt on the Fuhrer's plane by Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), whose bomb -- cleverly camouflaged as Cointreau bottles -- is loaded just before takeoff, "Valkyrie" concentrates mainly on the efforts of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) and a group of other disenchanted army officers to succeed where he failed.

Stauffenberg asserts, "Hitler is not only the archenemy of the entire world, but the archenemy of Germany," and feels it is his duty not only to save the country, but most especially, the human lives -- Jews, Russians and POWs -- at risk of slaughter.

Among those active participants in the German Resistance movement or those more passively complicit are Gen. Friederich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard), Gen. Friederich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp) and Maj. Otto Ernst Remer (Thomas Kretschmann).

Stauffenberg will deposit a rigged suitcase at a meeting with Hitler at his East Prussian headquarters, Wolf's Lair, and leave at the appropriate moment, while the other conspirators implement the coup in Berlin. At least that's how it's all supposed to work.

The film was handsomely shot in Germany, at many of the actual locations, and director Bryan Singer maintains a taut, suspenseful pace. But though one obviously roots for the good guys to win, Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander's script doesn't quite succeed in making you care much about the individual characters, even Stauffenberg -- who desperately worries about his devoted wife (Carice van Houten) and small children as the conspiracy threatens to unravel -- jeopardizing their lives.

Suspense is also inescapably diluted by the historical foreknowledge that the plot will not succeed.

The performances are all strong, though it must be said that, while Cruise cuts a dashing figure in his eye patch and uniform, his All-American can-do determination seems at odds with the more imposing gravitas of his estimable English and European colleagues. Hokey or not, the cast perhaps should have adopted consistent German accents.

Caveats aside, this is an exciting story about moral responsibility and bravery in the face of evil.

Marley & Me

Though "Marley & Me" (Fox/Regency) is ostensibly about a dog -- a big, rambunctious and unruly one at that -- this heartwarming adaptation of John Grogan's best-seller is, essentially, the story of a marriage and family, and one of the most positive ones produced by Hollywood in recent years.

Deceptively plotless, its rambling pace seems designed to mirror life itself in charting the true story of John (Owen Wilson) and his wife, Jenny (Jennifer Aniston), who leave snowy Michigan at the start of the film for sunny West Palm Beach, Fla., where they each land jobs with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

John's reporter friend, Sebastian (Eric Dane), recommends him to the paper's gruff but good-hearted editor, Arnie Klein (Alan Arkin). John gets the job, but soon envies his friend's plum assignments, because he himself is saddled with routine stories.

When John confides to Sebastian his apprehensions about starting a family, the latter suggests a puppy to ease the transition to parenthood.

The cute little Labrador the couple adopts quickly grows into a 100-pound monster, lovable yes, but destructive and uncontrollable in the extreme. There are plenty of scenes of Marley running amok, most of them more wince-inducing than funny.

Yet throughout all this -- including a disastrous interlude at a dog obedience school run by the martinet Ms. Kornblut (Kathleen Turner) -- John and Jenny accept Marley for all his faults, their tolerance emblematic of the movie's compassionate worldview.

At work, John reluctantly accepts Arnie's suggestion that he write a human interest column -- a sorry detour, John thinks, from his serious aspirations -- but it develops that the columns he writes about Marley become hugely popular.

Eventually, John and Jenny decide to "try" for a baby, and she does indeed become pregnant, but loses the child. This poignant moment finally gives the film the momentum that sustains it to the end.

Another child, the first of three, will come, and Marley will remain -- against all odds -- an integral part of their household through the joys and vicissitudes of family life.

Director David Frankel's adaptation really captures the essence of life in a most natural way. Scott Frank and Don Roos' script is to be commended for not loading the story with melodramatic incident.

Wilson and Aniston are perfectly cast, and make a most believable and engaging couple. The affirmation of marriage and parenthood is overwhelmingly positive. The couple rarely even quarrel until Jenny becomes understandably overwhelmed with the double burdens of motherhood and a hyperactive dog, but their union is only momentarily jeopardized.

John's playboy friend, Sebastian, whom John so envies for his career success, is shown to have an ultimately empty life in a sharp comparison with the chaotic but fulfilling richness of the Grogans' life.

The bittersweet ending will speak powerfully to anyone who's ever had a deep emotional connection to a pet. At a recent press screening, a roomful of hard-bitten critics fought a losing battle with their tear ducts.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

By Harry Forbes

"We're meant to lose the people we love; how else are we to know how important they are to us?" a character asks rhetorically in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount), an overly long but highly imaginative expansion (and updating) of a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.

And in the story of a man born old who grows younger in appearance as he ages, death is always part of the fabric of life.

The story opens in New Orleans, where the titular character, played most impressively throughout by Brad Pitt narrating with a languorous Southern accent, is born with the face of an old man, as his mother dies in childbirth. His crazed-with-grief father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), races out of their house, and deposits the baby on the steps of a retirement home.

Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the black attendant there, takes pity on the child, and announces to her skeptical male companion (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) that she will raise the white child, and so she lovingly does. In this environment, death is a natural and frequent occurrence that everyone takes in stride.

Young Benjamin, with his wizened face and bald pate, hobbles around like an arthritic oldster, and under Queenie's overly protective care is rarely allowed to venture far from the home.

One of the elderly residents introduces him to her granddaughter Daisy (Elle Fanning), who seems to glean Benjamin's youthful spirit, and a bond develops.

As Benjamin ages, he starts to look marginally younger, though is still an elderly man. He joins the staff of a tugboat run by rough-hewn Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who introduces Benjamin to his first sexual experience at a brothel. (Except for this very brief scene, overt sexual elements are minimal.) Later, and now looking like the Brad Pitt we know, he has his first love affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a diplomat in the Russian seaport of Murmansk.

When he returns to New Orleans, he meets the grown Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an aspiring ballet dancer. Though she boldly suggests an affair, he declines, and they do not connect romantically until much later in the story (when their respective ages are better matched). When they do, the romance is bittersweet, knowing their time together will be all too brief as they age in opposite directions.

Under David Fincher's direction, the leads deliver very fine performances and the outstanding digital effects make the forward and backward aging remarkably believable. Blanchett is first seen as a dying old woman, having her daughter (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin's diary.

Eric Roth's clever script (with Robin Swicord) more than a little resembles his earlier "Forrest Gump." The rich production design and atmospheric cinematography are further pluses.

This most unusual and often melancholy story -- presenting as it does a unique, often profound perspective on the transience of human life and how we deal with the people we meet and the things we experience including death -- makes thought-provoking and ultimately poignant viewing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shrek the Musical

This latest carbon copy of a classic animated film re-creates the movie experience as closely as any, enhanced by composer Jeanine Tesori's generally catchy new tunes. About the only significant business your kids might miss is Fiona's kung-fu tangle with Robin Hood.

Otherwise, all the film's gags (and sentiment) are intact, along with some smart, sometimes campy updating. But unfortunately David Lindsay-Abaire's script adds some unwelcome tastelessness. Shrek's occasional burping has been enhanced by a stream of flatulence jokes, which will only delight little boys who find this sort of thing riotously funny.

Brian D'Arcy James channels Mike Myers' vocal mannerisms, but creates a fully dimensional character. Sutton Foster proves a knockabout comic talent as Fiona. The likable Daniel Breaker can scarcely help but follow Eddie Murphy's inspired readings as Donkey.

The film's positive message about being true to yourself remains intact. Jason Moore directs with fidelity and affection for the source material. But just as the proportionate dimensions of the characters are, by necessity, different with human actors -- Shrek is less than ogre-size, Donkey is as tall as Shrek, and so on -- the result, though never less than entertaining, falls short of the Disney film-to-stage adaptations it seems eager to emulate (The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway; (212) 239-6262 or

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

London Stage Overview 2 - Fall 2008

Several classics there, including relative rarities by August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov, possess the cathartic and redemptive power of the best plays. The former's "Creditors" was given a powerful mounting -- tautly directed by actor Alan Rickman -- at the intimate Donmar Warehouse.

In the story the ex-husband (Owen Teale) of a capricious artist (Anna Chancellor) poisons the mind of her new young husband (Tom Burke). The plot strained credulity but in the hands of these three pros one barely noticed.

So too, "Ivanov," generally reckoned one of Chekhov's lesser plays, emerged top-drawer in the Donmar Warehouse's staging, the first of four classics given at the larger Wyndham's Theatre, since the company's own venue sells out so quickly. (Classic plays with Jude Law, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench follow later this season.)

Kenneth Branagh -- lately preoccupied largely with movie directing -- has made a triumphant stage comeback as the inexplicably spiritless government official who's fallen out of love with his dying Jewish wife and wary of the attentions of a close friend's daughter.

Like "The Seagull" and other Chekhov masterworks, the play mixes the comic and tragic in a way that defies contemporary classification. Michael Grandage's production of Tom Stoppard's deft new version beautifully navigates the shifts in tone. The cast, including Gina McKee, Andrea Riseborough and Kevin R. McNally, matches Branagh's accomplished anti-hero.

Harold Pinter's modern classic, "No Man's Land," gets an assured revival at the Duke of York's under Rupert Goold's direction with lead performances that bear flattering comparison with the play's legendary creators, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

The enigmatic situation involves a wealthy man (Michael Gambon) and the erudite derelict (David Bradley) he brings home. Supported well by David Walliams and Nick Dunning as the thuggish men in Gambon's employ, the human dynamics are brilliantly drawn, even as Pinter -- in customary form -- teases you along.

Similarly enigmatic and also directed by Goold (who co-adapted the play with Ben Power) was Luigi Pirandello's groundbreaker of modern theater, "Six Characters in Search of an Author," at the Gielgud. In the original, a theater company is invaded by a half-dozen fictional characters comprising a singularly dysfunctional family who take over the proceedings. Here, it was a documentary producer and her crew grappling with the issue of how much license they can take with reality.

Purists may carp, but Pirandello's themes -- What is real? What is fiction? Do vivid characters like Hamlet take on a life of their own? -- were rendered vividly with Ian McDiarmid a standout as the abusive father of the fictional family.

With such a heavy load of dysfunction, it was refreshing to encounter the Old Vic's delicious revival of Alan Ayckbourn's "The Norman Conquests," once a memorable PBS production with Tom Conti.

Comprised of three separate full-length plays -- each taking place in separate sections of a suburban house (living room, dining room and garden) -- the basic plot concerns the aftermath of a failed attempt by the titular would-be Lothario (Stephen Mangan) to take his sister-in-law for an illicit weekend -- has laughs in abundance, given the farcical nature of its obviously immoral premise.

In the hands of director Matthew Warchus and his brilliant cast (Amelia Bullmore, Jessica Hynes, Ben Miles, Paul Ritter and Amanda Root), the painful loneliness of these characters comes through with near-Chekhovian poignancy. There are times when you truly don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Each play is self-contained, but seeing all three with their differing perspectives and plot revelations makes a uniquely rewarding experience. If you're coming to London, this is absolutely essential adult viewing.

On the musical side, a revival of Jerry Herman's "La Cage aux Folles" is now playing in the West End. The story of a young man's efforts to keep his background as the son of the proprietor of a transvestite nightclub from his fiancee's highly moralistic parents is more than a little tired, after the original French film, its two sequels and Mike Nichols' Hollywood remake, "The Birdcage."

But some adults may find that director Terry Johnson's innovative pared-down staging and the central performances of West End musical veteran Denis Lawson as the club owner and especially actor Douglas Hodge as the club's flamboyant star transcend the slapstick and sentimentality.

On an even lighter side, and this time suitable for families, is a musical version of "Zorro," using the music of the Gipsy Kings, directed by Christopher Renshaw. The swashbuckling story is silly, but the music is atmospheric, and given the exoticism of its flamenco rhythms (and choreography), gets points for novelty. Flu had felled two of the principals at a recent performance, but the engaging leads Matt Rawle and Emma Williams were in fine form.

Though it hadn't yet opened, American playwright Ken Ludwig's adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" has since received favorable notices, and also would seem a safe bet for kids.

London Stage Overview - Fall 2008

The title is largely metaphorical but a principal character in David Hare's latest play, "Gethsemane," does experience a critical moment of self-doubt that she labels her "Gethsemane moment."

It is not until the end of the play that another character corrects her limited understanding of the term, reminding her that Jesus may have momentarily faltered, but he moved through the crisis to persevere with his divine mission.

Though Hare coyly labels the play "pure fiction," it is -- like many of his other political plays -- inspired by true events.In this case, it's the controversial means by which former Prime .Minister Tony Blair funded his Labor Party. And his

play is just one of several thought-provoking works currently on display on London theater stages.

For those planning a visit, now that the exchange rate is suddenly so favorable for Americans, here is a guide to some current productions.

In "Gethsemane," a fictional cabinet member (Tamsin Greig) copes with the possible career-derailing revelation of her teenage daughter's indiscretions. Meanwhile, the husband of the girl's beloved former teacher, an exceptional educator who has left her job in a crisis of confidence, has gone to work for the prime minister's chief fundraiser, a gregarious Jewish pop music mogul closely modeled on Blair fundraiser Lord Levy.

Though not all of Hare's soap-operalike narrative coalesces convincingly, performances and Howard Davies' production at the National Theatre are beyond reproach, and the play is never dull.

Political impropriety of widely disparate eras seems to dominate London stages.

Harley Granville Barker's 1926 version of the play "Waste" (actually written in 1907, but banned by the censors), gets an impeccable mounting at the fine Almeida Theatre by director Samuel West. Here, a rising minister's career unravels after an affair results in pregnancy and scandal.

Though it may have been pure coincidence, Will Keen as politico Henry Trebell bears an uncanny resemblance to disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. "Waste" is a dense, talky play, but filled with provocative ideas typical of Barker -- a contemporary of Shaw and Galsworthy -- who, like Hare today, used theater to illuminate social issues.

John Webster's 1612 tragedy, "The White Devil" -- with most of the principals colorfully dispatched by the end -- illuminates corruption in both the political and religious spheres, the latter embodied by a shady cardinal.

The central intrigue was inspired by real incidents three decades before. England had broken off from the Catholic Church, and the Catholic attempt to blow up Parliament in the notorious Gunpowder Plot was still very much on people's minds, so a corrupt churchman would, no doubt, have been relished.

The cast of 12 (some of them doubling as different characters) acts with brio -- with Claire Price especially vivid as the headstrong woman at the heart of the lurid plot -- at the enterprising little Menier Chocolate Factory theater, but ultimately the over-the-top emoting proved wearying, despite imaginative touches in Jonathan Munby's staging.

Receding further back in time, Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" -- here, in Frank McGuinness' translation -- receives an exciting mounting by Jonathan Kent at the National, with Ralph Fiennes superb as the doomed king who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta (Claire Higgins), and whose arrogance leads to his own downfall.

A group of kids in the balcony squealed with nervous horror when Oedipus and Jocasta shared a lingering kiss early on.

Fiennes leads a flawless cast, including Jasper Britton, Alfred Burke, and Gwilym Lee, with a chorus of men in black suits actually singing their commentary. Alan Howard, himself once a great Oedipus, is especially fine as the blind soothsayer Teiresias, taunted by the unknowing Oedipus into the revelation that will destroy him. This is no musty classic, but utterly vital drama.

Humanity in all its myriad complexities is the stuff of several other fine productions, most spectacularly the National's sellout hit, "War Horse," co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel about a farm boy whose beloved horse is sold to the army during World War I and how he runs away from home and enlists in the army to find his horse, is a heart-stoppingly thrilling piece of theater.

Besides the fine performances, eye-filling production design and evocative music, the lifelike creation of horses by the Handspring Puppet Company was just dazzling. From the moment of the foal taking its first steps to the five-hankie conclusion, the audience was enraptured.

It was refreshing to see a work geared for young people that doesn't patronize its target audience -- unflinchingly presenting the harsh realities of war, including death and devastation, and imparting solid human and family values.

Though young Albert (Kit Harrington) has good reason to resent his alcoholic father (Colin Mace), his no-nonsense mother (Bronagh Gallagher) insists the boy see his good points, and the anti-war theme is another plus. Adults dominated a recent matinee audience and were as transfixed by it as the younger folk in attendance.

If you're traveling to London, this is unquestionably your must-see event, provided, that is, you can score a ticket.