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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It’s Complicated (Universal)



By Harry Forbes

With each new film, Meryl Streep continues to astonish with her versatility and ability to invest her characters with insight and truth.

In writer-director Nancy Meyers’ new film, she plays a long divorced Santa Barbara restaurateur Jane who takes up with her estranged and since remarried ex Jake (Alec Baldwin) at their son’s (Hunter Parrish) graduation. She knows it’s wrong, for all the obvious reasons, but finds herself enjoying the affair, especially as the fling is so completely out of character.

But at the same time, she meets Adam (Steve Martin), a reserved and sensitive architect who’s been assigned to the ongoing renovation of her home. He’s a recent divorcee, reluctant to enter a new relationship, but attracted to Jane despite his qualms.

Streep’s son and two daughters (Caitlin Fitzgerald and Zoe Kazan) are oblivious to the rekindling of their parents’ romance, though the eldest girl’s fiance Harley (John Krasinksi) catches on. Rather like the twins in “The Parent Trap” (the remake, incidentally, penned by Meyers), Jane's children seem to yearn for a reconciliation, and take encouragement from the cordiality they observe at the graduation events.

Meyers’ script gives Streep and Baldwin some juicy comic bits, and they play them to the hilt. They kid their age – and in Baldwin’s case, his paunch -- without vanity, though it should be noted that Streep looks pretty darned good throughout.

Underneath the film’s gloss and comic elements, the script is savvy about relationships. The delicate dynamic between Jane, Jake and Adam is grounded in emotional reality. Jane’s dilemma is plausible, and Meyers maintains the requisite suspense throughout.

Whether boldly shedding her clothes (no actual nudity) in front of her former husband, or – for the first time in decades -- getting high on a joint with Adam, she proves, as she’s done not nearly enough in the past, a brilliantly deft comedienne.

With his resurgence in popularity thanks to “30 Rock,” Baldwin takes on his meatiest movie role in ages, and balances the blunt and sympathetic aspects of his part. He’s aided in the latter, in part, by Meyers ensuring the wife (Lake Bell) and particularly, the bratty stepson are less than lovable.

Martin has less screen time, and this is one of his most low-keyed performances, but his easy-going likability is right on target, and keeps the audience -- as much as Jane -- wondering which of the two guys would make the better match.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some drug content and sexuality.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Little Night Music (Walter Kerr)



By Harry Forbes

In light of this being Angela Lansbury’s second delicious Broadway triumph of the year as well as the beauteous Catherine Zeta-Jones’s long overdue Broadway debut, it seems ungracious to declare this production of arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most perfect work a bit of a letdown. But so it seemed to me, despite the direction being in the hands of the estimable Trevor Nunn.

For starters, the production – which originated at the enterprising Menier Chocolate Factory, a scruffy London Fringe theater (also be the genesis for the coming “La Cage aux Folles” revival) -- David Farley’s physical production seems just a tad too bare bones for Broadway.

Secondly, Nunn’s direction and the musical tempi (music director Tom Murray) of Jason Carr’s orchestral reduction seems deliberately slow. It’s as if they wanted us to be sure we heard every one of Sondheim’s delectable lyrics.

Odious comparisons or not, the end result is several notches below any number of revivals here and in London, both large and small. In the former category, I’d include the first City Opera revival with Regina Resnick, London’s first revival with Dorothy Tutin and Lila Kedrova, and the more recent Judi Dench revival at the National Theatre.

In the latter category were terrific chamber versions at Equity Library Theatre and the Opera Ensemble of New York. The last New York showing was a revival of the City Opera’s production with a starry cast including Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, Juliet Stevenson, Mark Kudisch, and Anna Kendrick, currently winning raves for her performance in “Up in the Air.”

Still, you can’t go too far wrong with this sublime property, and this undernourished production puts it across.

The excellent Alexander Hanson, a Nunn favorite and the sole import from the Menier/West End original, is an apt Frederick. (I saw him two decades ago as Henrik in the Tutin West End version.)

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is an ardent Henrik. Leigh Ann Larkin has the right manner of the lusty servant Petra, and delivers “The Miller’s Son” confidently. Keaton Whittaker, one of two alternating Fredrickas, is one of the production’s bright spots.

I found Aaron Lazar’s Carl Magnus more austere than dashing – intentional I’m sure -- but he sang the part well. Erin Davie was appropriately acerbic as his neglected wife Charlotte.

Though her stage time is limited, Lansbury makes the most of the wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt, and delivers a “Liaisons” that ranks with the best of past interpreters like Sian Phillips, Elizabeth Welch (on record), Evelyn Laye, and or course, the great originator, Hermione Gingold. But all of Lansbury’s inflections were unique and brilliantly judged. Could a sixth Tony be in the offing?

Though most movie fans are unaware of the fact, Zeta-Jones is a veteran of stage musicals starting as a youngster in a legit version of “Bugsy Malone” in the West End. She looks lovely in her period costumes, with upswept hair and holding herself with gleaming confidence. She sings well, too, delivering a moving “Send in the Clowns.” And yet for all of that, I felt she was not quite right. She projects a contemporary manner, rather than Old World sophistication, and surprisingly, for such a deliberately paced production otherwise, rushes some of her lines.

The show’s biggest misfire is Ramona Mallory’s Anne. Though it was reasonable to assume her pedigree – daughter of the original Anne and Henrik, Victoria Mallory and Mark Lambert -- might result in a definitive performance, she overdoes the giggling immaturity, and her voice lacks the crystalline purity others have brought to the role.

There’s nothing radically wrong with Nunn’s staging, but he’s added little especially revelatory either.

Flawed though it is, Hugh Wheeler’s witty book and Sondheim’s now classic score, and the ladies above the title, still add up to superior entertainment.

(Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Up in the Air (Paramount Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

This funny and sad saga about a motivational speaker and professional downsizer is a worthy follow-up to director and co-writer Jason Reitman’s crowd-pleasing “Juno” and, quite simply, one of the best films of the year.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels the country firing employees at their companies’ behest. Happy to be free of personal commitments – his self-help speeches have to do with lightening our personal “backpacks” -- he considers as home the airports, planes, and hotels in which he spends most of the year.

When he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), an equally footloose and sexually playful fellow traveler, with whom he can have casual trysts without complications, and Natalie, a young efficiency expert who has introduced his boss (Jason Bateman) to the concept of firing long-distance by videoconferencing without travel, Ryan has an epiphany.

Clooney is at the top of his game, beautifully conveying a man waking up to the shallowness of his life, and realizing there’s more to achieve than frequent flyer miles. Farmiga projects empathetic warmth beyond the initial flirtatiousness, and Kendrick, who as a teenager was nominated for a Tony for her scene-stealing kid sister role in “High Society,” brings out all the contradictions of her still-maturing character.

The scenes of Ryan and Natalie carrying out their unpleasant duties – filmed with real people who have recently lost their jobs – are especially poignant and even painful to watch. There’s good work, too, from Melanie Lynskey as Julie, Ryan’s about-to-be-married sister, and Danny McBride as her fiancée Jim, who in light of Ryan’s carefree existence, gets a serious case of cold feet before the planned wedding.

Reitman has made a film for our times that is both moving and entertaining on many levels. Adapted from the novel by Walter Kim, Reitman is responsible for two key components: the characters of Alex and Natalie. The film – crisply photographed by Eric Steelberg and chicly designed by Steve Saklad -- looks quite splendid.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some sexual content.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

This is a fast moving, revisionist take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s endlessly popular sleuth, consistently engaging, if not totally gripping.

Robert Downey, Jr., who demonstrated how well in can play British in “Chaplin,” again affects a thoroughly convincing accent and demeanor. But his scruffy, perennially tousled Holmes is a far cry from Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. Proficient at martial arts and swordplay, this Holmes is a fierce pugilist, as we see when he takes on a boxer in a working class pub. And you’ll look in vain for the familiar deerstalker hat.

His sidekick Dr. Watson is not in the fuddy-duddy Nigel Bruce mold, but closer to Doyle’s concept of more active partner. He’s an Afghan War veteran on the brink of marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and he’s played with dapper, mustachioed charm and agility by Jude Law.

The plot pits them against the villainous Lord Blackwood (versatile Mark Strong), a purveyor of the dark arts. He’s sentenced to hang fairly early in the story, after a series of ritualistic murders of young women. But he seems remarkably blasé about the impending noose.

And sure enough, after the hanging, it would appear he is not dead, even though Watson had solemnly pronounced him so. Adding spice to the dirty doings is the dark-haired American, Holmes’ old nemesis, double-dealing Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) – from the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia” -- with whom Holmes is smitten.

Director Guy Ritchie employs his usual quick-cutting, muscular style and maintains a confident, fast pace, but the general spirit isn’t quite right. He was on firmer ground with his last film, the twisty, clever “RocknRolla.”

Still, the performances here are all worth watching, and theater buffs will recognize Geraldine James – recently Gertrude to Jude Law’s Hamlet on Broadway – as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ housekeeper. Eddie Marsan is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, disapproving of Holmes’ unorthodox methods, but grudgingly grateful for the help.

Sarah Greenwood’s production design is gorgeous: a teeming, grimy 1890s London come to life, though the action -- which includes an exciting finale atop the only partially constructed Tower Bridge -- has that contemporary feel.

Hans Zimmer has composed a tense, pulsating score and special mention should be made of the evocative period credits.

Those devoted Holmes fans, the Baker Street Irregulars, could tell us how true in spirit to Doyle is the script (by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg) but matters of plot notwithstanding, I think many will find the end result a diverting enough couple of hours, but somehow not the Holmes they revere.

(The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Emperor Jones (Soho Playhouse)



By Harry Forbes

After its critically-acclaimed and sold-out limited run at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the powerful revival of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic work has deservedly transferred to a new venue.

Brutus Jones is a former Pullman porter and ex-con who sets himself up as “emperor” of a Caribbean Island, duping the natives (“bush niggers,” he calls them disdainfully), and making his fortune. When, after two years, the locals get wise, he is forced to flee the island through the dense forest in the dead of night where his bravado quickly diminishes.

John Douglas Thompson is simply sensational morphing from cocky arrogance and fearlessness in the opening scene on his throne to trembling helplessness as the woods close in on him (literally), and he’s surrounded by imagined ghosts – or “haunts,” as he puts it -- and fearful reminders of his past misdeeds. Thompson’s delivery of O’Neill’s naïve Negro dialect – performed as written -- is masterfully done.

Ciarán O’Reilly directs the 75-minute piece, surely one of the finest productions ever mounted by the Irish Repertory Theatre, with a tension that never lets up.

Charlie Corcoran’s setting is satisfyingly evocative, despite the small stage. The use of surreal costumes (Antonia Ford-Roberts), puppets and masks (Bob Flanagan) to evoke the spirits in the forest scenes is tremendously effective. Brian Nason’s moody lighting maintains the increasingly nightmarish mood.

And there is a powerful use of music and sound effects (Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson), including the escalating beating of drums that drives Jones mad, as he imagines the natives are approaching.

As Jones descends into madness, he recalls the man he murdered for playing with crooked dice, and the chain gang overseer he killed with his axe. He envisions himself a slave on an auction block, while specters of slave buyers waltz around, and later cowers before a witch doctor.

Peter Cormican is strong as Smithers, the alternately swaggering and obsequious Cockney trader who fawns on Jones, privately holding him in contempt. He and Thompson have the major speaking roles, but Sameerah Lugmaan Harris as the native woman who gives us the opening exposition, and Jon Deliz, Michael Akil Davis, Sinclair Mitchell, and David Heron, who comprise the all-important ensemble, are all first-rate.

This great production and Thompson’s outstanding performance should not be missed.

(Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, 212-691-1555 or www.sohoplayhouse.com; through January 31, 2010)

Race (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

“Race” is an intriguing if not always plausible drama from David Mamet in his trademark rapid-fire, sometimes overly verbose, style that grapples with its titular theme head-on, particularly as regards black and white relations, and the shame and guilt that go with it. Matters of class and gender come into play as well.

The latest in a season rife with race-themed theater (e.g. “Superior Donuts,” “Memphis,” even “Finian’s Rainbow”), Mamet’s work is fashioned as something akin to a police procedural.

In fact, it is the star of “Boston Legal,” James Spader, who plays cocksure white lawyer Jack Lawson who’s in partnership with short-fused black lawyer Henry Brown (David Alan Grier). Well-to-do Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) comes to them for representation as he’s been accused of raping a black woman, tearing her red-sequined dress (a vital plot point) in the process. He insists the act was consensual, but he’s conscience-stricken enough to seem to the partners like a dangerously loose canon, one who's even anxious to tell his side to the press.

The partners would as soon not take the case, but their (African-American) assistant Susan (Kerry Washington) – either by accident or design – has accepted Strickland’s check, and the case is ergo theirs.

Brown lays out the black-white multi-faceted conundrum right at the start in the snappy Mamet patois. The witty jibes ring true, but often register – much like the play as a whole – as academic debate, not the way people really talk.

Lawson is self-assured and not a little smarmy – the prototype of a cynical lawyer – and he comes to believe he can win the case, even though during the alleged sexual encounter, Strickland was overheard to utter a racist comment.

During the short first act, Susan is mostly an observer. In the second, she reveals issues of her own, especially when a detail about her hiring comes to light.

Is Strickland guilty? Thomas’ poker-faced performance and Mamet’s text really never tell us. But the play holds your interest, and the issues are thought-provoking.

Spader and Grier make lively sparring partners, and Grier (known mainly for comic roles) proves a solid “serious” actor, and though Washington and Thomas’ parts are comparatively small and their characters underdeveloped, both have their moments, particularly in the second act. There are strong overtones of “Oleanna” and “Speed-the-Plow” in the enigmatic Susan.

Santo Loquasto’s highly detailed office set gives the intellectual argument a semblance of reality.

Mamet himself leads the proceedings with the special authority that generally comes when a playwright directs his own work, and “Race” is head and shoulders above his last new Broadway outing, last year’s comic “November.”

(Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street, (212) 239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Young Victoria (Apparition)



By Harry Forbes

“The Young Victoria” is an engrossing historical drama about the early life of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt).

The narrative charts her course from headstrong young woman determined not to allow her mother, The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and advisor Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) to form a Regency when King William IV (Jim Broadbent) should die (thereby blocking Victoria's succession); her eventual coronation; and, of course, her courtship with her German cousin, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

We see how she comes to vanquish her mother and Conroy with the help of the self-serving yet loyal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who eyes her growing closeness to Albert with some suspicion.

Albert, in turn, is under the sway of his uncle – King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Krestschmann) – who supports the match, assuming (wrongly) that Albert will be his pawn in England should a union ensue. But surprisingly, Albert and Victoria genuinely fall in love, though Victoria doesn’t, at first, commit to marriage.

When she becomes Queen at 18, she allows her allegiance to Melbourne to interfere with the government custom of allowing the new Prime Minister Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) to recommend members of the Queen's household staff. This obstinacy in keeping her former ladies in waiting causes a surprisingly vehement public backlash.

At her wit's end, she summons Albert back from Germany, and they marry. Rather than serve as a mere companion to his queen, Albert shows his mettle by recommending changes in the household, standing up to Melbourne, and after some initial opposition by Victoria, proving a strong ally. He has a persuasive advocate in King William’s wife, Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) who wisely helps convince Victoria to allow Albert to share her duties.

Like many historical films of late, “The Young Victoria” attempts to eschew the sometimes stodgy style of past period films, but Julian Fellowes' script has intelligence and wit, and movingly relates the great love story at its core. It also humanizes the monarch much as the famous Helen Hayes play “Victoria Regina” did decades ago, but in a pointedly more contemporary style.

The beautiful Emily Blunt would seem as unlikely a Queen Victoria as did Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' casting as Henry VIII on Showtime’s “The Tudors,” but she charmingly conveys the high spirited and determined young woman long before the monarch’s familiarly iconic image as a plump old lady perennially outfitted in black.

And Friend is especially appealing as her ardent suitor, but the entire cast is excellent, Broadbent having an especially good moment in a lavish banquet scene.

French-Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee directs at a good pace, and together with Ilan Eshkeri’s sumptuous score, and Patrice Vermette’s handsome production design make for above average entertainment.

Interestingly, Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York – who, after all, should know a thing or two about royal doings -- is among the producers who also include Martin Scorsese.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence, and brief incidental language and smoking.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nine (The Weinstein Company)



By Harry Forbes

As with “Chicago,” the musical “Nine” has taken its sweet time to get to the big screen – and again, we have director Rob Marshall and Harvey Weinstein to thank – but 27 years after its stage premiere, the adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film “8 ½” is, at last, a movie, and a dazzling one at that.

Purists may object to changes to the overall concept and some missing songs – the “Grand Canal” sequence would have been fun to see onscreen, to name one -- but the show has been brilliantly reconceived in cinematic terms.

On Broadway, under director Tommy Tune’s direction, it was a superbly stylized staging as Guido Contini, a womanizing Fellini-esque movie-maker with a case of serious director’s block, played by the late Raul Julia, interacted with an all-female cast, excepting the handful of young boys who played Guido and his friends in the flashback scenes of his childhood. Maury Yeston wrote the multi-faceted score, with a book by Arthur Kopit, Jr. (Mario Fratti was credited with adapting the property from the Italian.)

The film’s screenplay is by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, his last project.

Marshall’s impressive cast of female star power -- not any of them known for extraordinary musical talent -- delivers the goods. Marion Cottilard (here singing in her own voice, after her Oscar-winning lip-syncing turn as Edith Piaf) is his long-suffering wife, Luisa; Penelope Cruz his sexy mistress; Nicole Kidman his muse Claudia who sings the show’s most beautiful and famous song, “Unusual Way” but otherwise has little screen time; Judi Dench, his costume designer, who appropriates Liliane Montevecchi’s “Folies Bergere”; pop star Fergie, the neighborhood prostitute from Guido’s childhood who sings the rousing “Be Italian”; and most apt of all, given her stature in Italian cinema, there’s Sophia Loren – “8 ½” star Marcello Mastroanni’s most frequent co-star – lovely and gracious as Guido’s mother.

The part of a “Vogue” journalist has been added to the mix, and she’s well played by Kate Hudson, but the part seems gratuitous, apart from explaining the phenomenon of Italian movies to today’s audiences. This she does in a lively pop-styled number called “Cinema Italiano,” one of three new numbers Yeston has written for the film.

As in “Chicago,” the songs are mostly fantasies, here in the mind of Guido. Each of the ladies has one big song, Cottilard two, her second a sexy strip number called “Take It All.” Loren’s number “Guarde La Luna” was adapted from the stage show’s orchestral “Waltz from ‘Nine.’”

Those who found the editing of “Chicago” too frenetic may find the cross-cutting more to their liking, though there are stylistic similarities. Marshall draws excellent performances from his cast, and brings his choreographic flair to the musical numbers, though the “Be Italian” number seems a tad too stylistically close to Bob Fosse’s “Mein Herr” from “Cabaret.”

Daniel Day-Lewis, with a suave Italian accent, replaced the originally announced Javier Bardem as Guido, and though certainly not the first person you’d think of for a musical, handles his musical chores just fine, and reveals a concentrated angst and Continental charm to this Casanova coping with mid-life crisis. Dench brings her characteristic tart delivery to her role as Guido’s confidante. Cruz makes a fetching, touching mistress, and her part has been considerably expanded from the stage. Cotillard is superb as Guido’s long-suffering, former actress wife.

Visually, the film is an eye-filling feast, courtesy of production designer John Myhre, costume designer Colleen Atwood and director of photography Dion Beebe.

This “Nine” rates a big Ten.

Avatar (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation)



By Harry Forbes

Writer-director James Cameron has really outdone himself with this one, and it’s a project that’s been percolating even before “Titanic.” He has said in interviews that he needed to wait for technology to catch up to his vision. Well, it has.

This is a lavish and tumultuous science fiction epic about a wheel-chair-bound marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who joins an expedition to the distant moon of Pandora in year 2154. It’s a biological mission for a corporate consortium hoping to mine a rare mineral that will solve the Earth’s energy crisis.

The titular avatars are man-made humanoids (that is, a hybrid of human and the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, which are elongated blue-skinned figures with almond-shaped eyes). These avatars can safely traverse the alien landscape while their human alter-egos sleep in hermetically sealed containers at the home station, Hell’s Gate.

In his avatar mode, Jake’s handicap poses no problem, and he can walk, run, and fight with the best of them. In the course of the film, he befriends the Na’vi creatures, falls in love with their clan’s huntress daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and eventually sides with them against the establishment which cares nothing for their culture or their Eden-like environment.

Cameron has succeeded in marrying an intelligent – even if familiar – story with truly groundbreaking special effects, and that includes the ungimmicky use of 3D. At 162 minutes, the film is long – including a lengthy battle sequence near the end – but the pace never flags, and Cameron makes every shot count.

The Australian Worthington (with a good American accent) makes an empathetic hero, and indeed, all the performances are a cut above for this genre, including that of Cameron’s “Alien” star Sigourney Weaver as the mission’s top biologist Grace Augustine; Stephan Lang as hard-nosed Colonel Miles Quaritch; and Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon, a scrappy pilot on the Hell’s Gate base; Joel David Moore as easy-going Norm, another scientist on the team; and Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge, a cold-hearted administrator in league with Quaritch. Even though the avatars get the most screen time, the CG performance capture technique used here gives us, as never before, the subtle nuances of the actor playing the role.

This is a grand, fantastical adventure, but beyond the exciting action set-pieces like that climactic battle and Jake’s escape from several monstrous creatures, there are some breathtakingly beautiful sequences including several wondrous flights which Jake and Neytiri take on giant birds, and gorgeously detailed settings such as the floating mountains and the lush rain forest. (I’ll take this version of paradise over that currently on view in “The Lovely Bones.”)

Of course, we’ve seen this story of a Yank who decides to help an indigenous people retain their territory and their culture (e.g. “Dances with Wolves,” “The Last Samurai”) but this epic – a milestone in digital technology – presents it in a dazzling new light.

Beyond its dramatic virtues, Cameron’s script admirably carries a strong pro-ecology subtext and its portrayal of the military machine – in particular, Lang’s steely commander – registers as a scathing indictment of U.S. imperialism with several pointed references which will bring to mind the Bush administration and Iraq.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Invictus (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

This is an unabashedly inspiring drama that really delivers on that level without ever seeming cloyingly sentimental.

Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” it focuses on South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his support of the mostly white (except for one player) Springboks rugby team as a way of uniting a racially-divided nation in the wake of apartheid in 1995.

Freeman – who also executive produced -- is superb in his portrayal, perfectly capturing the leader’s cadences and dignified demeanor. Just released from 27 years in prison, Mandela assumes the presidency with a largely white staff from former President de Klerk’s regime anxiously fearing they’ll be given the axe. Much to their surprise, all he asks of them is their support.

In the same spirit, he persuades the incredulous black National Sports Council to accept the Springboks – heretofore, a symbol of apartheid -- as the national team for the good of the country. "They are our partners,” he argues, a strategy that pays off beautifully. The title, by the way, derives from William Ernest Henley’s famous poem (“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul“) that gave Mandela solace when in his jail cell.

Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar, the Springboks captain who is summoned by Mandela who proposes that the team – thus far, on a losing streak – make a play for the World Cup. They men forge a respectful alliance. Damon’s South African accent sounds impressively authentic and he gives an admirably unshowy performance.

Clint Eastwood has directed the epic moments – mostly the teeming stadium scenes – as confidently as the intimate ones. The climactic World Cup rugby match is superlatively done, if a little protracted.

There are some wonderful moments throughout: Mandela conscientiously learning the names of the Springboks players so he can address them on that level; the team co-opted into playing with black school children, and then having a genuinely good time; and, reflecting Mandela’s philosophy in microcosm, the growing respect between Mandela’s wary African National Congress black security detail (Tony Kgoroge and Patrick Mofokeng), and the Special Branch white agents (Matt Stern and Julian Lewis Jones) with whom Mandela insists they work.

There are good performances from Adjoa Andoh as Mandela’s chief of staff, and Marguerite Wheatley as his fiancé Nerine, both of whom are skeptical of Mandela throwing himself into the rugby stakes with so many other pressing issues.

This is, for the most part, a restrained drama – so much so that Anthony Peckham’s script twice adds false tension by making us think Mandela’s life is in serious danger – but the central portrait of this extraordinarily forgiving leader wisely contriving, and succeeding brilliantly, in bringing reconciliation to a divided populace with the motto “One team, one country” is absorbing enough without the red herrings.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for brief strong language.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (BAM Harvey Theater)




By Harry Forbes

Though the generally excellent Roundabout production with the late Natasha Richardson is still fresh in mind, this gripping and revelatory production of Tennessee Williams’ oft-revived 1947 classic here becomes a new experience. The wonder is that it arrives on our shores courtesy of Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, currently run by actress Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, and that it is directed by the great Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.

Blanchett takes on the role of Blanche DuBois, and she is truly one of the great ones. Those who only know her by her excellent movie work will be newly impressed with her masterful delivery and riveting stage presence. Of all the Blanches I’ve seen, her cadence comes closest to Vivien Leigh in the film, though her timbre is huskier and lower. Perhaps she sounds something akin to Tallulah Bankhead who played Blanche in the mid-1950s.

Though she plays Blanche with more overt calculation that I’ve seen before, the mental fragility and yearning for refinement, good manners, and culture are palpable. Blanchett brilliantly captures all the contradictions in the character.

I found Joel Edgerton’s Stanley Kowalski quite the most satisfying since Brando. Though Alec Baldwin, James Farentino, Aidan Quinn, Treat Williams (on television), and others have hardly been slouches in the role, Edgerton better succeeds in conjuring the requisite Brando-like animal magnetism without ever falling into mimicry.

Robin McLeavey’s Stella is equally strong, projecting an appealing easy-going earthiness, strength of character, and tender compassion for her sister. The husband-wife dynamic is especially well delineated. And this trio anchors the play superbly.

Tim Richard’s very working class Mitch vividly shows how his ill-treatment of Blanche, when he learns of her sordid past, is borne of hurt not malice.

All those iconic lines – Stanley’s pitiful cry for “Stella,” and Blanche’s “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” – sound freshly minted. In Ullmann’s compassionate view, all the characters are, in some way, hurting, and their sometime cruelty masks deep vulnerability.

Even Stanley’s climactic sexual union with Blanche is played with both characters drunk, not as a rape but with Blanche a willing participant. A brief tableau after the blackout – Stanley sleeping nude face down, Blanche sitting calmly on the back of the bed – confirms the concept, which seems radical but actually works.

Blanche’s final exit, removed from the Kowalski home by a doctor and nurse for a mental institution, shows her walking solo towards the light in the wings, and would seem to suggest a final liberation from her demons. This was another brilliant stroke on Ullmann’s part.

Besides using Williams’ own instructions about sound effects – like train sounds at peak moments – Ullmann intersperses blues recordings during scene changes for atmospheric effect.

Ralph Myers’ New Orleans’ French Quarter set is intentionally drab, the walls of the Kowalski railroad flat are an ugly pink. There are some Edward Hopper-like tableaux we observe through the window of their upstairs neighbors, the Hubbells (Mandy McElhinney and Michael Denkha), but the vast gray masking which predominates, though accentuating the Kowalski’s cramped quarters, is simply uninteresting. Still, we can see, as never before, the extent of Blanche’s intrusiveness.

Matters of set decoration aside, if this production were on a bare stage, the performances and direction would carry all before them. Definitive is a dangerous word – and perhaps the Elia Kazan film with three out of four of the original cast deserves that moniker (despite some period censoring of Williams’ text) – but I don’t expect to ever see a finer production than this one.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, 718-636-4100 or BAM.org; through December 20)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

We The Living (Two Disc Set) (Duncan Scott Productions Inc.)



By Harry Forbes

According to Ayn Rand herself, the best film version of her work was not “The Fountainhead” made in Hollywood in 1949, but this 1942 Italian version of her novel, one "as close to an autobiography as I will ever write" she once said, and quite incredibly, made without her permission or knowledge.

Alida Valli, Rossano Brazzi (years before his starring role in “South Pacific”), and Fosco Giachetti were the distinguished stars, and Goffredo Alessandrini its director.

What was extraordinary about the film, beyond its genuine artistic quality, was that Scalera Studios managed to make it during wartime under Mussolini’s restrictive regime, even though the anti-Communist themes of the story contained elements critical of Fascism, too.

The film – so long it was released in two parts as “Noi Vivi” and "Addio Kira” -- was critically acclaimed and immensely popular but was eventually banned when the authorities finally determined it to be a condemnation of the Mussolini regime. The negative was ordered to be destroyed, but Massimo Ferrara, the studio’s ousted general manager, managed to conceal the negative.

We learn all this on the fascinating documentary, “We the Living, A Lost Treasure Recovered,” which accompanies the film. Duncan Scott, the restoration co-producer and distributor, describes how Rand came to be aware of the film’s existence, liked what she saw, and in the 1960s, had her legal representatives, Erika and Henry Mark Holzer, locate the film. After much sleuthing, this was accomplished, and under Rand’s supervision, the two films were combined into one of 174 minute length. The restored film would be even closer to Rand’s novel, and extraneous subplots, scenes that the Fascists insisted be added, or were otherwise extraneous to Rand’s original plot hit the cutting room floor.

The restored film was released in 1988-89 to critical acclaim, and subsequently appeared on VHS and laserdisc. The two-disc DVD includes a generous 45 minutes of those scenes excised by Rand and her team, as well as the aforementioned documentary, which includes interesting interviews with Scott, the Holzers, and Ferrara.

Print quality is excellent if a little soft, and some of the subtitles wash out against light backgrounds, but that’s a minor carp, in light of such compelling drama.

The DVD can be ordered at www.wethelivingmovie.com. Shipping is free on domestic orders through the end of 2009.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Judy Garland Holiday Special (Infinity Entertainment Group)



By Harry Forbes

The much recycled Christmas favorite, Judy Garland’s Christmas show from her 1963-1964 series, which has already been issued on VHS tape, laserdisc, and even DVD (on Pioneer a few years ago), appears again as a stand-alone in Infinity’s piecemeal reissue of the series.

But however familiar, its return is welcome, and it looks better than ever in its latest incarnation.

The show, which aired December 22, 1963, featured a living room set which purported to show its star at home with her young children, Lorna and Joey Luft, both appearing quite cute and unspoiled. The sophisticated Garland hardly registered as an average TV mom, but her warm rapport with the children was genuine, and their adoration of her palpable.

Musically, the show is top-notch, and Garland is in excellent voice for that period. She opens with her “Meet Me in St. Louis” classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung to Lorna and Joe by the window, just as she did with Margaret O’Brien in the MGM film.

Then, she and the kids launch into “Consider Yourself” from the then-current “Oliver!” They’re shortly joined by daughter Liza Minnelli who “drops in” with her “beau” Tracy Everitt.

After Joey is hoisted on the piano for a very sweet (and surprisingly accomplished) “Where is Love” from the same show, Liza and Everitt entertain the others with a modestly choreographed “Steam Heat” from “The Pajama Game.”

Garland solos affectingly with “Little Drops of Rain” from her animated “Gay Pur-ee” after which Jack Jones “drops in” with a jazzy version of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Buffs will recall Garland performed with tenor Allan Jones in 1938’s “Everybody Sing” but son Jack has matured sufficiently to come across as Garland’s peer here.

Jones performs his hit “Lollipops and Roses” (not exactly a Christmas tune) as the others sit at his feet, and then Lorna sits on his knee to belt out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Liza’s best moment follows as she delivers a low-keyed swinging version of “Alice Blue Gown”

There’s more traditional Christmas fare once they’re joined by the series’ musical consultant Mel Torme who accompanies Garland on his “The Christmas Song” (which Torme wrote with lyricist Bob Wells). Judy muffs the lyrics twice; “Close,” quips Torme tolerantly.

A medley of carols follows, with Garland delivering a full-bodied “What Child is This?” that rates as her finest vocal moment on the show.

The hour concludes with Garland snuggling with Joe and Lorna on the sofa as she serenades them with “Over the Rainbow,” according to the hour's conceit, an annual tradition in the Garland home.

The DVD offers the original mono soundtrack or 5.1 surround sound.

The Lovely Bones (Dreamworks)



By Harry Forbes

Peter Jackson’s well-crafted adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller walks an offbeat line between child serial killer thriller and New Age fantasy. I’ve not read the book, but taken on its own terms, I found the movie compelling, even if sometimes off-putting in its tonal shifts.

Saoirse Ronan, the trouble-making child from “Atonement,” here plays 14-year-old Susie Salmon, a happy suburban teenager who lives with her parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), and siblings Lindsey (Rose McIver) and Buckley (Christian Ashdale) in Norristown, PA. Susie narrates the story, and even as she cheerfully relates the commonplace details of her domestic life, including her passion for photography and crush on the handsome Ray (Reece Ritchie) at school, she matter-of-factly informs us that she is fated to be murdered.

The perpetrator will be her next-door neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). We are mercifully spared visuals of the heinous act, but the circumstances that lead up to it are disturbing enough, as the bespectacled, seemingly mild-mannered loner entices her to view an underground hideaway in the middle of a cornfield.

After her death, her father -- whom we already know has an obsession with scale modeling (i.e. ships in bottles), much as Harvey does for intricate dollhouses -- becomes fanatical about finding the killer, and barrages Detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) with names of scores of likely suspects.

Abigail ultimately can’t abide Jack’s neurotic behavior and moves out, leaving the family in the care of her good-hearted, if hard-drinking and chain-smoking mother Lynn (a campy Susan Sarandon with big hair and 70’s eye-liner).

Meanwhile, Susie has gone to an “In-Between” place between heaven and earth, a brightly-hued digital landscape of instantly changing seasons, something akin to the Horse of a Different Color in “The Wizard of Oz,” you might say. A celestial friend, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), urges her to leave earth behind, and continue onwards to heaven, but Susie can’t leave until matters are resolved, and her murderer gets his just desserts.

These scenes are imaginative, and suggest some of the Salvador Dali sequences in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” but hardly conjure a place of surpassing loveliness.

Besides being consumed with deep concern for her family, Susie regrets a never-kept meeting at the local mall with Ray, who mourns her loss along with psychically-attuned classmate Ruth (Carolyn Dando) who had a fleeting contact with Susie’s spirit the night of the latter’s murder. We are told she “accepts the dead among the living.”

Years pass, kid sister Lindsey grows, and also comes under the watchful eye of Harvey, the only person who, unlike the book, has not attracted Jack’s paranoid scrutiny. It’s strange that even though Lindsey feels the jitters every time she passes Harvey’s curtained house, she never confides in her father.

Ronan’s radiant exuberance as Susie makes her death all the more tragic. Wahlberg’s agonizing grief is well conveyed, but he and Weisz are so lightly sketched in Jackson’s script (written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), that we can scarcely empathize with them except in the most generalized terms. (Federman’s relationship with Abigail from the book has been jettisoned here.)

Sarandon provides some spice, though she seems to be a different movie altogether. Tucci is downright superb giving the creepy killer just the right mix of bland congeniality and sinister disingenuousness.

The overdone visuals detract from the crime story on earth, but Jackson’s mastery of his craft is never in doubt. There are some tremendously suspenseful sequences such as when Federman grills Harvey as an incriminating bracelet of Susie dangles a few feet away, or when a snooping Lindsey finally breaks into Harvey’s house. So, too, the story’s moral -- how the living must accept death, allowing their departed loved ones to move on, literally or figuratively – is clearly conveyed.

But even if the spiritual and police procedural elements never really gel as satisfyingly as they were said to do in the book, this is still a fascinating story told with a wealth of imagination.

(Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language.)

A Single Man (The Weinstein Company)



By Harry Forbes

Colin Firth gives one of his all-time finest performances in this highly stylized version of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, which has been freely adapted by director Tom Ford (yes, the fashion designer) in a striking directorial debut.

Set in 1962 Los Angeles – and period trappings (the cars, the hairdos) are very well executed – Firth plays a British English professor George who is still grieving over the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, killed in a car crash en route to a family gathering some time before. We see how George was coldly excluded from the funeral when Jim’s brother called to break the devastating news.

The film charts George going through the course of a day. In a Cold War atmosphere of the period, George comes close to coming out of the closet when, at school, he veers off-course from an Aldous Huxley lecture to a rambling discourse on societal fears about everything from nuclear war, blacks, growing old, bad breath, and Elvis Presley. But he stops just short of adding sexual orientation to that litany.

After class, he’s approached by flirtatious student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who senses in George a need for connection. Later, outside a liquor store, George encounters a sweet-natured hustler (Joe Kortajarena), a Spaniard with a James Dean haircut, but George makes clear he’s not interested in sex. That evening, he has dinner with fellow British ex-patriot Charlotte (Julianne Moore) with whom he had once been romantically involved. It develops that underneath the cool exterior, George is contemplating suicide, though his elaborate preparations have a borderline comical edge. Will he or won’t he?

There’s an extended flashback of George’s first meeting with Jim in his navy whites in a bar in 1946.

All the performances are fine, but Ford’s focus is squarely on Firth who effortlessly conveys George’s pain, loneliness and frustration. The versatile Moore is right on target as a mod 1960s party gal with an authentic English accent to boot.

Ford and co-writer David Scearce have taken some liberties with the novel, apparently adding the suicide theme and softening Moore's character. But the end result – a moving study of love and loss, with its protagonist learning to value the little things in life he may have previously taken for granted – is extremely effective.

Ford shows a designer’s eye for visual detail, if he sometimes overdoes the enormous close-ups of eyes and lips, and recurring visual motifs, like two bodies swimming in water, scenes from Jim’s car crash and so on, some of this in slow motion.

Abel Korzeniowski (with additional music by Shigeru Umebayashi) has provided a churning musical score, very old-time Hollywood, which reflects George’s inner turmoil.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content.)

The Princess and the Frog (Walt Disney Animation Studios)



By Harry Forbes

Disney’s welcome return to hand-drawn animation after a five year absence may not quite recall the golden age classics (as the Mickey Mouse “Steamboat Willie” logo would seem to herald) but with its lush backdrops, lively and tuneful score, and touching story, “The Princess and the Frog” offers reason enough to rejoice.

This is the first Disney feature to feature an African-American heroine, and she’s delightfully voiced by Broadway’s Anika Noni Rose. Not the Grimm brothers story of “The Frog Prince” as the title might suggest, the story is rather inspired in part by “The Frog Princess” by E.D. Baker.

In this spin on the eponymous fairy tale, Tiana is a young waitress who hopes to fulfill her late father’s (Terrence Howard) dream of opening a restaurant. (Oprah Winfrey voices Tiana’s mother.)

An irresponsible Prince named Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town, but though female hearts are aflutter, this prince -- who is anxiouis to marry well or else (gasp!) get a job -- has been turned into a frog after falling under the spell of witch doctor Facilier (Keith David). When as a spunky green amphibian, he begs Tiana, whom he takes for a princess, to bestow a restoring kiss, she turns into a frog as well.

Meanwhile, Naveen’s corrupt manservant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) has assumed the shape of Naveen, and Tiana’s vain and silly rich girlhood friend Charlotte (a very funny Jennifer Cody) sets her cap on him.

Tiana and Naveen – now a sparring pair in the classic Hollywood tradition – go deep into the Louisiana bayou to find the ancient crone Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be able to transform them back to human form. Along the way, they find allies in a giant trumpet-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) who longs to join a jazz band and a wizened Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings).

The animated backdrops of 1920’s New Orleans are gorgeous. I do wish the central figures were executed in more the old-style “realistic” Disney style. What’s here is more akin to the cartoony animation of “Aladdin” and “Hercules” than the more painterly “Bambi” or “Pinocchio.” It’s also a minor carp that Tiana and Naveen are relegated to frog status for most of the movie. Those who believe Disney’s “Cinderella” was ruined by giving too much screen time to the heroine’s mouse friends may have similar misgivings here.

But even if those amphibians may not seem the most romantic-looking of lovers, the story arc and good voice work eventually pull you in. There’s also a very sweet secondary romance in Ray’s adoration of a star he calls Evangeline which results in the film’s most poignant moments.

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements maintain a good pace, and their script (co-written with Ron Edwards) is imbued with the usual Disney themes of striving for your dream, honoring your parent’s memory, and bravely overcoming obstacles. “Never lose sight of what is important,” says Tiana’s sage hard-working father early on.

Randy Newman’s tuneful and infectious score is probably the jazziest Disney songfest since the Sherman Brothers work on “The Jungle Book,” and the orchestral score is lushly arranged. I particularly liked Tiana’s bouncy “Almost There” Mama Obie’s gospel-flavored “Dig a Little Deeper,” and Ray’s infectious “Gonna Take You There.” The soundtrack CD should be a treat.

(The film is rated G by the MPAA.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play (Lyceum Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Victorian sexuality, women’s identity, and the disconnect between men and women are among the themes of “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play,” Sarah Ruhl’s expert blending of social commentary and humor.

It is 1880, and Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) is a proper doctor ministering to women suffering from hysteria by administering therapeutic electrical massage – thanks to the discoveries of Thomas Edison whose name is invoked more than once – with the eponymous vibrator, as indeed was actually done at the time.

As we observe first hand with the tremulous Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), the nervous symptoms of sensitivity to light and sound vanish miraculously once Dr. Givings has administered the treatment, and the patient leaves strangely relaxed.

But upstanding Dr. Givings fails to realize that his wife, a delightful chatterbox (played with likable zest by Laura Benanti) is in need of treatment, too, though she’s kept in the dark about what it is exactly that her husband does with his patients behind the locked door. Her irrepressible curiosity about the treatment mounts as the play progresses.

She’s just given birth to a baby girl, and worries that she has no milk. Her loving husband, paradoxically distant and inhibited despite his profession, is clearly not satisfying her, and she is as much an hysteric as Mrs. Daldry. She gets her release by bracing walks in the rain and snow, sans umbrella.

She comes to enjoy the company of Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife with whom she chats amiably in the sitting room, blurring the boundaries between their professional relationship with her husband and the domestic world just beyond the door of his operating theater.

Dr. Givings declares their new baby needs a wet nurse, and Mr. Daldry helpfully suggests their own housekeeper, Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who has, in fact, just lost a child and has the requisite milk. Mrs. Givings quickly overcomes her qualms about engaging a colored woman.

In the second act, Dr. Givings is visited by a male patient (Chandler Williams in a flamboyantly enjoyable turn), an artist who has returned from Italy his own form of “hysteria" after an unhappy affair. The sexually neglected Mrs. Givings is smitten with the charismatic stranger, though he is more interested in painting Elizabeth and the baby as a modern-day Madonna and Child.

Throughout all this, Ruhl never descends to the smutty or vulgar, and her play has an all-pervading sweetness and charm. She is careful that we realize Dr. Givings ministrations are strictly professional. His female assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) insures propriety, though Annie eventually reveals more complexity than her no-nonsense manner at first suggests.

Under Les Waters’ well paced direction, the cast is uniformly excellent. Benanti is both funny and moving, and Dizzia a special delight. Annie Smart’s set – the doctor’s locked office on the audience left, the living room on the right -- vividly delineates the duality of the action, and, like David Zinn’s costumes, evokes the period beautifully. The set’s transformation in the final scene underscores the stunningly moving conclusion.

Some of Ruhl’s dialogue has an anachronistic quality at odds with the period setting, but on the whole, she’s written a very solid play that delivers humor and substance in a most entertaining way.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200 or www.telcharge.com)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Nightingale (New York City Center Stage 1)



By Harry Forbes

Time was when Vanessa Redgrave was the brilliant second generation star of the Redgrave clan, and Lynn the talented and delightful kid sister. Vanessa’s lost none of her luster, but watching "Nightingale," Lynn’s one-woman reminiscence of the grandmother she never knew, I was struck, as often before in recent years, by her unique luminosity.

Under Joseph Hardy’s direction, she gives a mesmerizing performance. And that in spite of performing nearly the whole show seated behind a table with the script before her, though mind you, she gives it only an occasional glace.

Redgrave has said she wrote the piece is in a vulnerable state. After the breakup of her long marriage to John Clark, she sought refuge with her family in England, and one day while walking through a churchyard, came upon her grandmother’s grave, the name sadly obliterated by acid rain. The poignancy of a life lived and possibly forgotten set Redgrave thinking of mortality, and provided the genesis for this play.

A sort of dual biography, “Nightingale” contrasts the fictionalized life of that grandmother, Beatrice (or Beanie) Kempson, and her own, as a cancer survivor, though the text does seem to presume rather more knowledge of Redgrave’s personal life than every member of the audience will know.

Beanie was the rather chilly mother of Redgrave’s own, actress Rachel Kempson. As Redgrave tells it, Beanie had a strict Victorian upbringing, and dutifully married a dullish schools inspector named Eric. Their wedding night was fairly appalling (though it's quite amusing in Redgrave's telling).

It was, Redgrave believes, a loveless marriage marked by routine and loneliness, but it produced three children, Nicholas and Robin (Beanie particularly doting on the latter) and Kempson for whom Beanie developed an irrational animosity, one that Redgrave is at a loss to understand.

At one point, Beanie and Eric attend a performance of “A Doll’s House” starring Kempson, now Lady Redgrave after her marriage to Sir Michael Redgrave, and Beanie treats her daughter with patronizing contempt.

The character would be unrelievedly hateful if Redgrave didn’t also show us the pain of her grandmother’s situation and how she briefly experienced love with a rough hewn farmer when on holiday with her children. She and the farmer went for a ride one day, and – for one exquisite moment -- touched hands, but nothing happened. Redgrave’s tender recounting of what she imagines as the highpoint of Beanie’s life is very special.

It’s not clear how much of Redgrave’s detail about her grandmother’s life is true. She has referred to the piece as speculative fiction, and Beanie’s name was not even used in the play’s earlier incarnation at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. But her delineation of Beanie – however much invented – is absorbing.

The parallels Redgrave attempts to make with her own story – such as her own marriage in the 1960’s -- are less successful, but don’t detract from the central narrative. Rui Rita’s lighting helps clarify some of those not always clear transitions from her grandmother’s story to Redgrave’s autobiographical reflections.

This is the third time Redgrave has mined her family history but once again, she’s come up with a winner.

(Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center – Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212 or www.nycitycenter.org)

Brothers (Lionsgate)



By Harry Forbes

The release of this film couldn’t be more serendipitous, coming as it does so soon after President Obama’s speech about troop escalation in Afghanistan. Though “Brothers” avoids any overt political stance, it certainly will generate reflection about the effects of this war on the 30,000 troops about to be deployed.

This release is, in fact, a remake of the 2004 Danish film “Brodre” by director/co-writer Susanne Bier. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are in peak form as, respectively, Sam Cahill, a dedicated marine deployed to Afghanistan in 2007, and Tommy, the wastrel brother who’s just finished a prison sentence for bank robbery back home, along with the marine’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare).

In Afghanistan, Sam’s helicopter crashes and he and a private (Patrick Flueger) are taken prisoner by the Taliban and tortured. Stateside, Sam is presumed dead, and as Grace and the girls try to continue life after the funeral, Tommy rises to the occasion, renovating Grace’s kitchen and helping her with the girls. Inevitably, there are romantic stirrings with Grace.

Sam is eventually rescued, and the family rejoices at the news. But he returns a shell of his former self, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Delusional and paranoid, he suspects his wife has slept with his brother.

Maguire and Gyllenhaal have never been finer: Maguire, after his return, looks convincingly gaunt and haunted, and Gyllenhaal skillfully shows shiftless dissolution morphing into genuine dependability. And quite remarkably, they really look like brothers.

Portman is fine as always though her role is rather conventional. Sam Shepard nails his not very likable character of Hank, Sam and Tommy’s rigid Vietnam vet father who has no problem telling Tommy he’s not fit to fill Sam’s shoes, but develops a grudging respect as Tommy’s character undergoes reformation. And young Madison and Geare are pitch perfect, and very much part of the adult ensemble.

The film flits between some fairly harrowing scenes in Afghanistan and the suburban Cahill home, but the emphasis is on the domestic situation of the latter, and the growing bond between Tommy and Grace.

Jim Sheridan directs with sensitivity and restraint, and there’s not a moment that isn’t absorbing. David Benioff’s script spells out some of what I gather was just suggested in the original, but this is a still a perceptive psychological study of polar opposites whose personalities are transformed by circumstance, as well as a portrait of the effects of war on the home front. In the latter respect, it resembles films like “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” from an earlier era.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some disturbing violent content)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ragtime (Neil Simon Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Any doubts that a mere decade might have been too soon to bring back this epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s colorful novel are dispelled within moments of this tremendous revival.

And what a brilliant, moving work is the piece itself. Its juxtaposition of the emerging sounds of the syncopated rhythms at the turn of the last century (the “New Music” described in one of the show’s stirring numbers) with the sweeping sociological changes and world-shaking historical events of the period is a masterful conceit.

Book writer Terrence McNally artfully distilled the essence of Doctorow’s work making it truly stage-worthy, while Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s richly evocative score just goes from strength to strength.

On Derek McLane’s striking three-tiered set, there’s little sense of skimping, despite advance reports that this would be a pared-down version. This feels every inch the spectacle.

Though the central characters – with their archetypal names such as Mother and Father – suggest caricature, they register as three-dimensional characters, even if the historical figures – Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), Evelyn Nesbitt (Savannah Wise), Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) among them – are lightly sketched. The overall effect is moving indeed.

The book charts the fortunes of a 1902 New Rochelle WASP family (Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and The Boy); Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse and servant girl Sarah who bears his child; and Tateh, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. To summarize briefly: Mother rescues Sarah and the abandoned baby, taking them in, while her husband is away, Coalhouse woos Sarah back, and Tateh endures countless hardships as a peddler on the Lower East Side until, incredibly, he finds fortune in the fledgling movie business. When tragedy befalls Sarah, Coalhouse becomes a hardened militant demanding justice at any cost, with a surprising ally in Younger Brother.

Along with the economy and potency of McNally’s book, one can’t too highly praise the effectiveness of the score. Flaherty’s music alternates between ragtime, period pastiche, and powerful ballads and choral numbers, while Ahrens lyrics intelligently encapsulate the wide-ranging emotions of the sprawling narrative. And though the show is rife with heavy-duty themes like bigotry, class differential, worker exploitation, and the like, pedantry is avoided.

I had remembered Coalhouse and Sarah’s “The Wheels of a Dream,” Mother’s “Back to Before” and Coalhouse’s “Make Them Hear You” as high points of the score (as indeed they are).

But this time around, I was struck by the power and beauty of others like “Journey On,” a duet for Father and Tateh, one journeying out to sea with Admiral Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, and Tateh just approaching America on a ship of immigrants; and “Our Children," Mother and Tateh’s duet ruefully sung as they watch their respective son and daughter play together at the shore in Atlantic City. This is one of the great American musical theater scores, and it’s lovingly conducted here by James Moore.

The original cast was superb, and put Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, and Marin Mazzie on the map. But you needn’t draw odious comparisons now because this cast is just dandy. Christiane Noll’s patrician and warmly empathetic manner, and limpid voice make her a worthy successor to Mazzie’s Mother. Quentin Earl Darrington is a tougher Coalhouse than Mitchell but no less affecting in the tender moments, and Stephanie Umoh makes a lovely Sarah, though (small carp) I did, at times, have some trouble understanding her lyrics.

Bobby Steggert as Younger Brother and Robert Petkoff as Tateh are outstanding, but Ron Bohmer as Father, Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman (the most fleshed out of the historical figures), and Christopher Cox as the prophetic Little Boy (“Warn the Duke,” he keeps repeating, in reference to the World War I igniting assassination soon to come in Sarajevo) are all fine.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s glorious production – she's done both direction and choreography -- began at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She directs with a sure sense of narrative and her astute blocking of the cast on the multiple levels, and the frequent use of silhouette is striking.

The passing of the tires during the big “Henry Ford” number is one of countless striking eye pictures. As is Sarah’s descending the stairs after Coalhouse’s repeated visits to New Rochelle every Sunday, surely one of the most heart-stirring moments in all of musical theater, and beautifully handled here.

Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous costumes, and Donald Holder’s striking lighting design are further pluses.

This is a moving, goose bump-guaranteed experience and simply the best musical currently on Broadway.

(Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52 Street, 212-307-4100 or www.ticketmaster.com)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Road (Dimension Films)


By Harry Forbes

“The Road” is an uncompromising adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing post-apocalyptic tale of a bedraggled but loving father (Viggo Mortenson) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to survive by scavenging for food and shelter in a decimated world after some unspecified cataclysmic event of a decade earlier

Along their bleak way to the hoped-for warmth of the coast, the father teaches the boy what he must do to stay alive, as they encounter a road gang, some barely living creatures who are fodder for the cannibalism which is rife in this mostly dead planet, a feeble Old Man (Robert Duvall, and a Thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who steals their belongings while the boy is sleeping, and the father is off foraging for food.

The father occasionally gives way to his baser nature – for example, not sharing food with The Old Man and harshly punishing The Thief -- but his son keeps reminding him that they have to be the “good guys,” and that they must continue to “carry the fire,” as it were, despite being bereft of everything they once had.

The allegorical Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was adapted by Joe Penhall, and directed by John Hillcoat. Those who have read the book may, in fact, better appreciate the movie which is so unrelentingly grim and difficult to sit through, though it is not without suspense.

Mortensen gives the fine, bravely committed performance we’ve come to expect of him, and he’s well matched by the extraordinary Kodi Smit-McPhee. Charlize Theron – who really must try to find some lighter parts – is briefly observed in flashback and the wife and mother who left them shortly after the great cataclysm, presumably to commit suicide, when she just can’t take it anymore.

Guy Pearce, who appeared in Hillcoat’s acclaimed 2006 film “The Proposition,” shows up as The Veteran late in the film, a sequence which offers a glimmer of home for the future.

All in all, this is a vivid depiction of human endurance and the love of a parent for a child, but will clearly not be for all audiences.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some violence, disturbing images and language.)

Old Dogs (Walt Disney Pictures)


By Harry Forbes

Robin Williams and John Travolta make a surprisingly effective comedy team – Williams more or less playing sensitive straight man to Travolta’s extroverted playboy – and the movie has heart, albeit a saccharine one.

But otherwise, “Old Dogs” is hampered by a formulaic (and how!) plot, and some of the most witless, wince-inducing slapstick you can imagine.

Dan (Williams) had rashly leaped into marriage seven years earlier to Vicki (Kelly Preston), right after divorcing his first wife. The second union – which lasted only one night -- was quickly annulled.

Now Dan – feeling the emptiness of his life -- has decided to send her a sentimental seven-page letter suggesting a reunion, When she agrees to see him, he’s all set to rekindle the brief romance he’s come to regret losing.

But Vicki has a surprise for him. It seems their one night of passion produced twins, and now she's off to serve a two-week jail sentence for trespassing during as part of a protest demonstration (talk about contrived!).

After some further plot contrivance, she ends up asking Dan to watch the kids, Zach (Conner Rayburn) and Emily (Travolta and Preston’s real-life daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta). Dan takes up the challenge, and convinces best friend Charlie (Travolta) to share baby-sitting duties. They’re both sports marketers anxiously trying to secure an account with a Japanese firm, and wouldn't you know, the deal is at its most critical stage within this same two week period.

The kids at one point mix up Dan and Charlie’s pills in the medicine cabinet, resulting in aberrant behavior such as Charlie upsetting a bereavement gathering to which he’s invited by Japanese translator Amanda (Lori Loughlin), and Dan having some mishaps on the golf course with his Japanese would-be clients slamming the balls into their, shall we say, sensitive areas.

When the film turns sentimental (which is reasonably often), it is somewhat affecting, despite the clichés. A scene with Dan and his daughter – him role-playing a king, she a princess – manages to be touching, thanks to Williams’ nicely low-keyed work. In fact, taken strictly on its own terms (and that’s no small feat), Williams actually delivers one of his best performances. We’ve seen him do the sad-sack shtick before, but he’s particularly good here.

Travolta has the requisite light touch for comedy, and give or take a few pounds, looks more his old self than in other roles of late. Unfortunately, David Diamond & David Weissman’s script is singularly uninspired, with character motivation never convincing. Dan being trapped in a tanning machine because Charlie’s chatting up the vapid attendant who chooses to ignore Dan’s screams for help is the first of many annoyingly illogical moments.

Besides a game Ann-Margret (still the glamorous figure of old) in the bereavement sequence, other cameo roles are taken by the late Bernie Mac as a puppeteer, Matt Dillon as a hard-nosed scout leader, Rita Wilson, Justin Long, and Amy Sedaris. Seth Green plays Dan and Charlie’s doofus assistant Craig who nearly botches the Japanese deal.

We’ll give director Walt Becker points for his handling of his cast, but his blocking of the slapstick is downright clunky.

If you’re the sort of parent that doesn’t mind some rather crude – occasionally violent – slapstick (try a car trunk door slamming down on a woman’s hand), and a borderline yucky scene is Dan taking his (till then, fatherless) son to a public men’s for the boy’s first time, and standing with him in the stall, as the boy inquires about the facts of life, the shenanigans – such as Dan, Charlie, and Craig finding themselves inside a zoo gorilla enclosure -- may satisfy the most undemanding kids.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for some mild rude humor.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (Sony Pictures Classics)


By Harry Forbes

“Broken Embraces,” Pedro Almodovar’s latest brew of heated passion, cinematic homage, and twisting, multi-layered narrative, may be a few notches less involving than his other recent efforts like “Volver,” “Talk to Her,” and “Bad Education,” but even so, no one surpasses the Spanish director’s flair for and mastery of cinematic technique, nor his ability to draw extraordinary performances from his cast.

Star Penelope Cruz particularly excels as Lena, a secretary (and aspiring actress) who becomes the live-in lover of her employer, hard-nosed financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) at a time when her father is dying and she’s in desperate need of money.

Later, she auditions and is cast in the latest film of screenwriter-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar). To keep tabs on her, Ernesto agrees to produce. Lena and Mateo fall in love, leading to a classic triangular situation.

In a film rife with themes of duplication and transformation, Cruz’s role can also be viewed in triplicate: there’s her “real” self, the decent woman caring for her family and Mateo, the calculating woman she becomes to please Ernesto, and the character in the film-within-the-film that she is shooting,. That film, “Girls and Suitcases,” is a riff on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

The narrative flits back and forth from the early 90s to the present. At the start, Mateo is blind from an accident years before that resulted in the death of Lena. He’s now permanently taken on his pen name, previously only used for his screenplay writing, of Harry Caine. (Was Almodovar thinking of Michael Caine’s early role of Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File,” I wonder?)

In any case, Mateo learns of the death of Ernesto when he’s visited by the man’s sexually-troubled son, Ernesto, Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) who hopes to make a film the father who, he believes, ruined his life.

But Mateo/Harry’s still in demand as a scriptwriter, and his principal caregivers are his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo), with whom he was once involved, and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) who serves as Mateo’s secretary.

Continuing with the flashback, when Ernesto suspects Lena’s infidelity, he has his son videotape her interactions with Mateo ostensibly for a “making of” documentary, but actually to capture their intimate moments, and even hires a lip-reader to decipher their offline comments.

This being melodrama on a grand scale, violence and tragedy ensue.

Though it’s less true than it once was, Penelope Cruz – in Almodovar’s hands – stretches herself even more than with other directors like Woody Allen (her Oscar-winning role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”) to name two recent superlative performances. Almodovar seems to finds facets in her persona that show her at her mercurial best. But beyond her good work, the entire ensemble is impeccable.

Movie references abound, most particularly Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” and there is all the stuff of movies that Almodovar clearly adores: the colors, the glamorous wardrobes, the dramatic camera angles, and the juicy elements of film noir.

(Rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and some drug material.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

My Wonderful Day (59E59 Theaters)



By Harry Forbes

In the wake of last season’s glorious “The Norman Conquests,” it’s especially gratifying to be presented with a brand new play by its peerless author, Alan Ayckbourn, and to find that 26 years after writing that masterful trilogy, he’s still in fine fettle.

The play – his 73rd -- is hot off the press as it were, having been directly imported to New York from Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre Company in Scarborough, England where it premiered only last month. And it’s his third play to be presented as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival.

“My Wonderful Day,” though not a trilogy or a two-parter like some of Ayckbourn’s other works, proves every bit as ingenious, exploring, as it does, the world of adults from the unique perspective of a child.

The child in question is Winnie, the eight-going-on-nine year old daughter of Laverne (Petra Letang), housecleaner to smarmy, self-centered TV host Kevin (Terence Booth). She’s played by the extraordinary Ayesha Antoine, who is, in fact, 28 years old. Her impersonation is so authentic that if you didn’t check your program, and see her hefty list of credits, you’d assume she was at most, 12 or 13.

Single mother Laverne brings Winnie to work as the girl professes to not feeling well. Laverne is large with child, whom she has already named Jericho Alexander Samson (“That should keep him out of trouble, shouldn’t it?” a character later wryly observes). After the birth, Laverne fantasizes about moving her family to Martinique.

In preparation, Laverne insists that she and Winnie speak nothing but French one day each week. “Oui, mamam,” dutifully answers little Winnie repeatedly.

Laverne parks Winnie on the sofa to do her homework: an essay on her “most wonderful day.” With that setup, you just know the girl will get plenty of fodder before the play is done.

When Laverne’s water breaks, Winnie is left in the care of Kevin, his kind-hearted secretary and (we learn) mistress Tiffany (Ruth Gibson), and hung-over best friend and business partner Josh (Paul Kemp).

Both Kevin and Josh assume the girl speaks no English, leading to all kinds of candid revelations in front of Winnie who takes it all in as she writes in her notebook. Eventually, Kevin’s fearsome wife Paula (Alexandra Mathie) returns home just as, wouldn’t you know, Kevin and Tiffany have retired to the bedroom upstairs.

Ayckbourn already establishes the girl as a smart, sensitive child so we understand she is far from oblivious to the extraordinary happenings around her, and thanks to Antoine’s performance – wide-eyed, slack-jawed languor – we seem to know precisely what she’s thinking, silent and uncommunicative though she is.

Ayckbourn’s brilliant conceit gives a delicious twist to a situation that, in other hands, might read as conventional farce, while his customary compassion for his characters is strongly in evidence. Prime example: the divorced Josh’s tearful outpouring of emotion about his own daughter (beautifully played by Kemp)

Much as Strindberg broke ground with long stretches of naturalistic silence, Ayckbourn pushes the envelope with a lengthy kitchen scene that has Winnie laboriously reading “The Secret Garden” to Josh who soon succumbs to snoring sleep.

The cast is uniformly superb. Mathie is particularly hilarious as the no-nonsense wife, all empathy for the child until she discovers her precious sofa has been damaged. After learning it was where Laverne’s water broke, she’s suddenly full of heartfelt apology about her “appalling temper.”

“You have seen the last of my childish, thoughtless tantrums,” she assures Winnie. With her husband upstairs with Tiffany, Ayckbourn makes sure we know that is a promise soon to be broken.

Roger Glossop’s set is a model of clever economy. With three playing areas -- left to right, a kitchen, living room, and office -- one gets the scope of the whole of Kevin’s house thanks to Mick Hughes’ clever lighting scheme.

As you’d expect, Ayckbourn has directed his play (performed without an interval) masterfully.

(Brits Off Broadway, 59E59 Theaters, 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com; through Dec. 13)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pirate Radio (Focus Features)




By Harry Forbes

This paean to 1960s rock and roll -- originally titled “The Boat That Rocked” when released in a longer version in Britain earlier this year -- is a frenetic, cheerfully vulgar romp, populated by the wild and crazy crew of a renegade boat transmitting rock and roll music to Britain, when the monopolizing BBC was limiting its playing of such music to only a couple of hours each day.

Conflict is supplied by a humorless government minister, here named Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), determined to shut it down. In reality, the adversary of the pirate radio stations was a Labour party politician named Tony Benn. Jack Davenport plays Dormandy’s unfortunately named assistant Twatt, under strict orders to find a legal loophole to end the boat’s transmissions.

Vessels like the actual Radio Caroline – anchored beyond the U.K.’s official territorial waters – filled that gap left by the Beeb, building huge audiences. Some youngsters would surreptitiously listen to their transistor radios underneath their pillows, like the little boy in one of the film’s early scenes.

Richard Curtis -- writer of “Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually,” and director of the last named -- has assembled a colorfully eclectic cast to play the disparate characters: Bill Nighy as Quentin, the ship’s urbane, permissive captain; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans as the ship’s principal star sparring deejays; Nick Frost as tubby Lothario Dave; Chris O’Dowd as lovelorn Simon who’s enamored of fickle Elenore (January Jones as a 60’s bird quite different from her role on “Mad Men”); and with Tom Brooke, Rhys Darby, Ralph Brown and Ike Hamilton as the other colorful on-air personalities. Amidst this all-male environment, there’s Katherine Parkinson as lesbian cook Felicity

Quentin’s teenaged godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to stay on the Radio Rock boat after he is expelled from school for smoking (tobacco and pot), and amid the anarchic atmosphere of sex, weed, and alcohol onboard, comes of age, and maybe even finds the father he never knew. He falls for the pretty Marianne (Talulah Riley), brought on board by the thoughtful Quentin, to help the lad lose his virginity. (Matters don’t go quite as planned, however.)

The camaraderie of the ship’s crew is fitfully endearing but there’s not so much a strong narrative as a series of wacky vignettes, some amusing, others less so, and there are dullish stretches. The cast is beyond reproach, though, and indeed, the deejay characters look as if they’ve been spinning discs all their lives.

When, towards the end, the ship springs a leak and the movie morphs into a mini-“Poseidon Adventure,” you find yourself more involved.

Curtis – who also wrote the script – claims inspiration from both “M*A*S*H” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and that gives you the idea: the informality of the former, the raunchiness of the latter.

In the end, it’s the soundtrack -- one long wallow in 60’s rock (the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, etc.) -- that leaves the most vivid impression rather than most of the ho-hum shenanigans on board.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Messenger (Oscilloscope Laboratories)



By Harry Forbes

Let it be said right at the start that you won’t see three finer performances than those delivered by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton in Oren Moverman’s superb and heart-wrenching “The Messenger.”

Foster plays Iraq war vet Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery who has come back from service with honors, but in his remaining months of service is given the grim task of joining Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) in breaking the news of war casualties – killed, missing, or captured -- to family members. Still emotionally fragile from his war experience, he must join the tough-talking, seemingly stoic senior official on the grim mission.

The rules are rigid. Speak only to family members. If no one’s home, leave. Don’t park near the house, as neighbors will guess the truth. No touching of the next of kin.

Eventually, the men become friends, and beneath his bravado, hard-drinking and womanizing, Stone reveals he’s as vulnerable as Montgomery.

Morton plays young mother Olivia Pitterson to whom they deliver the news while she’s hanging a man’s clothes in the backyard. (They assume she’s already taken up with someone new.) She disarms them by showing empathy for their grim task. “I know this can’t be easy for you,” she says empathetically.

We’ve already observed several instances of the two men doing their sad duty, each tougher than the last. A mother and common-law wife are hysterical. A distraught father (played beautifully by Steve Buscemi) becomes physically and mentally abusive.

Heedless of the injunction about becoming emotionally involved, Montgomery falls for Olivia, and returns later to help her with chores. Their relationship remains platonic, despite mutual yearning.

Perhaps the most extraordinary scene in the film is a lengthy kitchen episode where Montgomery takes Olivia home, ostensibly to consummate their feelings, and she simply cannot bring herself to take that step. The lengthy sequence was filmed in one take, their playing almost unbearably poignant.

Throughout the film, Foster, Harrelson, and Morton inhabit their characters so truthfully, you never get a sense of “acting.”

Israeli-born Moverman, who also co-wrote the script with Alessandro Camon, must be credited for the veracity of those performances and of the film as a whole.

Foster made a striking impression as Claire’s boyfriend in “Six Feet Under,” and later stole “3:10 to Yuma” from Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, but this part should really put him on the map for his sensitive portrayal. Harrelson, who has admirably managed his post-“Cheers” career with varied roles and integrity, is the essence of a dyed-in-the-wool military man, masterfully conveying the inner hurt.

There’s a commendable anti-war subtext throughout, while still remaining patriotic. At one point, Stone opines that all funerals should be shown on TV to drive home the reality of war. Olivia berates the army recruiters in a shopping mall aggressively targeting a young man.

The subject matter may be downbeat, but the film’s artistry and terrific performances make it a completely absorbing and uplifting experience. It is one of the very best films of the year.

(Rated R by the MPAA for language and some sexual content/nudity.)

The Understudy (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s amusing trifle – for that’s really all it is – concerns a struggling, sarcastically embittered actor named Harry (Justin Kirk) rehearsing a fictional Franz Kafka rediscovery with B-level action film performer Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) for whom Harry’s the standby.

Frazzled stage manager Roxanne (Julie White), is on hand to make sure they stay on script while she supervises the lighting and set change cues. She was once engaged to Harry, but he jilted her a couple of weeks before their planned wedding. Already stressed by the stoned set technician Laura consistently missing her cues, she is further unhinged by his return and still evidently carries a torch.

Jake is, in turn, the understudy to the production’s leading man, a bigger film star called Bruce. At one point, the no-nonsense Roxanne puts Harry in his place by clarifying the pecking order: the unseen Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry a mere spear carrier.

Realistically speaking, though, would Jake, as the co-star, really be understudying Bruce? That’s just one aspect of several that strain credulity, such as Jake at first mistaking Harry for an intruder. And then, when learning that Harry’s the understudy, complaining it should be someone of greater stature. Why would that be?

Harry, for his part, gets much mileage out of mocking Jake’s big moment in the latter's high-grossing film, crouching in action-hero crouching mode, and growling, “Get in the truck!”

“The Understudy” premiered in July of 2008 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rebeck cleverly makes connections between a Kafkaesque world and the similarly illogical nature of show biz, with existential elements providing humorous fodder, along with jibes at Hollywood stars and show business. For instance, a casting agent has told Harry he didn’t exist. Harry and Jake ponder the “meaning” of the prop bananas which they chow down while Roxanne is out of sight.

I didn’t find this quite as uproariously funny as those sitting around me, but there are laughs aplenty, many courtesy of White who is a riot, compulsively playing with her hair, bitching as she storms up and down the aisles of the theater.

The men are terrific, too: likable Gosselaar as the strutting (but sensitive and actually insecure) film actor who clearly relishes his big chance to do High Art on Broadway and enthusing about Kafka, and Kirk – who sets the mood with his manic opening monologue – playing his sardonic role to a tee.

Alexander Dodge’s set – various Kafka-inspired backdrops weaving in and out at all the wrong moments – adds visual amusement.

Scott Ellis directs the funny bits expertly and brings out Rebeck’s underlying poignancy, which ultimately seems to give the play more substance.

(Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th St., 212-719-1300 or www. roundabouttheatre.org; through January 3)