Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Taking Woodstock (Focus Features)

By Harry Forbes

This is a pointedly laid-back change of pace for filmmaker Ang Lee, particularly after the heated passions of “Lust, Caution.” Opening today in New York and Los Angeles to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, “Taking Woodstock” covers the story behind 1969’s iconic three-day event in a heretofore sleepy upstate New York town.

There’s nothing of the concert itself here, but instead, James Schamus’ script focuses on the role played by Elliot Tiber (played with low-key vulnerability by Demetri Martin, a young actor known for his Comedy Central series, here making his feature film starring debut), in facilitating the event. He was the son of the owners of a seedy El Monaco motel, and youngest head of the White Lake Chamber of Commerce. His parents’ mortgage payments are deeply in arrears, and he’s come home from New York City to help stave off the bank. His parents Jake and Sonia Teichberg – Jewish immigrants -- are played by Brits Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton.

When the nearby town of Wallkill withdraws the permit for the planned festival, Elliot, suggests White Lakes as a perfect alternative.

Max (Eugene Levy), a prosperous dairy farmer, offers his property to the planners including producer Michael Lang. (The incongruous businessman-hippie is played sweetly by Broadway’s Jonathan Groff in a promising movie debut.) After some financial haggling – his initial $5,000 asking price morphs to $75,000 -- it’s a done deal.

The townspeople are up in arms about “hippies” invading their bucolic surroundings, and anti-Semitic slurs are spray-painted on the motel property, but these blips aside, the event goes on to become a transformative cultural phenomenon, despite heat, rain, and traffic congestion.

Along the way, Eliot – like many of the other characters in the film – does some transforming himself: becoming comfortable with his homosexuality with an affair with a one of the concert workers. He also has his first acid trip with a couple of laid-back hippies, and ultimately comes of age.

Offering Elliot moral support are emotionally-damaged Billy (Emile Hirsch), a Vietnam War veteran, the leader of the sometimes-naked theater troupe, the Earthlight Players, residing in the motel’s barn (Dan Fogler), and cross-dressing ex-marine Vilma (Liev Schreiber in a blonde wig), whom Elliot hires for security detail.

The pace is leisurely, particularly at the start as Lee – and scriptwriter James Schamus – accentuates the sleepy nature of the little town. Though the recreation of this singularly hopeful time is impeccable in surface detail, it does feel a bit staged.

Performances are all on target, and Schreiber is a hoot, though Staunton comes close to caricature in her harridan role. There are no such quibbles about Goodman, however, whose own transformation and unlikely camaraderie with Vilma are nicely conveyed. Martin is appropriately nebbishy, and generally likeable.

Lee uses split screen device paying homage to the 1970 documentary “Woodstock.” The script was adapted from Tiber’s memoir “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and a Life.”

For all the period trappings and meticulous 60's recreation, and despite the generally appealing performances, the film registers, at best, as mildly pleasant.

(The MPAA has rated the film R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bacchae (The Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park)

By Harry Forbes

If you’re perhaps thinking of skipping the Public’s rare foray into Greek tragedy, dismissing it as a worthily academic but dullish comedown from the starry and crowd-pleasing “Twelfth Night” last month, you’ll be missing a riveting theatrical experience. There’s nothing musty about Joanne Akalaitis’s vibrant and strikingly designed take on Eurpides’ great tragedy.

As the wandering Dionysus – offspring of Zeus and the mortal Semele – Jonathan Groff, currently making his screen debut in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” could be playing a scruffy rock star with his curly locks, torn jeans and leather jacket, not to mention occasional vocalizing.

That metaphor works well enough as the plot concerns Dionysus disguising himself as a mortal and trying to convince the people of Thebes of his divinity, his strategy to target the city’s women who are held in idolatrous thrall. Thebes is governed by his cousin Pentheus (played stolidly by Anthony Mackie of “The Hurt Locker”).

Groff, who is to be commended for making intelligent career choices, indeed radiates star quality and delivers his lines with intelligence, though even given the concept, seems a tad lightweight, especially compared with his more seasoned colleagues.

Andre De Shields is blind soothsayer Teiresias and George Bartenieff is Dionysus’ and Pentheus’ grandfather, both of whom vainly try to tamp Pentheus’ arrogant antagonism. They offer solid support as do the others.

Rocco Sisto is especially outstanding as the Messenger whose long speech describing Dionysus’ vengeance on Pentheus is the most riveting and classically well-spoken of the evening. Kudos, too, to Joan MacIntosh as Agave, Pentheus’ mother who falls under Dionysus’ spell with horrifying results. She rises to her big moment with aplomb.

Philip Glass has composed a wonderfully apt and -- like Nicholas Rudall’s translation – highly accessible score for this chorus of Bacchants, and David Neumann has given them exquisite choreography creating striking stage pictures on the sloping, curved bleachers that are the centerpiece of John Conklin’s set. The conflict between the traditional order and strictures of conventional society and the frenzied anarchy of the Bacchae at the heart of Euripides’ themes is vividly contrasted.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and the crystal clear sound design are further plusses.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater
Through Aug. 30.

The Mama Cass Television Program (Infinity Entertainment Group)

By Harry Forbes

Its release timed to coincide with the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock, this ABC-TV special – apparently intended as a pilot for a projected series with the late singer – dates, like the music festival, from 1969.

A real time capsule, the DVD looks as though it were taped yesterday. Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe Mama Cass Elliot's guest list: singers Joni Mitchell, Mary Travers, and John Sebastian share the hour with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from “Mission: Impossible” and rotund comedian Buddy Hackett.

Mitchell sings her iconic “Both Sides Now” definitively, Travers does a lively version of “And When I Die,” and the three ladies blend beautifully on “I Shall Be Released.” Sebastian solos with “She’s a Lady” followed by a duet with Cass.

Less elevated (though high on the camp level) is a production number with Cass joining Hackett, Landau, and Bain for the song “Meeskite” from “Cabaret.” The game foursome also do a so-so skit about four lonely people looking for love.

The hour – which, incidentally, includes the original commercials (catch Bernadette Peters in one for Playtex) – ends with a Cass mini-concert. Despite her girth, she does some amazingly spry footwork to “Dancing in the Streets,” and concludes with a lovely version of the standard, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”

Cass would die five years later of heart failure in London at the age of 32.

She makes a remarkably assured host on the special, but projects even more authority in the bonus clip of a duet with Sammy Davis, Jr. There’s also a present-day interview with Sebastian reminiscing about their longtime friendship.

For all its quirkiness, this special is a bittersweet reminder of a talent taken too soon.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein/Universal)

By Harry Forbes

Quentin Tarantino’s knowledge of and love for movies permeates every frame of “Inglourious Basterds,” an epic World War II thriller. (The peculiarly-spelled title pays homage to Enzo Castellari’s 1978 film “Inglorious Bastards.”)

Here, three stories are woven together: an American lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt with a Clark Gable mustache and a Tennessee drawl, commands a small band of Jewish-American soldiers to revenge themselves on the Nazis. (If you’re squeamish, be warned: their victims are scalped, and when they’re permitted to live, they’re branded on their foreheads with a swastika).

A young Jewish woman Shosanna (French actress Melanie Laurent), whose family was slaughtered by Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, now, incognito, runs a Paris movie theater. Landa is marvelously played by Christoph Waltz in a scene-stealing display of smilingly callous villainy.

Then there’s the glamorous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who joins Raine’s band and some British intelligence officers in a plot to topple Adolf Hitler and his cronies.

These strands converge in a bravura sequence involving the gala premiere of a Joseph Goebbels propaganda film – attended by the Fuhrer himself -- held (where else?) at Shosanna’s cinema.

From the audaciously long opening scene where Landa confronts a rough-hewn farmer and his three beauteous daughters in a deadly verbal game of cat-and-mouse, a sequence which might have come from a Sergio Leone Western, Tarantino is in full command of his filmic vocabulary, gleefully bending genres. Similarly, later in the film, a deadly standoff in a basement bar could easily be set in a Western saloon.

For all the lengthy and violent action sequences, Tarantino’s script is literate, richly textured and, often witty, making this arguably the most entertaining grand scale Nazi action caper since Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” in 2006. It shares with that film striking period settings, crisp color cinematography, and richly entertaining performances across the board (including a surprisingly effective cameo by Mike Myers as a British general).

And for a film involving a plot against Hitler, this one has an edge over the Tom Cruise “Valkyrie” film as you have a sense that in Tarantino’s fictional world, there’s the possibility that anything might happen.

Along with the key movie theater setting, and subtle cinematic allusions along the way, film buffs will relish the overt references to German film studio UFA, greats G.W. Pabst and Emil Jannings. There’s also a handsome German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) who is hired to play himself in a propaganda film about his exploits and who develops a puppy-dog crush on Shosanna who rebuffs him. And English officer Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is, he tells us, a film critic in civilian life.

The film has long sequences in German and French with subtitles.

(The film is rated R by the MPAA for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Time Traveler’s Wife (Warner Bros./New Line)

By Harry Forbes

A chick flick for sure, but a pretty good one, this adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 best-seller about a man born with the unfortunate condition of being shuttled back and forth through time, seems calculated to push all the right buttons of any romantic-minded gal: a lonely child who grows up to marry the man of her dreams, a hunky and oh-so-sensitive guy who cooks and pines for his (departed) mother, and a penchant for shedding his clothes every 10 minutes or so.

In the opening scene, young Henry (Alex Ferris) loses his beloved opera-singing mother in a horrific car crash, but moments later, finds himself comforted by his older self (Eric Bana). The latter assures the boy he’ll eventually be OK, and informs him of his supernatural gift for time travel. It was this that saved young Henry from perishing with his mother.

Years later, Henry is a rare-book librarian in Chicago, and Clare (Rachel McAdams), a bright-eyed young artist, asks for him, and to Henry’s befuddlement, gushingly informs him they have known each other for years. As she seems to know of Henry’s special powers, he instinctively trusts her and accepts her invitation to lunch.

It turns out that as a privileged girl of six (Brooklynn Proulx) picnicking by herself in a meadow she had been frequently visited by an older Henry, and he had become her best friend.

Now age appropriate for each other, they fall in love and marry, over the objections of Clare’s friends Gomez (Ron Livingston) and wife Charisse (Jane McLean) who feel Henry’s unusual affliction might be a small hindrance to the union, especially as Henry never knows when he’s going disappear leaving only his rumpled clothes behind, and emerge in another time and location, past or future, where he must quickly scramble for new attire. Henry, in fact, evaporates just before their wedding, but a grey-haired version of him appears just in time to tie the knot.

Before long, Henry’s vanishing act comes to annoy Clare, who petulantly grumbles at one point that he has missed Christmas and New Year’s – which seems rather uncharitable since she knows he can’t help it – but her ill temper subsides when his prescient powers allow him to win the lottery. With their winnings, they move into a spacious house with an adjoining garage she can use as a studio.

All is not perfect, however, as her pregnancies always end in miscarriage, as it seems the fetus is always afflicted by the same time-traveling gene and leaves the womb. There are, as well, further ominous forebodings about the future.

Versatile Eric Bana, currently playing a quite different sort of role as Leslie Mann’s philandering husband in “Funny People,” makes a stalwart hero, and he and McAdams are photographed by Florian Ballhaus in loving close-up for most of the film. To the pair’s credit, they play the improbable happenings absolutely straight, and thanks to them, the film is ultimately affecting.

Arliss Howard plays Henry’s embittered father who’s never recovered from his wife’s death, and Stephen Tobolowsky is the at-first disbelieving geneticist to whom Henry turns for help.

Director Robert Schwentke sustains the requisite romantic mood, and keeps matters from becoming too treacly. Bruce Joel Rubin’s script tells the complex story better than most, but even so, get ready for major suspension of disbelief.

Husbands and boyfriends who go along for the ride may be intrigued by the sci-fi aspects of the plot, but this glossy romance will appeal most to its target audience.

The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Burn the Floor (Longacre Theatre)

If the title rings a bell, you may be recalling the PBS pledge special that aired back in 1999 or the show’s brief run at Radio City Music Hall the following year. The latest incarnation of the production, which has since toured the world much like the “Riverdance” franchise, has come to Broadway for a limited 12-week engagement and scarcely betrays its longevity.

Exhilarating, if more than a tad enervating, the company of 18 goes through a fairly seamless succession of extremely sexy strutting and hard-driving dances of the Latin and Ballroom brand, with only a few respites for more lyrical fare like the waltz. But there are Foxtrots, Lindys, Cha-Chas, Tangos, and more. The guys are often shirtless, the gals provocatively gowned.

Like the largely canned soundtrack accompanying the four live musicians – two on percussion (conductor Henry Soriano and Roger Quitero), Earl Maneein on violin and guitar, and David Mann on saxophone – the production overall has a synthetic quality.

But the dancers themselves – hailing from Russia, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, and elsewhere -- are vividly real, and in fact, pretty darned sensational, executing intricate balletic moves and muscular aerobic movements with razor-sharp precision. For the first three weeks of the run, the company is joined by Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff from “Dancing with the Stars.” Vocalists Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia share vocal chores.

To a soundtrack more poundingly percussive than dreamily mellow, the first act builds to a dazzling Swing-dominated climax to the 40’s rhythms of “Sway.” Truthfully, the shorter second act feels anti-climactic, though it, too, ends rousingly with a hard-driving “Proud Mary,” with all the ladies shimmying in modified Tina Turner fringed mini-dresses.

This high-concept show – directed and choreographed by creator Australian Jason Gilkison – whips the audience into quite a frenzy. The company really deserves its standing ovation, and you’ll be left pondering how they can keep up the pace for 12 days, much less 12 weeks!

Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street or 212-239-6200

Friday, August 7, 2009

Julie & Julia (Columbia Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Writer-director Nora Ephron’s cleverly blended double bio of public television’s iconic chef Julia Child and her idolatrous fan-blogger Julie Powell makes a perfectly delightful soufflĂ©. The romantic comedy finds Meryl Streep at the peak of her latter-day career resurgence capturing Child’s vocal and physical mannerisms to a fare-thee-well. And her recent “Doubt” co-star Amy Adams adds another winning characterization to a gallery of effortlessly likable young women.

The script was based on the memoirs “Julie & Julia” by Powell and “My Life in France” by Child with Alex Prud’homme.

In one story, it’s 2002, and struggling writer Julie is working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (devoted to rebuilding the World Trade Center), taking wearying calls from 9/11 victims who vent their understandable frustrations on her.

In vain, she tries to convince them she’s not the enemy, but the emotional strain is taking its toll. About to turn 30, she decides to give her life purpose by recreating all the recipes from her idol Child’s trend-setting cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” within a calendar year. (Ephron’s script has established that cooking provides a welcome respite from her workday frustrations.)

She’s lovingly and patiently supported by her magazine editor husband Eric Powell (Chris Messina), in their noisy and cramped Queens apartment.

The Julie story alternates with scenes from Julia’s days in late 1940s Paris when she and her foreign-service employee husband Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) came to live there. Streep is cleverly costumed and photographed to appear quite convincingly as tall as 6’2” Julia.

Giddy and gregarious, Julia tries her hand at hat-making and bridge before settling on the notion of taking her appreciation for food -- “French people eat French food every day. I can’t get over it,” she effuses early on -- into a more serious realm and enrolling at famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

To the chagrin of Madame Brassart (Joan Juliet Buck) the chilly director there, Julia soon outshines the male students and later joins with two French ladies Louise Bertholle (Helen Carey) and Simone Beck (Linda Emond) in teaching French cooking to American expatriate women. Bertholle and Beck have begun collaborating on an English-language cookbook, but they eventually entreat Julia to join them.

Meanwhile, Julie’s blog grows in popularity, and a few misfires notwithstanding, she triumphs over her own inhibitions, overcoming her phobia by eating her first egg and killing live lobsters. But her obsession begins finally to strain her marriage, indulgent though Eric had been till then.

The two plot strands thus carry a similar dramatic arc, the ladies’ creative growth, the common passion for food, and Julie and Julia’s respective close marriages observed in sensible counterpoint. The film is as much about marriage as it is food.

The love story of Julia and Paul is particularly touching, with each warmly supportive of the other. Paul seems in the position of having to show the lions share of tolerance, but Julia shows her accommodating mettle when Paul is recalled to Washington at the height of the McCarthy era.

Skip the popcorn for this one, and save your appetite for the nice gourmet meal you’ll surely crave afterwards.

(Rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for Brief Strong Language and Some Sensuality.)

A Perfect Getaway (Rogue/Relativity Media)

By Harry Forbes

A honeymooning couple encounters all manner of peril on the lush Hawaiian island of Kauai in the ingeniously constructed and surprisingly effective thriller, “A Perfect Getaway.” Predictably formulaic at the start, the film finally proves itself anything but.

Unaware there’s a killer on the loose, and another pair of newlyweds has just been killed in Honolulu, shy, bespectacled screenwriter Cliff (Steve Zahn) egged on by enthusiastic bride Cydney (Milla Jovovich) fearlessly decide to forge through a tropical jungle to the beach.

Along the way, they encounter a scary hitchhiking couple (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton), just barely avoiding giving them a lift. Soon after, they run into cocky Iraq war vet Nick (Timothy Olyphant) who becomes their impromptu guide, and casually entices them to venture away from the 11-mile trail to an Eden-like nook. (Most of the filming was actually done at Puerto Rico’s El Yunque national forest subbing for Na Pali Coast State Park.)

There Nick embraces his down home Southern girlfriend Gina (Kiele Sanchez), first seen lolling naked by the waterfall. Cliff and Cydney begin to have qualms about the friendly but oddball pair, especially when Cliff learns more of the recent murders from cell phone news bulletins. But the honeymooners can’t seem to shake off their new “friends.” Meanwhile, the hitchhikers reappear, adding to the sense of menace.

You just know something awful is going to happen, and indeed it does. But director David Twohy’s twisty script, as noted, skirts the predictable. What happens requires major suspension of disbelief – and a nagging wish to watch the film all over again and catch the inconsistencies – but, even so, what’s here is enjoyable for fans of this genre.

Though acting is generally secondary to action in these sorts of films, the performances are quite solid: Zahn and Jovovich, respectively befuddled and heedless of danger, with enthusiasm soon giving way to apprehension, and Olyphant and Sanchez walking the fine line between likability and possible menace.

The colorful landscape has been well captured by director of photography Mark Plummer

Tautly directed by Twohy, you’re guaranteed to jump out of your seat more than once. Though it has all the markings of what used to be called a B-level programmer, this one’s a cut above.

(Rated R for graphic violence, language including sexual references and some drug use.)