Friday, December 31, 2010

Blue Valentine (The Weinstein Company)

By Harry Forbes

Much as one can admire the work of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple at the beginning and (possibly) end of their six-year relationship, this intentionally murky scenes from a marriage which toggles back and forth in time is more frustrating than enthralling.

As the story unfolds so meticulously by degrees, almost any plot description might spoil the pleasure of the revelations such as they are. But suffice to say, at the film’s start, couple Dean and Cindy are married with a young daughter. Frankie (Faith Wladyka). Cindy’s a medical technician; he’s a house painter.

Though it’s clear that director Derek Cianfrance and his fellow screenplay writers Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne has striven mightily to keep the two protagonists in balance, I’d say Gosling still emerges as the more empathetic character by far, both by dint of the actor’s personal charm, and his character’s apparent devotion to his wife and child.

As Cindy expresses ever increasing frustration with him, his biggest sin – apart from perhaps drinking too much -- would appear to be lack of professional ambition, whereas her increasing sense of discontent seems ill-founded.

The film achieved some notoriety when the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17, though it’s since been edited to R specifications. There still remain a couple of graphic sex scenes (only one involving Gosling), but they’re reasonably organic to the story.

The ending is somewhat open-ended, or at least that’s how I saw it, but on the whole, I thought the narrative has too many holes and contrivance to seem totally convincing.

The early scenes were shot in super 16MM - and the present in extreme close-up using two red cameras -- but the filmic texture of those processes notwithstanding, it is Gosling’s hairstyle that provides the clearest clue as to which time period is presently on view.

(Rated Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating; originally rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fighter (Paramount Pictures/Relativity Media)

By Harry Forbes

“The Fighter” is the gritty true life story of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who, after losing a series of fights, has the chance at the World Championship but is handicapped by his overbearing manager mother (Melissa Leo) and his drug-addicted half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who serves as his trainer. The blue-collar setting is Lowell, Mass.

Dicky, a former boxer himself, once shared the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson (though he lost), and is now a ne’er-do-well who runs off to a crack house at every opportunity, and eventually, after a violent encounter with the police, ends up in prison.

Micky’s barmaid girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) urges him to break with his family which also includes nine (count ‘em!) sisters, seemingly all as ferocious as their mother, but ultimately, Micky comes to learn that he needs his wayward brother’s expertise and the support of his family, for all their flaws.

Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson’s screenplay is as much a sordid domestic drama as it is a boxing picture, so be warned: the family squabbles are pretty relentless. Mother Alice is one tough cookie, though her bravado is scarily entertaining.

The downbeat milieu notwithstanding, the film is not without humor, and ultimately it becomes a story of redemption, sending you forth with a feeling of uplift.

Performances are first-rate. Wahlberg proves again what a solid actor he’s become, and his fight scenes are totally convincing. He's the relatively calm center of the scenery-chewing histrionics around him.

A gaunt Bale has a much flashier role, and he truly inhabits the unruly Dicky. Leo impresses anew as the harridan mother. And Adams’ atypically tough portrayal, far removed from her more ladylike roles in “Enchanted” and “Julie & Julia,” is also outstanding.

David O. Russell directs the personal drama and the ring scenes with equal flair.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate)

By Harry Forbes

If you were to avoid the adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play fearing its downbeat theme – a couple, Becca and Howie, coping with the sudden death of their four-year-old son several months earlier – you’d be missing one of the year’s best.

For starters, Nicole Kidman gives an absolutely extraordinary performance – as did Cynthia Nixon in the play, for that matter – and for Kidman, this is one of her finest portrayals in a career full of them. And Aaron Eckhart is also spectacular as her spouse, futilely trying to bring their lives back to normal. Without outward signs of conventional grief, it’s clear these two have lost their purpose in life, and simply don’t know what to do with themselves.

The film is one of the best depictions of the grief process shown on screen, and even as it ends on a hopeful note, there’s nothing contrived or false about how that is achieved.

Howie tries to find solace in a sympathetic woman (Sandra Oh) from his bereavement group, while Becca (Kidman) – most interestingly -- reaches out to the quiet and sensitive teenager (Miles Teller) responsible for her child’s death.

Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay – nicely opened up from the stage -- is so deftly constructed so that even this simple plot description contains some spoilers best experienced moment by moment as he shows us the couple’s predicament by subtle degrees.

John Cameron Mitchell directs with the utmost sensitivity to the subject matter.

There’s fine work, too, from Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother, who has experienced loss herself; and Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s sister. But it’s Kidman, whose low-keyed, superbly natural performance blows you away.

The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.)

Black Swan (Fox Searchlight)

By Harry Forbes

The buzz you’ve been hearing about Natalie Portman is true. As a ballerina slowly unraveling as she rehearses for her first starring role in “Swan Lake” at New York’s Lincoln Center, she gives a compelling, multi-faceted performance.

But the framework around her -- a luridly melodramatic story involving an overbearing, ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey), a sexually predatory choreographer (Vincent Cassel), an embittered fading star (Winona Ryder), and a sluttish rival (Mila Kunis) – is predictably clichéd.

The film derives its title from the ballet’s dual central part – the good Odette and the evil Odille – the latter presenting Portman’s character with its greatest challenge. She can handle the good character with aplomb, but worries about the sensuality and duplicity of the latter eluding her, particularly with Cassel’s character feeding her insecurity on that score.

Mind you, the ballet setting is intriguing and not a little exotic, but there’s none of the artful visual composition or detailed plotting and ballet world atmosphere of Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” a film to which some have wrongly made flattering comparisons. This is not to say that the direction of Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”) is lacking in flair, but it strikes me as flash with little substance.

“Black Swan” is rarely tedious and there are some twists, but the payoff is less than satisfying, and even then, not adequately explained in the script credited to Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin.

There’s a curiously trashy ambiance throughout, including a gratuitously graphic lesbian encounter between Portman and Kunis.

Still, Portman holds your interest and earns your sympathy, and even allowing for some cinematic doubling, convincingly executes her dance movements.

(The film has been rating R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.)

True Grit (Paramount Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

The Coen brothers have done right by Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, already famously filmed in 1969, when it garnered an Oscar for John Wayne. The present version is, well, grittier, and truer in spirit to Portis’ vision.

The story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a dissolute Marshall (Rooster Cogburn) to help her locate and bring her father’s killer Chaney (Josh Brolin) to justice in post-Civil War Arkansas continues to exert an irresistible appeal

Jeff Bridges has a field day with John Wayne’s role of the boozing Rooster Cogburn, though I sometimes found his dialogue a bit unintelligible for all its grizzled ripeness.

Matt Damon, whose natural good looks can make you forget his skill as a fine character actor, is also outstanding as the garrulous Texas Ranger also on Chaney’s trail who joins up with the duo as they venture into Indian Territory to find the miscreant. He gives the role far more substance and humor than Glen Campbell’s rather generic interpretation in the earlier film.

And Steinfeld is a younger heroine than Kim Darby, making her courage, determination and resourcefulness all the more striking. And a coda to the main narrative with Mattie now an adult (Elizabeth Marvel) gives added substance.

Brolin’s role is short, but vividly characterized. Barry Pepper is well cast as outlaw Lucky Ned, the leader of Chaney’s gang, who runs into the Mattie’s posse midway through the film.

The look and feel of the film is far more atmospheric than the earlier version which today has the somewhat flat look of a made-for-TV movie.

(The film has been rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing image.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The King's Speech (The Weinstein Company)

By Harry Forbes

Colin Firth will almost surely get his second Oscar nomination in a row (after last year's "A Single Man"). But then, co-star Geoffrey Rush and many others connected with this fine film are also likely contenders.

Here's my review at "America."

(The film has been rated R by the MPAA for some language.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Driving Miss Daisy (Golden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Twenty-three years after its Off-Broadway premiere, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains a thoroughly absorbing, deeply moving theatrical experience.

And how especially could it be otherwise with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and Boyd Gaines, all in peak form? I don’t believe any of them has ever been better.

In a series of short scenes spanning 1948 through 1972, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play charts the relationship between Daisy Werthan (Redgrave), an independent-minded Jewish ex-schoolteacher, now a well-to-do widow, and the humble chauffeur Hoke (Jones) whom her son Boolie (Gaines) hires for her when she can no longer drive.

Initial wariness bordering on downright hostility gives way to growing dependency and ultimately profound friendship.

It’s a pleasure to see Redgrave in such a vital, feisty role after the heaviness of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” for there is a good deal of humor in the part.

Chief among the lighter moments is the scene where she confronts Hoke about the salmon he consumed without permission holding the can accusingly aloft with her long arm – all the while pointing to the wastebasket where he had discarded it – only to be completely deflated when she learns why her suspicion was ill-founded.

And we’re so accustomed to seeing Jones in authoritative roles it’s rather fascinating to see him take on such a docile, obsequious one, though one possessed of great inner strength and dignity.

Far from being outshone by those two pros, Gaines offers a richly textured portrayal of the go-between son far transcending what could be a merely functional role. This actor continues to amaze season after season with his great versatility.

It’s incredibly poignant to watch Redgrave and Jones at this stage of their careers, particularly in a play that has as much to do with aging as it does social issues and civil rights. Redgrave’s “Blow-Up” and “Camelot” and Jones’ “Great White Hope” and "Othello" may not seem to us who remember exactly like yesterday, but certainly not so very long ago.

Don’t miss the chance to see them together in this tear-jerking but also, grandly entertaining, vehicle.

(Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Utopia Limited (New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players)

By Harry Forbes

Until the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company mounted a concert version in 1975, and London/Decca Records subsequently recorded it, “Utopia Limited,” Gilbert & Sullivan’s next-to-last collaboration, was a true rarity.

Since that recording, “Utopia” has gradually gained a footing among G&S societies and operetta groups like Ohio Light Opera and NYGASP itself. But its appeal is still specialized enough to warrant only a one-night mounting, albeit in semi-staged form. Attractively costumed (by Gail J. Wofford), it was, in fact, not far removed from a full production. There was even a 27-piece orchestra on stage if largely hidden from view.

Company director Albert Bergeret’s staging did little to improve the essential static quality of the first act wherein the premise of a tropical isle deciding to model itself along the lines of a British company limited is laid out, and a series of English dignitaries – the so-called “Flowers of Progress” (Michael Galante, Cameron Smith, Quinto Ott, Richard Alan Holmes, Michael Connolly, David Macaluso)-- explain (in song) how things work back home.

The second half – with its hugely infectious and atypical (for G&S) minstrel number and more emphasis on the romantic couplings of King Paramount’s newly Anglicized daughters -- was far more animated.

Among a highly proficient cast, there were some standouts. Holmes has sung Goldbury’s songs at NYGASP and sundry other New York venues, and owns the role, his renditions virtually definitive. The jaunty quartet Goldbury does with Lord Dramaleigh (Galante) and Nekaya (Sarah Caldwell Smith) and Kalyba (Amy Helfer) was a special delight.

David Wannen’s Paramount was imposing and clearly sung. Erika Person brought a dignified presence and creamy tone to her numbers. Laurelyn Watson Chase had the vocal chops for Princess Zara’s demanding vocal line, and Smith, contrary to the lyric of his comic second act opener very much “did himself justice.”

NYGASP veterans Stephen O’Brien and Stephen Quint did their best with scheming Scaphio and Phantis’s tiresome comic business, while Ott made a resonant Captain Corcoran.

The aforementioned minstrel number was superbly staged with intricate choreography by David Auxier, who provided modestly graceful dances elsewhere.

Bergeret conducted stylishly, as always, the music slightly muted in the dry Symphony Space acoustic. But, on the whole, the singers had presence.

Some of Bergeret’s alterations to the text (co-credited to Holmes) were hokey or groan-inducing (a bit of double entendre concerning “Cox and Box,” for one), though the second act drawing room set piece staged, not simply with fashionably-gowned young ladies, but as a procession of G&S characters, was a cute, unobjectionable touch.

“The Yeomen of the Guard” and “Trial by Jury” (the latter sharing the bill with assorted G&S goodies) will be heard on December 5 and March 20 respectively, while the ever-popular “The Mikado” runs December 29 through January 2.

(The Peter J. Sharp Theatre at Symphony Space, 2535 Broadway, (212) 864-5400 or or

Photo credit: William Reynolds

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Pee-Wee Herman Show (Stephen Sondheim Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I must confess that, until recently on YouTube, I hadn’t watched a minute of Pee-Wee (aka Paul Reubens) Herman ‘s 1980’s CBS show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” so I can only take his new show at face value. Surrounded by screaming fans who relished every silly moment, I found the show to be, if not quite theater in the traditional sense, certainly a canny resurrection of the series and its well-preserved star.

There was not a child to be seen in the audience, but the now-adult fans that made up the very full house were totally in the moment, laughing with Pee-Wee, never at him.

Reubens – looking very much the same as his 80’s self – still projects that sweet, impishly naughty persona. All the beloved characters from the show are here – Chairy, Sergio, Cowboy Curtis, Globey, etc. -- and three of them are recreated by the original players, including Lynne Marie Stewart as Miss Yvonne, John Moody as Mailman Mike, and John Paragon as Jambi.

Reubens’ biggest single set-piece involves blowing up and slowly deflating a balloon which emits a variety of rude and funny sounds, but his well-honed persona -- not perhaps on the rarefied level of, say, Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but classic in its way -- imbues every moment

Some of the material (book by Reubens and Bill Steinkellner, with additional material by Pargaon) is mildly racy, with some very subtle allusions to Ruben’s unfortunate run-in with the law, but nothing to offend should an actual youngster be in the house.

David Korins’ child-friendly set and Ann Closs-Farley’s amusing costumes – based on the original designs -- are right on the money. Basil Twist’s clever puppetry is another plus.

The proceedings are slickly directed by the eclectic Alex Timbers, writer and director of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

Outsider to all this that I am, I can’t say I was heartbroken when the 90 intermission-less minutes came to an end. But after seeing it, I was, at least, able to understand something of the appeal of both the show and Reubens himself, and it was rather lovely to see the crowd embrace him so warmly throughout the evening.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., or 212-239-6200)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

On the plus side, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” bears all the quality hallmarks of the six films that preceded it. This has been a classy series from the get-go.

And as the series nears its conclusion with this penultimate chapter, one must admire again the prescience of the casting directors who picked Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to play Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger respectively in the first place.

These three have developed most impressively, along with their characters, their acting prowess ever more skillful with each new installment.

On the other hand, perhaps because J.K. Rowling’s sprawling concluding novel has been accorded the luxury (and money-making potential) of two longish films, director David Yates’ pacing here is rather leisurely, to put it kindly.

So, too, the whole feel of the film is different than the others, requiring a definite mental adjustment. It takes place, not at Hogwarts, but largely in the woods and myriad dreary London locations. Harry must, at all costs, stay hidden from the evil Lord Voldemort and his cohorts, the Death Eaters, who are now in control of not only Hogwarts but the Ministry of Magic.

Voldemort now only needs to annihilate Harry – the Chosen One -- for complete domination. Harry and his friends, for their part, must destroy the Horcruxes which contains parts of Voldemort’s soul and thus his immortality.

As they eke out a fairly dreary existence in the forest, Ron begins to resent his role in protecting Harry, who is also jealous of the puppy-love vibes he intuits between Harry and Hermione, leading to a serious rift among the close friends.

Voldemort – in the person of Ralph Fiennes – puts in an early appearance in the film’s opening and most fearsome sequence, which leaves no doubt of his dastardly intent. Though they have scant screen time, the other big British thespians are back, too, this time joined by Bill Nighy as the Minister of Magic and Rhys Ifans as Luna’s father.

Despite dullish patches, the film is obviously essential viewing for what will undoubtedly be a bang-up finale when Part II is released next summer.

(This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.)

Elf (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Though it might be tempting to dismiss this musicalization of the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy as a mere holiday trifle for the tourist trade, “Elf” proves a quite delightful, “real” musical, old-fashioned in the best sense, with much to offer.

Sebastian Arcelus is outstanding as the Farrell character Buddy, an orphan raised by Santa Claus (George Wendt. When Buddy learns he's not an elf, but human, he journeys from the North Pole to New York to find his birth father, a humorless publisher Walter (Mark Jacoby) now, after the death of Buddy’s mother, married to Emily (Beth Leavel). Their young son Michael (Matthew Gumley) doesn't believe in Santa Claus.

Buddy, green elf duds and all, ingratiates himself into the family – and Walter’s business – ultimately teaching everyone the true meaning of Christmas.

Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, composer and lyricist respectively of the underrated musical version of “The Wedding Singer,” has written some very catchy tunes and often witty lyrics, and there are several showstoppers in an overall extremely attractive score.

These include “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a lament sung by the Christmas Santas in a Chinese restaurant after a long, unrewarding day; “The Story of Buddy the Elf,” a “Brotherhood of Man”-like production number wherein Buddy helps his dad out of a tight fix; Jovie’s determined “Never Fall in Love”; and a pair of very nice duets for Leavel and Gumley, both appealing: “I’ll Believe in You” and “There is a Santa Claus.”

Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin collaborated on the book, adapted from David Berenbaum’s film script, and it’s a savvy piece of work, only sometimes betraying a synthetic quality.

Casey Nicholaw’s direction is efficient and clever, and his choreography, particularly for the “Nobody Cares About Santa” number and “The Story of Buddy the Elf,” is great fun.

Arcelus is a totally winning Buddy, and the linchpin of the production. A brunette Amy Spanger makes the most of her cynical character who blossoms under Buddy’s adoration. Jacoby makes the Walter’s transformation from preoccupied businessman to demonstrative family man nicely convincing. There’s good work, too, from Michael McCormick as Walter’s hard-nosed boss, Valerie Wright as secretary Deb who shares a winning song-and-dance number with Arcelus, “Just Like Him.” And George Wendt delivers some of the funniest lines as Santa himself.

David Rockwell's New York sets and backdrops (e.g. Macy's, Rockefeller Center) are satisfyingly eye-filling, as are Gregg Barnes' cheerful costumes and Natasha Katz's holiday-appropriate lighting.

There's nothing terribly profound here, but the show seems good enough to entertain audiences well beyond its announced January 2 closing date.

(Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th St., 212-239-6200 or; though Jan. 2)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Don’t be put off by reports of a troubled preview period. After all, the point of previews is to iron out the kinks.

Composer-lyricist David Yazbek’s musical version of Pedro Almódovar’s 1988 film with its multi-strand plot has been wittily and cleverly put on stage with the kind of ensemble work that one is more accustomed to seeing overseas. Some have complained that the likes of Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Danny Burstein don’t have enough to do, but I most strenuously disagree. Not only to do they all have some great moments to shine, but they are each part of a satisfying organic whole.

Sherie Rene Scott is Pepa, a movie-dubber whose live-in lover Ivan (Mitchell) has walked out on her. Ivan’s crazy ex-wife Lucia (LuPone) hasn’t stopped carrying a torch for her ex, and is now vengefully stalking Pepa. Ivan meanwhile is carrying on with Paulina (de’Adre Aziza), the lawyer Lucia has hired in her suit against Ivan.

Lucia’s inhibited son Carlos (Justin Guarini) is hoping to break away from his domineering mother with girlfriend Marisa (Nikka Graff Lanzarone). And Pepa’s manic model friend Candela (hilarious, scene-stealing Laura Benanti) is crazed to the point of being suicidal after learning her lover is a terrorist. Her frenetic telephone patter number, as she leaves message after message on Pepa's answering machine, is a brilliant tour de force.

Under Bartlett Sher’s astute direction, performances are pitch perfect, and the show moves along like a well-oiled clock.

That precision is mirrored in Michael Yeargan’s ever moving set pieces complemented by Sven Ortel’s colorful projections and Brian MacDevitt’s terrific lighting all of which evoke the distinctive color palate of Almódovar’s world. One of the most delightful effects involves upbeat taxi driver Burstein’s speeding around Madrid with Pepa in her moments of crisis as digital projections of the city speed behind. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography contributes to the smooth flow.

LuPone, a very funny comic presence throughout even when she’s just purposefully traversing the stage, has a wonderfully touching courtroom breakdown, and the song that grows out of it, “Invisible” is superbly done, as is Mitchell’s big solo, “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today.”

Mary Beth Peil is another plus as Pepa’s dotty concierge who offers her distraught tenant some pearly wisdom.

As the sanest of the characters, relatively speaking, Scott is the solid anchor of the proceedings, and it is her character that has the most palpable growth. Though her role is, on the surface, the least flashy, she's a winningly sympathetic character throughout.

Librettist Jeffrey Lane has done a solid job in translating Almódovar’s dark comedy to the stage. Yazbek’s songs – all with an appropriate Spanish tinge – bubble along cheerfully or ruefully, as the situation demands, and capture the the Spanish filmmaker’s spirit accurately.

In an age of jukebox musicals, we should be grateful for having a brand new score – and a quality one at that -- whose songs are so integral to the plot. Let’s hope it gets recorded.

And when you go, be sure to leave time to explore and admire every nook and cranny of the Belasco Theatre, now splendidly restored to its former glory.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St., or

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Desert Song (Light Opera of New York)

By Harry Forbes

Light Opera of New York launched its second ambitious season of classic American operettas with an impressive small-scale production of Sigmund Romberg’s 1926 “The Desert Song.”

At a colonial French outpost in Morocco, young Margot – a guest of General Birabeau, governor of the province – longs for romance but never guesses that the general’s mild-mannered son Pierre is the notorious and to her, glamorous, Red Shadow, leader of the Riffs, the Moroccan fighters who are at odds with the French occupiers. Bennie, a society reporter and Susan, the general’s ward, are the comic lovers. And sultry harem girl Azuri, the secret mistress of Margot’s fiancée, Captain Fontaine, is determined to avenge her lover’s betrayal.

Casting was strong all around. Lauren Rose-King as the conflicted Margot delivered consistently striking work. Her “Romance” and “Sabre Song” were especially satisfying. Also outstanding was Brian Nathan as Bennie whose strong and incisive singing of the show’s pop numbers “It” and “One Good Boy Gone Wrong” were stylishly delivered as he made every word count. Iris Karlin played a particularly vivid Azuri, clearly relishing the sexy vamp aspects of the role, and demonstrating real temperament when her character was thwarted. Amy Maude Helfer was right on the button as soubrette Susan who’s so smitten with Bennie.

There was some post-show grumbling that Bennie was directed to play in too effeminate a manner, especially as that interpretation makes his interactions with Susan and harem girl Clementina all the more improbable. Yet, given the conventions of the era, it seemed to me stylistically sound, if somewhat off-putting for a contemporary audience.

In his Santa Claus-red garb (resourceful and generally attractive costumes courtesy of Lydia Gladstone), Erick Castille cut a reasonably dashing figure as the Red Shadow. And he sang the big numbers, including “One Alone” and the title song firmly and with apt style. Though in his Clark Kentish guise of Pierre, his Yul Brynner-like pate was distractingly out of period.

There was good work from David Seatter as General Birabeau, Daniel Greenwood as Margot’s suitor Paul, Kevin Ginter as The Red Shadow’s sidekick Sid, LaToya Lewis as Clementina, and Matt Ellison as Ali, even if ideally one would wish a sonorous bass for his part of the great “Eastern Love/Western Love” sequence.

I appreciated the way director Gary Slavin respected the original material, and some expeditious exceptions notwithstanding (like the dance music), performed a more authentic version than even the New York City Opera and Paper Mill Playhouse. Unlike the Herberts, LOONY allowed the script to play out without narration.

Steven Francis Vasta’s chamber ensemble of five, String CollectiveNYC, provided an accomplished and surprisingly muscular accompaniment to Romberg’s rousing melodies.

Last season’s three Victor Herbert gems at the Players were so successful the company needed to secure a location with greater seating capacity, and landed on the neo-Gothic locale below. The cushioned seats are definitely an improvement over the Players’ cramped wooden folding chairs, but with the building’s imposing arches and columns, and churchy ambience, there’s a corresponding loss of intimacy. But audibility was generally not a problem.

Small caveats about the venue aside, the quality of “The Desert Song” bodes well for LOONY’s next offering, Rudolf Friml’s “The Vagabond King” on February 17.

(Light Opera of New York, Landmark on the Park, 76th St. & CPW, 886-811-4111 or, November 4)

The Scottsboro Boys (Lyceum Theatre)

“The Scottsboro Boys” has made the move to Broadway from its sold-out engagement at the Vineyard earlier this year, via a stopover at the Guthrie in Minnesota. On the narrow stage of the Lyceum, it has lost very little of the intimacy of the smaller Off-Broadway venue.

Joshua Henry has replaced the excellent Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, the most prominent of a group of nine young men unjustly imprisoned on rape charges in 1931 in Alabama. I'm happy to report Henry is as fine as his predecessor, and brings strength and dignity to the pivotal role.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s staging is, as many have already noted, among her best work, and beyond the clever and snazzy dancing we expect from her, has drawn excellent performances from her cast, including John Cullum as the interlocutor of the minstrel show that frames the narrative in the work, the final creation of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb before the latter’s death.

The rest of the Off-Broadway cast is mostly intact including Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the end men in the minstrel lineup (and, like Cullum, taking other parts along the way). The titular characters are played by Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III, and Christian Dante White.

All are impressive, with White and Lane doubling in drag as the boys’ accusers. Sharon Washington as a dignified, silent woman (her identity not revealed till the end) who watches the action from the sidelines is a lovely presence. Her character, though seemingly extraneous, also helps end the evening on a hopeful note.

From the exhilarating “Commencing in Chattanooga” which the boys sing on their fateful train journey as they set off in search of jobs to an ironic paean to “Southern Days,” the Kander & Ebb songs are tuneful and immediately accessible, though in the context of the bleak facts of the case, one can’t quite enjoy them as one can the numbers in “Chicago,” the Kander & Ebb show this most closely resembles in using a showbiz structure to tell grim events in an entertaining fashion. And it’s difficult to imagine them having a life outside the context of the show. (Barbara Cook won’t be singing “Electric Chair” at the Cafe Carlyle anytime soon!)

The production packed a wallop at the Vineyard in March. And now, with just enough little nips and tucks to make the narrative tighter, it's better than ever.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lombardi (Circle in the Square)

By Harry Forbes

Not being much of football fan (as in “not at all”), I had little interest in this bio-drama about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, but lo and behold, I found it a most enjoyable and worthy theatrical evening, with Dan Lauria and Judith Light truly outstanding as the gruff but soft-hearted Lombardi and his long-suffering, acerbic wife Marie.

The play is set in 1965, albeit with many flashbacks, as Lombardi is about to lead the second-place team to three consecutive championships. In his interaction with three players Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley), Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), and Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan), we get to observe his tough love methods of motivating the team.

Based on the biography “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” by Pulitzer Prize winning author David Maranis, playwright Eric Simonson’s conceit is to view Lombardi’s life through the eyes of a visiting “Look” reporter, Mike McCormick (Keith Nobbs) who moves in with the Lombardis for an up-close look. When Vince is elsewhere, Marie and the players give him plenty of insight into his subject.

And though he comes to view Lombardi as something of father figure, Mike eventually finds himself the brunt of the latter’s volcanic temper. The lengthy scene after that blow up is the play’s only dullish stretch, coming as it does after a particularly excellent confrontation between Lombardi and Taylor, when the laconic fullback dares to ask for more equitable pay.

Director Thomas Kail utilizes the long Circle in the Square playing area better than the theater’s last tenant – the otherwise commendable revival of “The Miracle Worker” – and draws solid performances from the cast, maintaining a lively pace throughout.

Lauria is tremendous, radiating the charisma Lombardi must have had, and always showing the compassion not far beneath the bluster, and Light – with her Lauren Bacall-ish delivery and a cocktail nearly always in hand -- provides a tart and dynamic contrast.

David Korins’ setting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting scheme are all first-rate.

(Circle in the Square, 50th St., west of Broadway, 212-239-6200 or

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Life in the Theatre (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I’d not seen David Mamet’s early paean to the theater since many years ago when Jose Ferrer took over the leading role from Ellis Raab at the Lucille Lortel. I recall going with my parents, both former actors, and thus the seemingly perfect audience for this sort of backstage story.

But despite Ferrer’s excellence, I recall we were all fairly disappointed. And I had the same feeling at the conclusion of Neil Pepe’s perfectly fine production, one much slicker than what I recall on Christopher Street. But the play remains, well, thin: amusing but never truly hilarious, and occasionally touching without ever rising to poignant heights.

Nonetheless, there’s pleasure in watching Patrick Stewart – especially after his last New York outing as Macbeth (recently reprised on PBS’s “Great Performances”) -- take on such a predominantly light-hearted role. He’s Robert, a veteran actor mentoring newbie John (T.R. Knight) with whom he’s appearing in rep. We observe the pair in a series of short scenes, some backstage, some in the plays (all Mamet inventions) in which they appear.

Those pastiche excerpts – set in such diverse backdrops as the French Revolution, the Civil War, a hospital operating room, a rowboat at sea, etc. – are amusing to varying degrees, and in any event, stand in contrast to the dressing room sequences where we can see Robert’s essential loneliness and how emotionally dependent he’s become on his young colleague.

Stewart plays with a refreshing lightness and an assured sense of comic timing, his readings as masterful in their way as his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Scottish lord.

Knight, for his part, astutely conveys the protégé’s initial eagerness and compassion which ultimately morphs into wariness and fatigue towards the increasingly needy older actor. He and Stewart definitely have the requisite chemistry for this two-hander.

Thus, fans of Stewart and Knight should not be disappointed. Despite some passages in the play that are less than Mamet's best, these two pros ensure that the 90 intermission-less minutes pass pleasantly enough.

(Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

La Bete (The Music Box)

By Harry Forbes

Though it was nearly 20 years ago, I remember the original Broadway production of David Hirson’s exceedingly clever verse homage to Moliere as a particularly delectable theatrical experience, even as I recall a strong first half, followed by a less brilliant second.

But in director Matthew Warchus’s astute present production – gorgeously designed by Mark Thompson in a floor-to-flies 17th century library (the original was a stylish white, spare setting) – I felt no such drop-off. It played beautifully from start to finish with Hirson’s satiric points about high culture versus populist entertainment sharper than ever.

As Valere, the incredibly crude, vulgar, gauche, self-centered upcoming playwright with whom the established Elomire, who fancies himself the “next Corneille,” must form an alliance by order of their mutual patron, The Princess (Joanna Lumley), Rylance is simply stupendous, and I don’t use the word carelessly. With a Tom Smothers-like guilelessness and a free-associating string of non-stop gibberish (some of it scatological and sexual) pouring out of him, he surpasses his hilarious work in Warchus’s “Boeing Boeing” revival two seasons ago.

In the face of such a tremendous tour de force, co-star David Hyde Pierce is basically the straight man, but it’s a part he takes with consummate skill, and after all, Hirson sees to it that ultimately Elomire gets the upper hand in terms of our sympathy.

The gender change of the patron – originally a Prince – adds variety to the surfeit of male characters, however historically inaccurate it might be, and offers New Yorkers the chance to see the “Absolutely Fabulous” star stretch her dramatic chops in what is basically a classical role, and she is superb. Her entrance amid a flurry of gold confetti is a delightful effect.

It’s gratifying to see Hirson's literate, witty play finally get its rightful due in such a splendid production.

(Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200 or

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hereafter (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

If there were still double-features, “Hereafter” would surely make a most interesting pairing with Woody Allen’s latest, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.” Remarkably similar thematically in that both deal with spiritualism and the question of afterlife, the approach could not be more different.

In Allen’s nihilistic view, mediums and such are all charlatans, and it is goes without saying that in his world, there is nothing beyond our earthly lives. In Peter Morgan’s script for “Hereafter,” however, true communication with those who pass on may just be possible, though yes, as we see in one amusing sequence, there are charlatans to be avoided.

In interviews for this film, director Clint Eastwood isn’t saying what he believes, but in any case, his direction is wonderfully persuasive in, at least, leaving the door open. And no matter what viewers may believe, his film is quite absorbing and ultimately extremely touching.

This particularly atypical Eastwood film tells three separate stories about characters grappling with mortality and death, and though it doesn’t immediately seem possible, they do eventually converge.

There’s Marie (Cecile de France), a French anchorwoman and journalist who nearly dies in Indonesia when she’s swept up in tsunami. There’s Marcus (George McLaren and Frankie McLaren who alternate in the role), a little English boy who experiences a profound loss. And there’s George (Matt Damon), a blue-collar worker with a genuine psychic abilities who wants out of the business that he finds all too painful.

“A life that’s all about death is no life at all,” he has told his opportunistic brother (Jay Mohr) who hopes to get rich off George’s special gift.

All these characters are lonely and hurting, and in their individual ways, all are inextricably drawn to contemplate life beyond this mortal coil.

The film is compelling from the start, and certainly the tsunami quite early in the film that eventually leads to Marie’s epiphany is as spectacular as that in any big budget disaster film.

Under Eastwood’s sympathetic handling, the performances are all very fine. Damon proves again how excellent he is at portraying an ordinary guy. The scenes of George putting his psychic gifts to use are played with great sensitivity.

De France convincingly conveys a woman who’s had a glimpse of something beyond, and can’t let it go, even if it hurts her career. And the McLarens are heartbreakingly appealing, as Marcus determinedly searches for answers in an adult world.

The smaller parts are all wonderfully played, including Bryce Dallas Howard as an emotionally vulnerable young woman George meets in a cooking class; Marthe Keller as an Elizabeth Kubler-Ross doctor at a hospice in the French Alps; and Thierry Neuvic as Marie’s boyfriend who believes death is simply the “eternal void.” Derek Jacobi has a cameo playing himself as his audio book versions of Charles Dickens are favorites of George’s character with whom he feels an almost spiritual connection.

The film – largely subtitled in the Paris sequences – has an appealingly European flavor, and may be the most romantic film that Eastwood has ever helmed.

Some might find certain parts of the film hokey – and skeptics may scoff at the overall premise – but I was totally enthralled, and I have a feeling the wide public which could so fervently embrace a movie like “The Sixth Sense” – not to mention anyone who’s suffered a loss -- will find it a fascinating and perhaps even comforting film.

(The film has been rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.)

Mrs. Warren’s Profession (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

As Mrs. Kitty Warren, Cherry Jones cuts a fine figure of a Victorian madam – even if her Cockney accent is a little dodgy – in Doug Hughes’ generally fine production of George Bernard Shaw’s once scandalous – and still provocative – play about the repression of women in Victorian society, and the sociological and financial circumstances that might push a decent woman into prostitution.

Sally Hawkins – best known here for her intentionally grating heroine in Mike Leigh’s film “Happy-Go-Lucky” – is her Cambridge-educated daughter Vivie. She talks so fast, though, that her lines are sometimes difficult to hear.

But she grows in strength (and verbal clarity) as her strong-willed character, learning the truth about Kitty's brothels, determines to break free of her mother and the men pursuing her.

Mark Harelik is particularly on the mark as one of the latter, Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s smarmy business partner who confidently tries to woo Vivie away from Frank (Adam Driver), son of the local rector (a solid Michael Siberry) who has some secrets of his own. Reliable Edward Hibbert makes a fine Mr. Praed.

Hughes’ staging is commendably ungimmicky, and he keeps the play – like much of Shaw, on the talky side – moving at a decent clip, even if he pitches the play’s confrontation scenes sometimes too high. The mother-daughter shouting match at the end is the most egregious example of that.

Catherine Zuber’s lovely costumes, including the sumptuously red number Jones wears upon her entrance, and Scott Pask’s multiple realistic sets, continually please the eye.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., 212-719-1300 or

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Pitman Painters (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

The making of art can sometimes make awfully good theater. Last season’s Mark Rothko drama, “Red,” proved that point, if occasionally on the talky side. And I’m pleased to report that “The Pitmen Painters” turns out to be an even more accessible look at the creative process.

Lee Hall, the writer of “Billy Elliot,” explores another aspect of the Northern England mining country, this time dramatizing the true story of the Northumberland miners who, breaking the stereotypical mold, became painters of some repute and were known as the Ashington Group. And their first exhibition was the first such of working class artists in Britain.

Hall begins in 1934 with art instructor Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) vainly attempting to teach a traditional art course to the rough hewn Ashington men who have elected to educate themselves on art appreciation. Da Vinci and Michelangelo hold little interest to the men, so Lyon, in frustration, suggests they try their hands with a brush and canvas themselves.

Paintings of mine-related activity give way to other themes with growing expertise and widening horizons. There’s crusty George Brown (Deka Walmsley), the head of the group, Harry Wilson (Michael Hodgson), a socialist dental technician, Jimmy Floyd (David Whitaker), a character known as Young Lad (Brian Lonsdale), and the miner with the most promise, Oliver Kilbourn (an outstanding Christopher Connel) who, though this is an ensemble work, is the nearest to what would be considered the central character.

Two female characters add variety to what could have been an all-male talkfest. There’s Phillippa Wilson as Helen Sutherland, an empathetic patron of the arts who wants to sponsor Oliver, and Susan Parks (Lisa McGrillis), a no-nonsense art study model who momentarily upsets the men’s equanimity. All are superb (and indeed have been playing these roles off and on for three years). Lonsdale doubles most impressively as the Young Lad with a heavy Yorkshire accent and artist Ben Nicholson with a posh upper crust one.

Hall’s play – inspired by a book by William Feaver --is never static and he cleverly meshes the artistic and sociological elements. Under Max Roberts’ direction, moves fluidly, as the action spans through 1947.

Gary McCann’s period costumes and scenic design – including helpful projections of the men’s work on three overhead screens – and Douglas Kuhrt’s lighting add pleasing visual interest.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47 Street, 212-239-6200 or

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brief Encounter (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Having seen the Kneehigh Theatre’s highly imaginative, impressionistic take on the classic Noel Coward/David Lean film in London, I feared that its transfer to these shores – particularly at a large house like Studio 54 – would result in a loss of the charm and authenticity of the British mounting.

The recreation of a 1930s British cinema with cast members doubling as audience buskers and ushers, serenading the patrons, and then assuming parts in the story is, in fact, slightly diminished simply given the size of the theatre – by all accounts, not a problem at the more intimate St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last year – but thankfully, in every other respect, the impact of this lovely production is undiminished.

Despite the novelty of the multi-media staging – characters stepping out of a black and white movie screen, breaking into song and stylized movement -- and the occasional slapstick (augmenting Coward’s original light moments), this isn’t meant to be a send-up of the film like that other British import, “The 39 Steps.”

The central love story here – a housewife and a doctor (both married) meeting in a train station when he removes a bit of grit from her eye, and in that and subsequent meetings falling more deeply in love, while grappling with increasing guilt – is played with utmost seriousness. Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock as lovers Laura and Alec are as repressed and tenderly impassioned as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the film.

Director Emma Rice (artistic director of Kneehigh) has adapted the film script – itself taken from Coward’s one-act “Still Life,” one of the playlets comprising his three-evening “Tonight at 8:30” anthology – and done so in a way that I think would have pleased Coward very much. Her work doesn’t distort the source material, in the way of, say, Ivo van Hove’s bizarre deconstruction of “The Little Foxes” at New York Theatre Workshop, but enhances it cleverly and movingly.

In fact, with crashing waves and symbolically liberating water projected on the drop, and a pulsating musical score, the romance is heightened to the nth degree.

A cast of merely nine players – many doubling – does stellar work here, including Annette McLaughlin as the refreshment center barmaid Myrtle, Joseph Alessi as amorous ticket taker Albert, and Dorothy Atkinson and Gabriel Ebert as young lovers waitress Beryl and porter Stanley.

The use of music – all Coward lyrics but, in some instances, excellent new tunes by Stu Barker – provides amusing and poignant counterpoint to the action. A gorgeous rendition of “Go Slow, Johnny” accompanies an unconsummated tryst between Alec and Laura, as they undress after getting soaked in a rowboat, and then chastely resisting their impulses, dress again. That sequence is one of many breathtaking moments.

Neil Murray’s period sets and costumes, Malcolm Rippeth’s mood setting lighting, Simon Baker’s adept use of sound, and Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll’s powerful projections enhance this truly unique theatrical experience, one that should not be missed.

(Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, 212-719-1300 or

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Twentieth Century Fox)

By Harry Forbes

At the start of Oliver Stone’s sequel to his 1987 “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko is being released from prison in 2001 having served eight years time for securities fraud and insider trading. Fast forward to 2008, and a variant of his iconic motto from the first film -- “greed is good” -- is now the subject of a best-selling book, "Is Greed Good?"

But Gekko is no longer a player in the financial system that brought him down. When young proprietary trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) -- who just happens to be dating Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) -- turns to Gekko for guidance, after the death of Jake’s boss and mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), Gekko agrees to help Jake.

In return, he wants Jake to help bring about a rapprochement with Winnie who blames her father for the death of her brother. Having turned her back on her father’s world, she works as a reporter for a leftist Web site. Though Jake is, of course, in the same business as Gekko, what compensates in Winnie’s eyes is Jake’s genuine zeal for alternative energy.

Jake is wooed by ruthless investment banker Bretton James (James Brolin) whose machinations led to the plummeting of stocks of Keller Zabel Investments and subsequent easy takeover by the investment bank Churchill Schwartz of which James is a partner.

Nonetheless, Jake allows himself to be momentarily swayed from his course of vengeance on James whom he holds responsible for Zabel's death, and joins James’ team. Meanwhile, you just know Gekko is planning to get back to his power broker position.

Douglas gives another dynamic performance, even if this is a mellower – and, in some respects, nicer -- Gekko than in the first film. LaBeouf makes an empathetic protagonist and we follow the events of the film through his eyes. Mulligan – channeling Samantha Morton’s brand of moist vulnerability – shows another facet of her talent after her Oscar-nominated turn in “An Education” with a plausible American accent, too.

Brolin – his second film of the week (after Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”) – skillfully blends charm and ruthlessness.

Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff’s script includes references to the banking crisis of a couple of years ago, the results of deregulation, but it’s the human dynamic among Gekko, Winnie and Jake that predominates.

This is one of those films where New York looks absolutely splendid, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Zoo, and iconic skyline really sparkling.

(The film is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and thematic elements.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Sony Pictures Classics)

By Harry Forbes

Spiritualism is bunk, and life is nothing but random luck and misfortune, followed by nothingness. Those are the not surprising underlying themes in this latest cinematic permutation of Woody Allen’s nihilistic world view. But until the end of the film, he’s fairly light-handed about it, and thematic material aside, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is one of the writer-director’s most consistently enjoyable films.

Returning to the London setting of “Match Point” and “Scoop,” Allen’s story focuses on two couples Alfie and Helena (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and Roy and Sally (Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts). The wealthy Alfie keenly senses the passage of time and his youth and perhaps the onset of the grim reaper (the symbolic titular figure).

He has left Helena to marry a spirited but common call girl (Lucy Punch). Roy’s a novelist who’s failed to replicate the success of his first book, and has gone to seed, while Sally’s mother (Helena) pays their bills.

Sally, daughter of Alfie and Helena, desperate to have a child and fed up with Roy’s inertia, develops a crush on her gallery owner boss (Antonio Banderas), while Roy pines for the attractive woman (the fetching Frieda Pinto) he watches from his window across the alley.

In her loneliness and confusion, Helena becomes smitten with Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) the rotund owner of an occult bookshop. But all are, in one way or another, ill-matched to the people they desire, and are deluding themselves by thinking otherwise.

Allen has assembled a spot-on cast, all of whom deliver some of their finest work, as actors generally do in an Allen film. Watts is particularly outstanding as the frustrated wife pinning her goals on something unattainable. The scene where she finally tries to confess her pent-up feelings to Banderas is a highpoint.

Versatile Brolin, who put on considerable weight for the role, demonstrates anew what an adept character actor he is.

PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” diehards will fondly recall Jones as “The Duchess of Duke Street,” and will relish seeing her all these years later in such a meaty screen part. And speaking of PBS, “Upstairs Downstairs” alumna Pauline Collins plays the charlatan fortune teller to whom the vulnerable Helena turns when she’s abandoned by her husband.

But it’s almost unfair to single out anyone, as the ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent.

Allen uses some of his trademark narration here, which I’ve sometimes felt has been a lazy substitute for dialogue, but this script is solidly constructed, and gives his actors a solid foundation. The plot consistently holds your interest with a delectable O. Henry-like twist late in the film.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some language.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Town (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Ben Affleck returns to the same gritty Boston milieu with which he found success as a director in 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” in “The Town,” a gripping action-drama and love story.

This time he also plays the lead, and he impresses mightily on both counts, much like Clint Eastwood whose mantle Affleck seems poised to inherit.

He plays Doug MacRay, the leader of a gang of bank robbers from Boston’s notorious Charlestown neighborhood which, we are told, has spawned more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere in the country. In the opening scenes, he and his partner and closest friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner from “The Hurt Locker”) and their accomplices break into a bank disguised in skeleton suits, terrorize the workers and leave with cash and the bank manager Claire (an especially fine Rebecca Hall) as temporary hostage, though they soon set her free.

Later, loose canon Jem learns Claire lives nearby and fears she may finger them and suggests he might permanently silence her, so Doug – not wanting to add murder to their crimes -- contrives to watch her himself. In short order they fall in love, and Doug sees a way out of his dead-end life, and the chance he blew years before when he was a promising hockey player.

Meanwhile, the gang is pursued by FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) who, though he knows the identities of the masked criminals repeatedly fails to nail them.

The sharp script, co-written by Peter Craig, Affleck, and Aaron Stockard was based on Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel, “Prince of Thieves.” Affleck filmed the story on location with locals taking parts, but the authenticity of the entire cast is most impressive.

There are many compelling scenes including one almost worthy of Hitchcock in which Jem happens upon Doug and Claire at an outdoor café and learns that Doug has been secretly dating her. But Doug knows that Claire saw Jem’s tattoo on the back of his neck during the robbery, and worries that if Jem turns his head, Claire will see it.

The relationship between Doug and Claire is beautifully limned by Affleck and Hall, though the love story aspects are balanced by the extremely violent – but not, I think, gratuitous -- heist scenes.

Renner, a sort of modern-day James Cagney, makes a compelling counterpart for Affleck. His Jem has served nine years in prison and is determined never to go back. He’s like a brother to Doug, further bound to him by Doug’s off-again, on-again relationship with his sister Krista (Blake Lively) who holds a torch for Doug.

Hamm gives a polished performance as the relentless agent, though perhaps through no fault of his own, it’s difficult to forget his “Mad Men” character, Don Draper. Chris Cooper is marvelous as Doug’s father, doing time at Walpole’s maximum security prison. He has only has one scene, but he makes it count. And Pete Postlethwaite is aptly frightening as a crime kingpin with a florist business.

The action scenes – car chases through the Beantown streets, shootouts, narrow escapes – are all excitingly done, but it’s the human story that stays with you after.

“No matter how much you change, you still have to pay the price for what you’ve done” someone says late in the film, underscoring the movie's redemptive theme. But "The Town" is as much about the validation of Ben Affleck’s impressive talent as that of the character he so memorably portrays here.

(The film has been rated R by the MPAA for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Going the Distance (New Line Cinema)

By Harry Forbes

It’s difficult not to like Drew Barrymore even under the worst of circumstances – and I’m sorry to say that “Going the Distance,” a lumbering romantic comedy considerably short of both descriptors, is pretty much the worst of circumstances – but she stretches our tolerance to the limit here.

She plays 30-something aspiring reporter Erin who, during an internship at a New York newspaper, meets mid-level record company guy Garrett played by her real life off-and-on-again real-life beau Justin Long. When her internship ends, and she must return to the west coast, they decide to continue the relationship long distance, staying faithful to each other across the miles.

However his friends, smart-alack co-worker Box (Jason Sudeikis) and sad sack roommate Dan (Charlie Day), with a penchant for sitting on the john with the door wide open, and Erin’s protective sister (Christina Applegate) do everything they can to undermine the relationship, while the couple – whose onscreen chemistry is, sorry to say, pretty much nil – hang tough.

What keeps them going is the hope they’ll eventually be together, but when Erin gets a job offer from the San Francisco Chronicle, their plans threaten to derail.

What truly sabotages the film is the leaden dialogue, with its unremitting sophomoric vulgarity. “We’re not afraid to…hear F-bombs,” Day declares proudly in the press notes. It’s distressing to see Barrymore saddled with a drunk scene in a bar, and yelling at a burly bully “Suck my d--k, bitch,” while being unceremoniously bundled off the premises.

Throughout, Geoff LaTulippe's script runs the gamut from soppy sentiment to the crudest of language. The film’s nadir finds Erin and Garrett engaging in split screen bi-coastal phone sex, a far cry from Doris Day and Rock Hudson’s truly witty bathtub repartee in “Pillow Talk” with a similar split screen presentation. The scene is even more offensive than Applegate’s character catching the couple (including a bare-assed Long) having sex on her dining room table.

Like Barrymore, Long is a basically likable presence, and certainly Sudeikis, Day, and Applegate are pros, but they’re fighting a losing battle with the material, which continually undermines what I presume is meant to be, at heart, a sweet romance.

In fact, wit is the crucial element that’s entirely absent here. In the press notes, the producers brag like naughty children about the film’s subversive humor and the freedom for the characters to “talk the way that people really talk.” No one I know!

The proceedings are unremarkably directed by documentary maker Nanette Burstein.

(The movie is rated R by the MPAA for sexual content including dialogue, language throughout, some drug use and brief nudity.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

DVD Review: The Judy Garland Show (Volume Five) (Infinity Entertainment Group)

By Harry Forbes

If anyone really wants to sample the full power of Judy Garland at her mature, late period best – a time when her performances could be disconcertingly variable – I suggest they watch the Diahann Carroll episode of the latest installment of Infinity Entertainment Group’s reissue of Garland’s 1963-64 CBS-TV series.

They should begin, not with the opening number “Hey Look Me Over,” slightly marred when Garland muffs a lyric, but with the second song, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and the succession of evergreens which follow: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Alone Together,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

She sang all of them, except “Smile,” at her famous Carnegie Hall concert a couple of years earlier, but here, she’s arguably in even better voice, and unlike some of the other musical moments on the TV series, she’s thrillingly present, making each lyric count, with accompanying body language that totally serves the material, and doesn’t simply register as nervous mannerisms.

But, in fact, that entire episode, and the Steve Allen/Mel Torme episode which accompanies it, rank high in the series, leading one to regret all the more that the network didn’t allow Garland a shot at a second season, in a less vulnerable time slot than competition to highly-rated “Bonanza” on NBC. The change in her comfort level with the TV cameras is palpable.

What’s particularly nice about these two episodes is the array of new (for her) material, all of it delivered with supreme confidence. The Allen show, for instance, has Garland emoting the classic “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and plugging the songs from Allen’s latest musical, “Sophie,” about entertainer Sophie Tucker (Garland's early MGM costar). Allen must have been thrilled to hear Garland sock over the big ballad, “I’ll Show Them All,” as perched on a stool behind her, he looked on with awe.

His wife Jayne Meadows joins Garland in the regular “tea” segment, telling an amusing story involving a manhole, and both ladies are in comfortable, chatty form.

Garland joins Allen and Torme for a tricky medley which includes “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Mean to Me,” and “Tip Toe through the Tulips.”

The “trunk” segment which closes the show presents a straw-hatted Garland at her playful best having a ball with Vernon Duke’s “Island in the West Indies” and then launching into a spectacular, moving reading of Vincent Youmans’ “Through the Years.” Just dazzling.

The Carroll show has much going for it, beyond the aforementioned splendid mini-concert. Carroll’s excessive 1960s makeup notwithstanding, the star of “House of Flowers” and “No Strings” looks cute as a button and ridiculously young, warbling “Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars” and “Goody Goody.” She and Garland engage in a dandy medley of tunes by Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers, one that bears favorable comparison to the famous Barbra Streisand duets on the series.

The program concludes with Garland shining in an elaborate new arrangement of “Great Day,” despite a too obtrusive off-stage chorus.

Even if you haven’t been collecting the series until now, this exceptional pairing is well worth owning for its own sake.

(The Judy Garland Show: Vol. 5; Infinity Entertainment Group; suggested retail: $19.98.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eat Pray Love (Columbia)

Sylvester Stallone's "The Expendables" trumped "Eat Pray Love" at the box-office this weekend, but the latter still performed solidly with $23.1 million in second place, despite reviews that were decidedly mixed, and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 38%.

Clearly, the public that made the book a best-seller can't get enough of Elizabeth Gilbert's soul searching globe-trotting memoir.

You can read my take at America magazine.

(The film was rated PG-13 by the MPAA for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Extra Man (Magnolia Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

The word quirky might have been invented for this curious comedy about Louis Ives, the young man played by Paul Dano who, after caught in a compromising pose with a woman’s brassiere, is fired from his Princeton prep school teacher job.

He comes to Manhattan where he shares an apartment with eccentric, composition professor and once-promising playwright Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), an overly refined man with a prudish and fastidious manner who makes much of his professed Catholicism (“somewhere to the right of the Pope,” he boasts) and supplements his income as an “extra man” (i.e., escort) for wealthy widows.

Kline has one of his most colorful screen roles as this autocratic, larger-than-life mentor who shows Louis the ropes on such niceties of how to sneak into the opera. (New Yorkers, note the chosen venue is the City Center, not the Met.)

Dano – so good in “There Will Be Blood” -- is equally fine as his shy, befuddled occasional cross-dressing young protégé through whose eyes we observe the events of the story.

An extremely hirsute red-headed John C. Reilly plays Henry’s oddball friend Gerson speaking disconcertingly in a high-pitched falsetto. At one point, Louis, Henry, and Gershon drive to the beach with the esoteric Henry warbling the title tune of all things, the operetta “Pas Sur La Bouche” (filmed by Alain Resnais a few years ago), and once at the shore, Reilly drops the falsetto and belts out “Somewhere My Love.”

John Pankow is Louis’ boss at the environmental magazine where Louis works in a sales job, Katie Holmes is a bright, likable presence as his vegan office-mate who becomes his unattainable love interest, and this year’s Tony winner Marian Seldes is outstanding as Henry’s most imposing client. A sequence at the Russian Tea Room is a standout.

The plot takes some rather off-putting turns that tests an audience’s tolerance for the offbeat, as when the wide-eyed Tim goes to a dominatrix for spanking.

Co-adapted by Jonathan Ames from his semi-autobiographical novel, originally set in the 1990s, and directed with fable-like aura by Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman (who both shared script duties), capturing something of the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald of whom Louis is so enamored. The Gatsby-like sepia credit sequence starts the film off to a charming and promising start.

Still, while the film has its amusing moments, and by the time of the bittersweet wrap-up, manages to tug at the heart, ultimately it never completely captivates, even with its interesting cast which also includes Celia Weston, Patti D’Arbanville, Lynn Cohen, Dan Hedaya, and Jason Butler Harner.

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

Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Though Francis Veber’s delightful stage play and 1998 French film – the winner of three Cesar Awards – has been greatly altered, and in many respects, cheapened, the winning performances of Paul Rudd and the ever-amazing Steve Carell make it worth your time.

Director Jay Roach has only used the original property as a springboard for a considerably different sort of affair, utilizing many of the elements in different ways. And the dinner itself, never dramatized in the original, has now become the literal climax.

The setting has been transplanted to Los Angeles. Rudd is Tim Conrad, an up-and-coming financial analyst who’s been invited by his boss (Bruce Greenwood) to attend a dinner in which all the guests must invite the most idiotic person they can find, all for cruel amusement.

Driving through Westwood, Tim nearly runs down Barry (Carell) – an I.R.S. nerd and taxidermist who makes dioramas out of dead mice (don’t worry, they’re cute) – Tim thinks he’s found his perfect candidate to win the prize and make a promotion-deserving impression at the following night’s affair.

Barry mistakes the night of the dinner, however, and shows up at Tim’s house that very evening, thereby proceeding to wreak well-intentioned havoc on Tim’s business affairs and love-life, alienating Tim's girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak).

The mouse element – it was matchstick constructions originally -- is one of the more pleasing additions in this version. The “mouseterpiece” tableaux (everything from the Wright Brothers to Evel Knievel) are really quite charming, and exemplify the sweeter side of the film. David Guion and Michael Handelman’s script has a good number of funny bits, but some of the other permutations on the original’s themes are less felicitous.

Carell at times seems to be channeling Jerry Lewis (speaking of things French); he’s both lovable and irritating in equal measure and Rudd is a winning straight man throughout, his struggle with his better nature nicely portrayed.

So, too, there’s amusing work from Jemaine Clement as an outlandish womanizing artist for whom curator Julie works. He brings something of the roguish spirit of Russell Brand’s character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

Perhaps in homage to the property’s roots, French actress Stephanie Szostak has been cast as Tim’s disapproving girlfriend, and she’s most appealing and “real.” Zach Galifianakis has some funny bits as a mind-controlling I.R.S. man. And David Walliams and Lucy Davenport are funny and characterful as a German munitions factory owner and his wife whom Tim sets out to impress.

The cruelty of the central premise – albeit finally portrayed as just that – is more disturbing than it was in the original, and somehow, despite Carell’s inspired antics and some amusing gags along the way, manages overall to be far less funny than its source material, never quite hitting its stride. (I saw the play in London several years ago, and found it simply hilarious, played as originally written).

Rated PG-13 by MPAA for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Kids may enjoy the formulaic slapstick and high octane shenanigans, but adults are likely to find this sequel to 2001’s “Cats & Dogs” something of a noisy bore.

This live action, computer animation and puppetry amalgam is, at least, reasonably well executed, though the 3D effects add little. (The continuing popularity of the gimmicky process continues to perplex me.)

The eponymous villainess, a former agent for the spy organization MEOWS -- voiced by a game Bette Midler -- is intent on world domination. Determined to stop her are Diggs (James Marsden), an overly impulsive German Shepherd, formerly of the S.F.P.D., and now with MEOWS’ canine counterpart DOG; an older Anatolian Shepherd Butch (Nick Nolte); and MEOWS operative Catherine (Christina Applegate), a rare case of canine/feline comradeship (and maybe something more).

The voices for the canine and feline characters are a reasonably starry bunch. Besides those mentioned, there’s also Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, Sean Hayes, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, and even (in homage to James Bond) Roger Moore. Chris O’Donnell plays Diggs’ human detective partner on the police force.

But Ron J. Friedman and Steve Bencich’s script is serviceable, and mildly amusing, no more. Brad Peyton’s direction is merely competent. The explosions, fights and chases grow wearying, as does the conceit of live animals who can talk, accomplished through the wizardry of CGI.

About three quarters of the way through, the little girl behind me politely informed her adult companion she’d like to leave, demonstrating that even small kids can be remarkably discerning.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for animal action and humor.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Salt (Columbia Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

Angelina Jolie confirms her status as supreme female action star in this enormously exciting espionage thriller, “Salt.” In fact, forget the gender qualifier. Whether leaping from bridges onto moving trucks, navigating the precariously narrow ledge of an apartment building, bailing from a helicopter, she does it all as deftly as her male counterparts, and most convincingly at that.

She plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who, in the film’s tense opening seconds, is being tortured by the North Koreans, insisting all the while that she’s not a spy. Before long, bruised and battered, she’s being swapped for another spy, due to the intense intercession of her devoted researcher boyfriend Michael (August Diehl).

Two years later, she’s in Washington, ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary, and poised to give up these dangerous assignments for a desk job, though her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) predicts she’ll be bored.

Before she can get home to her hubby and dog, she and Winter are summoned to interrogate a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski).

Winter and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the agency’s counter-intelligence man
dispatch Salt to the interrogation room, where the grizzled Russian spins an incredible tale about his countrymen training orphaned children to infiltrate America as sleeper agents (Lee Harvey Oswald is cited as one such), in anticipation of Day X where they will spring into action against the United States, seizing control of the country’s atomic weapons.

He reveals that an agent is now poised to kill the Russian president when the latter attends the impending funeral of the U.S. vice president. Salt scoffs at the preposterous story, but as she’s leaving the interrogation room, he stuns both her and the CIA men behind the glass window by naming her as one such operative.

Despite the supportive Winter’s protestations. Peabody has no choice but to detain her. Salt adamantly proclaims her innocence, but fears the Russians will try to target her husband, and determines to him get to him before the Russians at any cost. She ingeniously breaks loose and becomes a fugitive from the Feds as she endeavors to save her husband and clear her name.

As there are many twists and turns, it would be wrong to give away more of the plot, but suffice to say the breathless car and motorcycle chases, daredevil escapes, and ingenious subterfuges never stop.

Throughout all of this, Jolie is fascinating to watch and despite the ambiguity of her character, makes Salt a character for whom you instinctively root, even when the plot threatens to strain credulity. She handles the hardware with the greatest of aplomb, and allegedly does much of her own stunt work. As a blonde, brunette, and even, at one point, audaciously as a man, she captivates.

And with Russian spies currently extremely au courant all over again, the picture’s release could not be timelier.

Director Phillip Noyce whips up a tremendous lather of excitement, and the pace never lags. “Salt” outdoes the Bourne movies for nail-biting excitement. Don’t expect realism, but writer Kurt Wimmer has concocted a hugely enjoyable yarn, grounding his script just enough, all the while keeping you guessing about the motives of the enigmatic Salt character.

The huge funeral sequence – set at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue – rivals the climactic Royal Albert Hall assassination attempt of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Scott Chambliss’ production design and all the location work – mostly in New York and Washington, D.C. – are first rate.

And all the excitement is considerably enhanced by James Newton Howard’s poundingly propulsive score.

(The film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for intense sequences of violence and action.)