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Friday, January 29, 2010

Present Laughter (American Airlines Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

By Noel Coward’s own admission, he wrote “Present Laughter” “with the sensible object of providing (himself) with a bravura part,” But critics of the original 1943 London production, much to the author’s surprise, praised the play as well. Appropriately enough, it concerns a Coward-like star, Garry Essendine, and his devoted, tightly knit support group which includes his ex-wife, producer, agent, and secretary.

Disrupting the well-oiled status quo are star struck Daphne (Holley Fain), crazed fan Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas), and cool seductress Joanna (Pamela Jane Gray) who’s married to the producer.

Since that original production, it has proven a worthy vehicle for stars such as George C. Scott, Tom Conti, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Ian McKellan, and many others. I first encountered the play in a memorable production with the hilarious Donald Sinden in London in the 1980s. The veteran actress and singer Elizabeth Welch sat to my right, and two of us were so doubled up with uncontrollable laughter, we instantly bonded. That production is thankfully preserved and available in a BBC Films boxed set devoted to Coward.

The 1996 Broadway production with Frank Langella rated high on the laugh meter with its star hamming it up uproariously.

The 1946 Broadway production with Clifton Webb was not so well received, though Webb was praised. Coward himself found the cast, Webb excluded, “tatty and fifth rate” and the production “lamentable.”

Coward would have had no complaints about the physical production of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival, played as it is on Alexander Dodge’s sumptuous Art Deco set with its cast bedecked in Jane Greenwood’s stylish duds.

The problem is it’s no where near as rib-ticklingly funny as it ought to be. Nicholas Martin directs with intelligence, but even as farcical situations escalate in the second and third acts, the production never catches fire.

The versatile Victor Garber is a pro, and knows how to mine laughs from Coward’s dialogue, gamely essaying comic business like a quick glance in the mirror every time the doorbell rings. But he’s missing that larger than life quality so essential to the role.

The supporting players, which includes Harriet Harris as Essendine’s sardonic secretary Monica, Lisa Banes as the sympathetic ex-wife Liz, Marc Vietor as agent Morris besotted with Joanna; and Richard Poe as the cuckolded producer Henry, is certainly competent across the board, if lacking the authentic edge a British cast might offer. And it’s really only Ashmanskas as Essendine’s manically adoring admirer who delivers the requisite comic goods. Flitting about the stage, offering anyone fool enough to take his hand a violent arm-dislocating handshake, he suggests the comic flair that’s missing elsewhere.

The production is classy, tasteful, and great to look at, but a little short of present mirth.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org)

Edge of Darkness (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

It’s been seven years since Mel Gibson has had a starring role, but graying hair and lined visage notwithstanding, he delivers as solid a performance as ever playing veteran Boston cop Thomas Craven consumed with grief and investigating the murder of his 24-year-old daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). He uses an authentic Boston accent to boot.

Interestingly, the film -- adapted from the award-winning 1985 BBC series which starred Bob Peck and was written by Troy Kennedy Marti -- is directed by the series director Martin Campbell. It is, on the whole, tense and absorbing, even though its various plot turns and revelations are reminiscent of so many other stories we’ve seen in the intervening years.

Emma has just returned to her father’s home for a visit when she’s shot on his porch as they leave the house for dinner. Craven’s the presumed target, but he soon figures out that was not so.

Emma, it seemed, worked for a private research compound (with government contracts) called Northmoor, and it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that he soon discovers the company -- run by the smarmy and corrupt Jack Bennett (Danny Huston). – has been up to no good, leading down a trail to locate her friends, like scruffy boyfriend (and coworker) Daniel Burnham (Shawn Roberts), corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, all the while evading the Northmoor goons out to get him, and so on.

Ray Winstone is a plus as enigmatic emissary Derek Jedburgh hired to do damage control for Nordstrom, and who curiously bonds with Craven, even though they are technically at cross-purposes.

Craven’s devotion to his daughter is shown in frequent flashbacks and old home movie footage, including a particularly touching sequence where, as a little girl, she watches and emulates her dad as he’s shaving, one of the film’s few light moments.

On an entertainment scale, I’d say this is roughly on the level of the Russell Crowe “State of Play,” also adapted from a superior BBC mini-series. Like that film, “Edge of Darkness” is good, but the longer – and therefore more finely detailed -- series was probably better.

In condensing, scriptwriters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell, besides changing the setting to the U.S. and updating the political angle, have had to tell a complex story is broad, quick strokes.

Still, the film holds your interest, despite its conventional aspects (those endless car chases, for one thing), and Mel’s compelling return to the screen is worth catching.

(The film is rated R by the MPAA for strong bloody violence and language.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As You Like It (BAM)



By Harry Forbes

Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project – a joint venture of BAM, London’s Old Vic, and Neal Street – scores another triumph with this lovely mounting of Shakespeare’s ever-fresh pastoral comedy, capturing the work’s wondrous evolution from darkness to redemptive light, and striking an ideal balance of the playful and profound.

Anchored by Juliet Rylance’s luminous performance as Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke Senior who’s been ousted by his evil brother Duke Frederick and taken refuge in the Forest of Arden.

After Frederick, in a fit of paranoia, decides to banish Rosalind from court as well, she and her beloved cousin Celia (Michelle Beck) flee to the forest.

The Bridge Project’s mix of British and American actors make for generally homogeneous results. The latter mostly eschew British accents or, at most, affect a mid-Atlantic compromise.

Though he’ll take on Prospero later this season, Stephen Dillane here has the smaller but significant role of Jaques, who sardonically interjects his dour reflections on life throughout the evening. His first moments on stage include a rendition of “Who doth ambition shun,” sung, hilariously, as Bob Dylan. Later, his “Seven Ages of Man” speech ranks with the best.

Apart from that particular bit of musical whimsy, the songs – of which “As You Like It” sports quite a few – are set to unusually pleasing airs by Mark Bennett.

Beck makes a delightful sidekick to Rylance, and Christian Camargo is an ardent, beautifully spoken Orlando, radiating the requisite natural born decency right from the start, in contrast to Edward Bennett as his scheming elder brother Oliver. The parallel good/bad brothers -- Frederick and the gentle Duke Senior -- are impressively embodied in Michael Thomas who doubles both roles.

Rather amusingly, apart from Anthony O’Donnell’s Corin and Ross Walton’s William, most of the rustic characters are played by the American contingent. Thomas Sadoski’s Touchstone, Jenni Barber’s Audrey, Aaron Krohn’s Silvius, and Ashlie Atkinson’s plus-size Phoebe.

Veteran Alvin Epstein is superb both as Orlando’s feisty old servant Adam who, in Mendes’ concept, dies at the end of the first act, a heartstoppingly poignant moment, and then, thankfully, returns in the second act as the dotty country vicar.

It’s Rylance who sparkles throughout, especially ingenious in the concluding revelation scene when her boyish disguise – very cutely outfitted by Catherine Zuber whose costumes are outstanding as usual -- is, at last, thrown off, and delightful in the epilogue which closes the play. If there’s any justice, her work here should jump-start her career as the role famously did for Vanessa Redgrave.

Though he never veers radically from tradition, Mendes employs numerous original and imaginative bits of business, the humanity of the play most vividly and touchingly conveyed.

Tom Piper’s set – and Paul Pyant’s brilliant lighting -- contrasts the dark, distinctly inhospitable forest of the first act with the verdant, regenerative blossoming of the second.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Naughty Marietta (Light Opera of New York)



By Harry Forbes

The fledgling Light Opera of New York company presented its first full-length, staged production at the Players Thursday evening, and let it be said at the start that the quality boded well for the remainder of the season, one devoted entirely to the works of America’s greatest operetta composer, Victor Herbert.

They chose his most famous and operatic-styled operetta, a rather audacious choice given the vocal demands of the score, and pulled it off with considerable aplomb. Beautifully costumed (by Lydia Gladstone) and performed mostly off-book (admirable, considering this was only a one-night only performance), the show pleased the very full house.

The story involves an Italian countess who’s run off to 18th century Louisiana incognito on board a ship of casquette girls intended for the unmarried settlers, and falls in love with Captain Dick (John Tiranno), leader of a motley band of peace-keeping adventurers.

Once in New Orleans, she impersonates the absent son of an Italian puppeteer (William Tost) to avoid detection, and evades the amorous attentions of the corrupt son (Cory Clines) of the Lieutenant Governor Grandet (Richard Holmes). Etienne is, in fact, a notorious pirate, Bras Prique, and has a Quadroon (that is, one quarter, black) mistress and slave Adah (Maria Elena Armijo) whom he treats in cad-like fashion.

The score was presented nearly complete though some of the ensemble portions were shaved, and comic Simon O’Hara (amusing Matthew Hughes) lost his “It’s Pretty Soft for Simon.” But the voices were generally of high quality, and the accompaniment – a group that calls itself the Ambience Strings (two violins, a cello, and a bass) – provided pleasing support under music director Stephen Francis Vasta on keyboard.

The books of some of the Herbert works are seriously problematic for a modern audience, and Rida Johnson Young’s “Marietta” libretto was roundly criticized, even in its day, for plot inconsistencies and especially some crass ethnic stereotyping. The character of Simon “O’Hara,” for instance, was originally the worst sort of Jewish stereotype despite that name, and here, he’s played as inoffensively Irish.

Alyce Mott, the tireless Herbert champion who, together with conductor Dino Anagnost of the Little Orchestra Society, has provided New York with some marvelous Herbert concerts at Alice Tully Hall, has supplied her performing edition previously utilized at Lincoln Center in 2006.

As before, she utilizes a narrator in the shape of a new character, Marie Le Valleau, a French Creole Voodoo Queen. Tracy Bidleman handles her expository function with flair, though the device does begin to wear thin by the second half. Still, a narrator is a sensible substitute for heavy-handed dialogue. Would they had cut more!

Kristin Vogel, channeling 1950’s star Ann Blyth, made an effervescent Marietta, and looked smashing in her gowns. She was vocally assured, too, though perhaps pushed too hard in her big vocal moments. (Herbert is said to have admonished original star Emma Trentini for doing just that.)

The pleasantly affable Tiranno hardly seemed a Central Casting candidate for “rugged outdoorsman,” but sang capably, and likewise, Armijo’s uncomplicated persona didn’t really suggest the exoticism of Adah, but her singing of “Neath the Southern Moon” and elsewhere was spot on.

Clines and Holmes made strong-voiced Grandets, son and father, but all Holmes got to sing in his principally comic role was the “Sweet By and By,” which though originally intended for his character back in 1910, was quickly reassigned to the soubrette Lizette, here excised. The same was done in the New York City Opera production of several years ago, which restored much of the score, but did its own share of textual jiggling, too.

The great “Live for Today” quartet which morphs into a big ensemble was the vocal highpoint, but the music was well handled throughout, and even though the ensemble consisted of merely four men and four women, they made a surprisingly full-bodied blend in the intimate Players auditorium.

Director Gary Slavin led a well paced performance, and made the most of the limited playing area, utilizing the aisles to good effect.

I look forward to LOONY’s “Mlle. Modiste” (3/18) and “The Red Mill” (5/20), and judging by the crowd’s chatter while exiting up the aisles, so do they.

(The Players, 16 Gramercy Park South, 212-249-9470 or www.LightOperaOfNewYork.org)

Tooth Fairy (Twentieth Century Fox/Walden Media)



By Harry Forbes

Only a real he-man like Dwayne Johnson could so unflinchingly play a character who, in the course of the film, must “learn to embrace the fairy spirit,” at one point even wearing a pink tutu, without a suggestion that fairies are anything but those magical sprites from storybooks.

Of course, it helps that he’s playing Derek, a tough-as-nails if disillusioned hockey player nicknamed the “Tooth Fairy” for his propensity to knock out his opponents’ teeth. (His own, by the way, are dazzlingly, blindingly, intact.)

But Derek hasn’t scored a goal in years. He doesn’t believe in dreams, bitterly opining that they only lead to disappointment, as he tells a bright-eyed young fan in an early scene, practically reducing the latter to tears.

He’s dating single mom Carly (Ashley Judd) and must win over her two small kids Tess (Destiny Grace Whitlock) and Randy (Chase Ellison).

When he nearly breaks the news to Tess that there’s no such thing as a “tooth fairy,” he’s summoned to Fairyland for “dissemination of disbelief” a “dream killer” guilty of being a “first degree dasher of fantasy.” Chief Tooth Fairy Lily, played by Julie Andrews (looking remarkably youthful) sentences him to a two-week sentence as a bona fide “tooth fairy,” sneaking into homes, removing the child’s tooth from underneath the pillow, and leaving a dollar in its place.

He grumbles every step of the way, and derides his bespectacled administrative fairy Tracy -- humorously played by tall and lanky Brit Stephen Merchant,” co-creator of the original version of “The Office” – who envies Derek’s fairy wings.

Gradually, as Derek bonds with Carly’s kids, he comes to understand the importance of dreams, even as he reassesses his own performance on the ice, where the team’s new young star player Mick (Ryan Sheckler) has been treating him with cool condescension.

Michael Lembeck directs the disparate domestic scenes, hard-driving hockey sequences, and Fairyland shenanigans capably, but the kid-friendly script – apparently the work of five (count ‘em!) writers – needed more genuine wit, in addition to all the sentiment. Though it’s at best pleasantly diverting than outright funny, the narrative generally holds your interest. The believe-in-yourself and use-your-imagination themes are repeated to death, which is fine for its intended (small fry) audience, if hardly anyone else.

Johnson is a natural screen presence, and as he’s proven in previous films, works especially well with kids and has an easygoing likability. Judd has little to do but play a standard sweet, loving mom. It’s a waste of her talent, but she’s fine. Andrews good naturedly kids her starchy image. An unbilled Billy Crystal is an asset as a fast-talking dispenser of essential fairy tools: shrinking paste, invisibility spray, amnesia powder, etc.

Production designer Marcia Hinds has come up with an attractive giant Fairyland set, a sort of gargantuan train station.

This is best for the kids, but their adult minders shouldn’t be too unhappy to come along for the ride. The ending ties things up nicely, and there’s a very cute coda with Andrews and Crystal.

(Rated PG by the MPAA for mild language, some rude humor and sports action.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ernest in Love (The Irish Repertory Theatre)



By Harry Forbes

Kudos to Irish Rep for yet again resurrecting a little-performed musical based on Oscar Wilde. As with Noel Coward’s “After the Ball,” adapted from “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” the company has come up with a winner.

Neither “After the Ball” nor this musicalization of “The Importance of Being Ernest” is a landmark of musical theater, but each provides myriad pleasures, and in any case, “Ernest” is a far more cohesive work than Coward’s.

With book and lyrics by Anne Croswell and music by Lee Pockriss – who teamed again for the musical version of “Tovarich,” Vivien Leigh’s Tony-winning musical debut, 1960‘s “Ernest” is fondly remembered for its fine Columbia cast album (now on CD, courtesy of DRG), and it is indeed a stylish, tuneful collection of songs.

Hearing them in the context of a full production is just a few pegs less satisfying. Wilde’s dialogue sparkles with so much unbeatable wit that the songs can’t help but register on a less exalted plane (clever though Croswell’s lyrics are, on their own terms), and Wilde’s construction is so economical that anything extraneous seems slightly intrusive. “My Fair Lady” is one of those rare exceptions of genius where music and lyrics are all of a piece with highly literate source material.

Still, under Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore’s deft, unfussy direction, both elements are well served. On the one hand, this is a perfectly credible performance of Wilde (albeit abridged), while those songs are all charmingly rendered.

Mark Hartman’s musical direction (an ensemble of harp, cello, violin and keyboard) provides zesty accompaniment. The opening ensemble number about the upper classes always being in arrears has been excised (as there’s no chorus here), but the rest is, as remembered.

Ace hoofer Noah Racey makes a confident Jack and proves he can play English, while Ian Holcomb is an appropriately rakish Algy. On the distaff side, Annika Boras and Katie Fabel are well contrasted as Gwendolen and Cecily, and make the most of their deliciously bitchy first encounter. Kristin Griffith and Peter Maloney are delightfully characterful as the romantic-minded tutor Miss Prism and befuddled clergyman Dr. Chasuble respectively. Beth Fowler is a satisfyingly dragon-like Lady Bracknell.

James Morgan’s economic scenic design – one backdrop serving for both Jack and Algy’s flats in the first act, and another Jack’s country manor in the second – along with Linda Fisher’s costumes reflect the overall tasteful simplicity of this charming production which, following the superb production of “The Emperor Jones” as it does, impressively affirms the versatility of this treasurable company.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

(The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org; through February 14)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ruddigore (New York City Center)



By Harry Forbes

Though several notches below “The Mikado,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” and H.M.S. Pinafore,” on the popularity scale, “Ruddigore” – Gilbert & Sullivan’s less-than-enthusiastically received 1887 follow-up to “The Mikado,” a clever spoof of theatrical melodrama – gets one of its infrequent mountings by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players.

Though the original production eked out a respectable run, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company didn’t revive the piece until the 1920’s in a considerably altered adaptation. Numbers were dropped, and there was a new overture composed by Geoffrey Toye.

Apart from using the Toye overture, NYGASP artistic director Albert Bergeret restores the cut material making for an unusually full and musically satisfying version.

In a Cornwall fishing village, painfully shy farmer Robin Oakapple (David Macaluso) loves dainty Rose Maybud (Sarah Caldwell Smith) whose every move is dictated by her trusty book of etiquette. She doesn’t know that Robin is, in fact, scion of the notorious Murgatroyds who, after a witch’s curse years before, must commit a crime a day or perish. He has been living in happy anonymity for years while his younger brother Despard (Richard Alan Holmes) has had to carry out the burdensome injunction. When Robin’s foster brother Richard (Dan Greenwood) returns from sea and falls for Rose himself, he blows Robin’s cover, and the latter must finally assume the duties of wicked baronet.

The cast on this occasion is vocally strong, and, along with the orchestra, cleanly miked. Holmes brought his rich baritone, crisp diction, and comic assurance to his good/bad role. Greenwood’s tenor was sweet and incisive, and Cornish accent reasonably authentic. Caitlin Burke made a particularly good and original Mad Margaret, Despard’s cast-off fiancée whom he marries when he finally frees himself of his evil deeds.

Best of all was Erika Person as Rose’s aunt, Dame Hannah. Her natural acting and artful singing made the most of that relatively small part. In fact, the usually dull second act ballad, “There Grew a Little Flower,” sung in tandem with the ghost of her long-lost fiancé Sir Roderic (the excellent David Wannen) was, for me, the musical and dramatic highpoint. Sung with vitality as an accusation to Roderic for his abandonment of her years before, the duet ended with a poignant clinch that had a powerful emotional resonance.

The second act was, all in all, stronger than the slightly draggy first. The amusing scene with Despard, Mad Margaret, and Robin was brilliantly done, Burke particularly persuasive in her bursts of madness, and leading into that ultimate G&S patter song, “My Eyes are Fully Open,” also exceptionally well performed.

So too, Despard and Margaret’s “I Once Was a Very Abandoned Person” and the first act Richard-Despard duet, “You Understand,” were filled with marvelous stage business courtesy of Bergeret and co-director/choreographer David Auxier. Elsewhere, though, the company’s propensity for manic staging – the loopy business for the perpetual bridesmaids, for instance – veered towards amateur antics. Some stillness would be welcome.

Albère’s pretty first-act set looks rather spare on the large stage, but the second act picture gallery where the ancestral Murgatroyd portraits come to spooky life – designed in homage to Edward Gorey – made a fine eyeful.

Bergeret’s conducting was alternately vigorous and graceful and, as noted, he led an evening high in musical values.

There are two remaining performances of “Ruddigore” (Saturday night and Sunday afternoon). Tonight, Friday, is “Pirates”; “Mikado” Saturday afternoon.

(City Center, 131 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212 or wwww.nycitycenter.org; through January 17)

The Book of Eli (Warner Bros. Pictures)



By Harry Forbes

Here’s another of those post-apocalyptic fables with a stalwart hero intent on surviving on a bleak, decimated planet, scrambling for food and supplies, and coping with marauding hordes, some of them cannibals. Think “The Road” but with plenty of action-adventure elements.

In place of Viggo Mortensen, it’s Denzel Washington doing his best to survive in an inhospitable world. Eli is a peaceable, soft-spoken man, unless he’s crossed, as a gang of leathered thugs (“hijackers” in the movie’s parlance) learn on a desolate highway when they try to get the better of him, or, a bit later, a mangy outlaw who threatens Eli in a saloon.

When provoked, Eli becomes a veritable samurai wielding a mean and deadly sword. Elsewhere, he proves himself an expert marksman, and deft practitioner of martial arts. He’s determined to reach the West coast, much as Mortensen needed to get to the sea with his young son.

Along the way, he stops at a lawless Western-looking town to barter for supplies (and charge his iPod), and encounters the ruthless boss Carnegie (Gary Oldham) who has control of the water supply and whose brutal gang is sent out on book hunting missions. Wouldn’t you know Carnegie is looking for the very same book that Eli has in his satchel, and (small spoiler) it doesn’t take long for us to figure out that that book is the Bible.

We learn that the Bible may, in some way, have been responsible for the cataclysm of years before, and that all extant copies were ordered destroyed shortly thereafter. Eli believes the book can save mankind, providing a blueprint for society as it rebuilds itself; Carnegie that acquisition of the book will give him control over what’s left of the ragtag populace. And there you have the central conflict.

Carnegie has a beautiful blind wife/lover (Jennifer Beals), and a sexy stepdaughter Solara (Mila Kunis). When Carnegie forcibly tries to wrest the book from Eli – even sending in Solara to seduce him – Eli is forced to shoot himself out of town. Though Eli wants no part of her, Solara follows after him, and she is nearly raped by thugs. Eli rescues her and he’s stuck with her from that point on, with the bad guys, including Carnegie’s bodyguard Redridge (Ray Stevenson) who covets Solara, in hot pursuit.

Along the way, they encounter an American Gothic farming couple, George and Martha, ludicrously cast with hammy Brits Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, neither of whom can claim convincing American accents among their otherwise impressive thespian skills.

Despite a hero with a noble mission – preservation of the Good Book – Gary Whitta’s script allows for plenty of pretty brutal violence. Sex is minimal but Kunis and Lora Cunningham as the hijackers’ decoy look less like apocalyptic survivors than sexy babes from a TV reality show.

Some Christian groups may wax ecstatic over Eli’s noble mission and his frequent quotes from the King James edition, but though I wasn’t a fan of “The Road,” that film rates higher on the spiritual scale in showing its hero trying to hold to moral standards despite temptation to resort to his baser nature.

Visually, “The Book of Eli” is at least a bit more interesting and stylish than “The Road.” Both present intentionally bleak landscapes drained of most color. Here, pointedly, there’s not a trace of blue in this sky. But, at least, there’s more going on here, and the Hughes Brothers’ (Allen and Albert) direction is consistently taut throughout.

Washington’s character is fairly taciturn, when he’s not nobly quoting Scripture, but he has a commanding presence, and you never doubt his conviction to follow through with his single-minded mission.

Oldham’s adversary could have been a fascinating villain – like, for instance, Christopher Wentz’s Nazi in “Inglourious Bastards” -- but his character is much less interesting, and it’s a pity the script doesn’t allow for more verbal interplay between the only characters who might be considered intellectual equals.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some brutal violence and language.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Leap Year (Universal)



By Harry Forbes

Yes, it’s completely predictable. And yes, much of what passes for humor is pretty lame. And yet. And yet.

With Amy Adams in endearingly comic mode – even as Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont’s script tries your patience in painting her as such an obstinate, control freak – and Matthew Goode in his most ingratiating screen role yet, and location Irish scenery that sometimes takes your breath away, this formulaic romantic comedy is an entirely pleasant couple of hours.

She’s Anna, a Boston real estate agent – well, “stager” (she decorates apartments so they’ll be more attractive for sale) – and when her superficial cardiologist boyfriend (Adam Scott) fails to propose after four years, she follows him to Ireland to pop the question herself, as per the Irish legend that women may do this only on February 29 in leap years.

Bad weather diverts her plane to Wales, and then the boat she hires to take her to Dublin over stormy seas is diverted to Dingle. She finds herself in the town’s all purpose B&B/pub/taxi service, run by scruffy Irish bloke Declan (Goode). It’s hate at first sight for each of them, especially when her efforts to charge her cell phone cause a major power outage, but after the weather clears, he agrees to drive her to Dublin for a fixed price, and they are beset by all manner of calamity along the way (e.g. cows, hail storms, mud).

They fight incessantly, but despite themselves, begin to enjoy each other’s company, though they won’t admit it to themselves. As there is good chemistry between Adams and Goode, the film kicks into gear at this point, and grabs you.

Adams continues to prove one of the screen’s most delightful stars. And the versatile Goode plays his taciturn Irish character with total conviction. The supporting cast of locals provides some charm. John Lithgow is wasted in a virtual cameo as Anna’s ne’er-do-well dad. And Scott walks the appropriate line between attractive and smarmy.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s captures the lush Irish vistas spectacularly.

Formulaic or not, director Anand Tucker’s has the right idea in his pacing of this old-fashioned romance. And rather refreshingly, the leads barely exchange a kiss, with the restraint rendering the final clinch – oh, come on, you know they will eventually get together! – all the more satisfying.

(Rated PG for sensuality and language.)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Sony Pictures Classics)




By Harry Forbes

If nothing else, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” provides a fascinating final look at the brilliantly creative Heath Ledger who died while this film was in production.

Luckily, the structure of the plot allowed three actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell – to finish Ledger’s unfilmed scenes, a brilliant solution on the part of director and co-writer Terry Gilliam.

As the plot concerns a present-day traveling show involving a magic mirror which can unleash the imagination of anyone who passes through its shiny silver-stripped surface, leading to an imaginary fantastic world, the three stand-ins get to play different aspects of Ledger’s character – Depp, Law, and Farrell, in that order, the last embodying the least attractive traits -- in the mirror world.

Despite all the star power – and this includes Christopher Plummer, a commanding if inscrutable presence in the titular part -- the film is a major disappointment, some might even say a turkey, albeit a colorful one.

Its rambling Faustian narrative involves Parnassas, centuries earlier, making a pact with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). In exchange for everlasting life, Parnassus had promised his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to him at the age of 16.

Now in a panic, as the girl has reached the appointed age, Parnassas makes another wager with Mr. Nick. Whichever of them first wins over five souls gets the girl. Ledger’s character Tony -- a mysterious stranger with a shady past whom the troupe rescued after a suicide attempt, and is now helping them improve their act – tries to help Parnassus win the bet.

The first scene of Ledger’s character Tony has him hanging (a would-be suicide) off Blackfriars Bridge, for reasons not entirely clear till much later in the film. He’s rescued by the troupe, and eventually brought back to life, scruffy and tousled, and using a convincing English accent.

The visual aspects of the film – particularly those involving the mirror world – are dazzlingly sumptuous in the trademark Gilliam style. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, design and art director Dave Warrne, production designer Monique Prudhomme have all done outstanding work, and for some that may be another cogent reason to catch the film.

But the script is frustratingly banal, and pseudo-commedia dell'arte characters of Valentina and particularly emcee Anton (Andrew Garfield) and midget Percy (Verne Tryoer) are annoying in the extreme. The action is dominated by far too much slapstick for my taste.

Still, those with a higher tolerance for this sort of whimsy, especially when it comes from such an imaginatively fertile mind as that of Gilliam, and certainly fans of Ledger, who despite his untimely death, has a satisfying amount of screen time, may find this chaotic mishmash rewarding.

(Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) (Sony Pictures Classics)



By Harry Forbes

This is an austerely fascinating story of strange happenings in the small German village of Eichwald just before World War I: a doctor is badly injured when his horse is intentionally tripped; a privileged child is tortured; a mentally challenged boy goes missing. And no one is talking.

The principal characters here are the doctor (Rainer Bock), the midwife in his employ (Susanne Lothar) with whom he’s having a sordid affair; a harsh Protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who rules his children with an iron hand, insisting one wear a white ribbon symbolizing purity; the baron (Ulrich Tukur) who owns half the village and his desperately unhappy wife (Ursina Lardi); his steward (Josef Bierbichler) whose bitter son blames the baron for his mother’s accidental death, and a dedicated schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) in love with the baron’s nanny (Leonie Benesch).

Exquisitely shot in crisp black and white by Christian Berger, the 145 minute film would seem to be an indictment of the German national character, and a metaphor for the rise of Nazism.

Directed and written (with the “contribution” of Jean-Claude Carriere) by Michael Haneke, who brought us the excellent “Cache” (with Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), and the seriously creepy “Funny Games” (both German and American versions), this film has already been honored with the Palme D'or at Cannes, has the markings of a classic.

Though the subject matter is grim, the characters mostly unlikable or downright repellent, and Haneke’s direction uncompromising, you should nonetheless find yourself riveted throughout. Like “Cache,” the film doesn’t give us clear answers about the perpetrators of the mysterious crimes, and that may be a turn-off to some, but the ambiguity makes the whole that much more powerful.

With subtitles.

(Rated R by the MPAA for some disturbing content involving violence and sexuality.)