Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros. Pictures)

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Harry Potter Publishing Rights © J.K.R.

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By Harry Forbes

In reviewing the more reflective Part 1 of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” we predicted the sequel would undoubtedly make up for the slow patches in spades (or words to that effect), and indeed it has.

With this eighth and final film in the J.K. Rowling adaptations, we can sit back and marvel at the remarkable consistency of quality that has marked the series all along, and also wonder at the perspicacity of the casting agents who chose their three young stars so exceedingly well, for Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron) have matured quite beautifully and just as they should over the past decade, matching their characters perfectly.

It’s almost nostalgic to see Radcliffe once more in his familiar Potter spectacles, now that he’s moved on to the Great White Way, proving himself a surprisingly adept song and dance man in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

The movie at hand is slickly done with marvelous effects and nary a dull moment. If anything, there may be a bit too much action crammed by scriptwriter Steve Kloves into its 130 minutes. The digital effects by Tim Burke are marvelous. What a long way we’ve come since the stop-action animation of early films like “King Kong”!

But the script is careful to keep the strong bond among the friends, and Harry’s loyalty to his deceased parents front and center so that we still care about our heroes amidst all the distracting flashy effects.

The main thrust here, as fans know, is the young wizards’ mission to find the four remaining so-called Horcruxes that each holds a piece of dastardly villain Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul. The “deathly hallows” are the objects that coveted by Voldemort, especially the Elder Wand that he believes will ensure his supremacy.

Along the way to the fight to the death conclusion (and we won’t say whose), our young protagonists must break into a high security bank vault booby-trapped by a multiplying treasure trove threatening to crush them, outwit a giant dragon, navigate a secret passage to Hogwarts, face a resentful ghost, escape the pursuing flames in a overstuffed supply room, and help defend Hogwarts from the invading Death Eaters,

Most of the favorites from the earlier films are back: Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Julie Walters, and a most delightful Maggie Smith. Some of these are only on screen for a few minutes, but the luxury casting speaks to the continued attention to detail that has characterized each film.

The film is confidently helmed by David Yates, though that's no surprise as did the last three installments so well.

I screened the film in 2D, not its 3D alternative, but found the experience quite engulfing enough without the bother of gimmicky glasses.

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

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All’s Well That Ends Well (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Along with “Measure for Measure,” the Public Theater is presenting a second Shakespeare “problem play” this summer, also, as it happens, involving a “bed trick.” wherein a woman takes her rightful place by the man she loves in the cover of night. The excellent Daniel Sullivan is at the helm this time, but the cast is mostly the same.

Sullivan’s production (airy design by Scott Pask) – prettily set in Edwardian times – delights the eye as befitting the fairy-tale quality of the story. Helena (Annie Parisse), a gentlewoman, loves the callow Bertram (Andre Holland), daughter of her protector, the regal Countess (Tonya Pinkins) who has maternally taken the orphaned young woman under wing.

Helena contrives to force Bertram into marriage after she saves the life of the King of France (John Cullum) using the methods she learned from her late physician father. The angry Bertram – who obviously fails to appreciate Helena's finer qualities -- dutifully weds her but quickly flees the court for the battlefields of Italy. While there, he attempts to seduce the beauteous Diana (Kristen Connolly). (And here’s where that bed trick comes in.)

His comrades-in-arms are the Dumaine brothers (Lorenzo Pisoni and Michael Hayden), and the foppish Parolles (Reg Rogers) who reveals his cowardice and disloyalty when the men trick him into thinking he's been captured by the enemy.

Tom Kitt’s music is particularly lovely and adds to the physical charms of this production, which include a couple of dance sequences and picturesque battle scenes.

I didn’t much care of Parisse’s far too contemporary-sounding Helena. Her line-readings lack poetry, and the ho-hum Holland is missing the requisite charisma to counterbalance the unpleasantness of his caddish role, making Helena’s attraction to him all the more puzzling.

After her bawdy part in “Measure,” it’s good to see Pinkins demonstrating her versatility as the noble Countess. She handles the text well, even if her generalized regality falls short of Margaret Tyzack, Celia Johnson and other great ladies who have assumed the role.

Cullum, as distinguished a veteran of classic theater as he is of musicals, is especially fine, and has a much juicier role on this occasion. He's proof that American actors can sometimes measure up to the Brits when it comes to playing the Bard. Dakin Matthews as Lafew has much the same quality. And as in “Measure,” Rogers is a standout as a roguish character who gets a well-deserved comeuppance.

Sullivan has decked out the text with many ingenious touches such as having Helena and Bertram’s parting kiss (before the latter’s flight) suggest that a union with Helena might not perhaps be so odious after all.

Still, this is the sort of production that might send an audience out thinking it’s the best that can be done with a play not out of the Bard’s top drawer. But those who remember the Royal Shakespeare Company fabulous 1983 mounting at the Martin Beck with Tyzack know how much more can be mined from the tricky text.

The same might also be said for the splendid BBC production which aired on PBS’s Shakespeare series many years ago. It's worth tracking down for those seeking a more authentic performance.

(Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater in Central Park, or 212-539-8750; through July 30)

Photo credit: Joan Marcus (L to R) John Cullum, André Holland and Annie Parisse with the company

Master Class (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Against all odds, Tyne Daly – an unlikely casting choice for Maria Callas, to be sure – is absolutely magnificent portraying the diva in her post-career teaching period at Juilliard.

Though Daly has said in interviews that she’s eschewing impersonation – a claim often made by actors when their assumption of a real-life character falls short – she, in fact, captures Callas’ speaking voice perfectly: that odd mixture of European affectation, and more common, even strident, New York intonation. She is spot-on in every respect, a charismatic and imposing presence.

Playwright Terrence McNally has distilled the essence of Callas’ Juilliard transcripts and combined them with biographical elements, with a healthy dose of dramatic license, to create a vivid portrait of the artist in her sunset days: by turns, modest and imperious, sincerely helping the students while using the occasion to reminisce on her own career, deadly serious one moment and wryly humorous the next.

Beautifully paced by director Stephen Wadsworth, the “master class” setting disappears for two bravura set pieces: a thrilling recollection of Callas’ brilliant assumption of Amina in “La Somnambula” at La Scala, and an imagined scene between Callas and lover Aristotle Onassis, with Daly alternating between the two voices. Daly is simply riveting in both sequences, and indeed throughout the evening.

As for her pupils, Alexandra Silber is the guileless, nervously giggling student who bears the brunt of Callas’ perfectionism in the first act. Garrett Sorenson varies the pace in the second as the tenor who ultimately wins Callas’ approval despite being one of the despised breed of tenors, and Sierra Boggess, Broadway’s Little Mermaid, fresh from creating the role of Christine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” sequel “Love Never Dies,” assumes the Audra McDonald role of the overly confident student who has the temerity to sing Lady Macbeth’s aria for Callas, and crumbles and then rebounds under Callas’ penetrating critique. All are excellent, as is Jeremy Cohen who plays Manny, the accompanist.

Thomas Lynch’s scenic design – the Juilliard stage giving way to Callas’ aforementioned reveries with the help of David Lander’s dramatic lighting – Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, and Paul Huntley’s character-defining wig for Daly contribute to this superior production.

(Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., or 212-239-6200)

Horrible Bosses (Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Harry Forbes

“Horrible Bosses” is a generally amusing albeit potty-mouthed comedy about three hapless friends – a corporate executive on the rise (Jason Bateman), an accountant (Jason Sudeikis) and a dental assistant (Charlie Day) --who are brothers in suffering under the sadistic thumbs of their respective bosses (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston).

Under the guidance of a shady con artist whom the three mistake for a hitman (a priceless Jamie Foxx), they ultimately hatch a plan to kill each other’s bosses, a la “Strangers on a Train.” But this being a comedy, it isn’t long before things go terribly awry.

While the premise (by Michael Maarkowitz) is somewhat funnier than the execution and Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein’s script could use more genuine wit, many of the gags are hilarious, and the cast is so good, they help smooth over the rough patches.

The two Jasons bear a physical resemblance, but their characters are well contrasted: Bateman, the straight corporate type, appalled as the three find themselves in deeper and deeper hot water, and Sudeikis, a ladies’ man whose libido keeps getting in the way. The manic Day is their short-fused, none-too-bright sidekick.

Aniston is all but unrecognizable as the randy dentist with the hots for her assistant (Day). If she wanted a change of pace from her nice-girl image, she’s got it here, and she carries it off. Farrell, too, has a radical makeover as Sudeikis’ sleazy, druggy boss who takes over the family business when his nice-guy father (Donald Sutherland in a brief cameo) suddenly dies. And Spacey’s at his enjoyably nastiest as Bateman’s sadistic boss.

The plot has a couple of neat twists, adding to the raunchy fun.

(This film has been rated R by the MPAA for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material.)

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Friday, July 1, 2011

Larry Crowne (Universal)

By Harry Forbes

This is a pleasant if unremarkable vehicle – one that might have been cranked out in the old Hollywood days -- for the onscreen reunion of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. (They previously appeared together in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”)

On this occasion, he plays the titular character, an unemployed Umart (read Walmart) worker who has been laid off ostensibly for lack of education despite years of loyal service. The putative rationale given by his smarmy superiors is that, without a degree, he won’t ever be eligible for advancement.

After a frustratingly fruitless job hunt, he enrolls in a local community college. Roberts is Mercedes Tainot his blasé public-speaking teacher, weary after too many semesters of indifferent classes, and frustrated by her marriage to a professor-turned-writer-turned blogger-turned-(are you ready?) porn surfer (Bryan Cranston).

It’s this last point that gives Mercedes the moral pass to fall for Larry (as you know she will eventually do). At one point, the husband admits, yes he likes “big boobs,” and seconds later, when he flings the word “washboard” at her, well, you just know, the marriage is really kaput.

Hanks, who can’t afford the price of gas for his car any longer, buys a motorcycle from his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) who runs a perennial yard sale, and promptly falls in with funky, charming fellow-student Tania (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her do-gooder motorcycle crowd. They all take a shine to the middle-aged Larry, and proceed to make him over. Roberts presumes an affair between the mature Hanks and the young Tania, and this misunderstanding keeps them at loggerheads for most of the movie, until the inevitable moment when she learns the truth.

Hanks and Roberts are pros, and carry their years remarkably well. Roberts, in particular, might have made “Pretty Woman” just yesterday. Hanks continues to embody the American Everyman with natural aplomb, and she’s a particularly deft comedienne, especially in a very funny drunk scene when she comes on to Larry, throwing all inhibition to the wind. (In a way, her performance reminded me of Lucille Ball’s very funny dinner table drunk scene in “Yours, Mine & Ours,” when tears of embarrassment give way to spontaneous, lusty laughter.)

Mbatha-Raw is an ingratiating presence and Wilmer Valderrama as her biker boyfriend evinces charisma.

Whatever the film’s good points or shortcomings, the buck stops with Hanks as, besides costarring, he’s produced, written (with Nia Vardalos), and directed the whole shebang. And yet, for all of that, it doesn’t register as a vanity piece, no small accomplishment.

So if “Larry Crowne” is totally synthetic and not for one teensy second believable (not even in its depiction of these recessionary times), there’s more than a little pleasure in watching these very likeable stars in action.

(The film is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for brief strong language and some sexual content)

Measure for Measure (The Public Theater - Shakespeare in the Park)

By Harry Forbes

The New York Shakespeare Festival has mounted a solid “Measure for Measure” as a companion piece to “All’s Well That Ends Well,” both “problem” plays because of their varying, hard-to-classify tone but, if done well, as good as anything the Bard ever penned.

David Esbjornson’s mostly traditional staging is a big plus here, as is the generally fine cast, with not too many of those flat American cadences that always used to mar Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s park productions.

Danai Gurira as the novice Isabella -- who must plead for clemency for her brother Claudio (Andre Holland), is condemned to death for having impregnated his finacee (Kristen Connolly) -- delivers her lines with exceptional clarity and admirable conviction. I felt, though, that at moments of stress, her interpretation bordered on the overwrought, as in her repeated demands for “Justice.”

Lorenzo Pisoni is a good Vincenzio, the Duke of Vienna, who pretends to leave town but, in fact, goes undercover as a friar, when the immorality in the city hits an all-time high. (Esbjornson visualizes this with creepy devilish characters that appear at key moments.)

The Duke leaves in charge his austere, morally righteous deputy Angelo (Michael Hayden) who ferociously clamps down on licentiousness. Of course, like any number of politicians recently in the news, the latter’s rectitude proves a sham.

Pisoni’s demeanor is rather too comical in his priestly disguise, rather than sardonically humorous, but he’s authoritatively impressive in the climactic moments when he takes charge of the city once again. Hayden, for his part, isn’t anywhere near as fascinating a villain as he should be, though he speaks the text well, but in the final scenes when his duplicity is unmasked registered little anxiety.

John Cullum as Angelo’s aide Escalus and Dakin Matthews as the Provost give rock solid performances in the traditional vein. Tonya Pinkins makes a lively Mistress Overdone, entertainingly indignant that her house of ill repute is being shut down, and Carson Elrod has some amusing moments as the pimp Pompey.

Reg Rogers has a field day n the comic part of the braggart Lucio who claims false intimacy with the Duke, and bad mouths the friar, little realizing whom he’s defaming.

The long climactic scene when everything is revealed, and set right is as riveting as any production of “Measure for Measure.”

Technical credits are all polished from Scott Pask’s versatile set to Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. Acme Sound Partners ensure every line is crystal clear, no matter your seat location.

(Delacorte Theater, 81st and Central Park West, 212-539-8750 or; through July 30)

Photo: (l.-r.) Reg Rogers, Danai Gurira, Dakin Matthews, and Michael Hayden (credit: Joan Marcus)