Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Trailer Review: Hereafter

Release Date: October 22, 2010

Website: Official Hereafter site

Starring: Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Kind, Jenifer Lewis, C├ęcile De France

My Review: I know this statement will likely lead to me being torn apart by various people, but so be it: I find Clint Eastwood as a director to be overrated. Yes, the movies he directs are generally good and they certainly bring in the A-list actors, but I have yet to find them as worthy of all the accolades bestowed upon them. They’re usually very emotional dramas delivered in a very heavy-handed way, and while they are good movies in the moment, I rarely want to revisit them later like I do with movies by more subtle directors.

In his latest work, Hereafter uses Matt Damon as the thread that ties the lives of three very different people together. Damon is George, a man able to communicate with the dead, and for years he used his gift for profit by hiring himself out to the bereaved to give them one last bit of contact with their deceased loved ones. But this kind of work has taken its toll on him, so he’s decided to retire from the psychic medium business.

Unfortunately, having such an extraordinary talent makes walking away a bit harder than quitting most jobs. George is sought after by three people—a French journalist, a British schoolboy, and a working class American—who have all experienced death and desperately need his help. Will George give in to them? And more importantly, when he inevitably does (I hope stating the obvious isn’t considered a spoiler), will what he has to share with them actually be anything they want to hear?

True to form, Hereafter looks like another classic Eastwood-helmed dramatic drama with a side order of extra drama; probably tasty enough, but few would want to go back for seconds.

Would I Pay For It?: No, and I’ll probably only rent it if I’m in the mood to be horribly depressed, which isn’t likely, but never say never.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Theater Review: Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika

Location: Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Signature Theatre site

Starring: Christian Borle, Bill Heck, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Kazan, Billy Porter, Robin Weigert, Robin Bartlett, Frank Wood

My Review: To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Signature Theatre is making its 2010-2011 season all Tony Kushner, all the time. To kick things off, they’re offering both parts of his groundbreaking play, Angels in America (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), in repertory, with tickets going for just $20 for a limited time. Knowing these would be hot tickets to get, I made sure I was on the Signature Theatre website at the exact time tickets became available. Then their website crashed. So I called the box office. And had to wait nearly an hour until I got a representative on the line. Apparently theater geeks from near and far were also anticipating the $20 tickets for this landmark play going quickly. And quickly they did go, as by the time I was in touch with the box office, my only options were to see the two plays out of order or pay full price to see them later in the run. Luckily, having studied Millennium Approaches in school and being familiar with the HBO miniseries, I felt versed well enough with the first half to happily purchase my out-of-order tickets. So now knowing how it all ends, I can’t wait until early December to see how it begins.

Angels in America is a play that’s easy to have an opinion and feelings about, but difficult to write about, mainly because there is just so much going on. Each half runs over three hours and there are so many overlapping and interconnecting character arcs that keeping up with the performance while it’s going on is a feat unto itself.; processing it all afterward is like going through therapy. At its bare basics, Angels in America is a story about homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Prior and Louis are a generally happy gay couple living in Manhattan, until Prior is diagnosed as HIV-positive, which—during this time—is basically a death sentence. Louis begins to doubt if he’s strong enough to stand by his partner during his upcoming health battle, but agonizes over what sort of man he would be if he left.

Joe and his wife Harper are new Manhattan transplants, having just arrived from Salt Lake City for Joe’s legal career. Being Mormons, they “don’t believe in homosexuals,” which is problematic because Joe is one, the knowledge of which causes the already fragile and Valium-addicted Harper to retreat into a fantasy world she creates for herself. Joe and Louis find each other, leaving Prior sick and angry with the occasional visits from his friend and nurse (and former lover) Belize as his only comfort, and Harper spiraling into delusional madness. Joe’s mother, Hannah, arrives in town to see what’s going on with her son (and take care of her not-so-quietly-going-mad daughter-in-law), and eventually befriends the jilted Prior.

In case this isn’t enough to keep straight, there’s also the infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn (best known for his work on the McCarthy investigations and playing a big part in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Having lived his life as a closeted homosexual, Roy is now dying a slow and agonizing AIDS-related death, which he uses all his legal and political clout to make sure is referred to as “liver cancer” in the press. And then there’s that angel that literally crashes through Prior’s bedroom ceiling and tries to convince him that he’s a prophet.

To try to delve into every social, political, religious, historical, and emotional theme touched upon in Angels in America would take forever (grad students have written entire dissertations on these plays). So instead, I’ll just comment on the merits and detriments of this particular production.

While the production is uneven overall, it’s still highly enjoyable and emotionally affecting. One of the more impressive elements is how well the small stage space is utilized. The Signature Theatre isn’t large by any means, and there are multiple scenes that need to be changed and moved around quickly (Louis’s apartment, Roy’s hospital room, the Mormon Visitor’s Center, on the beach, etc). The set designers make all of this work by using pieces constructed on 90-degree angles that can easily be spun around to reveal different settings. For scenes requiring fewer props, a white scrim is pulled in front of the stage where various projections are cast to show both the streets of Manhattan and the fires of Hell.

The cast is where most of the show’s few pitfalls come from. Christian Borle is a standout as Prior, as he manages to convey the fragility that comes with his disease, but is still powerful enough to embrace all the hurt and anger he feels towards Louis. It’s also commendable how the wardrobe and makeup team manage to make him look so sickly for the entire 3+ hours; I’m curious to see how he looks in Millennium Approaches, where he starts out healthy. Zachary Quinto as Louis is probably the most notable actor in the cast, having spent several seasons at the villain on TV’s Heroes, but he doesn’t have much to do here. His role is much larger in the first play, so I’ll save any opinions on his performance until I see more of it. Zoe Kazan as pill-popping Harper is a bit of a confusion, as I’m not sure if she’s playing her as damaged and childlike, angry and self-medicating, manic depressive, or just all-around bonkers, because she samples each of these performances at least once.

Also coming up a bit short is Billy Porter as the sassy nurse Belize (and as Harper’s occasional imaginary friend, Mr. Lies). He’s already up against a stacked deck, taking on the role that the phenomenal Jeffrey Wright originated and won a Tony Award for in 1994 (and played again in the HBO miniseries). But rather than rising to the challenge and making the role his own, Porter seems to be imitating what worked so well for Wright, but with only a fraction of the energy and sincerity, making Belize feel like a weak impression of a stereotypical drag queen. Frank Wood, however (as Roy Cohn), manages to take a character that is so blissfully despicable and manipulative that it would be easy to turn him into a moustache-twirling cartoon villain, and actually turn him into a real person. A real person you still hate, but a real person nonetheless.

There’s no denying that some of the subject matter in Angels in America feels dated today. AIDS is no longer the instant death threat it used to be and the gay community isn’t being rapidly wiped out by this mysterious plague. But it does still exist, as do the many stories that Angels tells. It’s like one part period piece, and one part timeless drama about the human condition. And luckily, for those of us who were too young to enjoy it the first time around, it’s shedding light on an era we weren’t around for and reaffirming some of what we’re all living with at any given time.

Bottom Line: Angels in America is an ensemble production, with the stronger performances helping to elevate the weaker ones, thus creating a relatively harmonious theater experience. At over three hours long (over six for both parts) and an abundance of subtexts, it’s not for the casual theater fan, but meant for those who truly like drama in their drama. Both Angels in America and playwright Tony Kushner are institutes in American theater, and I consider myself lucky to be able to see a professionally staged production of this work. And I eagerly look forward to seeing the beginning in a few months.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trailer Review: The Nutcracker in 3D

Release Date: November 24, 2010

Website: Official The Nutcracker in 3D site

Starring: Elle Fanning, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Charlie Rowe

My Review: When I first read there was a movie version of The Nutcracker being made in 3D, my initial response was to snipe, like the frustrated theater geek I am, “If you want to see The Nutcracker in 3D, why don’t you see it how it’s meant to be seen: At the ballet, you cultureless philistines.” Then I took a step back and had to admit that yes, ballet isn’t for everyone, not to mention it’s expensive to attend, so maybe making a movie version would be a good way to introduce the younger generation to the beautiful story and music of The Nutcracker. Then I saw the trailer and got pissed off all over again.

It looks like The Nutcracker on steroids. Or The Nutcracker for Dummies. Or The Nutcracker directed by Michael Bay. Ever ounce of subtlety and nuance have been sucked out of it and what’s left if an overblown CGI-filled mess that’s a jumbled chaos of action-packed sequences that attempts to do little else than keep a crowd of short attention span-addled people distracted for a couple of hours.

The basic premise of the movie seems to be loosely the same as the ballet: A melancholy young girl is given a nutcracker as a Christmas gift who reveals himself to be a prince under a spell. His kingdom has been taken over by the evil Rat King, and he needs her help to lift the spell and battle the Rat King for what is rightfully his. She agrees and ludicrously high-octane adventure ensues, and the story takes a turn for the absurd.

The most alarming thing about this mess of a trailer is the dearth of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Nutcracker is all about the score—even if you think you know nothing about the ballet, I guarantee you would recognize at least one of the tunes when you heard it—so the fact that the trailer uses stock “lighthearted adventure movie” music is upsetting. Then there are the shots of structures crashing up from underground and fiery explosions that make me wonder if Optimus Prime makes a cameo appearance. And then the nutcracker is referred to as NC (edgy!) and I die a little inside.

Would I Pay To See It?: Not even if a band of sugar plum fairies held me at knifepoint.