Seen at the Movies:

Let’s see, what do we have this week? Murder, adultery, corruption, disease, destitution, and multiple suicide--’tis the season, all right. More to the point, it’s the end of year, when distributors small and large release their prestige items for awards consideration. As in many years, Miramax is the most obvious contender, and few of the mini-major’s releases seem as clearly destined for Oscar acknowledgement as Chicago, Rob Marshall’s long-awaited film version of the Kander and Ebb musical, which was originally mounted on Broadway in 1975 by Bob Fosse, and revived in 1996 in a production that’s still running. Director-choreographer Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have cleverly overcome this very theatrical musical’s resistance to adaptation by turning the numbers into projections of antiheroine Roxie Hart’s delusions of showbiz grandeur.

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, as seen on the cover of the January Lighting Dimensions. Photo: David James/Miramax.

Roxie, of course, is a 1920s Chicago jazz baby who has cuckolded her husband and murdered her lover; her arrest for the crime fulfills her dreams of fame, though not quite in the way she intended. Renee Zellweger plays Roxie as a amoral kewpie-doll of limited intellect and gutter cunning; her singing and dancing skills are very modest, which is fine, given the premise. Those of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Velma Kelly, are somewhat better, though her hard-sell approach to a song matches up with an aspect of the film that occasionally grates. Richard Gere does well by scurvy attorney Billy Flynn, Queen Latifah is an OK if underwhelming Mama Morton, and John C. Reilly really shines as Roxie’s doltish husband Amos. Much of the film takes place in a seedy vaudeville theatre designed in the style of Reginald Marsh paintings by John Myrhe; Colleen Atwood’s sexy costumes follow suit. What really socks the film across is Dion Beebe’s cinematography, which gets an immeasurable assist from Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s theatrical lighting design. The visual style is so bold with hard light and shadow that Chicago could be thought of as a film noir musical, if there weren’t so much color on hand.

If you’re bucking for awards, it’s hard to get more prestigious than The Hours, which is a Paramount/Miramax co-production. Though the film is adapted from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, time-tripping riff on Mrs. Dalloway, it’s got as much of a theatrical as a literary pedigree. The screenplay is written by playwright David Hare, and it’s directed by Royal Court, West End, and Broadway golden boy Stephen Daldry, in his sophomore film outing after Billy Elliot. One can stop the show just by reading the cast list: the leads are taken by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, with such luminaries as Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly (again), Toni Collette, Alison Janney, Claire Danes, and Jeff Daniels in support. Oh, and for a further seal of cultural approval, the music is by Philip Glass.

That high-toned Nicole Kidman courts an Oscar in The Hours. Photo: Paramount Pictures

If I sound like I’m making fun, I don’t really mean to--The Hours is beautifully done, if a bit too high-toned to allow for my total surrender. It flows very confidently between three different time periods and characters: a troubled Virginia Woolf (Kidman), depicted during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway in the early 20s; a depressed California housewife and mother (Moore), circa 1951, who happens to be reading Woolf’s book; and a contemporary New York woman (Streep) caring for an AIDS-stricken poet (Harris) who calls her Mrs. Dalloway. The seamlessness of the temporal transitions is aided not just by Glass’ music, but by the subtle tonal shifts in Seamus McGarvey’s softly lit cinematography and by Maria Djurkovic’s production design, which finds the refined beauty in each period. Costume designer Ann Roth does her customary first-rate job of simultaneously conveying character and making actors look sensational. The Hours also has an unusual amount of prosthetic makeup (credited to Conor O’Sullivan and Jo Allen) for a non-fantasy film—you’ve got not only Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf nose, but Ed Harris’ ravaged skin and an old-age appliance that relates to a plot surprise, so I won’t give it away, except to say that it momentarily threw me out of the movie.

The Hours is obsessed by the subject of suicide. Two other new movies, Lynne Ramsay’s highly accomplished if bewildering Morvern Callar, and Todd Louiso’s more or less wretched Love Liza, deal with those left behind. In Ramsay’s film, Samantha Morton reacts to her husband’s suicide by submitting his novel under her name and taking a holiday to Spain (but only after carving up hubby’s body in the bathtub). Morton is a fascinating actress and a great camera subject, especially when someone as good as DP Alwin Kuchler is behind the lens. In Love Liza, Philip Seymour Hoffman responds to his wife’s self-annihilation by taking up a model airplane hobby—primarily so he can obliterate his pain by sniffing the fuel. Though he’s a gifted actor, Hoffman is better in small doses; I never want to see him in a lyrical state of grief again, especially if he’s not wearing a shirt.

Cheerful Victorians: A brace of hams in Nicholas Nickleby. Photo: Simon Mein/United Artists.

There’s also a suicide—along with varieties of early-industrial-era unpleasantness—in Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel Nicholas Nickleby, which was famously adapted to nine-hour theatrical length in the 1980s. Doug McGrath’s new movie version whips by in about two hours and 10 minutes, and despite the occasionally nasty Dickensian goings-on, has a more cheerful, Christmas-y spirit than most other things in release right now. The downside of McGrath’s approach is that it lacks weight and depth, especially when the title character is so blandly enacted by the very young and very blond Charlie Hunnam. On the other hand, the film is stuffed as full as a plum pudding with great character actors like Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Courtenay, Timothy Spall, and Edward Fox. Nathan Lane and Barry Humphries (a/k/a Dame Edna) have a high old time as the Crummles, whose traveling players include a Highland-flinging Alan Cumming. As miserly Uncle Ralph, Christopher Plummer gives a crowning performance, both to the film and his career. Some of Dickens’ gloomy side is captured in Eve Stewart’s production design—I was particularly taken with an undertaker’s advertisement, featuring a coffin full of babies. Dick Pope’s cinematography also emphasizes the grayness of a down-and-out Victorian’s plight, while costume designer Ruth Myers supplies the contrasting color.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: The Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Dinner at Eight by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber is the social event of the season. It’s an immense project, with two dozen-plus speaking roles necessary to realize the authors’ vision of Depression-era New York, a city that is both glittering and on the brink of ruin. (By the final curtain, nearly everyone’s life has been destroyed, but the dinner party goes on.) Gerald Gutierrez’s finely-calibrated direction results in a production without a false note; among the standouts in the cast are Christine Ebersole, all clipped diction and condescension as the hostess; James Rebhorn as her dying husband, and, on the guest list, Kevin Conway and Emily Skinner as a grasping industrialist and his chocolate-stuffed, baby-doll wife; Marian Seldes, dressed to the nines in furs and feathers as an aging, bankrupt theatre diva; Byron Jennings as a drunken, washed-up matinee idol; and Joanne Camp as a doctor’s wife, who keeps close tabs on her husband’s amorous lady patients. (There’s intrigue among the servants, too, with parlor maid Enid Graham dumping the chauffeur for the butler, without nailing down certain important details about her new husband’s past.)

Dinner is Served: The finale of Dinner at Eight. Photo: Joan Marcus

As both a period piece and an uncanny mirror of New York today, the play is comic, chilling, and plotted to a fare-thee-well. It’s also a design triumph: John Lee Beatty has provided no fewer than seven gorgeously realized interiors, and Catherine Zuber has assembled a small army of Deco daywear, suits, evening gowns, and uniforms (Ebersole’s gold-lame dinner dress is an absolute stunner). This is some of the best work ever from these two formidable talents. David Weiner’s highly accomplished lighting scheme creates a variety of moods, most notably in the indelible opening image, in which a fully set dinner table, glitteringly lit, is suspended over an otherwise dark stage. The sound design by Aural Fixation provides a running track of period music, along with some effects and Robert Waldman’s original incidental compositions. Dinner at Eight is the kind of production that only Lincoln Center Theatre can accomplish today; we may never see a fully realized production of this American classic again.--David Barbour

Seen Off Broadway: Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails brings the tall Texan tapper back to New York after a few years “abroad in Las Vegas,” as he puts it. Supported by longtime cronies The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, 16 musicians, and some stunning orchestrations, this is a stylish 90 minutes of song and dance, mixing standards (“Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”), with lesser-known gems (“Shanghai Lil,” “Maybe My Baby Loves Me"). There’s one jarring false note: the question-and-answer session, in which a so-called long-lost acquaintance appears and Tune invites her to the stage for an impromptu reunion. Don’t believe it: She’s an actress, and it happens at every performance. Apparently, Tune was in Vegas longer than he realizes; this sort of canned comedy might play at the MGM Grand but in New York he should dispense with it immediately. If you can do the crossword puzzle for a few minutes or consult your Playbill for a post-show restaurant, the rest of the evening is a delight.

Tap Your Troubles Away: Tommy's back in town. Photo: Paul Kolnik

It’s also a chance to see the new Little Shubert Theatre, a rather nifty venue with stadium seating. Natasha Katz’s lighting design is quite the exercise in style, in which Cubist arrangements of color are combined with gorgeous sidelight to give each number that extra touch of star quality. Wendall K. Harrington’s projections figure mainly in the pre-show sequence, which features rehearsal photos projected against a grid pattern on the show curtain, and a backdrop seen during the song “New York at Christmas” that features animated snow falling on the New York skyline (there’s also a terrific raised theatre-curtain effect). Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design is pure professionalism. It’s good to have Tune back on his home turf; here’s hoping he’s also looking for new shows to stage.

Rapt, at 45 Bleecker, depicts the life of Suzanne, a human resources executive who dwells in Corporate Hell, where she’s embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving her boss, her sexy assistant, and an unsuspecting male secretary. At home, her marriage is falling to pieces as her husband slowly succumbs to a degenerative disease. Why these two plots are joined together is not easily explained; they’re even written in two different styles. The corporate scenes are played for stylized black comedy and the domestic drama is naturalistically drawn and terribly sad. Furthermore, the are several unwieldy plot twists—not even at Enron do they go around pressuring employees to marry pregnant co-workers, just to cover up the boss’ affair. (At least, I don’t think they do). Still, there are some funny and disturbing passages in Roland Tec’s script—the scenes depicting a employee’s review is laced with humor and menace--and Lisa Barnes, as Suzanne, navigates both halves of the script with remarkable skill. The no-budget design (scenery by Drew Donovan and lighting by Guy Smith) makes a virtue of its austerity by facilitating instantaneous transitions between scenes. (The other design credits are sound/music by Jeanine Cowen and costumes by Man of the Arts). In these days of corporation meltdown, Rapt has a certain currency; but, as a piece of dramatic construction, the seams are definitely showing. --DB