Seen at the Movies: Director James Cameron has once again ventured into the ocean depths, this time in pursuit of the otherworldly life to be found around hydrothermal vents. Aliens of the Deep is the second IMAX documentary (following Ghosts of the Abyss) in which he’s taken a 3-D high-definition camera system a couple miles below the water’s surface, and the result can be startlingly beautiful (when the cameras are trained on such creatures as towering tubeworms, and blind, glowing-white crabs and squid) and scary (especially for someone like me, whose idea of hell would certainly include being confined to a tiny submersible on the ocean bottom). Cameron, co-director Steven Quale, and director of photography Vince Pace see to it that this 47-minute film is a triumph of technology and popcorn thrills, even if the presentational style is pretty square. Next up for the filmmakers is a dramatic feature—Cameron’s first since Titanic--making use of the 3-D HD technology.
As small and independent as they come, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X is an interior drama that defies analysis. The film, which is co-written by the late Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr., focuses on a Wisconsin security guard (an uncharacteristically restrained John Turturro) obsessively pursuing the unknown killer of his wife. As the movie proceeds, trailing the protagonist to small-town Montana on his quest, one begins to wonder about the veracity of the clues he’s following, or whether there even was a murder (or a wife). If you’re not in the proper frame of mind, this can be frustrating, but Refn’s quietly disorienting style, which relies heavily on DP Larry J. Smith’s wintery, wide-lensed images and Peter De Neergaard’s spare production design, is very accomplished.--John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: Little Women, an unfailingly pleasant musicalization of the undyingly popular Louisa May Alcott novel, will probably be received with greater enthusiasm everywhere but Broadway, where the March sisters have taken up residence at the Virginia Theatre. It’s not that every show needs to have excess razzle-dazzle, but while everyone involved seems to have worked to their potential the show only sparked for me when the solidly impressive Marmee (Maureen McGovern) took the stage; her solos, “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty,” are the production’s emotional highpoints. I found Sutton Foster, who barnstormed Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie, thoroughly resistible in that Tony-winning part, and I felt a pain in my side when she overworked her face and gestures at the top of Little Women’s two acts, where aspiring writer Jo March enacts (with the rest of the cast pitching in) her distinctly unladylike stories at her New York boarding house. This awkward framing device seems to be in there to give the performer something more “fun” to do than mope around the attic and fret in Catherine Zuber’s tomboyish apparel, but as it happens she’s much more natural and appealing when the show returns to her family routines and struggles in Civil War-era Concord, MA. She and McGovern make distinct impressions in a production that could use a few more.
Likability is Little Women’s strongest suit. I like that director Susan H. Schulman doesn’t push, and didn’t try to impose a “concept” on the material. Mostly likable, too, is the book, by Allan Knee, who penned the simperingly synthetic film Finding Neverland but trusts that the incidents in Alcott’s source material will move us without too much adaptive imposition. [He may have cut it too fine, however; at least one major reunion happens offstage.] Jason Howland’s music, and Mindi Dickstein’s lyrics, are entirely listenable. Nothing is made too big a deal of, which is commendable. Yet modesty, while an undeniable virtue, doesn’t set a house afire; this adaptation may work better in the confines of a cozier house, one I hope that will have bigger, more welcoming seats than the Virginia.
The clean-as-a-whistle treatment is a little problematic for Zuber; her costumes are as always gorgeous to look at, too much so, however, for the constrained and gritty circumstances of the borderline-impoverished characters. Hair and wig designer Lazaro Arencibiaand sound designer Peter Hylenski did what they could to make the transmitters or whatever audio equipment is plastered to the foreheads of the performers as unobtrusive as possible; still, when seen up close, it’s as if the actors are being prepped for surgery and not a musical. The most artful stagecraft comes from the interplay of Kenneth Posner’s subtly gorgeous lights with the slats and timbers of Derek McLane’s woodsy, hand-built environments, seamlessly moved in and out of place by Scenic Technologies. [PRG also supplied the lights and sound equipment, with set construction by F&D Scenic Changes and additional scenic elements by Scenic Arts.] The trellis, garlanded with white flowers, is particularly striking, and I liked the procession of handsomely painted, storybook-like backdrops and the lacy scrims. That word again, “liked”—hardly a negative, but there this wholly straightforward Little Women rests on the plateau of praise.--Robert Cashill
Seen in Millburn, NJ: Papermill Playhouse certainly deserves credit for the number of Broadway-style musicals it presents year after year. A few years ago I saw their production of Miss Saigon and was completely blown away by the production values as well as the talent involved. I recently bridge-and-tunneled it for the world premiere of Harold & Maude: The Musical and was not as blown away, but the show was a fun romp blessed with two talented leads. The musical, with lyrics and book by Tom Jones—the legend behind The Fantasticks (along with composer Harvey Schmidt)—and music by Joseph Thalken, is certainly likable enough if unremarkable. The title characters are portrayed by Eric Millegan and Oscar winner Estelle Parsons and are perfectly suited for their roles even if Parsons’ singing voice is a bit timid. Personally, I have fond memories of Parsons’ voice on the children’s show Animals, Animals, Animals where she, along with Hal Linden, narrated tales about animals and their hijinx. Her singing voice aside, she is a masterful performer who, along with Millegan, control the show. In fact, when this dynamic duo is not on stage (or worse, sharing it with a supporting player portraying characters out of “Stereotypes 101”), the show’s momentum falters.
The lighting by John Paul Szczepanski is nicely done as are the sets by Rob Odorisio which are a minimalist’s dream. Especially striking were the scenes in a forest where the trees dropped and lifted away as needed. Maude’s house provided a striking “funky” contrast to the staid upper class home of Harold and his mother. The sound design by Duncan Robert Edwards filled out the auditorium nicely, especially the scene where Maude steals the priest’s car and you hear it drive up beside then behind the audience before she makes a fast getaway to parts unknown. Special mention must go to the projection designs by Ruppert Boehle whose stained glass images added extra panache to the funeral scenes and an extra dose of “action” as Harold and Maude flee the cops to transplant a municipal tree into the great outdoors. The costumes by Miguel Huidor were fairly pedestrian since he was just dressing regular folks. However, Maude’s eccentric old lady out fits were amusing and fitting for a character who cherishes life so much yet is eagerly anticipating death. --Mark A. Newman