Seen at the Movies:

I had high hopes for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban based solely on the participation of director Alfonso Cuarón. After all, the filmmaker who showed such a facility for fantasy in A Little Princess and such a grasp of the rawer side of youth in Y Tu Mamá También had to supply the franchise with something more interesting than Chris Columbus managed in the first two Potter movies, didn’t he? What I didn’t count on was what must be the combined will of author J.K. Rowling and the books’ fan base, which has apparently decreed that no personal style or cinematic re-imagining of the novels will be allowed. Thus, while Azkaban is a bit darker than its predecessors (and also slightly shorter), it still suffers from the same plodding, lumpen, literal-minded realization. It might as well have been directed by Chris Columbus.

The latest adventures of Harry Potter. photo: Warner Bros.

Like Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Azkaban has its moments. The flying Hippogriff, a sort of noble cross between an eagle and a horse, is a magical creation, beautifully designed by creature effects supervisor Nick Dudman and executed by Framestore CFC (one of the film’s several effects houses, which also include ILM, The Moving Picture Company, Cinesite, and Double Negative. The Dementors, ethereal prison guards who pursue the escaped title character (Gary Oldman), are good for a few spooky moments. David Thewlis is appealing as a new Hogwarts professor, although many other members of the distinguished cast, including Maggie Smith, Julie Christie, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Michael Gambon (in for the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore) have very little to do. The kids are growing up, with Emma Watson’s Hermione tackling the task most gracefully. (Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is a bit of an adolescent blank.)

Stuart Craig’s production design is as astute in its feel for fantastical elements as ever, and the costumes, this time by Jany Temime, are rather more somber this time out. DP Michael Seresin does a superb job with the film’s darker elements, particularly in the Scotland-shot exteriors that play a major role in the second half. And Cuarón has managed to calm down composer John Williams, who experiments with more interesting themes here than previously. But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is still a letdown, with the grinding gears of formula (Harry escapes from his Muggle aunt and uncle, starts a new term at Hogwarts, and faces some new manifestation of the evil that did in his parents) ruling all. Though the movie is making millions of people happy, I wish it had risked making more of them unhappy.

The Chronicles of Riddick is a different kind of sequel. Its predecessor, Pitch Black was a scruffy (and scary) little science fiction thriller than introduced the world to an amusing macho cartoon named Vin Diesel. Since then, Diesel has both ascended, and crashed and burned, but here he is back as Riddick, in a film that is bigger than Pitch Black in every way. It’s also a lot more incoherent. At the beginning, Riddick is rescued from an icy planet where he’s grown a lot of hair, and enlisted to help fight the takeover of the universe by some nasty characters called Necromongers, who force the vanquished to convert to their satanic religion. (I choose not to consider any contemporary corollaries the filmmakers may be intending.) Riddick shaves everything except his armpits to re-emerge as the pumped-up Vin Diesel we know and chortle at, and sneeringly takes on the challenge. Dame Judi Dench turns up as some sort of see-through seer, and Thandie Newton does a hilarious vamping routine. For a while, I thought director David Twohy (who also made Pitch Black) meant the movie to be a send-up, but then the action took over: see Vin Diesel fight; see Vin Diesel run; see him fight; see him swing on a rope through 700-degree temperatures; see him fight; see him run some more. Did I mention that Vin Diesel fights?

The Chronicles of Riddick Photo: Universal Pictures

The Chronicles of Riddick boasts extravagant sets (designed by Holger GrossMichael Dennison and Ellen Mirojnick) that bring more than a touch of Las Vegas baroque to outer space, and following suit, DP Hugh Johnson lights and shoots the whole thing garishly. New Deal Studios, Hammerhead, and Rhythm & Hues were among the top effects houses on the film, which features computer animation, composites, miniatures, explosions, and a new software package to make Dame Judi translucent. But there is nothing on hand to compensate for the loss of Pitch Black’s lean effectiveness.

Theatre lovers won’t want to miss Broadway: The Golden Age, in which several dozen vets and legends of the New York stage reminisce about the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. It’s a tribute to documentary filmmaker Rick McKay’s persistence that he was able to get on-camera interviews with, among many others, Carol Burnett, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Carol Channing, Comden and Green, Barbara Cook, Julie Harris, Jerry Herman, Angela Lansbury, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Morse, Patricia Neal, The Nicholas Brothers, Hal Prince, Chita Rivera, Stephen Sondheim, and Elaine Stritch, as well as such since-deceased participants as Uta Hagen, Ann Miller, and Gwen Verdon. The interview excerpts aren’t always eloquently structured, and one might have wished for more archival footage to be interlaced, but this is a valuable chronicle of a period that does indeed make recent Broadway seasons look paltry.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: The curse that plagued the restored Biltmore Theatre, a veritable haunted house when it showcased The Violet Hour and Drowning Crow, has been lifted. The third time’s the charm for the Manhattan Theatre Club, with its illuminating revival of Donald Margulies’ Sight Unseen, an off-Broadway production in 1992 that’s now getting the 2004-2005 Broadway season off to a promising start. [The production reunites the director, one of the stars, and most of the design team from one of the MTC’s biggest hits, Proof.] Reviewing the Playbill’s lineup of the two-act play’s eight scenes, which go backwards and forwards in time, my companion all-but-shuddered over how confusing it might be, but there was no cause for alarm. Margulies, best known for his later Dinner With Friends, has the plot mechanics under unwavering control; the quartet of performers gives mostly superlative performances; and Douglas W. Schmidt is to be commended for devising four elaborately detailed sets that firmly anchor its tale of a long and fraught relationship.

Ben Shenkman and Laura Linney in Sight Unseen photo: Joan Marcus

Ben Shenkman plays Jonathan Waxman, "bad boy" of the contemporary art scene and years before, in college, the lover of Patricia (Laura Linney), who is now ensconced in an English farmhouse with her older husband, Nick (Byron Jennings). Their apparently placid marriage (not to mention their archaeological study of "medieval garbage") is disrupted by Jonathan’s visit, who is on his way to London for a retrospective show of his chicly ghoulish, and high-priced, paintings. Schmidt’s farmhouse set is uncanny; it’s homey in a rough-hewn way but cold, as uncomfortable as Nick’s feelings toward Jonathan, the glib interloper who has his beloved but distant Patricia by the heartstrings and will make a drastic play to retrieve her muse. [Jennings is terrifically empathetic as a husband who is painfully aware of how expendable he is, emotionally, to his wife.]

As the show progresses (watch how the projections on the curtain between scene shifts pinpoint the time) we see Jonathan and Patricia, forever conflicted, at the end and finally at the very beginning of their two-year affair, which 15 years later continues to reverberate. Linney, unsurprisingly, is expert at laying out on the table all of Patricia’s many cards, from her forced patience in the farmhouse to a painful sequence in Jonathan’s Brooklyn bedroom (expertly lit, as is the rest of the production, by Pat Collins), and onto her great girlish charm for the concluding scene at an art college painting studio. An actress in her prime, Linney fully inhabits each of these fine sets, aided immeasurably by Jess Goldstein’s incisive costumes, which slightly super-size her in the farmhouse and add to her collegiate shiksa beauty, a distraction, then an attraction, for Jonathan. Shenkman’s performance is the one problematic element here. He’s a good young actor, as seen in Proof and HBO’s Angels in America adaptation—but several years too youthful for Linney, in a tricky part that requires him to deepen into shallowness, particularly when the needling questions of a German interviewer, Grete (Ana Reeder, in the part Linney played off-Broadway), move from the cannily controversial content of his art to his Jewishness. This aside, Sight Unseen, under the fluid direction of Daniel Sullivan, and with a sensitive sound design by John Gromada, should be seen, and savored. --Robert Cashill

Seen Off Broadway: Address Unknown, currently at the Promenade Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, tells the story of two German partners who run an art gallery in San Francisco in the 1930s. One of them, Max Eisenstein, played brilliantly by Tony Award-winning actor Jim Dale, is Jewish; the other, Martin Schulse, portrayed chillingly by William Atherton, is not. Schulse takes his family back to Germany on the eve of WWII and gets swept up in the Nazi party. His friendship with Eisenstein is no longer possible, and eventually the two men destroy each other. Based on a 1930s novel by Katherine Kressman Taylor, Address Unknown is directed by Frank Dunlop, who had the difficult task of finding action and blocking for two actors who are basically never in the same room at the same time, and for the most part just read letters out loud. But the text is compelling enough that it works, and maintains your interest.

Jim Dale and William Atherton in Address Unknown

The set, by James Youmans is very cleverly designed. For the pre-set, the entire stage is covered with a large white drop-cloth dappled with break-up templates in the lighting. The cloth is pulled back to reveal a double office, one half in the San Francisco art gallery, the other in a German mansion. One large desk and one large bookcase unit behind it are actually two different design styles that separate the offices: art deco with chrome trim for California and Beidermeier with a slightly out of place French-looking arm chair for Germany. Both offices have their share of period props, with decanters, old radios, picture frames, phonographs, 1930’s desk lamps, standing hat racks. Small touches become poignant reminders of the situation the men find themselves in, such as the menorah on the San Francisco side of the bookshelves. The costumes by Jim Stewart put Dale in a blue pin-striped suit with white shirt and a purple bow tie, while Atherton starts out in a dressing gown over jodhpurs, a white shirt and high black boots that are a dead giveaway to his future in the Nazi party (never for a minute do you doubt his political future). He eventually sheds the dressing gown for his Nazi uniform jacket. David Landers designed lighting that moved back and forth from one office to the other, with four light trees (two on each side) on stage to provide cross light. The overhead rig extends out over the first three or four rows of the audience, with a predominance of ETC Source Fours. The lighting equipment was provided by PRG/Fourth Phase, and the sound equipment by One Dream Sound. Matthew Burton’s sound track included period songs, included "We’re In The Money," signifying America’s climb out of the depression, at the same time that Germany headed into the darkest period in its history.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen Off Broadway: P.S. 122 on the Lower East Side has been in the news a lot lately, with the impending departure of Mark Russell, its 25-year executive director, who should truth be known, really put the place on the map and is synonymous with its success. That said, it was nice to see that Russell was still there when I went to P.S. 122 the other night to see the award-winning production, Charlie Victor Romeo, that has become a cult event since its debut several years ago at the NYC Fringe Festival. Created by Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory of Collective: Unconscious NYC, Charlie Victor Romeo, is a seat-gripping re-enactment of six real-life plane crashes, based on the actual tapes from the cockpit voice recorders, (CVR, thus Charlie, Victor, Romeo) or black box transcripts. The production has won many awards, including the 2001 Absolut Angel Award for the use of technology to advance the arts.

Irving Gregory and Ben Chinn in the cockpit of Charlie Victor Romeo Photo: Bob Berger

The set designed originally by Patrick Daniels, (who also serves as technical director) and recreated for P.S. 122 by Bill Ballou and Cecile Boucher is a small cockpit with three seats behind a piece of a nose section of an airplane. There is a small back wall with a door to the cabins behind, and a screen above this wall indicates the flight information, cause of the crash and ultimately the number of survivors (if any) and fatalities. The lighting by Matthew Eggleton helps heighten the experience, focusing in on the beleaguered captains and cockpit crew as they struggle helplessly to bring their planes under control before the fateful crashes. If the pilots themselves are the real heroes of Charlie Victor Romeo, it is sound designer Jamie Mereness and sound engineer Kevin Reilly, who does a live sound mix, that are the heroes of the production team. The sound is brutal: a combination of low bass plane rumble that gives you the jitters to begin with, coupled with the calm then totally panic-filled voices of the crews in the six crashes scenarios, and finally the sonic boom of the crashes themselves, with big enough sub-woofers under the seats to rattle the entire room: then silence. The effect is eerie, bone-chilling, and fascinating at the same time. Anyone with a fear of flying might not want to see this one, yet it’s hard to avoid wanting to see something so absolutely riveting.--ELG