Seen at the Movies:

Hero

heralds a new chapter in the career of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, best known for such romantic melodramas as Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad. It is his first martial arts film, and it stars such stalwarts of the genre as Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, as well as Tony Leung. It is also Zhang’s first collaboration with the great director of photography Christopher Doyle, who puts on a typically ravishing display of color and light. The story, set in third century B.C., is more or less the same as the one told in Chen Kaige’s 1999 The Emperor and the Assassin: a feudal king who longs to conquer and unite all China into one empire is set upon by assassins, and defended from each by one man who may have ulterior motives. But Zhang’s approach is highly stylized, with the narrative proceeding as a series of Rashomon-style flashbacks. Each chapter of the story is color-coded red, white, or blue, and Zhang does not take this lightly—if he says red, you can bet that every one of production designer Huo Tingxiao’s sets and Emi Wada’s gorgeous costumes follow suit. The result is an insanely rigorous yet visually stunning piece of work. The action scenes, staged by Tony Ching, are first-rate.


Hero photo: Miramax Films

Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things, based on the novel Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, is entertaining and has its moments of high style and hilarity, but something seems off about it right from the start. Fry, who adapted the book as well as directed, has updated the story of hedonistic leisure-class British youth from the 1920s to the late 30s, and the change is jarring. The characters, including Stephen Campbell Moore as a penniless novelist who takes up society gossip writing, Emily Mortimer as his determinedly superficial fiancée, the delightfully goosey Fenella Woolgar as the wildest among wild party-ers, and Michael Sheen as an outrageous camp, seem unmoored from their proper milieu. Fry also introduces a romantic tone in the second half that just doesn’t belong here. Still, there are many pleasures to be gained from watching the cast, which also includes Peter O’Toole, Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Simon Callow, John Mills, and a host of other distinguished actors. The overly harsh cinematography, which tries to suggest tabloid photography, is by Henry Braham, the production design is by Michael Howells, and the costumes, which show off the women at their high-fashion 1930s best, are designed by Nic Ede.


Poster for Bright Young Things

Seen on Broadway: My bag wasn’t searched when I entered the Belasco Theatre to see Dracula, The Musical earlier this week, deepening my suspicion that the bomb was already within the premises, onstage. Pun-filled pans had already staked the show, the latest effort from Broadway composer and favorite whipping boy Frank Wildhorn, a specialist in “the musical” (his other credits include Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical and The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Musical, with many more, like Bonnie & Clyde, The Musical, promised—or threatened). The good news is, it’s not a complete catastrophe. And the bad news is it’s not a complete catastrophe. It’s just stultifying, lacking the unintended laughs of Broadway’s last bloodsucker musical, Dance of the Vampires (I can scarcely believe that another one, the promised Elton John/Tim Rice collaboration Interview with the Vampire, is scrambling from the crypt). The most honest reaction to the evening came from a veteran performer and “second-nighter,” an actress who, seated right behind me, snored her way throughout Act II.


Tom Hewitt and Melissa Errico in Dracula, The Musical Photo: Joan Marcus

Certainly, there was nothing in the book and lyrics, co-written by the formerly distinguished Don Black and Christopher Hampton (Sunset Boulevard—the musical), to keep anyone from the sleep of the dead. It’s bloody dull, with dry expository patches written and acted at the level of an early talking picture, which the Bela Lugosi Dracula barely got away with in 1931. You can all but see the microphones concealed in the lamps and flowerpots as the performers wheeze through lines like “A telegram has just arrived from Budapest!” The lyrics, at least, rhyme. [Sample: “Fresh blood on my pillow/Don't call it a sin/A fresh peccadillo/Two punctures in the skin.”] These are sung robustly by the Dracula of Tom Hewitt (who, with this and The Rocky Horror Show under his belt, has cornered the market on monster musicals) and Melissa Errico, as the virtuous Mina, who goes from lunch to love in the vampire’s affections. Or, I should add, as robustly as possible: The show’s budget, north of $5 million, extended to just a handful of instruments and a few synthesizers, producing a soupy tunelessness that can barely withstand the amplification of Acme Sound Partners.

Elsewhere, the design is less anemic. The first section seems indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The makeup (designed by Angelina Avallone) and hair (both supervised by Mark Adam Rampmeyer), as well as Catherine Zuber’s richly detailed costumes pay homage to its portrayal of the count; these contributions later come into their own for more distinctive late Victorian brio. Heidi Ettinger’s set pieces, including a massive bit of spooky graveyard statuary, “iris” on and offstage, appropriate for such a cinematic piece (they reminded me of the Hammer horrors from the 1950s to the 1970s, with strands of the Art Nouveau influence on films like The Abominable Dr. Phibes and the ornately decorated theater itself). Howell Binkley’s hemoglobin-saturated lighting, some intriguing forced-perspective projections by Michael Clark, and Chic Silber’s sleight-of-hand special effects help create a storybook atmosphere more engagingly than the material itself.

Realizing that Dracula needed a lift amidst the somnolent musicalizing, director Des McAnuff sends him and his vampirettes aloft, De La Guarda-style, as frequently as possible. But the aerial effects, by designer Ron Besserer and Flying by Foy, soon crash-land, just as they did in the flop Van Helsing film (I wouldn’t hold my breath for Hugh Jackman to reprise that role here anytime soon). Hewitt, rigidly incarcerated in harnessing, can move only his hands in some scenes, making him ludicrously immobile. His predicament is a metaphor for the whole show, which moves as awkwardly as a revived corpse. --Robert Cashill