Seen in New York:

The Big Apple Circus is back in town with its 26th anniversary production, Carnevale! This one-ring, European-style circus seems to have a lot of fun with its productions, and this year is no exception. Carnevale!is based on a Mardi-Gras theme, with the eight-piece band playing a lively mix of reggae, calypso, soca, samba, jazz, zydeco, Afro-Cuban, and classical music. Artistic director and producer Paul Binder (who also serves as ringmaster), and creative director Michael Christensen have created one of the best Big Apple Circus shows to date, with acts from around the world, including Cuba and Brazil, performing alongside dogs, horses, and the newest animals to join in the fun: camels! This year’s show seems more seamless than in the past, with smoother transitions between the acts and less time spent adding and removing the covering for the ring (removed for the animal acts).

Carnevale at Big Apple Circus. Photo: Bertrand Guay

Big Apple Circus performs in a 1,700-seat portable tent supported by four telescopic masts, that double as lighting towers, and are raised with electric motors. The basic tent can be setup in five hours by a crew of 35. The layout of the performance area is always the same, with seating around three-fourths of the ring, and a set piece on the upstage wall that serves as decor, an entrance to the ring, and support for the bandstand. Set designer Dan Kuchar, a six-year veteran with Big Apple Circus, has created a colorful backdrop built to tour, with large three-dimensional flowers accented with twinkling lights. Rumanian-born Mirena Rada picked up on the colors in the costumes and masks that add to the festive Mardi Gras ambiance. This is the first year that LD Paul George has designed the lighting for Big Apple Circus although he worked for them back in 1977, when he made the tent stakes for the first edition of the circus. Limited by the confines of working with animals and acrobats, George gives the lighting a festive feel as well, using the automated fixtures in the rig judiciously. Darby Smotherman returns for a fourth season, two as sound engineer, and now two as sound designer. One of the highlights of the Big Apple Circus is its very own head clown, Barry Lubin, whose alter-ego, Grandma, appears in the same red dress and curly gray wig, allowing the fun of the Mardi Gras parade to swirl past him and out into the audience. Big Apple Circus remains at Lincoln Center in NYC through January 11, 2004 then sets out on tour, with dates through July in Atlanta, GA, Bridgewater, NJ, Boston, MA, Brookville, NY, Queens, NY, West Nyack, NY, Charlesown, RI, and Hanover, NH. –– Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen at the Movies: Following the success of last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney is hoping for more of the same with its current theme park ride movie adaptation The Haunted Mansion. Directed by The Lion King and Stuart Little helmer Rob Minkoff, the film is far less bloated than Pirates, and though it’s lacking in wit, it goes down fairly easily. Eddie Murphy plays a realtor who brings his family to the New Orleans house of the title, where irresistibly sinister butler Terence Stamp serves as greeter. Soon, the visitors are surrounded by all manner of ghost and zombie, and enmeshed in an attempt by the master of the house (Nathaniel Parker) to break a curse and reunite with his long-dead lover. Behind-the-scenes star of the show here is special makeup effects guru Rick Baker, who creates skeletal zombies without aid of digital augmentation and covers a range of ghostly effects from subtle to not, with transparency issues handled by effects house CIS Hollywood. The house itself is designed by John Myrhe, who strikes a nice balance between nodding to and embellishing the setting’s theme park inspiration. The ghosts’ ratty, natty threads are designed by Mona May.

The Haunted Mansion (Rick Baker with zombies): Bruce McBroom/Walt Disney Pictures

Ron Howard’s The Missing is a solidly crafted western thriller with echoes of John Ford’s The Searchers. Cate Blanchett plays an 1880s frontier doctor whose lover (Aaron Eckhart) is killed and older daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) kidnapped by a band of Apache. Tommy Lee Jones plays Blanchett’s father, who years before went native, so to speak, and who returns just in time to help track his granddaughter. The film derives most of its interest from the prickly interaction between Blachett and Jones, who acts with a particularly intriguing blend of longing and remoteness, and who looks fantastic in his long gray hair and leather vests. Costume designer Julie Weiss does a great job with the muted western duds, which appear both quaint and lived-in. The other outstanding feature of The Missing is the New Mexico landscape, shot by Salvatore Totino with a beautiful wintry weightiness.

The Missing: Columbia Pictures

In America is writer-director Jim Sheridan’s partly autobiographical story of an Irish actor who moves his family, which is mourning the loss of a child, to New York to forge a new beginning. Here, the émigré parents are played by Paddy Considine and the reliably strange and lyrical Samantha Morton, and their daughters are enchantingly portrayed by real-life sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger. The family moves into a tenement building occupied by a colorful assortment of characters, including Djimon Hounsou as an artist with a penchant for screaming in his apartment. One of the fascinating aspects of the production is that the film was largely shot in Dublin, in a lovely apartment building set designed by Mark Geraghty. The production designer and cinematographer Declan Quinn help Sheridan capture a not-quite realistic New York seen through the eyes of a child, which also accommodates the film’s somewhat out-of-time setting. In the end, In America doesn’t quite come off; Considine’s character is too erratically drawn, and sometimes Sheridan’s emotional investment in the material seems at odds with his artistic instincts. But it’s still a worthwhile film.

In America: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Always longed to see William H. Macy in a naked sex scene? No? Well, you may have to reassess things after seeing the renowned Howdy Doodyish character actor in just such a position with Maria Bello in Wayne Kramer’s film The Cooler. These two generate substantial heat in a couple of lovemaking scenes that suggest the real thing—awkward and ardent in its abandonment. The movie features Macy in his familiar loser role; he’s employed by the Shangri-La, an old-style Vegas casino, in the occupation of the title—the bad-luck guy who shows up to “cool” gamblers on a winning streak. Once he meets cocktail waitress Bello, however, his luck turns, much to the disgust of casino operator Alec Baldwin (in one of his most effectively sleazy performances). Since the aging, faded glitz of the Shangri-La was difficult to summon in Vegas, the production actually went to Reno, where production designer Toby Corbett worked around the tropical bird motifs of the since-defunct Flamingo casino. The Cooler is handsomely photographed by James Whitaker, and very polished. Like the Shangri-La, it’s also a bit of a chestnut. But the performances, and the unexpected potency of those sex scenes, put it across.--John Calhoun

The Cooler: Lions Gate Films