Seen at the Movies:

The typical year-end flood of movies is being unleashed at theatres this week and next, so I'll just weigh in here with my impressions of some of them, more or less in order of preference:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson's three-hour version of the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth trilogy (see the ED story) offers everything fans could have hoped for and plenty to engage viewers who don't know a Hobbit from a Hogwart. The cast, led by Ian McKellen's Gandalf and Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins, is splendid, Howard Shore's score is the year's best, and the digitally enhanced New Zealand locations, photographed in shimmering light and scary dark tones by Andrew Lesnie, are strange and spectacular. Middle-earth is beautifully brought to life by production designer Grant Major, costume designer Ngila Jackson, and hundreds of others, but the real hero of the production besides Jackson is Richard Taylor, whose effects company Weta Workshop supplied everything from miniatures and armor to Hobbit feet.


A Lord of the Rings miniature.

Gosford Park

. The latest Robert Altman ensemble piece manages to combine elements of Upstairs, Downstairs, Rules of the Game, and an Agatha Christie murder mystery in a 1930s English country house setting. The wonderful cast includes Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, and Emily Watson, and the fascinatingly complex location and studio blend is accomplished by the director's son, production designer Stephen Altman. Merchant Ivory regular Jenny Beavan designed the costumes, and Andrew Dunn is director of photography.

A Beautiful Mind. The story of brilliant mathematician, Nobel laureate, and schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, Jr., is touchingly rendered by director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe, even if the character's real story is simplified and cleaned up for mass consumption. DP Roger Deakins helps Howard find creative ways to represent Nash's affliction, Rita Ryack designs appropriately understated Eisenhower-era costumes, and production designer Wynn Thomas makes good use of Princeton locations. There's a technical misstep in the waxen look of costar Jennifer Connelly's old-age makeup, but special makeup artist Greg Cannom does good work with Crowe.

Ali. Cannom delivers sensationally in this biopic of the famous world heavyweight boxing champion, not only in transforming star Will Smith into Ali, but in providing a makeup design for Jon Voight's Howard Cosell that is both hilarious and totally convincing. Though it's well made, Michael Mann's overlong film has to be rated a disappointment, failing as it does to provide an insightful point of view on its subject. Technically, it can't be faulted, with excitingly raw-edged cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Monster's Ball. This heavy-breathing Southern tale of racism, suffering, and redemption strains credulity but keeps you watching. Under Marc Forster's direction, Halle Berry acts up a storm as the wife of condemned killer P. Diddy, while Billy Bob Thornton, cast as the Death Row guard drawn into a romance with Berry, inhabits his role without pyrotechnics and with utter conviction. DP Roberto Schaefer contributes artfully composed widescreen images.

The Shipping News. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved (other than a confoundingly miscast Kevin Spacey), this is a shadow of Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Director Lasse Hallström made the absolutely essential decision to shoot on location in Newfoundland, which DP Oliver Stapleton represents in the desaturated tones of bleach-bypass processing, but the filmmaker just doesn't find the drama in the tale. David Gropman's main set, a house lashed down on the edge of the water, is great, however.

I Am Sam. Sean Penn is the mentally retarded single father struggling to retain custody of his seven-year-old daughter; Michelle Pfeiffer is the high-powered attorney who represents him, and who learns something about love and family. Jessie Nelson's movie is just as shameless as that description makes it sound, though it's earnestly acted and shot in lively style by Elliot Davis.

Charlotte Gray. Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of the best-selling Sebastian Faulks novel about a World War II British secret agent (Cate Blanchett) in occupied France is surprisingly flat and remote-feeling. Dion Beebe's cinematography, Joseph Bennett's production design, and Janty Yates's costumes are almost too handsomely rendered—the movie could use a little grunginess.

Kate & Leopold. Unfortunately, this Time and Again knockoff is about all the holidays have to offer in the way of adult romantic comedy. Charming hunk Hugh Jackman is the visitor from 1870s New York who inexplicably falls for a bedraggled-looking Meg Ryan, as the modern career woman in need of a white knight. Production designer Mark Friedberg's brief glimpses of 19th-century Manhattan, with a Brooklyn Bridge in mid-construction, are tantalizing.

The Majestic. Ewwwww. Frank Darabont's two-and-a-half-hour, consciously Capra-esque ode to American values and the magic of the movies stinks out loud. Jim Carrey is the blacklisted screenwriter in 1951 Hollywood who has an accident, suffers from amnesia, and is mistaken for a returning small-town war hero. This glazed-looking, humorless movie creeps like custard and is counterfeit from beginning to end. Let's hope Carrey and the vainly hard-working design team moves on with great haste.

John Calhoun

Seen at the Theatre: Psych, by Evan Smith, now at Playwrights Horizons, introduces us to the indefatigable Sunny Goldfarb, who is training to be a clinical psychologist and who pays the bills by working as a dominatrix. (The unfortunate opening scene tries to play her job for laughs and fails--one reason, I suspect, that the play got such negative notices). However, Sunny’s story is narrated by her friend Molly Salter, and there’s the rub. For at least half of its running time, Psych appears to be about Sunny’s unhappy history as her worlds collide, as Molly struggles with her friend’s matchless skill at stirring up trouble. But Smith has tricks up his sleeve and after a while the play turns into an intriguing exercise in the unreliable narrator. To say more would be to spoil the fun, but this is a play to be watched with a skeptical eye.

Psych, like most modern plays, is really a screenplay in disguise, with dozens of short scenes set in almost as many locations. The scenery by Kyle Chepulis and lighting by Frances Aronson provide an elegant solution to this problem. Chepulis has designed a white wall that wraps around the stage. Aronson lights it from the front and rear, using a variety of patterns and colors. A quick bell tone from sound designer Scott Myers signals each change of scene, accompanied by a new light cue and a fast reshuffle of a few scenic pieces. The acutely observant costumes are designed by Claudia Brown. It’s rare that a new play challenges an audience’s expectations as cleverly as Psych.

Summer of ’42 is a new musical based on the famous 1971 movie so fondly recalled by a number of middle-aged men. The musical follows the film closely, charting the adventures of three adolescent boys as they struggle with puberty, girls, and other related complexities while vacationing on an island off the coast of New England in 1942. The hero, Hermie, is befriended by Dorothy, a young woman whose husband has gone off to war. Later, tragedy strikes, and Hermie ends up in Dorothy’s arms for one fateful night.

The film is a nearly plotless mood piece, heavy on nostalgia, Michel Legrand’s music, and gorgeous scenery. Hunter Foster’s stage adaptation turns it into a broad, if sweet-natured, sex comedy with a sad ending. David Kirshenbaum’s score is one part 40s pastiche—there is a trio of Andrews Sisters-style singers—and one part sentimental ballads. The result isn’t terrible, but it’s not distinctive either. The play takes scenes that played charmingly in the movie and blows them out of proportion—most notably Hermie’s attempts to buy condoms, which here becomes a long, labored musical number.

James Youman’s setting is a postcard-perfect rendering of a New England beach; it easily accommodates other scenic pieces when the action moves to other locations. Tim Hunter’s lighting is first-rate, switching from lovely sunsets to saturated color washes and projections for transitional scenes featuring Walter Winchell and those girl singers. Pamela Scofield’s costumes are reasonably attractive. Jim van Bergen’s sound design provides sensitive amplification—he’s a master at these intimate musicals—and lovely effects as well. If a musical version of Summer of ’42 wasn’t a great idea, at least it has a polished, professional production.

David Barbour

Seen at the Joyce Theatre: Doug Varone & Dancers premiered two very different pieces, December 11-16. "Approaching Something Higher" was a world premiere, a 35-minute piece set to a Brahms piano trio. The choreography mirrored the ebb and flow of the romantic music, producing a very uplifting mood. The stage pictures created by Jane Cox's lighting flowed effortlessly with the music and dancing. She used lots of colors, from teal, magenta, and amber to rosy lavender, and haze to sculpt the stage with architectural beams. In contrast, "Ballet Mecanique," which debuted in Santa Barbara in July, was set to a 1926 abstract music score featuring propellers and sirens in addition to pianos. The stark dissonance of the music was accented by full stage projections by Wendall K. Harrington. Her designs ranged from swirling parabolic vortices that looked like diagrams from an ancient astronomer's notebook to geometric grid-like patterns evoking steel girders and urban structures. The projections were supported with lighting by David Ferri.

Amy L. Slingerland

Heard Off Broadway: Manhattan Theatre Club has picked up the Worth Street Theatre production of Four, by Christopher Shinn, which got good notices last summer. This means that designers Lauren Helpern (scenery), Veronica Worts (costumes), Traci Klainer (lighting), and Paul Adams (sound) will have their work seen in an uptown venue….For the young at heart, Scooby-Doo! in Stagefright brings everyone’s favorite sleuthing pooch to the stage for a national tour. Designers include Rob Bissinger (scenery), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Paul D. Miller (lighting), and Peter Hylanski (sound).

Heard on the Rialto: Studio Arena Theatre in Washington, DC has announced a major expansion of its venues. This non-profit company has purchased two buildings next door to their present theatre, and will combine the three buildings, adding a third theatre and an acting conservatory. The theatre has played an important role in the urban renewal of its NW Washington neighborhood. Details can be found at www.studiotheatre.org...The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts has announced that London-based architects Foster and Partners will design a new 2,400-seat lyric theatre, while Dutchman Rem Koolhaus and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture of Rotterdam will design a 800-seat multiform theatre. This is a long-term project scheduled to begin construction in 2004 and be completed in 2007...The landmark Coronado Theatre in Rockford, IL, has been beautifully restored by architects van Dijk Pace Westlake (with offices in Cleveland and Phoenix). The success of this project has led to the firm's selection as architects for the restoration of the 1928 Palace Theatre in Marion, OH, and the Auburn Shrine Theatre in Auburn, NY. They are also working on a feasibility study to renovate and reopen the 1931 Holland Theatre in Bellefontaine, OH (among others). As van Dijk Pace Westlake expands its interest in cultural and performing arts projects, they have appointed Darrell R. Zeigler to the firm. He comes with over 20 years experience in theatre consulting.