Seen at the Movies: After seeing Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, I overheard someone saying what seems obvious if you go to movies a lot these days: The quality of acting in American films has never been higher; most are directed with a fair amount of skill; and, for the most part, they certainly look great. But the writing talent just doesn’t seem to be out there. David Gale is meant by Parker to be a passionate anti-capital punishment plea, but Charles Randolph’s script for the film, predictably enough, devolves into a breathless murder mystery. That’s fair for a medium that calls for action, but the solution Randolph comes up with is not only far-fetched, it balls up whatever argument the movie is trying to make. There are also hoary, telescoped devices like an overheating car that should have been dumped in a second draft.

The Life of David Gale

That said, The Life of David Gale is absorbing, and yes, well acted, well directed, and well shot. Kevin Spacey plays the title character, an anti-death penalty activist about to be executed in Texas for the murder of fellow activist Laura Linney. Kate Winslet is the reporter granted his story, which we see in three lengthy flashbacks. A svelter-than-we-remember Winslet seems uncomfortable, but Spacey is good in the flashback scenes (in the present-day material, he comes off as a little too saintly), and Linney is outstanding. Parker works with longtime collaborators like DP Michael Seresin and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, who capture outsider Winslet’s perspective on the prison town of Huntsville as a backwater setting of ignorance and menace. (Amazingly, the filmmakers were able to visit and duplicate the Huntsville unit where all Texas executions take place.) The flashbacks, set in Austin, provide a much nicer advertisement for the state. Costumes are by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.

The Life of David Gale photos: David Appleby/Universal Pictures

More disappointing in a way than The Life of David Gale is Dark Blue, directed by Ron Shelton and with a story by L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy. Based on the combination of Shelton (who directed Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump), Ellroy, and the film’s milieu—LAPD culture around the time of the 1992 riots—I was expecting a lot, but much of the movie turns out to be a standard corrupt racist cop movie with a Training Day-like setup. Kurt Russell, who is the best reason to see the movie, is the seasoned, rotten older detective, Scott Speedman his green partner who still has a bit of idealism left in him. The atmosphere is thick in DP Barry Peterson and production designer Dennis Washington’s depiction of L.A.’s mean streets, but by the time the rioting happens, it simply provides snatches of background to the less compelling foregrounded story—rather like the way the Draft Riots take a back seat to the DiCaprio/Day-Lewis face-off in Gangs of New York.

Dark Blue photo: Robert Zuckerman/United Artists Films

Did I say American movies usually look good? Old School, a wacky comedy from the gang who brought us the funnier Road Trip is definitely the exception that proves the rule. It’s indifferently photographed by Mark Irwin, who in better days worked with David Cronenberg. Will Ferrell provides a few laughs. . . . Much more enjoyable is British hit Lawless Heart, in which the aftermath of a small-town gay man’s drowning is looked at from three different points of view, brother-in-law Bill Nighy’s being the most eccentric and entertaining. Writer-directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter have a real command of Rashomon storytelling style. DP Sean Bobbitt and production designer Lynne Whiteread make the most of the film’s unusual, overcast Isle of Man location. —John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: Far and Wide is Jonathan Bank’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Das Weite Land, a play best-known in English in a Tom Stoppard adaptation titled Another Country. This 1911 play provides a rather complete study of the etiquette of adultery in upper-middle-class Vienna. Those rules may look remarkably flexible—a husband and wife may even discuss each others’ lovers in civilized fashion—but, underneath the flirting, the tennis games, and moonlit assignations, death is lurking. Even in a slimmed-down production (Banks has eliminated several minor characters) the Mint Theatre Company production is only just good enough to suggest the play’s power, its mixture of humor, melancholy, and quietly expressed outrage. Still, Lisa Bostnar is good as the charming wife who learns, to her horror, that fidelity to her husband causes another man’s death, and Hans Tester is both convincingly self-satisfied and self-loathing as her predatory spouse. There’s good work from Ezra Barnes as a decent physician who can’t stop tragedy when he recognizes it, and from Lee Bryant as a middle-aged divorcee who holds no illusions about romantic or parental love. The design, however, is a little odd: Charged with suggesting several locations, set designer Vicki R. Davis has deployed an arrangement of chain link fences as the main scenic feature; the look is closer to West Side Story than anything Schnitzler ever wrote. On the other hand, Theresa Squire’s costumes are a game attempt at using contemporary clothing to suggest period wear and Josh Bradford’s lighting is simple and clean. Stefan Jacobs’ sound design consists of very few cues, reasonably executed. Far and Wide is far from sensational, but you don’t see Schnitzler’s work every day, which makes it worth a look. —David Barbour

Far and Wide photo: Richard Termine

Seen in Brooklyn: BAM has done it again with a double bill of fantastic classic theatre from England! This time the work comes from the acclaimed Donmar Warehouse in London, a small theatre near Covent Garden that turns out consistently good work. And no wonder, as for the past decade—1992 to 2002—the Donmar was helmed by director Sam Mendes, director of the current production of Cabaret on Broadway, as well as the two wonderful productions currently at BAM: Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. In fact, Mendes just won three Olivier Awards (the UK equivalent of the Tonys) including one for best revival of these two plays and one for best director. The plays shared one cast as well as one design team, with sets by Anthony Ward, costumes by Mark Thompson, lighting by Hugh Vanstone recreated for BAM by David Holmes, and sound by Paul Arditti.

Ward's sets are simple but beautiful. In Uncle Vanya, the action takes place in one room, signified by an extremely long dining room table. As is typical of Chekhovian theatre, the room is as stifling as the lives of the characters, all of whom are yearning for something they cannot have, from Vanya's dreams of environmental conservation to Sonya's unrequited love for Mikhail Astrov, a doctor from a neighboring estate. The exterior of the estate appears as a field of uncut wheat, whose reaping is jeopardized by the ongoing rain. Vanstone's lighting follows the seasons as well as the times of day as life continues drearily on this dreary estate (one wonders why Chekhov's characters simply don't go on strike and get themselves into different plays). The light seems to dance on the wheat as if something more interesting might happen outside.

Uncle Vanya

The costumes evoke the Russian upper classes, with Helen McCrory as Yelena appearing in sumptuous outfits, from a confectionary cotton candy white lace dress with hat and parasol in the summer to earthy-toned ruffles in the fall. The beauty of Emily Watson is underplayed as Sonya, who wears unbecoming school-marmish outfits. However, she is a knockout in Twelfth Night, where, as Viola, dressed as Cesario, her beauty is allowed to shine. And this time she gets her man: Actor Mark Strong, seen as the doctor, also appears as Orsino, the Duke who is refused by the sultry brunette beauty of McCrory as Olivia (dressed in sexy black undergarments and a fur coat) yet succumbs to the charms of Viola, once her twin Sebastian shows up to clear the air. Gyuri Sarossy's Sebastian and Watson's Cesario look enough alike, dressed in black riding boots, gray trousers, and a long gray coat, to make the twinning believable.

Twelfth Night

Simon Russell Beale, one of the UK's leading actors of the moment, doubles as Vanya and Malvolio, two characters who are unlucky in love. In Uncle Vanya, he longs after Yelana to no avail, and in Twelfth Night, it is still McCrory he fancies as Olivia. His best comic moment comes in the famous yellow stocking cross gartered scene, in which Malvolio throws aside his conservative garb and persona to don a flowing white shirt and black robe over black pants and the infamous socks. This folly leads to a very sad scene where he is bound in a straitjacket; a warning to those who seek love in all the wrong places.

The intimate stage at BAM's Harvey Theatre adapted itself very well to the simple yet beautifully effective staging of these plays, both performed with live music. The set for Twelfth Night was atwinkle with dozens of small lanterns with candles suspended in the air and a sea of candles on the floor, with one oversized picture frame standing center stage, as if to mirror the emotional impact of the play. Both this Uncle Vanya and this Twelfth Night made quite an impact in Brooklyn and are in fact some of the hottest tickets in town. See one or both (they run through March 8). Design-wise they represent the kind of top-notch work that one sees on a regular basis in the UK, and one is thankful that BAM brings to the US. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux