Surprisingly, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines has emerged as the most confidently made and entertaining big-budget movie of the summer. Even though it cost $175 million, it’s directed with economy and (109-minute) concision by Jonathan Mostow, whose previous films Breakdown and U-571 boasted similar virtues. And T3 has something of a grungy, handmade quality that recalls the B-movie glories of James Cameron’s first Terminator far more than it does his 1991 T2, which inflated its skeletal man vs. machine scenario with groundbreaking CG effects and I-can-save-mankind-from-doomsday posturing. In T3, doomsday wins out (a possible commercial liability), and though ILM has certainly contributed a number of digital effects, the movie gets a lot more mileage out of makeup and animatronic genius Stan Winston’s in-camera work.
The story picks up as future leader John Connor (Nick Stahl), deprived of deceased macho-babe mom Sarah, reaches a disaffected adulthood. Just as he connects with destined mate Kate Brewster (Claire Danes, who brings a constant, vivid human note to the proceedings), he is set upon by yet again by time-traveling machines: T-X (Kristanna Loken), a very determined red-leather-clad blonde, who has come to kill him; and trusty T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the markedly inferior model who has to save him. From here, the movie doesn’t let up—it moves from one of the screen’s best car-chase sequences ever, on the back streets of L.A., to the Mohave desert, where doomsday is about to be unleashed. Schwarzenegger retakes his signature role with disarming ease, and enacts a wonderful robotic crisis-of-conscience moment; Loken is hilariously, frighteningly imperious and impervious. Winston, who actually created full-scale robotic versions of these two actors, as well as several fully operational T-1s, the earliest models for all the mayhem to follow, outdoes himself. All technical hands, including DP Don Burgess, production designer Jeff Mann, costume designer April Ferry, and supervising sound editor Stephen Hunter Flick, contribute first-rate work.
28 Days Later, a far more modest end-of-world thriller, is in its own way just as effective. A mysterious rage-inducing virus infects the entire population of England, turning its victims into screaming, slavering, red-eyed zombie-style maniacs who want nothing more than to bite the dwindling numbers of uninfected. One such, a comatose bicycle messenger (Cillian Murphy), wakes up to discover an eerily emptied-out London, captured with such persuasiveness by director Danny Boyle (late of Trainspotting) that it sends a major shiver down the spine. DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who has shot several Dogma features, photographs the movie in digital video, which seems more appropriate here than usual. The common comparison of DV to watercolor for once seems apt, as the desolate London landmarks are shot against soft-colored skies, and a field of flowers appears rendered by an Impressionist finger painter. The film’s band of uninfected also includes such excellent actors as Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, and Naomie Harris, and other key behind-the-scenes personnel are production designer Mark Tildesley, costume designer Rachael Fleming, who has fun with the ragtag survivor clothing, and makeup designer Sallie Jaye.
French director Francois Ozon is a master of mood, as his latest film Swimming Pool once again demonstrates. It stars Charlotte Rampling, who also headlined Ozon’s Under the Sand; here, she plays a frustrated mystery novelist who retires to her publisher’s house in the south of France for creative rejuvenation. When the publisher’s insolent, fast-living daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) shows up, the two women have a clash of personalities that eventually evolves into something conspiratorial. And here the movie lost me—its narrative becomes cryptic in a manner I find not compelling, but irritating. Still, the director’s quiet spell remains unbroken, and the sunny locations are beautifully rendered by DP Yorick Le Saux, who has shot several of Ozon’s films, including his early shorts.
A July 4 weekend alternative to all this unsettling fare can be found in the latest DreamWorks work of traditional animation, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. The goddess Eris (voiced with deliciously wicked glee by Michelle Pfeiffer) sends all kinds of mythical monsters Sinbad’s way, but they can’t compare to futuristic cyborgs, undead ragaholics, or even Ludivine Sagnier in sheer scariness. The film has some lovely feats of animation, but it could use more thrills and less lame anachronistic humor, and it could certainly use a more interesting hero than this Sinbad, who is blandly voiced by Brad Pitt. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who provides the heroine’s voice, would undoubtedly eat Pitt alive in a live-action pairing.--John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, at Second Stage, illustrates both the strengths and limitations of the visually oriented theatre of Mary Zimmerman. Drawing on excerpts from the more then 5,000 pages left behind by Da Vinci, Zimmerman creates a series of vignettes in which little treatises on such topics as weight and force, the power of lighting in painting, and the importance of accurately drawing human limbs, are illustrated with movement, plus scenic, lighting, and sound effects. At times, the production is reminiscent of Martha Clarke’s movement-and-speech spectacles, minus the neuroses and overheated eroticism. The trouble here is that any ten minutes of the piece is like any other—lacking any narrative or throughline, the production quickly becomes dull, despite of the beautifully rendered design. Scott Bradley’s setting is a delightful cabinet of curiosities, with doors that open to reveal fields, streams, and medical specimens. T. J. Gerckens’ effortlessly lyrical lighting is particularly effective in a sequence discussing the artist’s ideas about painting. Michael Bodeen’s sound design is most notable in the effect of bird wings beating through the auditorium; he also wrote the lovely incidental music with Miriam Sturm. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, based on Allison Reed’s originals, interestingly combine 19th-century and Renaissance styles to create flexible, effective wear for the actor; there are also some fanciful effects, including a battered pair of man-made wings. I loved Zimmerman’s production of Metamorphoses two seasons ago, but there her style was applied to universally accessible tales grounded in primal emotions. Here, the effect is dryly academic; it’s hard to imagine this production will have Metamorphoses’ long-running appeal.
Really, Seth Rudetsky is just an average guy from Long Island. So what if, as a toddler, his favorite song was the opening number from The Most Happy Fella? Or that he got out of gym class by taking jazz dance? Or that, at the age of ten, his parents took him to see Death Wish and Taxi Driver? All right, I admit it: Rudetsky is a total madman—and a very funny one. His solo show Rhapsody in Seth, at the Actor’s Playhouse (where it shares space with Naked Boys Singing, is his memoir of growing up Jewish, gay, and obsessed with female singers who can belt on a high E. Armed with the ability to see the absurdity in nearly everything and equipped with a face so elastic that it would get by in a Warner Bros. cartoon, Rudetsky earns big laughs out some highly unlikely material—his demonstration, with visual aids, of the peculiar breaks in Janis Paige’s voice on the original cast album of The Pajama Game, has the audience screaming. But he also has a pitiless recall for the 1,001 tortures endured as an effeminate youth—his description of getting on the school bus, surrounded by hostile characters, is truly harrowing. Anyway, there’s a happy ending, as Rudetsky now works regularly on Broadway as a musician, interacting with the Broadway divas who captivated him as a boy. I adored every minute of Rhapsody in Seth, which features some very amusing projections by Robert Bissinger and smartly executed lighting by Jeff Croiter (Somebody must have designed the sound, although no credit is to be found). I must add that Rudetsky may not be for everyone; at my performance, the largely gay-male audience was in stitches, but a middle-aged husband sitting behind me snored audibly through the show. But if you love musicals, original cast albums, and know something about growing up gay, chances are you’ll have a very, very good time.
Julia Jordan is being marketed as the next hot playwright but, on the basis of St. Scarlet, at St. Mark’s Church, it’s hard to see why. This is yet another dysfunctional family comedy—the one innovation being that the family consists of Minnesota Irish Catholics. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Rose and Ruby are sisters, holding a deathwatch for their mother in a Minnesota farmhouse. Rose is wild, Ruby is eccentric, and brother Seamus shows up occasionally to disapprove of them both. Then Vinny, an apparent stranger from New York, shows up to plead his love for Rose, who claims not to remember him. This is the beginning of a twisty plot involving family lies and misdirected letters; by the time all is revealed, there’s been a wake for the mother on the kitchen table, accompanied by green drinks, Irish flags, and a maudlin rendition of “Danny Boy.” The characters are strenuously wacky, the action thoroughly unbelievable; Chris Messina’s frantic director further undermines the script’s already shaky credibility. On the plus side, Erik Flatmo’s setting, a combination kitchen/den, the latter covered in knotty pine, is a beautifully detailed piece of work. Ditto for Sarah Beers’ costumes—I loved Seamus’ insulated snowsuit, and Ruby’s sweatshirt, which bears a picture of birds in winter, covered in glitter. Less distinctive are Josh Bradford’s lighting and Eric Shim’s sound. Jordan has three more play scheduled for later this season; let’s hope this one is not a harbinger of things to come
Another young, buzzworthy playwright, Susan Bernfield, has written Out From Under It, a sort-of comedy about a young woman who wakes up from a three-year coma. Before the incident, the heroine, Joanna, was a hard-charging ad executive; afterwards, she feels displaced, confused, aimless. Unfortunately, that’s also a good description of the play. Under Alexandra Aron’s direction, this Vital Theatre Company production has little to offer; the actors play the script with no apparent conviction. The design is basically, well, basic, and not really worth discussing. Here, as with St. Scarlet, 80 minutes can be a long, long time. Oh well: as Ellen Lampert-Greaux pointed out as we fled the theatre, that’s Off Off Broadway for you--it's where young artists make their mistakes.--David Barbour
Heard from Chicago: The very long-awaited new Stephen Sondheim musical Bounce (book by John Weidman, direction by Harold Prince) opened at The Goodman Theatre this week, to not-so- bouncy reviews. The show is based on the lives of brothers Wilson and Addison Mizner; Addison was the architect who created Palm Beach, while Wilson had a checkered career that involved stints as a con man, prospector, screenwriter, and boxing promoter. However, Chicago reviewers were left wondering what it’s all about. In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips, wrote, “It’s not edgy enough in its love/hate brotherly dynamics and exploration in American rapaciousness, and it’s not funny enough to be a full-bodied musical comedy. It’s eh. And if there’s one reaction I thought I’d never have to a new Sondheim musical, it’s eh." In Variety, Chris Jones called the score “thoroughly splendid,” but added that the project overall is “in a sad state of dramaturgical chaos.” On a more upbeat note, Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times, noted many problems, but added, “Yet there is such an inherent appeal in the Mizners’ story, and in the meticulous craftsmanship of Weidman’s ambitious book and Sondheim’s tightly knotted score, that you go along for the ride—watching the lifelong push-pull of the brothers and the psychological hold they had on each other till the very end.” Oddly, there was very little comment on the design, except for Eugene Lee’s sets, which, according to Weiss, “are a high-gloss version of musical comedy flats and curtains—properly retro in style, and just minimal enough to quickly suggest a dozen locales while maximal enough to suggest the many roads traveled..” However, Phillips countered, “The drop curtain , which acts as a prelude to orchestrator Jonathan Tunick’s mellow Bounce overture, depicts a laminated-placement style map of the US. It is framed by blow-ups of picture postcards from the show’s many locations. The visual notions don’t jibe.” The rest of the design team is Angel Miguel Huidor (costumes), Howell Binkley (lighting), and Duncan Edwards (sound). Bounce is scheduled to play the Kennedy Center this fall, before presumably coming to New York. This is going to be one to watch.--DB