Seen at the Movies: Now that the Weinstein brothers are on their way out of Miramax, a flood of movies that they have kept under wraps for months, even years, are being released onto screens. (Miramax has been notorious for buying up properties and keeping them on the shelf; Zhang Yimou’s Hero, for example, was kept out of sight for two years before finally being unveiled and becoming a big hit last summer). This week, two Miramax films that I saw screenings of more than a year ago are finally showing up in theatres. It’s baffling what the holdup on Shona Auerbach’s Dear Frankie was—it’s a corny, beautifully acted melodrama that seems guaranteed to be a small-scale audience pleaser. Set in Glasgow, it’s the story of a single mother (Emily Mortimer) who, Peyton Place-style, has made up a fantasy scenario for her nine-year-old son (Jack McElhone) regarding his father; she even writes letters from the phantom parent, supposedly a sailor whose ship will be arriving any day. When the ship does indeed come in, Mom hires a handsome stranger (Gerard Butler) to impersonate Dad. This is hackneyed stuff, but Mortimer’s luminosity alone is enough to justify it. In addition to directing, Auerbach also served as cinematographer, and whatever conviction the movie has comes not only from the acting, but from her fine eye for the setting’s light and color. The evocative production design is by Jennifer Kernke, and the costumes are by Carole K. Millar.
The other Miramax release finally seeing the light of day this week is Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth, which, given its six-hour running time, was obviously a challenge to distribute. (One may wonder why the studio picked up these films in the first place if they’re so hard to deal with.) Made for Italian television, The Best of Youth is a fairly prosaic family epic covering the last four decades of the country’s history. The main characters are brothers (Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni) who, at the story’s opening in the late 60s, are similar middle-class young men caught up in the turmoil of the time. As the years pass, their paths diverge, and through their eyes we witness various upheavals—youth movements, terrorism, labor troubles, financial crises—afflicting the nation. These kinds of sagas are almost invariably engrossing—even when, as here, the central characters are less than riveting—but six hours is a long sit. (Film Forum, where the movie is being exhibited in New York, is showing the film in two parts, with two admission prices.) Giordana’s work can’t compare to such obvious precursors as Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, or The Godfather movies, but the film is meatier than your average fare. Roberto Forza’s standard-issue cinematography probably looked better on TV; production designer Franco Ceraolo and costume designer Elisabetta Montaldo each do good work charting the fashions and transitions of the various periods.--John Calhoun
Seen At The New York City Ballet It is always a pleasure to see a classical company like New York City Ballet put its best foot forward in something a little different: in this case a full-length two-act ballet, Double Feature, choreographed by Susan Stroman to a medly of songs by Irving Berlin & Walter Donaldson. The piece is melodrama, creates as a tribute the era of silent movies, with sets by Robin Wagner, costumes by William Ivey Long, and lighting by Mark Stanley. Act one is entitled The Blue Necklace, and is the story of a dancer who becomes a famous movie star yet harbors a dark secret about a daughter she once abandoned (yes, it has a happy ending!), while Act two, Makin' Whoopee! is sub-titled What would you do for seven million dollars? and is a comedy in the style of Buster Keaton. This piece was successful when it premiered two years ago and was brought back this season when it once again was a real crowd pleaser. The pre-show curtain is like of a silent movie marquee with the titles of the dances in black and white. Wagner's sets for The Blue Necklace, start off in a theatre, with a row of footlights along the front of the stage. When the action switches to a backstage view, the footlights slide off stage right and left and another row is revealed along the back edge of the stage. The costumes bring to mind the movie stars of yesteryear, with white gowns designed to flow elegantly with the dancers, fur wraps, and tuxedos. In the opening number, 16 female dancers look a lot like Rockettes in short black tutus. The lighting flickers as if in an old film, and you hear the noise of an old projector turning for a few moments (an Abe Jacob sound effect. In fact I stopped by to say hello to Abe who was in the sound booth and says the company is doing more and more with sound these days, as was seen last season in West Side Story which features singers).
The most fun costumes are the bridal gowns in Makin' Whoopee! as our hapless hero discovers he must marry before 7:00pm on the same day he learns he is to inherit millions. A newspaper ads brings many hopeful brides, with both the men and the women in the company dresses in white dresses and veils. Double Feature, has touches of Sunset Boulevard, airs of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and is all and all a fun, entertaining evening in which Stroman has added a little show-biz pizzazz to the ballet world.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Seen Off-Broadway: This season has seen its fair share of satire off-Broadway; The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a huge hit at Second Stage Theatre and will soon be transferring to the Great White Way as audiences cheer on the Waiting for Guffanesque of spelling bee champs. Now riding that parting wave of tongue in cheekiness is Altar Boyz at Dodger Stages that presents a Christian boy band on the final night of its national tour in New York City. While both Christian music and boy bands are ripe for roasting (Christopher Guest, are you listening?), Altar Boyz walks a very fine line of ribbing its subject while still paying homage to it. The boys in the band are devout, but that doesn’t mean they’re not goofy, sexy, or loaded with their own problems. The band is comprised of Matthew (Scott Porter), Mark (Tyler Maynard), Luke (Andy Karl), Juan (Ryan Duncan), and Abraham (David Josefsberg), the group’s lone Jewish member, thus preventing the show from being called The Goys in the Band.
Each of the Boyz is allowed to shine in various solos, as well as tales of their own personal journeys. It’s hard to pick a favorite as all five are equally strong and could easily compete with the likes of the Backstreet Boys, Nsync, et al. As Matthew, Parker is the band’s hunky frontman and he makes the most of what could be a thankless pretty boy character. Karl’s Luke is the most troubled of the Boyz as he was recently hospitalized for “exhaustion.” Luke is also the group’s lunkhead, spewing street lingo and striving to “keep it real.” Think Marky Mark with a halo. Josefsberg’s Abraham is the model modern Jewish boy…from Ohio. Duncan’s Juan is the Latin lover dubbed “practically an Iglesias.” Abandoned as a child, Duncan combines sexiness and pathos for a very sympathetic portrayal that—judging by the sweat he was slinging—is muy caliente. However, Maynard’s Mark came the closest to stealing the show as the only gay member of the band. The audience is in on the joke, but the rest of the Boyz are clueless. Mark did not necessarily get all of the best lines, but Maynard’s delivery was imbued with coyness and flamboyance and more than just a few double entendres, especially when he was the lone singer of certain lines: “put it in me” or “flaming!!!” New York audiences loved it; I’m not sure how it would play in Peoria. It shouldn’t matter because these guys can really sing and really dance…no lip syncing here!
If Natasha Katz is not careful, she may be kidnapped by the Backstreet Boys the next time they go on tour because her lighting was picture perfect and rich with glorious colors that really brought the feel of a rock concert into the theatre’s confined space. The set by Anna Louizos was very reminiscent of actual concert tours with a raised platform upstage that provided the tight stage area’s best point of egress, not to mention chase scenes. Her crumbling cinderblock design for the proscenium boded well for the show, especially when one of the Boyz remarked that Dodger Stages will be really nice “once it’s finished.”Simon Matthews’ sound design rocked the house but was not too overpowering; your ears weren’t ringing when you left. Gail Brassard dressed the boys in typical boy band chic, but giving them each their own flair from Matthew’s sleeveless T-shirt that showed off his body, to Luke’s Irish Catholic hip hop garb, and Mark’s off the rack Chelsea duds.
At just over 90 minutes Stafford Arima’s deft direction is swift and the absence of an intermission keeps the show’s rock concert feel. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli perfectly mimics—and often exceeds—the moves busted by actual boy bands and shows a vast departure from typical Broadway kick-kick-turn-kick steps. The songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker are some of the best showtunes I’ve heard this season. The lyrics are smart and funny without condescending. With a stage full of pretty Boyz making all the right moves, and songs that are infinitely memorable, Altar Boyz seems likely to establish a cult following in a show that is not only entertaining but ultimately uplifting as well. --Mark A. Newman