Seen at the Movies:

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal is enjoyable in parts, but something seems off about it from almost the beginning. Loosely inspired by the real-life case of an Iranian man who has been living in a Paris airport terminal since 1988, the film stars Tom Hanks as an Eastern European traveler who is stuck in Kennedy Airport after his country undergoes a coup, rendering him stateless. He wanders the international terminal, eating crackers and ketchup, learning English at Borders, and putting benches together to sleep. Eventually, he makes friends with the (mostly immigrant) airport workers, gets off-the-books construction work, and falls in love with flight attendant Catherine Zeta-Jones. As the months drag on, he becomes the bane of security official Stanley Tucci.


The Terminal: Merrick Morton/Dreamworks LLC

In retrospect, Spielberg may the wrong director for this material, which seems rife with Kafkaesque, black comic possibilities. (The screenplay, by Sacha Gervasi and Jeff Nathanson, has undoubtedly evolved substantially from the original story by Truman Show writer Andrew Niccol.) Instead, the filmmaker makes something largely warm and cuddly out of the scenario, providing a Moscow on the Hudson-style celebration of immigrants in America, and laying on the goo in the almost-romance between Hanks and Zeta-Jones. Hanks is charming and persuasive as a heavily accented Balkan, and he carries the movie effortlessly. But Zeta-Jones treats her terrible role (the character is mired in a degrading relationship with a married man) like a momentary distraction, and Tucci is nothing more than a one-note authority figure, the kind of villain who often crops up in the Spielberg universe.

One amazing aspect of The Terminal is the title set, one of the biggest ever constructed for a movie. Production designer Alex McDowell and his crew, including more construction engineers than are usually employed in Hollywood production, took over a hangar in Palmdale, California and transformed it into the massive, two-story airline terminal on view in the film. (A number of real-life vendors also moved into the set, but for once the product placement seems justified.) It’s interesting to see one of the most banal locations in contemporary life reproduced as a movie set and somehow made to seem magical. DP Janusz Kaminski brings his trademarked cold, harsh light to the setting, but for the most part it works here. Mary Zophres’ costumes are routine, as are the clothes you’re most likely to see on tired airport travelers.


The Notebook: New Line Cinema

Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, from the best seller by Nicholas Sparks, is a maudlin movie intermittently saved by the passionate performances of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. They play a young couple in 1940s-era North Carolina who are madly in love but are kept apart by social circumstances: that is to say, she’s rich, and he’s poor. The situation is hackneyed (and made more so by the machinations of the girl’s mother, played by Joan Allen), but Gosling and McAdams play with an intensity that almost transforms the material into something fresh. How they age into the film’s TV-style geriatrics, played by James Garner and Gena Rowlands, is beyond me. The story is told in flashback, as Garner tries to remind a dementia-stricken Rowlands of the love they once shared. These present-tense scenes are deadly. The Notebook, shot in predictably nostalgic golden light by Robert Fraisse, with scrupulous period detail provided by production designer Sarah Knowles and costume designer Karyn Wagner, is probably not worth seeing in a theatre. But when it turns up on cable, it’s worth tuning in to see a couple of gifted and sexy young actors at work.--John Calhoun

Seen in Princeton The McCarter Theatre has mounted a very unusual production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic 1956 musical, My Fair Lady, staging it with a cast of just 10 actors and two grand pianos (an earlier version of this production was seen at The Court Theatre in Chicago). The score is so fantastic that even performed in this reduced format, the songs are wonderful, and actor Michael Cumpsty as Henry Higgins is quite wonderful, and carries almost the entire show on his shoulders. The supporting cast is good as well, with several actors playing multiple roles (well, they would have to wouldn’t they?).


My Fair Lady at the McCarter Theatre

My Fair Lady is of course based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. The story is that of Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower seller in London’s Covent Garden. She is noticed by Professor Henry Higgins, who is appalled at her incredibly awwwful English accent. When she appears on his doorstep for lessons, his friend Colonel Pickering bets Higgins that he cannot in six months time teach her to speak well enough to pass as a princess. Higgins accepts the bet.


My Fair Lady: one set, many locations...

This mini-version of My Fair Lady was directed by Gary Griffin, with musical direction (for the two piano players) by Thomas Murray. The single set, designed by John Culbert, is bi-level, with a large room with a parquet floor on the lower level, and a mezzanine housing as the two pianos and also serving as an upper acting area. This sole set serves as all locations, from outside of the Covent Garden opera house, to Higgins study and the Ascot race track. The upstage wall has translucent panels of glass, and the lighting by Chris Binder changes the color of the panels for the different scenes. There are also practicals, or lighting fixtures that help identify the locales, such as a pair of hanging globes for Higgins’ study and a pair of chandeliers for the ballroom. The sound by Dan Moses Schrier strikes a nice balance between the singers and the pianos, and the actors never have to struggle to be heard in the small Berlind Theatre, although they are all wearing little microphones tucked behind their ears.

Nan Cibula-Jenkins designed the costumes, true to period for London 1912. Eliza starts out in a ragged skirt and jacket, but appears on Higgins’ doorstep with a hat and bag. Of course by the time she has been transformed into a proper lady, she is wearing an exquisite white ball gown, by way of a stunning white suit and black and white hat for the races at Ascot. And of course, Higgins, well really Eliza, wins the bet.


My Fair Lady: Eliza wins the bet

If you missed this charming production in Princeton, where it closes on June 26, you’ll be able to catch it at the Hartford Stage, where it plays from July 3 through August 1. There will be some cast changes as Cumpsty must leave the company, but the good news is that Simon Jones, who played Pickering in Princeton will take over the role, playing Higgins in Hartford, where hurricanes hardly ever happen. How’s that for illiteration? --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux