Seen at the Movies:

Anything Else

isn’t as dire as Woody Allen’s last couple of movies. It has some good laughs, and pleasing neurotic-romantic lead players in Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci. It also has the writer-director in an interesting extension of his normal persona, a man so overcome by feelings of imminent persecution that he’s become a gun-obsessed nutcase. But the movie is all setup for a payoff that never comes. Ricci’s pill-popping, weight-obsessed character won’t sleep with Biggs’ nebbishy comedy writer; Allen’s character takes to bashing bulllies’ car windows: what do these story strands have to do with each other? Throw in Danny DeVito as Biggs’ bargain-basement agent and Stockard Channing as Ricci’s equally flighty mother, and you’ve got an overlong, sometimes divertingly overstuffed film that finally just peters out.


Anything Else, Biggs in rain: Myles Aronowitz/Dreamworks LLC.

Allen seems to have lost touch with why he’s making movies, with what he wants to say. One’s heart sinks during the typically white-on-black credits, over which Billie Holliday sings "Easy to Love"—hasn’t Woody already used that recording? It can’t be, but he’s used too many like it. The filmmaker is spinning his creative wheels. And even with Darius Khondji shooting Allen’s first widescreen images since Manhattan, Anything Else is fairly blah visually. Numerous Central Park exteriors are pleasant enough, but the apartment interiors look glum. Santo Loquasto is the trusty production designer, and the standard-issue costumes are by Laura Jean Shannon.

At least Anything Else is not an embarrassment. That’s more than can be said for Cold Creek Manor, which I sincerely hope provided a nice studio paycheck to cover director Mike Figgis’ shame. Ditto stars Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone. I went into this movie expecting some sort of haunted-house thriller; instead, screenwriter Richard Jeffries provides a hoary psycho-on-the-loose story that doesn’t even attempt to furnish a twist. How did this script get produced? It’s so by-the-numbers that the most undemanding moviegoers are likely to be mentally surveying their shopping lists while staring at the screen. The old Victorian of the title is meant to be in upstate New York, but was actually scouted near Toronto, and the surrounding flat terrain gives it away. Production designer Leslie Dilley at least got to have fun refurbishing the house; DP Declan Quinn frames and lights the location as if it couldn’t be less interesting to him.


Cold Creek Manor Photo: Takashi Seida/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The theme this week must be filmmakers not doing their best work: add to the list writer-director John Sayles, whose Casa de los Babys seems more like an outline for a movie than the real thing. It’s about an unnamed Latin American seaside town where a group of American women (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen, and Lili Taylor) hoping to adopt babies have gathered; the motel where they stay is run by Rita Moreno, and Vanessa Martinez portrays a maid with her own baby troubles. The cast overwhelms the slim material, and scenes of street kids and local poverty seem like afterthoughts. Casa de los Babys was shot in Mexco by Maricio Rubinstein, with production design by Felipe Fernandez del Paso and costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo. It’s all very colorful.


Photo: Casa de Los Babys: IFC Films

Finally, to reiterate a recommendation, Olivier Assayas’ demonlover, which I wrote about when it played in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in the spring, is finally opening here. It’s a fascinating if seriously baffling corporate/multinational/cyberthriller with smashing anamorphic cinematography by Denis Lenoir and production design by Francois Renaud-Labarthe. Some may find the film maddening, but you’re not likely to be going over your shopping list while watching it.--John Calhoun

Seen In London:A Week in London for the PLASA trade show can only mean a week at the theatre. This time, I saw five extremely interesting plays, including Democracy, His Girl Friday, and Jumpers, all at the National Theatre.

Democracy is a world premiere by Michael Frayn, author of Noises Off. and Copenhagen. This time around he has tackled a rather serious subject, taking a look at political trust, betrayal, and spies in West Germany while Willy Brandt was chancellor. Directed by Michael Blakemore, the production takes place primarily in the chancellor's suite of offices, yet moves with cinematic fluidity to train compartments, a cafe, the seat of government, and train platforms where Brandt speaks to the people. The set by Peter J. Davidson set is a clever duplex of office cubicles with a spiral staircase ascending to one upstairs office as well as an open platform used for various locales. Each cubicle has a different colored set of numerous vertical slots for papers, set against a background of blonde wood. At the end, the entire set of shelves collapses with great panache, sending thousands of sheets of paper to the floor (quite a clean up job for the props department).Costume designer Sue Wilmington dressed the all-male cast primarily in suits or sports coats and slacks as would fit each one's station in life. Lighting designer Mark Henderson keeps the production moving along with smooth transitions from place to place, with a pool of light on a cafe table at night, or flooding the offices with daylight. Sound design is by Neil Alexander.


Democracy Photo: Conrad Blakemore

His Girl Friday is a fast-paced drama adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, as well as the Columbia Pictures film. Director Jack O'Brien decided to keep the film motif in his productin, using the idea that we are watching the filming of the story. With that in mind, set and costume designer Bob Crowley placed the single locale of a seedy newspaper office within the confines of a film shoot: the audience sees large film-style lighting by Mark Henderson above the stage and large painted backdrops hanging behind the walls of the set. Before the first "take," or act one, the actors can be seen on stage for final make-up and costume adjustments or notes from the director. A script girl sits on the side of the stage during act one, and the film "business" continues again during intermission. The overall color scheme is black and white, as if right off the pages of a newspaper, or an old black and white film. Sound design is by Colin Pink.


His Girl Friday Photo: Catherine Ashmore

There's nothing like an evening spent with Tom Stoppard, especially when the topic of conversation is one of his more complex plays like Jumpers. The current production of Jumpers at The National is extremely well cast, especially Simon Russell Beale in the role of George Moore and Essie Davis as Dorothy Moore. Directed by David Leveaux, the production makes the most of Stoppard's improbable conceit of a troupe of acrobats appearing in a professor's apartment (for an evening mental gymnastics?) Set designer Vicki Mortimer places the action on a turntable with a bedroom on one side and the professor's office (filled with an odd assortment of objects) on the other. The rooms are framed by a large box set representing the house as well as the universe. Doors stage right and stage left are used to great advantage as Beale rushes from room to room. The costumes by Nicky Gillibrand are spot on, putting Beale in perfect professorial garb, down to his mis-matched socks. Davis goes from glamorous gowns to a bathrobe as she plays almost all of her scenes on her bed. The lighting design by Paule Constable gives the evening almost a filmic quality, as if the characters are caught in a film of their own lives, complete with live music. The sound design is by the prolific John Leonard, making his National debut with Jumpers. The production transfers to the Picadilly Theatre in the West End in November, following a brief National tour. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux


Jumpers Photo: Catherine Ashmore