Seen at the Movies:

Baadasssss!

is Mario Van Peebles’ dramatized chronicle of father Melvin’s shooting of breakthrough 1971 Afro-American feature Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The younger Van Peebles’ film is a lot more entertaining than I expected, given his directorial track record on trashy movies like New Jack City. Given his obviously low budget, he reproduces the look and feel of the period to a remarkable degree, perhaps because he was there (he appeared in Sweetback as the title character at age 13; here, he portrays his father). DP Robert Primes, working in HD, captures some of the era’s vibrancy and grit, though Baadasssss! looks a lot slicker than Sweetback does, at least in the cruddy video copies that are available. Costume designer Kara Saun works in a Day-Glo palette that stands in nice contrast to the shabby L.A. interiors and locations production designer Alan E. Muraoka recreates; kudos also to hair stylist and makeup designer Kokeeta Douglas, who reminds us of the various and outlandish forms Afros could take.


Baadasssss! Michael O'Connor/Sony Pictures Classics

Though it too has an exclamation mark in its title, the milieu of the gently satiric Saved! could not be further from that of Baadasssss!. Brian Dannelly’s smart but not wholly satisfying debut feature is about the travails of a pregnant student (Jena Malone) at a Christian high school. Pastel blandness (to a sometimes surreal degree) is the order of the day in Wendy Chuck’s costumes and Tony Devenyi’s production design, and the suburban Vancouver location is exploited by DP Bobby Bukowski for its Anywhere, USA quality, even if it is Canada. Mandy Moore, cast as the school’s goody-two-shoes bitch, exemplifies the unsettlingly well scrubbed atmosphere, while bad kids Eva Amurri, Patrick Fugit, and Macaulay Culkin (playing a smart-ass paraplegic) inject some more colorful elements. Ultimately, Dannelly backs away from his incendiary subject matter with a feel-good message of tolerance and understanding, but I suppose there are worse things given the state of the world today.--John Calhoun


Saved! United Artists

Seen in Washington D.C.: The current production of Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. has been billed as a family-friendly musical, but that shouldn’t scare away any interested theatergoers who fear a theatre full of children. While the show has the simplified feel of a scaled-down national tour of a Broadway hit, that by no means detracts from the story of Genesis that is surprisingly moving under David H. Bell’s direction.

The set design by James Joy is remarkable not only in its simplicity but also when one considers the challenges for designing in this particular space. Ford’s Theatre is a designated landmark and museum so the theatre is hands-off for designers. However, Joy’s setting for the creation of humankind is simple to its very core. A giant curved staircase is the most prominent set piece but it is a far cry from Norma Desmond’s ornate monolith in Sunset Blvd.. The set’s simplicity works in the production’s favor. Let’s face it, when life on Earth was first created, there just weren’t that many set pieces, save for a few trees, mountains, fig leafs, etc. The lower part of the set is comprised of two giant rounded platforms where the majority of the action takes place. Behind the stairs is a backdrop that first "splits" open creating a giant curve during the opening number that is amazingly effective at conveying the dawn of mankind as well as a physical representation of mountains and the horizon beyond. Joy has created a series of wings or ribs that line the outermost reaches of the stage that are most effective during the scenes set on Noah’s Ark in the second act as they resemble the interior supports of a massive ship. The other major set piece is a 15’ diameter sun/moon that resembles a gigantic drum head that casts a warm glow over the entire set.


Father (aka God) coaches Adam and Eve as they name the animals in Children of Eden. Photo: Stan Barouth.

The lighting by Diane Ferry Williams was detailed in the June issue of Entertainment Design, but it should be noted that the LD has done an exemplary job of lighting a show whose venue has so many restrictions. There is no rig to speak of over the largest part of the rounded stage. Instead, Williams had to rely on carefully placed automated fixtures in the space behind the proscenium as well as a series of racks set up in the theatre’s upper balcony. Williams’ vivid use of color in the form of washes along a scrim at the rear of the set is effectively underplayed and provides a vital contribution to setting the various scenes whether it is the Garden of Eden, the wilderness beyond, or the storm before the great flood. The designer lets loose, however, once Noah and his brood hit dry land and the rear of the set is illuminated in a colorful rainbow.

The costumes by Mariann Verheyen are rich with color and texture. The thematic thread running through them is seemingly based in African cultures judging from the patterns and colors. The characters are outfitted in muted earth tones that are vividly accessorized with multi-colored accents in the forms of scarves, sashes, or embroidery. During the sequence when the chorus is representing various animals the costumes incorporate masks, head dresses and other props that show a definite influence from The Lion King. However they are simpler and create a representation of the beasts on stage rather than an exact, cartoonish duplicate that works even better as the florid costumes do not pull focus. When the animals come to the ark in the second act, the costumes are stripped to the bare essentials, as are the chorus members. The beasts are represented by the chorus performing an amazing amount of acrobatics that take the shape of various creatures culminating in virtually the entire chorus stacked and entwined upon itself as an elephant. It is an awe-inspiring display that was a definite crowd pleaser. --Mark A. Newman

Happy Memorial Day Weekend!