Seen at the Movies: Writer-director Mike Binder should thank his lucky stars that he obtained the acting services of the great Joan Allen for The Upside of Anger, because it would be a real flat tire of a movie without her. Also in Binder’s favor was getting Kevin Costner to accept a relatively low-key subsidiary role, in which the actor delivers his most charming performance in years. Allen plays Terry Wolfmeyer, a suburban wife and mother of four daughters who becomes mired in alcoholic fury after her husband disappears without a word, presumably having run off with his Swedish secretary. Costner’s character Denny, an ex-baseball star and radio commentator who knew Terry’s husband, is glad to become her drinking buddy, and eventually her lover. Time passes, the daughters (played by Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt, none of whom is given much chance to shine), go through many alternately comic and poignant trials and tribulations, Denny hangs around loyally, and Terry stays good and mad. Somehow, Allen manages to sell this role, making Terry’s ongoing, at times unreasonably expressed anger seem both exasperating and justifiable. (Her daughters, on the other hand, seem bizarrely non-plussed by, even indifferent to, the fact of their father’s abandonment).
I liked the way the characters’ drinking is treated as a side effect and not such a big deal in itself, and I enjoyed the rapport between Allen and Costner. But The Upside of Anger is more or less a mess, never fully coalescing its comic and tragic elements into an organic whole, and dragging its clumsily structured plot out over what could be a year or three years, depending on what signposts you read. Oddly, though the film is set in the Detroit area, it was shot in London—I guess the suburbs there aren’t so far off in character from Grosse Pointe. Chris Roope has designed one of those tastefully upscale two-story houses that well heeled movie families love to inhabit, and DP Richard Greatrex gives the film a changing seasonal palette that’s handsome enough. Deborah Scott’s costumes include appropriately understated pastels for Allen and loose-fitting sweats and t-shirts for Costner, who’s looking a little paunchy, but in a nice way.--John Calhoun
And now for something completely different…Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, who unleashed the viral horror hit 28 Days Later in 2003, is back with a children’s film. Millions is what two young brothers think they have when a big suitcase full of stolen English pounds drops out of the sky near their new home, in a suburb of Manchester. The older boy, nine-year-old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), thinks they should keep it; seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), however, his imagination full of the Catholic saints he’s learned about in school, thinks they should give it away. But there are two problems: the thief wants it back, and the pound is about to go the way of the dinosaur as England at long last welcomes the euro, right after the Christmas holiday. (And maybe a third, in that their father, a widower, is bumbling his way into a new romance.)
Boyle, who was in New York last week with the boys in tow, spoke a little about its look. "It takes place in Manchester and Liverpool, and they look like the way I remember them from my childhood," says the director, who is in his late 40s. "Manchester is known as very bleak, rainy, industrial landscape, and this look is one that’s well-represented in film. But I didn’t feel that growing up. My image of the place is of enormous wit and vitality and energy and defiance. These places up in the north of England have been very badly treated over the last 25 years, but they’ve emerged out of that with character. We wanted the colors to pop, and be very primary and alive." To give it a different flavor, the Christmas-set film was shot in the summer sun.
Like 28 Days Later, Millions was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, a pioneer in digital cinematography, on films like The Celebration (1998). Millions, however, was shot on film, though it is full of pop-up style digital effects used to heighten the kid’s-eye spirit of the story. "When you use digital photography you spend a lot of time on the grade, and that’s where you can really trap the color and force it and push it through and make it more a personality in the film. Here, we spent the same amount of time working on the grade than we did when we shot digitally, to push the colors, so that hopefully the audience will experience the film in the way that the kid sees the events that are taking place."
Boyle watched numerous children’s films, and films about children, to prepare the movie, which goes into limited release today. "With a film about kids, you’re always looking for that thing that E.T. did, because Spielberg shot everything from the head height of Elliott; adults’ heads were cut off. You can’t copy that, because it’s so well known, but you’re looking to find a similar technique to create a kids’ world, so we chose the color scheme." Boyle also praises Louis Malle’s 1987 film Au revoir les enfants for its "brilliant direction" of children. [The style of Millions is also set by the slightly fancified sets of production designer Mark Tildesley and the bright costuming of Susannah Buxton.]
Though it has nothing to do with design I’ll conclude with this bit from the kids, who are key to the film’s charm. McGibbon says he’s enjoying his turn in the limelight, but still plans to be a doctor, "when I’m really, really, really, old, like, maybe 40."
I told him, in a playful deadpan, that I was 39. Etel, who could have a second career as a diplomat, quickly jumped in, and said, "Oh, well, then, maybe 50."--Robert Cashill
Seen on Broadway: If you have to steal, steal from the best. That would appear to be the modus operandi of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the latest movie musicalization, now at the Imperial Theatre. In no small part, it consists of something borrowed (the wit and dexterity of the composer/lyricist, David Yazbek, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and director, Jack O’Brien, of The Full Monty; and some of the design wizards behind Hairspray, notably scenic designer David Rockwell and lighting designer Kenneth Posner) and something, well, blue—the cheerful vulgarity of The Producers, the very model of a modern con man musical comedy. Of course, it also draws heavily from its source, the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin comedy, which was itself a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story, with David Niven and Marlon Brando as the first to try on the gigolo shoes that John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz are now slipping into in New York. That’s a lot of hand-me-downs. Still, animated by Yazbek’s consistently amusing tunes, and the smart choreography of the performers and Jeffrey Lane’s book by Mitchell and O’Brien, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels hasn’t quite turned up its toes yet.
To the performers goes much of the credit. Lithgow, a practiced scene-swiper, has the audience in the palm of his hand (and his hand in the pockets of the audience) from his first entrance. Lithgow was pretty much the whole show in his last, failed movie-to-musical, the rancid Sweet Smell of Success, but here he has no end in playful competition from Butz, who emerges as a full-fledged Broadway star with his first big number, "Great Big Stuff." Sherie Rene Scott, Butz’s frequent co-star in past musicals, also ascends to the front ranks as their sweetly ignorant mark, as the two con artists fleece the Riviera. A secondary romantic couple has also been added to the mix; ordinarily, this might be the time to scan the Playbill, waiting for the filler to end, yet with the venerable Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara assuming the parts attention must be paid. And Sara Gettelfinger is a delight as one of Lithgow’s more combustible targets, a brassy Oklahoman.
The material may be dirty and rotten; the production, however, is simply swellegant. Rockwell’s settings, up to Lithgow’s lavish villa and down to the potted palm trees, drip with jewels and big-money frippery, and zip on and off via automation equipment from Showmotion, Inc. (I particularly liked his simple solution for an Act I train set, represented by the appropriate furnishings and a scrolling backdrop behind windows). Posner’s dappled lighting (provided by PRG) shimmers and glistens in the stylized camp of this environment, and the audio design and effects of Acme Sound Partners (using Sound Associates gear) never strike a wrong note. Gregg Barnes’ costumes, from the stars to the ensemble, are knockouts (or, in the case of the under-attired Butz, knockoffs) and everyone puts their best face forward in the makeup of Jorge Vargas and the hairstyles and wigs supervised by Sonia Rivera. Buoyed by its appealing exterior, the crafty Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is larceny deluxe.--Robert Cashill