Seen at the Movies: Bill Condon’s Kinsey feels like a movie we need right now: one that presents sexuality in a frank, unapologetic style, just like the title figure’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female did back in the 40s and 50s. This very entertaining biopic, which stars Liam Neeson as research scientist Alfred Kinsey, Laura Linney as wife Clara, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, and a very naked Peter Sarsgaard as the researchers, and William Sadler, Kathleen Chalfant, and Lynn Redgrave among the subjects, is delivered in mostly light and breezy style by Condon, who treats the period and the sometimes uptight (or alternately uninhibited) characters without condescension. It’s only in the movie’s final stretch, when the ailing Kinsey loses his funding amidst McCarthy-era political pressures and takes on a martyred manner that the story becomes a bit of a drag. But Condon, whose previous feature was Gods and Monsters, recovers in time for a moving finish.
Kinsey was done on a budget, and it sometimes shows: the production, which spans the 1910s to the 1950s, and subs its mostly Midwest locations in the New York-New Jersey region, can seem a little threadbare. On the other hand, this means that Richard Sherman’s capable but modest production design doesn’t steal focus, as so often happens in a period film. The passages of decades is most effectively conveyed by costume designer Bruce Finlayson, and DP Frederick Elmes, with the help of other key creative participants, opens up the palette as the movie and Kinsey’s life progress. The early scenes are relatively dark and monochromatic, but by the time we get to the publication of the Kinsey’s pioneering work, the film has seemingly taken on a greater wattage, and a collage of pastel colors. This is most apparent in the interview scenes, which at one point are imaginatively splayed across a map of the United States. One jarring design note I have to mention: though Neeson’s comical thatch of hair is true to Kinsey, the procession of dark wigs worn by Linney are the ugliest and most ill-fitting I’ve seen in a long time. If Mrs. Kinsey’s hair really looked like this, the filmmakers should have been more charitable.
Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland is also a biographical film of a sort, this time looking at a few crucial years in the life of Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie. Who else but Johnny Depp could tackle the guileless, almost pre-sexual demands of this role? Barrie is presented as a lonely, possibly emotionally stunted Edwardian Scot who finds his voice as a playwright when, in this telling, he meets a widow (Kate Winslet) and her brood of boys in London’s Kensington Gardens. One in particular (played by Freddie Highmore) serves as a model for the perennially youthful Peter Pan, although it’s Barrie, of course, who most resembles his creation. When the boys’ mother becomes ill, the playwright’s role in the family’s life becomes even more central.
Finding Neverland is lovingly done, but for me, it never quite registers the way it wants to. Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, handles the movie’s fantastic elements clumsily. We’re meant to see Barrie’s imagination come alive at various points, as the Neverland adventures play out in a garden, on a stage set, or even in a simple Edwardian drawing room that may suddenly expand into a fantasy environment halfway between theatre and cinema. DP Roberto Schaefer, production designer Gemma Jackson, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne do a beautiful job with these transformations, which take their cue from early 20th-century stagecraft, but the framing and editing often seem off, giving a leaden quality to what should feel magical. Still, there’s much to recommend the film, including the able support of Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman in subsidiary roles.
There are a few good reasons to see Charles Shyer’s remake of Alfie, which transfers the amoral title character from swinging 1960s London to contemporary New York. One is to gaze on the beauty of star Jude Law, whose exquisitely tailored costumes are designed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Another is to enjoy the sexy performances, and also the great clothes, of the film’s distaff cast, which includes Jane Krakowski, Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Sienna Miller, and Susan Sarandon. That said, the new film lacks the edge of the original, just as Law lacks Michael Caine’s vaguely hoodlum-like quality. The movie’s not much more than an entertaining trifle, with pretty photography by Ashley Rowe and some swank settings courtesy of designer Sophie Becher. Oddly enough, much of the movie was shot in Liverpool and Manchester, subbing with mixed success for New York.
The only thing that gives Brett Ratner’s lame caper film After the Sunset a bit of weird interest are some comically played homoerotic elements in the relationship between thief Pierce Brosnan and FBI agent Woody Harrelson. Though Brosnan sucks face at every opportunity with partner in romance and crime Salma Hayek, he obviously sees Harrelson as the livelier prospect, winding up in one compromising position after the other with the guy. The worst thing about the movie is that it gave me a dreary foretaste of Ocean’s Twelve, a Christmas entry in what is possibly my least favorite genre. Shot in the Bahamas by Dante Spinotti, After the Sunset has what is often referred to as an attractive look, though the digital technology increasingly being used for color timing gives the film an unearthly texture, particularly in close-ups on Hayek. The production design is by Geoffrey Kirkland, and the costume design is by Rita Ryack, and I’m sure they both had very nice island holidays.—John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: People Are Wrong!, a musical collaboration of the Vineyard Theatre and Target Margin Theater, wants real bad for you to like it, just as so many of us liked a previous vintage from the Vineyard, Avenue Q. I wanted to like it; good musicals have been scarce lately and on the page, this one must have sounded promising. Its co-authors, Robin Goldwasser and Julia Greenberg, are part of the cult New York band Loser's Lounge and Goldwasser, who co-stars, is married to John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, who contributed to two of the songs and makes his Off Broadway debut to boot in the show. The best numbers are reminiscent of Giants and B-52s tunes, a pleasingly different sound on the theater scene, and a strong band tucked into the corner of the stage really puts them across. But there's more to good musical theater than just a few good songs, and People Are Wrong!never gets it right.
If I were Flansburgh, I'd be miffed. His wife has cast him as Russ, a harassed New Yorker who, with his fiancée Terri (Erin Hill), buys a home in the Catskills, only to run afoul of a New Age gardening cult made up of hippy-dippy Agway employees led by Xanthus (David Driver), who may be an alien. Russ and Terri are stereotypically dull, conventional characters that the writers and director, David Herskovits, needed to work much harder on to liven up; instead, they're simply chucked to the sidelines for much of the show, as the less-than-charismatic Driver does his Rocky Horror thing with none of the ghoulishly camp sensuality of its model. Besides a more purposeful book, with clearly defined comic targets, People Are Wrong! needed stronger central characterizations to keep from lapsing into its present tedium; Flansburgh fans will be disappointed, though it must be said his acting skills are as modest as his part. As it is, People Are Wrong! is like a musty concept album, from a band you enjoyed over 20 years ago, that you dust off from time to time to hear the two or three songs you most remember.
The form of People Are Wrong! is thoroughly linked to its content, and more successful. G.W. Mercier's Astroturf set design, with makeshift cardboard cutouts and directional signals pinned and pasted to the back wall, really does look like the proudly low-tech cover of an old record you have in a box in your basement. The lighting, by Lenore Doxsee, lays back for the ballads then explodes with High End effects and fog when the slender plotline, involving Russ and Terri's garden wedding and Xanthus' attempt to build a rocketship on their property, gets lost in space. Costume designer Mattie Ullrich dirties her hands for the gardeners and prepares a fetching tree nymph ensemble for the show's most intriguing character, known simply as The Vision, and played by Maggie Moore. Brian Speiser contributes a hi-fi sound design straight from the turntable. As is often the case, however, even with this expended effort from the designers, People Are Wrong! is a cast album in search of a sensible staging. --Robert Cashill