Seen at the Movies:

In some ways, December 17 was a bittersweet day for Lord of the Rings fans--the release of the final film in Peter Jackson's monumental trilogy means no more to look forward to. What will next Christmas be without one? In any case, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King does not disappoint. Jackson wraps up the J.R.R. Tolkien saga by topping the battle sequences in The Two Towers and endowing the film with an emotional heft that's almost unheard of in the fantasy genre. The story crosscuts between the final stand of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the rest of the Fellowship against Sauron's forces at Minas Tirith, and the perilous journey of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and the duplicitous Gollum (Andy Serkis) to Mount Doom, where that testy Ring can finally be destroyed. Once again, the combination of digital animation with Serkis' previsualized performance as Gollum is astounding. But in many ways, the movie belongs to Astin, who rightly locates modest Hobbit Sam Gamgee as the heart of the saga.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Photo: New Line Productions.

From a design point of view, the most remarkable thing in Return of the King is the seven-tiered city of Minas Tirith, which emerges as if sculpted from rock formations found, like the rest of the trilogy's locations, in Jackson's native New Zealand. Production designer Grant Major and Weta Workshop supervisor Richard Taylor, working from sketches by illustrator Alan Lee, supervised the construction of Minas Tirith miniatures that started at 1/72 scale for long shots, but large chunks of a full-scale set can be seen in one thrilling sequence, as Gandalf rides to the top of the city tier by tier. The film's digital work, supervised by Jim Rygiel at Weta Digital, encompasses everything from the creation of Shelob the man-eating spider, to selling the illusion that the forces of Mordor attacking Minas Tirith--including Orcs, Uruk-Hai, massive charging Oliphaunts, and dragon-like Nazgul--are 200,000 strong. What live-action extras there are were costumed by Ngila Dickson and clad in armor by Taylor. And continuing to impart a sense of dark enchantment on the action is trilogy DP Andrew Lesnie. Good show.

In contrast, Vadim Perelman's House of Sand and Fog captures a dark tone that is supposedly real world-based, yet it descends into a series of melodramatic events that are harder to buy than anything in Lord of the Rings. Struggling through a bout of depression after her husband leaves her, Jennifer Connelly's anti-heroine ignores tax bills on her Bay Area bungalow, and is evicted. Iranian émigré Ben Kingsley, a former army colonel reduced to menial labor stateside, snatches up the house at auction with the idea of reselling for a big profit and ensuring his family's financial security. Writer and first-time director Perelman, working from a book by Andre Dubus III, does a skillful job of making the two antagonists both sympathetic and somewhat dislikable, and the mood of impending violence had my stomach churning almost from the get-go. The performances, particularly those of Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays the colonel's wife, are very strong, and DP Roger Deakins does a masterful job creating atmosphere. But the last third of the movie becomes so overwrought, and ratchets up such a body count, that I found it impossible to take seriously. Production designer Maia Javan does an excellent job with the title house, which is actually rather shabby.

House of Sand and Fog. Photo: Dreamworks LLC.

Handsome period appointment is probably the best thing about the 1950s-set Mona Lisa Smile, in which art history teacher Julia Roberts descends on Wellesley College and challenges the female students' view of what their role in life should be. Let's start with the movie's two fatal debits: the script is cliché-ridden and shallow, and spends the bulk of its effort working out the romantic entanglements of Roberts and the young women she's supposed to be enlightening; and Roberts herself is unconvincing as a 1950s-era woman, even of the bohemian variety, and totally unconvincing as any sort of intellectual, especially one who would be hired by Wellesley. It's left to the movie's ingénues, including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, to convey some sense of period and dimension, though their characters are written as types. Mike Newell does direct the movie smoothly, and cinematographer Anastas Michos' lighting is flawless. Production designer Jane Musky seamlessly blends locations on several Northeastern university campuses with footage shot at Wellesley, and costume designer Michael Dennison's parade of tightly cinched sweater sets and gowns is ceaselessly entertaining.

Mona Lisa Smile. Photo: Bob Marshak/Columbia Pictures.

Calendar Girls desperately wants to be the distaff version of The Full Monty, but it's really just a cheesy feel-good comedy given a bit of class by stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. Directed by Nigel Cole, the movie is based on the true story of a British Women's Institute chapter that decided to raise money for a local hospital by posing 12 of its middle-aged members for a nude (though relatively chaste) calendar. This is amusing enough, I guess, but the bulk of Calendar Girls' running time is taken up with the dreary aftermath of the calendar's release--the Mirren character's fame, for example, goes to her head, and she starts ignoring her domestic responsibilities to her husband and son. (Maybe that rabble-rousing Julia Roberts got to her.) The supporting cast of prim nudies includes Linda Bassett, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, and Annette Crosbie, all of whom are appealing. But apart from some costumes by Frances Tempest that nicely suggest the type of woman that would never take them off in public, the movie is nothing to look at. Ashley Rowe's cinematography is soft-focused and undistinguished, while production designer Martin Childs, whose credits include Shakespeare in Love, Quills, and From Hell, must have taken the job to have a holiday in Yorkshire.--John Calhoun

Calendar Girls. Photo: Jamie Midgley/Touchstone Pictures.

Seen Off Broadway: The Regard Evening, at Signature Theatre Company, is a semi-revival of Bill Irwin's early-80s hit The Regard of Flightt: Act I is a shortened version of that piece, with a new second act that brings it up to date. The Regard Evening is hard to describe: it's not a play, not really performance art, not exactly a vaudeville piece. What it is, however, is hilarious, a portrait of the eternal triangle: artist, academic, critic. Irwin, in the persona of his basic clown character, is trapped in a series of dreamlike situations, menaced by a fatuous critic (Michael O'Connor, wielding an alarmingly big pencil), while musician Doug Skinner offers equally fatuous explications of the action from the sidelines. It's the actor's nightmare played for laughs, as Irwin finds himself racing through quick changes, fighting off O'Connor (who tries to stuff him in a trunk), struggling not to be swallowed up by the proscenium stage, all while trying to articulate his theory of "new theatre." Meanwhile, Skinner interrupts with pedantic descriptions of the elements of the stage, unveils his ventriloquism act, and offers a lovely rendition, with Irwin, of that immortal tune "Home in Pasadena," with ukulele accompaniment. Act II features Irwin in bed, having replaced his copy of Towards a New Theatre with Social Security and You; hwever, he is soon once again struggling with O'Connor and Skinner, and also coping with the demands of new technology. There are some priceless gags built around a bathroom that can only be reached via trampoline and a computer with a strangely porous hard-drive. Douglas Stein's gilded proscenium and red curtain is an effectively minimal backdrop. Catherine Zuber's clown costumes are smartly done. Nancy Schertler's lighting is discreetly effective. Brett R. Jarvis' sound design had some problems at my performance--O'Connor's body mic was plagued by static; this should be easily remedied, however. At any rate, this 90 minutes of deadpan fun is highly recommended.

The Regard Evening. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Dinner with Demons, at Second Stage, brings the aesthetic of the Food Network to Off Broadway. The premise is simple: Jonathan Reynolds, a playwright who also contributes to the food column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, prepares a meal onstage while discussing his troubled family history. Reynolds, we learn, grew up in the wake of his parents' acrimonious divorce, torn between the hedonistic life of his hugely wealthy father and the pleasure-denying existence of his icy Boston-Brahmin mother. Relief, and a sense of moral balance, came in the form of an uncle, whose daughter grew up to the actress Lee Remick (Most of the script has been taken from the authors’ Times columns). Reynolds' meal, which includes deep-fried turkey, a potato soufflé, and pancake made with copious amounts of sugar and butter, sent my cholesterol count soaring by proximity alone; still, there is something fascinating about watching a skilled chef at work, and his reminiscences are oddly engaging. The finale, in which he recalls Remick's brave death from cancer, is genuinely moving. It's a little bit like sitting in the kitchen with an old friend as he tells the story of his life. You have to wonder whether this charming little piece really needed the stunning, grandly scaled setting by Heidi Ettinger; it’s a fully working kitchen complete with towering shelves, cornucopian displays of foodstuffs and a sinister-looking deep fryer. Still, it certainly makes an impact. (Ettinger's work is too rarely seen these days; she's still one of the best set designers around). Kevin Adams’ lighting provides strong color backwashes. John Gromada's sound design makes extensive use of the Paul McCartney song "Let Him In." If Dinner with Demons is little more than a stunt, it's certainly an entertaining one.

Dinner With Demons. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The distinguished South African actor/playwright John Kani has fearlessly dealt with the horrors of apartheid in his work. In Nothing But the Truth, presented by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, he takes on the contradictions of South African life in the post-apartheid years, with less powerful results. Kani stars as Sipho Makhaya, an aging librarian whose career has been filled with disappointments; he lives with his obedient but sharp-tongued daughter Thando (Warona Seane), who works with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, exploring the crimes of the apartheid years. Sipho's niece, Mandisa, shows up from London carrying the ashes of Sipho's brother, an exiled poet and anti-apartheid activist. The brothers were deeply estranged, for reasons that will be revealed by the final curtain. There is a rich dramatic situation here, exploring the differences between personal and systemic wrongdoing: Mandisa is outraged by the country's policy of exposing the evils of the past but not punishing them, while Sipho cannot forgive his brother for betraying him personally. But Kani's treatment of the situation is strictly pro forma; the play's clockwork plotting and oratorical dialogue feels false. The plot twists arrive too neatly on cue, while the action stops repeatedly for baldly political speeches. Janice Honeyman's direction is partly at fault here, but the main problem is the play is too obviously constructed. However, Sarah Roberts' set design, depicting the living room and kitchen of Sipho's house, is a sharply detailed piece of work and her costumes are equally well-done. Mannie Manim's lighting is suitably restrained. Many people around me were visibly moved to see Kani, a survivor of the apartheid era, onstage, and it's probably true that the play speaks more meaningfully to a South African audience. But this is not Kani’s finest hour.

Nothing But the Truth. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon earned a great deal of respect in was produced at the Public Theatre in 1985; seen today in Scott Elliot's clumsy revival at the New Group (in residence at the Clurman Theatre), it comes off as a muddled, angry tract designed to ride the audience’s nerves. Kristen Johnson is a striking presence as Aunt Dan, a tall, mini-skirted, libertine academic (she must have cut quite a figure at Oxford!) who worships Henry Kissinger and impresses her warped values on the sickly, all-too-impressionable, young Lemon (Lili Taylor). Thanks to their twisted relationship, Lemon ends up a recluse, fascinated with the Third Reich as a model of governmental efficiency. The play is filled with digressions featuring Lemon’s unhappy parents and the members of Aunt Dan’s swinging social circle; long, rambling monologues are punctuated by sexual interludes, including a seduction scene that ends in murder (Carlos Leon, heretofore best-known as the father of Madonna’s child, is the victim, dispatched by Brooke Sunny Moriber, as a childlike playgirl who will do anything for money.) Shawn's point, as far as I can make it out, is that the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and individual fulfillment eventually enables the rise of Fascism; this may or may not be true, but the message is delivered with such self-importance you quickly tune it out. Shawn is the Cotton Mather of playwrights; he's such a notorious scold that he makes Tony Kushner look like a boulevard hack in comparison. Elliot's direction results in a festival of acting styles; Taylor, looking far too robust, appears to be channeling the spirit of Hayley Mills. Moriber is creepily effective and Melissa Errico is plausible as Lemon's disappointed mother, however. The play is narrated from Lemon's seedy bed-sitting room, but Derek McLane's design, with its red Viennese curtains, looks more like a Middle-European brothel. Eric Becker's costumes for the 1960s scenes are pretty kicky (though how did Lemon, who never goes out, get a Les Miserables t-shirt?). Jason Lyon's lighting and Ken Travis' sound are fine. But Aunt Dan and Lemon may be the most perverse holiday offering around.

Aunt Dan and Lemon.Photo: Carol Rosegg..

On the other hand, that designation may belong to Rose's Dilemma, now at Manhattan Theatre Club. The rap on Neil Simon used to be that he was the king of easy laughs, winning audiences over with too-familiar characters and situations. You certainly can't say that about the bizarrely manufactured plot he's come up with here: If you can imagine a rewrite of Blithe Spirit starring Lillian Hellman, you're getting warm. Patricia Hodges (replacing Mary Tyler Moore, who wisely took a powder) is Rose, the Hellman-ish writer who has put her life on hold to indulge in a mental affair with the memory of her dead lover, Walsh, a Dashiell Hammett-type mystery writer (John Cullum). They even have--in a twist I couldn't explain under a death threat--some kind of astral-plane sex. This, naturally, makes her personal assistant, Arlene, (Geneva Carr) nervous. To make some much-needed money, Rose digs up an unfinished book by Walsh and, at his direction, hires as a ghost writer, a boozy, burnt-out, onetime novelist, Gavin (David Aaron Baker) to finish it. Simon is apparently aiming for some kind of laughter-and-tears cocktail, but his jokes (most of them about Rose's bizarre sex life) are tasteless and unfunny. I've haven't always loved his plays, but I've never seen one performed to near-total silence, as happens here. Much of the second act is taken with a series of creaky revelations about Rose and Arlene's relationship and a forced romance between Arlene and Gavin. Cullum is his usual stylish self and Baker does a lot with the role of Gavin, who begins as a borderline alcoholic, writes a best-seller in four weeks, and is converted into a standard-issue male ingénue for the finale. Both Hodges and Carr try hard, but their roles simply make no sense. (Did nobody explain to Simon that the outline of Hellman's life simply doesn't fit into a late-20th century time frame?) Director Lynne Meadow apparently had no idea how to treat this material and my sympathies are with her. It looks good, however: Thomas Lynch's gorgeous Hamptons beach house setting, so ably lit by Pat Collins, is an Architectural Digest spread come to life. William Ivey Long’s simple, stylish costumes are first-rate. Bruce Ellman's sound design is mostly confined to some naggingly familiar movie music used to bridge the scenes. But this is one play that should have left in Simon’s desk.--David Barbour

Rose’s Dilemma. Photo: Carol Rosegg.