Seen at the Movies:

One of the highlights of the ongoing New Directors/New Film Series, Kim Ki-Duk’s beautiful Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, opened its commercial run in New York this past weekend. This South Korean film is as simple as its title, charting both the seasons of the year and of life in general through the perspective of a tiny Buddhist hermitage floating in the middle of a lake. An old monk and his young student are the only permanent human inhabitants, though other people come and go and various animals share the unorthodox accommodations. In the opening segment, the student is a child and learns a valuable lesson about cruelty to living things. In the next, he is a young man who falls in love with a visiting young woman and leaves with her. As autumn of another year falls, he returns a criminal, only to be taken away by police. Many years later, he returns to the monastery to take over for the old monk, who has died.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring Sony Pictures Classics

Describing Spring, Summer… can make it sound like a parody of Buddhist teaching, but the film doesn’t play that way. As expected, it’s a slow, quiet piece of work, but the almost surreal oddness of its setting, its occasional, startling eruptions of passion and brutality, and the genuine feeling of transcendence by its conclusion, add up to something quite memorable. And the movie, photographed by Baek Dong-hyun, is often jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It’s interesting to note that not only is the floating monastery a set (designed by Oh Sang-man), but that the lake is actually a 200-year-old manmade pond, created to reflect the surrounding mountains. Artifice has never looked so natural.

A South Korean drama of quite a different stripe, E J-Yong’s Untold Scandal also played the New Directors series this week, though the film has yet to secure an American distributor. This is yet another adaptation of Chloderos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this time set during Korea’s 18th-century Chosun dynasty. J-Yong actually adheres quite closely to Christopher Hampton’s stage and film adaptation of the epistolary novel, making necessary adjustments for the setting, which was a good deal more prudish than pre-Revolutionary France. Though the movie is not as effective as the 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, the basic story of poisonous deceit and seduction is a powerful engine that carries all before it. Jung Ku-Ho’s production design and costumes are suitably sumptuous, and the film is handsomely photographed by Kim Byung-il.

Untold Scandal

On the home front, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ladykillers, a remake of the classic 1955 British comedy, never gets a proper rhythm going. The setting is transposed to contemporary Mississippi, as a band of thieves infiltrate the home of a clueless old lady Irma P. Hall) and tunnel from her basement to the vault of a nearby casino. Tom Hanks, fitted with a goofy dental appliance, gives his all in the old Alec Guinness role, the garrulous and professorial leader of the pack. The thieves pose as a Renaissance music group, surely the first in the history of the world to include such motley participants as Damon Wayans and J. K. Simmons. The whole thing seems ridiculous but rarely funny; it’s an uncharacteristically tired endeavor on the part of the Coen Brothers. Even the efforts of their ace technical team, including DP Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner, and costume designer Mary Zophres seem proficient but uninspired. Time for a recharge, boys.--John Calhoun

The Ladykillers: Melinda Sue Gordon/Buena Vista Pictures

Seen in Las Vegas: Wow! That’s the best word to describe Elton John’s new show, The Red Piano performed in The Colosseum at Caesar’s Forum in Las Vegas. Yes, this is the Celine Dion venue, and Elton John has signed on for at least 75 performances over the next three years as Dion takes a break in her busy schedule. Elton’s show is a "best of..." or career overview concert paired with giant eye-popping video images by photographer David LaChappelle who directed and designed this extravaganza. The scenery, built by Scenery West in Los Angeles, is a real show-stopper, and ranges from a collection of Las Vegas neon signs that lay on the stage to larger-than-life inflatables, from big red roses to a 40'pair of women’s legs in high heels, 40' breasts that hang over the audience, and such suggestive images as bananas, cherries, and a lipstick tube. Giant neon letters spelling ELTON are based on old hotel signs from Las Vegas. These fly in and have various flashing and chasing effects run by lighting designer Kevin "Stick" Bye on a Virtuoso console that has been linked to the in-house lighting system installed for Celine Dion. Bye has adapted the house rig put in by Dion's LD Yves Aucoin, and has tailored his usual Elton John lighting designs to fit the nature of The Red Piano where the video plays such a large role in the overall look of the show. The video images range from a backstage fantasy with the young Elton John (played by Justin Timberlake) in "Rocket Man" to Las Vegas showgirls, a diabolic love duet, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe with a look alike vamping on the screen, and live images of Elton John. The images are projected on a massive curved LED screen by Mitsubishi (installed for the Celine Dion show) that is 120' wide by 40' high. The name of the show is taken from Elton’s red lacquered, grand piano that sits stage right on a star-shaped platform, with his band on risers to his left. For Elton John fans this is like an ice-cream sundae with a cherry on top: a great live performance with extra pizzazz, Las Vegas-style. –Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Elton John's The Red Piano in Las Vegas

Seen on Broadway: The train-set farce Twentieth Century never builds up a full head of steam in its Roundabout Theatre Company revival but emerges nonetheless as an entertaining trip back into the golden age of screwball farce. In adapting the classic Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play, Ken Ludwig (Crazy for You) has lopped off a few characters, changed the sex of another (giving Julie Halston another welcome second-banana role on the heels of Gypsy), and for some obscure reason moved the action forward from 1932 (when the show premiered) to 1938. It may as well as have been 1934, the year Howard Hawks fashioned his fresh and funny film version from the material, and cast, indelibly, John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in the leads. [The play was also the basis of the 1978 Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical, On the Twentieth Century, which has yet to make it past the station where revivals of 70’s musicals are concerned.]

Roundabout Theatre Company’s Twentieth Century(left to right): Alex Baldwin, Dan Bulter, Anne Heche, Julie Halston, Tom Aldredge.
©2004, Joan Marcus

As Oscar Jaffe, a down-and-out Broadway producer, and Lily Garland, his protégé-turned-Hollywood sensation, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche are ideal sparring partners in love and intrigue. Trailing their own tabloid histories behind them, they take obvious delight in matching wits and egos, as Oscar connives to woo Lily back to the stage, by hook or by crook. [The unlikely bait? A New York version of the Oberammergau Passion Play, with Lily as an emerald-encrusted Mary Magdalene batting seductive eyes at her husband, Pontius Pilate. Don’t ask.] The action unfolds aboard the Twentieth Century, a swanky Art Deco train set handsomely appointed by designer John Lee Beatty. The audience applauded every time its two connected sleepers and adjoining lounge moved into position across the proscenium stage at the American Airlines Theatre (an appropriate home for such a "transporting" revival), and Beatty has also devised a faux Grand Central Terminal entryway for the coda. Acme Sound Partners added in all the required bells and whistles. My one complaint: The considerable empty space above the set should have been more consistently replaced by the starry skyline that twinkles in and out of Act II.

Presumably, it was felt that the stars below would distract from such considerations, and that they do. It takes a few minutes to adjust to Baldwin’s affected accent and appearance; let’s just say there’s more of him to enjoy, and that he really fills out a purple smoking jacket embroidered, in gold, with the masks of comedy and tragedy on its pocket. Once he establishes a rhythm, and throws himself into the show’s most famous line ("I close the iron door on you!"), he’s fine, and better than that once Heche makes her entrance. You may recall that Baldwin killed her in the film The Juror, in 1996, but it’s Heche who slays the audience this time, in some stunning costumes created by William Ivey Long. Now that she’s free and clear of alter egos and the like she clearly wants to lighten up, and what nicer way to do that than in a startling black pantsuit and plenty of jewels? Diamonds are this girl’s best friends, and they sparkle under Peter Kaczorowski’s unfussy lighting. I also liked the Hollywood sheen of her hair, a look credited to Paul Huntley, who knows that in a show like this his work is made for mussing once the characters start falling all over themselves and each other. Typical of a mixed season Twentieth Century could have been better—Ludwig could have made a few more cuts (the illicit lovers are vestigial to invisible in this staging) and director Walter Bobbie could have sped it along even faster—but Heche, a vision of comic loveliness whether in that pantsuit, a beaded dress, or jammies, keeps the production on track.— Robert Cashill