I wouldn’t argue that the global catastrophe extravaganza The Day After Tomorrow is any more ridiculous than your average 1970s-era disaster movie—I caught a bit of Earthquake on cable the other night, and it would be hard to beat the image of a pimp-suited Walter Matthau dodging falling beams and plaster (in a movie which also featured the likes of Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, and Lorne Greene getting pummeled) for sheer idiocy. But The Day After Tomorrow, in which polar ice caps melt, the North Atlantic Current is quelled, and an instant Ice Age descends on the Northern Hemisphere, contributes its own varieties of shamelessness to the genre—it’s difficult to imagine even Irwin Allen having the temerity to toss a bald, cancer-stricken tot and a pack of wolves menacing Fifth Avenue into the same movie.
Confession: I found the silliness of The Day After Tomorrow, which is brought to us by Independence Day and Godzilla director Roland Emmerich, to be somewhat enjoyable, at least during the first hour, as giant hailstones strike Tokyo, tornadoes eviscerate L.A., and a tidal wave engulfs Lady Liberty and the entire island of Manhattan, which sends some of the characters ducking for cover into the New York Public Library. (When the thermometer dips, there are plenty of books to burn.) The second half, which depicts climatologist Dennis Quaid trekking through snow and minus-150-degree temperatures to rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is among the book burners, is comparatively tedious. The effects, supervised by Karen Goulekas and predominantly completed by Digital Domain, are convincing enough for the purposes of the dirty thrills the filmmakers want to impart, and DP Ueli Steiger keeps the images dark enough to hide the seams. Production designer Barry Chusid must have had an enjoyable time creating mockups of various landmarks to be wrecked. Though The Day After Tomorrow is unbelievably, even irresistibly, terrible, the most absurd thing about it is that it actually entered this election year’s political dialogue, however briefly. Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch must be gloating over how ridiculous his new blockbuster has made Bush-bashing environmentalists look.
The yurt-living Gobi Desert herders at the center of the Mongolian film The Story of the Weeping Camel would probably weather a new Ice Age in hardier fashion than even Dennis Quaid. This charming movie, co-directed by Munich Film School students Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, tells the simple story of a family whose camel rejects her newborn young, and who must find a musician to perform a ritual that will bring tears to the eyes of the indifferent mother and bring about a rapprochement with her adorable all-white calf. According to the filmmakers, none of this was staged—they got lucky by choosing a photogenic group of characters (including a scene-stealing five-year-old boy) and a camel that was recalcitrant enough to fit the purposes of their story. In any case, The Story of the Weeping Camel is fascinating in its ethnographic detail, and gorgeously photographed by Falorni.--John Calhoun
Seen in Milton Keynes, UK: As is often the case with touring productions, one often finds a "mixed bag" regarding talent as well as design elements. That was certainly the case with the recent UK tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman musical Whistle Down the Wind. Under the direction of producer Bill Kenwright, the show is somewhat a shell of its former self but by and large it still entertains.
The set design of Paul Farnsworth is a definite highlight of this simplified, folksy show that takes place in the rural American South circa 1958 or thereabouts. While his set pieces for the local bar, the small town, and a farmhouse are admirable, Farnsworth’s biggest accomplishment is in recreating a classic rundown barn. While built more as a representation, the rustic set does quite nicely in setting the scene where much of the action takes place when a group of children think they’ve discovered Jesus Christ preparing for a second coming when in actuality it is only an escaped convict. As the planks and boards fly in to assemble the barn set, one is reminded of the old Hee Haw set for the show’s guest singers, and that is definitely not meant in the pejorative. It harkens back to a different time and place, much more peaceful and simpler considering the townspeople’s biggest concerns were the advent of Elvis instead of dirty bombs. Obviously for such a scaled back tour the two level set that made the West End production so memorable is lacking, but what is on stage is certainly pleasing and appropriate.
The lighting design by Nick Richings was quite striking but it was nowhere near the complexity of Howell Binkley’s original design for the Hal Prince-directed version that debuted in Washington DC in 1996. The lighting rig is almost non-existent in the front of house. The warm colors give the impression that a lot of action takes place at dusk in small-town Louisiana and again, that is not a detraction at all and it presents some very lovely scenes. However, there was a major distraction in the use of followspots. In several scenes characters were blasted by white light from the spots that bled onto the scenery and even blanched out the more subdued lighting tempered on the set. Perhaps it is time for Richings to pay a visit to the show as it wends its way through the UK.
Ben Harrison’s sound design was top notch, however. This was a pleasant surprise seeing as how so many of the newer theatre venues (a lot of tiled floors, plastic, etc.) tend to leave a lot to be desired acoustically. Luckily, that was not the case at the Milton Keynes Theatre; the bombastic rock score (Steinman is, after all, one of Meatloaf’s frequent collaborators and Meatloaf even recorded three of Whistle’s tunes!) was right at home in a venue tailor made for such a show.
Unfortunately, an aesthetic low point occurred whenever one of the "special effects" was used. During a scene where two characters race along a country lane on a motorcycle at night, a fog machine is used to simulate, well I’m not quite sure what it was supposed to simulate. But the effect resulted in smoke being blown in the faces of the actors as if they were tailgating a truck burning a lot of oil. The effect was used again in the finale when the barn was set ablaze. Again aimed from the orchestra pit, the smoke simply hit the barn’s exterior wall and in no way looked like it was coming from a fire. Sometimes special effects are not so special after all.--Mark A. Newman