Seen at the Movies:
With little time to spare, Paramount Pictures' Vanilla Sky grabs the prize for most out-there major-studio release of 2001; next to it, Moulin Rouge and A.I. are eccentric also-rans. That's doesn't mean that Cameron Crowe's remake of Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes is a good movie—far from it. But it's not formulaic, it's not predictable, and it's not indistinguishable from a dozen other recent Hollywood products.
The story, which carries more than a whiff of star autobiography, is a bizarrely tangled affair about fabulously wealthy and studly David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, whose own wealth, if not studliness, is beyond question. Non-monogamous David finally finds the senorita of his dreams in the form of one Sofia, a role played here as in the Spanish version by Penelope Cruz. But sometime Aames playmate Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) puts a kibosh on the happily-ever-after by killing herself and disfiguring David's perfect visage in a car accident. Then things get really weird—David wakes up from a coma, wears a creepy mask to hide his rearranged features, tries and fails to rekindle his romance with Sofia, tries again and seems to succeed, and gets his face fixed. But Sofia has a disturbing tendency to morph into Julie, and there are troubling flash-forwards to a mysterious interrogation with a psychologist played by Kurt Russell. Finally, a science-fiction scenario involving cryogenics is used to sort of explain everything.
Vanilla Sky is all about the emptiness of Tom Cruise's charm and smile and spectacularly tousled head of hair, made with the full, rather perverse cooperation of the star. I doubt if the world will be too shaken up by the film's revelation that looks aren't everything, and that evolution is part of life. But its eventual success will depend on how many Tom Cruise fans are willing to sit still for an even stranger experience than Eyes Wide Shut. As for Crowe, if the writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous wanted to tackle something different, he has certainly fulfilled his goal. Vanilla Sky is sensational to look at—cinematographer John Toll gives the images an ethereal patina, and there are almost comically swank Manhattan interiors by production designer Catherine Hardwicke. The costumes are designed by Betsy Heimann, and Cruise's post-accident makeup is designed by Michele Burke.
Iris, a small-scale British film about late author Iris Murdoch, opens today in New York and Los Angeles for a one-week Academy Award qualifying run. Directed by stage veteran Richard Eyre, it's the kind of movie that exists to earn hard-working actors Oscar nominations. Judi Dench plays the elderly Murdoch, devastatingly losing her command of words to Alzheimer's disease, and Kate Winslet portrays the younger Iris in flashbacks; the actresses have matching bobs, but little else to connect them as one person. On the other hand, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville, cast as older and younger incarnations of Murdoch's shy, bumbling husband John Bayley, are eerily alike. The film is short—a series of vaguely touching vignettes, really—and negligible from the point of view of technique. DP Roger Pratt can't be blamed for the square framing, any more than production designer Gemma Jackson can be blamed for the fussiness of the detail in Murdoch's cluttered country home.
Technique is about all the Australian import Lantana has going for it, though my view may be a minority one—the film arrives here with strong critical credentials, including seven Australian Academy Awards. Cinematically reworked by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues, which is also currently playing in New York, Lantana follows the (mostly ill) fortunes of several Sydney characters as they listlessly lead their lives, seeking solace in bouts of therapy and extramarital sex. The characters' paths cross in more complex fashion after one of them is killed, but connections are usually fleeting. Director Ray Lawrence, working on a rich, broad visual canvas with cinematographer Mandy Walker and production designer Kim Buddee, gives the film both a specificity of place and a haunting mood of discontent. But the ideas behind the movie—i.e., relationships are impossible without communication and trust; sex without intimacy is just an emotional anesthetic—seem hackneyed.
Seen at the Public: Othello is the latest in a series of New York Shakespeare Festival productions featuring Liev Schreiber; it’s also one of the best. Schreiber seizes on the role of Iago and turns him into a compelling psychopath with a commanding sense of authority. Doug Hughes’ production starts slowly and, for the first half, seems over-deliberate in its staging. In fact, you are being set up for a harrowing second act sparked by Keith David’s terrifying depiction of Othello’s psychological disintegration (David’s depiction of an epileptic fit is almost too realistic; the murder of Desdemona is the most shockingly violent I have seen). There are also strong contributions from Kate Forbes (Desdemona), Christopher Evan Welch (Roderigo), and Becky Ann Baker (Emilia).
As with most NYSF productions in the oddly shaped Anspacher Theatre, the design is restrained. Neil Patel’s scenery provides a playing space where the action can flow freely. Catherine Zuber’s costumes recall the late-18th to early-early-19th- century and rely on a white-beige-light green color palette. Robert Wierzel’s lighting charts the play’s dark transitions, taking us in and out of Iago’s head at a moment’s notice. Most notable is David Van Tieghem’s sound design, which gives the production an unsettlingly sinister undertone. This Othello is a thoroughly professional and effective piece of work.
Seen at the Met: Die Frau Ohne Schatten is one of those musical mountains that non-opera lovers generally prefer not to climb. Nearly four-and-a-half hours in length, it features a libretto, by Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, about gods, mortals, singing falcons, living statuary, stray souls, absent gods, and other non-gripping matters. But Richard Strauss’ music is superb and the current production at the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most extraordinary in that company’s current repertory. Amazingly it has been directed and designed—scenery, costumes, and lighting—by one man, Herbert Wernicke (who has performed similar chores on a number of European opera stagings). Scenes set in the home of Hoffmanstahl’s supernatural characters take place inside a mirrored box that, with the introduction of backdrops and careful lighting, takes on the feel of a kaleidoscope. The scenes on earth are staged in a hellish dye factory that rises up from the bowels of the Met (often with singers prowling on the ceiling). The play’s climactic scenes are staged in front of the house electrics, which are brought in low to create a stunning theatrical backdrop. What does it all mean? Who knows? Who cares? It’s gorgeously theatrical and I don’t regret a second of it. Wernicke’s costumes do get pretty silly at times (okay, you design for these characters), but this is a singular event that should be seen.
Heard on the Street: The new Broadway revival of Into the Woods will feature scenery by Doug Schmidt, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, and sound by Dan Moses Schreier. It opens in April…Kevin Bacon returns to the stage in An Almost Holy Picture, at Roundabout’s Broadway venue, in February. Designers include Mark Wendland (scenery), Michael Krass (costumes), and Kevin Adams (lighting)…The Dazzle, by Richard Greenberg, opens at Roundabout Off Broadway venue in March. Designers: Allen Moyer (scenery), Gregory Gale (costumes), Jeff Croiter (lighting) and Robert Murphy (sound).