Seen at the Movies:

The Quiet American

, Phillip Noyce's film version of Graham Greene's novel, is one of the few films that really looks at the roots of America's involvement in Vietnam. It's set in 1952, when the volatile Southeast Asian country was still under French colonial rule, and the US was just beginning to get its hand in amongst the occupying forces, the Communists, and a rising "third option." Noyce and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Christopher Hampton have done an admirable, uncluttered job of bringing Greene's work to the screen, and Michael Caine gives a marvelous performance—sure to be a year-end awards contender—as Times of London correspondent Thomas Fowler, a wry, world-weary observer of the Saigon scene who finds himself drawn into taking a stand by an ambiguous combination of personal and political circumstances. Brendan Fraser costars as the title character, who masquerades as an aid worker but whose square jaw and black horn-rims give him away. Newcomer Hai Yen is the young Vietnamese woman both men love.

The film was shot on location in Ho Chi Minh City (today's Saigon), Hanoi, the historic towns of Hoi An and Da Nang, and the Vietnamese countryside. Production designer Roger Ford took on the formidable task of backdating the modern streets and building exteriors 50 years, conjuring not just an earlier period but a different world altogether. Interiors were shot at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia. The gifted cinematographer Chris Doyle, best known for his work with director Wong Kar-wai, displays his customary talent for capturing the texture and practically the smell of a setting. In the production notes, he says his approach was to "choose a film stock that responds best to the misty visual, the humid, watery kind of climatic conditions in which we shot most of the film. For me, it was like looking through a screen of mist, like looking through the screen of a tableau, the silk screen of a beautiful Vietnamese dress…" This is how the guy talks, which is one of the reasons we love him. There are indeed some beautiful Vietnamese dresses, designed by Norma Moriceau. The Quiet American's release was held up for a year due to post-9/11 sensitivities, but only the most narrow-eyed hawk could object to its reasoned examination of American foreign policy.

Die Another Day, the latest James Bond opus starring Pierce Brosnan, naturally exists in a completely different geopolitical universe. At one point, Dame Judi Dench's M offhandedly refers to the world having changed, and it brings one up short: have we suddenly crossed over into something approximating reality? Not to worry. This time, 007's adversaries include a North Korean terrorist who morphs into Maggie Smith…er, I mean Toby Stephens, Dame Maggie's son. (Really, though, the older he gets, the more you can discern Mom's pursed lips and haughty gaze in Stephens' visage.) And the chief Bond babe is Halle Berry, occupying a position a long way from the stage of the Kodak Theatre, where she collected her Best Actress Oscar a mere eight months ago. Directed with gusto by Lee Tamahori, Die Another Day is diverting for the first third or so, right up through a smashing fencing duel between Brosnan and Stephens.

After that, I completely lost track of the movie's plot, which goes beyond outlandish into some sort of incoherent hallucinogenic region. As usual, there are a number of locations: Spain, Maui, Iceland. But technically, the movie is highly variable. Lindy Hemming's costumes, especially for Berry, are very smart, but Bond veteran production designer Peter Lamont comes up with an "Ice Palace" set that is shockingly cheesy. So are some of the digital effects in the film's final stretch. The cinematography is by David Tattersall, and the requisite title song is a techno-stinker by Madonna.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: “I left my reticule on the étagère in the solarium.” Not a line that you’d associate with David Mamet, but you get it—and plenty more—in his newest effort, Boston Marriage, now at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. If Mamet and Oscar Wilde had collaborated on a rewrite of The Killing of Sister George, the result might be something like Boston Marriage: Kate Burton and Martha Plimpton play a pair of 19th-century lesbians who find out that breaking up is hard to do, especially when their extracurricular affairs drive them to the brink of scandal. Rest assured, the author sneaks in the F word, and other vulgarisms, from time to time. Boston Marriage is a baffler, though; I can only guess what the author is up to here. Burton and Plimpton, both skilled high-comedy technicians, attack the script with gusto, but they can’t save the second of the play’s two short acts from being hopelessly tedious. Anyway, director Karen Kohlhaas maintains a lively pace.

The production has a first-class design, including Walt Spangler’s pink Art Nouveau box set and Robert Perry’s lighting, which generates a hothouse atmosphere. Best of all are Paul Tazewell’s stunning costumes (each lady gets several outfits); Tazewell has emerged in the last two or three seasons as one the best costume designers now working in the New York theatre. Paul Huntley's wig and hair designs provide the delicious finishing touches on Tazewell's costumes.

In Far Away, at New York Theatre Workshop, Caryl Churchill imagines the entire world slipping away into a kind of Bosnia, in which all the creatures of the earth take up sides in unending warfare. Churchill is concerned here with the ways truth can be bent and viciousness imposed on the young, a point she makes strongly in the eerie first scene, in which Frances McDormand gives the best possible spin on some very horrible events to her inquisitive young niece. After that, the author tries to maintain a tone in which terror and absurdist humor co-exist, and she can’t really pull it off. In the second scene, the niece is grown up (nice work by Marin Ireland), making fashionable hats used in strange political executions, a sequence you’ll either find horrifying or too weird for words. The third scene, in which violence so permeates everyday life that even cats and dogs are taking part, earns nervous laughter from an uncertain audience.

My problem is this: in depicting the rise of fascism, Churchill depersonalizes it, which is a mistake. Evil is always highly specific: Hitler wasn’t the same as Stalin, and neither resembles Milesovic or Saddam Hussein. While Far Away provides occasional chills, that’s all it can do; at most, it comes off as a kind of chamber of horrors designed to scare the beejezus out of people who voted Democratic in the last election. Anyway, Ian MacNeil’s black box set opens up spectacularly for the second-act execution scene, and Catherine Zuber’s strange collection of hats certainly makes an impression. Rick Fisher’s low-level sidelight is effectively creepy. Most interesting is Paul Arditti’s sound design, in which a battery of effects, including rain, animal noises, buzzers, and martial music effectively rides the audience's nerves.

Temporary Help, at Theatre Four, is a throwback to the trashy Broadway thrillers of the 60s and 70s, plays with titles like Murder Among Friends or Don’t Call Back. In those days, they were usually set in a glitzy Manhattan apartment (two-level sets were de rigueur). In this case, David Wiltse’s script is set on a failing Midwestern farm. Chad Allen is a sexy drifter taken in by Robert Cuccioli and Margaret Colin, who have a very strange way of treating the help. Before a half-hour has elapsed, everyone is trying to murder—or sleep with—everyone else. The action never builds much suspense, and all three performers have to negotiate some pretty terrible dialogue. Don’t expect this to spark a revival of the thriller genre. Troy Hourie’s distressed farmhouse setting is atmospheric, with one glaring problem: The scenic drop, depicting fall foliage, is too close to the set, and flaps disconcertingly every time someone makes an entrance or an exit. David A. Arnold’s sound makes effective use of gunshots in the dark. The costumes by Mattie Ullrich and lighting by Chris Dallos are totally professional. This is the first production of Revelation Theatre, a new company devoted to sussing out new voices in the theatre—it probably wasn’t a good idea to kick off their season with a potboiler like this.

Since it has been a best-selling book and an award-winning TV film, it hardly seems necessary to adapt Tuesdays with Morrie to the stage. But Mitch Albom (who wrote the book) and Jeffrey Hatcher have done just that. It’s playing Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Jon Tenney plays Albom, who graduates from Brandeis, abandons the jazz piano, and becomes a yuppie-scum sports journalist. Two decades later, he is reunited with his aging sociology professor (Alvin Epstein) who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Both actors are highly skilled and there are a few effective moments here—Epstein’s attempt to eat a favorite dish, struggling to lift the spoon to his mouth, is heartbreaking. But most of the time, Tuesdays with Morrie moves along an easy, predictable path, offering little doses of uplift every few minutes. David Esbjornson’s direction keeps the kitsch to a minimum. Robert Brill’s black box setting features a rear panel that opens in different places to reveal a Japanese maple tree in various seasonal states. Brian MacDevitt’s light carefully carves the actors out of the dark space. The unremarkable costumes are by Valerie Marcus and the sound is by John Kilgore. Tuesdays with Morrie is the kind of show that brings you to tears or gives you the creeps; I unfortunately fall into the latter category.--David Barbour

Heard from the West Coast: The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood will be presenting a series titled "Dimensions in Sound: A Celebration of 4-Track Magnetic Stereo in Film" starting next weekend. The nine films in the series, all screened in original 4-track magnetic stereo, include a rare full-length print of Porgy and Bess, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sweet Charity, the 1983 Scarface, Paint Your Wagon, The Conqueror, and Pepe. Also include is the 1953 4-Track Magnetic Stereo and Cinemascope Demonstration Film, produced by 20th Century Fox to sell theatre owners on the brand-new technologies.

The series runs Nov. 29 through Dec. 8, 2002. For complete schedule and other information, go to www.americancinematheque.com, or call (323) 466-FILM.

The Quiet American photo: Phil Bray/Miramax Films

Die Another Day photo: Keith Hamshere/Danjac, LLC and United Artists Corporation