Seen at the Movies: The New Directors/New Films series, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, opened in New York Wednesday with Peter Sollett’s wonderful tale of youth on the Lower East Side, Raising Victor Vargas. Sollett developed the material from a short made with the same non-professional actors. It’s the tale of the teenage boy of the title, who fancies himself a smooth lothario until he falls in love with a neighborhood girl. Victor lives with his two siblings and grandmother, a tiny Dominican immigrant who is deeply shocked by the behavior of her incorrigible grandson. Raising Victor Vargas is like a sweet-spirited, humanistic, non-exploitative version of Larry Clark’s Kids, and it’s gorgeously shot in Super 16 by the gifted Tim Orr, DP of George Washington and All the Real Girls. The heat seems to radiate sensuously from the film’s summer streets, burnishing the characters’ skin with magic-hour light.


Raising Victor Vargas photo courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center

Other films in the New Directors series’ opening weekend include Mondays in the Sun, the film that beat Almodovar’s Talk to Her in Spain’s Goya Awards; the Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs; My Architect, a documentary about Louis Kahn, directed by his son; and Respiro, set on the forbiddingly rocky and arid island of Lampedusa, southwest of Sicily. This film, directed by Emanuele Crialese, is inspired by a local legend of a woman, shunned for her unconventional behavior, who disappeared into the sea, and was brought back by the chastised community’s prayers. Valeria Golino stars as the central character in Respiro, which is fairly intriguing and draws a lot of its interest from the sea-centric setting, photographed by Fabio Zamarion to emphasize its battered isolation over its scenic beauty.


Respiro photo courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center

The series also includes a powerful documentary, Bus 174, about a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. The incident started as a robbery gone awry, and the armed perpetrator took passengers hostage as poorly trained police officers, media, and onlookers surrounded the bus. Jose Padilha’s film makes chilling use of the extensive video footage that exists of the standoff; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is real, not staged for dramatic purposes. But the documentarian also explores the tragic background of the gunman, whose story is an all-too-common tale of early abandonment to the streets. Padilha uses this as a taking-off point for a examination of the breakdown of Brazilian society, looking at the roots of violence (Rio has about 6,000 murders a year) and the city’s institutional dysfunction and corruption. Archival and original footage is expertly interwoven, and the film opens with a stunning overhead shot (photography is credited to Cezar Moraes and Marcelo Guru) that follows the bus route through adjacent slums and affluent neighborhoods.

For more information about the New Directors/New Film Series, which is being held both at Lincoln Center and MOMA’s downtown Gramercy Theater, go to www.filmlinc.com.

Another fascinating and disturbing documentary, Steve James’ Stevie, opens today at New York’s Film Forum. James is the director of Hoop Dreams, which was a model of a documentarian’s self-effacement before his subject. In Stevie, however, James is very present, and very much a part of the story. The title character is a troubled young man for whom the director had acted as Advocate Big Brother in the 80s. He then lost touch with the boy, and looked him up again about 10 years later. Stevie was now a grown man with a history of alcoholism and arrest, and the story only gets worse as the film proceeds: Stevie is charged with abusing a little girl. All along, James puts his guilt about abandoning this sad character, and his mixed feelings about what he finds when he re-establishes contact, at the center of the film, and this can seem self-indulgent. But Stevie is utterly compelling, and it has a real feel for the rural southern Illinois setting. I saw an HD blowup of the Super 16 original, which looked fantastic; apparently, theatrical engagements will feature a 35mm blowup. The cinematography is credited to Dana Kupper, Gordon Quinn, and Peter Gilbert.


Stevie photo: Lions Gate Films

If you’re more in the mood for Hollywood escapism, you could do worse than The Core, a very silly yet entertaining science-fiction fantasy that recalls the disaster films of the 70s. It seems that Earth’s core has stopped spinning, which is causing all kinds of disturbances in the planet’s magnetic field. Pacemakers stop, catastrophic lightning storms level popular landmarks, and in a thrilling and hilarious sequence, London pigeons lose their bearings and go on a Hitchcockian rampage. Elected to save the world are the quirky likes of Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, and DJ Qualls, who bore through the Earth’s crust and mantle to jumpstart the core with nukes. Scientifically, all this may be just a one-notch advance on Journey to the Center of the Earth, but what do I know? There are some impressive effects supervised by Gregory L. McMurry, and DP John Lindley, production designer Philip Harrison, and costume designer Daniel Lester all do yeomanlike if uninspired work. --John Calhoun


The Core photo: Paramount Pictures

Seen Off Broadway: If Suzan-Lori Parks is the one of the freshest voices in theatre today (as many people claim), why has she is imitating Bertolt Brecht? You can ponder that question at F------- A, her latest work, now at the Public Theatre. In fact, the play is derivative twice over. Once again (as in her earlier work, In the Blood), Parks draws upon The Scarlet Letter; here Hester Prynne has been morphed into Hester Smith, abortionist, in an unnamed former colony now ruled by a dictator. Hester’s son, Boy, has been in prison for 15 years; she is consumed with freeing him and avenging his suffering. The style of the play is pure Brecht, the action consisting of brief, cartoonish scenes broken up by short, bitter songs about the inequality of things. There are even electric signs to announce the songs (and to provide translations when the characters speak, mostly about vaginas, in a language invented by the author). S. Epatha Merkerson is a tough, formidable Hester (what a Mother Courage she would make!), and there is also good work by Mos Def as Boy and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Canary Yellow, a canny prostitute. The design is admirable on all fronts: Mark Wendland’s skeletal setting, Kenneth Posner’s sinister lighting, Ilona Somogyi’s array of costumes, and Obadiah Eaves’ sound, a mixture of effects and amplification. Yet the play feels confused and second-hand. Parks makes some good points about Hester’s role in society (everyone hates her, but everyone patronizes her business), then forgoes this line of thought to concentrate on Boy, who seems to be every black man who was ever hunted down simply for being black. The author never fuses these two themes together in any coherent way; she drives the action to a grisly Act II climax, in which Hester’s revenge has stunning, unforeseen consequences, then drops it, substituting another, more gratuitously violent, ending. Michael Greif’s overwrought direction only adds to the confusion. Parks is often praised for her eclectic choices, but to me it looks like ventriloquism; each of her plays seems to borrow from another stylistic source. She’ll be a lot better off if and when she finds her own voice.


F------ A

None of the Above, produced by New Georges, at the Ohio Theatre, is derivative in another way. Take away the references to laptops, faxes, and cell phones and you have something very much like a Bernard Slade romantic comedy from the 1970s. How’s this for meeting cute: Jamie is a spoiled young thing in deep trouble. She’s broken her mother’s Ming vase, her allowance has been suspended until she’s 30, and her SAT scores are dismal. Clark is the starving grad student given the monumental task of tutoring her. (As Jamie points out, "Studying is not a good context for me to meet people in.") Things get really complicated when Jamie learns about the all-or-nothing bargain Clark has made with her father. Playwright Jamie Lyn Bader has a number of amusing things to say about the plight of expensively neglected Upper East Side waifs, but she never really makes us care bout the growing attraction between these two (director Julie Kramer probably could have helped more here). Furthermore, the last 20 minutes are overburdened with silly plot complications involving Clark’s gambling addiction, Jamie’s phenomenal ability to count cards, and Clark’s successful attempt to rappel up the side of Jamie’s Fifth Avenue building. Still, Alison Pill and Kel O’Neill are inventive young actors and the production is very easy to take. The design is the epitome of cleverness on a budget. Set designer Lauren Helpern creates the illusion of a luxurious bedroom by carefully choosing and color-coordinating a number of details, such as pillows, drapes, and bedding (I suspect props person Fay Armon was a big help here). Tyler Micoleau’s lighting adds a touch of glamour and also skillfully creates several times of day. Veronica Worts’ costumes tell you all you need to know about Jamie and Clark’s relative stations in life. Jill B. C. Duboff’s sound design is an MTV-ready hit list that provides a lively between-scenes soundtrack. None of the Above is both retro and up-to-the-minute; one of these days Bader is going to write a Broadway-ready comedy.


Golda's Balcony photo: Aaron Epstein

I’m no fan of the one-person bio-dramas that have infested the theatre like termites, but I was riveted by Golda’s Balcony, produced by Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. Two things make a difference here. First, William Gibson’s script, about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, is structured around a key incident in her life--the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when she had to face the option of using nuclear weapons against the Arabs. This creates a dramatic context for the play, saving it from being yet another rambling compendium of anecdotes. Secondly, Tovah Feldshuh is stunning as Meir, creating a complex, driven, guilt-ridden, power-hungry woman, torn by her idealistic vision of a Jewish state and the knowledge that she has destroyed her marriage, neglected her children, and sent thousands of young men to their deaths in wartime. Gibson clearly loves Meir, but he doesn’t flinch from asking troubling, essentially unanswerable, questions about her and her role in the seemingly endless cycle of Middle East violence. Golda’s Balcony is a compelling, disturbing 90 minutes, in which Feldshuh gives the performance of her life. Anna Louizos’ setting, a kind of Cubist wood construction has a strong Mediterranean quality and provides an effective screen surface for the projections by Batwin + Robin Productions. Jess Goldstein’s costume design (with wigs by Paul Huntley and makeup by John Caglione Jr) transforms the actress. Howell Binkley’s lighting provides a high theatrical gloss and Mark Bennett’s sound design is especially effective in the battle sequences. If I have a reservation, it’s that under Scott Schwartz’s direction, the design is a tad overwhelming; one can’t help noticing the many lighting cues and, in this tiny theatre, you can see the High End Systems Catalyst (which delivers the projections) repositioning itself, as it leaves a slight halo of light on the stage. I have to wonder if this production wasn’t conceived with a bigger theatre in mind; personally, I think it should move as quickly as possible.


Don Juan photo: Gerry Goodstein

You have to give credit to Theatre for a New Audience for producing a lesser-known Molière play such as Don Juan, now at the Lucille Lortel (One is deeply grateful not to be seeing Tartuffe again). All endorsements end there, however. Director Bartlett Sher’s production is a carnival of conceits, many of them unhelpful or baffling. Byron Jennings’s effete, desiccated Don Juan (he looks like an extra in the film Barry Lyndon) is so terminally bored, it’s hard to believe he can get it up for anyone. This is a play about the glamour of evil; if Don Juan isn’t attractive and full of vitality, there’s no point. Aside from John Christopher Jones, whose plain-spoken Sganarelle gets all the laughs, the rest of the cast is a stylistic jumble--some of them spoof their roles, while others play in deadly earnest. Christopher Akerlind’s set, a kind of gold-leaf box with a mirrored floor and a sumptuous black-and-gold curtain, is creepily effective, and he creates a number of stunning effects using sidelight through a stage left doorway. But what about the rows of old suits hanging over the stage that are occasionally lowered to the floor? Is the Don visiting the Salvation Army? Why is there a prompter sitting in a box downstage left? Is this some kind of make-work program for actors? The play’s big dramatic moment is the appearance of the Statue of the Commander to usher Don Juan into Hell; here, clad in white armor, breaking through a wall of golden foil, it’s like one of the cheesier effects in an Ed Wood film. The rest of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes are sumptuously decadent--I especially like the glittering beaded coat for Don Juan and a ghostly interloper clad in a spectral wrapping of tulle. Peter John Still has provided some appropriately doomy sound effects. But this is one of those concept productions in which everything is distorted in support of a director’s thesis.


Havana Under the Sea

I have almost nothing to say about Havana Under the Sea, now at INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center. It’s essentially a concert of vintage Cuban songs wrapped around a skimpy monologue, in which the ghost of a noted Havana courtesan recalls moments from her past. It must be said that Doreen Montalvo sings with authority, and Meme Solis provides solid support at the piano. It must also be said that the design is something special, including Van Santvoord’s setting, a crumbling fragment of a Cuban house, and Willa Kim’s costume, which resembles something out of Miss Havisham’s trousseau. Ed McCarthy’s super-saturated lighting adds dimension and visual interest to the setting and also creates a potent "underwater" look. Again, why is there sound design in a theatre that seats fewer than 150? Partly to blend in prerecorded music with the live piano and, if we must have it, David M. Lawson does a perfectly professional job. If the idea of hearing numbers such as "Bella Cubana," and "Las Frutas del Caney" sung in their original Spanish excites you, then you should definitely put this one on your calendar. I must admit it, however, that it is not my cup of cafe con leche. --David Barbour

Seen in Las Vegas: There was excitement in the air as massive crowds tried to catch a glimpse of the stars on the red carpet leading to the Colosseum, the new theatre at Caeaser’s Forum where pop star Celine Dion opened in A New Day.... on March 25. But the real star was the production, created by Franco Dragone, the Belgian director who came to fame through his association with Cirque du Soleil, where he created memorable productions from 1985 to 1999, including the spectacular "O" at Bellagio. The story goes that Celine Dion saw "O" and was blown away by it. She met with Franco and the rest is showbiz history; a story that culminated onstage at the Colosseum, a purpose-built theatre for this ground-breaking show. Ground-breaking? Yep, especially in terms of the unique blend of Celine Dion, the French-Canadian queen of song (who did not include any songs in French in this first version of the show, much to the disappointment of some of her fans, but the song list is a work in progress to keep the show fresh over its three-year run), with Dragone’s visionary staging. The backdrop for the show is a giant Mitsubishi LED screen provided by Diamond Vision Systems Division. The screen measures 33' high by 109' wide. The stunning images were created by scenic designer Michel Crête (who also designed the decor for "O" and numerous other Cirque du Soleil shows) and visual content designer Dirk Decloedt of Belgium. The images are all over the map, from a giant psychedelic kaleidoscope of color to dreamlike environments to a realistic piazza in Naples, creating a different "place" for each song.


photo: Tomasz Rossa

The lighting is by French-Canadian LD Yves Aucoin, who has been Celine’s LD since 1989, and will stay with this show, running his Compulite Sabre consoles for the entire three-year run. In working closely with Dragone, Aucoin augmented the look of the images, adding textures, patterns, and colors to the raked floor of the stage, with an automated rig including fixtures by Clay Paky, Vari-Lite, and Syncrolite. At times the patterns on the floor create worlds of their own, at others they blend right into the projected images. The stage has two permanent staircases, with the space under the stairs used for musicians. The sound is run by Denis Savage, Celine’s sound man since 1986, quite effectively using the surround sound system in the Colosseum to bring Celine’s songs to every seat in the house. The costumes are by Dominique Lemieux, also one of Dragone’s collaborators from Cirque du Soleil. Celine’s clothes vary from a fabulous red gown to black slacks and a white blouse, accentuating her tall, willowy silhouette and newly cropped blonde hair. The dancers often wear black and white as well, or all white, as well as arty costumes with feathers and headpieces. It all comes together, with some unforgettable visual images: from Celine flying (thanks to Foy) up past the proscenium to large picture frames floating silently across the stage on Crête's horizontal rigging system. There are no two ways about it: A new day has certainly dawned in Las Vegas! --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux