Spiderman: Turn off the Dark is spectacular. Spectacularly good at times, spectacularly bad at others, but it's never less than a spectacle.
But has there ever been a more cursed production? Let's count down the fiascoes. Five castmembers have been injured so far, including a Spiderman fall 30 feet into the orchestra pit that required hospitalization, 12 thousand dollars worth of safety violation fines, six months of Opening Night delays, blistering negative reviews that lead to the recent firing of the show's visionary creator, and now an upcoming three week shutdown to entirely rework the show. And on top of all the bad luck, it's also the most expensive show Broadway has ever seen - at 70 million dollars and counting. And it hasn't even opened yet!
So what's it like to actually sit in the theatre and watch it all unfold? Pretty amazing ... at times. The high-flying aerial stunts are exciting the same way trapeze artists working without a net are exciting. It may feel more like a circus than a Broadway musical but hey, if you're going to make a Spiderman musical, you gotta expect a little circus and this musical delivers. Seeing Spiderman swoop from the stage up to the second balcony and then fly around the theatre, not to mention having him battle the Green Goblin directly above your head, makes for a great theatrical few minutes.
The problem is that all these aerial thrills come into play a full hour into the show and that's far too long to have to wait, especially since we've had to wade through a lot of unnecessary background stories about Peter Parker, pre-Spiderman. And then, there just isn't enough of the aerial work in the rest of the show either.
When we do get to the climactic aerial battle, the final showdown between Spiderman and the spider queen Arachne, it doesn't work as well as it should because Arachne's 8 legs make her just too unwieldy a villain to get too excited about.
This wouldn't matter so much if the story or music were stronger but since neither are, it's the stunts that make or break the show.
And so far, there have been a lot of breaks, as in ribs. wrists ...
Source Code is a slick new thriller that's part science-fiction and part Groundhog Day. And that's a good thing.
Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up with a start ... on a commuter train ... with no idea where he is, how he got there, and who this young woman is who's talking to him. And when he looks in the mirror, it's somebody else's reflection. This is how Source Code opens and the audience shares in Gyllenhaal's disorientation. What's going on here, we're all asking, when BOOM, there's an explosion and everything is obliterated in a fireball.
Here's the sci-fi premise. Through some quantum physics mumbo jumbo, it turns out scientists have figured out how to allow someone to relive the last 8 minutes of someone ELSE'S life to help figure out what happened and why. In this case, who blew up the train and why? It's a great new crimefighting tool, a new tool in the fight against terrorists.
But there are also human costs and that's where the film gets really intriguing - what happens when the avatar develops human connections with the people inside what's called the source code, the non-reality
the subject is reliving? Like THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU a few weeks ago, Source Code starts out as science fiction and ends up being about what it means to be human.
And this is where the Groundhog Day theme also kicks in. Gyllenhaal has to, or gets to, relive the same 8 minutes over and over until he gets it right - until he figures out where the bomb is that blew up the train and who on the train was the bomber. (This occasionally has humorous overtones, because he has to die again and again before he figures stuff. A regular Wily Coyote at times.) And like Bill Murray, as he gets better at his mission, he's also getting better at life.
Source Code's young director Duncan Jones has one other film to his credit - an equally provocative sci-fi film called MOON. With these two films, Jones is making it clear he's a talent to watch. Never mind that he's also the son of David Bowie.
The AMC cable network continues to haggle with the producer of its extremely successful series MAD MEN, haggling that has delayed the start of its fifth season until 2012. But jumping into the breach is a brand new AMC series called THE KILLING, a crime series set in Seattle.
Despite its current contract squabbles, AMC has had remarkable success with most of its high-profile series. They don't make a lot of them, but when they do, they make a splash. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead have all made their mark. So hopes are running high for the 13-part murder mystery The Killing that kicks off Sunday night.
So why set a hit Danish TV show (Forbrydelsen) in Seattle? Veena Sud, the show's creator, tells me the Emerald City has just the right "Nordic Noir" mood and tone. "The story is set in Copenhagen and I was looking for a city that had the same beautiful, dark, brooding skies; I was looking for rain; I was looking for this incredible sense of beauty and sadness all wrapped together."
Sud says she fell in love with the contrasts Seattle offers. She found it fascinaitng that one of the most literate and liberal cities in the country, an area known for Starbucks and Bill Gates and Birkenstocks, can also be rife with runaways and high-profile serial killers like Gary Ridgeway and Ted Bundy.
Sud attributes the recent popularity of Sandinavian pop culture (Exhibit A: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo phenomenon) to the startling clash between the clean, liberal image of Scandinavia and the dark underbelly most people never see.
Sud hopes to be able to mine that same contrast in Seattle. Beautiful and sad indeed.
(Of course, like so many set-in-Seattle TV shows, most of THE KILLING is actually filmed in Vancouver, for financial reasons. But Sud insists she's capturing the essence of Seattle, even if not its geography.)
It's not that Spring is a down time of year for movies. A lot of good, smaller movies are getting released these days. It's just that those movies don't get people salivating months in advance. That's why now is the perfect time to look ahead to those lazy, hazy days of summer - to those movies that need three months (or more) lead time to get our juices flowing. Let the salivating begin.
The Summer 2011 line-up includes everything from Captain America to Captain Jack Sparrow.
Let's start with Captain America. No, this isn't another South Park knock-off like their Team America:World Police goof. This is the real McCoy, the Marvel Comic book superhero, all decked out in red white and blue. Thanks to a military experiment gone right, a wimpy guy is transformed into a Nazi-fighting supersoldier. Chris Evans, the human torch in those two not-so fantastic Fantastic Four films, stars as America's Captain. And with the World War Two setting, this superhero movie can double as a period piece.
Captain America's polar opposite just might be summer's other Captain, the charming ne'er-do-well Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. After the last lousy Pirates movie, you might think three films was enough but a 300 million dollar gross at the box office appraently convinced Johnny Depp to give it one more go-round in Pirates of the Caribbean:On Stranger Tides.
The fourth try is what we'll also be getting from the X-Men franchise as well, with X-Men:First Class, a prequel to the other three. The most interesting aspect here is that it reportedly underwent a massive rewrite after the filmmakers saw INCEPTION. I can't tell if that's a good or bad sign.
Yet another Marvel comic book hits the big screen this summer - THOR. In fact it practically kicks off the summer season with a May 6th opening. Thor is the god of thunder who goes to war with the other gods in defense of man. The most hopeful sign this might be good? It's directed by that Shakespearian Brit Kenneth Branaugh.
Okay if we can get off the superheroes bandwagon for a sec, oh wait, he is a superhero of sorts, Harry Potter. Everybody's favorite wizard is back in the final, final Potter film, poetically named Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two. Millions of Potter fans can't wait for this grand finale, the 8th film in the series. Me personally, not so much.
In this summer of sequels - and when hasn't it been a summer of sequels? - the oddest for me is CARS 2. The Pixar empire has made lots of great movies but why go the sequel route with what many consider their weakest film ever? Maybe they've designed a new and improved model.
Another sequel that also has me a little worried is HANGOVER 2. It was a huge hit (biggest rated R film ever) but it ran out of steam about 2/3 the way through the first film, so a sequel could be trouble. Reportedly, the guys head to Bangkok for this one. Let your imagination run wild with the possible hijinks the guys can get up to in the sex capitol of the world.
And finally, the blockbuster I'm most looking forward to - Cowboys and Aliens. It's a kind of sci-fi western based on a graphic novel that stars, of all people, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford. (They're the cowboys.) Sounds just crazy enough to work, with Iron Man's Jon Favreau directing.
I also have high hopes for Super 8, the J. J. Abrams movie about a bunch of kids making a Super 8 movie. When they inadvertently film a train crash involving a mysterious cargo, they find themselves at the center of an AREA 51 investigation.
Kids and aliens, cowboys and aliens. If that's not summer, I don't know what is.
Win Win's Tom McCarthy is a triple threat - as an actor (he's Doctor Bob in the Focker movies), a screenwriter (he wrote the Pixar smash Up), and as a director (The Station Agent, The Visitor, and now Win Win.)
Like Up, Win Win deals with ordinary people who do extra-ordinary things, despite or maybe because of their ordinariness.
WIN WIN is about a middle-class family scraping by as best it can, who nonetheless temporarily take in a sullen teenager. When this teenager joins the dad's lousy high school wrestling team, things change for everyone involved - in good and bad ways.
Although not the ultimate focus of the movie, the wrestling scenes are fraught with both tension and hilarity.
McCarthy says it was important to him the film NOT sensationalize the sport. Wrestling, he admits, can be very boring. "There are those moments that are really special, you get sucked in. And then there are those moments when you're, like, these are just some kids rolling around on a mat. Why are we standing here?"
McCarthy, a former bad high school wrestler, knew he'd need to cast a kid who really knew how to wrestle and so he plucked 17-year-old Alex Shaffer out of obscurity to star in his movie, opposite such veterans as Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Burt Young (Paulie of Rocky fame).
Shaffer may have never acted before but he is a reigning New Jersey state champion wrestler, so he knew his way around a mat. His biggest concern - to make sure the wrestling scenes weren't as fake as they were in the movie VISIONQUEST.
"First of all, all their facial expressions are a bit ridiculous. And the sound effects! Like the 'urrrr" and the 'arrgh.' Wrestlers don't make sounds like that. That's not what happens when people wrestle. And the faces are all, like, struggling. They're like 'This is so hard!'"
Since some of the wrestling scenes in Win Win are heartbreakingly funny, I asked Shaffer if that rang true too. He told me about a really bad player on his team named Stiffler. He was so bad that all it took for him to feel good about himself was that he avoid getting pinned, never mind by how much he lost. A very similar scene occurs in WIN WIN. And it's a very winning and human moment.
In fact, this entire movie is full of very small but very human moments, small enough to warrant a second viewing, perhaps?
McCarthy says he knows a lot of people who've seen Win Win twice now, and they've told him they enjoyed it more the second time around, since they were able to notice so many more of those "small" moments.
"So the moral is," he says, "see it twice."
Maybe that's why he called it WIN WIN.
It's my first favorite film of the year.
HBO is famous for taking great pride in its groundbreaking series - The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire. As the cable network puts it - it's not television, it's HBO. So it should come as no surprise that it's taking on a storied piece of movie history and re-doing it with all the bells and whistles it can throw at it. It's called Mildred Pierce.
Mildred Pierce is a classic film noir story about a woman who has to claw her way to the top in the midst of the Depression. It's also a tale of what a mother can and can't do for her children. Throw in a murder mystery involving the death of one of her husbands and you've got an unbeatable melodrama. Joan Crawford won the Oscar for playing Mildred Pierce in 1945.
And now along comes HBO with a new 5 and a half hour hour miniseries of Mildred Pierce that kicked off last night.
It stars Oscar winner Kate Winslett as Mildred, Oscar winner Melissa Leo as her best friend, and Evan Rachel Wood as her hard to please daughter. Oscar nominee Todd Haynes directs this HBO Event with production values that are as impeccable as the acting.
For fans of the movie, the biggest shock with the miniseries is there is no murder! The very framework that gives the movie its narrative drive is nowhere in the original book and consequently nowhere in the miniseries.
Getting rid of the murder mystery allows the miniseries to concentrate more on Mildred's efforts at raising her two kids and making it in the world alone... and during the Depression, no less.
She eventually has to swallow her pride and work as a waitress just to keep food on her table, much to the dismay of her kids. Eventually she starts making her way in the business world, but as her professional prospects improve, her personal and family life begin to crumble.
As brilliant as Winslet is, and as believable as her struggle is to make it in the world, her personal relationships. with the men in her life and most especially with her oldest daughter, don't ring quite true. And for a miniseries that has 330 minutes to make its point and establish its characters, it seems odd that it's the personal relationships, 2 hours in, that seem so underdeveloped or undernourished.
What HBO's Mildred Pierce does succeed at, however, is in giving us a clear-eyed look at a woman's plight - the dual and often conflicting demands of work and family. Some things never change.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series really is something of a literary phenomenon. The cartoon novels, told from the point of view of a put-upon middle-school boy, have sold an astonishing 47 million copies and now there's a burgeoning movie franchise too.
The first Wimpy Kid movie was a surprise hit, and deservedly so. Staying more or less true to the books' roots, it did a nice job of weaving the crudely drawn cartoons into the live action setting. More importantly, its recreation of the humiliations of middle-school rang very true. The social embarrassment of having "uncool" friends when you yourself are trying so hard to be seen as "cool" was central to the movie and served up lots and lots of laughs. So too did the P.E. scenes when our wimpy kid has the unfortunate task of wrestling a girl. It was a loose collection of pretty obvious gags but the gags sprang from something we could all recognize and maybe even identify with.
And now comes DIARY OF A WIMPY KID 2: Rodrick Rules. As with many sequels, it doesn't live up to the original's standards. Where the jokes seemed to grow organically from the experiences of your typical 6th grader in the first movie, this second go-round seems to try too hard to find humor in elaborate and rather arbitrary set pieces.
When our hero Greg Hefley goes to church with his family, for instance, he accidentally sits on a chocolate bar that melts all over the seat of his white pants. His parents make him walk down the aisle anyway. And when a little girl screams out 'Poop! He's got poop on his pants," the pews empty and the church becomes a riot scene. Being twelve is humiliating enough without having to invent even more strained humiliations.
Another example of the movie being too slick for its own good is the scene where Greg decides to turn his naive best friend into an Internet darling by having him lip-synch a Ke$ha song. The problem is that the friend is too good - he's lip-synching perfectly. The truth about this kid is that, if he was "in character," there's no way he'd be that smooth and practiced. Remember, he's the clueless fat kid Rowley. But the movie is willing to sacrifice authenticity or believabilty for a quick cheap laugh.
Now the film is clearly made with 12-year-old boys in mind, and as we all know, they're not the most discriminating bunch. Will they enjoy it? Oh, probably. There are enough broad and obvious gags to keep most middle-schoolers happy. But unlike the first film, parents may not feel as kindly disposed.
A winner of an impressive ten Tony Awards and christened as the best musical of the decade by Time Magazine, BILLY ELLIOT looked to have it all. And what pedigree!
The director and the screenwriter of the hit movie (that) it's based on ALSO did this musical version and they added no less a musical preeminence than Sir Elton John to write the songs.
But now that its national touring company has danced its way on to a Seattle stage, I can say, with some surprise, it's only so-so!
I may be in a minority of one on this but despite its near universal accolades, I found only a couple of compelling scenes - and that's not nearly enough to justify the three hour slog on stage.
BILLY ELLIOT tells the crowd-pleasing story of an 11 year old boy from a tough mining community in England who discovers he has a talent for dancing, and not just dancing, but ballet. You can imagine how that goes over both at home and in the neighborhood.
This personal crisis for Billy is set against the backdrop of the disastrous 1984 miners' strike.
So why doesn't it work? Let me count the ways.
First off, Elton John's score is surprisingly pedestrian. His miners' Solidarity song, for instance, is like a pale imitation of the rousing call to arms from Les Miz. And even the showstopping number ELECTRICITY, in which Billy pours out his heart about what it feels like to really dance, even that song has a rather ho-hum melody.
And for a musical about a dancer, there's a surprising lack of dance scenes. The few there are are clearly the highlights of the show, and the show could have used a few more of them since what we are left with is not that strong dramatically.
And the show's overall tone is discouragingly broad. Some of the biggest laughs in the show occur when a couple of boys prance around in girls' clothes and when the big burly miners show up in tutus and dance around. The audience seemed to lap it up but I just rolled my eyes.
By my count there are three great scenes in Billy Elliot, with the first not arriving until right before intermission - when Billy finally dances out his frustration with his family and his life. But coming in at the 90 minute mark, it's a little late.
As talented as the performers are, especially the kid who plays Billy Elliot. the musical never really hits its stride.
In addition to her stunning looks, the key to her super-celebrity was that she was a bigger-than-life presence both on-screen and off.
And that should come as no surprise considering she grew up on screen. She was a star at the age of 12, thanks to National Velvet. And for the rest of her life, she was never out of the spotlight
As an adult, she won two Academy Awards.
In one of my favorite roles of hers, she plays the bickering wife of a beleaguered Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and exclaims that she's 'wears the pants in the house because somebody's got to.'
Of course, much of the fascination the public had with that movie was whether it provided a glimpse into the scandalous private life of Taylor and Burton - Hollywood's most famous and glamorous couple. If Virginia Woolf was the best of their many films together and The Taming of the Shrew their most fun, they also made the biggest flop of the time, Cleopatra.
Her private life often overwhelmed her work as an actress. Her eight marriages scandalized the public, especially when she appeared to "steal" Eddie Fischer from America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds.
With Taylor's passing, I hope her off-screen life will now take a back seat to what she did on-screen.
One of the hits at this year's Seattle Jewish Film Festival, The Round Up, is getting a regular run in theatres this Friday; and this film seems like it wants to be a French Schindler's List.
France has had a particularly tough time coming to grips with its conduct during World War II. Being overrun by Germany's militarily was one thing, but France's collaboration with the Nazis during the Occupation is even tougher for the French to acknowledge.
French movies are finally coming to grips with perhaps the most shameful episode during this time, the roundup of Jews in France by the French themselves. Two new films, Sarah's Key and The Round Up deal directly with this topic. (Sarah's Key opens this summer, The Round Up opens this week.)
Here are the awful details: In a single swoop, French collaborators swept up 13,000 of their own Jewish people in and around Paris, corralling most of them for days, inside Paris' Velodrome, a bicycle- racing stadium. Without sanitation, running water, and very little food and medical attention, the scenes there are reminiscent of the Superdome in New Orleans during Katrina, only ten times worse.
And that was only the beginning of the nightmare for these men, women and children. They're eventually transported to internment camps, and ultimately to the death camps in Eastern Europe.
The director says she wants it to be a French Schindler's List and it's in no way that good. But it's a solid movie based on historical research (the characters profiled are all based on real people) and the facts are staggering.
Of the 13,000 deported from the Velodrome, only 25 survived. And of the 4,051 children who were separated from their parents and then shipped alone to death camps, every single one of them died. The movie does allow for a few triumphs, some of the characters do make it through the war. But it remains pretty grim.
But as yet another reminder of how bad things were, it's probably worth doing. To put it in a little contemporary perspective, we're presently looking at about 10,000 dead in Japan's tsunami disaster, and The Round Up is about 13,000 killed, and all French Jews! And unlike in Japan, this was a manmade disaster through and through.