Saturday, March 26, 2005

Trailer: Episode III

Saturday. Having gotten out of bed at the usual time instead of sleeping in as I had planned, I thought I'd check up on You can watch the new trailer for Episode III right there from the home page. I'd forgotten to be on the lookout for it.

First a word about For a movie website there's a lot there--very elaborate. For a website in general, though... it's disappointing. Good ol' George wants your $40 before you can read what's sure to be the tiniest bits of information on production updates and such. If you're not wiling to shell out more and more money, GL isn't interested in you. Now I can't criticize too much. He has been very successful, and I'm all for capitalism; so if he wants to squeeze fans and kids as long as the market will bear it, that's his prerogative. There's no doubt I'll see Episode III at least three times on the UltraScreen. I'm happy to give George my money for the actual product, but for christ's sake...

OK, so back to the trailer. It's available in three sizes: Medium, Large, and $40. I did not choose the $40 option. The trailer runs two minutes and, as far as I can tell, this movie will kick ass... mostly. I keep a list of things that were disappointing about Episodes I and II with a well-reasoned argument for each in my back pocket. I can't say that I'm expecting perfection at this point, but I still have high hopes even if they are tempered by the knowledge that George Lucas is directing and has undoubtedly written a dopey scene or two or has let the computer-generated special effects upstage the story in parts. I won't describe the trailer, since you can see it for yourself, but I did go through it frame-by-frame a couple times, and didn't see anything to really worry me yet.

Ever since I first learned that Lucas was making the prequels I've had one major concern, and it'll either be mollifyingly wiped away or woefully jabbed as a thorn in the side of all the good I see in the Star Wars saga by Episode III. My chief concern... I could go on for hours about what I expect or would like to see in III and what could or should have been done better or at least differently in I and II, but I'm setting all that aside. My judgment of all three prequels rides on this.
My chief concern has two levels. One would be terrible, the other unforgivable.
If the audience is shown that Anakin is Darth Vader I will be very, very disappointed for reasons I don't feel I need to go into here (if you don't understand, I'd be happy to explain it to you over three pints of Harp Lager).
If Anakin knows he has twin children... Star Wars is dead to me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Underpants by Steve Martin

Tuesday, March 15th. Meg’s worked her magic and gotten us a pair of tickets to The Rep’s production of Steve Martin’s The Underpants. She picks me up at work and we head downtown. After circling a couple city blocks, we find a parking spot and walk over to the Milwaukee Center. I wish I’d thought to wear a heavier coat. The tickets are waiting at Will Call. As we make our way to the box office, I get my first glimpses of the style of the production. A TV monitor is playing a loop of short scenes from the play. There’s Deborah Staples entering a door, now reading a letter… she’s wearing a traditional German bodice and skirt. This takes me by surprise as I’m not yet familiar with the play and don’t realize that it’s set in 1910 Germany. Our short visit to the box office gives me a chance to look over the promotional posters for this season’s shows. I’m sorry to say I don’t know who designed/created them, but they deserve at least 83 hot fudge sundaes with extra hot fudge sundae. They look cool.

We’ve got 45 minutes before the curtain and we’re both hungry, so we run across the street to The Safe House for a quick bite. They were great—best speedy service I’ve seen at a restaurant. Imagine: you tell the hostess and server that you’re in a hurry and they actually respond by serving you quickly and getting your check as soon as possible. Kudos to the Safe House.

So 15 minutes before curtain, we’re crossing the street again and making our way into the Stiemke Theatre. It’s a smaller space than I expected, seating maybe—oh boy, I was never good at estimating quantities—300 people max? The first thing you notice is the whimsical set. The colors are vivid. Bright blues in the walls, reds and yellows in the table and chairs, greens reds and yellows in the sitting room. The walls arch out from the center (imagine a blooming flower) with the tops of the walls a good three feet wider than their feet. The whimsical set, combined with the pre-show polka music, reminded me of something King Ludwig II of Bavaria might have commissioned when he wasn’t prancing around with Wagner. Hanging downstage center is a sign announcing “Zimmer Frei”. OK. We’re in 1910 Germany, this small home has a room for rent, and reality is a bit warped. Bring it on.

Bring it on they did. By “they” I mean every one of the actors, director Risa Brainin, Steve Martin and Carl Sternheim. Who? Yes, German playwright Carl Sternheim. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this play is Martin’s adaptation of a Sternheim satirical comedy from around the time in which The Underpants is set.

Where do I begin? Let me first say that we especially came to see Ryan Schabach in the production. He played the King, who has only a couple lines at the end of the show. He was wonderful. Everyone was wonderful. I can’t remember when I’ve seen such a strong cast. So… where to begin? Physicality. This isn’t a very physical script, at least not on the surface, but Brainin and the cast brought quite a bit of physical action to the scenes. From melodramatic gesturing to climbing on tables and over chairs so nonchalantly that it gets a laugh from the audience—as much because of the absurdity as because they caught themselves going along with it. One of my favorite moments was a lustful exchange between Versati, played dashingly by Dougfred Miller, and Louise, played by Deborah Staples. Louise is carrying a large bowl of cream, and when Versati has backed her into the table, her hands go back to catch herself, leaving the bowl braced between their bodies. It was a nicely choreographed bit.

Steve Pickering plays Theo, Louise’s husband. He captures the fun in the male chauvinist stereotype as Steve Martin has written it. That’s something I’ve noticed Martin likes to do: take on social stereotypes and satirize them by letting them announce boldly and confidently those things that unmask their foibles to the audience. It’s not way over the top, but he’s able to build the scenes and the timing so that the straight-forward comments come across as absurd. Pickering played a loveable detestable husband in the Torvald Helmer vein. He kicks off our ride and lets us know everything’s going to be great.

Staples as Louise is the show’s lead character. Actually, it’s her underpants that have the title role. We learn that as she was watching the King pass in the parade, she stood on her tiptoes for a better view and her underpants slipped down, drawing the attention of at least three bystanders and becoming the talk of the town. Staples’ spirited performance was well balanced—at once innocent and a bit daring. She carries us through the whole story and we’re happy to come along.

Ross Lehman as Cohen and Dougfred Miller as Versati are… well, very nearly perfect. Versati is a handsome gentleman poet who has come to rent the room because he’s enamored of Louise after her display at the parade. Louise’s friend and upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, played by Carole Healey, encourages her to give Versati the room and pursue an affair with him. In the meantime, Cohen has been promised the room by Theo; but for no less lascivious reasons. Lehman plays the “what, me Jewish?” character to a T. Hilarity ensues. A third man, Klinglehoff, played to riotous laughter by Jim Baker, comes inquiring about the room in the second act. Again, hats off to Steve Martin’s timing. Klinglehoff is the ultimate straight man to all of the zaniness that’s primed to explode in the play’s rapid-fire laugh fest climax.

The Underpants is running through March 27th in its extended run. Congratulations to The Rep, the cast, crew, designers and director for a wonderfully entertaining and successful show!

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Ring Two is a sequel. That about sums it up.

What made the first film great was intrigue of the images on the videotape. The revelations as the puzzle pieces were woven together drove the story forward; and there was urgency in the belief that a mysterious power was waiting to take your life after seven days.

If you don’t want The Ring Two spoiled—and especially if you haven’t seen The Ring yet—don’t read this. I won’t give really important things away, but I’m not tiptoeing around either.

In the first movie, it wasn’t revealed until the end that the mysterious videotape was Samara’s communication from beyond the grave. Then—and I thought this was a brilliant—just as the story seems to be resolved, it’s kicked into high gear again by Aidan’s suggestion that rather than easing the spirit’s pain, it’s been invigorated and set loose to wreak even more havoc.

Before I begin on The Ring Two, let me say that I did enjoy it; but it’s just what you’d expect the sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster to be: a slapdash collection of scenes invoking the success of its predecessor. If horses can go nuts in the first one, why not mule deer in the second one? Never mind that the idea comes out of nowhere and is dropped as quickly as it was introduced. No, wait; there was an ever-so-subtle reference to it when 38 thousand antlers were hanging in the basement. Remember that intriguing imagery from the first one? Why not rehash some of that stuff?

The story is no longer about interpreting a message from beyond (although they do find a way to sneak in another short videotape-like collection of clues) but now it’s a possession story. Take the Exorcist, throw in a bit of Village of the Damned, sort of an inverted Friday the 13th idea, a dash of the Blair Witch, two or three contrived deus ex machina, mix it into The Ring and you’ve got your sequel. For good measure, better give Naomi Watts a snappy one-liner that’ll make the audience groan (or snicker) at the end. Oh, and see if we can get Sissy Spacek for a cameo.

The plot of this movie gets its legs from the original premise of Ringu—the Japanese film on which The Ring was based. Samara’s birth mother was magically impregnated by a sea demon. This point is sort of swept aside for American audiences, but it’s there. Americans must be idiots, because this movie beats you over the head with things they want you to notice. (His body temperature is low? I wouldn’t have guessed by the foot-tall temperature readout behind him.)

One sequel is enough, and plot-wise (as weak as it was), I think they wrapped it up. That being said, the option for The Ring Three does get its foot in the door just before the credits roll.

I’d give this movie three out of five antlers. No bad, but don’t expect a film as artfully crafted as the first one.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Joe-bilate Chorale

After spending the day with Joe, we went to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Brookfield to see the Jubilate Chorale with whom he sings tenor under the direction of Mark Aamot. The concert was absolutely beautiful. Being Lent, the pieces selected were (to the best of my knowledge) related to the passion of Jesus Christ. I admit I don’t know as much as I’d like about classical music, but when it’s performed I know what’s good—and this was very good. The music was so rich that I am humbled by the talent of the singers.

St. Johns is very much a Lutheran church: wood beams supporting the vaulted wood ceiling. The warmth of the space only served to enhance the choir’s voices. A violin and cello accompanied most of the songs. To my mind, the voice of a cello is as close to human as an instrument can be—yet another enhancement to the choir’s rich sound. The organ, however, only distracted me from the vocals when it was used. There are just some sounds organs use that have never seemed quite right to me.

The entire concert lasted about an hour (kudos to the choir for standing in one place and singing for an hour straight), and was supported by two screens on which were projected images of Christian art. Most of it was classical as well (Titian, for example), but a couple paintings were in that folk art style that makes it look like a colorblind four-year-old painted it with her feet. Those I did not care for. Through most of the concert, the images seemed to have been selected randomly, but a few songs had special presentations—translating the words being sung in one case, and focusing solely on Michelangelo’s Pieta in another. We joked afterwards that our half of the church was gypped because our screen would show lyrics while the other showed a painting, and it seemed only ours showed the folk art paintings.

I’m glad we were able to stay for the concert that evening. Sitting in the church letting the sound of the music and the voices wash over us… I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday evening in Lent.

Julius Caesar

It’s 6:00 pm on Friday, March 11th. We’re climbing into the Matrix after having some fast food pasta in West Bend. We’re about a 40-minute drive from downtown Milwaukee and the show starts at 7:30. We’ll be fine.

Snow. Snow like you wouldn’t believe. Without a doubt, among the most miserable driving conditions imaginable. We’re averaging 35 miles per hour on the highway, but the most important thing is we’re safe.

We walk through the doors of UWM’s Mainstage theatre at approximately 7:35. I can’t tell you much about the first scene of the performance. To me it looked a lot like a theatre lobby. There was a huge piece of art—twigs tied to metal scaffolding with plastic zip-ties in the shape of an urn—had to be 20 feet tall. It said “Rome”, fused with modern industrialism; but bound by the imperialistic ambition that’s no less evident today than it was in 44 BC. Well, it may have said that someone. I was mostly just impressed at the thought of the artist attaching all those sticks with the plastic zip-ties, making sure their tails stuck straight out making it look like a big, fuzzy, leaky urn. Or a theatre-goer’s eye poker. I liked it.

I have a fond memory of studying Julius Caesar as a sophomore in high school. We’re reading through the opening scene with the cobbler jokes and I’m chuckling to myself. Then I look around the room to see if anyone else is getting a kick out of it. Nothing. At the time it sort of made me feel good—like I was in on this esoteric joke, I was getting it as the language went right over the heads of the rest of the class. Looking back, I realize how nerdy that sounds… but who cares. I’m a nerd and I get a kick out of the cobbler scene. Sue me.

Yes, that pun was intended, and no, I did not see the cobbler scene. I did get to see the back of the Soothsayer as he entered through the house doors calling, “Caesar!” I came to regret missing that scene more than the cobbler after seeing Rick Pendzich’s performance in Act II scene 4. The clarity and focus he gave the Soothsayer was impressive.

It’s not long before the usher’s take the opportunity to seat us as Brutus and Cassius talk about mirrors. I have to admit, I was worried. Here on a bare thrust stage were the two actors in suits and scarves just standing around and talking. I’m sure this isn’t the first impression Director Eleanor Holdridge was looking to make, but there it was. I quickly warmed up to the staging, though, as I took in the set design and the costumes and settled in to enjoy the performance. The whole design of the show was superb. Costumes – like I said, suits and scarves mostly – appropriately aristocratic. Caesar’s grey wool coat was astounding – simple but powerful – almost Napoleonic on James Tasse. The battle scenes in the second half of the show saw the actors in desert fatigues and body armor carrying automatic rifles and suggesting trained modern military tactics. The set design was simple and versatile. Translucent flats framed the proscenium and formed an upstage wall the top of which was curved up at each end and in which, just left of center, was a three-paneled revolving door. The senate was indicated by two red banners with the silhouette of an eagle in black. The sound and lighting design worked hand-in-hand, nowhere more noticeably than in scene changes. In the dark, lines from the play flashed on the floor of the stage in projected light (I know he would not be a wolf/But that he sees the Romans are but sheep:/He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.) while a driving but unsettling score, composed by Joshua Horvath, filled the space with a raw “industrial” sound. During intermission, the sounds of distant automatic gunfire and explosions blended with what I thought to be Tom Waits or something very much like his raw style.

Performances that stood out were Joe Foust as Caska. His almost foppish portrayal of Caska as a cane-carrying dandy was original, intelligent and extremely entertaining. Aled Davies as Brutus was precise and well-measured. I could cite several great moments, but what I came away remembering most was Act II scene 1. I’ve never seen an actor read a letter so brilliantly. Michael Milligan as Antony was a master of rhetoric. I can’t imagine a more convincing “Lend me your ears” speech. This performance balanced the ambition of both sides well. Brutus convinced you he was doing what had to be done to preserve Rome, and you could see the scheming Antony under the surface. It’s all there in the script, of course, but all too often Antony is seen as heroically challenging Brutus the murderer. James Tasse as the ghost of Julius Caesar was gripping—stalking Brutus in his amazing wool coat, speaking in amplified whisper through his body mic and answering Brutus’ “Speak to me what thou art” with the piercing scream of an eagle.

All in all, it was an very entertaining and impressive production.