Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland is Pure and Preachy Disney

The basic premise of Tomorrowland, the new Disney film from director Brad Bird, is that half the world tries to build up Mother Earth in the morning, while the other half tears it down overnight.  Mankind has an incredible inventive gift that has led humanity to wonderful achievements, however we are a race that is also inherently bent on destruction, and this dark aspect seems to be taking over our current civilization.

The story begins in 1965 with the young Frank Walker (who will grow up to be George Clooney) who attends the New York World's Fair and brings with him a half-baked jetpack gizmo that he has invented. While being rejected by Hugh Laurie (who turns out to be the villain in the piece, a fact that you know right from his first appearance) he meets the mysterious child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who introduces him, via a magical pin, to the world of tomorrow: a remarkable skyscraper city, half Fritz Lang's Metropolis, half modern-day Dubai, which ultimately is reminiscent of a 1950's conception of the future.  In other words, it reminds one of the sleek "Tomorrowland," one of the theme lands of Disneyland/Disney World.

The future, according to the gospel of Disney, is a clean-cut place with the kind of architecture that brings to mind the futuristic designs of the theme parks as well as the memorable structures of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. His amazing City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, for instance, seems to be the blueprint for Scott Chambliss's production designs.

But the land of tomorrow is rotten from within: it is crumbling and heading into dystopic destruction. To set things right, Athena summons Casey Newton (Britt Robinson), a teenager who has been sabotaging the dismantling of a NASA launch pad near Cape Canaveral where she lives. Obviously this is a teen who cares about space travel, and in the logic of this film one of the good guys. Her meeting with Athena, who gives her one of the magical pins, is the call to adventure that sets her on a journey where she meets the older Frank Walker, now a grizzled, discontented George Clooney living in the sticks, in a run-down house filled with interesting futuristic gadgets. The meeting of Casey and Frank, the catalyst that will bring the narrative to a climax, unfortunately takes way too long to happen. At 130 minutes the entire movie feels too overproduced and definitely too long.

Watching Tomorrowland is very much like attending the future section of EPCOT.  The sense of optimism overwhelms you. Nothing wrong with that. Frank Capra built a career based on it, and so did Walt Disney! What I find a bit troubling are the constant self-references. The entire film is a Disney infomercial. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was based on a park ride, but the films, especially the first of the series, was so successful artistically that you forgot the shameless plug and you concentrated on the new myth the film was developing. No such luck with Tomorrowland, which looks to the future, but deep down is just interested in first week earnings.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Men ends by Big Sur

In his own words, Mad Men creator Matt Wiener could not believe that 150 people kept the ending to the show a secret. Well, make that 151. It was hard, but somehow I did it. It amazes me that this ending was in place in Matt's head right from the start of the series, and it managed to remain intact all the way to the end. It shows total knowledge of the character and the situations surrounding him in the drama. And by the way, keeping such a big secret, knowing me, takes amazing determination and will power! Never mind that I had to keep it for about five years.

But seriously, it was the best ending, the only ending possible to the series. It dashed away any gory hopes that Don Draper would end up a suicide, falling out of a building, his body descending in slow-motion, like the Vertigo inspired logo to the show.  Don has been falling now for many seasons, there was no need to belabor the point. The series ended with us inside Don's mind, as he dreams up what is arguably the greatest ad campaign for a product ever to come out of Madison Avenue. Bravo!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Interview

All Hail Helen Mirren!  She is not only the Toast of Broadway, she is its reigning current queen as long as she plays Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan's fantasy play The Interview.

The author (who also wrote Frost/Nixon and the screenplay for The Queen, an Oscar winning performance for Dame Helen) imagines what occurs during the weekly private meetings that the monarch has had with a queue of Prime Ministers, starting with a crotchety, self-serving Sir Winston Churchill, through the controversial Sir Anthony Eden, the down-to-earth Labour PM Harold Wilson, with whom Queen Elizabeth had a very close rapport, and the mighty Margaret Thatcher, whom the Queen saw as a fellow traveler as well as a very real rival for power. The play also includes a couple of scenes with John Major, whom we learn was not wholly prepared to lead a nation when it was his turn at the dispatch box, the very angry, and very Scottish Gordon Brown, and David Cameron, the UK's current Prime Minister. There is also a very small cameo by Tony Blair, but surprisingly the author does not imagine a one-to-one interview with the well-known leader of "New Labour."

When Dame Helen is on stage she rules. Our eyes are glued to her. This is part stagecraft, part stage presence. When Churchill appears center stage for his interview, puffing on a cigar, as portrayed by the physically imposing Dakin Matthews, he is a great dinosaur of a politician. The scene has been staged by director Stephen Daldry so perfectly that our eyes cannot help but shift momentarily to him. This gives Dame Helen (and her dressers) enough time to perform one of her many lightning fast costume changes right on stage. Suddenly she is transformed into the young, uncrowned queen welcoming her first Prime Minister who carries an agenda as big as his girth. It is early magic in a production that is filled with such delightful moments.

Among the visitors to Buckingham Palace two Prime Ministers stand out: John Major (Dylan Baker), and Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe). Each of these scenes plays beautifully in contrast to the other. Mr. Baker portrays a weak, but very human John Major, a politician unable to escape from the shadow of his "Iron Lady" predecessor. Likewise, Mr. McCabe plays the droll Mr. Wilson who knows that politically he has to push his socialist agenda to a woman who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Despite their social class differences, the play portrays their relationship in the warmest of ways. It is the most satisfying interview of the evening, and Mr. Morgan even dramatizes a trip by Mr. Wilson to Balmoral Castle for a rainy weekend in Scotland with the Royal Family.

This is an evening of sheer artistry on Broadway.  A unique play where even the interval (or intermission, as we say in the States) has a very British atmosphere.  It is a not to be missed production, and  one of the big contenders for this year's Tony Awards.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Balanchine and Stravinsky at the NYC Ballet

 Last Saturday afternoon I attended the New York City Ballet. They performed four of the great Igor Stravinsky, George Balanchine collaborations: Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements. These classic works, that collectively have come to be known as the "black and white" ballets, due to the fact that the dancers are costumed in primarily these two colors, are staples of this company, and are brought back year after year to the delight of seasoned ballet aficionados and young audiences coming to these works for the first time.

Apollo is the oldest of these ballets.  Stravinsky composed the music in 1927, and the twenty-four-year-old Balanchine choreographed it a year later.  A host of great dancers have passed through this iconic role throughout the decades. It is the only Balanchine creation that puts the male dancer on the forefront. The short video below features Chase Finlay, a NYC Ballet principal dancer, explaining his approach to dancing this role.

Duo Concertant is a unique creation that features two dancers as well as a pianist and a violinist, all on stage. The short work examines the equal relationship that exist (or ought to exist) between music and dance. The piece takes the musicians out of the pit and places them side by side with the dancers. Saturday's results also included an interesting juxtaposition between the seasoned age of the musicians versus the youthful quality of the dancers. I'm not sure if this was an original intention of Mr. Balanchine.

The performance concluded with the amazing Symphony in Three Movements, a hyper-kinetic Stravinsky composition from 1945 that on the one hand looks back to his atonal beginnings back with Sergei Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes and dares to look forward toward the future of music. Listen closely with your eyes closed, and you will hear the nervous minimalism of a John Adams.  However most ballet goers will not close their eyes especially when a dancer of the caliber of Amar Ramasar is dancing in it. Mr. Ramasar has been a soloist since 2006, and he was a principal dancer in Chichester Psalms, the Leonard Bernstein, Peter Martins ballet that I performed with the NYC Ballet when I was a member of the Juilliard Choral Union.

If you missed the black and white Stravinsky, Balanchine ballets this season, I would not worry.  I am certain that they will be performed again next year to the delight of young and old.