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Reviews

"A Regular Little Houdini" Materializes But With Very Little Magic

 

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, tall and wholesomely-handsome in a very proper British way, is a compelling story teller. He’s been performing since 2001, and touring A Regular Little Houdini, which he also wrote, since 2013. Following an international tour, the New York premiere plays in one of 59E59 Theatres’ most intimate space [50 seats], perfect for up-close and personal Houdini sleight-of- hand and illusions.

Set in Newport, South Wales, he tells of a tenacious young dockworker's son, smitten by Harry Houdini's “amazements,” and, in a world where poverty is a heavy weight, dreams of a life of magic to escape the brutal working-class reality of Edwardian Britain.

Llewelyn-Williams is guarded about publication of his age, but since his first TV credit is in 2006, it might be fair to peg him to early-to-mid 30s. He bills himself as a singer, dancer, fight director, writer, and actor; and works in TV, film, radio, video games, and spoken-word books. He boasts that he can do “basically anything, so bring it on!” He can do magic, so there was the hope he’ll bring it on. 

From Newport and trained at LAMDA, the actor/writer’s involved with several theater companies, excelled in The 39 Steps and Tintin on the West End and a Hamlet directed by Terry Hands. He’s been cast in Shakespeare, Shaw, and plays such as Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, Tennessee WilliamsSuddenly Last Summer, and J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.

Llewelyn-Williams has won U.K acting awards; three from the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The San Diego Fringe Festival voted A Regular Little Houdini its Best Solo Show. He’s known to fans of Brit TV, for two roles on the long-running, endearing series Eastenders – one in 2007 and as Dr. Rhys Thomas in 2016.

GreatHoudiniIn A Regular Little Houdini, we learn about, undoubtedly, his dock worker grandfather Alan’s coming of age, family struggles, and a very damp run-in with Houdini; not to mention his fascination with Houdini’s Book of Magic, which he’s read “cover to cover, inside out, back to front, upside down” and takes everywhere he goes. There’s even the prospect that one day magic’s “gonna earn us a livin’.” We hear sound bites of Houdini from the Great Beyond urging him to practice.

The two illusions Llewelyn-Williams performs are rather jawdropping; and, of course, whets an audience’s appetite for more. We wait. When, when, when? Then, he segues into suave black tie and tails and produces a top hat. That piece of luggage, the only stage prop, suddenly, magically propels into a magician’s podium. Alright, it’s time! But its blackout. Abracadabra!, finito.

Assuming not just New Yorkers might like to see more of what Llewelyn-Williams can materialize, adding another 20 minutes to strut his stuff would seems a sound idea. With signage touting the incredible Houdini’s name in bold print, it’s reasonable to expect magic.

Joshua Richards, an associate actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company, directs. There’s music by Meg Cox. Quick-change artist Adrian Solar and sleight-of-hand magician Tom Silburn created the illusions.

For a sneak peak at A Regular Little Houdini and a four-minute plus video on Llewelyn-Williams’ career, visit www.danielllewelynwilliams.co.uk/.

 

Actors Will Smith and Joel Edgerton Shine On In An Unconvincing Universe in “Bright”

Bright
Directed by David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Édgar Ramírez, Ike Barinholtz
Debuts December 22nd, 2017

Built around a confusing, complicated plot and premise, director David Ayer’s “Bright” pursues an intriguing premise that ultimately doesn't work. In an alternate universe, the world of “Lord of The Rings” — as conceived by author J.R.R. Tolkien — actually exists. So in this contemporary alt-world Los Angeles, orks, elves, fairies and other denizens of Middle Earth now live side by side with humans. But in such a “modern” world, the orks are some kind of disenfranchised society living on the edge in a ghetto along side the Latino street gangs.

The elves live there as some kind of socially elevated species housed in their own gated communities. On top of that, this world is threatened by a cadre of renegade elves who can command immensely powerful magic wands with the intention of unleashing the ancient Dark Lord upon the Earth again after its defeat 2000 years ago.

Two disputatious LAPD police officers on patrol, veteran Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and a pioneering Orc novice Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), fight off punk orks, hassling fairies and a trio of berserker elves headed by Leila (Noomi Rapace) in order to retrieve one of these world-shattering wands from the evil ones. They fend off human antipathy to orks, corrupt police officers, and elf/human federal agents who are tasked with combating the threatening conspiracy of the renegades who want to unleash evil on the Earth.

Within this fantastical LA, such a duo tries to put aside their differences in order to combat the underworld’s sinister forces. Smith and Edgerton’s flip chatter adds a layer of irony to an ever ridiculous plot line, but Ayer’s gritty, rapid-fire directing — thanks to his long experience at driving action dramas such as "Suicide Squad" and "Harsh Times" — makes it easier for viewers to ignore the idea's absurdities to tumble along for the ride.

Yet, at the end of the day, the brisk action shortcuts and breezy dialogue can’t hide an unconvincing compilation of set pieces that substitute for a fully realized concept and story. Maybe this should have been a limited series rather than one feature, but if it’s ever meant to have a longer life than this one two-hour film, the powers at Netflix need to make this universe feel far more fleshed out rather than being simply clichés draped over clichés from other genres.

December '17 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dunkirk

(Warner Bros)

One of the most successful retreats in military history—the British got nearly all of their troops back safely to England, keeping Hitler at bay until the U.S entered the war in 1941—is not tailor-made for a film treatment the way director Christopher Nolan approaches it. Visually, Dunkirk is a marvel, but dramatizing how civilians took their boats into treacherous waters to pick up soldiers at Dunkirk by following one man and his sons who get involved with seemingly everything that happens at sea and in the air reduces the entire film to unrelieved, and implausible, melodrama.

No one—not even Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance—makes an impression, and the final impression is one of technical, not artistic, virtuosity. There’s a superlative hi-def transfer; a second disc of extras include nearly two hours of on-set featurettes.

 

Auntie Mame

(Warner Archive)

This 1958 adaptation of the stage play about an irrepressible aunt who goes to any lengths to protect her beloved nephew showcases Rosalind Russell’s unsubtle but indomitable performance in the title role.

However, 145 minutes of overwrought attempts at whimsy and charm are badly misdirected by Morton DaCosta, who never gets a handle on things, including blatantly racist characters like the Asian butler. The film has a ravishing hi-def transfer.

 

Chicago—The Terry Kath Experience 

(FilmRise)

Michelle Kath Sinclair made this touching documentary portrait of her father’s legacy nearly 40 years after his death: Terry Kath was lead guitarist for Chicago, and he died when he put what he thought was an unloaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger a week before his 32nd birthday in 1978.

Kath has since gotten his due as one of rock’s most underrated guitar players, as we find out through encomiums by Joe Walsh, Steve Lukather and Mike Campbell, along with his fellow band members. This is also Sinclair’s personal journey; no posthumous praise can bring her father back, but—along with his music—it helps. Extras comprise additional interviews and featurettes.   

 

Cosi fan tutte

(Arthaus Musik)

Mozart’s delectable comic opera about two couples who, after many trials and tribulations, are finally reunited is transformed by director-choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker into a roundelay among a dozen performers, six singers doubled by half-dozen dancers, who become a physical manifestation of the indelible Mozart-del Ponte characters.

What begins as an intriguingly different take on a familiar work soon becomes repetitious and even confusing as the dancers basically cover the same ground as the music and words—it’s ultimately redundant, if cleverly staged and impeccably danced and sung. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.

 

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait 

(Criterion)

In 1974, French director Barbet Schroeder made this documentary about the infamous Ugandan dictator, who relished the attention of a European filmmaker immortalizing him.

Amin was charismatic and murderous, charming and ruthless; Schroeder catches all of that, but the relatively short 90-minute running time makes this a less than ideal portrait: we see the venom, but not the psychology. The excellent new transfer is buttressed by two Schroeder interviews (2001 and 2017) and an interview with journalist Andrew Rice about Amin.

 

One Million B.C.

(VCI)

Movie fans know the late ‘60s version starring a loin-clothed Raquel Welch; the 1940 original has a poor substitute in Carole Landis and features a stolid Victor Mature and Lon Chaney Jr. running around looking embarrassed fending off awful-looking dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters.

Directors Hal Roach and his son’s barely passable entertainment with incredibly chintzy special effects is a mildly diverting (and, at 80 minutes, harmless enough) piece of movie history. The hi-def transfer is decent.

 

DVDs of the Week 

The Pulitzer at 100

(First Run)

Kirk Simon’s documentary of the history and legacy of the Pulitzer Prize is an uninspired overview of the world’s most important arts and cultural award, and includes interviews with Pulitzer voters and recipients in an attempt to explain how diverse groups of people vote for what they think is the best play, piece of music, journalism, etc., in any given year.

Most interesting are the occasional breakaways to, say, a Natalie Portman or a John Lithgow reciting excerpts from winning plays or poems by winners Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Robert Frost.

 

Stefan Zweig—Farewell to Europe

(First Run)

The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig lived out his last years in South America, committing suicide (along with his young wife Lotte) in 1942 in Rio at age 61. His troubled existence was marked by accolades but also exhaustion after Adolf Hitler’s rise heralded a final decade of wandering, homeless and unable to return to his native Austria.

Maria Schrader’s film absorbingly chronicles this period of his life, with convincing portrayals by Joe Haden (Zweig), Barbara Sukowa (first wife Friderike) and Aenne Schwarz (second wife Lotte).

 

The Unknown Girl 

(Sundance Selects)

The Belgian Dardenne brothers’ incisive character studies over two-plus decades vary wildly in quality—implausibility rears its ugly head more often than not—but their latest is one of their best. Adele Haenel is superb as Jenny, a young doctor who finds out that the title character, a desperate loner who knocked on her office door but was refused entry, is found dead nearby.

We get caught up in Jenny’s plight as she tracks down the dead woman’s identity and family. This is the Dardennes at their most humane, helped enormously by Haenel, an actress capable of mercurial and quicksilver changes and shifts in emotion.

 

Viceroy’s House

(IFC)

The end of British rule in India is the subject of Gurinder Chadha’s straightforward, tactful docudrama, with Hugh Bonneville as Lord Mountbatten, sent to India by his majesty’s government to secure a peaceful transfer of power; he is surprised by how awful fellow Britons treat the supposed second-class citizens.

Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are a persuasive Mountbatten and wife Edwina, while the usual towering Michael Gambon steals scenes as Mountbatten’s duplicitous chief of staff. The lone extras are several deleted scenes.

Broadway Review—Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children"

The Children

Written by Lucy Kirkwood; directed by James MacDonald

Performances through February 4, 2018

 

Ron Cook, Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay in The Children (photo: Joan Marcus)

The ponderous The Children arrives in New York after raves in London, as Lucy Kirkwood’s risible drama about the after effects of a devastating nuclear plant disaster wastes its topnotch cast.

 

Post-meltdown in rural England, 60-something marrieds (and retired nuclear engineers) Robin and Hazel live just outside the radioactive danger zone. When former colleague Rose arrives out of nowhere, scaring the bejesus out of Hazel—who smacks Rose’s nose in fright, causing a torrent of blood staining Rose’s shirt—Robin and Hazel find themselves dealing with a past that includes infidelity, along with figuring out the kind of future (if any) they’ll have.

 

The play’s title refers to the couple’s unseen offspring, whom Rose asks Hazel about more than once, along with referring to the play’s strident plea not to ruin our world for our children’s benefit. Kirkwood strains at understatement in her characters’ small talk and British stiff-upper-lipped reserve, however wrongheaded for her creaky melodrama. It's obvious that all three of them are aware of past indiscretions, so why the continued dancing around the subject?

 

And to extend what might have been a taut fifty-minute one-acter into a flabby one-hundred minute one-acter, Kirkwood drops in irrelevancies like a dance sequence to a song the trio loves, along with a pointless conversation that finds Hazel constantly questioning Rose if she only did number 1 in the loo instead of number 2, which causes the toilet to clog. Rose replies that she only did number 1—and when water comes streaming into the kitchen, (un)hilarity ensues.

 

Rose isn’t settling old scores or putting their mutual past in proper perspective: instead, she’s asking her fellow scientists to join her at the stricken plant to take over cleanup from the much younger workers currently there. After all, since they’re pushing 70, it makes sense for them to risk their twilight years than those with decades ahead of them. It's a worthy sentiment, but Kirkwood drops it in so heavy-handedly that it has little of the sense of urgency or mortality she was aiming for.

 

It’s up to three superior performers—Deborah Findlay (Hazel), Ron Cook (Robin) and especially Francesca Annis (Rose)—and James MacDonald’s sympathetic direction to make this shrill message play palatable.

 

The Children

Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

ManhattanTheatreClub.com

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