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"The Crazies" for You

Directed by Breck Eisner
Written by Ray Wright and Scott Kosar, based on the screenplay by George A. Romero and Paul McCollough
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker

Often eclipsed by his genre-changing Living Dead movies, George Romero’s 1973 The Crazies, also released as Code Name Trixie, in which a bio-weapon is accidentally unleashed on a small American town, is scary and as timely as it was during the Vietnam. And while the original holds up just fine, this slick variation on a theme proves that a sequel that pales by comparison with original does come along every once in a while.

Welcome to bucolic Ogden Marsh, Iowa, pop. 1260. The countryside is beautiful and the farmland fertile; folks are friendly and the pace of life is comfortably slow. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), rarely have more on their plate than out-of-season duck hunters, teenage mischief and the occasional drunk-and-disorderly. Dutton's wife, Dr. Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell), is newly pregnant, and everything’s right with the world… until it isn’t.

On the opening day of high-school baseball season, longtime town drunk Rory Hamill (Mike Hickman) walks onto the field with a loaded shotgun; David fails to talk him down and is forced to kill him. The strange thing is that Rory’s wife swears Rory had been sober for two years, and the medical examiner’s report bears out her assertion. So what made Rory recklessly endanger a group of teenagers the same age as his own son?

Judy is faced with her own puzzle: Farm-wife Deardra Farnum (Christie Lynn Smith) has brought her husband, Bill (Brett Rickaby), into the office; something just isn't right with him, she insists. And though Farnum seems physically fine, Judy's nagging feeling that Deardra is right comes back to haunt her when Farnum burns his home to the ground, having first shut Deardra and their son inside. Locked up in the town’s holding cell, Farnum’s not rightness is more apparent by the hour, and David arranges to have him transferred to big-city Cedar Rapids the following day.

But the following day, some local good ol’ boys find a corpse in a nearby swamp, still harnessed to a parachute; David and Russell soon locate his plane — a big, black thing that has "military" written all over it — submerged nearby. What it was carrying is anybody’s guess, but the fact that that no one reported it missing is mighty suspicious, not to mention worrying — the swamp drains directly into Ogden Marsh’s water supply. To top it all off, when David and Russell return to the station they find all connections to the outside world severed: Landlines, cell phones, Internet... all dead. And then all hell breaks loose: Their friends and neighbors become bloodthirsty monsters and a military task force swoops in to contain the ever-worsening situation.

There was no reason to expect The Crazies would be any better than dozens of other amped-up, dumbed-down Hollywood horror remakes; Crazies co-writer Scott Kosar had a hand in the dismal do-overs of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Amityville Horror (2005); his partner, Ray Wright, helped transform J-horror classic Pulse (2001) into a generic "pretty young people in peril" picture; and of director Breck Eisner’s only other major credit, the dismal action-comedy Sahara (2005), the less said the better.

But The Crazies is scary as hell: The small town setting never feels condescendingly symbolic, the characters are actually characters (Eisner had the advantage of a stronger cast than Romero's) and the escalating tension hinges on the fact that line between abnormal behavior triggered of extreme stress and the warning signs of infection is blurred and constantly shifting. And if the notion of germ-warfare mishaps and government cover-ups is less shocking than it once was, it's because today’s reality bears an unnerving resemblance to yesterday’s paranoid fantasy.

Fans of the original will be pleased by the remake’s subtle call outs to its predecessor, notably a haunting cameo by '70s exploitation favorite Lynn Lowry and a brief mention of the toxin’s code name: "Trixie."

 For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Laura Linney in "Time Stands Still"

Written by Donald Margulies
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, Brian D'Arcy James

Donald Margulies' powerful and moving play dissects the professional and psychological passion of a photographer who covers the horrors of wars, famine, and genocide. "Time stands still" represents the moment when she presses the shutter button and sees the world only through the view finder. Time stops, sound cuts out; her experience is just what is taking place in the rectangle. There is an objectifying and separation from reality. And for Sarah Goodwin (Laura Linney) it's the only moment in life that counts.

Now, she's come back to her walk-up loft in Williamsburg (the lower-rent Brooklyn neighborhood to which artists have moved) after getting seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Her head is full of shrapnel, her leg is busted. James Dodd (Brian D'Arcy James), the journalist she lives with, has brought her back from a hospital in Germany, guilty that before the attack he returned to New York, shell-shocked by his reporting experience, and left her alone in Iraq.

Director Daniel Sullivan's staging is crisp and unsentimental.

Sarah is tougher than James in every way, even brutally critical about his writing. He wants to live where he doesn't get parasites, where his back doesn't hurt following the war du jour. For her, work comes first, before a personal relationship.

But this is not just a personal drama, which is the easy "Hollywood" style of dumbing down serious issues. Sarah and James are people with interesting lives, interesting thoughts. One is the issue: "Are photographers exploiting their subjects?

Sarah is challenged on that by Mandy Bloom (Alicia Silverstone), the new 25-year-old girlfriend of Richard Ehrlich (Eric Bogosian), the middle-aged photo editor of the magazine for which Sarah and James freelance. Mandy, a bit of a ditz who works as an "event planner" (Richard met her at a museum party for a book about Darfur), arrives with "get well" balloons.

Mandy asks Sarah, "How could you stand there and do nothing" when she sees people suffering in disasters. Sarah replies, "I'm not doing nothing, I'm taking their picture." On the one hand, Sarah says that the camera is there to record life, not change it. But she also acknowledges she is driven to do her work because it will change things. Or is she pulled in by the drama?

Margulies' repartee is sharp and clever and shifts the moods to underline the complexity and subtlety of his story. When Mandy leaves the room, Sarah and James ride Richard, "You always wanted a little girl" and, "There's young and there's embryonic." When the men go for ice cream, Sarah quips, "Hunt, gather.."  She calls her father's second wife Evita instead of Evelyn.

Sarah and James represent the bright and adventurous. Richard is a decent guy, doing the best he can to help his friends as an editor, but worn down by the bureaucracy and by a previous smart but demanding girlfriend. He is settling for comfort.

Linney is intense and driven as Sarah. Through her we get a sense of the mind and spirit of any committed and creative person.

D'Arcy James shows James as resolute but also vulnerable. He erupts in anger on personal matters, as when the magazine doesn't run his story, but he is also sensitive and forgiving when Sarah admits a betrayal.

Bogosian is appropriately mild as the corporate cog who has given in and given up, as if all passion has been snuffed out. Silverstone is good as the wide-eyed, Mandy, the child-like creature who has her conventional life mapped out.

Margulies has given us another very fine, very intelligent play about people, their dreams and how they persevere — or settle.

Time Stands Still
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street

New York City, NY
(212) 239-6200
Opened January 28, 2010; Closes March 27, 2010.

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus



"Present Laughter" Lacks Sparkle

Directed by Nicholas Martin
Written by Noel Coward
Starring Victor Garber, Harriet Harris, Holley Fain, Pamela Jane Gray


The title comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night:

What is love? / Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:/ In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,/ Youth's a stuff will not endure.

Except that Garry Essendine (Victor Garber), who has the sense of a flighty youth, is a self-absorbed actor of 54. He is wont to shave a decade or so off his life, especially when he is playing up to pretty young women. Noel Coward's semi-autobiographical comedy is at times amusing – it is meant to be a send-up of the actor and his entourage — but it's nowhere near as clever as Coward can be. And the production by director Nicholas Martin lacks sparkle.

It's the late 1930s, and Essendine inhabits a stunning London Art Deco apartment, with leather chairs, a three-tier icicle chandelier and a winding staircase to second floor, smartly designed by Alexander Dodge. It is his stage set, and he gets the spotlight, which is how he wants it. The hammy Essendine, who pretends to eternal youth and pleasure, playacts his real life, wearing a wardrobe of dinner jackets as costumes and peppering his dialogue with speeches from plays or a Shelley poem. He admits, "I'm always acting…watching myself go by….I belong to my public." Garber perfectly captures this man who is so full of himself that he is his own best audience.

He also declares, "What would you all be without me?" That raises some questions about those who hover around him. Where is their center; what's in it for them? They are just as much objects of Coward's satire, but it's hard to figure out where he stands. Is everyone meant to seem ridiculous?

Two people seem to really care about Essendine. Monica Reed (the sharp, smart Harriet Harris), his secretary of 17 years, of course is paid for her devotion. His estranged wife Liz (a very cool Lisa Banes) must have her own reasons for constantly hanging around, especially since she is the one who walked out.

But the others who flit around are in various ways ludicrous: Daphne Stillington (Holley Fain), 24, ends up spending the night because she wants to be a star. Joanna Lyppiatt (Pamela Jane Gray), the wife of his agent, appears to be making a game of infidelity. Roland Maule (Brooks Ashmanskas) the loony would-be playwright who occasionally flies through the air, wants Coward to read his script.

I connected best with the "backstairs" part of the bunch, Miss Erickson (Nancy E. Carroll), the Scandinavian maid. Eccentric in style, Carroll's cameo is a real character and makes you wonder who is really weird here. Well, Monica is not weird either, and good jobs were probably hard to get. But she's as much a nurse maid as a secretary to this immature "star."

There is some typical Coward repartee such as Joanna – who is desirous of an affair with the actor — declaring, "You are no more emotionally sincere than I am" and he responding that women like Joanna undermine civilization.

But most of the action is not very credible, even if those things probably do happen and ostensibly happened to Coward. The play, written in 1939, shows its age with devices such as women claiming to forget their door keys. It is peopled with stock characters such as the ingénue who wants to sleep with the star. And the notion that Essendine is about to do an acting tour in Africa seems absurd. Africa? Where? The play picks up in the second act with farcical exits and entrances, people hiding in rooms, and the revelation of secret trysts and identities as all the strands in the stories get knotted together.

Still, I missed the familiar Coward wit.

Present Laughter
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theater

227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY
Opened January 21, 2010; Closes March 21, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus


Kevin's Digital Week 15: Myth and McCarey

Blu-Ray of the Week

The Minotaur
(Opus Arte)
The future is now for opera recordings, as this work by British modernist Harrison Birtwistle, which premiered in London in April 2008, is available only on DVD and Blu-ray, not CD. The Minotaur—a staggeringly powerful work by Birtwistle, whose earlier operas tended toward the obscure, dramatically and musically—is a perfect example of how Blu-ray’s high-definition visuals and surround-sound audio give opera fans the best possible conditions under which to appreciate any work, new or old.

Antonio Pappano conducts the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera House Chorus in a superb reading of Birtwistle’s characteristically thorny, spiky score; the performers—led by John Tomlinson’s Minotaur, Johan Reuter’s Theseus and Christine Rice’s Ariadne—handle the fiendishly difficult vocal and dramatic demands. Stephen Langridge’s staging is both direct and metaphorical, the perfect visualization of this Greek myth. The lone extra is a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, Myth Is Universal.

DVD of the Week

Make Way for Tomorrow
Leo McCarey’s 1937 melodrama, one of Hollywood’s supreme tearjerkers, never approaches mere sentimentality. A forerunner of Yasujiro Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story (1953), Make Way explores how a long-married couple is shunted aside by their children in turn after losing their comfortable Manhattan apartment to the local bank. McCarey shows how aging parents can make their grown children so uncomfortable that they prefer not to deal with them—the resulting finale, when the couple goes “on the town” one final time, is memorably poignant.

The film's biggest flaw is a group of one-dimensional actors unable to carry the weight of their acidly-drawn characters; other than that, Make Way for Tomorrow is another DVD triumph for Criterion. The 73-year-old black and white film looks splendid, and the contextual supplements include interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddins, and insightful essays by Tag Gallagher and director Bertrand Tavernier.

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