It may be the most famous scene in Western literature: Romeo’s declaration of love beneath Juliet’s balcony. So how do you stage it without words? If you stage it as a dance how do you deal with the separation of the two lovers? Sir Kenneth MacMillan provided an easy answer in his choreography for Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. You get Juliet off that balcony and down on terra firma for a pas de deux with Romeo stat. The challenge is that the dancers’ physicality has to be as good as Shakespeare’s words.
Cory Stearns and Gillian Murphy of the American Ballet Theatre meet MacMillan’s challenge as the star-crossed title characters in a new production of Prokofiev’s ballet playing at Lincoln Center through June 15. But they’re lucky. They have the support of the spare-no-expenses American Ballet Theatre ethos. It’s resulted in another sumptuous, soaring ballet.
ABT’s Romeo and Juliet opens on the marketplace of Verona. There’s a wooden stairway, several stalls for vendors, some hay scattered about, all the little organic details the company likes to establish for complete immersion. The marketplace slowly comes alive as the baker arrives, then the blacksmith, then the fishmonger. This is a living space, perfect for MacMillan’s unfussy, down-to-earth choreographic style. He even integrates some elements of northern Italian folkdance into the traditional ballet when he has a group of wheat-toting women perform light clogging. Before you know it, the entire marketplace has erupted in violence with Montagues dueling Capulets via some fierce swordplay.
MacMillan’s democratic style meant populating his stage with a multitude of elements at once and encouraging you to scan about and perceive as many details as possible. That means any of the background peasants get as much attention as Tybalt and Mercutio. Only Romeo and Juliet themselves get the spotlight. As Romeo, Cory Stearns, who’s only been a principal at ABT for two years, is athletic and engaging. The Long Island native is more streamlined than muscular, perfect for capturing a youth in the throes of his first true passion. And Gillian Murphy, a South Carolina prodigy who’s been a principal for eleven years, is appropriately willowy and ethereal.
In bringing life to their characters, Stearns and Murphy are supported by Prokofiev’s propulsive 1935 score, conducted here by Charles Barker. The Russian modernist was a master of narrativizing music, and he’s best known today for teasing out the full drama of his works by assigning themes to each of his characters. One of his most famous pieces, Peter and the Wolf, goes so far as to designate a specific instrument for each animal in the story. Something similar happens here, with flutes corresponding to Juliet and strings to Romeo. But overall, Romeo and Juliet is one of Prokofiev’s looser compositions. In conjunction with MacMillan’s choreography it’s a ballet that exists on the opposite pole from, say, Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky, in which the music is perfectly synchronized with the images — a vision of determinism reflecting a time in which free will seemed unattainable in Russian society.
The one time you feel that level of control in Romeo and Juliet is, of course, the famous “Dance of the Knights,” a brooding, violent piece in which the Montagues and Capulets march with militaristic menace. MacMillan places the two camps in strictly regimented formation as if the Montagues and Capulets are extras in Triumph of the Will. It’s easy to imagine that Prokofiev, living at the height of Stalin’s “show trials” and with the Nazis about ready to march across Europe, might have likened the Montagues and Capulets’ culture of violence to ‘30s fascism. Not traditional romantic music, Prokofiev’s composition seems to underline the lovers’ break from tradition more than their sensual longing. It shows that Romeo and Juliet truly is timeless, because it can be so easily modified to fit the priorities of the time in which it’s retold.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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