Yes, It Stinks, But You Don’t Care … Guettel’s Vida Loca ; Callaway, Cermele

Yes, It Stinks, But You Don’t Care

Big and bloated and accompanied by more misdirected media hysteria than the Clinton impeachment, the most overhyped movie of all time has finally arrived. You can have it. Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace , the first $115 million video game and George Lucas’ first film in 16 years, is the fourth installment in his ongoing library of space operas and the first of three prequels to his Star Wars trilogy. It turns out to be the weakest, dullest and dumbest of them all.

O.K., so you don’t care. You want to see it, anyway, log on to the vulgar marketing frenzy, see what all the noise is about. First, you have to get in. At the most disorganized press screening I’ve ever witnessed, the New York critics had to step over thousands of clamoring fans sleeping in the streets for days and nights on end, brave police barricades and fight their way into unreserved seats, pushing past blocklong lines of people waving $100 bills in their hands. Protecting our valuable ticket stubs for fear of our lives, we passed through grim-faced security guards at four separate metal detectors who stamped our hands with red fluorescent logos guaranteeing re-entry in case anyone felt the need to leave the cinema for popcorn or a toilet break. After being warned over a loudspeaker system of the punishments awaiting any miscreant found taping the movie for purposes of illegal piracy, the damned thing finally began.

Audience applause greeted the first familiar words on the sacred screen (“A long time ago …”) and then–2 hours and 15 minutes of stultifying tedium! By the time this excruciating comic strip dragged to its confusing climax, everyone agreed they’d heard more enthusiastic responses at church fund-raisers and literary teas.

Mr. Lucas may be a spinmaster at the control panels of a computer, but his writing has all of the precision and insight of corny cliffhanger serials at Saturday afternoon matinees in the 1940′s, and the moronic plot of Episode I you could write on the head of a carpet tack. Borrowing from every source from the New Testament to Japanese samurai epics, High Noon , Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers, rock videos and George Orwell’s Animal Farm , the action in his “new and exciting universe” explores the conflicts between technology and humanity with all the freshness of a Grimm fairy tale cross-pollinated with the latest installment of Wonder Woman comics.

Something is going on in the Galactic Republic. A trade dispute threatens youthful Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who dispatches her warriors of peace, Jedi master Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson, looking ossified) and his loyal apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, looking stoned) to whisk her away to safety. When the power supply fails, their royal spaceship is forced to land on a desert galaxy called Tatooine, inhabited by tribes of scavengers and gangsters called the Hutts. Here, they are saved from catastrophe by a 9-year-old slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the intergalactic Christ figure who will grow up to be Darth Vader, marry the Queen, father Luke Skywalker and try to destroy the universe. But I am getting ahead of myself–or behind. The trajectory is so bewildering it’s hard to tell.

For now, Anakin is just a sandy-haired kid with a passion for drag racing who is selected for Jedi knighthood. The rest of this interminable bore is dedicated to digitally processed technical effects and an endless menagerie of marketable toys with names like Jar-Jar, a frog-faced cretin with a horse head, a pig snout and an irritating, unintelligible Jamaican accent, and Watto, a junk dealer with five o’clock stubble, icepick teeth and hummingbird wings.

Most of the movie is slavishly dedicated to crowding the screen with armies of Tinker Toys riding ostriches with camel faces, elephant trunks and giraffe skin, robots that look like canister vacuum cleaners (little R2-D2 makes a guest appearance), warriors shooting laser beams, and a 20-minute space war that looks like a violent video game gone berserk. The gibberish that passes for dialogue can only be described as numbingly idiotic, especially when mumbled phonetically by the worst group of actors ever assembled.

Who can blame them? Clearly, this is not a movie about actors, and the humans only get in the way of Mr. Lucas’ fun and games. For Mr. Neeson and Mr. McGregor, for the first time in their careers, English appears to be their second language, while Ms. Portman, lovely but wooden as a cypress stump, plays the Queen dressed in Christmas tree ornaments and white kabuki makeup like a paralyzed Madam Butterfly. The whole thing ends in full-scale war over–are you ready?–taxation.

To generations of kids weaned on drugs, rap music and the Internet who have no heroes or role models, Mr. Lucas’ world of good and evil forces provides a kind of cyberspace spirituality they find lacking in real life. For the rest of us, who don’t agree with the director’s assessment of Gone With the Wind as a “B-movie soap opera,” the Star Wars epics just seem annoying and asinine. One thing is indisputable. They make money. Promising two more “prequels,” Mr. Lucas envisions the depressing day when machines will do all the work, there will be no further need for actors, theaters or even audiences, and by punching a keyword on the computer we can all run movies in our heads.

If this is the future, then in the immortal words of Samuel Goldwyn, “Include me out.”

Guettel’s Vida Loca ; Callaway, Cermele

In an electronic age of instant noise, instant gratification and instant disposability, great songs have a tough time surviving, and quality singers have an even rougher time finding venues in which to keep them alive. It’s a pleasure to welcome so many talents currently circumventing the dilemma.

New York has a crush on Adam Guettel, and after his first sold-out concert at Town Hall on May 12 achieved the status of a cult event, it’s not difficult to see why. Already acclaimed as the next Stephen Sondheim, this brilliant 34-year-old composer-musician-singer has impressive credits (the Off-Broadway musical Floyd Collins , a song cycle called Saturn Returns , a new CD collection of his art songs on the Nonesuch label under the title Myths and Hymns , and numerous theater awards) and an awesome musical heritage (his grandfather was the legendary Richard Rodgers and his mother Mary has written several musicals, most notably Once Upon a Mattress ). It’s a lot to live up to, but Mr. Guettel is very much his own man.

Movie stars, composers, songwriters new and old, singers, musicians and show-biz luminaries bridging many generation gaps all packed themselves into Town Hall to cheer like groupies. They were not disappointed. Aided on stage by Audra McDonald (who has recorded four of his songs on her own Nonesuch CD), six other singers and a full orchestra, Mr. Guettel displayed a wide and pleasing range of works that soared with passion and rocked with rhythm.

His subject matter can range from abortion to media corruption; his tempos build to surprising countermelodies, then arc into patterns rich with poetic imagery without being cloying or self-conscious. Some of his songs have the simplicity of haiku, others achieve a spirituality that is stunning. Not strong on conventional melodies, he dares you to take a journey with him that is musically challenging. You can’t sing or hum or even remember his songs, but you are enthralled and awed while you’re hearing them.

And he is obviously skilled at changing his style abruptly. At one point, he performed a lush, romantic interlude for piano, violin and cello from his next work, The Light in the Piazza , that is so beautiful it could be movie theme music from the golden days of Max Steiner or Bronislau Kaper. Everything he does is, above all else, uniquely original. By his own admission, Mr. Guettel’s first love is not performing, but he can play both guitar and piano with joyous precision, and he sings with the clear, self-assured voice of a seasoned pro. Pale and wan, with the preppy haircut and Pepsodent smile of a Boy Scout, he looks like a shy, blushing, unconceited white-bread Ricky Martin, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Down at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, Ann Hampton Callaway will be previewing her spectacular new jazz CD Easy Living , May 20 through May 22, focusing on swinging standards like “Easy to Love” and classic jazz compositions such as Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Hers is a happening kind of voice, moving from one elixir of emotion to the next. She is probably the greatest of our contemporary jazz vocalists, but her voice is as accessible as Ella Fitzgerald’s. I will write more about her CD later.

Meanwhile, down at Eighty-Eights on West 10 Street, the warm and supple Charles Cermele is spending every Wednesday night in May dusting off the American songbook with a rich voice capable of driving force and trembling romanticism. By his own count, he sings the word “love” 73 times in the course of his new show, tackling everything from familiar standards (“One for My Baby,” “I Remember You”) to Cole Porter’s tongue-twisting “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” Mr. Sondheim’s endearing “Love, I Hear” and “Ask Me Again,” a “lost” Gershwin tune that was resuscitated for the 1996 revival of Oh, Kay! Mr. Cermele exudes a sweetness and vulnerability that is bracing. You’ve heard about sorry-grateful. Meet a baritone who is rugged-sensitive.

Last Days Of Eighty-Eights?

Now for the bad news. Eighty-Eights, a mecca for cabaret mavens and a breeding ground for so many stellar talents who first tried their wings there under the loving guidance of owner Erv Raible, is closing May 31. This will be a terrible blow to New York’s club scene, so if you know anyone with $100,000 to invest in keeping this cabaret citadel going, cabaret canonization is guaranteed.