The Tedium on Mars

The Tedium on Mars

These are the finger-counting days when the movies are like the national elections. Maybe by Christmas something will relieve the gloom and we’ll have a winner, but don’t count on it. Nobody wants to go to Mars, but Hollywood hasn’t got the message. Red Planet is the second movie this year (remember Mission to Mars ?) in which futuristic space jockeys head for outer space and find … tedium.

The year is 2050, the planet Earth has been devastated by pollution and the survival of humankind depends on a mission to search for oxygen on Mars. Five crew members commanded by Carrie-Anne Moss (and what seems like the entire design and effects team from The Matrix ) blast off for ruddy, craggy Mars, which is played by Jordan and Australia, looking for the green algae that will save the human race. (Al Gore could dig this, but it’s doubtful if he has much time for movies this week, and by the time he knows what his new address is, Red Planet will already be crowding the shelves in video stores.)

Before the shuttle arrives to check things out, the mechanical systems fail, the crew is separated from the mother craft and the spiritual astronaut (Terence Stamp) finds God fast, leaving the pretty flight commander trapped on the missile and the four remaining crew members isolated on the ground, stranded without food, air or water. To make things worse (and pad out a boring script to nearly two hours), there’s a damaged robot named AMEE that goes into war mode and tries to massacre them one by one. While Ms. Moss tries to locate and rescue her fellow astronauts and get them back to Earth in one piece, they are thwarted and pummeled by desert sandstorms, an ice storm the size of Montana and horrible, flesh-eating creatures called nemetroids, while Val Kilmer, the space janitor in charge of garbage and maintenance, builds morale by humming a song “my grandfather sang, by the Rolling Stones.” These are the jokes, bud, in a flaccid flick that needs more. By the time he finally kisses the girl, we’re losing cast members faster than we’re losing oxygen.

The technology experts steal the picture, but the cast, which includes Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt and Australian Simon Baker, is abandoned in more ways than one. Amazingly for a group of guys who haven’t seen a glass of Gatorade in days, they have a group urination scene that Buck Rogers would never have thought of. The script is banal and the action so fuzzed up with ecological, philosophical and political motivations it’s hard to fathom what’s going on. Things burn and explode and hurl people into the ozone and you don’t even know why. It doesn’t say much for humankind when the mechanical folding-chair robot AMEE (short for “Autonomous Mapping Evaluation and Evasion”) turns out to be the most interesting character in the movie. Leaping from behind sand dunes and flying across the moonscape in a murderous rage, she keeps the audience awake when nobody else can.

The message in this dud is that if and when we finally get to the red planet, we will find … nothing . Surveying a barren landscape that looks like a travel poster for Kanab, Utah, Mr. Kilmer says, “I can’t wait to get outta here.” He is not alone.

Subway Rat

No-nonsense performances by a stellar cast, restrained direction, a taut and well-constructed screenplay, somber lighting, grim atmospheric touches and the bleak authenticity of a cold New York winter in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens overcome the slick predictability of The Yards , a crime melodrama in the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets . Written and directed by James Gray, a man with a keen sense of nuance, it tells a dark tale of violence and corruption in the railway yards, the heart of the city’s transit system, where subway cars are made and repaired and public officials are bribed to secure the city’s building contracts.

It begins with a subway train emerging from a tunnel into daylight, carrying Leo (Mark Wahlberg) from five years in prison to the promise of a new beginning. Leo has been serving time for auto theft after taking a phony rap to protect his best friend Willie (Joaquin Phoenix). All Leo wants now is to go straight, live a normal life and be a productive member of society. If you’ve seen as many James Cagney movies as I have, you know this is not to be and there are dire things coming. Devoted to his sick mother (Ellen Burstyn), Leo ignores his parole officer’s advice to enroll in a three-year training program for a dull but honest job and turns to his Uncle Frank (James Caan), who is married to Leo’s mother’s tough sister Kitty (Faye Dunaway, stripped of glamour and giving her rawest performance in years).

Out of family loyalty, Frank puts Leo to work in “the yards.” Leo learns fast, and one of the things he learns is that Frank, along with best buddy Willie, is getting rich fast with payoffs, bribes and kickbacks involving cops, union organizers and shady politicians, including the Queens borough president (convincingly played with oily ooze by singer Steve Lawrence). Stirring the fudge even more, Leo is alarmed to learn Willie is now engaged to Leo’s cousin and childhood sweetheart Erica (gorgeous Charlize Theron, in an unbecoming black Theda Bara wig). As tensions mount, Willie kills an honest yardmaster who refuses to take a bribe and Leo knocks a cop unconscious in the mêlée in self-defense, after which he’s on the run, with the gang, the cops and the press in hot pursuit. The violence opens up a police investigation that could lead to the indictments of some of New York’s best-connected power players, with Leo the chief suspect in a murder. Although Leo has no ambition to become another Serpico, he’s already taken one fall, and now the only way he can save himself is to betray the whole family.

What emerges is a labyrinthine saga of the internecine relationships in a crime family as complex as any Mafia dynasty, and the outsider in that family: a misguided angel with a dirty choirboy face who always wanted to be somebody respectable, but who, without a role model to help him, never quite made it. Mr. Wahlberg makes the role of a street punk with pride and a moral conscience more than a movie cliché, building frustration while he wins the audience’s sympathy. After The Godfather , Mr. Caan finally gets to play the Don. Mr. Phoenix has a raw desperation of his own, and Ms. Dunaway is riveting as the well-to-do aunt who knows that crime buys status and who stops at nothing to protect the status quo. Mr. Gray uses that cast to create a classic Greek tragedy in a gangster style, evoking a sense of doom and horror throughout.

The director’s first film, Little Odessa , was another damp urban morality tale about a Russian hit man disowned by his adulterous father during a nasty winter in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, so he knows the territory. So do we. But even with its predictable trajectory, The Yards is more than your usual routine crime melodrama. It’s an explosive nail-biter with palpable suspense, fueled by an inspired cast and top-notch production values. The story is interesting, the characters complex, and the issues involved in the mysterious connection between crime and politics are timeless. You get your money’s worth, and then some.

Gaga for Gershwin

K.T. Sullivan, from Boggy Depot, Okla., and Mark Nadler, from Waterloo, Iowa, both grew up longing for the lights, glamour and sophistication of a faraway New York, as immortalized in the George Gershwin songs they were weaned on. Now’s their chance to show what they learned, and in American Rhapsody , a sizzling little cabaret revue of 80 Gershwin tunes at the Triad, they seize the opportunity like an inventory close-out at Home Depot. Singing and playing everything from a blasé “Blah, Blah, Blah” to a passionate “Rhapsody in Blue,” they leave few stones unturned.

On a simple stage bordered by tall Art Deco columns topped with white ostrich plumes, the tall, gangly, ready-to-please Mr. Nadler claims squatter’s rights at the grand piano, while the vivacious Ms. Sullivan bubbles and percolates in every open space. A photo of George Gershwin, with his ever-smoking cigar clutched firmly in his teeth, reigns above. What follows is an elongated club act stretched to full length (including an intermission), with continuity written by Ruth Leon, musical staging by Donald Saddler and a nonstop barrage of Gershwin songs in a wide variety of styles that include jazz, classical and showbiz razzmatazz. It is most entertaining.

The challenges are obvious because the material is so familiar, but Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Nadler find interesting ways to chart old terrain with new maps. “Love Is Here to Stay” uses two different tempos to illustrate the different moods you can squeeze out of a Gershwin classic. A hilarious “Embraceable You” is performed in two separate languages. “The Lorelei,” usually a witty tongue-in-cheek throwaway, becomes a sensuous torch song heavily influenced by Cleo Laine. The two stars go together like peas in a pod in a wacky Reader’s Digest -style condensed version of the Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance that allows Mr. Nadler to tap dance in a seated position at the piano.

And the show gives them ample room to shine in solos, too. Mr. Nadler, with a poker face, milks “Vodka” of its last drop of sardonic humor, and Ms. Sullivan even manages, miraculously, to find something entirely virginal to do with “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” There are inescapable shadings of Mickey and Judy putting on a varsity show in the neighbor’s garage, but just so you get the idea that this is a real off-Broadway musical, there is even a set change. The white feathers are replaced by pink vases, a new photo of Gershwin is hung and Ms. Sullivan changes costumes four times. (Mr. Nadler simply changes his shoes.)

Unquestionably, the Gershwin oeuvre has been cooked, microwaved, grilled, boiled, baked, sautéed, rehashed, refurbished and reheated to such a crisp that it is falling off the bone. The only reason to endure it again is the charms of these two magnetic, golly-gee performers. Personally, I feel if I have to hear “Someone to Watch Over Me” or “The Man I Love” one more time, I may reinvent the art of hara-kiri. But K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler treat them with the reverence of a classical concerto, and the audience screams for more. If you don’t hear your favorite, stick around; like mourners at a Hollywood funeral, they’re bound to show up before the show is over. (One medley covers 25 songs they didn’t want to leave out.) If the Gershwin songbook has stood the test of time, it’s because the songs are adaptable to so many varied styles, tempos and interpretations. American Rhapsody proves it in spades. Two years after the Gershwin centennial celebration, the party is far from over, and the beat goes on.