Nostradamus As an Insect

A creepy thriller about a monster shaped like a giant moth that sees the future and predicts horrible disasters by interrupting everybody on their cell phones would usually find itself headed for Blockbuster. But The Mothman Prophecies , an effectively suspenseful chunk of supernatural bugaboo directed by Mark Pellington, boasts too many serious performers and top-drawer production values to dismiss so easily. It is also based on actual facts, as compiled in a best-seller by John Keel that caused a head-scratching controversy. The baffling psychic phenomena that Mr. Keel wrote about loses none of their curiosity value on film. Dramatized in a screenplay by Richard Hatem, the real events seem doubly terrifying.

Richard Gere plays John Klein, a star reporter for The Washington Post whose wife (Debra Messing) suffers a brain tumor after a car wreck that she insists was caused when a weird moth-like creature crashed into her headlights. She’s paralyzed, then traumatized by recurring nightmares and finally dies, leaving behind a devastated husband and a notebook filled with drawings of winged demons. Time passes, and Klein finds himself hypnotically lured 400 miles off course to Point Pleasant, W.Va., a rural dot on the map where other people are experiencing the same brain seizures and drawing the same creatures that his wife left behind on her deathbed. Laura Linney plays the local police chief trying to cope with the confusing events and apparitions reported by friends and neighbors, who hear howls coming from their sink drains and a garbled voice on their telephones predicting horrible earthquakes and airplane crashes.

Joining forces, the logical reporter and the pretty police officer discover energetic impulses which defy rational explanation: lightning flashes or microwaves that take the shape of a giant insect in human form, red and vampirish, complete with a black cloak. It all seems preposterous–until the insect-human’s predictions of dire tragedy come true. The reporter quits his job to devote his investigative skills to a new kind of sci-fi “scoop” that nobody will believe. Nobody, that is, except Alexander Leek (Alan Bates), a writer who ended up in a psychiatric hospital after trying to prove that these psychic “mothman prophecies” were being transmitted by alien intelligence. Is his scientific research the key to the puzzle, or has everybody landed in a lost episode of The Twilight Zone ?

The film leads up to a hair-scorching sequence on a collapsing bridge filled with hundreds of Christmas shoppers that is one of the most thrillingly staged and shot action scenes of any film in recent memory. This is a detailed re-enactment of the actual collapse of the Silver Bridge that connects Ohio and West Virginia–a real tragedy, supposedly predicted by the “mothman,” in which cars toppled into the water, killing dozens of innocent people. John Keel chronicled the event in his nonfiction book, and it is breathtakingly recreated here. Some of the bridge scene was done with a model, but a lot of it actually shows the ripping effects of mammoth, seemingly indestructible steel girders crunched beyond explanation.

Similar premonitions and prophecies have been reported in other parts of the world. The film strongly implies that there’s a powerful indication in the atmosphere that supernatural phenomena still exist–proof that an alien intelligence is alive and growing among us.

It doesn’t much matter whether you believe in all this huggermugger or not; the film is so cleverly constructed that you experience only the events as they unfolded in Point Pleasant. This is not another Blair Witch Project , where people left the cinema stunned and convinced they had just watched a documentary, only to discover later that the whole thing was a hoax. Because The Mothman Prophecies is based on real events, the special effects have the force of a sledgehammer. Mr. Gere and Ms. Linney are so persuasive that they really make you feel the impact of what happens when reasonable people are caught up in supernatural experiences that seem unbelievable. Even with your eyebrows raised and your tongue planted firmly in cheek, the whole thing gets under your skin in ways that creep you out. Buy it or not, the idea makes for a tense and exciting thriller–bizarre, maybe, but never boring.

Tom Wopat: Duke of Harmony

While Barbara Cook packs them in and knocks them out at Lincoln Center, a few other musical talents are making extraordinary waves of their own in other parts of town. Fresh from his long Broadway run in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun , Tom Wopat is conquering new terrain with a lush CD on Angel Records and an engaging New York cabaret debut at Arci’s Place (through Jan. 26) that has the whole town raving.

Growing up with Howard Keel as MGM’s quintessential Frank Butler, the dashing rodeo sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I never felt Mr. Wopat was ideally cast, although he more than compensated for what he lacked in stature with his assured acting and accomplished singing voice. But it is now apparent that Annie was just a puff of smoke in the broader context of a career which, up to now, has been mainly hiding in TV sitcoms. With his warm, strong baritone and easy, soft-spoken manner, Mr. Wopat is no longer a roughneck from The Dukes of Hazard . Cleanly shaved, trendy and tailored in black, he’s still rugged but clean-cut, manly but sensitive, and ready to explore the more intimate and romantic sides of his likable personality. From a gentle, subtly swinging “Let’s Fall in Love” to a mischievous “I Won’t Dance,” this is a new and touching side of Tom Wopat.

Fine examples of his shifting moods, powerful phrasing, varied colorings and rhythmic patterns abound throughout the evening, as he meanders from the hot, sensuous Brazilian surf on a bossa-nova arrangement of “In the Still of the Night” to the sophisticated rhymes of Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” and “My Attorney Bernie,” to the hard-driving humor of Annie Ross’ great jazz classic “Twisted”–and his arrangement of the Lennon-McCartney “Here, There and Everywhere” is so different from any other version that I felt like I was hearing it for the very first time. When he tackles Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle,” he can even break your heart. Picture a rainy October night in some knotty, rustic old inn on a cliff overlooking the ocean in a place like Big Sur. A lonely man in cowboy boots with a soft, beguiling voice leans against the piano and sings “I Can Get Along Without You Very Well.” That’s the contrasting mood Tom Wopat creates in person, singing meticulously chosen love songs to soothe tired ears–each song arranged to suit the feeling it establishes, each sung (and acted) with a different comment, a different emotion, to underscore his surprisingly suave style.

On the night I caught his show, a talented song stylist with very demanding tastes whispered to me, “This guy has, in one night, become my favorite male vocalist, and I’m not kidding.” I dunno. With Tom Wopat, you get cool tunes, manly grace, the scent of Musk and Gary Cooper getting in touch with his delicate side in High Noon , all rolled into one. That’s more than I’ve seen on one cabaret stage in many a donkey’s year. Do not miss him. This is a real revelation.

Cleo Laine: Manhattan Dame

Cleo Laine, originally scheduled to open the fall season at Feinstein’s at the Regency on Sept. 11, was canceled for sad and obvious reasons. Better late than never. “The Dame Takes Manhattan” is the name of her new cabaret act there, which runs through Feb. 2, and the title says it all. Appearing with her husband and musical partner, composer-arranger-saxophonist John Dankworth, whom she married in 1958, the lady with the richest voice in jazz since Sarah Vaughan uses her expansive range and dramatic sense of physical command to sail through a high-wire act that covers every base. Look her up on the Internet and you will find 1,620 pages devoted to her accomplishments, as well as a listing of 90 separate recorded albums. When it comes to mathematics, the only hero I’ve got is the man who invented the $100 bill, but you don’t have to be Einstein to calculate that Dame Cleo’s 90 recordings add up to roughly 1,000 songs. She doesn’t sing them all at Feinstein’s, but there’s something for everyone.

Here is a fine-tooth-comb selection of her best moments, meticulously chosen to showcase her impressive range and reflect her eclectic tastes in music. “Never Let Me Go” is the only good thing to survive a 1962 Elvis Presley debacle called Girls! Girls! Girls! This haunting torch song, first recorded by Nat King Cole, could have expired there without Cleo’s intrinsic gift for exhuming songs from the graveyard where good music goes to die. “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” an evergreen by Gus Kahn and Isham Jones, is more playful than the dreamy version Doris Day made famous, and a selection of Shakespearean sonnets set to jazz, from one of her most popular albums in the 1960’s, shows yet another side of her endless versatility. The staccato tempo on “St. Louis Blues” leads into a swinging scat duet with Mr. Dankworth’s sax that levels the place; a medley of seven Cole Porter classics is a swinging explosion of styles and tempos; and a whole spectrum of Mozart called “Turkish Delight” is pure improvised jazz at its juiciest.

At 74, this is no small challenge for Cleo, but this blessed child of an English mum and a Jamaican dad sails through every vocal trick with the timing of a trapeze artist. The highlight is a gorgeous new ballad, “Just Once More” (for which she wrote her own lyrics), that explores every dimension of her talent and every octave that her richly textured voice can reach. In England–where, if you live to get applauded long enough, you get knighted at Buckingham Palace–there is nothing like this Dame. At Feinstein’s, the talent is self-evident. Nostradamus As an Insect