Tag Archives: True Blood

A new Sleeping Beauty in the manner Bourne

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North star as Princess Aurora and her selfless lover, Leo, in 'Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty.'

Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is awakened from her long sleep by Leo (Dominic North), who has given up his mortality to be with her, in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,’ a ‘Great Performances’ presentation premiering tonight on many PBS affiliates.

The genius hailed by The New Yorker as “the most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World” wakes up a ballet classic in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a Great Performances presentation airing tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check listings in your area).
Bourne explains during the two brief but illuminating interview segments that bookend this Sleeping Beauty that his family didn’t listen to much classical music when he was growing up. As in his earlier productions of the two other Tchaikovsky dance masterworks – The Nutcracker, which Bourne set in a grim Dickensian orphanage, and Swan Lake, which featured an all-male corps de ballet of swans – Bourne’s principal focus is on telling a story that is dramatically arresting while still satisfying fans of the piece in its traditional form.
When he sized up the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which dates from the 14th century, Bourne immediately noticed that, in terms of its love story, the yarn was a resounding flop.
“This prince kisses her and wakes her up, she looks at him, and next thing you know, they’re getting married, someone she’s never even met,” Bourne says. “You don’t really feel anything at all.”
Instead of using the traditional fairy-tale period setting, Bourne opens his production of Sleeping Beauty in London’s Victorian era, circa 1890 (the year of the ballet’s premiere). In the first act, we encounter the rambunctious baby Princess Aurora in the form of an intricately designed marionette that causes the palace staff endless headaches. In the next act, when we meet the 21-year-old Aurora (Hannah Vassallo), she’s a spirited, almost tomboyish young woman who has flouted convention and fallen in love with Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener. Obviously, that enhances the love-story element in the ballet, but it presented Bourne with another conundrum: If Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what happens to poor Leo?
“Aurora has fallen in love with someone who then has the problem of trying to stay alive for her when she wakes up,” Bourne says of his and Leo’s dilemma.
Happily, as it turns out, the production’s setting roughly coincided with London’s obsession with Gothic literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was written in 1897), and Bourne found his audacious solution while watching HBO’s True Blood. Instead of pretty ladies in pastel tutus, the good fairies of Sleeping Beauty would be a family of benign vampires in elegant yet slightly moldering garments, led by the powerful Count Lilac (Christopher Marney). That concept also gave Leo a poignant way to demonstrate his love for Aurora, by surrendering his very mortality in order to stay by her side.
Like all of his other productions, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is jam-packed with fantastic stage images, such as the stormy entrance of the dark fairy Carabosse (Adam Maskell) and her minions, who look like one of the Furies crossed with a satyr. When she pronounces her curse on the baby Aurora, her dark prophecy is mimed by an Aurora double with a blank, mannequin-like face. It’s chillingly effective, as is the moment in the second act when Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc (Maskell again), activates the curse not with the tainted spindle of a spinning wheel, but via a thorn on a black rose that was his late mother’s favored calling card.
In traditional productions of Sleeping Beauty, once the prince has awakened his sleeping beauty, the story effectively is over, apart from another half hour or so of celebratory dances at the royal wedding. Bourne, however, interjects yet another plot twist that sends the narrative in a totally unexpected direction and keeps the suspense going almost until the very end of the ballet.
A press release from Great Performances describes Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty as “a gothic fairy tale for all ages,” and that’s largely true. Bourne’s earlier productions of, say, The Car Man (adapted from Bizet’s opera Carmen) and Swan Lake may have raised some eyebrows with their unmistakable currents of homoeroticism, but there’s nothing in this Sleeping Beauty to frighten the horses or, more pertinently, parents of youngsters. Very small fry who know and love the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, however, probably will be very confused by many of Bourne’s somewhat eccentric narrative changes.
There’s no denying, though, that Bourne has given one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballets a welcome dose of creative caffeine. I won’t point out all the ingenious little character touches this master choreographer comes up with, but I have to mention a moment that occurs early in Act Three, set in contemporary (2011) London. The massive, locked iron gates surrounding Aurora’s palace have become a tourist destination, and as guidebook-toting visitors take selfies for their Instagram pages, a young woman tenderly sticks a commemorative rose into the metal bars. As she does so, she pricks her finger and fairly swoons, overcome by the cosmic romantic significance of the accident. It’s a tiny moment that’s both funny and touching.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Matthew Bourne’s head, which apparently is the scene of constant and boundless creativity. I’m just glad that every now and then I get to visit there.
Count Lilac and Caradoc

Count Lilac (Christopher Marney, left) tries to vanquish the evil Caradoc (Adam Maskell) at the climax of ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty.’

Ground Floor hosts a pitch-perfect mini-reunion

Red-hot actress Anna Camp guest stars on this Thursday's episode of the TBS sitcom 'Ground Floor.'

Former ‘Pitch Perfect’ castmates Anna Camp and Skylar Astin reunite in this Thursday’s episode of ‘Ground Floor’ on TBS.

I really liked the new TBS sitcom Ground Floor when I reviewed it here a few weeks ago, and this new romantic comedy from Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) has only gotten better since then. The first-rate ensemble has settled confidently into their roles, and the delightful chemistry between Skylar Astin (as ambitious money manager Brody Moyer) and dazzling newcomer Briga Heelan (as building service worker Jenny Miller) is starting to look like Sam-and-Diane for the new millennium.
If you haven’t checked out Ground Floor yet, let me warmly recommend that you catch a new episode airing the day after Christmas that is, in effect, a mini-reunion for stars of the hit movie comedy Pitch Perfect. Astin starred in that movie as Jesse, a featured singer for The Treblemakers, a male a cappella chorus. His Ground Floor castmate Alexis Knapp, who plays free-spirited Tori, also was in Pitch Perfect as Stacie, a hard-partying member of the Barden Bellas, the chief rivals of Astin’s group).
This Thursday’s episode opens as Remington Trust CEO Remington Mansfield (John C. McGinley) assembles his all-male staff to announce that their office has made a Forbes 100 list … of the worst places for a woman to work. Determined to set things right, Mansfield announces the first of what he says will be many new female hires: Heather Doyle (Anna Camp), a highly regarded graduate of Harvard Business School, Brody’s alma mater. There’s just one complication: Heather is Brody’s ex-lover from their college years, and her arrival has the unusually unflappable Jenny worried about how she can compete with a beautiful, sexy woman who also talks the same talk and shares the same career passions as Brody.
I doubt you’ll need reminding, but Camp – who also is dating Astin in real life – starred in Pitch Perfect as Aubrey, the tightly wound leader of the Barden Bellas who looked spectacular and sang formidably, but unfortunately tended to projectile-vomit anytime she got too upset. This South Carolina-born actress has been on a sizzling career streak since breaking out in The Help as one of Bryce Dallas Howard’s snooty socialite friends. Since then, she has played lusty, vampire-hating fundamentalist preacher’s wife Sarah Newlin in True Blood and beautiful but brainy law associate Caitlin D’Arcy in The Good Wife, among many other high-profile roles.
Add Heather to that list, because Camp is a comic whirlwind in this episode, a grinning female barracuda determined to annihilate anyone who gets between her and whatever she wants, even trying to dominate karaoke night at a local club. Executive producer Lawrence says that if viewers cotton to Camp’s character, Heather may resurface in future episodes. Fingers crossed, because she’s absolutely terrific.
Anna Camp (center) guest stars with 'Pitch Perfect' castmate Skylar Astin in this week's episode of 'Ground Floor' on TBS.

A tense romantic triangle develops between (from left) Jenny (Briga Heelan), Heather (guest star Anna Camp) and Brody (Skylar Astin) in this week’s ‘Ground Floor.’

New on Blu-ray: ‘Banshee: The Complete First Season’

I have to confess up front that I am a latecomer to what I’ll call Nouvelle Cinemax, the programming facelift intended to elevate HBO’s kid sibling channel that some derisively have dubbed Skinemax in years past due to the softcore erotica that filled its late-night lineup.
As part of its image rehab, Cinemax has joined the growing horde of channels investing in original scriped series, and I heard good reports about both Strike Back, an ongoing action drama, and Hunted, a BBC-Cinemax co-production from former X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz that reportedly is being streamlined and retooled for a second season.
I still wasn’t prepared, however, to be so pleasantly surprised by Banshee, the relentlessly entertaining and occasionally completely deranged action thriller created by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler, with Emmy and Academy Award winner Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood) among its executive producers. Why do I call it deranged, you ask? Well, its featured characters include a transgender computer hacker named Job, a ruthless crime lord who is a shunned former member of an Amish community and a homicidal Ukrainian gangster named Mr. Rabbit. And that’s just for starters.
Set primarily in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the head-spinning story opens with the parole of the central character (New Zealand actor Antony Starr) after serving a 15-year prison sentence for stealing a cache of diamonds from the aforementioned Rabbit (Ben Cross). Reconnecting with Job (Hoon Lee), his former accomplice, the ex-con learns that his former heist partner and lover (Ivana Milicevik) was last seen in Banshee, but when he arrives in that sleepy (and fictional) Pennsylvania town, he discovers that the beauty he once knew as Ana has reinvented herself as Carrie, now married to Gordon Hopewell (Rus Blackwell), the district attorney in Banshee.
Although her ex got arrested and sent to prison because he sacrificed himself to save her, Carrie is dismayed when he tries to re-enter her life, threatening the serenity of her family, which includes two children. Stricken by her rejection, our protagonist retreats to a local bar run by former boxer Sugar Bates (Frankie Faison) to lick his wounds and reconsider his options. In a freaky twist of fate, another patron at the bar is Lucas Hood, a newcomer on his way to meet the mayor of Banshee and become installed as the new sheriff. Unfortunately, when he tries to stop two thugs from robbing Sugar, Lucas is killed, along with both intruders, giving the recently paroled stranger a crazy idea: Why not steal Lucas’s identity and take on the sheriff gig himself?
That masquerade kicks the story into high gear, as the new Lucas struggles to pass in this assumed guise while working with a diverse team of deputies who can’t help noticing that his approach to law enforcement is unconventional, to put it mildly. Carrie, meanwhile, grows ever more paranoid that Lucas’ reckless gambit will somehow draw Rabbit’s attention to Banshee, which would be very, very bad for both of them.
Superficially, Banshee follows many of the standard conventions of the action genre, including some hard R-rated violence. Every episode includes at least one instance of extended mayhem, and I found parts of episode eight, where the violence is directed at Carrie, almost impossible to watch (there’s also a featurette in which Milicevic talks about the grueling workday she spent getting knocked around for hours in front of the camera).
But Banshee breaks away boldly from action clichés in the show’s character writing and performances. Starr and Milicevik may look at first glance like your standard-issue Action Stud and Babe, but both actors also clearly reveal Lucas’ and Carrie’s pain, vulnerability and, on occasion, stark terror. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is sensationally good as Kai Procter, the shunned Amish gangster whose soft-spoken exterior masks his psychotic true nature. In a much smaller role, Matthew Rauch is both scary and hilarious as Procter’s sidekick Burton, who appears to have the killer instinct of Smithers on The Simpsons, yet is capable of inflicting horrific pain behind closed doors.
The Blu-ray set comes loaded with special features, including the usual deleted scenes and commentaries from the cast and creative team, but the most helpful feature (also included on the standard DVD set) is “Town of Secrets,” a collection of very short “prequel” clips that set up many of the relationships and motivations of the events in the main episodes. You can fuilly enjoy Banshee without watching these short clips afterwards, but if you do make time for them, you’ll find yourself going, “Ohhhhh.” Also, be sure to stick with each episode through its end credits, because there’s a brief scene tagged at the very end of each.
Cinemax already has renewed Banshee for a second season, scheduled to air in early 2014, but this handsome set will bring you up to speed on the fascinating, unconventional series. Just be advised, it’s not for the squeamish.

New on Blu-ray: True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season

true blood 5
Less than a month before Season Six premieres, HBO Home Entertainment today releases last season of its hit series True Blood on a special features-packed five-disc Blu-ray set that also includes a DVD and digital copy, capturing a cycle of 12 episodes that received a decidedly mixed reaction from fans when they originally aired on the premium service last summer. (Note: What follows reviews general highlights of season-five story lines, although I have tried to avoid any genuine spoilers. If you haven’t seen these episodes, proceed at your own risk).
Most of the viewer unhappiness stemmed from the creative decision to spend much of Season Five with fan favorites Bill Compton and Eric Northman (Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard) held captive in the New Orleans headquarters of The Authority, a vampire shadow organization headed by an autocratic Guardian named Roman Zimojik (guest star Christopher Meloni). Supposedly dedicated to mainstreaming vampires into the global culture, the group had, in fact, been infiltrated by the Sanguinistas, a vampire splinter faction driven by the fanatical worship of an ancient goddess named Lilith, who urged her disciples to seize control of the world and view humans only as food.
While that might have been a provocative notion for a limited secondary story line, this tedious and claustrophobic plot played out predictably and gave the True Blood screenwriters free rein to indulge their worst tendencies when it comes to exploring topics of religion and politics, using a sledgehammer to drive home “metaphors” reflecting real-life world events. Mercifully, things improved significantly mid-season with the return of Denis O’Hare as campy but terrifying vampire Russell Edgington, partnered with an unlikely but inspired new companion: Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), the anti-bloodsucker fundamentalist firebrand from earlier seasons, now claiming his new identity as “a proud gay vampire-American.” The duo’s wonderful chemistry together injected a critically needed transfusion of comic relief into the otherwise dour Authority doings.
Elsewhere, the season’s biggest game-changer arrived in the opening moments as Sookie (Anna Paquin) made the high-risk choice of saving her dying BFF Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) by having her turned into what she hated most in the world: a vampire. The season-long fallout from that decision gave a much-needed reboot to a character who had been turned from a feisty firebrand into an exhausted victim by the events of previous seasons, and Wesley seized the opportunity. In the most poignant Season Five development, the show’s resident Romeo and Juliet, sweet-natured Hoyt Fortenberry (Jim Parrack) and baby-vamp Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll), faced a series of painful decisions in the wake of his Season Four discovery that she was carrying on a passionate affair with Hoyt’s best friend, Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). Don’t miss a quiet but devastating scene between these three characters around a table at Merlotte’s in the 10th episode of this Blu-ray set. If it doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, you’re made of stone.
As usual, technically these discs are flawless and include the company’s expected extras such as commentaries by cast members and production team members you can listen to while the episodes unfold, as well as a “flashback” feature to remind you of the significance of what’s happening in a scene. For example, Season Five opens with Bill on the phone at his mansion while Eric, in the background, cleans up a gory mess. The flashback feature, if enabled, shows you the Season Four scene in which they assassinated Authority bigwig Nan Flanagan, so you know whose remains Eric is frantically cleaning up.
Also, be sure to catch an “autopsy” of the action-packed episode six, in which the actors, producers and design team members reveal a lot of genuinely fascinating production detail that you might otherwise not even have noticed.
All in all, a stunning record of a True Blood season that was, in terms of story, a very mixed bag.