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Gordon Meyer

Gordon Meyer

By Gordon Meyer
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I love the 1968 animated feature YELLOW SUBMARINE.  Not only does it feature a slew of songs by the Beatles, including a good chunk of cuts from their seminal “Sgt. Pepper: album, it’s also fun, quirky, gleefully surreal and very much a product of the psychedelic 60s.  So I was horrified when I had heard a few years ago that Robert Zemeckis was not only planning to do a contemporary remake,for Disney, he was also going to use the often creepy motion capture CG technology that he’d become so enamored of in recent years. 

Then came the horrifyingly bad Mo-Cap movie MARS NEEDS MOMS, based on a wonderfully whimsical book by Berkeley Breathed, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer/artist behind the “Bloom County” comic strip and its sequels, “Outland” and “Opus.”  Breathed has a very distinct visual style, which producer Zemeckis and director Simon Wells chose to completely ignore, along with just about everything else which made the source material so endearing.  No wonder that movie crashed and burned so badly.

Even though Disney pulled the plug on its relationship with Zemeckis, including the YELLOW SUBMARINE remake, apparently Zemeckis kept the project on the back burner.  But according to the website MovieHole.net, that’s no longer the case.  Zemeckis is quoted as saying, “That would have been a great one to bring the Beatles back to life. But it’s probably better not to be remade – you’re always behind the 8-ball when do you a remake. It gets harder and harder [to make movies]. With the current state of the industry, it’s difficult to stay passionate about it. The hardest thing for a filmmaker as he’s aging is saying, “How much more of this crap can I take?” It’s tough. I can only do it if I have a script to believe in”

I’m incredibly relieved to hear that the remake is no longer even on a back burner. Part of what makes the original YELLOW SUBMARINE work so well is that it is absolutely a product of its time, both in terms of story and visual styling.  Re-imaging that traditional 2D animation in a 3D, CG, mo-cap world would destroy the charm and fun of the original.

Zemeckis is, however, apparently a sequel to his 1988 classic, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, only this time in 3D.  According to reports originally published on both the TotalFilm.com and Slashfilm.com websites, Zemeckis is actively developing the project with Disney.  The plan is to make it a period piece, like the original, including the incorporation of hand drawn animation, but using 3D tools, which presumably will result in a look akin to Disney’s 3D successful conversion of LION KING and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

This actually makes sense.  The story leaves the door open to sequels.  You’ve got great characters in an intriguing world and the sequel would still be a period piece. With the right script and cast, I’m cautiously optimistic about a ROGER RABBIT sequel, especially since live action star Bob Hoskins and most of the voice cast are still available.  Meanwhile, there are rumors that Disney is quietly converting the original to 3D for a possible theatrical re-release, not to mention the inevitable 3D Blu-ray/DVD release.  

By Gordon Meyer
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This time of year, while others may be winding down for a much deserved break, I’m putting in long hours prepping for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  Ever since the introduction of the VCR back in the late 1970s, the consumer electronics industry has been an important part of the entertainment industry and vice versa.  To a large degree, this is because so much Hollywood product ends up in people’s homes in the form of discs and downloads.  The synergistic importance of Hollywood and Silicon Valley has grown to the point that for the third year in a row, Variety is hosting its Entertainment Matters Summit at CES next week.

Of course part of the goal of top CE manufacturers has long been to provide a theatrical quality experience in the home.  Truthfully, this will never happen because there’s something inherently different about seeing a movie on a 50 foot wide screen in an actual theatre, surrounded by several hundred fellow fans.   But the kind of multichannel sound that was once the exclusive purview of theatres is now a common feature in the living rooms of the world, as is the wide image of a movie versus the previously normal 1.33:1 aspect ratio of a TV.

You never know what you’re going to see at CES.  But the press releases my mailbox has been flooded with gives me a pretty good idea of what at least some of what I have to look forward to, beginning with the newest generation of flat screen displays.  Highlights here include the latest generation of newly dubbed Ultra High Def standard, which will increase the pixel count by either 4x or 8x, the latter using a home version of the 4K technology that’s become increasingly popular in theatres. As posted earlier, there is a chicken and egg conundrum with 4K displays due to the dearth of native 4K content, combined with the fact that, at a certain point, most people will never be able to see enough of a tangible improvement in resolution to justify the premium costs involved.

I expect to see newer generations of autostereoscopic TVs, enabling viewers to watch 3D programming without the use of glasses.  CES has hosted prototypes of glasses-free 3D displays for a good ten years and they’ve yet to be ready for prime time.  But they do keep getting better.  Will 2013 be the year that autostereoscopic displays finally be good enough to be viable in the home market?  I’ll let you know when I get back from Vegas.

For me, CES is not just about cool home entertainment technologies.  It’s increasingly become a place to find new tools for professionals in all aspects of the business.  In some cases, we’re talking about the kinds of tools just about every business needs, like printers, scanners and other office gear.  With the exponential improvement in quality, it’s also about presumably consumer products like cameras and personal computers are being used as professional production and post production tools.

Three years ago, shortly after launching this blog, I built a computer from scratch, optimized for editing HD video and authoring/burning Blu-ray discs.  The way technology continues to advance, one of the things that’s on my To Do list for CES 2013 is to upgrade that system so that it’s even more effective as a tool for editing, including editing 3D content.  I’ll also be looking at products that will be increasingly used by consumers to play back the content P3 Update readers produce.  And along the way, I suspect I’ll find time to play just a little.

And on that note, Happy New Year one and all.  My New Year’s wish for P3 Update readers as part of my final blog entry for the year is for a 2013 filled with innovation, exciting and challenging projects to work on, and lots of well paid gigs. To quote a friend’s oft-used toast, “May the best day of your life so far be the worst day you experience from now on.”

By Gordon Meyer
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            I admit it.  I have yet to experience THE HOBBIT in any of its three theatrical formats, including the much discussed 48 fps presentation. But I recently watched AVATAR in 3D on a friend’s TV that doubled the frame rate so I have an idea of what the visual effect would be.  And to me, it kind of looks like glorified video, a comment made by many of HFR’s critics.  I do plan to see THE HOBBIT so I can decide for myself how well this new technology does or doesn’t work. 

Like any new concept, there’s a learning curve involved for filmmakers so they can not only most effectively use the distinct HFR look work to their advantage and, just as importantly, determine which projects would most benefit from it.  Recently, Vincent Laforet wrote an extensive piece on Peter Jackson’s use of HFR on Gizmodo.com.  He watched the movie in 3D HFR, regular 3D and 2D. 

One of the things I found so interesting were his comments about how VFX artists often take advantage of normal screen artifacts like motion blur to camouflage what they do.  But since one of the intents of HFR is to reduce, if not downright eliminate motion blur, this newer, “higher fidelity” form of filmmaking actually makes their jobs harder.  Laforet observed that, “…every costume, makeup job, set, and VFX element was more front and center—out there naked, for everyone to see that this filmmaking biz was nothing but an elaborate hoax. Kind of like what you feel when you see the models or costumes from your favorite films in a museum.”  In other words, the visual details are so sharp, that it becomes way too easy to see the proverbial man behind the curtain instead of the intended illusion.

Even more interesting was his observation that the movie played dramatically better in regular 3D than it did in HFR 3D and it played best of all in 2D.  Much of his response was obviously very subjective and his own personal visceral response to what was on the screen.  But it underscores the importance of filmmakers learning to effectively use technologies intended to further enhance and immerse the audience.

When this initial cycle of 3D movies began a few years ago, a number of studio executives took the approach that, as long as something was in 3D, it would sell more tickets.  So we saw a bunch of crappy conversions and shoddily shot movies where the filmmakers erroneously assumed that they could make 3D movies the same way they had always made 2D movies, except with a 3D rig. 

We’ve learned that it doesn’t work that way.  Just as the use of multichannel sound has to be carefully designed and artfully mixed if it’s to be an effective storytelling tool, so does the use of 3D.  When it comes to the effective use of 3D, more and more filmmakers are not only consciously designing their films for stereoscopic exhibition, they’ve also discovered that they often have more creative control by shooting in 2D and converting.  Readers of the May issue of P3 Update read about how director Barry Sonnenfeld and his Oscar winning VFX supervisors Ken Ralston and Jay Redd made that choice when shooting MEN IN BLACK 3.

HFR is essentially a whole new format for filmmakers, especially when combined with 3D.  Considering how much Warner Bros. has pushed exhibitors to upgrade their digital projection systems to accommodate the new format, I anticipate that they’ll dip their corporate toes into the HFR waters at least a few more times before rendering a final judgment.  Meanwhile, filmmakers looking to follow in Jackson’s HFR footsteps should follow Vincent Laforet’s lead and study THE HOBBIT in all three versions to better discern what does and doesn’t work well in HFR.  If a movie is properly designed and produced for HFR, including how it’s cut, it has the potential to be the next premium format.  But movie goers will need to experience HFR in a way that dramatically improves their viewing experience, instead of serving as a distraction by showing too much visual information. 

For those wishing to read Mr. Laforet’s astute observations in full, here’s where you can find the article: http://gizmodo.com/5969817/the-hobbit-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-why-48-fps-fails

By Gordon Meyer
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  One of the conundrums that studio honchos have faced since the dawn of home video has been how to control how consumers digest their content in order to maximize profits.  The problem with this attitude has been that consumers increasingly want what they want, where and when they want it.  This desire has been one of the major motivations for downloading bootlegged videos off the internet over the years.  But bit by bit, the studios have finally caught on.  The first phase was the introduction of digital copies of select movies.  Next came services like UltraViolet, where, once you bought a DVD or Blu-ray, you could activate a cloud based digital copy that could be viewed on any registered devise.  The thing was, UltraViolet was only available on select new releases.  For anything you already had on your shelf, forget about it.  Until WalMart and their Vudu service introduced a program earlier this year enabling you to transfer copies of your commercial DVDs and Blu-rays to UltraViolet for a modest fee.

Now, the struggling electronics chain Best Buy wants to get into the act as well, linking their CinemaNow VOD service to UltraViolet.   According to Home Media Magazine, Best Buy quietly began to test market a program what would let  consumers unlock an UltraViolet-enabled version of more than 3,500 titles from several studios, including Sony, Universal, Warner and Lionsgate. 

According to the CinemaNow page, “CinemaNow’s in-home Disc To Digital service (currently in Beta) enables users to easily, inexpensively and legally convert their DVDs into ‘play anywhere, anytime’ digital movies using UltraViolet & the CinemaNow Mac & PC Player (v2.6 and higher).”  In order to use this service, you have to have accounts with both CinemaNow and UltraViolet.  At this point, if you’re using CinemaNow on a web-enabled device like a TV or Blu-ray player, you appear to be out of luck.  And you can’t just transfer any title that you own a legitimate copy of.  For now, it’s DVD only; no Blu-ray.  And it’s got to be on the list of available titles, which can be found here:   http://rovicorp.force.com/cinemanow/Show_cn_Article?url=CN000003709

Similar to the in-store disc-to-digital program launched by Walmart in April, CinemaNow disc-to-digital DVD owners can pay $2 to unlock a standard-definition version of a film, or $5 to upgrade the content to high definition. Rovi Corp. is providing the technology that enables the CinemaNow disc-to-digital service.

Giving consumers the ability to watch the video content they’ve bought on any device they have is already helping to stem bootlegging.  And at just a couple of bucks per title for the transfer, the price is certainly attractive to consumers, especially since you also have the option of an HD upgrade for about the price of what many video stores charge for a single disc rental. 

I understand the market necessities of promoting cloud based viewing of movies and TV shows as a way to address both consumer demand and the economic need to shore up declining sales of packaged media.  But to me, movies are about a big screen theatrical experience.  Watching a film on even an 80” home display that was made to be seen on a 50’ wide screen with an audience really waters down the experience.  To then watch these movies on tablets or, worse yet, a smartphone, dilutes the experience even more.  The question is, how long will it be before we see studio honchos pressuring filmmakers to optimize their movies for small screen viewing?  For theatrical films, I hope the answer is “never.”  But given the growing popularity of using mobile devices to watch video content, I expect to see a growing market for direct to mobile titles in the very near future. 

Friday, 21 December 2012 18:56

The Gizmo Guy - Screener Season

By Gordon Meyer
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As 2o12 comes to an end, not only have we successfully lived through the  Mayan end of the world prophesy, more importantly, we're also close to making it to the end of another wave of Awards Season screenings.  A lot of my friends and colleagues are  members of the Academy and/or one of the major talent guilds and therefore beneficiaries of the studios' annual rite of sending out DVD or Blu-ray screeners of the movies they most want to promote for awards.  

I'm a collector myself so I understand the appeal of getting screeners, including the convenience of watching a movie in the comfort of your own home.  And I have to admit that some of my friends have pretty impressive home theatre setups with state of the art sound and large, front projection displays.  But I'm sincerely hope that my screener collecting friends evaluate these Awards Season contenders by first viewing them in a theatre.

I got a tangible reminder of the power of seeing a movie in a theatre with a large, responsive audience twice this month.  The first was when, as part of their 85th Anniversary yearlong celebration, Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood ran IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE for a sold out crowd.  I've lost count of how many times I've seen this movie on TV and then, uncut on DVD.  I think I even saw a 35mm print back in my film school days for one of my classes. 

But seeing this beautifully restored (digital) print on a 30 foot high screen surrounded by 1,000 passionate movie lovers was a revelation.   Not only did I see visual details that I had never noticed before, but  seeing this movie with an audience was simply a totally different experience than any of the previous times I'd seen the movie.  This was the way Frank Capra and his collaborators intended for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be seen and it was an eye opener.

A few nights ago, I went to a screening of DJANGO UNCHAINED, Quentin Tarantino's latest homage to 70s cinema in general and spaghetti westerns in particular.   This screening was at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn theatre in Beverly Hills, with pristine projection, state of the art sound and an audience of 1,000.    In classic Tarantino style, this movie is rife with both sly references to 1970s cinema and TV and Tarantino's trademark absurdist humor, including lots of gleefully over the top, cartoon violence. 

After watching that movie on a giant screen surrounded by such a responsive audience, I realized that DJANGO UNCHAINED is a textbook example of a movie that really needs to be seen theatrically and with an audience, especially when watching it for the first time.  Anything less means at best a watered down experience that doesn't do justice to the film or filmmakers' vision.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm no Luddite when it comes to home entertainment technology.  I had a laserdisc player  for years and was an early adopter of the DVD.  Currently, in addition to my standalone Blu-ray player, I also have a BD drive in my computer and NVIDIA's 3D Vision technology so I can watch movies in 3D on my 23" monitor from my library of probably 400+ Blu-rays and DVD.  And yes, while sitting in waiting rooms or even while while sitting in a theatre before a movie begins, I've been known to pull out my tablet to watch something on Netflix Streaming.  But it's not the same experience.  Not even close.

 In this new era of consumers wanting to see their scripted entertainment content wherever they are and whenever they want, and more and more people watching movies on their computers, tablets and/or smartphones, there are those who join with the Mayans in predicting the pending end of the world for theatrical exhibition.  I hope not.  

Vancouver-based actress Nicole G. Leier (“Edgemont”) and cinematographer Brendan Uegama, csc (“Exit Humanity”) have formed Black Tree Pictures.  Black Tree Pictures produced the short, “Henry’s Glasses”, which won several awards including the National Film Board’s Best Short Film Award at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. The film also won Best Picture and Best Director honors at the Vancouver Short Film Festival last October and Best Picture at Oregon’s Disorient Asian Film Festival.   The company is currently in development stages for the feature film production of “Henry’s Glasses.”

Monday, 17 December 2012 16:40

Movie Review - Les Miserables

 

By Gordon Meyer
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Gordon's score A-

Like millions of others, I am enamored of the stage version of LES MISERABLES. I first discovered the show back in the 1980s, on my second trip to London. It was but two months into what would become a 19 year run at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End when I saw it for the first time.  Since then, I’ve seen live performances a good half dozen times and have DVDs of both the 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts.  Needless to say, I became increasingly excited about the big screen version that opens domestically on Christmas day, especially after the overwhelming majority of my Facebook     friends who attended advance screenings raved about it.

I finally saw the big screen version of LES MIZ over the weekend, thanks to my friends at the Digital Cinema Society.  The screening included a Q&A with Simon Hayes, Production Sound Mixer and Andy Nelson, Re-Recording Mixer.  I’ll be writing about that conversation in a separate piece.  For now, consider this a review of the movie itself.

For those not familiar with the story, LES MISERABLES takes place in France during the first half of the 19th Century and is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-convict who served 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to keep his sister and her child from starving.  He breaks his parole, changes his identity and becomes a wealthy businessman.  But Javert (Russell Crowe), a former prison guard turned police inspector wants to send him back to prison for breaking his parole.  Meanwhile, Valjean comes to the aid of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee forced into prostitution, agreeing to take care of her young daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and raise her as his daughter.

Although largely faithful to the stage play, this version of LES MIZ is its own animal, something I kept reminding myself while watching it.  As is often the case when stage musicals are adapted for the big screen, director Tom Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson made a number of changes from the stage play.  They played musical chairs with the order of some of the scenes, expanded some sequences while either condensing or eliminating others.  Some songs were shortened while others had new lyrics added as well as a whole new song. For those who know the stage version well, it would behoove you to divorce your memories of it and judge it as an independent work.

I found the casting to be a mixed bag.  As many other critics have stated, the two standouts are Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  Although Fantine only appears in a handful of scenes, Hathaway’s performance is powerfully raw and truly Oscar worthy.  Jackman is a worthy successor to Colm Wilkinson who originated the role in both the London and on Broadway productions and appears in a small, but crucial role in the movie as the Bishop of Digne.

Just about all the major roles in LES MIZ require actors with major league singing chops, especially Valjean, since his songs often feature an exceptionally broad musical range and Jackman steps up to the plate beautifully. But Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert is another story. Maybe I’m spoiled or at least heavily influenced by all the wonderful actors I’ve seen who’ve performed Javert on stage, but Crowe just didn’t do it for me.  His singing was adequate.  Unfortunately, the role calls for much more than adequate.  It calls for power and authority and an edge.  Crowe’s singing voice was frankly a mismatch, coming off as slightly mushy. 

Visually, LES MIZ is a real treat.  While the limitations of stagecraft forced Trevor Nunn, the original director, to stylize and suggest France in the mid 19th Century, Tom Hooper and his team shows us what appears to be a well researched and historically accurate picture of the locations where the story takes place.  To me, this realism added a deeper context that serves to intensify many of the story elements, especially Fantine’s fall.

As for the changes that Hooper and Nicholson made to the stage version, some worked well to bring additional depth to the story, like the new song that Valjean sings to Cosette as a little girl shortly after he rescues her from the thieving Thernardiers, a crooked innkeeper and his wife (Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who Fantine had been paying to take care of Cosette.  But other changes seemed to have been made more for the sake of change than to strengthen the story.   While none of the changes hurt the story, I kept asking myself, why did they bother?

There’s one other aspect of this movie that bothered me and I admit that this is a bit of nit picking on my part.  When the story begins, Jean Valjean has been in prison for 19 years, making him 40 something.  By the time the story ends, almost 20 years have passed.  Valjean is described as “an old man” and of course the surrogate father of a young woman close to 20.  But Jackman’s appearance never aged and Javert’s appearance changed very little.  Both characters look pretty much the same throughout the movie, even though in every stage version I’ve enjoyed, both characters visibly age from one major sequence to another.  While it’s not a really big deal, I did find this avoidable lack of realism to be distracting.

Still, I have to admit that during the finale, there were tears streaming down my face from the emotional impact of the film.  While LES MISERABLES is a flawed film that could have been better, it’s still a hell of a movie that mostly captures the essence of the stage show and even manages to add new depth to the story.  However for those purists out there who prefer the stage version, there’s always the 25th Anniversary semi-staged concert version.  

 

By Gordon Meyer
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One of the first classes I took as a film school student had us make a short film with only music and maybe sound effects on the audio track.  No dialog was allowed.  Since film is a visual medium, the idea was to train us on how to tell a story primarily using pictures.  I thought about that as I was re-discovering the Disney-Pixar feature UP, which was recently converted into 3D for its debut on the Blu-ray format.  The first 15 minutes or so of UP tells the story of Carl Fredrickson from the time he was a young boy fascinated with the world famous explorer Charles Muntz, through his lifelong romance with his childhood sweetheart Ellie.  Shortly after we meet Ellie as a very tom boyish girl, writers Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, who also directed, present a dialog-free montage depicting the lifelong courtship and marriage of Carl and Ellie, right through her death.  It’s one of the most heartfelt and touching sequences of any movie to come from a major studio, live action or animated.  It’s also a poignant reminder of the power of cinema to tell stories and convey emotions just through images.

For those who have yet to discover this Oscar winning gem (Best Animated Feature 2009), UP tells the story of widower Carl Fredrickson, and his quest to visit a remote South American paradise to honor the promise he made to his late wife.  He turns his house into an airship with the help of thousands of helium filled balloons.  But his trip is complicated by the appearance of a well-meaning boy named Russell, out to earn a “helping the elderly” merit badge for his Wilderness Scout troop.

The movie has been out long enough that there’s no need to go into a lot of details about the story, other than to say it’s one of the Pixar team’s most original and touching.  Disney’s 3D Blu-ray release is a true gem.  First of all, the 3D conversion is pristine.  There’s an effective use of 3D space and depth that’s also very natural and organic.  While not as dramatic as the use of 3D in more recent releases like HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, the stereoscopic imagery does add to the intimacy of the story. (As an aside, click here to read my interview with HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA director Genndy Tartakovsky.)

The 3D edition is a 5 disc box consisting of the feature itself in 3D on BD, the 2D version of the feature along with two shorts and other bonus content, a dedicated BD disc with additional bonus content, the feature on DVD and the digital edition of the feature.  One of the shorts, “Partly Cloudy,” was originally released with UP when it came out theatrically in 2009 and is a very sweet story about one of the many storks who deliver babies to the world.  The other short, “Dug’s Secret Mission,” is essentially a bit of back story for one of the characters in the movie.  While it’s technically well executed and has some amusing moments of physical comedy, it’s not really up to the standards of other Pixar shorts.  But since it’s there, it’s certainly worth watching at least once.

For anyone serious about film, Disney has compiled a really good collection of short documentaries, each of which covers a different aspect of how UP was made.  While director commentaries have been common features since the laserdisc days, Disney takes this a step further with their new Cine Explore feature that incorporates a picture-in-picture component to the process, adding a new depth to these commentaries.

The documentaries, most of which run 5-8 minutes, cover a broad spectrum of behind the scenes topics, including the development of Carl Fredrickson’s character and his largely dialog free relationship with his wife, Ellie.  Other key characters, including 8 year old Wilderness Scout Russell and the South American flightless bird Kevin get their own documentaries.  There’s also a 30 minute featurette about the research trip key members of the creative team took to South America that gives some very interesting insights into the way the visual look of the film was developed, though frankly had that segment been cut to the same length as the other documentaries, I would have been just as happy.

From a filmmaker’s perspective, UP is one of those movies that people serious about cinematic storytelling need to have in their libraries to study over and over, whether they’re planning to focus on live action or animation.  It’s definitely a keeper.

Ratings:  Movie *****   Transfer *****   Bonus Content ****  3D Show Off Factor ***

UP is available now.  SRP is $49.99, street price is $28 - $35

Saturday, 01 December 2012 22:44

Theatre Review: Anything Goes