Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'Benjamin Button' long but richly rewarding

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a visually exquisite fantasy about a man born old and who grows younger.

Where the story it was based on was a farce, the film is sober meditation on the process of living and a tragic love story. That makes the film seem awfully bleak. It isn’t. There are flashes of humor in the screenplay by Eric Roth that keep the film from being a complete downer.

Roth has written the scripts for “Munich,” “Ali” and “The Insider” among other films, but his most relevant work in connection with “Benjamin Button” is his adaptation of “Forrest Gump.” Both films focus on the life of one man, the people he encounters and ultimately the woman he loves.

The film is long — it clocks in at nearly three hours — and is slow. In a lot of cases these could be seen as criticisms, and for some people they will be negatives for the film, but patient viewers will be rewarded for their time. You want to spend time with the film's characters. As the film came to its conclusion, in spite of the length, I didn’t want it to end.

Benjamin Button is born a wrinkled infant with all the ailments of a not-well elderly man. As a child he is a wheelchair bound 80-year-old man. Early in the film Benjamin meets Daisy, a young girl around his true age that intrinsically can sense that he is not as old as he looks.

This sets up the film’s central love story as the two characters go their separate ways until they "meet in the middle” of their lives. Except for scenes where Benjamin is an infant and a child, Brad Pitt stars as the title character. Cate Blanchett stars as the adult Daisy. Both actors are in excellent form and Pitt’s performance needs to be seen to believe.

There are wonderful interludes before returning to the main love story. As Daisy goes off to become a dancer, Benjamin in his 20s/60s works on a tug boat that eventually is recruited for duty in World War II. His captain is played in by the wonderfully over-the-top and funny Jared Harris (“Igby Goes Down”).

In a nice sequence Benjamin has a short affair with a married woman (Tilda Swinton, “Michael Clayton”) in London. There’s a lovely sequence set in France that plays like a self-contained short film on chance. There are strong, affecting performances from Jason Flemying (“Stardust”) as Benjamin’s father and Taraji P. Henson (“Talk to Me”) as Benjamin’s adopted mother.

On a technical level, the film is nothing short of astounding. The aging process for both Pitt and Blanchett is wholly convincing. For Pitt, in the early scenes, it is a seamless combination of computer enhanced visuals and make up. Not only does Pitt look 80, but he looks to be less than 5 feet tall. There’s never a moment you doubt it.

The director is David Fincher whose work, which includes, “Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room” and “Zodiac,” has always been visually compelling. This is his most ambitious project in terms of sheer scope and he delivers.

His detractors often accuse Fincher of relying to heavily on overly stylized visuals. In the past, he experimented with different visual trickery and he still is in “Benjamin Button,” but now it is less obvious and more subtle. The film begins in 1918 and goes on up through 2003. The period detail throughout always seem spot on.

The cinematography by Claudio Miranda paired with the art direction by Kelley Curley, Randy Moore and Tom Reta is often breathtakingly beautiful. Visuals like a sunset on a peer leave a lasting impression in the mind.

The film isn’t perfect. There’s a story frame involving Daisy’s daughter (Julia Ormond) reading Benjamin’s memoir to her mother on her deathbed. This is fine, but the detail that Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the hospital feels unnecessary.

Some have complained that there is nothing to the Benjamin character beyond the extraordinary circumstances of his life. Benjamin seems content to just wait for the time when he can be with Daisy. It is a sad, but hopeful tale in many respects and in the end that’s what rings most true.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Say 'yes' to Carrey and Deschanel

Jim Carrey is a take him or leave him sort of performer. He has legions of fans who adore him, but maybe just as many who can’t stand him. For fans, “Yes Man” will be a pleasurable diversion, but it is unlikely to win over non-fans.

Carrey has been trying to balance his maniac comic side with more serious acting for about a decade now and has had found success as an actor with films like “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” These are the rare films that win over the Carrey non-believers. But Carrey can’t stay away too long from broad comedy.

So, we have “Yes Man,” a comedy about a man so mired in self loathing that he says no to everything until a reluctant trip to a self-help seminar hands him a new philosophy to live by: say yes to every opportunity presented to him. Some have complained that this basic premise is a stale retread of “Liar, Liar,” but instead of a man forced to tell the truth, you have one forced to say yes.

The similarity is certainly undeniable, but Carrey seems most comfortable in vehicles with high concepts, whether it is a man being given the powers of God in “Bruce Almighty,” turning into a living cartoon in “The Mask,” erasing memories of a painful relationship in “Eternal Sunshine,” or being the unwitting star of a 24- hour TV show in “The Truman Show.” It is as if Carrey’s personality is so big, even when subdued, that it needs an equally big idea just to balance it.

The premise does admittedly have problems, clearly saying yes to everything could leave someone broke and homeless if the wrong series of yeses occurred, but everything comes up positive for Carrey — and in some cases that’s part of the joke.
Don’t apply logic to the film. The premise is merely a device to set up riffs on everything from bar fights to learning Korean. The film plugs along nicely and occasionally stumbles upon moments of inspiration, as when Carrey serenades a jumper (Luis Guzman) on a ledge with an unexpected, but perfect song.

“Yes Man” is essentially a romantic comedy dressed up with big a comedic device to hide that fact. The same was true of “Bruce Almighty,” but in that film Carrey’s female co-star, Jennifer Aniston, wasn’t asked to truly go toe to toe in verbal battle with Carrey.

Carrey is given a worthy romantic lead in Zooey Deschanel (“Elf”), who has a quirky, low-key sense of humor that is a perfect balance to Carrey’s more outrageous comedic touches. Their scenes together are what make “Yes Man” a success. They have an easygoing, believable rapport.

There is an 18-year age difference between the two actors, but it isn’t a distraction because they play off each other so well. Deschanel with her deadpan delivery seems older and wiser than she truly is, and when paired with Carrey’s youthful energy the age issue disappears.

Deschanel sings often in her films and released the album "She & Him" with musician M. Ward this year. In "Yes Man" she gets to sing again since her characters fronts a New Wave band whose songs are both funny and oddly catchy.
Carrey is surrounded by a very funny supporting cast that is allowed to grab some of the film’s biggest laughs. Veteran actor Terence Stamp only has a few scenes as the self-help guru who sends Carrey on his mission of yes — and he makes every one count.

As Carrey’s friends, Danny Masterson, Bradley Cooper and, especially, John Michael Higgins are all solid. Rhys Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) is amusing as Carrey’s desperate-to-be-friends boss, who is constantly throwing themed parties. There is a good scene at a “Harry Potter” party.

Then there is Carrey himself. His performance falls somewhere in between his over-the-top comedic feats and his more low-key work. It is more or less what you expect from him and little more. I smiled throughout and laughed out loud several times. That was enough for me.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hard to stand this remake

To be perfectly blunt, the remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is dull, dull, dull. That’s right, that is three dulls, so in a way it is a bargain: Viewers get three times the boredom for the price of one ticket. How’s that for an endorsement?

In the original, an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrived on Earth with his eight-foot robot Gort to bring a message of peace or else. This character didn’t care about the squabbles of humanity, but warned if our weapons were pointed toward space then “this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

In this new version, Keanu Reeves steps into the role of Klaatu, but this time his robot Gort is the size of a building and his message is an environmental one. Since “only a handful of planets are capable of sustaining complex life,” Klaatu, who represents a sort of intergalactic United Nations, can’t allow the human race to destroy the planet.

This Klaatu doesn’t come bearing a warning. He is willing to attempt talking to someone of authority, but when his request is dismissed by a narrow-minded secretary of defense (Kathy Bates), he gives up this pursuit and sets off to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth.

It is too bad there wasn’t a genuine filmmaker with a true vision behind this film because the idea of a remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is not a bad one. The update in the message is relevant, but the execution is all wrong.

Remakes don’t need to be exercises in futility. Steven Spielberg’s remake of “War of the Worlds,” while not perfect, at least had moments that thrilled and created a mood. Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” was perhaps too long, but had heart, humor and scares. A talented director can do a remake well.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” has Scott Derrickson, whose directing credits include “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Hellraiser: Inferno.” He drenches the film with a visual sameness that just sits on the screen daring you to fall asleep.

As was true with the original, Klaatu goes out into the world to interact with humanity. In both films Klaatu becomes closest to a widow and her son, played in the update by Jennifer Connelly and Jaden Smith (“The Pursuit of Happyness”).

The original was very much about these interactions, but in the remake they are never given a chance to develop as they are constantly being intercut and undermined with how the American government and military are responding to this threat.

Much of the new film’s screen time is given to Smith, and his character is an obnoxious brat. In 1951 the boy was precocious and befriended Klaatu; today he has a chip on his shoulder and wants to kill Klaatu. Oh, how times have changed.

The middle part of the film is Connelly’s attempt to convince Klaatu that humanity can change if given a chance. Unfortunately, aside from one good and all too brief scene with John Cleese as a Nobel Prize winning professor, this chunk of the film is largely uninteresting with strained, repetitive dialogue and a slow pace.

The final act gives over to special effects that aren’t that special. We’ve seen mass destruction of the planet on the screen too many times over the last decade or so and this film offers nothing new. So even as a spectacle the film fails to excite.

Reeves is often accused of being a wooden actor, but given this reinterpretation of Klaatu as cold and emotionless, this complaint actual works to the advantage of the performance. Reeves dials down even more than usual to the point of, at times, being overly subdued, but had the film around him been stronger, his performance would have been more effective.
It doesn’t help that Klaatu has been given special powers that allow him to manipulate electrical devices. There are a couple moments that can’t help but recall “The Matrix,” which makes it seem like all Reeves is doing is once again playing a variation on his Neo character.

Connelly is a fine actress and she brings a lot to the film in terms of class and credibility, but she’s given little to do. She more or less has to play the same two or three scenes over and over again.

The film would have been greatly improved if it were half an hour shorter. It would still need a drastic rewrite to be a good film, but at least it would have been improved.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Year's resolution: Improve your moviegoing habits

As we enter 2009 it is time to look forward. Each new year is a clean slate, a chance to right the wrongs of the previous year. It is once again time for New Year's resolutions.

Money has gotten tight for everyone and some things need to be changed to make the dollar stretch. Frivolous follies of the past must be cut back or removed altogether. So where does that leave moviegoing?

Entertainment is always necessary as a means of escape and comfort, so by no means should seeing or renting movies be removed from a budget, but moviegoing habits may need to be altered. In 2009 make a resolution to become a better filmgoer.

Going out to see a movie, a especially as a family, can be an expensive endeavor, so do your research. If you are only going to see one movie over several weeks or months make sure it is the right one. Read several reviews for a movie that has peaked your interest. Make a point to read a sampling of negative and positive reviews because a negative review may reveal a fault that you might not see as a bad thing, in fact it may be exactly what you are looking for. A great resource for this is the Web site Rotten Tomatoes (, which compiles reviews of a given film and gives a percentage of good to bad reviews.

If you haven't yet, sign up for NetFlix or Blockbuster online. Both services provide home delivery of DVDs for a monthly fee. Depending on the plan you sign up for you can get movies one, two or three at a time and no restriction on the number of movies sent. Best of all there are no late fees. There is a benefit of going to a video store, namely browsing, but the cost of renting is too much. So, go to a video store for browsing purposes and make a list of films to put on your NetFlix or Blockbuster queue at home.

Video stores are a valuable resource for buying films cheaply. Instead of rushing out to buy a movie the week it comes out on DVD wait a month or two for it to show up in the previously viewed bin in video stores. DVDs that were selling for $20 to $30 will be half, or even a third of the price.

My biggest tip: avoid direct-to-DVD sequels. These are made to do one thing and one thing only: take your money by banking on the goodwill a popular title has built. Disney is notorious for this. How can you tell if a sequel has gone direct to DVD? There are clues. The first heads up should be that you heard nothing about it because, obviously, it never made it to theaters.

Another hint will be none of the actors of the original are in it. If one of the actors does appear it is because he or she is a washed up former star desperate for a paycheck. The most recent offender: Corey Feldman in "Lost Boys: The Tribe." A previous offender: C. Thomas Howell in "The Hitcher 2: I've Been Waiting." Even if the thought, "Oh, I liked the first one" pops into your head, don't be fooled.

Actually, let me be more specific, make it a rule to not rent or buy anything that does direct to DVD, even if it has big stars. More often than not there is a reason it skipped a theatrical release. Save your money.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A forgotten Christmas classic just 'around the corner'

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has become a Christmas standard along side such films as “A Miracle on 34th Street” and “A Christmas Story,” but it is not the only Christmas themed Jimmy Stewart film available. “The Shop Around the Corner,” released in 1940, is a warm, funny romantic comedy that is just as worthy of being a Christmas classic.

“Shop Around the Corner” is set in a department store in Budapest around Christmas time and is about anonymous pen pals (Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who are falling in love, but unknowingly work together and hate each other.

This basic premise was the inspiration for 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In that film the pen pals, now communicating via e-mail, don’t work together, but are working for competing bookstores, one a small independent, and the other a corporate book store not unlike Barnes and Nobles.

In both films, it is the male lead who first finds out the true identity of their pen pal and must find a way to deal with getting the written relationship and real relationship onto the same page.

The script by Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, is full of witty barbed exchanges and fast paced dialogue. After Stewart finds out Sullavan is his true love, at least on page, while she is still unaware, her put downs gain an extra sting.

When Sullavan tells Stewart: “I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag; instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter, which doesn't work,” it is enough to break your heart.

The film has plenty of great scenes. A personal favorite is when Sullavan tells Stewart what she’s going to get her pen pal for Christmas and to Stewart’s horror it is something he can’t stand. Stewart sends in a fellow employee, the likable Felix Bressart, to convince her otherwise. The punch-line to this scene is classic.

“Shop Around the Corner,” much like “It’s a Wonderful Life” has some darker themes. Both films feature a character who attempts suicide. It is this willingness to go to a dark place that makes “Shop Around the Corner” superior to “You’ve Got Mail,” but the film is by no means a downer. Quite the opposite, like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it buoys the spirit.

The film’s department store setting will be all too familiar to anyone who has worked retail, especially during the holiday season. Even though the film is approaching its 70th anniversary it is hardly dated. Sure the prices are far cheaper than they are now, but when it comes to sales, some things never change.

Stewart and Sullavan’s charming central performances are surrounded by a delightful set of supporting characters. The most familiar of the supporting cast is Frank Morgan, who will forever be remembered as the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. Morgan plays the owner of the department store and for those who are only familiar with his most famous role it is a real treat to see him in a role with more screen time.

William Tracy as Pepi, the sharp tongued errand-boy, is a scene stealer. For much of the movie, Tracy’s Pepi has to hold his tongue because of his lowly position, but when he is promoted to clerk he let’s his mouth run free with some very funny results.

It is hard not to stop smiling during the final scenes of the film. Even before Stewart and Sullavan inevitably get together, there is a genuinely uplifting scene between Morgan and another character that truly captures the spirit of the holiday season.

A different sort of 'Carol'

The Resort Players' present the American debut of 'Carol's Christmas'

Charles Dickens’ perennial “A Christmas Carol” has been performed, parodied and adapted countless times. Even Mickey Mouse and the Muppets have taken on the classic. The Resort Players of Mount Washington Valley has done traditional versions of the tale three times in the past, but this year the company took a different approach by presenting “Carol’s Christmas,” a modern twist on the old favorite.

“Carol’s Christmas,” by Canadian playwright Kathleen Oliver, made its United States debut at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. Dec. 5 and is continuing its run with performances Dec. 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee Dec. 14.

The show falls somewhere between parody and homage in updating the story to be about Carol Dixon (Rae Evelyn McCarey), a shock radio DJ with a cold heart. The update is closest in spirit to the TV movie “A Diva’s Christmas Carol” or Bill Murray's “Scrooged,” but without quite the same level of irreverence.

Dickens’ purists may be disappointed to discover the ghosts of Christmas past and present don’t make their usual appearances. The ghost of Christmas past has been replaced with a flashback.

The ghost of Christmas present essentially makes an appearance, but without that title, instead the role is filled by Carol’s late father (Tom O’Reilly). This proves to be a pleasing variation that adds some tenderness to the exchanges between the spirit and Carol.

The ghost of Christmas future is present in all his Grim Reaper-esque glory. Carol’s interactions with this spirit are among the funniest in the show. One entirely unexpected moment provides the production with its biggest laugh.

The largest departure from the Dickens story is that Tiny Tim has been replaced with a sassy grandmother, hilarious played by Karen O’Neil. The rest of the show more or less plays out the same as a more traditional version — just with the details slightly altered.

As with any spin on “A Christmas Carol,” the success of the production falls squarely on the actor in the Scrooge role. McCarey, who also appeared recently in “Bash” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” is in great form. She brings the appropriate level of cynical sarcasm when she is supposed to be on the radio and transfers that energy well into outright meanness when she is off the air. McCarey seems to be a natural comedian with great timing.

The rest of the large cast is equally solid. Highlights include Stacy Sand as Marlene, the Jacob Marley character of the show, and Mary Bastoni-Rebmann, Natasha Repass and Gus Owen as Carol’s mother, sister and brother. Repass has a very amusing bit early in the show when caroling.

The only glaring flaw of the production is a slideshow of pictures of McCarey as Carol. It is unclear what the purpose of the slideshow is. Is it meant to create pathos? Laughter? It does neither. Coming late in the second act, it brings the show to a halt, but this is only a few minutes in an otherwise entertaining show.

The production, directed by Dennis O’Neil, is well staged and paced with an effective radio studio set design also by O’Neil. The lightning design by Christopher S. Chamber is suitably moody when necessary.

The use of swing-inspired Christmas music by the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy before the show and during the intermission is a nice touch. Make sure to stay after the curtain call for a little bonus.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Merry Subversive Christmas: More songs to help survive the holidays

Two years ago I provided a list of songs to counterbalance the oh-so-cheery holiday music that saturates airwaves and blares out of the speakers of retail hell. Now, the holiday season is upon us once again so I bestow upon you five more subversive holiday songs. These songs are at times cynical, maybe a little mean, but you can only take so much forced goodwill before you snap.

"Father Christmas"- The Kinks (1977)
Although this is a radio favorite, don't be fooled into thinking this is your run-of-the-mill Christmas carol. Leave it to The Kinks, the same band that sang about an encounter with the transvestite "Lola," to write a song about mugging Santa. Ray Davies' sunny delivery masks the nastiness in lyrics such as "Father Christmas, give us some money/Don't mess around with those silly toys/Well beat you up if you don't hand it over."

"Christmas in Heaven" - Monty Python (1983)
"Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the spin-off series of films were always filled with loopy songs that often pointed out the hypocrisies or the idiosyncrasies of society. The comedy troupe's final film "Monty Python and the Meaning of Life" culminated with a trip to heaven where it is Christmas every day. The late Graham Chapman as an over-the-top lounge-lizard sings a caustic song about the consumerism and commercialism that runs rampant during the holiday season that includes lyrics like: "There's great films on TV/"The Sound of Music" twice an hour/And "Jaws" one, two, and three."

"Christmas at Ground Zero" - "Weird Al" Yankovic (1986)
Weird Al's song parodies are usually goofy and innocuous, but Al also has a macabre and twisted sense of humor that occasionally shines through. Written in 1986, "Christmas at Ground Zero" is a biting satire on Cold War paranoia filtered through the sound of a festive holiday tune. Are lines like: "It's Christmas at ground zero/There's panic in the crowd/We can dodge debris while we trim the tree/Underneath the mushroom cloud" riotously funny, or simply in bad taste? You be the judge.

"Little Drum Machine Boy" - Beck (1996)
"The Little Drummer Boy" gets morphed into an odd dance and rap flavored Chanukkah anthem featuring "the holiday Chanukkah robot of funk." Beck is a chameleon-like musician who jumps to and blends different genres with amazing skill. It is hardly traditional, but certainly original and memorable. It needs to be heard to believe.

"Mr. Heat Miser" - Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (2004)
The song first appeared in the 1974 stop-motion animation special "The Year Without Santa" and also features the song sung by the Heat Miser's chilly counterpart the Snow Miser. In the special Mrs. Claus tries to convince the feuding offspring of Mother Nature to help a sick Santa. Thirty years later the swing revival group Big Bad Voodoo Daddy recorded the definitive version of the song for their holiday album "Everything You Want for Christmas."

'Four Christmases' good for a few laughs

Christmas has many traditions: the Christmas tree, egg nog, mistletoe, stockings hung with care, cookies and milk left out for Santa and so on. “Four Christmases,” following on the heels of last year’s “Fred Claus,” may be the beginning of a new tradition: the annual Vince Vaughn Christmas comedy.

Each year there is a new onslaught of holiday themed movies, the vast majority of which are mediocre at best. Occasionally a new classic, such as 2003’s “Elf” or 1994’s “The Santa Clause,” will emerge but more often than not these films are disposable and utterly forgettable.

“Four Christmases” is hardly a classic, but it does have several laugh-out-loud moments for those who appreciate Vaughn’s fast-talking shtick. Vaughn has been playing an unchanging comedic persona for several years now. No matter the film, you get the same thing and that’s fine. He’s very good at what he does and provides the film with all its best laughs.
The premise has Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon getting caught in the act of trying to skip out on Christmas with their families for a trip to Fiji. Since both sets of parents are divorced it means they must celebrate four Christmases in one day.

The film starts out with Vaughn and Witherspoon in a relationship where neither has any desire to get married or have kids because they’ve seen what happened to their parents. Early in the film, Vaughn has a great caustic rant explaining why marriage ruins a relationship that is very funny.

As the film progresses it loses its cynical edge and succumbs to the mechanism of a holiday message film. The film doesn’t even try to be subtle about the change of heart of its characters. At each Christmas, Witherspoon must hold a baby and naturally it stirs her maternal instinct even though she knocks one baby’s head against a cabinet and another pukes on her.

Another reoccurring theme that is forced into otherwise fine comedic scenarios is that Vaughn and Witherspoon don’t really know each other after dating three years. This is most awkwardly presented during a scene featuring the word association game Taboo. Simply because this is a holiday film doesn’t mean a message of the importance of family must be shoved down the viewer’s throat.

Witherspoon is a fine comedienne, just look at “Election” or “Legally Blond” for evidence and while she gets some laughs here, the film undermines her performance by requiring her to spend much of the film pained at the realization of the error of her ways.

The film would’ve been much stronger if it had the courage to stay the course of its original convictions. “Bad Santa” was a rude, crude and unapologetically coarse comedy that stayed that way throughout and it worked. Even when it did get to a message of holiday cheer it wasn’t in a manner that compromised its characters.

Of the four families, the first is probably the funniest. Man’s man Robert Duvall has named each of his son’s after the city they were born. Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw) are semi-professional ultimate fighters who mercilessly beat on Vaughn. This is particularly funny after Vaughn gives a speech on respecting boundaries.

Vaughn and Favreau were both put on the map by 1996’s “Swingers” and the real life friends have appeared together on camera again in “Made” and “The Break-Up.” It is always nice to see these two share the screen and their scenes together are some of the film’s best.

The second Christmas, featuring Mary Steenburgen (“Elf,” “Step Brothers”) as a born again Christian also scores some good laughs especially when Vaughn and Witherspoon are forced to star as Joseph and Mary in a Christmas pageant.

The biggest disappoint of the film is that the parents are all played by top actors. In addition to Duvall and Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek and Jon Voight also appear. These are acting powerhouses that are required to do very little. Even Witherspoon is an Academy Award winner, not that this needs to be an Oscar-worthy film, but given the caliber of the actors, you can’t help be let down that they don’t have stronger material.

This review is coming off as fairly harsh. The bottom line is if you see the film you will laugh, it is just too bad that the film holds itself back. There is one very big laugh at the end, so at least you'll leave with a smile on your face.

Friday, November 28, 2008

'Twilight' offers little to sink into

“Twilight” was a guaranteed hit. The adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s immensely popular book about forbidden love between a vampire and a human had a huge built-in audience that was going to come out no matter what. Here was an opportunity to try to make something with an edge that could still make money. Leave it to Hollywood to not take the risk.

As a film, “Twilight” isn’t awful, but for large portions it is completely underwhelming and lifeless. There is a dull visual sameness throughout. Nearly every scene has the grayish blue of a perpetual twilight, which is probably the point, but is hardly compelling to look at.

The first half of the film comes dangerously close to being boring with repeated scenes of new girl in town Bella (Kristen Stewart, “In The Land of Women”) and the mysterious Edward (Robert Pattinson) exchanging lustful looks. There is a scene early on that is unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny.

It is not a surprise that Edward is a vampire, but the film acts like it is and takes far too long getting Bella to that realization. Just in case the audience wasn’t paying attention, director Catherine Hardwicke gives brief flashbacks to all the evidence: He’s fast, he’s strong and he has cold skin. It is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

Many critics have used phrases such as “but I am not the demographic” when describing the film. This is a cop-out because if the film were better made it could transcend its target audience of non-discerning teen girls and find a broader appeal. Meyer’s book series has a large adult readership, in addition to its teen one, that is being ignored

There is so much potential that the film only hints at. These are non-traditional vampires. This story features no stakes through the heart, holy water, garlic, coffins or crosses. The vampires can walk in the daylight, although they avoid direct sunlight because it reveals their identity in an unusual way.

At its core, there is an intriguing, largely unexplored, concept of a vampire family who has made a decision to feed only on animal blood. Although they aren’t related by blood, so to speak, Edward is part of a large family with many brothers and sisters. These characters are briefly introduced and seem likable and interesting, but aside from a dynamic baseball game — the best scene in the film — we don’t spend any quality time with them.

More time should have been allowed for interaction between Bella and Edward with his family. If less time had been spent with brooding glares in parking lots and classrooms, this could have been possible.

It doesn’t help that the film ends with a chase and fight involving a rival vampire (Cam Gigandet) who hungers for Bella. This conclusion is meant to show that Bella is now part of Edward’s “family,” but since so little time was given to developing that aspect of the film the chase feels more obligatory than a true extension of the story.

Overall, the film is certainly watchable, but it should be more than just that. There are isolated lines of wit that suggest to what could’ve been. There is also some nice chemistry between Stewart and Taylor Lautner, as one of Bella’s childhood friends. The actors are fine, but Stewart and Pattinson aren’t asked do much more than look beautiful. Many teen girls will pay the price of admission just to swoon over Pattinson.

Ultimately, the real disappointment here is director Hardwicke, whose first film “Thirteen” chronicled the loss of innocence of a young girl who succumbed to a lifestyle of sex and drugs. That film had an authenticity because Hardwicke co-scripted the film with the then 14-year old Nikki Reed — who plays Rosalie in “Twilight.” Perhaps Reed should’ve given screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg’s largely flat adaptation of “Twilight” a once over.

“Twilight” plays it safe when it could’ve been provocative and explored complex themes. Forgive me, but it has to be said: “Twilight” lacks bite.

Friday, November 21, 2008

'Solace' offers a different kind of Bond

“Quantum of Solace,” the 22nd James Bond film, is the first direct sequel in the franchise’s 46 years. It marks a different direction for the series as it moves away from formula to try to create a new Bond universe.

“Casino Royale” sent the series back to the beginning in 2006. We were introduced to Bond (Daniel Craig) just as he received his double O status and joined him as he went on his first mission.

Since it was the first mission, some things were missing. There was no Moneypenny. No double entendres. There was no Q dispensing nifty gadgets and this Bond didn’t need them. Craig’s Bond was rough around the edges and more physical than previous incarnations. He was also given emotions to grapple with, something new for an actor playing Bond. Craig was excellent the first time around and is just as strong the second time.

Those expecting that with the origin story now out of the way that the familiar motifs would return will be disappointed. “Quantum of Solace” picks up where “Casino Royale” left off with Bond (Daniel Craig) hungry to avenge the death of his true love, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

During his pursuit, Bond stumbles upon a plot of an organization with the façade of an environmental group. The scheme of company head Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is just as muddled and unclear as any Bond villain’s plot.

Amalric isn’t a Bond villain with a bizarre quirk or secret lair, although he does have a meeting at a hotel powered by hydrogen fuel cells in the middle of a desert. He is a more standard issue baddie. Amalric does a nice job making the character sufficiently slimy, and when forced into combat his attack scream is laughable and sort of creepy at the same time.

This is one of, if not, the most action packed Bond films. In fact, it plays more like a Jason Bourne movie than a James Bond movie with the action scenes very much tailored in the style of the hand-to-hand combats, foot chases and car chases of that series. This is not a criticism. The action sequences are extremely well-crafted and quite thrilling.

The film looks fabulous because it has a true director at its helm. Director Marc Forester is a chameleon-like filmmaker who seems like he can work within any genre successfully. His diverse resume includes “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction.” He is a genuine filmmaker who brings moments of unexpected grace and beauty to the fold.

Although “Casino Royale” lacked the innuendos of its predecessors, the film did have a sharp wit. The largest flaw this new film has is that it is missing that flash of humor. In this film, as was true of Matt Damon’s Bourne, Craig’s Bond is a mostly silent hero. There are laughs, but most come from the raw efficiency in which Bond gets the job done.

This humorless Bond seems like a necessary departure, if only for one adventure. The female co-stars of the series, lovingly referred to as Bond girls, were always forgotten by the next mission, no matter how important they may have been in the context of the film. It is nice that for the first time in the series, Bond cares enough about a girl to want vengeance for her death.

There are naturally two new Bond girls, and although Bond does take one (Gemma Arterton) to bed, the theme is that Bond’s sexual conquests have consequences. One of the biggest criticisms thrown at the series has been that it is sexist and uses women merely as objects. This film, like many recent installments, seems to be trying to rectify that. It helps that Judi Dench has returned as Bond’s boss M. This is her sixth and strongest appearance in the series.

The film’s main Bond girl is played by Olga Kurylenko (“Max Payne”) who, like Bond, is out to avenge the death of a loved one. Rather than any sexual tension, it is this mutual goal that links them. Kurylenko’s character is not as dynamically written as Green’s Vesper in “Casino Royale,” but she makes a strong impression. She is beautiful, a prerequisite for all Bond girls, but is able to play the more emotional scenes well.

“Quantum of Solace” is a good, entertaining film, but there will be much debate to whether it is actually a good Bond film. The series’ new tone may frustrate purists, but thus far I’ve enjoyed the new direction. That being said it would be nice for Bond to find his sense of humor again in the next installment.

Friday, November 14, 2008

46 years of Bond

Today the 22nd official James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace” arrives in theaters. I am not among the privileged elite who have already seen it, so for now I want to take a look back at agent 007.

I am hardly an expert on all things Bond. I will confess that I haven’t seen more than 30 minutes of any of the Roger Moore Bond pictures, but I don’t think I am missing much. Moore always seemed too dapper and sort of wimpy. Sean Connery is my Bond. I have enjoyed other actor’s work as Bond, but Connery will always be the first and best.

Connery brought raw physicality to the role. He could be rough and tumble one moment and then pour the charm on the next moment. He was able to play the material both seriously and with tongue placed in cheek. The playful innuendos that became increasingly more tired and obligatory as the series continued were delivered with a just right wink by Connery.

Those early Connery films, starting with 1962’s “Dr. No,” set up the template. There were always two Bond girls: one good, one bad, a grandiose villain bent on world domination, the delightful gadgets provided by Q, the sassy exchanges with secretary Miss Moneypenny, spectacular action that with each progressive film had to be topped and of course the double entendre spiked dialogue.

Of those first films, 1964’s “Goldfinger” still remains the most iconic and oft-parodied Bond film. In addition to the gold obsessed titular villain (Gert Frobe), the film includes the most memorably named Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and the henchman Oddjob (Harold Sakata) with his lethal hat throwing abilities.

The second Bond film, 1963’s “From Russia With Love” is noteworthy for being perhaps the most suspenseful of the series. Much of the film is set a train and plays more like a Hitchcock thriller than the slam-bam action adventures the series would evolve into.

Also of note of the Connery film’s is 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” Scripted by Roald Dahl, famous for writing such children’s classics as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda,” it is the most delightfully odd Bond film.

In those first films, Bond seemed to be such an entity of the 1960s that it is hard to fathom that 46 years later he is still a force at the box office, but the character has become such an engrained part of pop culture that we as audiences don’t want to see him go. He’s an icon like Superman or Batman. The stories are always more or less the same and we all know what to expect, but there is comfort in that. The series is kept fresh because each decades Bond has had a different flavoring.

In the late 1980s, Timothy Dalton’s two Bond films, “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill,” saw a return to a harder edged persona after the series went soft under Moore. The franchise had become overly bloated and verging on self-parody, so the Dalton films moved away from the campy excess and went for straight action.

With the cold war over at the open of the 1990s the series waited five years to figure out what to do without the franchise’s long standing villain of choice: the Russians. Ultimately, the franchise decided to stick with Russia as the settling for “GoldenEye,” Pierce Brosnan’s crackerjack first appearance as Bond, but the baddie was a British agent (Sean Bean) taking advantage of the instability of post-cold war Russia.

It was 1997’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” that would prove to have the quintessential Bond villain of the 1990s, a Rupert Murdock-esque media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) set out to create a world war so he could profit from telling the story via print and broadcast media. In these two films, Brosnan was almost on the same level as Connery.

Now Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, lives in a post-9/11 world with terrorism standing in for communism, but more on Craig and the new direction of the series in next week’s review of “Quantum of Solace.”

Friday, November 07, 2008

A sweet and funny 'porno'

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” has caused a bit of stir with just its name. Around the country some newspapers and advertisers have refused to run the full title and a multiplex chain in Utah banned the film.

This review could easily become how the reaction to the film's title says a lot about our country’s hang ups on sex, and unwillingness to talk directly with children about the subject matter, but that really isn’t writer/director Kevin Smith’s point in making the movie.

“Zack and Miri” isn’t an indictment of the United State’s puritanical ideals. Rather, it is what Smith, the writer and director of comedies like “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma,” does best: naturalistic, if crude, dialogue that is smart and low-brow at the same time.

When you get past the vulgarity strewn dialogue and outrageous humor, the film turns out to be a surprisingly sweet comedy about two platonic friends who when they can’t afford to pay their bills decide to make an amateur porn film and in the process realize they love each other. Leave it to Smith to turn making porn into the basis for a romantic comedy.

Seth Rogan (“Knocked Up,” “Pineapple Express”) and Elizabeth Banks (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “W.”) star as Zack and Miri, who through a chain of events - including a visit to a high school reunion and unexpected youtube fame from a cell phone video -conclude that porn is the answer to their financial woes.

Smith’s brand of comedy has a niche following that has never quite broken wide open, but his films paved the way for producer/writer/director Judd Apatow, the reigning king of smart low-brow comedy. It is fitting that Smith is borrowing Rogan, one of Apatow’s go-to guys.

Rogan, with his an easy-going likable persona and his unforced way of delivering fast paced, vulgar dialogue, seems to be the ideal actor to star in a Smith comedy. He hasn’t shown extraordinary range yet, but Rogan does what he does very well. His timing allows the dialogue to feel spontaneous and real rather than scripted.

Banks has the same completely natural quality and ease with the obscenity filled dialogue. The two leads have tremendous chemistry and make the film’s basic premise work. Smith is notorious for hating ad-libbing, so credit Rogan and Banks for making it seem like everything Smith wrote is just popping into their head before they say it.

Many have noted this is just another example of the fantasy of the fat geek getting a girl way out of his league, and while that may be true, Rogan and Banks have a rapport that is believable. When they finally do have sex for the camera it is an unexpectedly touching moment.

Rogan and Banks are surrounded by a gallery of funny supporting players including real porn actors Kate Morgan and Tracey Lords, and Smith regulars Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson. Craig Robinson (Darrell on “The Office”) is a scene stealer as the “producer” who agrees to bank roll the project as long as he gets to sit in on the casting process.

Justin Long (the Mac guy) has a hilarious cameo as a gay porn actor at Zack and Miri’s high school reunion. The scene, beyond being funny, is refreshing because it doesn’t have the nasty homophobic after taste that too often comes through in scatological comedy.

Now as one should rightly expect from a movie called “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” there is sex and nudity, but it is no more extreme than average R rated movie sex. There is some full frontal male nudity, but it is played for laughs.

The film’s language and in one case, willingness to go to the lowest lows for a laugh, is likely to be more offensive than the sex. Of course anyone leaving the film offended can’t say they didn’t know what they were getting into. This is definitely a case of truth in advertising.

What may shock people expecting nothing more than a laugh fest is not only will they laugh, but they may just find themselves getting emotional involved in the characters. Now that’s something new for a porno.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Top 50 Halloween movies: Part 5

Today is Halloween, and we conclude our countdown of the top 50 Halloween movies of all time. The list consists of new and classic films from all horror sub-genres as well as horror themed comedies.

10. “Young Frankenstein” (1974)
Writer/director Mel Brooks is at his absolute best in this spot-on parody of the classic Universal monster movies. The hilarious Gene Wilder is the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who follows in granddad’s footsteps. The pitch-perfect cast includes Peter Boyle as the monster, Marty Feldman as Igor and Madeline Kahn as the bride of Frankenstein. Brooks used the same castle and laboratory props that appeared in 1931’s “Frankenstein.”

9. “Frankenstein” (1931)
Forget all other versions, especially Kenneth Branagh's bloated 1994 adaptation starring Robert DeNiro, this is still the best version of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Throughout his career Boris Karloff played many creepy villains and monsters, but his best work is as Frankenstein’s monster. He is able to create a monster that is complex, creepy and even sympathetic. Gothic and expressionist set and lighting design raise the story to unforgettable epic proportions.

8. “Dracula” (1931)
Frank Langella, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman among others have all put their own stamp on the role of Dracula, but Bela Lugosi still remains the quintessential Count. His thick Austrian-Hungarian accent made Lugosi the perfect Transylvanian vampire. Some of the effects are dated, but the film’s great lighting creates excellent atmosphere that in combination with Lugosi's seminal performance make this as effective and eerie today as when it first came out.

7. “Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
FBI agent in training Clarice Starling (the excellent Jodie Foster) is recruited to get information from the imprisoned Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) on how to catch the serial killer Buffalo Bill. The climatic encounter with Buffalo Bill is a pulse-pounding experience, and the psychological mind games between Foster and Hopkins are fascinating. Hopkins’ Lector is terrifying not just for his actions, but more for his cold intellect and ability to get in people’s heads.

6. “Ghostbusters” (1984)
College professors decide to become paranormal investigators just as ghosts begin to run wild in New York. Bill Murray spits out one classic one-liner after another while the film’s screenwriters Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are excellent straight-men to Murray’s antics. Sigourney Weaver is funny and sexy as the love interested turned ghost dog, and Rick Moranis, as Weaver’s nerdy neighbor, provides comic relief, as if the film needed any more.

5. “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
This musical, horror spoof is the cult classic above all others. Newlyweds Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) are forced to stop at a house full of weirdoes during a rainstorm leading to all kinds of bizarre and kinky events. Tim Curry’s Frank N. Futter Transylvania is a one-of-a-kind character that Curry plays to perfection. Memorably odd songs like “Time Warp” and “Dammit Janet” make this one of most unique musicals ever created.

4. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
George A. Romero’s low-budget gem established the rules and set the standard for the zombie movie. The plot is simple: The dead are raising and eating the living. A group of survivors hole up in a house and try to endure the night. While disturbing upon its original release, by today’s standard the gore is tame, but the film has a raw power that can still make you jump.

3. “Halloween” (1978)
You know the routine: a masked killer, in this case the iconic Michael Myers, is on the loose. The film opens with an ingenious and horrifying concept: the camera is behind the mask. The film created the formula for all the vastly inferior sequels and rip offs, but they all missed the point. Director John Carpenter wasn’t interested in grisly deaths and high body count, but in building a relentless tension that finally snaps.

2. “The Exorcist” (1973)
When little Regan (Linda Blair) gets the devil inside her, all hell literally breaks loose. Pea-soup vomit and obscenities flow out of her like a river and she does exceptionally wrong things with a crucifix. Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobbs, Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow fill out the superb cast. William Friedkin’s moody direction in combination with Blair’s makeup and sound and visual effects enhance the performance and make this one of the scariest films ever.

1. “Psycho” (1960)
There was a reason Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense, and “Psycho” makes it absolutely clear why. From the film’s score to its lighting to its pacing to the infamous shower scene, everything is perfection. Anthony Perkins’ brilliant performance as the perennial momma’s boy, Norman Bates, is one of the most memorable characterizations to grace the screen. The roots of the slasher films can easily be tied back to this film, as can psychological thrillers like “Silence of the Lambs.”

Friday, October 24, 2008

Top 50 Halloween movies: Part 4

Welcome to the fourth installment of the top 50 Halloween movies. The list is a mix of classic and contemporary films that includes any horror sub-genre as well horror themed comedies.

20. "Freaks" (1932)
After directing "Dracula," Todd Browning was asked to top both that film and "Frankenstein." His answer was to use real sideshow circus "freaks," including midgets, Siamese twins and limbless people. The story centers on a gold-digger, who marries one of the so-called freaks. The freaks get their revenge when she tries to kill their fellow oddity for his money. It is a truly unique film experience that is funny, heartbreaking and scary, but what makes the film so successful is that the scares and laughs never feel cruel or exploitive.

19. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
Obviously not a horror movie, although a solid case can be made that there is nothing more frightening than suburbia. Tim Burton’s expressionistic fantasy is a heartbreaker full of Burton’s trademark dark, oddball sensibilities. Johnny Depp is exceptional in the title role of the boy who was never finished by his creator (Vincent Price, in his final role). The rest of the cast, including Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin, Dianne Wiest and Anthony Michael Hall, are all also top-notch.

18. "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)
Roman Polanski's stylistic film starts out like cheery romance and then slowly builds into taut, nerve-racking thriller. Mia Farrow's Rosemary is pregnant, but her husband, neighbors and doctor are all acting a little odd and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary baby. Polanski gets in the viewer's head, by not showing anything and leaving the viewer to imagine the worst.

17. "Beetlejuice" (1988)
A recently deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) has to deal with an obnoxious new family in their former home, and, after a series of unsuccessful hauntings, they hire Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice to get the job done. Director Burton's wildly inventive set design and stop-motion animation in combination with Keaton's show-stopping, madcap performance and strong support from Winona Ryder and Catherine O'Hara make this a wild ride.

16. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984)
How do you stop a serial killer who stalks you in your dreams? Writer/director Wes Craven created one of the most iconic boogeymen of film history with Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund.) More imaginative than most slasher franchises because the dream world allows anything to go, and for those who like unique and varied deaths it is hard to beat Freddy.

15. “Alien” (1979)
It is easy to forget that before morphing into an action franchise, the first of the series was a white-knuckle sci-fi horror film. Sigourney Weaver established the female heroine who is now a staple of Hollywood in a star-making performance. The infamous alien “chest buster” scene is still as shocking as ever, and director Ridley Scott creates maximum suspense by not fully revealing the alien to the very end of the film.

14. “Jaws” (1975)
Spielberg’s rousing combination of suspense, drama, comedy and adventure films turned people off going to the ocean for years. The film grabs attention and scares from the start with one of the best openings of all time, but Spielberg is more interested in character development than body count. The shark isn’t revealed until more than half way in, and the wait makes it all the more potent when we finally see it.

13. "The Evil Dead" (1981)
The first installment of Sam Riami's immensely popular trilogy centers on a group of college buddies at an isolated cabin in the woods who accidentally unleash evil spirits. Riami's stylish direction full of unique camera angles and excellent lighting makes his low budget go far. Bruce Campbell's Ash wouldn't turn into the one-liner-spouting, slapstick action hero until the worthy comedy/horror sequels, but for pure horror, the first is still tops.

12. "The Shining" (1980)
The combination of Jack Nicholson's astoundingly over-the-top performance and Stanley Kubrick's quietly grandiose direction make this version of Stephen King's novel an amazing film experience. Nicholson and family become caretakers at a large, isolated and haunted hotel for the winter. It isn't long before "all work and no play" and the sinister goings-on at the hotel drive Nicholson nuts. Kubrick creates perhaps the most surreal and disturbing haunted house ever, and Nicholson is equal parts shocking and comic.

11. "The Wolf Man" (1941)
One of the best of the Universal monster movies set the standard for all werewolf films to follow. After being bitten by a wolf, a man (Lon Chaney Jr.) has to deal with the horrible curse of turning into a werewolf every full moon. The film's transformation effects hold up remarkably well, and Chaney's desperate, tragic performance adds dimensions to the monster. There is also wonderful support from Bela Lugosi and Claude Rains.

'Rabbit Hole' looks at grief with heart, wit and honesty

M&D's first production in its new location continues its run

“Rabbit Hole,” M&D Productions' first show at its new Your Theatre location in Willow Common in North Conway, N.H. has no connection to Lewis Carroll, Alice, a wonderland or a looking glass. Rather it is a story of a couple dealing with the loss of their 4-year-old son following a tragic accident.

“Rabbit Hole,” which will be running Oct. 24, Oct. 25, Oct. 30, Nov. 1, Nov. 6. Nov. 7 and Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m., won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2007. Tickets range from $15 to $20 and can be purchased by calling 662-7591. Discounts are available for students, patrons under 18 and seniors. For more information visit

The script by David Lindsay-Abraire is not nearly as depressing as the subject matter would have you believe. Oh, there are scenes with the potential to yield tears, but there is also a surprising amount of humor. The way the script addresses themes of finding comfort and how to grieve doesn’t feel cloying or manipulative. There is truth and honesty to the show that is never preachy or heavy-handed.

As the play opens, it is eight months after the death of Becca and Howie Corbett’s (Jane Duggan and Kevin O’Neil) son, Danny. Becca’s rebellious sister Izzy (Carrie Engfer) has just become pregnant, which stirs up mixed emotions. Nat (Jill Davis), Becca’s well-intentioned mother, desperately tries to help her daughter find solace, but her efforts are often rebuked with frustrated anger.

In the production notes, director Richard Russo described the experience of first reading the play as if he were “hiding in the Corbett’s house, eavesdropping on their most intimate conversations.” Russo brings that quality to his production by having an intimate set that audience members could walk right into if they had the nerve. Clearly this is not advised.

The set, designed by M&D executive director Mark Delancey, is a realistic depiction of a house with what appears to be a fully functional kitchen, a quaint living room and Danny’s bedroom left unchanged and always behind the characters.

Realistic is the keyword in describing the play. Often theater dialogue sounds scripted or stylized, which is fine, but it can create a certain distance between the show and audience. Lindsay-Abraire’s dialogue has an unforced, natural flow that includes all the ums, yeahs and ya knows and awkward pauses that fill average everyday speech. It is easy to be drawn into these characters’ lives.

The cast delivers this dialogue with a just-right naturalistic rhythm and handles the complex emotional shifts with a light touch. Duggan’s Becca is not dealing with her grief well, which is manifesting itself in a bitterness that slowly subsides as the show proceeds.

O’Neil’s Howie at first seems to have it together. He hides behind a dry, sarcastic wit that masks the tumultuous grief that he is still dealing with. This façade begins to crack when an accident destroys one of Howie’s favorite reminders of Danny. It is shattered when Jason (Ged Owen), the teen that killed Danny in a car accident, comes by the house in an attempt to make amends and deal with his own anguish.

These are not easy emotions to deal with, and Duggan and O’Neil, who both break down and cry at points in the show, address them with a lot of humanity. Their performances and emotions feel genuine.

Their supporting cast is equal to them. Engfer brings an appropriate level of blunt but not-unsympathetic attitude to Izzy, and Davis makes Nat kooky and sweet. Davis has a powerful monologue about how the pain of a lost child never goes away, but changes and in an odd way becomes reassuring.

Owen shares a great scene with Duggan that gives the play its name and its sense of closure. Lindsay-Abraire doesn’t tie everything together neatly; after all, there are no easy answers when it comes to grief. Instead, he ends the show with a quietly uplifting hope that life will be able to go on.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Top 50 Halloween movies: Part 3

You are about to enter the third installment of the top 50 Halloween movies list. The rules are simple: Any horror sub-genre or horror based comedies are fair game. Contemporary and classic films are all in the mix.

30. "The Omen" (1976)
Little Damien (Harvey Stephens) is literally the anti-Christ in this film that effectively follows in the footsteps of its similarly themed predecessors, "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby.” Gregory Peck is the father who slowly comes to believe that his son is evil incarnate and ultimately comes to the horrifying realization that he will have to kill him. Little Stephens is one creepy kid, and director Richard Donner keeps the film tense throughout.

29. “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
A little girl escapes into a dark, dangerous fantasy world that still remains safer than the real world: war torn Spain in the 1940s. Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro uses his boundless imagination to craft a fairy tale in the tradition of such writers as the Brothers Grimm. After years of sanitizing such stories, we have forgotten how twisted and tormented fairy tales could be. This is fantasy that is very much for adults.

28. “The Birds” (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic is sure to make anyone do a double take whenever they see birds en masse. It is a credit to Hitchcock’s talent that he was able to squeeze every ounce of tension out of a silly premise of birds of the world uniting and attacking humanity. While some of the effects are dated, the film still manages to scare in a big way.

27. “Topper” (1937)
Not all ghosts are scary. Some are out for a good time. A high-spirited couple (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) become genuine spirits after a car accident and decide that, to get to heaven, they must do a good deed. They set out to liven up the marriage of uptight banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). Screwball mischief ensues with nice ghostly effects and well-timed physical comedy. This sweet, good-natured fun inspired two sequels and a TV series.

26. “Interview With The Vampire” (1994)
This compelling adaptation of Annie Rice’s novel centers on the family dynamic that develops between a seemingly sophisticated, but callous vampire (Tom Cruise) and his two unwilling vampire converts (Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst). Rice’s allegory of vampirism as homosexuality is dulled slightly around the edges, but this elegant and sensuous gothic tale is still an engrossing showcase for all of its stars, particularly the villainous Cruise.

25. “The Wicker Man” (1973)
A police investigator (Edward Woodward) is sent to a remote island off the coast of Scotland to investigate a missing-girl claim. His Catholic faith comes in stark contrast with the pagan beliefs of the island’s inhabitants. An eerie, erotic and an oddly tuneful atmosphere creates a quiet tension that builds to a horrifying conclusion. The film also features a fantastic turn by Christopher Lee as the outwardly benevolent leader of the island.

24. "28 Days Later" (2003)
Following the tradition of George Romero’s zombie films, director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland, balance social commentary with scares. They also add humanity and beauty to the mix. The living dead are replaced with people infected with a virus that leaves them overcome by uncontrollable rage. Shot on digital video, the film has a gritty, realistic feel — especially in the opening scenes in which a character walks through a completely deserted London.

23. “Sweeney Todd” (2007)
Stephen Sondheim’s audacious musical is given the big screen treatment by Tim Burton in this gloriously moody and bloody take on the story of a vengeful, murderous barber (the exceptional Johnny Depp), whose victims get made into meat pies by his landlord (Helena Bonheim Carter). This is a truly unique experience that blends song, horror, black comedy, satire and tragedy into a gothic tapestry that at times attains brilliance.

22. "Carrie" (1976)
The first film based on a Stephen King novel is still one of the best. The put-upon title character (Sissy Spacek) uses her telekinetic powers to get revenge after a cruel prank. Director Brian DePalma keeps the film at the level of a teen drama for the majority of the film, but that is just setup for the now legendary prom scene, which is still just as effective today as when it first came out.

21. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974)
Starting out like a documentary before shifting to a narrative film, this influential horror film introduced the world to the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface and his truly peculiar family. With extreme close-ups, an effective use of shadows and light, and a chaotic style, the film still has genuine scares. The viewer is kept off guard by the quick and brutal deaths. Forget the sequels and remake; they don’t touch the creepiness on display here.

Woody takes a Spanish holiday

Woody Allen has increasingly become an acquired taste, but his latest film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — his first film set in Spain — may prove to hit the spot for those who never appreciated his work in the past.

This is Allen’s fourth film in a row — following three set in London — that was made outside of his beloved New York, the location for all of his previous films. Allen doesn’t break any new ground or try anything drastically different with his material, but as was true with "Match Point," his first London film, the writer/director seems invigorated by the Spanish locales and language. This helps the film feel fresh.

The film focuses on two American friends, the impetuous, free-spirit Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and the logical, soon-to-wed Vicky (Rebecca Hall), who are spending the summer in Barcelona. Shortly upon arriving they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who makes them an interesting offer: join him for a weekend of good food, good wine and love-making.

Cristina is taken by the proposition and the two women do join Juan Antonio, but make no promises in the love-making category. Soon Cristina is living with Juan Antonio and Vicky is left confused by guilt of growing feelings for the mysterious Spaniard.

Just as the film begins to drag, it is enlivened by Penelope Cruz in a hilariously high-strung and overwrought performance as Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena. Cruz, who is an extraordinary actress in her native tongue, but has struggled in English language roles, is great here and if there were any one reason to see the film, it is for her.

That isn’t to say that everyone else isn’t also working on a level of acting excellence. Those who are only familiar with Bardem for his Oscar-winning performance in “No Country For Old Men” will be surprised how charismatic and handsome he is in this film. His smooth Spanish accent gives something extra to Allen’s dialogue.

If Allen had been in the Bardem role during the pick-up scene, which he likely would’ve been 30 years ago, it would’ve played for laughs. With Bardem, the proposal, though amusing, is somewhat believable and you can hardly blame the two ladies for going along with it.

Johansson, in her third Allen film, is becoming progressively more comfortable with Allen’s brand of fast talking, sophisticated dialogue. She doesn’t seem in control of her smoldering sexuality, which is just right for Cristina, a woman who doesn’t know what she wants in life or love.

Hall, who was charming in the little-seen British comedy “Starter for 10,” has the least flashy of the four lead roles, but her quiet performance is just as compelling as Cruz’ explosive one.

Vicky, who is insecure, a bit neurotic and has a razor tongue, is the most overtly Allen-esque character of the cast. Hall gets the tone just right in delivering the tricky Allen dialogue and makes Vicky the film's most human character.

For those who care about this sort of thing, yes, Cruz and Johansson do make out. For that matter so do Bardem and Johansson and Bardem and Cruz and then all three together. There is sex, but it remains off-camera. Although the moments of passion that are shown are sensual, the film is less about the physicality of the acts than the emotional and intellectual states that they create.

The film isn’t perfect. It relies too heavily on a voice-over narration that tells the audience exactly what Vicky and Cristina are thinking. This is effective at establishing the characters quickly and allows the film to get right into the action, but becomes tiresome when it glosses over potentially compelling scenes and tells the audience things they can figure out on their own.

Allen has always had a fondness for European directors and throughout his career has attempted to emulate them. Perhaps it is the Spanish setting, but for the first time he has made a film that genuinely feels like a European art house film. It isn't "Annie Hall" or "Manhattan," but for non-fans that may be a good thing.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Top 50 Halloween movies: Part 2

You are about to enter the second installment of the top 50 Halloween movies list. The rules are simple: Any horror sub-genre or horror based comedies are fair game. Contemporary and classic films are all in the mix.

40. “An American Werewolf in London” (1981)
Director John Landis puts a droll spin on the werewolf legend, when an American backpacker (David Naughton) is bit by a wolf in the remote hills of England. The film features a spectacular transformation scene created by effects master Rick Baker that in spite of digital advances has yet to be matched. Macabre comic relief is provided by the slowly decaying ghost (Griffin Dunne) of the title character.

39. “Audition” (2000)
This Japanese horror film is one of the most deeply disturbing films on this list. For the first 45 minutes it seems like a sweet, funny romantic comedy of a widower who uses his friend’s film industry connection to meet women at a phony movie audition. Then the tone shifts, building to a surreal, twisted and horrifying ending. The reality-based opening makes the actions later in the film all the more shocking.

38. "The Fly" (1986)
In this remake of the 1958 camp classic, a scientist accidentally combines his DNA with a housefly causing him to slow turn into a human fly. This is a rare remake that manages to one-up its predecessor. In spite of all the effects — which are quite graphic — there is a genuine emotional resonance. Jeff Goldblum's dynamic, heartfelt performance is what makes the film so successful, keeping his man-fly human even as he becomes more monstrous in appearance.

37. “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
It is easy to dismiss M. Night Shyamalan now that he’s become a one-trick pony, but his first trick still packs a punch. The movie has some undeniable jolts, superb atmosphere and one heck of a twist. Bruce Willis’ understated performance proved he could effectively play against his action hero persona. Haley Joel Osment's performance as the quintessential creepy kid that can “see dead people” is a classic for the ages.

36. “Rebecca” (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock makes his first appearance on the list with a very different kind of ghost story. Widower Laurence Olivier marries Joan Fontaine in a whirlwind romance, but when they arrive at his expansive estate the memory of his first wife lingers in every corner. Although there are no ghoulish apparitions, the film is dabbed in dread and the cold housekeeper (Judith Anderson) is far creepier than any spirit.

35. “The Addams Family” (1991)
Based on the 1950s TV show, the film is closer in spirit to the macabre humor of the Charles Addams New Yorker comic strip that inspired the show. This is dark yet family-friendly humor at its absolute best, delivered to perfection by the ideal cast of Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci, in the role that made her a star.

34. “Scream” (1996)
More than a decade after creating “Nightmare on Elm Street,” director Wes Craven, working from a self-referential script by Kevin Williamson, brought back the slasher film by making a movie that was both horror and a satire of itself. The film’s characters have seen all the same movies the audience has and know the rules. A must-see for fans of the slasher sub-genre.

33. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956)
The population of a small town is slowly being replaced by “pod-people,” alien replicas that look like and have all the memories of the original, but none of emotions. Great film noir lighting, a tight pace and a great performance from Kevin McCarthy raise the film beyond the limitations of the genre. Also check out the excellent 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy.

32. “Poltergeist” (1982)
The haunted house movie gets kicked up several notches in this film written and produced by Steven Spielberg. The daughter of a family is kidnapped via a television by evil spirits — and thus begins a battle to save her before she is lost forever. None of the quiet psychological moments of “The Haunting” or “The Others” here. They have been replaced by highly effective, hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat special effects. Well-paced and genuinely disturbing.

31. “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Imagine a British romantic comedy with a slacker (Simon Pegg) trying to win his ex-girlfriend back. Nothing special, right? Now add zombies into the mix. Pegg and his best mate on and off camera, Nick Frost, are a dynamic comedic duo as they use everything from cricket bats, records and pool cues to battle the undead. This is a genre parody that doesn’t forget to create characters that we actually care about.