Friday, January 18, 2008

'The Bucket List' is familiar, but gets the job done

If you read other reviews for “The Bucket List,” you are likely to see words like contrived, cliché, manipulative, sappy and schmaltzy. These reviews are not wrong. “The Bucket List” is indeed all of these things, but most viewers won’t care. In spite of its flaws, the film works at achieving its modest goals.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as a couple of cancer patients with a year to live. The two decide to go out with a bang and check off all the items on their mutual bucket list — a list of all things they want to do before kicking the bucket. It helps that Nicholson is the billionaire owner of the hospital treating both of them.

Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Justin Zackham are not trying to push any boundaries here. This is pretty standard fluff, and that’s OK because that’s exactly what someone going in expects.

The reason the film succeeds as much as it does is due to the strength of the performances of Nicholson and Freeman. The two do what they do best. Freeman, who has narrated everything from Tim Robbins' redemption from Shawshank to marching penguins, once again provides narration and quiet wisdom. Nicholson does a variation on the wealthy cynic he played in “As Good as It Gets” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Both actors have done better work, but they are clearly having fun together and likewise it is fun to watch these two acting greats share the screen. Nicholson is the master at being over-the-top and Freeman the master at being low key, and the actors play off each other well. Standout bits include the duo sky diving and taking some vintage muscle cars for a spin on a race course.

There’s an ongoing theological conversation between the two characters that is pleasant enough, but sounds more profound than it truly is because of who is saying it. It is inevitable in a film dealing with death that discussions of the afterlife will be addressed, but what is on showcase here should’ve been either a more barbed witty exchange or a more thoughtful and introspective one. This is a minor quibble. The dialogue isn't awful, it just could have shined a bit brighter.

In the final third of the film, the plot shifts away from globetrotting adventure and focuses on Nicholson making amends with his estranged daughter and Freeman rekindling the spark that had gone from his marriage. When the film downshifts into this more sentimental mode, some may find the proceedings eye-rolling. I thought I’d be one of those people, but the film got to me. I was well aware I was being manipulated and didn’t care.

Although this is basically a two-man show, Sean Hayes has a nice supporting role as Nicholson’s put-upon assistant. Those familiar with Hayes' “Will and Grace” persona may be surprised with how effectively dialed down he is here. One of the film’s best laughs involves his character’s name. Although marginalized for most of the film, Beverly Todd as Freeman’s concerned wife makes her screen time work well. On the page she is a bit of a nag, but Todd keeps the character human.

“The Bucket List” is the sort of movie that you could nitpick and tear apart if you chose to, but why bother? No, we don’t really get any big answers about life’s questions or learn anything about being a cancer patient. A better, more serious film would attempt to explore these avenues, but that “The Bucket List” doesn’t do these things doesn’t make it bad. There are some big laughs and some big tears and you come out feeling good. Sometimes that’s all you want or need from a film.

Heather Masse's musical fairy tale

Most people don’t get their big break in a bathroom, but then again Heather Masse is not most people.
When Masse graduated from Fryeburg Academy in 2000 she seemed destined to be a successful singer. A major presence in the music department, Masse won the best female vocalist award at Berklee in 1997, 1999 and 2000 and won the best female vocalist award at the Maine State vocal jazz competition in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Nearly eight years later Masse is making good on the promise she showcased in her years at the academy. Now not only is Masse the leader of her own band, Heather and the Barbarians, who are performing at One Longfellow Square in Portland at 8 p.m. Jan. 20, she is also part of the successful trio The Wailin’ Jennys.

Like most aspiring musicians Masse headed to New York, but before hand she spent a couple years in Boston working with Alzheimer’s patients. While she loved the work she felt she needed to really give her music career a chance.

Masse was working as a nanny and playing music in New York when she got a call about an opportunity with the Wailin’ Jennys from Aoife O’Donovan, a friend from her years at the New England Conservatory.

“I’ve known Aoife for a while through the self music, rich music circuit,” said Wailin’ Jennys member Ruth Moody. “She was one of the first people I called when we needed a new member because I thought she’d know great singers and she said, 'I have the perfect person in mind.' She said hands down she’s your gal.”

That gal was Masse, who caught up with band members in Pennsylvania to see one of their shows and see how she liked them.

“We only had about 10 minutes and we couldn’t find anywhere to do it except the handicapped women’s washroom, restroom, bathroom, whatever you call it,” said Moody. “We locked ourselves in there and sang a few tunes. We just knew right away she had such a rich alto voice and it was just perfect.”

After finishing that tour, The Wailin’ Jennys gave Masse a call and invited her up to Winnipeg, the home base of the group, to see how the collaboration worked. And it did indeed work.

“I could tell right away that she was a lovely person and a kindred spirit,” said Moody. “She just integrated immediately. It sounds like a fairy tale, and in a sense it feels that way. She was exactly what Nicky (Mehta) and I were looking for. She fit right in personality-wise and musically brought some new, interesting approaches and flavors to the sound.”

Her time with the Jennys has sent Masse all across the country and has afforded her the opportunity to perform on the NPR staple “Prairie Home Companion.”

“We did it in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and it is this awesome outdoor stadium,” said Masse. “There were about 5,000 people in the audience and then on top of that there are 5 million people listening at home and it is live broadcast so there is so much pressure. But just the vibe of the staff of ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ there are all just such good people.”

The Wailin’ Jennys were regulars on the program, and, while the two veteran Jennys knew the routine, Moody said Masse fit perfectly into the scene.

“When we did our first 'Prairie Home Companion' show with Heather, she fit right into that situation so perfectly and naturally that by the end of the show she was doing a duet with (host) Garrison (Keller) on 'You Are My Sunshine.'”

Masse spent much of 2007 touring with the Wailin’ Jennys across the states, Canada as well as Scotland and England. There was a small window of opportunity before their next tour, so Masse put together a mini-tour for Heather and the Barbarians.

“Since we (The Wailin' Jennys) played Stone Mountain a couple months ago and it got sold out, they said they could’ve done two shows, a bunch of people weren’t able to get to the show, so hopefully a bunch of that crowd can come out to Portland,” said Masse.

Masse is excited to hit the road with her own band, if only briefly.

“It’ll be fun to really get into it and really get a feel and rhythm playing every night with that band. I’m excited about it,” said Masse.

Heather and the Barbarians formed in Boston while Masse was at New England Conservatory.

“We started out playing more artsy/jazzy stuff,” said the Barbarians’ guitarist Ben MacDonald. “Due to everybody's busy schedules we have not been able to play or rehearse regularly. Our evolution has been gradual and I think organic one over the past few years.”

The band is more than just the typical guitar, bass and drum scenario and is enriched by two saxophone players who also double on the clarinet and bass clarinet. The sound is an eclectic, genre-jumping mix of jazz, blues, pop and rock.

“It is hard to say exactly how we work,” said MacDonald. “It is almost as though it doesn’t take much work at all. All the musicians are so versatile and competent, added to that is the fact that we have known and played with each other for almost five years. We have a good group sense of how things will work out and what needs to happen when.”

In addition to The Wailin’ Jennys and Heather and the Barbarians, Masse has played with numerous other groups over the years including the bluegrass band Kill Joy Sorrow. Masse did a Boston to Minnesota road tour with the Kill Joy Sorrow a couple summers ago. The July tour had the five band members (and Masse’s dog Jasper) crammed into a Subaru Legacy with a broken air conditioner.

“It was a really fun time,” said Masse. “It is sort of the other extreme of touring with the Jennys. We always get our own hotel room and we fly everywhere, but it was fun to have that other experience, too, because you actually get to see places and people more than you do with the Jennys. Like some days we have a day off in a city, but mostly we go somewhere and play the gig, go to sleep, wake up and then have to travel and have to go the next place.”

Even though the touring can be trying, Masse makes a point before every show of reminding herself why she is doing what she does and what she is trying to give to an audience. The answers to those questions give her the strength to go on with the show.

“I want to bring joy and peace and happiness and opening to people. Music has that kind of affect on people, especially with the Jennys, They write a lot of songs about peace,” said Masse. "That’s kind of nice for me because when I graduated Fryeburg I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into music because I really enjoy being with people and helping people and that’s why I really enjoyed working with Alzheimer’s patients. But with the Jennys it is sort of a nice balance where I am performing and singing to an audience, but it also feels like I am helping them in some way.”

Masse, who says the fact that she is part of the Jennys has given her opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise, is still adjusting to the idea that she is actually working as a musician.

“I’m still getting use to the fact that when I am home from a tour and have two weeks off that I don’t have to work a day job,” she said. “This has never happened before where I have two weeks off or three weeks off and I don’t have any other commitments other than to rest and practice.”

Masse will be hooking back up with the Jennys after her tour with the Barbarians to head back on the road. The group will be bouncing around the country from Alaska to Florida and everywhere in between until September. Beyond that, Masse isn’t sure what is in store for her.

“I sort of live by the moment," Masse said. "I’m not such a great planner, but things have been working out by living my life that way, by seeing what opportunities come up and taking them when I can.”

'Sweeney Todd': Dark, macabre and brilliant

There are films that are an acquired taste and then there’s “Sweeney Todd.” Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s audacious musical is a truly unique experience that blends song, horror, black comedy, satire and tragedy into a gothic tapestry that at times attains brilliance.

Johnny Depp plays Sweeney Todd, formerly Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after a 15-year banishment on false charges. He is seeking revenge against the crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, Snape in the “Harry Potter” series) who destroyed Todd’s life so many years earlier. With Todd’s wife dead and his daughter the ward of the Turpin, he sets up shop as a barber waiting for the opportunity to give Turpin an extra close shave.

Things get darker and more sordid from there. When Todd’s initial attempts at bloody retribution fail, he decides that all of humanity deserves to fall at the hand of his blade. His ally in his scheme is Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, “Fight Club, “Big Fish”), who bakes Todd’s victims into her meat pies. Suddenly business is booming at the once failing shop.

Sondheim’s musical was more overtly comic with a targeted satire on consumerism paired with the tragic tale. Burton and screenwriter John Logan (“The Aviator”) have exorcised many of those elements, although not entirely, and instead focus on the tortured soul and fractured psyche of Todd.

Burton is perhaps the only filmmaker who could make this material work so well on the screen. The gothic expressionism that has been prevalent throughout Burton’s entire career is a perfect marriage with the grim cynicism of Sondheim’s darkest work. Burton has drained much of the color from the film, creating a drab-looking London that at times borders on black and white with its use of grays.

Within Burton’s canon this is closest in look and tone to “Sleepy Hollow.” Where that film was an exercise in style, here Burton now also has substance and dramatic weight to go with his striking visuals.

As one would expect, the film is very bloody. When Todd starts slicing throats Burton goes way over-the-top to the point of comedic levels. Some may say he over-does it, but a realistic approach would have been far too graphic and unbearable to watch. As is, it is unsettling, but for those with a dark sense of humor, oddly humorous.

Fans of the stage version may be disheartened to hear that some songs have been cut short or removed entirely. But Burton uses Sondheim’s music to good affect, especially “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which, though missing lyrically, is a strong
presence on the score.

Broadway purists made a fuss over the casting of non-singers Depp, Carter and Rickman in the lead roles of a musical with some of the most melodically and lyrically complex songs in Broadway history. Everyone acclimates themselves nicely, and, while they may not have the most powerful voices, all three are decent to good singers.

The singing is more intimate than in the stage production but no less forceful. Depp in particular stands out by dynamically infusing his singing with his acting. On songs like “My Friends” and “Epiphany” Depp is spine-tinglingly good. Rickman, who does villainy like this better than just about anyone, shares an alternately sweet and creepy ballad with Depp.

Carter probably has the film’s weakest voice, but uses it well to capture the longing and sorrow hidden in Mrs. Lovett, Carter’s lovely “By the Sea” is one of the film’s few light moments.

There is much I haven’t even addressed, like the romantic subplot between Todd’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and the sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who rescued Todd. Even this doesn’t play as one might expect. There’s also a brief but fine comedic turn by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) as a rival barber.

Given the subject matter, it is sort of extraordinary that this film even came out of the Hollywood machine at all. Kudos to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for having the nerve to put money into a film miles away from the mainstream and then having the gumption to release it days before Christmas. Now that was some sort of stroke of macabre genius.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

'I Am Legend' is more brains than brawn

“I Am Legend” is likely to surprise a lot of people. It is not your typical big-budget, big-bang Will Smith blockbuster. Things do certainly blow up really well, but this is by no means a wall-to-wall action film. Instead it is a surprisingly quiet, even moving film about the struggle of being the last man in New York, possibly the world.

Smith stars as military scientist Robert Neville, the survivor of a virus that turns those it infects into super strong, blood-thirsty night creatures with a deadly allergy to light.

In the Richard Matheson novel of the same name — which also inspired 1971’s “The Omega Man” — the virus turned humans into vampire-like creatures. Here the monsters most closely resemble the zombies of Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” In fact, much of the film recalls Boyle’s 2003 low-budget gem, and that’s a good thing — especially considering the misfire of that film’s official big-budget sequel, “28 Weeks Later.”

“28 Days” opened with Cillian Murphy walking the eerily empty streets of London. “I Am Legend” capitalizes on that same sense of isolation, with Smith spending the majority of the film walking or driving the desolate streets of Manhattan with his dog Sam.

The visuals of the empty city, including images of blown out bridges and overgrown plants, are quite extraordinary and striking. These scenes feel authentic, and they are an impressive achievement in production design and visual effects. Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) doesn’t pile on big action set pieces or go for cheap scares, but instead focuses on creating the lonely world in which Smith exists.

While the film does feature some genuinely frightening encounters with the monsters, the movie is much more interested in exploring Smith’s situation and the effects of his isolation from human contact. Smith’s Robert Neville isn’t your typical hero. He is fit and muscular, but is afraid of the world he lives in. He doesn’t attempt to battle his foes, but merely survive them. The search for a cure and his loyal dog are the only things keeping him going.

The script by Akiva Goldsman (“The Cinderella Man,” “A Beautiful Mind”) and Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) allows Neville’s sanity to be thrown into question. Neville has posted mannequins throughout the city and has given them names and personalities. He talks to them as if they were real, but it is unclear whether Neville knows it is fantasy anymore.
Smith is basically doing a one-man show, and his performance recalls Tom Hanks’ similar struggle in “Cast Away.” His “conversations” with Sam the dog are full of light humor, yet at the same time Smith also manages to create a genuine relationship with the dog.

We know Smith can be funny, but there’s more to this performance than just a series of one-liners. Smith has some scenes that are quite affecting in ways you don’t necessarily expect in something marketed as a creature feature. The visual achievement of the emptied streets of New York is matched by Smith’s performance that shows a man barely keeping his sanity in a world of solitude.

There are some logistical questions that could be raised about Neville’s existence, but they don’t distract from the overall story. The film sets up its world and you accept it. But there is one hugely disappointing aspect of the film, which for some may be so distracting as to undermine the whole film.

The film’s super-human monsters are mediocre CGI creations that look out of place in a film of such high-quality visuals. The strength of Smith’s performance and the film’s creepy atmosphere may not be enough for special effects aficionados to let these cheap-looking monsters slide. Try to look past this flaw, though, for “I Am Legend” is far more than just a monster movie. It is a rich character study full of heart and humor.

Friday, January 04, 2008

The 'secret' is out: 'National Treasure' is just OK

Before turning your cell phone off as you enter “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” it would be a good idea to shut off your brain and check your cynicism at the door. Too much thinking will kill your chances of enjoying the sequel to 2004’s “National Treasure.”

Audiences seem to be enjoying the latest adventure of treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage). For the second week in a row “Book of Secrets” has been No. 1 at the box office, and it has brought in nearly $144 million thus far. Who am I to disagree with numbers like that? For my money, though, the new Goofy short that preceded the film was far more entertaining. Then again, I've always had a soft spot for Goofy.

“Book of Secrets” follows the formula that undermines many sequels. It attempts to recreate the previous film, but makes everything bigger and, in theory, better. This logic rarely works and if anything has the opposite effect on a film’s quality.

The original “National Treasure” had a silly charm and entertained with its audacious premise that the Declaration of Independence doubled as a treasure map. Like its predecessor, “Book of Secrets” plays like a lighter version of “The Da Vinci Code.” Fans of the first “National Treasure” probably won’t be let down, but the film doesn’t try to do anything new, except now the treasure hunt is a globe-trotting one.

The plot has Ben Gates searching for a city of gold to prove that one of his ancestors wasn’t involved in the assassination of Lincoln. It all has something to do with John Wilkes Booth’s diary, and the clues will send Gates and his colleagues from Washington to Paris to London and back again.

It is obvious that this material is ridiculous, but the film knows it is and that’s what salvages the film from being a complete bore. Cage’s Gates has an uncanny ability to figure out the most obscure meaning of any clue within minutes, sometimes seconds, and the film has some fun with that.

“Book of Secrets” has quite possibly the best cast of any film in 2007, and includes Jon Voight (returning as Gates’ father), Ed Harris, Helen Mirren (as Gates’ mother) and Harvey Keitel (returning as an FBI agent). Diane Kruger as Gates’ love interest and Justin Bartha as Gates’ sidekick also return. Sadly, a lot of the acting seems flat. This feels like a paycheck movie, as in the actors can’t wait to finish the scene and cash their checks.

The film sets up the Kruger-Cage and Mirren-Voight couplings in parallel bickering matches that aren’t particularly funny. Mirren and Voight fare marginally better of the two pairings, but in both cases it is more annoying than amusing.

One could contend that since this isn’t trying to be a great film that there is no point in knocking the acting. The problem isn’t that the acting isn’t Oscar worthy, but rather that there is lack of joy in the performances. Take for example Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean.” There was an excitement when they were on the screen. They were clearly having fun and relishing creating vivid characters. That is sorely lacking in “Book of Secrets.” In Cage’s performance there are hints of that magic, but they are far too limited.

In spite of all the complaining, “Book of Secrets” isn’t a bad movie; it is just a rather ordinary one. It plugs along well enough but never raises hairs or tingles spines. It makes for a diverting two hours, but nothing more.

There is one cool sequence on a teetering platform, a couple laugh-out-loud moments and a few grin-inducing moments of cleverness. There is a very necessary place for mindless escapism, and “Book of Secret” fills that role. It just could fill it so much better than it does. Oh well, there’s always “National Treasure 3.”