Friday, May 30, 2008

What's all the brew-haha?

Coffee shops in Conway, N.H. not worried by the arrival of Starbucks

Who is afraid of the big bad Starbucks? Not the coffee shops of the North Conway and Conway villages.

The corporate coffee powerhouse opened for business in Settlers’ Crossing May 16, but the owners and managers of The Met Coffee House, Teeny Bean and Frontside Grind are not worried. In fact, depending on whom you ask, Starbucks has already been in the valley for the past two years.

“I think it is interesting how people would ask for two years, ‘I hear Starbucks is coming’ and I’d look around and say, ‘Coming? Its here,’” said Joe Quirk, the manager of the Conway Village’s Conway Café, which has been selling Starbucks coffee for the last couple years.

Quirk formed a business alliance with Starbucks that allows him to sell the Starbucks product, but keep the name Conway Café on the business.

“They [Starbucks] may not be able to carry a full-service store in a small village, where as I can complement my product with their product,” said Quirk. “I approached them with that and this is kind of an experimental basis because Starbucks owns all their own stores, so this is a very unique opportunity and a good opportunity to get to leave some of the money in town.”

Quirk believes the Starbucks shop, or the “second” Starbucks in Conway as he calls it, will complement the Conway Café similarly to the way the Dunkin Donuts throughout the valley complement each other. He is eager to work closely with the new location and to become “one happy family.”

But what about the coffee shops down in the North Conway Village? They aren’t too concerned, and nor should they be, at least according to an article in Slate by Taylor Clark. In the article, Clark contends a Starbucks moving into town can actually help independently-owned shops.

Clark cited several examples of owners of coffee shops having business boom thanks to the presence of a Starbucks. But Clark was also quick to say this was, of course, not the conglomerate’s intent. Starbucks would love to drive the competition out, Clark said, but when lines were too long at Starbucks customers would look elsewhere. The independent shops reaped the benefits.

This logic seems to hold true for North Conway, which was already competitive before the arrival of Starbucks’ shop on the strip. The Met, Frontside Grind and Teeny Bean are all within walking distance of each other in the North Conway Village, and yet all three carve out their own piece of the market.

“Competition is the key to thriving,” said Dianne Mello, the manager of The Met. “If you don’t have any competition you tend to lose focus, you tend to not grow, and Starbucks being in the valley is pushing us to be on top of everything.”

If anything, the three coffee shops seem to supplement each other and make sure a wider cross section of the community finds what they want.

“The Teeny Bean is great for outside seating and quick, on the go. They’ve got the little coffee handle kiosk,” said Mello. “Frontside Grind offers a different kind of climate, they offer more of a sporty atmosphere.”

Laura Denis, the co-owner of the Frontside Grind mirrors those sentiments, agreeing that The Met and Frontside Grind cater to completely different audiences.

“Our customers are kind of like the sports enthusiasts, the bikers, the climbers. They [The Met] cater to more of a metropolitan crowd,” said Denis.

Nestled at the end of the Norcross Shopping Center, and located between The Met and the Frontside Grind, the Teeny Bean manages to get by having a low overhead and small staff.

“We have no employees, we just work really hard and it is a small shop so the rent is not too high and we get by,” said Betsy Schurmas, the manager of the Teeny Bean. “We make enough in the summer to get through the winter.”

While this trifecta of coffee houses may be competitors, the rivalry is hardly cutthroat. Quite the contrary, it is downright friendly, according to Denis.

“It has always been great. When we run out of stuff we borrow it from them [The Met], and sometimes they borrow stuff from us,” said Denis. “It is a friendly, competitive atmosphere.”

Surely, if these shops can survive each other, they can weather the existence of Starbucks, the location of which is well down the road from the hustle and bustle of the North Conway Village.

“I think that particular store is going to get a lot of drive-through because that’s what we don’t offer here,” said Mello. “None of the coffee shops in this area have a drive-through capability. I think they’ll probably hurt Dunkin Donuts more than anything else because Dunkin Donuts is the only other drive-through coffee.”

Both Mello and Denis are willing to admit that Starbucks has a name recognition advantage for tourists driving through town who are just looking for something familiar.

“You go into an independently-owned coffee shop, you just don’t know what you’re going to get,” said Denis. “You don’t know if it's going to be good or bad. And that’s an advantage of a whole automatic system that they have. Push a button, a drink comes out and it is the same drink I got 50 miles away or 200 miles away.”

That isn’t pessimism, just an understanding of the market. Denis also believes that there is a strong mentality in the valley to support local businesses.

“People who work in town are going to keep coming here,” said Steven Cooney, a regular costumer of the Frontside Grind. “There’s a certain amount of resentment to places like Starbucks. So I’m sure they’ll continue to come to places like this.”

All three businesses hope to keep customers coming back to them by keeping the quality of their product high and by putting a focus on customer service. Mello and Denis agree that a friendly atmosphere and a sense of ambiance are what keep their respective clientele returning.

“I’ve gone into Starbucks before, but I don’t go in there because I enjoy going in there, I go in there because I need a cup of coffee,” said Mello. “People come here because they want to sit, they want to talk to our employees. They’ve gotten to know our employees. We know what they like to drink. It is like ‘Cheers,’ everyone knows your name.”

The other theme to come up from each of these conveyers of caffeine was art. Mello and Denis see themselves as artists with their canvas being a latte.

“It is not just making lattes and cappuccinos; we’re making art,” said Denis. “We pour latte art. We have people come in who’ve never seen it before and they drink lattes every day. They may be like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ ‘It is a Rosetta, you’ve never seen one? Because you should be getting one.’”

Starbucks is fast-food coffee and there’s a place for that just as there is a place for what Mello, Denis and Schurmas offer. At the end of the day, Starbucks may just be another coffee shop, another competitor, albeit a corporately backed one. They're not necessarily the big bad wolf that will gobble up all the valley’s customers.

“All of us need to do better a job as far as the coffee industry,” said Quirk. “Realistically, we’re all in this together. We have to make sure we have satisfied customers.”

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Indiana Jones and the just good enough sequel

I wish I could say that “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was a excellent film-going experience, but I can’t do that in good conscience. I am recommending it, but with qualifiers.

It is great to see Harrison Ford back in the fedora and cracking the whip, if only for the nostalgic memories of the previous three adventures. Ford, at 65, still makes a viable hero and slips back into the Indy duds with great ease.

There’s a fabulous opening sequence set in a government warehouse, in which Indy and a former war buddy (Ray Winstone, “Beowulf”) are forced to help a group of Russians led by Cate Blanchett (“I’m Not There”) find an artifact. Since 19 years have passed since the last film, the same time has passed in Indy’s timeline, setting this new adventure in the 1950s and replacing the Nazis with Russians as the stock villains of choice.

This opening has the right tone of humor, action and smarts and gets the Indy character right. It is great fun and you hope it is the set up for more to come, but something goes off. As the film continues it feels less like an "Indiana Jones" movie and more like one of its imitators.

The muddled plot involves Indy teaming with a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LeBeouf, “Transformers”) to rescue their mutual acquaintance Professor Oxley (John Hurt) and Mutt’s mother and Indy’s former flame Marion (Karen Allen). Oxley and Marion are lost in the jungles of South America in search of a magical crystal skull that if returned to the mythic El Dorado will unleash a supreme power. Naturally the Russians are after this power too.

The plot is silly and corny, but so were the plots of the first three installments of the franchise. The “Indiana Jones” films were never about plot. The story was always just there to string together a succession of extraordinary action-set pieces. “Crystal Skull” follows in that tradition perfectly.

In addition to the opening, there are two other action sequences that are well worth the price of admission. The first involves Mutt and Indy on a motorcycle being pursued by Russian agents through the Yale campus. Like the opening sequence, this chase has the spirit right and is presented cleverly with a good dose of excitement.

The same goes for a more elaborate chase in the South American jungle. Among other things, it features LeBeouf and Blanchett dueling from separate vehicles speeding along parallel roads. This is some thrilling, smile-inducing stuff. Director Steven Spielberg is an old pro at escapist fun and few are better at delivering fun action with imagination and flare.

The series’ action was always spectacular, but what helped make the films special were the interpersonal relationships in between the exhilarating set pieces. There was a snap in the dialogue to match the snap of the whip. Whether it was Indy’s relationship with Marion in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or Indy’s relationship with Sean Connery as his dad in “Last Crusade,” the Indy films always featured sharp dialogue and well drawn relationships.

And that’s where “Crystal Skull” fizzles. This shortcoming falls squarely on screenwriter David Koepp, who worked with Spielberg previously on “Jurassic Park.” At some point he loses the essence of the Indy character and relies on cheap one-liners instead of developing actual relationships.

A lot of the dialogue that is supposed to have zing feels stilted and forced. There are isolated one-liners that earn a chuckle, but much of the dialogue seems one degree removed. It is great to see Allen back in the series, but after a few barely barbed exchanges with Ford she isn’t asked to do much. LeBeouf is an able sidekick and a likable screen presence, but his chemistry with Ford is largely wasted with lame dialogue filled with old man jokes.

The rest of the cast fill their underwritten roles nicely and give their characters more color than on the page. Blanchett is given little to work with as the piece’s primary villain, but she does wonders just with her eyes. Her glares are almost as spectacular as some whole action sequences. Hurt is stuck in a role where he’s crazy for most of his screen time, but, being the consummate veteran that he is, he makes it work.

This latest incarnation of “Indiana Jones” does entertain, but it will also disappoint, simply because the standards were set so high by its predecessors. It is comparable to “Lost World,” Spielberg’s sequel to “Jurassic Park,” which entertained, but was no “Jurassic Park.” “Crystal Skull” is no “Raiders." It isn’t even a “Temple of Doom.”

'Li'l Abner' brings hillbilly hijinks to the Eastern Slope Playhouse

Hillbilly hijinks meet political satire in Arts In Motion’s lively, if flawed, production of “Li’l Abner,” which continues its run at the Eastern Slope Playhouse May 30-31 at 7:30 p.m.

First produced in 1956 and based on the classic Al Capp’s comic strip, “Li'l Abner” focuses on the small southern town of Dogpatch. The town is preparing for the annual Sadie Hawkins race, with the unmarried women chasing down their soon-to-be husbands. Daisy-Mae (Nora Cronin) has been pursuing Li’l Abner Yokum (Robert Crowson) for years to no avail.

Their world gets turned upside down when it is determined that Dogpatch is the most unnecessary town in the United States, and therefore a perfect candidate for nuclear testing. Everyone is to be evacuated unless the town can prove they are necessary.

The solution is Yokumberry Tonic, which has the ability to make any man strong and handsome. Li’l Abner wants to give it to the government, but the crooked General Bullmoose (Ralph Morse) and his cohorts, Evil-Eye Fleagle (Frank Smith) and Appassionata Von Climax (Emily Holden) want it for their own designs.

The show cleverly uses the guise of lowbrow, hillbilly humor to lampoon the government. Songs likes “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” and “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” which sings the praises of a cowardly, incompetent Confederate hero, are sharply written with lyrics that are still relevant over 50 years later.

The show loses some of its edge by adding references to Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and others in an ill-advised attempt to make the production topical and more appealing to a modern audience. By clearly positioning the production as being set in 2008, the satire of the show is undermined.

When the play is set in the 1950s the nuclear testing premise is pointed satire, but the same premise doesn’t make sense when updated today. This production should’ve done a complete update or left the show in the 1950s. By only going half way you are left with an anachronistic mess.

That problem aside, there are still pleasures to be had in the production. The large cast is good even when the material lets them down. Cronin, a junior at Kennett High School, has a pleasantly sweet singing voice and a cheery disposition as Daisy-Mae. She is good on “Namely You,” a cute ballad with Crowson and even better in the cheeky “I’m Past My Prime,” a song about being over-the-hill at 17.

Crowson, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, is effective as the dim but earnest title character. For much of the musical, Crowson is required to be a straight man to the antics that surround him, and he fills that role ably, allowing the supporting cast to shine.

Beth Funicella and Rob Owen as Mammy and Pappy Yokum give fine, broad comedic performances, but it is Smith and Holden who are the real show stealers. Smith in his bright green zoot suit is a hoot as Evil-Eye Fleagle. Holden, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, blends nice comic timing with a powerhouse voice to make Appassionata a memorably sassy femme fatale.
The brightly colored and cartoonish-looking sets and equally bright costumes are appropriate for a show based on a comic strip.

The show doesn’t get much beyond the level of a high school production, and part of that could simply be that much of the cast members are high school and middle school students. It does work on that modest level, and if you go in expecting that caliber of work then a decent night of theater can be had.

Friday, May 23, 2008

'Caspian' is another worthy chronicling of Narnia

In the three years since the last “Chronicles of Narnia” film there have been a lot of fantasy films of varying quality to fill the void including “Stardust,” “Eragon,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Seeker” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Luckily, “Prince Caspian,” though not as good as its predecessor, is still a cut above the rest of the genre.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the most famous of the Narnia books benefited from being the first in the series.
There was a sense of wonder as the Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmond (Skandar Keynes), were introduced to the magical world of Narnia. Some of that wonder is gone as this new film centers on political intrigue and elaborate battles.

Ben Barnes plays the titular prince, who is forced into exile by his evil uncle (Sergio Castellitto). His uncle intends to usurp the kingdom of the Telmarines, a Spanish-esque people who conquered Narnia and killed off (or so they thought) all its magical creatures.

With a special horn, Caspian calls upon the Pevensie kids to help and thus they are pulled way from London back into Narnia. Although only one year has passed for Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmond, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia. The Pevensies join Caspian and the Narnian army to overthrow the Telmarinean reign.

For the uninitiated this probably makes little sense and indeed if you haven’t seen the first film or read the books you will be completely lost. Like the four lead characters, you are whisked away to Narnia and plopped into the middle of a new adventure.

Where the first film concluded with a grandiose battle scene, “Prince Caspian” has them throughout. The battles are well staged, with some well-thought-out strategic maneuvers that showed some imagination on the part of the filmmakers. There is no denying the effects in the film, especially the talking animals, have improved the second time around.

C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia series as a Christian parable, and so the theme throughout the film is the importance of having faith in things you cannot see. The film doesn’t sledgehammer its message home, although it isn’t exactly subtle with it either. Even so, Christian or not, the message that it is essential to believe in things that aren’t necessarily tangible is a good one.
Peter has the story’s main crisis of faith. The film portrays Peter as an arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all hothead, whose unwillingness to listen to others leads our heroes into tragedy. Mosley plays this well as he doesn’t come off as being very likable which is, of course, the point.

As was true with the first installment, the leads are good, but not quite excellent and the focus on action doesn’t give them much room to stretch. With Peter and Caspian taking center stage, the others are largely marginalized, which is a shame.
Popplewell is left floundering in an under-developed love subplot involving Barnes’ Caspian. She is unfortunately not asked to do much more than look beautiful (her make up is always perfect even in battle) while shooting arrows at baddies.

Once again, the sweet and awfully cute Henley is the heart of the film. Although central to the plot, her struggle to keep the faith is lost in the elaborate battle scenes. Keynes is left playing second fiddle to Mosley and Barnes, but he shows isolated flashes of dry wit that are underused.

The acting magic for the original didn’t come from the four leads anyway, but from Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”), terrifically menacing as the White Witch and James McAvoy (“Atonement”), completely endearing as the faun Mr. Tumnus. There was also fine voice work by Liam Neeson as the Christ-like Aslan and Ray Winstone as Mr. Beaver. Aslan and the White Witch make appearances in the latest adventure, but in both cases it isn’t much more than a cameo and that leaves the spark to come from new characters.

Thankfully, “Caspian” has the wonderful Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) as a surly dwarf who really has a big heart and Eddie Izzard (“Ocean’s 13”) as the voice of a courageous mouse warrior. Dinklage and Izzard make every scene they are in better, Dinklage adding a necessary weight to the proceedings and Izzard adding a nice bit of comic relief.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

'Redbelt' more than just a fight movie

“Redbelt” is the kind of movie that in description doesn’t sound nearly as good as it really is. To say it is about jiujitsu teaching and fighting places the film into a box in which it doesn’t fit. This isn’t “The Karate Kid” or “Rocky.” But to elaborate much further would ruin the pleasures of a film that does something few films do: offer genuinely surprising moments that grow from the story and characters rather than a cheap gimmick.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mike Terry, the owner of a jiujitsu training business that is barely staying afloat. Mike doesn’t believe in competitive fighting, and, despite a dire need for money, avoids them out of principle. Chance encounters with an action star (Tim Allen playing against type and giving a solid dramatic performance) and a high strung lawyer (Emily Mortimer, “Match Point”) set off a series of events that force Mike to go against his beliefs and enter the ring in a fight for money.

That makes the film sound rather ordinary, but that is just the film boiled down to its barest plot points. The film isn’t about physical conflicts, but Mike’s conflict with the world around him. Mike is a firm believer of honor and is quick to trust others in a world that is corrupt and cruel. His attempts to do the right thing sometime backfire when others twist his actions for their own behalf.

The film is layered and complex with a web of characters, including Joe Mantegna as a film producer, Ricky Jay as a fight promoter, Alice Braga (“I Am Legend”) as Mike’s wife and Max Martini as a cop Mike trains. But complex doesn’t mean confusing. It is a film that is rich with dialogue and character, which isn’t surprising coming from writer/director David Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has written such films as “The Untouchables,” “Wag the Dog” and “Ronin.”

Mamet has a way with dialogue that could be termed hyper-realistic. You know those moments where you think of a really smart response to a conversation you had earlier in the day? A Mamet script is written as if all those things we wish we had said in the moment actually got said. The dialogue is sharp, and intelligent, but never pretentious.

“Redbelt” covers the familiar territory of the code of the warrior and the etiquette of fighting, but there is freshness to how it is presented and freshness in the delivery by lead Ejiofor. Ejiofor, one of the best actors working today, is often in supporting roles in films such as “Children of Men,” “Inside Man” and “American Gangster.” He is the sort of actor who often gets referred to as “that guy.”

Ejiofor could be a household name, and probably would be if his name were easier to pronounce. He has a screen presence that is instantly commanding, and his work is nuanced and effective. He’s a performer so natural it never seems like he is acting.

The film is slow-paced, and those expecting a non-stop fight film will be let down. Mamet takes the time to create a well-rounded central character and to surround him with interesting supporting players, but he rewards the patient viewer. By the time there is a final confrontation, it matters. There are things at stake, and the film pays off in completely satisfying and unexpected ways.

No go on 'Speed Racer'

The live action adaptation of the 1960s anime cult classic “Speed Racer” quite literally gave me a headache. Not only that, the throbbing migraine still lingered the next morning. Seriously.

Written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers of “Matrix” fame, the movie is a bloated, over-stylized assault on the eyes and ears that somehow manages to be equal parts maddening and sleep-inducing.

The plot of the film should be simple enough, but the Wachowskis manage to make it awfully convoluted. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”) loves to race, it is all he knows. He is supported by his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and a loving family including his parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) and an annoying little brother (Paulie Litt). When Speed refuses to sell out he’s thrown into a world of cutthroat spies and is forced to join with rival Racer X (Matthew Fox, “Lost”) to survive.

Sound silly? Well, it is and that is OK. So was the show. But the film isn’t presented with a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun. If anything the film takes the material seriously. The film’s feeble attempts at humor involve the mischievous brother and his pet monkey. If a monkey throwing feces into a bad guy’s face is your idea of comic genius then “Speed Racer” will have you howling. The film is pitched to kids, but with humor like that it is pandering to them instead of engaging them.

The Wachowskis start with a color palate that nicely captures the feel of the cartoon, but the problem is they don’t stop there. They turn everything up to a nauseating neon that looks like a cotton candy machine exploded over the Vegas strip.

On top of that, the Wachowskis use a style meant to emulate the show in which close-ups of characters are placed in the foreground while action, often a flashback, happens in the background. It is an interesting effect the first few times but gets olds fast. Once the film establishes its look, it just keeps repeating itself and quickly becomes stale.

The races, which should be the highlight of the film, have no sense of tension since it is clear that everything is computer generated. Suspense builds when an audience believes a character is truly in danger. Even a film full of effects should create that feeling. The Wachowskis knew this in “The Matrix,” having the actors do much of their own stunt work, which was then seamlessly integrated with cutting edge special effects.

But with “Speed Racer,” The Wachowski Brothers make no attempt to hide the artifice of the cars, race tracks and surrounding settings. The races are also edited in such a frantic manner as to be completely incomprehensible. You’d need to eat a dozen chocolate-covered coffee beans and wash them down with a four-pack of Red Bull just to keep up with the action.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that buried under all the visual trickery there are hints of what could’ve been. There is a good message about the struggle between corporate and independent business and the importance of family. The performances are better than the material, and, when the film slows down for a second, Goodman and Sarandon are able to have nice, tender moments with Hirsch. But those moments only remind you that you could be watching a good movie, instead of the completely disposable mess that is "Speed Racer."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Downey is the 'man' in summer's first blockbuster

In 1983 Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did a TV show on what made “Star Wars” special. They concluded one of the key factors was quality control. “Star Wars” was the first film to do a space adventure with first rate writing, directing, acting, special effects, sound, score and so on. It proved that even a seemingly silly or standard story could be raised to greatness if given the proper treatment.

This idea of quality control is also what makes “Iron Man” such a smashing success. Everything about it is top tier. It may be based on a comic book and be the story of a man who builds a suit of metal to battle evil, but “Iron Man” takes itself serious. There are plenty of laughs, but actor turned director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) and his team know that to make material like this work you can’t succumb to campiness.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy, who made his fortune manufacturing weapons. The film opens in Afghanistan with Stark showcasing his latest weapon. He is kidnapped by a Taliban-esque group and told he now makes weapons for them. Instead Stark and his fellow captive (Shaun Toub) build a metal suit to escape. And all this in the first half hour.

The opening of the film has a roughness and bite that recalls 2005's little seen, but completely worthy “Lord of War.” That film featured Nicolas Cage as a snarky weapons dealer, but the difference here is that Stark grows a conscience and wants out of the business.

The film’s edge likely comes from Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the screenwriters behind the brilliant “Children of Men.” The writing team was brought into beef up a screenplay by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. You can sense their presence in the early scenes, which have an immediacy and a base in reality that permeates forward and keeps the film grounded.

Above all else, this is Downey’s film. Not enough can be said about how good Downey is here. Like a master chef, he perfectly blends the cynicism that marks his character at the beginning of the film with a burgeoning heart and a sense of purpose as he fine tunes his suit. With sarcasm, wit and intellect, you never doubt him for a second. He even makes you believe lines like “I just finally know what I have to do.”

Downey has always been a great actor, but unfortunately he became a punch-line when his drug use landed him in jail for a year. But since getting out and getting clean he has been delivering one knock-out performance after another in films like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Zodiac” and “A Scanner Darkly.” The problem was most of mainstream America wasn’t seeing his work. “Iron Man” will change all that. Just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” took Johnny Depp to a whole new level, “Iron Man” should do the same for Downey.

The film wouldn’t work nearly as well if Downey’s strong central performance wasn’t surrounded by a cast who equaled his work and luckily everyone here is stellar. Given the material, it would be easy for any of the cast to ham it up, but they don’t. They play the film straight and that’s key.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s loyal assistant is in good form. It may seem like a throwaway role, but the dialogue between Paltrow and Downey has a rat-a-tat-tat spark that recalls classic screwball comedy.

Jeff Bridges with a shaved head that makes him look like Lex Luthor plays Stark’s shady business partner. Again, what seems like a nothing role is more than what it first appears and Bridges enriches his character with a quiet menace. Terrance Howard (“The Brave One,” “Hustle and Flow”) gets the short straw in terms of characters as Stark’s closest thing to a friend, but he plays the role well.

“Iron Man” is more than just a comic book movie. The film is more about character and internal conflict than it is about big action scenes. There are large stretches between the elaborate special effects sequences. In fact the final confrontation between Iron Man and his first nemesis is not nearly as interesting as what preceded it, but teens should lap it up regardless.

So often comic book films end anti-climatically or tease for a sequel in a manner that frustrates or angers an audience. “Iron Man” has a final moment that is so unexpected and that gets a laugh so big that you are left wanting more in the best way possible.

Get 'Lost' with the Resort Players

Neil Simon, one of the most successful playwrights in the country, is skilled at blending laughs and pathos into recognizable characters, but with his 1991 play, “Lost In Yonkers,” he didn’t rely so heavily on the one-liners. The shift towards drama earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

Saying “Lost In Yonkers” is a drama, is not to say it isn’t funny, and the Resort Players of Mount Washington Valley’s production mines the show for all the laughs its worth.

Set in New York during World War II, a widowed father (Ken Martin) in debt to loan sharks leaves his two sons Jay (Jake Dunham) and Arty (David Fulton) with his cold mother (Stacy Sand) and kooky sister Bella (Molly Campbell), so he can go on the road to sell scrap metal. During the boys stay they also encounter their Uncle Louie (Dennis O’Neil), a henchman for a gangster and their Aunt Gert (Karen O'Neil), who has an odd speaking problem that is better left heard than described.

At its core, the play is about the effect not being loved by a parent has on a child. The self-proclaimed steel-like grandmother never shows warmth or affection to her children or grandchildren. Each of her children deals with her differently, but all fear her instead of love her. As Louie puts it, “I didn’t say I hate her, I just don’t like her.”

The tone of director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann’s production feels slightly off, leaning more toward the comic tendencies of the script than the dramatic ones. The show falls into a rhythm of delivering one-liners and punch-lines that unfortunately carries over to some of the more dramatic scenes. The audience I saw the show with continued laughing during a serious scene in which Louie tells Arty about his childhood.

The problem in tone is a minor quibble, because the show still works and entertains. We all need a little escape from our lives, so a refocus on the comic aspect of Simon’s play isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since, when it counts most, the production provides the required dramatic weight. A scene in which Bella desperately pleads for her mother’s approval is deeply affecting. The rejection she feels is palpable and heart-wrenching.

Neil Simon's dialogue has a flow all its own and the cast is up to the challenge of delivering it. Campbell has the show’s most challenging role as a woman with a childlike mind and adult emotions. In the show’s early scenes Campbell successfully and hilariously plays Bella's loopy personality, but as the show progresses Bella becomes more than just a comedic device and Campbell keeps Bella human and real.

As Uncle Louie, O’Neil is a scene stealer full of energy and, as his character would put it, moxie. O’Neil’s scenes with Dunham and Fulton are some of the best in the show and he has an excellent chemistry and rapport with the two young actors.

Of the production's youngest actors, Fulton, an eighth grader at Bartlett Middle School, fares best as the younger brother, but this is no fault of Dunham. Fulton’s Arty is the more rambunctious of the two brothers and has the better lines. Dunham, a sophomore at Fryeburg Academy, has to play it more straight than Fulton, but is good, especially in a startling moment when anger gives way to tears.

Sand as the grandmother in many respects is required to be the center of the show. Her quiet cruelty is the driving force of all the action in the play. Sand, stuck with the hurdle of delivering all her dialogue with a German accent, succeeds at being a detestable figure who at same time the audience is able to sympathize with in the final scenes.

The set, constructed and painted by Mark DeLancey, Matt Hashem, Danielle Davis, Ken Martin, Dennis O’Neil and Sharon Roberts, effectively evokes the 1940s, as well as capturing the feeling of a cramped apartment. The use of black and white period footage projected onto a screen on the back of the stage is also effective at creating a sense of place and mood for the production.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Jackie Chan and Jet Li match up is a charming adventure

Jackie Chan and Jet Li are two of biggest international stars to come out of China and certainly the two with the most crossover success in America, so it was inevitable that they would eventually be teamed together. That match up has finally arrived in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” a goofy, but charming fantasy adventure.

Martial artists fans may be disappointed to discover that neither Chan nor Li is “Forbidden Kingdom’s” lead protagonist. The story instead centers on Jason (Michael Angarano, “Lords of Dogtown,” “Ski High”), a kung fu obsessed teen from Boston who enjoys venturing into China Town to buy bootleg kung fu films, but isn’t much of a fighter himself.

Bullies rough up Jason, but just before things turn potentially deadly a magical staff found in a pawn shop run by a kindly old man (nicely played by Chan) whisks him away to a fantastical version of ancient China.

The staff must be returned to its owner, the mischievous Monkey King (Li) who has been frozen in stone by an evil immortal ruler (Collin Chou). Luckily, Jason meets Lu Yan (Chan in his “Drunken Master” mode), Golden Sparrow (Yifei Lie) and Silent Monk (Li again) who guide and train him on his journey.

Naturally, before Chan and Li join forces, they must face off in a showdown of fists and kicks, lest the filmmakers want to deal with the wrath that would come down upon them from the loyal fans of both performers. Though Chan, at 53, and Li, at 44, are passed their primes and both have appeared in more cleverly choreographed fights, the set piece is still a must see for martial artists fans. It is a well paced and directed fight with energy and a sense of fun and humor.

Energy, fun and humor are ultimately the keys to the film’s success because, really, it is nothing more than a hodge-podge of ideas borrowed from movies as diverse as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Neverending Story,” “The Karate Kid” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It works though because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Every moment can be predicted, but style goes a long way to overcoming familiarity. Yes, we get the obligatory training scenes and it goes without saying that when Jason returns home he’ll face the bullies with success the second time around. The characters are two-dimensional and yet they are so well played that you don’t mind.

Angarano and Lie have a surprisingly sweet and low-key love story, which while lacking depth, doesn’t feel forced. Similarly, Chan and Angarano have a nice mentor/student chemistry. Chan is an effortlessly likable screen presence, but his natural charisma has been wasted in most of his English language films. His work here is among his best in English.

Li, in the role of Silent Monk, is basically a stoic sidekick to Chan’s lovable drunken warrior, but as the Monkey King, Li gets to showcase his lighter side. Li usually plays dramatic, serious figures, so it is nice to see him reveal a knack for comedy as he gleefully bounds about the screen. It is a pleasant and welcomed treat.

The film also features strong female roles. In addition to Lie, Bingbing Li makes a dynamic villainess with long, flowing white hair that becomes its own weapon. Bingbing has a commanding and menacing screen presence. Both women are strikingly beautiful, but beyond that they are talented actresses who both give good performances in a language not their own. Not an easy feat.

The movie is aware it is pure formula and that its story is completely silly, but it embraces both of these with a light tone, a lot of heart and a playful wit. There’s even a bit of grace and beauty in the film. There are isolated moments when director Rob Minkoff recalls the gorgeous imagery that director Ying Xiong brought to the martial arts movies “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Minkoff manages to make a movie that could’ve come off as hokey and bland, one that is entertaining and endearing.