Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Get Smart' gets it right

When Hollywood is bereft of ideas, one of the wells it lowers its bucket into is classic TV. Everything from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “The Mod Squad” to “I Spy” to “Bewitched” have been given the big-budget, big-stars treatment. The results are usually dire. So it is with a sigh of relief that I can say the great 1960s spy spoof “Get Smart” will not be tossed into the same rubbish bin.

“Get Smart” then and now centers on the misadventures of Maxwell Smart, an inept field agent for the spy agency CONTROL who does battle with Russian adversaries at KAOS. Then Maxwell was played with deadpan perfection by Don Adams. Now, in a masterstroke of casting, he is played Steve Carell who is so good at deadpan deliver on NBC’s “The Office” that sometimes it is hard to see the line between serious and funny.

Maxwell’s partner who is usually left with the chore of getting him out of jams is Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, “The Devil Wears Prada”). Hathaway may seem like an odd replacement for Barbara Feldon, but she proves an excellent choice. Previously, I hadn’t been won over by Hathaway, who always seemed pretty and perky, but little more. Here she showcases fine comedic timing. It could be that the Carell’s comic energy upped Hathaway’s game.

Carell and Hathaway earn their biggest laughs together in a dance sequence that brings their rivalry to a head. The duo projects a genuine chemistry that falls flat only when the script by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember tries to force more serious or romantic moments. These moments are small and don’t drag film’s pacing to a halt.

This isn’t just Carell and Hathaway’s show, though. The whole cast is pitch-perfect. This is definitely a case of a cast making good material — at least at times — reach excellence. Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) as The Chief steals the movie in the final act and earns the film’s single biggest laugh with his reaction to a car accident.

Terence Stamp (“The Limey”) as the head of KAOS exudes menace with a knowing wink. Arkin and Stamp are such old pros that their mere presence elevates everything around them to another level.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson continues to show a knack for comedy as Agent 23, and Masi Oka (“Heroes”) earns laughs as one of CONTROL's gadget inventors. There are also funny cameos by Bill Murray and James Caan.
“Get Smart” doesn’t feel like a shameless cash in. There seems to be a real affection for the series from everyone involved, which is refreshing since most film adaptations of TV shows are in name only.

The few adaptations that have worked balanced paying tribute to the source material while finding their own voice. This held true for the first “Charlie’s Angels” film, “Starsky and Hutch” and “The Brady Bunch Movie,” all of which took a self-parody tone that was perhaps the only way to approach the kitsch factor associated with those series.

But “Get Smart” was already a parody of James Bond and Cold War politics, so a self-parody would’ve fallen painfully flat. Thankfully, this update finds the right tone of nostalgia for the original, while creating something new that will have appeal to those who wouldn’t know Maxwell Smart from Maxwell Edison.

The “Get Smart” film is more action-oriented than its television counterpart, but, although there are explosions and car chases, these set pieces are played for laughs not thrills. There is a great sequence with Agent 99 having to save Maxwell from a parachute-less free fall, and another involving Maxwell dangling from a plane.

Although there are catch phrases and in-jokes for fans of the show, this is a stand-alone piece. It has its own style, but doesn’t negate the spirit of it predecessor. You get the impression that show creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who were consultant on the film, would’ve tried similar gags if they had the budget that director Peter Segal was afforded.

On a side note, film buffs will appreciate a nice homage to the classic War Room scenes from “Dr. Strangelove.” It is a nice above-and-beyond touch.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New 'Hulk' a smashing good time

The newly minted Marvel Studio is on a roll. After years of selling the rights to their titles to other production companies, Marvel comics made the bold move to produce its own films, and thus far the company is no joke. Following on the heels of their wildly entertaining “Iron Man,” Marvel delivers another surprisingly good film in “The Incredible Hulk.”

You may recall that it was just five years ago that audiences were already given the story of the mild mannered scientist Bruce Banner who after a freak accident is bestowed with the curse (or is it a gift?) of turning into a giant green behemoth whenever he gets angry.

That was Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” which received a lukewarm reception from critics and was largely reviled by fans of the comic book. Instead of doing a direct sequel, Marvel Studio decided to do a complete re-do, similar to the way “Batman Begins” and the forthcoming “Dark Knight” are a new series of “Batman” films.

Lee’s “Hulk” was sort of fascinating in the way it used the Hulk as a metaphor for suppressed childhood memories. The struggle between Banner and his alter ego can make for great, thoughtful drama, but Lee’s “Hulk” swung too far to the cerebral and forgot that one of the simple pleasures of the character was watching him smash things.

This new “Hulk” is directed by Louis Leterrier, who helmed the underrated “Unleashed.”
That film featured Jet Li as a man trained to act as an attack dog. Leterrier not only ratcheted up the brutal martial scenes in that film, but also featured tender moments and coaxed the best English-language performance out of Li. Leterrier brings that same well-calibrated balance between quiet drama and loud bash around action to his “Hulk.”

Leterrier, working from a script by Zak Penn with an un-credited re-write by star Edward Norton, gets the back story out of the way in the title sequence. He drops the audience in Rio de Janeiro, where Banner (Norton) is hiding out working at a bottling plant and searching for a cure.

His nemesis, General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, “Vantage Point”) is desperately pursuing him to try to exploit his power for military applications. Ross employs the help of a mercenary named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, “Reservoir Dogs,” “Rob Roy”) to capture him. Blonsky is in awe of the Hulk’s power, and through a super-solider serum he begins to be able to match him in battle.

The script sets up a brilliant device of having Banner’s heart rate be the Hulk trigger. The key number is 200. Knowing this bit of information adds an extra layer of suspense to a foot chase through the streets and roof tops of Rio. The faster Banner runs, the quicker his heart beats.

This first chase is well paced and recalls the best scenes in the “Bourne” franchise. As with “Iron Man” the first half hour is presented with a certain degree of realism that helps keep the film grounded when it shifts fully into comic book mode.

The film basically plays like a chase movie from the moment Banner’s Rio location is compromised. Banner is forced to stop being a loner and get help. Aid comes in the form of his former girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, “The Strangers”) and a slightly mad scientist wonderfully played by Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother Where Art Thou”).

The film is elevated by having excellent actors who are giving the same caliber performance they would if they were in a more “serious” film. Norton, who has brilliantly played conflicted characters in such films as “Fight Club” and “American History X,” is ideally cast as Banner. Norton has a way of carrying the burden of the Hulk that is nuanced and believable.
Roth has been a go-to man for villainy for years, and he fleshes out Blonsky into an interesting character. He is not necessarily a bad guy, just one who desires power — and that hunger leads him to transform into a monster. He becomes a dynamic counter balance to Norton’s Banner. One man struggles to gain power, while the other tries to lose it.

Tyler and Norton have a low-key romantic chemistry and share some funny banter. A sex scene getting cut short out of fear of an appearance by the Hulk is particularly amusing. Tyler also admirably develops a believable relationship with the computer-generated Hulk. There is a nice beauty and the beast feel to the scenes they share. A scene in a cave even favorably evokes the same sort of warmth that appeared in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

This Hulk is no softy though. In battle he is a rough-and-tumble rumbler who will rip a car in half and use it as a pair of boxing gloves. The final confrontation between Hulk and a souped-up Blonsky is an action packed clash that is exactly what fan boys are hoping for.

'The Visitor' is a warm, funny and important human drama

“The Visitor” may sound like the title for the latest big-budget alien-invasion film or psychological thriller, but it is neither of those things. Instead it is a powerful human drama that, in its own small way, is an important film.

The film focuses on Walter (Richard Jenkins), a Connecticut college professor who discovers that two immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), are living in a New York apartment he owns, but hasn’t visited in years. Instead of kicking them out, he invites them to stay, and a friendship develops.

Tarek is from Syria and Zainab from Senegal and both are Muslim, but these characters' ethnicities or religious beliefs do not rigidly define them. They are not presented as racial stereotypes.

Walter becomes intrigued by Tarek’s drum playing, and Tarek begins offering lessons. They develop a quick bond, and Walter, a widow who disconnected from the world, starts to live again.

It turns out that Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants, and when Tarek is arrested for a nothing offense that he didn’t even commit,he is thrown into detention. Walter tries to help legalize Tarek but finds it isn’t that easy in a post 9/11 world.

The film isn’t a heavy-handed social lesson. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy is shrewder than that. There are scenes of anger and frustration at the system, but at the core the film is told on a personal level and doesn’t get involved with murky politics. The film is all the stronger for keeping its story on people and never succumbing to the urge to have a soapbox speech.

McCarthy’s previous film was the equally wonderful “Station Agent,” another story about a private man whose life is rejuvenated by making unlikely friends. The basic template behind both films is hardly new, but McCarthy has a way of presenting stories of broken or lost souls that seem fresh.

The key is that McCarthy doesn’t become stuck in plot. Too often characters get undermined when they are forced through the illogical hoops of screenwriting 101. McCarthy’s characters behave like real people, not movie people. His characters are warm, intelligent and dimensional.

Jenkins, a character actor, who has been popping up in small film and TV roles for over 20 years, will be a familiar face to audiences, but it isn’t likely they’ll know from where. As Walter, he is quiet and reserved, and walking through life on autopilot. Jenkins hints at the underlining pain to the character and paints Walter’s reawakening to humanity in small gestures instead of broad strokes. There is a joy in the drum scenes that is sure to make audiences’ smile broadly.

Jenkins is surrounded by uniformly strong performances. Sleiman as Tarek is instantly likable, and it is plain to see why just about anyone would be eager to befriend him. His relaxed screen presence makes it easy to care about his plight.

Hiam Abbass plays Tarek’s mother, who develops a parallel friendship with Walter as they both try to find a way to free Tarek from detention. There is unforced chemistry between Jenkins and Abbass that touches on romance, but never quite gives over to it.

But the film isn’t a non-stop love fest between different races. Zainab is uncertain of Walter and his intentions. It isn’t racism, but a protective guard — and Gurira plays this delicately. There is a truth to this character. Many people innately don’t trust what they don’t know and prefer to stay with their own people than to risk mixing with others. McCarthy was wise to keep this in as it shows an understanding of people and adds depth to his story.

“The Visitor” isn’t a hard film to watch, but its presentation of characters as individuals and not clich├ęs, no matter what their ethnic background, is something rare in films. The film puts a face on the illegal immigration issue and shows characters from the Middle East who are something more than terrorists. Some may be quick to brand the film as left-wing propaganda, but this is not a liberal or conservative film, it is a human film.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ben Hammond is honestly talented at least 'reasonably' so


Singer/songwriter showcases new album at Stone Mountain Arts Center


It can never be said that musician Ben Hammond isn’t loyal to where he grew up. No matter what adventures his life takes him on, the 2001 Fryeburg Academy graduate from Hiram, Maine always comes home to share his new life experiences.

This time he returns to the Mount Washington Valley with his first album, “[Reasonably] Honest,” for a performance at the Stone Mountain Art Center in Brownfield, Maine, on June 10 at 8 p.m.

“A lot of the bigger artists that go there talk about how nice it is to go back and play a small venue again, and for me it is like this huge venue,” said Hammond, who has been a staple of the valley bar scene on and off for the past few years.

The show is part of an album tour that has had Hammond bouncing back and forth across the Canadian border. Thus far he has had shows in London, Ontario, Toronto, Montreal, Burlington, Vt., Bangor, Maine, Norwood, Mass., and Boston. The tour will continue with another trip to Montreal and appearances in Portland, Maine, and New Jersey.

Hammond’s connection to Canada goes back to his years studying music technology at McGill University in Montreal. It is there that he developed his talent as a musician by performing in jazz, rock, hip hop and a cappella groups and where he established many of his musical contacts. When it came time to record his first album, it seemed natural to head back to the Great White North, and so this past November Hammond set off to Toronto.

The final product of his time in Toronto reveals an artist who is not your topical singer/songwriter. Many of the songs on “[Reasonably] Honest” start with a simple acoustic base and layer on elements of jazz, hip hop and reggae, sometimes within the same song.

“Having known Ben since he first picked up a bass guitar, I can say that he's always been both talented and ambitious,” said Kelly Muse who is performing with Hammond at the Stone Mountain show. “His jazz experience gives him the skills to write really intelligent songs, but Ben manages to do so in a way that isn’t forced. It’s a rare kind of organic smart rock that brings elements of folk, funk and jazz. His new album is a perfect example."

Dan Berglund, who has known Hammond since nursery school and will also be joining him Tuesday, agrees that Hammond’s diverse musical background makes him a fresh voice and performer.

“I think his new album is great,” said Berglund. “His voicings and harmonies are a clear indication of his musical intelligence, and the broad scope of the styles he writes in is a refreshing change from the commercial pop scene.”

“Let’s Get Alone,” the first track on “[Reasonably] Honest” perfectly encapsulates Hammond’s ability to blend genres. Starting out as a catchy, pop jazz song, it seamlessly segues into a rap interlude written and performed by Kweku, one of Hammond’s friends from his days at McGill. The track’s inventiveness is the ideal opener because it lets listeners know they are in the presence of an artist who is willing to take chances.

“We decided to put it up front almost like the way an emcee would introduce a show,” said Hammond. “[Kweku] is introducing a lot of the lyrical themes that happen on the album. I think it worked out really well in that way, and I think it gives a different texture.”

The songs on “[Reasonably] Honest” may seem like a straightforward collection of love songs, but there’s more going on. Hammond begins with the formula of a love ballad and gives it a twist. His songs feature conflict and struggle. They aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hammond is willing to go beyond the superficial and brush up against darker themes.

“Instead of writing break-up songs, I tend to write almost-broken-up songs, and I think those are a lot more interesting than either straight ‘I love you’ or straight ‘I hate you’ because who really feels one way or the other?” said Hammond. “I think on the first listen a lot of my songs you don’t necessarily catch that there are other levels happening lyrically because they can come across as just love songs, which is fine, I don’t mind that.”

There is also a craft in the production of the songs themselves that some listeners may not catch on to, but indeed the recording process for “[Reasonably] Honest” was crucial to its success.

“We did this one a bit different than most pop and rock albums,” said Hammond of the recording process. “We did it in more of a jazz way, in that everything was recorded at the same time and we added to it afterwards, but the vocals, the drums, the bass, the guitar and the piano were all done live in the studio and that was sort of the vibe we were going for with the album — the organic, live, jazzy, improvisational feel where it is loose.”

Once the album was done, Hammond knew he’d want to tour with it, but more importantly he knew he wanted to have a big show in his hometown area.

“I thought about doing a venue in Portland, but then I’d lose a lot of the North Conway crowd and vice versa I’d lose all my Portland people if I did a North Conway show,” said Hammond. “Something right near Hiram would be the best, so Stone Mountain is a perfect venue, not too huge, but big enough to have a big party.”

Joining Hammond in the party is a special guest band put together specifically for the Stone Mountain show featuring Hammond on guitar, Muse on bass, Berglund on drums and Gabe Nespoli on piano.

“I’m really looking forward to this group,” said Hammond. “Everyone involved is just such a great musician and has their own voice to give to it. I tend to look for that; I really hate playing with these sort of robot players. There are some guys that are fantastic, but they only play exactly what you tell them to play. For me my music is a bit more dynamic and improvised than that.”

It is that willingness and openness to explore different genres and what other musicians have to offer that Nespoli — who is coming down from Toronto for the show — admires most about Hammond.

“I have always envied not only Ben's incredibly diverse musical interests, but also the way in which he lets them influence his music and playing, making him quite the musical chameleon,” said Nespoli, who played on “[Reasonably] Honest” and has been touring with Hammond. “He values the influences of other musicians with whom he is playing, and is eager to incorporate what they bring to the table. This creates a very comfortable, unique and unified sound that is hard to come by these days.”

Hammond is hoping to run through the whole album at the Stone Mountain show following a solo acoustic set of older material. He also promises a few unexpected musical surprises.

“Touring with Ben has been a really enjoyable experience for me since we're not playing the songs exactly as they are on the album,” said Nespoli. “For the live shows we've opened the songs up a little more, making them edgier and livelier.”

Tickets cost $15 and are available at www.stonemountainartscenter.com. “[Reasonably] Honest” is on sale in the valley at White Mountain Cider Company, Cafe Carleo, White Birch Books and Cigar Emporium as well at Bull Moose in Portland, Maine and online at iTunes and at http://cdbaby.com/cd/benhammond.

Top ten summer blockbusters

Every summer the studios wheel out their latest line of potential hits, praying they haven’t misjudged the market as they gamble with millions upon millions of dollars. Here are 10 of the best, and in some cases, the trailblazers, of summer blockbusters.

"Jaws" (1975)
Director Steven Spielberg is the king of escapism. This whole list could be full of his films, but this one makes it above all others because this is the original blockbuster. Before Spielberg unleashed “Jaws,” the idea of a summer blockbuster didn’t exist. What made the difference? “Jaws” was the first film to have a nationwide release. It was also more than just another dumb creature feature. It was a stellar mix of humor, horror, adventure and top-notch acting from Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.

"Star Wars" (1977)
Spielberg opened the blockbuster door, but George Lucas ripped it off its hinges by presenting a special- effects-filled space adventure like no audience had ever seen before. Lucas used a simple story playing off of old themes and mythology to create a fully realized universe with rich characters and a sense of humor, fun and mysticism. It is a film that has become deeply rooted in our greater social consciousness, and not even the less-than-amazing new trilogy could stain that.

"Animal House" (1978)
You don’t need elaborate special effects to spawn a blockbuster, as the unexpected hit “Animal House” proved. Powered by an unrelentingly maniac comic performance by John Belushi, this collegiate comedy gave birth to the tradition of raunchy, vulgar summer comedies. There have been plenty of low-brow imitators, but what so many of them lack is an underlining intelligence to the crude humor. It takes brains to do dumb well, and that’s why 30 years later "Animal House" is still a wonderfully subversive classic.

"Ghostbusters" (1984)
“Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” veterans Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis battle ghosts in a perfect marriage of outrageous comedy and tremendous visual effects. Too often visuals upstage the laughs or drama of a film, but here they sit next to each other, enhancing and driving the story forward. This is the obvious forerunner for other sci-fi comedies, most notably “Men in Black,” another summer sensation.

"Batman" (1989)
Superhero movies have become huge summer bread winners in the last decade. And “Batman” and 1978’s “Superman” were the ones that started it all. Alas, “Superman’s” December release disqualifies its inclusion on this list. But “Batman” is no slouch and set the standard for the current crop of superhero films. Director Tim Burton took the material serious, and although some comic book purists don’t like the liberties Burton took with the characters, it is hard to fault the film's visual style and its dark sense of humor.

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)
Director James Cameron with George Lucas’ effects company Industrial Lights and Magic pioneered some extraordinary computer-generated visuals in 1989’s “Abyss.” Two years later they further perfected them with the creation of the liquid metal, shape-shifting villain Arnold Schwarzenegger battles in a sequel that out-does its predecessor not only in terms of thrills, but emotional resonance. Films laden with computer-generated effects are a dime a dozen now, but this is one of the first to do it well and boy, oh boy does it still hold up.

"Sixth Sense" (1999)
Summer movies don’t have to be about big action and big laughs. Sometimes a quiet thriller can sneak its way to the top. Audiences like to be scared, but too often filmmakers go for gore that disgusts, but doesn’t genuinely frighten. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan reminded audiences that mood and atmosphere, story and acting are far more important than grisly visuals. Word spread quickly that his film delivered the chills. With his patented twists, Shyamalan has become a bit of a one-trick pony, but this first trick is still tops.

"Shrek" (2001)
Animated features have always been a big draw going back to 1939’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” but “Shrek” was different. It was tired of other animated films and lampooned them mercilessly and, somehow, at the same time showcased its own sweet story. Hilarious star voice work by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz helped develop the animated roles into complete characters. The series would de-evolve into what it was initially mocking, but the first still remains hip and fresh.


"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002)
The sleeper hit: a movie that no one expects to be a smash success, but that grows a steady and eventually massive following. Every once in a while a small “indie” film comes along and strikes a chord with audiences who are tired of the same old, same old. This small film about a non-Greek marrying into a huge Greek family did just that. Critics didn’t rave but its gentle, sweet sense of humor won people over. Costing only $5 million to make, it grossed over $368 million worldwide. Never underestimate the little movies.

"Pirates of Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003)
A movie based on a theme park ride should’ve been a dire example of cross promotion gone wrong, but it is amazing what a single performance can do for a movie. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was such a unique character played with such zeal that many of the film’s shortcomings disappeared. Not that Depp was alone. He was ably matched by an equally gleeful performance by Geoffrey Rush, and Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom were pleasant supporting swashbucklers. But it was Depp’s show — and what a show.