Thursday, July 24, 2008

'The Dark Knight' is a great movie...period

“The Dark Knight,” the highly anticipated new “Batman” film that broke opening weekend box office records, is so much more than just a superhero movie. This is a dark, sweeping, epic movie powered by the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of The Joker.

For those out of the loop, “The Dark Knight” is a sequel to “Batman Begins” which rebooted the series and brought it back to square one after the disastrous “Batman and Robin.” Thus we have the reappearance of The Joker, but this is a Joker like you’ve never seen before.

As entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s take on The Joker was in 1989’s “Batman,” Ledger ("Brokeback Mountain”) tops him in every way in quite simply one of the greatest acting achievements in recent years. Ledger, who died from an accidental prescription drug overdose in January, is mesmerizing. He is darkly comic and utterly terrifying. A “magic trick” with a pencil will make you laugh and cringe at the same time. Ledger’s performance will get under your skin and in your head and linger their days and weeks after seeing the film.

Ledger’s Joker is the driving force of the plot. Unlike Nicholson’s Joker, or other comic book villains, for that matter, this Joker has no back story and no motivation. He is simply an anarchist, a self-proclaimed “engine of chaos.” Or as Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler and confidant Alfred (Michael Caine) phrases it “some people just want to watch the world burn.”

Through The Joker, director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), who co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, shows that the line between good and evil is a thin one. This theme has come up in previous “Batman” film, but never quite as substantially as it does here. Nolan asks complex morality questions as The Joker escalates his deadly games.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, “American Psycho”) is looking for a way out of being Batman. He has cleaned up the streets of Gotham, but the dual life is taking its toll. Wayne thinks he sees hope in Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, “Thank You For Smoking”), Gotham’s new district attorney, who appears to have an incorruptible soul and the drive to keep Gotham safe without having to wear a mask and cape.

Those familiar with “Batman” lore already know Dent’s destiny will follow a different path than Gotham’s savior. Eckhart is charming and earnest as Gotham’s knight in shining armor, and, when things take a sinister turn, Eckhart turns with it in a well-acted plot development. This development is somewhat rushed but fits completely within the tone and logic of the film. Even if Dent’s story is resolved too quickly, it is not likely to anger “Batman” aficionados.

Although it is in many ways Ledger’s show, all the acting is tops — and that’s one of the keys to the film’s success. Even small supporting roles are filled by some of the world’s best actors. Gary Oldman as Lt. Gordon; Caine as Alfred; Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s man behind those wonderful toys; Maggie Gyllenhaal as Wayne’s former love and Dent’s new one; and even Eric Roberts as a mob boss are all just about perfect. No one plays this for camp. It is played for real.

As with “Batman Begins,” Bale is excellent in the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. If it wasn’t for Ledger’s performance, which is working on a completely different scale of acting quality, Bale would be getting more notice for his work here. Bale brings subtle layers to the performance. You can sense the weight and burden of being Batman weighing on Wayne. The struggle to stay good in the face of evil and to stay Batman in the face of losing his own life is played delicately.

This is easily the darkest, most thoughtful “Batman” film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Caine’s Alfred helps provide a deadpan wit to the proceedings, as does Freeman’s Lucius Fox. And Ledger does provide twisted laughs.

The action sequences are well paced and directed. A huge grin popped across my face when the new Bat-motorcycle emerged from the downed Batmobile. The scene continues on to a thrilling battle of chicken between Batman and The Joker in a tractor trailer. The payoff of this scene is unexpected and one of the most exciting scenes in any movie this summer.

Here’s the bottom line: If you see only one movie this summer this is the one. Don’t let any bias about this being a superhero movie stop you. This is not just a great superhero movie. It is simply a great movie.

Life is a 'Cabaret' at the Eastern Slope Playhouse

The Eastern Slope Playhouse has been transformed into the seedy and oh-so-sensual Kit Kat Klub for The Mount Washington Theatre Company’s lively and entertaining rendition of “Cabaret,” which is running — except Monday — at 8 p.m. through Aug. 2.

Director/choreographer Clay James’ production of “Cabaret” is an immersive experience. Even before the show begins, actors have already been mingling with theater patrons and chatting them up in character.

In the opening number, “Willkommen,” the emcee (Jesse Luttrell) welcomes the audience to the club, and the musical itself and ventures into the audience as he introduces the men and women of the cabaret. It kicks the show off with a bang and is the sort of pull-out-all-the-stops number you expect much later in a show. The tone is set for a show that isn’t afraid to be flamboyant, a bit crass and very sexual.

“Cabaret” is set in Germany during the 1930s as the Nazis are coming to power and alternates between the stage shows at the Kit Kat Klub and the romance of its star performer Sally Bowles (Liz Clark Golson) and Clifford Bradshaw (Grant Golson), an American writer seeking inspiration.

At its core, “Cabaret” is a love story that turns tragic with the inevitable arrival of Nazism in Berlin. The first act is buoyant and lighthearted as Sally leaves the Kit Kat Klub to live with Cliff. Cliff and Sally allow their love to blind them to everything around them as they join in Berlin’s non-stop party.

There’s a sweet parallel love story involving Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider (Megan Thomas) with one of her tenets Herr Shultz (Craig Holden). Although their love story is secondary, Thomas and Holden’s endearing performances make it the heart of the play.

Clark Golson and Golson, who got married this summer, have a playful chemistry, with Golson playing straight-man to Clark Golson’s impetuous and na├»ve Sally. Clark Golson has the big shoes of Lisa Minnelli to fill, and while she doesn’t match that high watermark — few could after all — her take on Sally is fun and, when it has to be, quite affecting.

Those familiar with the 1972 film adaptation of the original 1968 Broadway staging of “Cabaret” are in for a surprise, because James’ production is more in line with the 1998 revival of the show. That reworking of the show turned up the volume on the show’s innate sexuality and bisexuality.

The emcee of the Kit Kat Klub was originally played by Joel Grey in a Tony and Academy Award winning performance. The character was re-imagined by Alan Cumming in a Tony Award winning performance. Cumming’s take was more sexualized and boisterously over-the-top than Grey’s. Luttrell follows closely to Cumming’s interpretation, but that is not a criticism. Luttrell has a vibrant and mischievous presence that is a exhilarating whenever he comes on stage.

The cabaret song and dances such as “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies” and “Money” are full of infectious energy and are inventively choreographed by James. The subversive natures of the lyrics are well matched by the provocative dance routines that feature numerous dancers often in elaborate synchronized routines. Everything is delivered with an impressive precision.

The songs that take place off the Kit Kat stage may seem dull in comparison, and in some cases, with more conventional ballads like “Maybe This Time,” it seems the production is dragging. But these quieter “real life” performances are in their own way just as irreverent as those of the Kit Kat Klub and are a nice balance to the musical’s more outrageous moments.

As the real life scenes turn bleak — the first appearance of a swastika arm band is a shocker — so do the scenes at the Kit Kat Klub. When the curtain rises on the second act, the tone has shifted and James’ production handles the change well and earns its emotional payoffs.

The Kit Kat Klub performances, which in the first act were frivolous, begin to reflect the growing atmosphere of fear and persecution. “I Don’t Care Much” and the title song, sung by Luttrell and Clark Golson, respectively, are delivered with heart-wrenching bravado, and their one-two punch will stir even the most stone-faced.

The production’s final scenes become progressively darker, as what was previously just an ominous feeling becomes a harsh reality. For a show that starts out so frothy, it may be a shock for some how profoundly and deeply affecting the show’s final moments are. There is a real sense of pain that gives the whole show an extra weight and makes “Cabaret” more than just light escapism.

For tickets call the box office at 356-5776 or visit www.mwvtheatre.org.

Del Toro's imagination makes 'Hellboy II' a helluva good time

In a market saturated with comic book adaptation, don’t count out “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” out. It is a film that is more in of a robust fantasy adventure than a slam-bam superhero movie.

“Hellboy II,” based on the comic books by Mike Mignola, is directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro also directed the first film, but in the interim made the visionary “Pan’s Labyrinth,” an astounding fantasy film for adults that played on fears both real and fantastic. The “Hellboy” films are more mainstream, but Del Toro brings visual panache and imagination to the films that raise them above run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare.

The first film was released by Sony, but that studio passed on the sequel. In came Universal Studios, which — banking on Del Toro’s talent — grabbed up what Sony tossed out. It would seem in the wake of the critical success of “Pan’s Labyrinth” that Universal gave complete creative freedom to Del Toro.

In the first film we learned that Hellboy (or Red, as he’s affectionately called throughout both films) was a baby demon sent through a portal from another dimension and then raised by a kindly professor (John Hurt) to battle evil instead of being a force of darkness.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a cigar smoking, cat loving and Baby Ruth eating wise-guy with an attitude problem, but a good heart who works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. His partners are Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a fish-man with psychic abilities; his girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a woman with pyrokinetic powers; and Johann Krauss (voice of Seth MacFarlane of “Family Guy”), a gaseous spirit kept alive by a containment suit.

The plot of this new film involves a prince (Luke Goss, “Blade II”) of a parallel world of mythic creatures who have decided to end a long standing truce with humanity. He plans to bring back the indestructible golden army. The back story of the army is told by computer enhanced marionettes in a visually compelling opening sequence.

There is a sweet subplot involving Abe falling in love with the prince’s twin sister, who joins Hellboy and his team in an attempt to stop her brother. There’s a moment about midway through the film involving the lovelorn Hellboy and Abe that is unexpected and completely inspired. Many critics have ruined the surprise. I won’t, but needless to say beer and Barry Manilow don’t mix well.

The plot of “Hellboy II” is nothing special. It is mere set-up for Del Toro to create some wonderfully unique creatures. One such creation, an angel of death with eyes on his wings, will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.

A sequence set in a hidden black market run by mythic creatures is a rich setting full of things happening in every corner. It is that attention to rendering a fully realized world that gives Del Toro’s films an edge.

Those wanting action shouldn’t worry, there’s plenty, most memorably a sequence involving creatures called tooth fairies because they have a fondness for eating teeth, but they don’t mind devouring the rest of a victim either. Another scene involving Hellboy protecting a baby while he does battle with a large plant creature has imagination and humor to spare.

Like its predecessor, “Hellboy II” has a droll, off-beat sensibility that gels nicely with the dark visuals. Perlman, a quirky character actor who previous to his success as Hellboy was probably best known for the 1980s TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” is ideal for this sort of character.

Perlman is required to toss off a lot of quips, and he delivers them with a deadpan perfection that never feels forced. He as a dynamic and forceful screen presence, but can also be tender and vulnerable especially involving scenes with Blair’s Liz. As with the original, their love story is the heart of the film.

With “Iron Man,” “Hulk,” “and “The Dark Knight,” summer 2008 has definitely been the summer of superheroes. It is hard to say where “Hellboy” fits in that mix, but here’s hoping he doesn’t get lost.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

M&D's 'Bash' packs a punch

Playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute is a dark guy. There’s a good chance his work will leave an audience angry and on edge. He takes a look at the underbelly of humanity and addresses the terrible that lurks in the mundane and under the facade of normalcy. All this makes a LaBute play a perfect candidate for M&D Productions.

LaBute’s “Bash,” a collection of three one-acts, opened last night in M&D’s summer location, the old shoe factory next to Curves in Fryeburg, Maine, and is running July 18-19 and July 24-26.

“It is a show I liked on many levels,” said managing director Mark DeLancey. “It was very interestingly written. I thought it was a beautiful piece that was easy to orchestrate and easy to technically produce and still pack the punch and pack the wallop that M&D’s mission was known for.”

The three pieces focus on seemingly harmless people, who happen to be Mormon but are capable of terrible things. In “Medea Redux,” a woman tells of her complex and ultimately tragic relationship with her junior high school English teacher; in “Iphigenia in Orem,” a Utah businessperson makes a confession to a stranger in a Las Vegas hotel room; and in “A Gaggle of Saints,” a young couple separately recounts the violent events of an anniversary weekend in New York City.

Like LaBute’s other work, which includes the films “In The Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “The Shape of Things,” “Bash” takes the everyday people that we as a society think we know and trust — co-workers, family, friends, and neighbors — and challenges our perception of them and ourselves.

“He [LaBute] makes you so angry at these people, and yet you know them,” said director Clayton Philips, the former artistic director of Barnstormers. “You feel like you know these people and you can’t understand why they do the things they do and they somehow justify it.”

For Philips, how people justify their actions, no matter how terrible, through faith, is the over-arching theme that links the three one-act plays.

“There’s a lot in this piece about people’s acceptance and people taking responsibility for the things they do,” said Philips. “Frequently in the world we can look to a higher power or fate or other things to justify our behaviors, and, in this particularly piece, quite frequently people find justification in things that are beyond them.”

“Bash” is not an easy play to watch because it does make its audience work. There are two different poles of theater and the middle ground where they bleed together. There is the light and fluffy show that is meant to purely entertain, and then there’s the show that sets out to challenge audience members and make them think. “Bash” is definitely in the latter category.

“It pushes your envelope and not just morality as a subject to talk about, but your own morality compared to other people’s moralities,” said Delancey. “He [LaBute] really sucks you in with the writing by making you feel these are common everyday people that you can relate to on whatever manner you want to relate to them on, and then he turns it around so you see something obviously immoral happen. But then your mind goes to the place, 'Well, wait a minute this person was fine a minute ago, but now there’s something wrong with them, how am I suppose to react to this?'"

It’s LaBute sharp ear for naturalistic dialogue that becomes the audience’s entry point for subject matters that if addressed in a less realistic approach would feel ham-fisted or contrived.

“Quite frequently I can sit here listening to it and I feel like they’re making up the words, that’s how well it is written,” said Philips. “It really is amazing.

Rarely can you find a writer that writes that naturally.”
The quality of the writing is something that has excited the actors in a way most productions they are involved in rarely do.

“I didn’t see or read the other two [acts] and then we met this week and I just watched it and I was like, ‘They’re all really good,’ ” said Brian Chamberlain, who appears in “Iphigenia in Orem.” “I e-mailed all my acting friends that I do other shows with in other places, and I usually don’t do that because a lot of shows I am in I don’t want them to see because they’re just crap, but they might pay.”
As an actor Chamberlain is thrilled to have the opportunity to explore a character that is richly written and with multiple facets.

“That’s why I love M&D, they do these shows that actors want to do,” said Chamberlain. “If I do my job right, they [audience members] are going to like me, then they are going to get mad at me, they are going to be scared by me, they are going to be sad for me. They are going to go through this whole gamut of emotions.”
Rae E. McCarey, who appears in “A Gaggle of Saints,” agrees with Chamberlain that being able to appear in “Bash” has been a wonderful experience that, as an actor, has forced her to discover and learn things she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“It is a privilege for me and I consider it an honor to be a part of this production,” said McCarey. “It is so different from anything I’ve ever done. It is the biggest challenge for me as an actor because it is dramatic and intense and so charged and it is difficult to separate yourself.”

But it is not only the actors who are excited about their work, but their director. Clayton has only high praise for their performances.

“These performances are amazing, and I don’t always say that but they really are,” said Clayton. “They just went to these wonderful places and all I’d say was, ‘That was really good, can you take it a step further?’ When you have actors that find these things and are wiling to really go into these dark places themselves and find these complex things going on, it makes my job real easy.”

Tickets are $15 adults and $10 students and seniors. All performances are at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, call the box office at 662-7591.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

'WALL-E' is complete magic

“WALL-E,” a robot love story with a social conscience, may be an animated feature, but adults would be wrong to dismiss it as merely kid fare. Like last year's “Ratatouille,” the Pixar Animation studio is working on another level and telling a simple story with a sophistication and eloquence that is so often lacking in both animated and live action films alike.

Pixar has the best the track record in Hollywood. Starting with 1995’s “Toy Story,” the studio hasn’t had a dud yet. It pioneered the computer-animated feature and is rarely matched in terms of visuals and storytelling.

The key to Pixar’s success is its refusal to condescend to its viewers, whether they are adult or child. Its films deal with universal stories and time-worn messages, but present them with imagination, intelligence and unforced sincerity.

With “WALL-E,” writer-director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) has created something truly special and quite magical. The title character is the last of a team of robots left to clean up Earth after humanity left its trashed planet to float around in hover chairs in a giant ocean-linear-like spaceship called the Axiom.

During his 700 years of trash compacting, WALL-E has developed a personality. While going about his business he also picks up items he likes and brings them back to his pad, which he shares with a roommate of sorts: a cockroach. Believe it or not, you’ll grow fond of that cockroach.

WALL-E’s most prized possession is a video of “Holly Dolly” from which he has learned about love. He gets to experience love first-hand when a spaceship drops off EVE, a robot sent to see if plant life has returned to Earth. The love story that unfolds on Earth and eventually on the Axiom is engaging, sweet and even touching.

You wind up caring a lot about these two little robots, which is all the more amazing since their conversations almost exclusively consist of saying their names to each other. The emotional range attached to simply calling out someone’s name is larger than you might expect.

Large portions of the film play like a silent film, with WALL-E a stand in for Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. This does mean there is a lot of slapstick comedy, but it has the same grace and beauty of those pre-sound comedies. Just as with Chaplin’s best work, Stanton has managed to add a lot of pathos to the comedy antics on screen.

While this isn’t a dark movie, the underlining message is a sobering one. After all, WALL-E is roaming around an Earth decimated by humanity. Humans are shown as blobs of fat lulled into that state by centuries of robot pampering. There are quiet commentaries about the dangers of the path humanity is currently on.

The film is not heavy handed or forceful with its message. It simply presents a cautionary view of one possible future. Although there is a happy ending, the film is certainly not recommending staying our course.

The film features very little voiceover work. The bleep and blops that make up WALL-E’s speech were created by Ben Burtt, who created the sound design for R2D2 in the “Star Wars” movies.

Fred Willard (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) makes a funny live action appearance as the president of Buy N Large, the conglomerate that apparently not only monopolized all businesses but all governments, too. Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is also amusing as the captain of the Axiom, who upon meeting WALL-E and EVE is knocked out of his apathetic state.

The animation in “WALL-E” is at times absolutely stunning, as when WALL-E looks on in wonder at celestial bodies while hitching a ride to the Axiom. There is also a lovely sequence where WALL-E and EVE “dance” through space that is both visually and emotionally beautiful.

The joys to be had watching “WALL-E” can’t be overstated. If you have children and they have yet to drag you to see it, then drag them with you. If you don’t have children, go anyway. It is one of the best films of the year.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Five films for Independence Day

The colonists who formed the United States left England because they felt persecuted and sought a land where they could be free. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, 11 score and 12 years ago our fathers brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. As we honor Independence Day, I give you five films that aren’t about patriotism, but rather focus on equality. These are films that challenge us to embrace our differences and remind us that we’re all just people.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)
The 1950s were full of campy films featuring alien invasions and men dressed in cheap monster suits, but “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was something more. A humanoid alien arrives in Washington D.C. with his loyal and powerful robot to present a simple message of peace, but decides to explore Earth life before delivering it. Though somewhat dated this still remains a surprisingly relevant and potent milestone in the science fiction genre.

“My Left Foot” (1989)
Based on the true story of Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy but overcame his handicap to become a renowned painter, “My Left Foot” challenges our perception of those with disabilities as being defective. Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal of Brown, who is shown as vibrant individual who refuses to be victimized. He’ll even start a bar fight if he has to. It is a truly uplifting story that is honest and affecting where other supposedly heartwarming films are false and cloying.

“Orlando” (1992)
Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”) stars as a lord who is told by Elizabeth I to never grow old — and remarkably he does remain forever young in feminist filmmaker Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel. Along his journey the lord gets a big lesson about society’s perception of gender roles and differences when he awakes one morning a woman. Not as pretentious or inaccessible as it may sound, this is an intelligent, funny and beautifully-shot meditation on gender.

“Remember the Titans” (2000)
The true story of the successful season of a racially integrated high school football team in the early 1970s is presented as a straightforward feel-good story by Disney. But even though audiences know every beat the story takes, the film works. A strong cast led by the always solid Denzel Washington delivers the message of equality with humor and a lot of heart. The film ultimately comes across as genuine when it easily could’ve become preachy and heavy-handed.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)
A rock musical in the tradition of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” but with bigger ideas, “Hedwig” is the story of a transsexual who escapes East Germany in hopes of becoming a punk rock goddess. The music is infectious and presented with the gusto of Broadway. The story and humor are subversive to say the least, but at its core the film is also sweet and rather touching as Hedwig tries to find his/her place in the world.