Thursday, January 29, 2009

A 'Road' worth taking, but with caution

Over a decade after starring in “Titanic,” Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are reuniting in “Revolutionary Road.” But those expecting another sweeping tragic love story are in for a rude awakening. This time the sinking ship is the relationship itself and, to reference another disaster, it is as explosive as the Hindenburg.

“Revolutionary Road” has more in common with director Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” than with “Titanic.” For the many, myself included, that found the romance in “Titanic” shallow at best and nauseating at worst, this will be a relief. But be forewarned: This is a devastating film that is not easy to watch.

As in “American Beauty,” Mendes has created a scathing critique of suburbia and the American dream. Mendes seems fascinated with pulling away the veneer of suburbia to reveal the truth behind the idyllic fa├žade.

“American Beauty” had a sardonic wit and sense of hope that dulled some of the film’s more stinging moments, but Mendes offers no such relief in “Revolutionary Road.” At one point my mouth hung slack as my lower lip quivered. By the film’s concluding scenes, I had pulled my legs up into my seat and I was hugging them.

The film centers on the Wheelers, a seemingly perfect 1950s suburban married couple. Frank Wheeler (DiCaprio) commutes into the city to work at an ad agency like so many other shapeless drones while his wife April (Winslet) tends to their two kids.

There is a brief prologue of the couple’s first encounter, but the film immediately follows this with the couple, years later, having an argument, the likes of which are usually the climax of most dramas rather than the beginning. The details of the dispute, like so many that will appear in the film, don't really matter because the fight represents a deeper mutual dissatisfaction.

April is tired of the fighting and she offers a solution: move the family to Paris, the one place Frank said he felt free and would one day want to return to. April would get a job as a secretary for an American agency and support Frank while he discovered his true calling. Frank goes for the plan and for a time there is hope.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe from a Richard Yates novel features confrontations between the Wheelers that are often painful to watch. The film does have a point, though. Mendes and Haythe aren’t simply sadists taking pleasure in torturing an audience. The film addresses the tremendous pressure to try to fit into society’s image of the perfect life and the danger of buying into a hollow dream in place of your own aspirations.

Winslet’s April is struggling with being a strong, independent woman living a repressed life. Her plan to work in France is scoffed at by everyone who hears it. Frank questions her very womanhood when she suggests a possible solution to a domestic problem.

DiCaprio and Winslet, who are good friends in real life, clearly trust each other a great deal as actors, as both let loose on a level of intensity few actors achieve on screen. As you watch you feel as if you are eavesdropping on private moments that shouldn’t be seen.

The leads are strongly supported by the rest of the cast. Kathryn Hahn and Gregg Barbour play the Wheelers’ neighbors and act as a counterpoint to them. Hahn and Barbour are good at seeming cheerily content but reveal little cracks in the surface.

Kathy Bates (another “Titanic” veteran) is as solid as ever as a perky but superficial real estate agent. Michael Shannon is particularly memorable as Bates' so-called crazy son, who has no problem saying the things others only think and often speaks more truth than the supposedly sane people.

This is an exceptionally well made film. It is beautiful to simply look at, and the acting is astoundingly good. It is a difficult, but rewarding film.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Take a 'chance' on this screen couple

“Last Chance Harvey” is a rare romantic comedy starring an older pairing, and it is an awfully sweet movie.

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson star as a pair of lonely people, who meet in London, start talking and discover an instant chemistry.

Hoffman is Harvey, a failed jazz pianist working as a jingle writer who is going to his estranged daughter’s (Liane Balaban) wedding in London. Thompson is Kate, an airport interviewer with no self-esteem, an overbearing mother (Eileen Atkins) and who has recently went on a bad blind date.

In London, things just keep getting worse for Harvey. His daughter tells him that she wants her stepfather (James Brolin) to give her away and he is informed that he has lost his job. It is at this point, having missed his flight home, that Harvey meets Kate in the airport bar.

Kate tells Harvey he must go to his daughter’s wedding reception. He agrees to go under the condition that Kate joins him as his “bodyguard.” This sets up a scene where Harvey gives a redemptive toast to his daughter. The toast is well written by writer/director Joel Hopkins and delivered with sincerity and warmth by Hoffman.

This is a low-key film that is full of chuckles, and maybe some tears, rather than belly laughs. You smile a lot while watching because you feel happy for these characters getting together and finding comfort in each other. It is ultimately a feel-good film with a lot heart.

The film is good at taking its time at establishing each character separately before bringing them together. Those who like their romantic comedies cheery from beginning to end may grow tired of the melancholy of these early scenes, but they are crucial to the film’s success. Harvey and Kate are both sad people, and that is what draws them together.

Hoffman and Thompson make a lovely screen couple with an easygoing chemistry. At 71, Hoffman is 22 years Thompson’s senior, not that you’d really notice. Hoffman doesn’t look his age and the age gap seems around a decade on screen. Maybe it all goes back to the fact that he was 30 when starred as a 22 year old in “The Graduate” back in 1967.

When the couple is just allowed to talk and be together, the film is a delight. Hopkins has written smart, sparkling dialogue, and these two very fine actors make it absolutely sing. Unfortunately, Hopkins didn’t seem to have enough faith in his dialogue or his characters.

Too often, just as a conversation is getting interesting, Hopkins brings up the score and drowns out the dialogue. Instead of getting to hear the rest of the discussion we are forced to watch montages of the couple walking along The Thames. These are likable characters, and watching their mouths move, but not hear what they have to say is frustrating.

There’s also a third-act plot development that is needlessly formulaic. A subplot involving Kate’s mother’s paranoia about her new neighbor’s seemingly sinister activities distracts from the main plot. It is a cute, funny bit of business, but unnecessary.

Hopkins should’ve had the courage to just let his characters talk like writer/director Richard Linklater did in his pair of films “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” As with “Harvey,” these films centered on strangers meeting and wandering a city together. In Linklater’s films the conversation continued to flow uninterrupted, and it was wonderful to simply listen to two intelligent, engaging people talk.

If Hopkins had followed a similar path his film would’ve been much stronger. Even with its flaws it is still more charming than the average romantic comedies and it can’t be stressed enough how good Hoffman and Thompson are together. “Harvey” is definitely worth seeing; it is just a shame it is simply good when it could’ve been great.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Worthy of your 'Company'

M&D presents Stephen Sondheim's musical comedy on relationships

Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which opens today at M&D Production’s Your Theatre in Willow Common in North Conway, N.H. is a musical about relationships in modern day New York. A musical about love sounds like nothing special, but it is the author who is special, not the subject.

“Company” first appeared on Broadway in 1970 with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth. Originally conceived by Furth as 11 one-act plays, Sondheim transformed the material into a musical.

Sondheim has composed and/or written the lyrics for such musical standards as “A Funny Thing Happen on the Way to the Forum,” “Into the Woods,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd.”

“Company,” like much of Sondheim’s work, has an irreverent, even dark sense of humor. The humor in this piece is very much a reflection of the 1970s era in which it was written. Think Woody Allen or Neil Simon. This is a mix of situational with observational humor that is often cutting in what it has to say about relationships.

The show centers on the single Robert (T.J. Herlihy) who, as the show open, is thrown a surprise party on his 35th birthday by his friends, five sets of married couples. What follows is a series of scenes with Robert interacting with each couple as he contemplates the prospect of marriage and juggles three possible candidates (Janette Kondrat, Amy Smullen and Nikki Martinez).

Even someone with no musical training will notice that Sondheim does something a bit different than most composers and lyricists. He crams more words and syllables into a lyric than seems lyrically possible. Often his songs move at such a fast pace it is a wonder the singers even keep up.

Sondheim is also fond of utilizing complex harmonies and overlapping lyrics. All of this makes performing a Sondheim show a difficult task. The cast of M&D’s production, under music director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann and director Ken Martin, prove to be up to it.

Watching the cast take on this challenging material is like watching a tightrope walker perform without a net. There may be a couple wobbles here and there, but, commendably, no one falls.

There is a large cast of characters in “Company,” but each actor gets at least one scene to shine. I direct this next sentence specifically to the actors: You were all wonderful, and I’m not just blowing smoke up your you-know-what, so don’t take it personally if I don’t name check you in the list of highlights below.

Herlihy is the show’s focal point, and he makes for a strong lead. Although he is in every scene, he doesn’t have the flashiest role. He often has to play straight man to the antics around him. He also carries the show's more emotional scenes as he weighs the positives and negatives of being single.

Much of the musical’s humor is earned by placing songs in juxtaposition to the scenes' content. When Robert discusses the three girls he is pursuing they pop out girl group style and sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

Amy Smullen as Marta, one of Robert’s more free-spirited love interests, gets one of the show's biggest laughs by describing how you can learn a lot about a New Yorker based upon the size of a certain part of a person’s anatomy. Janette Kondrat has a hilarious scene as April, a dim flight attendant who Robert sweet talks into bed.

Kevin O’Neil and Pat McCabe shine as Harry and Sarah, a bickering couple who needle each other about the respective vices they’ve supposedly given up. When Robert requests Sarah demonstrate a move she learned at karate lessons, this leads to an amusing sparring match between Harry and Sarah that is made all the more ironically funny by Joanne (Shana Myers) singing “The Little Things You Do Together.”

Rae McCarey, in full on neurotic mode, steals the show late in the first act as Amy, who is having a really bad case of cold feet on her wedding day. “Getting Married Today” is one of the show’s funniest songs, and McCarey nails it.

For more information about “Company” call 662-7591.

Friday, January 16, 2009

'Gran Torino' is more than just a vigilante film

“Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood’s latest film as director and star is being advertised as a vigilante story of one man taking on an Asian gang, but that is only one small aspect of the story that is more human than audiences might expect.

Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a bitter, caustic, grumpy and outwardly racist Korean War vet, who has stayed in a Detroit suburb that now largely has an Asian population. The film opens at the funeral for Walt’s wife and we are introduced to Walt’s obnoxious children and grandchildren. They represent the worst kind of Americans and Walt can’t stand them.

Walt uses every ethnic slur in the book that could be directed at an Asian, but when he inadvertently protects his neighbors from an attack by gang members he finds himself becoming emotionally attached to the people he pretends to hate. As his relationship grows with his neighbors he realizes he has more in common with them than his actual family, so much so when they are threatened he feels he must protect them.

Eastwood hasn’t been on screen since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” but he’s certainly been busy behind the camera. As a director he’s had a remarkable late career surge that has him working on a level of skill he had only previously hinted at.

He has been averaging a movie a year since 2002, including two large scale war movies. Eastwood is 78 years old. It is rare to see this amount of quality output for someone a third of Eastwood’s age, but Eastwood has shown no sign of slowing down.

It is easy to see why the screenplay by Nick Schenk would compel Eastwood to get in front of the camera again. Eastwood is allowed to riff on his tough guy persona. He glares, growls and grimaces as only he can. It gets close to self-parody until suddenly the performance turns into something subtler and richer.

He intentionally recalls his most famous characters, Dirty Harry Callahan and The Man With No Name from the trilogy of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. He knows his screen persona is bigger than him and the way he plays towards and against the audience's expectations creates moments both humorous and moving.

Eastwood cast primarily all amateur actors to play the Hmong community. The Hmong, we are told, are hill people from Southeast Asia that fled after the Vietnam War.

Many have been critical of the Hmong actors, but the performances are largely effective. These aren’t great thespians, but they do what they are asked to do well.
The film’s central relationship is between Walt and Thao (Bee Vang) who attempts to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Gran Torino when pressured by his cousin’s gang. Walt, with great reluctance, takes the teen under his wing and tries to “man him up.”

There is also a strong relationship between Walt and Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her), who is both sweet and sassy. She doesn’t take any of Walt’s gruff attitude and instead dishes it back. Walt appreciates this. Of the amateur actors, Her is the real find. She’s likable and has a genuine screen presence. It would be nice to see her get more work.

There are other connections in Walt’s life. He has an amusing reoccurring back and forth with his barber (John Carroll Lynch, “Zodiac”), who like Sue goes toe-to-toe with the old man. There’s an especially funny scene where Walt and his barber try to teach Thao how to talk like a man.

There is also a young priest (Christopher Carley) who promised Walt’s wife that he would look after her husband. Walt wants nothing of it, but the persistent priest eventually breaks down Walt’s defenses. The dynamic that develops here is an interesting one and Carley, who has an assortment of bit roles on his resume, is another actor to watch.

This isn’t deeply profound storytelling, but it is a tried and true formula executed with care. The relationships that develop between Walt and Thao, Sue and the priest follow a familiar arc, but there are surprises in the details as well as a lot of warmth and humor.

It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that the retribution hinted at in the trailer is delivered. Some may be hungry for more old school Eastwood action, but because the film took the time to develop Walt and his relationships completely the final scenes are all the more powerful.

This is a redemptive story, but Walt doesn’t go through cloying, hollow metamorphosis from a mean old man into a really nice guy. That’s the key to film’s success. In the end, he still clings to his racial slurs, although now he says them with fondness.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

5 cool songs for winter

With temperatures dropping below zero and wind wiping snow around (at least throughout the Northeast of the United States) it seems appropriate to provide a list of five songs for winter.

A Google search of the words winter and song will yield a list of several songs, usually ballads, about the chilly season from such bastions of rock as The Rolling Stones, Steve Miller Band and Wings. I wanted songs with a bit more kick, but if you are so inclined feel free to look into these songs.

“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” – Frank Zappa (1974)
Perhaps quirky guitar maestro extraordinaire Frank Zappa’s most well-known song. The title is self-explanatory and the song is exactly what you expect with Zappa warning to “Watch out where those huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.” Things go into unexpected territory if you continue the funky chronicles of the yellow snow in “Nanook Rubs It.”

“Snowball” – Devo (1980)
The off-beat new wave band is best known for the song “Whip It” for those silly flower pot-esque hats, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as a novelty act. The band's lyrics, though buried under danceable beats, were often surprisingly poignant: “My baby took our love/And then she rolled it up/Rolled it up a hill/Like a ball of snow/Like a snowball grows/Until it gets too big/Until she lost control/And it rolled back down.”

Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles (1987)
The 80s girl group The Bangles did a cranked up version of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic from 1967 that kept the harmonies, but striped away the simple acoustic guitar work and replaced it with a forceful electric guitar lead and driving drums. The more rocked out approach paired with Simon & Garfunkel’s contemplatives lyrics proved an ideal match.

“Snowball” – Jimmy Fallon (2001)
This no relation to the Devo song above. Comedian Jimmy Fallon’s first album “The Bathroom Wall” featured fair stand-up and good impressions, but the most pleasant surprise was five impressively well produced songs that impeccably recreated the genres they were mocking. Among those songs was this punk tribute to snowball fights featuring lyrics like “Sneak attack in a field/use your toboggan as a shield.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone (2003)
This standard has been branded as a Christmas song, but really has nothing to do with the holiday. The song is about a man trying to convince a woman to stay in from a snow storm with pleas like “gee your lips look delicious.” Originally recorded in 1949, the song has been covered numerous times. This particular version was recorded by actress Zooey Deschanel and the mysterious jazz/blues singer Leon Redbone for “The Elf” soundtrack.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rock's presidential comedy just became a bit more interesting

In 2003, comedian Chris Rock wrote, directed and starred in a movie called “Head of State.” It was a minor hit that faded from memory, but history has caught up with the movie and made it relevant or, at the very least, a curiosity.

The film centered on a black man not only running for president, but being elected. When it was released, the film almost played like a fantasy with a maybe some day aura. That some day is now here and on Jan. 20 Barack Obama will have his inauguration.

As a satire “Head of State” never reaches the levels of something like “Dr. Strangelove,” but it does have moments of incisive humor. Any satire where a Republican candidate’s slogan is “God bless America and no place else” is at least doing something right.

The set up for the film is that Rock’s Mays Gilliam is chosen as a last minute replacement candidate after a freak accident kills the Democratic Party’s ticket. The democrats know they are going to lose the election, but choose a black man to appeal to the minority vote that will then come out to support the party’s nomination in the next election.

Rock has said the inspiration for the film came from the 1984 Walter Mondale/Geraldine Ferraro ticket. As Rock sees it the Democratic Party knew they couldn’t beat Reagan/Bush and ran a woman for vice president to get the female vote in later elections.

The premise isn’t bad satirically, but loses some sting given that Obama has been elected, but no one saw Obama coming. The idea of a black president being elected still seemed miles away in 2003 and even last year many didn’t think it was possible, so it isn’t fair to hold that against the film.

It is Rock’s execution that steals a lot of the thunder from the set up. Rock admitted during his appearance on “In the Actor’s Studio” that the film was shot like a Mel Brooks comedy. The humor is very much in the same broad vein, which could have worked if Rock’s screenplay kept the jokes coming fast and didn’t try to force an obligatory love subplot.

After playing ball for a while, Rock’s Gilliam adopts a hip hop style and attitude that galvanizes his campaign. This allows for some quick laughs, but doesn’t ring true. That being said, when Rock let’s loose with the razor sharp observations that make his stand-up comedy so strong the film finds a voice.

In a debate scene that will seem familiar to anyone who followed this last election, even with only cursory interest, Rock’s Gilliam is accused of being an amateur. Rock retorts back:

“I am an amateur. When it comes to creating so many enemies that we need to spend billions of dollars to protect ourselves, yes, I am an amateur. When it comes to paying farmers not to grow food while people starve in this country everyday, yes, I am an amateur. When it comes to creating a drug policy that makes crack and heroin cheaper than asthma and AIDS medicine, yes, I am an amateur.”

That speech has some truth to it and helps give the conclusion of the film a necessary jolt. The film never offers any ways to fix the problems it address, but then it is only a comedy after all.

There are quick gags in the film that also work quite well. Gilliam refuses to take money from a bottling company because they sell a product called Crib Malt Liquor complete with a baby bottle top. A smear ad has the White House exploding if Mays Gilliam is elected.

“Head of State” is by no means a great movie, but it is worth a look. Obama’s win was said to have changed everything. Is Obama an isolated occurrence, or will others be able to follow in his foot steps?

Hopefully decades from now new generations will be able to look at “Head of State” and be confused by the fact that the film was even made. “Head of State” could very well be a time capsule to a less progressive time for our nation.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Streep and Hoffman deliver, did you 'doubt' they would?

"Doubt," based on a Pultizer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, takes on issues of religion and morality in its story of a nun who accuses a priest of indecent behavior with a black student in 1964.

Shanley has adapted and directed his play for the screen and he has some of the best working actors at his disposal. Meryl Streep stars as Sister Aloysius, who is cold and intolerant and put in stark contrast with Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") as Father Flynn, who is warm and open.

Flynn has a protective relationship with Donald (Joseph Foster), the first and only black student at the Catholic school. When Sister James (Amy Adams) sees some things that could be construed as suspicious behavior it sets Aloysius on a mission to remove Flynn. She is absolutely certain of his guilt.

Flynn's guilt or innocence is part of a larger ideological struggle. Aloysius is a firm believer in strict authority and emotional distance from the students and the parish. Flynn believes in compassion and love and that the church should he seen as part of people's families. There's an implication that this difference in opinion is Aloysius' true motive.

The acting is exceptional. Streep and Hoffman go toe-to-toe in several scenes, and the verbal back and forth is enthralling. Streep is not a likable figure in this film and she makes it difficult to be on her side, even if she is right. Hoffman seems so kind it is hard to see him doing anything wrong.

Viola Davis as Donald's mother has only one scene with Streep, but it is a powerful performance that raises even more questions regarding the situation. Streep is a formidable acting presence, particularly in this role, and Davis holds her own and leaves a last impression.

Adams, who has been such a warm and sunny presence in moves like "Enchanted" and "Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day," brings that same brightness to Sister James, but in a more dramatic way than her previous work. Sister James gets caught in the middle of Aloysius and Flynn's struggle as Aloysius takes her under her wing and attempts to alter her sweet nature.

Critics are not suppose to review audience reaction. It is the quality of the film itself that matters, but the crowd I saw "Doubt" with had a interesting and revealing reaction. "Doubt" is being advertised and reviewed as a hard-hitting drama, but when I saw the film the theater was often filled with boisterous laughter.

The film is well-made, so these are not unintentional laughs. There are moments that are genuinely funny, especially involving Aloysius' rigid behavior. Is the film meant to be a comedy dealing with serious issues or a drama with some humor? That likely depends on your perspective or mood when you see it. Either way, the laughs are there to ease the tension attached to such a prickly subject matter. People laugh when they are uncomfortable and nervous, and Shanley's script plays on that impulse.

As a director, Shanley's only slip-up is his occasional use of tilted angles, which are most likely supposed to represent that nothing is as it appears or that the motives of characters are skewed. Whatever the underlining meaning was, the effect is more distracting than anything else.

For the most part, Shanley keeps the visuals simple and puts a focus on the dialogue. The film poses hard questions and doesn't offer easy answers. If Flynn does have a dark secret, does that mean he isn't still a good man? It is never clear what, if anything, happened between Flynn and Donald.

Material like this could easily slip into melodrama or become sensationalistic and shamelessly manipulative. Shanley's dialogue is smart and cutting without being trite or condescending. This is a thought-provoking film full of ambiguity that is sure to stir much post-film discussion.