Friday, October 30, 2009

Moore returns to his roots in 'Capitalism'

Incendiary documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has become so polarizing that there almost isn’t much of a point in even reviewing his films. No matter what I say about his latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” I will not sway anyone's opinion on him.

Throughout his career, Moore has been accused of being one-sided, but following “Fahrenheit 9/11,” his most controversial and slanted film, he is unable to get the opposite side of the conversation simply because they won’t talk to him. People know exactly what he stands for and what he represents.

This was not always the case. In Moore’s earlier films like “Roger and Me,” “The Big One” and even “Bowling for Columbine,” he was able to get people on camera that represented his opposing view. Unfortunately, Moore has become his own worst enemy, and his reputation precedes him.

Moore has been accused of not being a true documentary filmmaker because he doesn’t take an objective view on his subjects. There is a misconception that a documentary is a representation of life as it truly is, but all documentaries have a point of view on their subjects. Moore is just more blatant about his perspective. His films are the equivalent of an opinion page editorial.

“Capitalism,” his eighth film in 20 years, is in many ways the first true sequel to his first film, “Roger and Me,” in which he desperately tried to talk to GM CEO
Roger Smith about the harm he did to his hometown of Flint, Mich.

Many of the themes explored in that film resurface in “Capitalism,” which attempt to reveal the dangers of unchecked capitalism in the United States. Moore even quotes himself by showing footage from the earlier film.

The new film presents plenty of examples of capitalism run amok that are certainly disturbing and feel less manipulated than in his previous films. Doing your own outside research wouldn’t be a bad thing, though. Moore would probably applaud that initiative. The goals of his films are to raise issues and get people talking.

Most of the final half of the film focuses on the economic crisis that came seemingly out of nowhere this time last year. Moore offers an explanation of why it happened that is perhaps an over-simplification, but that will be helpful to those who are still confused by the whole debacle.

In getting his message across, Moore is up to a lot of his old tricks including the ironically-placed music on the soundtrack, the color commentary and stagey antics — like going to all the banks that received bailout money asking for the taxpayers’ money back.

This time around the glibness and bitterness that turned many people off in “Fahrenheit 9/11” is downplayed and the film is closer in spirit to his first films. There are plenty of cheap shots and gimmicky laughs, but it feels less mean-spirited.

It is too bad that Moore almost can’t help himself from demonizing George W. Bush and lionizing Barack Obama, as it undermines his case. Moore does a good job showing that the capitalist system in America is terribly flawed, and few would refute that, but his treatment of the former and current presidents may cause some people to dismiss him as a liberal crackpot.

No matter what your political leanings are, “Capitalism” is worth a look, if only for the discussions and debates the film will stir.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Jonze's 'Wild Things' is a movie to love

Director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” is a small miracle. It is a big budget Hollywood film that feels intimate and personal and an adaptation that remains faithful to its source material even as it expands upon it.

A film version of “Wild Things” very easily could’ve been a disaster along the lines of the adaptations of Dr Seuss’ “How The Grinch the Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat.”

As with the Seuss books, Sendak’s story is only a few hundred words long and scant on plot. It is inevitable that paddling needs to be added to the story to fill it out to feature length. Unlike the padding added to the Seuss films, which was often in stark contrast with Seuss’ spirit and tone, the new material in “Wild Things” feels like an extension of the book.

The book and the film tell the simple story of Max (Max Records), a misbehaving boy who after a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener) escapes into an imaginary land of giant monsters that name him their king.

Within this basic framework Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and co-screenwriter, author Dave Eggers, create conflicts between Max and the wild things that deal with real and heavy emotions including love, anger and jealousy in a way that few family films do.

Jonze is a wildly imaginative filmmaker and is the perfect choice for this material both in terms of treating it with respect and capturing Sendak’s vision. The film is often strikingly beautiful. Shots of Max walking along a desert with his monstrous friends will linger in the mind for days.

The wild things themselves are an extraordinary achievement, a seamless blend of physical and computer generated effects. These creatures aren’t merely story devices, but fully conceived characters brought to life by great voicework from James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Paul Dano.

Records, as the only human character for most of the film, has a challenging role and he meets it. Most movie kids are either too precocious or too obnoxious, Records is neither. His interactions with the wild things are believable, and he keeps Max likable even as he does unlikable things.

“Wild Things” is a realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a kid. Max is shown to be a good, if mischievous kid who is dealing with emotions he doesn’t quite understand and isn’t entirely equipped to deal with yet. This is something kids, and even adults, can relate to.

Some will be quick to say that it is not a kids' movie because it is too dark, too pensive, too melancholy and too slow. That was my initial reaction too, but then I thought about the films that I watched on repeat growing up. I adored films like “The Little Prince” and “The Neverending Story,” which, like “Wild Things,” are about the power of imagination and are dark, thoughtful films.

Most films targeted at kids condescend to them and are attempts by adults to give them what we think they want, which more often than not, is slapstick foolery. Kids, of course, do eat up this kind of superficial entertainment, but they deserve better. The best kids' films will challenge them, maybe even scare them a bit, but at the same time entertain them.

“Wild Things” is full of life lessons, but in contrast to most films, even those targeted at adults, at no point does a character blatantly say what the morals are. They are simply presented and left for the audience to discover on their own.

The best example of this is a sequence in which Max decides that the wild things need to play at war to work through a conflict. There is a very clear lesson, but, as with the rest of the film, it isn’t presented in a ham-fisted or contrived way. Through and through, this is a movie that feels emotionally honest.

Not all kids are going to understand the deeper themes in “Wild Things,” but that’s OK, they will as they get older. The film is certainly not for all tastes either, but for a certain kind of kid, and adult for that matter, this is a film they will cherish and watch over and over again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Holden's 'Capote' is a tour de force

JACKSON — I'm going to be honest: the idea of a one-man show about "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote didn't have me jumping with joy. It sounded like the sort of vanity project that would make a good joke in a Christopher Guest movie. As the lights came up on "An Evening with Truman Capote," the return production of the recently reformed Jackson Players, I sat hoping for the best, but dreading the worst. I breathed a sigh of relief when my fears were proven to be misplaced.

"An Evening with Truman Capote," which had its world premiere at the Whitney Community Center in Jackson, N.H. Oct. 9, was written and stars Craig Holden, a local actor who will be a familiar face to regular Mount Washington Valley theater-goers.

Holden clearly spent a good deal of time researching his script, and the playbill cites several books he used during the writing process. The show appears to string together several interviews to form a narrative chronicling Capote's life from infancy to death. The play is set the day before Capote's death, with his "rational side" recounting his life directly to the audience.

Playing Capote is not easy. The danger in playing in Capote, a known homosexual, is to go over-the-top with the lisping, effeminate voice and broad hand gestures and body language. Holden obviously spent just as much time perfecting his Capote performance as he did researching Capote's life.

Holden gets the voice just right, it has the inflection, but it is effectively underplayed. The same goes for the body language. There's a fair bit of hand waving, but Holden never allows it to slip into a full-blown gay stereotype. It really is a command performance, and after a while you just accept him as Capote.

The show, directed by Gino Funicella, is less a play than an extended interview with Capote without the interviewer. Try to picture "In The Actors Studio" but without James Lipton supplying the questions. At a little over two hours, including an intermission, the show is over long and could have been tightened in places.

In the first act Holden lingers too long on gossipy subject matters like Capote's dislike of Gore Vidal. The point is made that Capote found Vidal to be a talentless writer, but then it is made again and again and each reiteration lacks the punch of the last.

There's also a lengthy section on Capote's thoughts on the Kennedys and a betrayal he felt from a member of that circle. This betrayal is the emotional end note of the first act and does deliver a powerful conclusion before the intermission, but the build-up is too lengthy and could've been even more potent with a bit of streamlining.

The second act is where the best stuff resides including the writing process of Capote's crowning achievement, "In Cold Blood." This is easily the most compelling part of the play and begins to offer some insight into Capote as a man and a writer.

The latter part of the second act shifts to Capote's downfall, a scandalous chapter of a work-in-process novel about celebrity that was published in Esquire. As with the "In Cold Blood" section, this proves to be fascinating and gripping viewing.

"An Evening with Truman Capote" may be meandering at times but it is also full of interesting tidbits such as Capote's disapproval that the film version of his novel "Breakfast at Tiffany's" starred Audrey Hepburn and not his first choice Marilyn Monroe. Capote's thoughts on Monroe are worth hearing. Portions about his childhood also add depth and power to the proceedings.

As is true with any one-man show, the success of the show falls on the shoulders of just one — and Holden's take on Capote should be seen. It is a performance that hits all the emotional notes from laughter through to tears, and he does it with no support. He is on stage alone and, at times, completely emotional exposed.

Friday, October 09, 2009

'Zombieland' is bloody good fun

“Zombieland” is so much better than any expectations you might have for a movie called “Zombieland.” Oh, it is by no means high art, but it is a rollicking good time with some of the heartiest laughs in a movie this year.

Clearly, “Zombieland” is not going to be for everyone. The title practically doubles as a disclaimer. If you walk into this film not expecting to see copious amounts of gore, blood and cartoonish violence, then you get what you deserve.

The zombie genre isn’t exactly a shining beacon of good cinema and the zombie comedy is even less so. The original zombie movie, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” is a classic that has rarely been replicated whether it is for scares or laughs.

One exception is the brilliant British comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” which “Zombieland” thankfully does indeed recall. The tone here is broader and there’s more action, but, like “Shaun,” the film takes the time to develop the characters and create relationships.

In “Zombieland,” the world is over run by zombies. Over the course of the film we meet seemingly the last five humans left in the United States. Each character is referred to by the city they came from because names lead to emotional attachments, at least according to Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson).

Tallahassee is a master at zombie killing and takes great pleasure in doing so in inventive ways. He also in search of a Twinkie and is quite willing to put his life in danger to find one.

Harrelson parlayed his popularity on the show “Cheers” into a successful film career in the 1990s with a string of lead roles in such films as “Natural Born Killers,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” Indecent Proposal” and “Kingpin.”

He hasn’t had a lead role in a decade instead taking supporting roles in a diverse cross-section of films. He certainly picked a juicy role in which to return to center stage and he’s absolutely perfect in it. His quirky line delivery and offbeat choices make Tallahassee a character worth remembering.

Tallahassee reluctantly teams with Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, “Adventureland”), a geeky obsessive compulsive, shut-in. Oddly enough these traits make him an ideal candidate for surviving the zombie apocalypse. Columbus, the narrator of the film, has a list of survival rules, which amusingly pop up on screen throughout the film.

Eisenberg has a low-key, dead-pan persona that plays nicely off Harrelson’s more over-the-top style. Eisenberg comes across like a less neurotic, more naturalistic version of Woody Allen or Albert Brooks.

Tallahassee and Columbus meet up with Wichita (Emma Stone, “Superbad”) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”), survivalist sisters on their way to an amusement park in California where it is rumored there are no zombies. The four form an uneasy alliance.

In the movie’s best and funniest sequence, the foursome stops off in Hollywood and decides to crash a celebrity mansion, only to discover the celebrity still lives there. I won’t reveal the actor who plays himself, but it is a hoot.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is clever and full of sharp one-liners, but also allows for a sweet relationship to develop between Wichita and Columbus. There’s also a surprisingly effective emotional moment involving Harrelson that may catch viewers off-guard.

First time director Reuben Fleischer has a keen eye for staging both action and a good sight gag. The climatic showdown at the amusement park is probably the best showcase of his talent.

Some people may have dismissed the film based upon its title alone, but if you don’t mind a bit of stomach churning imagery, you may be surprised by how much you actually enjoy this film. At around 80-minutes, the film doesn’t wear out its welcome. It is a quick, pure jolt of entertainment.

'Tenor' offers up a night of light comedy

'Lend Me a Tenor' continues its run at Your Theatre



As with its recent production of “How the Other Half Loves,” M&D Productions has decided to go for a bit of light comedy with “Lend Me a Tenor,” an effervescent throwback to the screwball comedy.

“Lend Me a Tenor,” which opened at Your Theatre in Willow Common in North Conway Oct. 8 and is play Thursday through Saturdays until Oct. 24, centers on the complications involving a performance in Cleveland by Tito
Merelli (Kevin O’Neil), a famous Italian opera singer.

Because of a string of misunderstandings, Max (Andrew Brosnan), the assistant to the opera company’s general manager (Paula Jones) must impersonate Tito, which only results in an increasingly more convoluted series of mistaken identities.

Playwright Ken Ludwig’s script, which first appeared in London in 1986 before moving to Broadway in 1989, is very much in the tradition of the screwball comedy and is even set in the decade in which they flourished: the 1930s. Screwball comedy is often used interchangeably with slapstick, but slapstick is just one of the ingredients of a successful screwball comedy.

The screwball comedy as it emerged in the 1930s was influenced by the farcical comedies of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Misunderstandings, double entendres, innuendoes and rapid-fire dialogue are mixed with pratfalls and a progressively more anarchic tone. All of these elements are on display in “Lend Me a Tenor.”

There’s a misconception that drama is difficult and comedy is easy, but an exceptionally well-timed comedy is not a simple feat. As with tragedy, the tone, pacing and delivery have to be just right, especially when dealing in the fast-paced screwball genre.

Ludwig’s script ably re-creates the feel of the genre, and director Ken Martin and his cast and crew have mounted a worthy production that is laugh-out-loud funny, especially in the second act where, as is so often the case in this genre, things escalate to a whirlwind of hilarity.

The impressive set, designed by Mark DeLancey, re-creates a lavish luxury hotel and features plenty of doors for slamming as characters run around during the mounting confusion.

O’Neil as Tito and Mary Bastoni-Rebmann as Tito’s wife have a lot of fun with thick, comically over-the-top Italian accents. Bastoni-Rebmann in particular runs with the boisterous Italian stereotype to great effect, and her fights with O’Neil score some of the best laughs in the production.

Brosnan, in his first time on stage, finds his stride when the show kicks into high gear. As a man who finds himself by pretending to be someone else, Brosnan makes a congenial focal point for the insanity.

Karen Gustafson as a woman with a crush on Tito that’s so big it blinds her to the sweet and kind Max truly embraces the rat-a-tat-tat nature of her dialogue. At times she spits her dialogue out so fast it is a wonder she doesn’t pass out.

Carrie Engfer clearly relishes getting to play a vampy actress who seduces a very confused Tito in hopes of getting ahead in show business. In one of the productions best scenes the double entendres are piled on thick and Engfer and O’Neil play it just right.

Paula Jones, in a role traditionally played by a man, has a nice edge to her delivery as the tough and cynical company manager. Eric Jordan and Karen O’Neil add even more well-timed humor to the production as two more fans desperate to get face time with
Tito.

If the show has any flaw it is that in places the repartee could be delivered even faster, but, chances are, as the run of the show progresses the pace will be picked up in those rare places it does slack.

For more information visit www.yourtheatre.com or call 662-7591.

Friday, October 02, 2009

'Fame' is too tame to matter

The latest film to come up out of Hollywood’s more-productive-than-ever remake mill is “Fame,” a partially regurgitated reincarnation of the 1980 film of the same name about the New York High School of Performing Arts, a school known for being as difficult to get into as an Ivy league college.

Unfortunately, for a film about the performing arts, this new “Fame” seems to have little interest in exploring why an artist performs, what drives them, what inspires them or what their art means. We get hints of what that discussion could sound like in all too brief monologues from the veterans in the cast including Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth and Megan Mullally.

The film is broken up into chapters: audition day, freshman year, sophomore year and so on. Things start out promisingly enough with the audition chapter full of energy, laughs and genuinely impressive performances. My admitted skepticism about the film began to melt away only to return with a vengeance as the film progressed.

I have not seen the original “Fame,” but here’s what I know without seeing it: the 1980 version of “Fame” was rated R and was two hours and 13 minutes. In 2009, “Fame” is now PG and clocks in at one hour and 47 minute. That should give you an indication of the priorities of the people behind the scenes of the 21st century edition.

The new “Fame” is as flashy as a Britney Spears concert and about as superficial as one too, which is appropriate enough given that director Kevin Tancharoen’s biggest directing credit is “Britney Spears Live from Miami.”

Tancharoen’s time with Britney did serve him well in terms of knowing how to stage elaborate dance or song numbers. Tancharoen does have an eye for vibrantly directing dance routines and the few big dance numbers scattered throughout the film are often spectacular, especially one set in a cafeteria.

It is when it comes to scenes of drama that Tancharoen falls flat. You get the sense that Tancharoen is well aware of his limitations. A scene in which a teacher informs a student that he won’t be able to make it as a performer is intercut with several girls dancing seductively. The idea is to show their talent to his lack of talent, but it merely undermines the drama of the scene.

There is also evidence of heavy editing to reach the PG rating. Either that or the characters were severely underwritten by screenwriter Allison Burnett. Only one character, Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classical pianist who must hide her desire to be an R&B singer from her parents, has a complete story arc. Other characters' stories are brought in and then left dangling.

In the most egregious example of this the character of Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is shown to be insecure and uptight early in the film, so much so it isn’t unclear how she got past the school’s stringent audition process, but by the film’s finale she is confidently belting out a solo. We have no idea how she made the transition and that transformation could’ve made for interesting drama.

Similarly, the character of Malik (Collins Pennie) is given a back story that is never fully addressed after it is brought up. There are scenes between Pennie and his drama teacher played by Charles S. Dutton that have a spark, but there’s a sense that most of their conversations were left on the cutting room floor.

It is a shame the young cast didn’t have better material and that what they did have was hacked away because there is some real talent here. Naughton and Asher Book have striking vocal abilities and Pennie is a strong actor and a good rapper.

Perhaps somewhere there’s a more complete cut of the film that doesn’t leave so many things unanswered. Would this version be a great film? Probably not as the characters and their conflicts are too clich├ęd. Even so, there is chance that there may be a slightly better, longer film out there.