Friday, November 27, 2009

Some 'new' but mostly same old 'Twilight'

The first “Twilight” movie was a massive box office hit, making nearly $385 million worldwide. That's chump change to what its sequel, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” is likely to make. In just three days, “New Moon” earned $285 million worldwide. We've got a monster on our hands.

“New Moon” continues the love story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) with the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Events early in the film convince Edward that Bella isn't safe in his world, and so he and his vampire family leave town.

The heartbroken Bella falls into a deep depression and is only able to pull herself out of it with the help of her friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who turns out to be a werewolf that must hunt and kill vampires. His clan has an uneasy truce with the Cullen family.

A chain of events sends Bella to Italy to save a suicidal Edward from sacrificing himself to the Volturi, a sort of vampire royalty.

It is easy to see the appeal of the “Twilight” series to teen and tween girls. Bella not only has the obsessive love of one gorgeous supernatural being, but two — and girls can get vicarious thrills from the love triangle.

My biggest problem with the series is that Bella sends the wrong message to girls.
She's is selfish, self-absorbed, whiny and clingy. Bella doesn't have an arc in which she grows out of these traits; if anything they get worse as the series goes on. She defines herself by being with Edward and then, when that temporarily isn't an option, defines herself by Jacob.

“Twilight” was actually a reasonably well-written book. It was well paced and had a distinct voice. Author Stephanie Meyers doesn't sustain the pacing throughout the rest of the series, which becomes meandering and redundant.

Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg missed the mark in her adaptation of “Twilight” and accentuated all the wrong things, namely the longing stares and overly dramatic declarations of love. In “New Moon” her adaptation is more focused and she removes a lot of Bella's self-loathing. There's still plenty of Bella's sorrow on screen, but not nearly as much as in the book, which says something about the book.

“New Moon,” at least as a film, is a step up from “Twilight.” There's still much of the emotional sameness that plagued “Twilight,” but director Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”) is more of a filmmaker than “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke. He manages to sneak in at least one visually poetic moment in which we see the passage of three months in a matter of moments.

Weitz also nicely visualizes when Bella has visions of Edward, and the climatic sequence in Italy, though rushed, is visually stunning.

The acting leaves something to be desired. Stewart and Pattinson play everything on one note of pained pining. Even before their breakup there seems to be no joy in there relationship. Perhaps intense brooding is more romantic.

Lautner is a bit better as Jacob. He brings a cheerful and jovial energy to the character that helps make parts of the film more palatable. There's a funny scene in which Bella takes Jacob and another friend (Michael Welch) to the movies. This scene, more so than any other, captures what being a teen is like. There are other brief moments when Jacob is goofing around with friends that approximate real teen interaction.

Unfortunately, when Lautner goes wolf midway through the movie he becomes just as serious and somber as Stewart and Pattinson. Why is everything so dire for these characters?

The best performance comes from Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) as the head of Volturi. He is an odd mixture of menacing and playful. Dakota Fanning briefly appears as a sinister member of the Volturi clan and does a good job playing against her precocious persona. Billy Burke as Bella's dad also has nice moments both tender and funny.

The movie ends with an abrupt cliffhanger, but fear not: The next film is only a few months away. “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” is due out June 30, 2010. I'm sure the lines are already beginning.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Carrey great in overly flashy 'Carol'

Director Robert Zemeckis brings his obsession with motion capture animation technology to Charles Dickens' beloved holiday classic “A Christmas Carol,” a story that strikes such a resonate cord that even if you've heard it a 100 times it still as the power to move.

I have yet to be convinced by motion capture, at least as employed by Zemeckis. Motion capture uses special censors that allow computers to animate over an actor's performance so not only are they providing the voice to their animated counterpart, but the movements as well.

When this is employed as a tool in a live action film it can be quite effective. The technique was used by Peter Jackson to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Kong in “King Kong.” Earlier this year, Zack Synder used it to transform Billy Crudup into Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen.”

This is Zemeckis' third film using the technique following “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.” As was true with those films, the way in which Zemeckis chooses to animate his actors leaves them looking like dead-eyed wax figures that look realistic and fake at the same time.

Thankfully, unlike in “Beowulf,” the actors have not been animated so they look almost exactly like they do in real life. In “Beowulf” it was easy to spot the likes of Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, which defeated the purpose of animating them in the first place.

Zemeckis does create a fabulous animated world for the actors to inhabit. In the title sequence he sends the audience on a fantastic aerial tour of 19th century London from the roof tops to the bustling city streets. He makes London just as much a character in the film as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Jim Carrey stars as the crotchety miser Scrooge as well as the three spirits who visit and tell him to get his act straight or face a rather dismal after life. Carrey makes a surprisingly good Scrooge. He dials down his more over-the-top tendencies and creates a Scrooge that is truly menacing. When Scrooge changes his ways, Carrey brings such joy to the performance that it is hard to not be taken up in the moment.

Carrey is such a physical actor with such an expressive face that he even manages to over come that dead-eyed effect. The emotion that Carrey is giving to Scrooge comes shining through the layers of computer generated animation.

As with Carrey, Gary Oldman plays multiple roles appearing as Jacob Marley, Bob Crotchit and Tiny Tim. Other familiar voices include Robin Wright Penn as Scrooge's love interest Belle, Bob Hoskins as Scrooge's former employee Fezziwig and Colin Firth as Scrooge's nephew Fred.

Zemeckis, who also wrote the script, does a faithful adaptation of Dickens' story that plays up the ghost story aspect. There are some genuinely frightening bits in this version especially the death of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There is one sequence that feels glaringly out of tone and place with the rest of material. In the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come sequence, Zemeckis stages an elaborate chase involving a miniaturized Scrooge. The sequence was clearly added so there could be a big action scene to best utilize the 3D that is available in some theaters.

In general, Zemeckis seems to favor showcasing his swooping 3D animation with the ghosts fly Scrooge all over London, which is admittedly is thrilling to watch. Unfortunately, he short-sheets some of the stories more human scenes simply to have Scrooge whisked away for another flight.

Very little time is spent establishing any sort of emotional connection between Scrooge and Belle, the Fezziwig party feels far too brief and the conclude scenes are rushed. This is all shame because the film is the most effective when it slows down and allows for the quiet moments. Even in their abbreviated state the concluding scenes are some of the best in any “Christmas Carol” adaptation.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A very funny group of 'men'

With an attention grabbing name like “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the latest George Clooney-produced film has an advantage over the competition: Your interest is piqued, you want to know more. Thankfully, the film, an offbeat military comedy, earns the interest its name garners.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is based on a true story, a tag that always has to be taken with a grain of salt. Hollywood is known to take a kernel of truth and blow it up into a big, puffy piece of popcorn. In this case, that truth may be harder swallow.

The film reveals that in the early 1980s, the United State military did research in psychic warfare in an attempt to create soldiers with super powers. That much is true. Whether you believe that people could do the things the film suggests is another matter entirely. The title comes from the alleged death, through the power of thought, of a goat.

The audience's point of entry into this world is Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist in Kuwait who meets Lyn Cassidy (Clooney), a recently re-activated self-proclaimed "Jedi warrior.” There is a lot of dialogue centered around what it means to be a real Jedi warrior, and the casting of McGregor, who was Obi-Won in the “Star Wars” prequels, becomes a joke in itself.

Bob joins Lyn on a road trip of sorts into Iraq circa 2002. Along the way we get flashbacks of how his bizarre program came to be. Jeff Bridges recalling The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” features heavily in these scenes as a hippie general who sold the military on the New Age soldier.

Kevin Spacey also makes an appearance about midway into the film as a slimy would be “warrior monk” who sabotages the program.

Directed by Grant Heslov, a frequent collaborator with Clooney making his directorial debut, the film keeps a light tone. Even while in Iraq there's no real sense of danger. The humor is often broad, but remains smart. Heslov does a nice job of balancing a tone that allows for the material's silliness to shine, but not run amok.

The script by Peter Straughan (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”) from Jon Ronson's book is populated with an abundance of laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags. Yet Straughan does allow a few moments of poignancy, as in a conversation between Lyn and an Iraqi in which both apologize for the worst of their nationalities.

Everyone plays the film straight. Yes, the actors say and do absurd things, but Clooney, Bridges and Spacey wisely play it with a conviction that let's you know their characters truly believe everything they say and do. That makes all the difference in making this material work.

Clooney, at this point a master of his charm and persona, is consistently funny in delivering his New Age monologues. Bridges does what he does and the day it is no longer funny will be a sad day indeed. That day has not yet come. Spacey seems somewhat wasted for large parts of his screen time, but gets to show off his patented snarky line in the final third.

McGregor, stuck in a straight-man role, could be easy to dismiss as “just an empty shirt” as A.O. Scott of the New York Times put it, but he’s giving a shrewd, low-key comedic performance. McGregor’s transition from skeptic to a believer who willingly participates in the “Jedi” lifestyle reminds that he has always had a fresh, offbeat approach that hasn’t always been properly utilized by Hollywood.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” just sort of wanders about until reaching a finale that is somewhat anti-climatic, but the film has a goofy charm and remains funny from beginning to end. Days later I'm still chuckling.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Arts In Motion's ambitious 'Narnia' disappoints

"Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is the Arts in Motion Youth Players most ambitious project to date, but ambitious doesn't mean better. Everyone involved deserves credit for taking on such a big project, but it is clear they bit off more than they could chew.

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is the first book C.S. Lewis wrote in what would become a seven-book series chronicling the adventures in the magical land of Narnia. First published in 1950, it has gone on to become one of the most beloved children's books ever written with numerous adaptations on stage and screen.

The story centers on four children, two boys and two girls, who through a magical wardrobe find their way to Narnia, a world populated by talking animals and fantastic creatures. The children join forces with Aslan the lion, the former ruler of Narnia, to do battle with the evil White Witch who took over the land and covered it in a never-ending winter.

Arts in Motion's production, which continues this weekend at Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H., has the benefit of an excellent set designed by Marion Owen and Glenn Noble that does a nice job of creating the snow-covered world of Narnia. The centerpiece of the set is a platform and two ramps that are used for cast members to run up and then slide down. The costumes by Jackie Mercer, Kathy Ahearn and Valerie Smith and makeup by Mercer are also handled nicely.

There are two rotating casts for the five lead roles, so I can only comment on the rotation I saw. Of the cast I saw, Rebecca Lees, as Lucy, the youngest of the four children, and Hanna Paven, as Susan, fare the best.

Jake Dunham as the faun Mr. Tumnus is a standout, but unfortunately only has limited time on stage. Tumnus is the first Narnian Lucy meets, and her sweetness prevents the gentle Tumnus from turning her over to the witch.

Meagan Davis is also of note for playing Mrs. Beaver with a Sarah Palin-esque accent. It is an odd and inexplicable choice, but at least she made a choice with her line delivery. Most of the other actors' delivery is stilted and flat as if they were told the only requirement to being an actor is knowing your lines.

Are my expectations too high? They are just young actors after all, they shouldn't be held to the same standard as adult actors, right? To an extent this is true, but younger actors aren't by default bad, as evidenced by the good work done by the teen actors in M&D's “Dog Sees God.” Actors need direction, and under director Noble and assistant director Ged Owen it is unclear they got any beyond where to stand and when to say their lines.

There were also poor choices made in the staging of the show. A red and white strobe light and bass-heavy music is used during fight scenes. This is completely out of place with the look and tone of the show and is unintentionally funny rather than exciting. In addition, there are a couple dance numbers that are well choreographed by Rebecca Sciola, but that go on far too long and merely pad the running time.

The show couldn't even get basic stage direction right. A lamp post is the marker for the point of entry and exit into Narnia. It is placed on the left side of the stage and yet people would enter and exit Narnia on the opposite side of the stage. Would it have been so hard to design the set to have the lamp post on the proper side?

If you are a family member or a friend of one of the cast members, you will probably let things slide more than I did. Part of the fun of community-based theater is seeing people you know on stage, and sometimes it doesn't matter if they were good or bad as long as everyone has fun. I just didn't have much fun.

For more information visit

Friday, November 06, 2009

Schultz' 'Peanuts' get salty in 'Dog Sees God'

Charlie Brown and Co. grow up in M&D's latest production

“Dog Sees God,” M&D Productions latest show, starts with a fantastic premise of showing Charles Schultz' “Peanuts” characters as teenagers and uses that as a springboard to address such issues as bullying, grieving and sexual discovery.

Since this is an unauthorized adaptation, many of the characters' names have been altered and when the show was first produced it was done under the label of parody to avoid copyright infringement.

The familiar characters are recognizable in Bert V. Royal's script, but they have grown up into swearing, drinking, drug-using, sexually-active teens. The content is no worse than your average R-rated teen comedy, but it is presented in a much more intelligent, thoughtful manner than most entertainment featuring teens.

The show opens with Charlie Brown, now CB (Eric Jordan), and CB's sister (Mary Moody) at a funeral for Snoopy, who had to be put down after going rabid. The death of Snoopy gets CB thinking about the afterlife, and he spends most of the show asking all his friends what they think happens after death.

Linus, now Van (Rafe Matregrano), has become a stoner, which makes perfect sense, since Linus was always going off on philosophical pontifications. Matregrano is absolutely hilarious in the role, nailing every one one of his pot-fueled rants. The best of the bunch: his hatred of Mexican pizza.

Sally, simply known as CB's sister, is constantly changing her world view, but for the duration of show is a Wiccan writing a one-woman show about a caterpillar turning into a platypus. We get to see parts of this show and they are amusing and oddly poignant as performed by Moody.

As was true in the comic strip, CB's sister antagonizes her brother, but ultimately is there for him. Moody and Jordan share a playfully barbed scene toward the end of the play that shows how siblings tease each other, but still care for one another.

Lucy (Rebekah Bushey), simply known as Van's sister, has been institutionalized for setting the Little Red Headed Girl's hair on fire, which, again makes sense. Her character was always a bit of a sadist — after all, she did always pull that football away from poor old Charlie Brown. Bushey only has one scene, but it is a good one as she offers up advice to CB even from the nuthouse.

Peppermint Patty, now Tricia (Amy Smullen), and Marcy (Ellen Hill) are catty mean girls who sit back at lunch mocking everyone. Smullen and Hill make a nice team. They are almost too good at giggling together. When events turn somber, Smullen and Hill reveal that the mean girl act is just a front.

Schroeder, now Beethoven (Matthew Stoker), still just wants to play his piano, but a dark secret from his childhood has made him a social outcast. Stoker gives a nicely restrained and believable performance as a quiet loner who is reluctant to accept CB's friendship. Stoker and Jordan share a very funny piano duet on “Heart and Soul” that scores all its laughs from their opposing facial expressions.

All of these character developments feel like a natural extension of the characters. The one exception is Pigpen, now Matt (Billy Cavanaugh), who has gone from a perpetual cloud of dust to being a germaphobic neat freak.

Matt has a perverse sense of humor and is violently homophobic and is essentially the villain of the piece. Cavanaugh is very good at portraying the character's seething anger, but at the same time hinting at the underlining hurt behind that rage.

Then there is Jordan at the center as CB holding it all together. Jordan, who has shown strength as a comedic actor in M&D's “How the Other Half Loves” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” nicely handles some heavy dramatic scenes. Throughout the show CB has monologues based on a letter he is writing to an unseen pen pal. Jordan is particularly effective in these monologues, in which he is both candid and vulnerable.

The set design by Mark DeLancy is sparse and features familiar iconic images from the comic strip including Snoopy's red doghouse, Schroeder's piano and the brick wall where Charlie Brown and Linus chat. The center piece is a giant piece of paper representing the letter CB is writing to his pen pal. Given the comic strip origins of the show, it is all the production needs.

Director Ken Martin has gotten extraordinary work out of all his actors and deals with the play's more sensitive subject matters in an honest way.

The show is running Thursdays through Saturdays until Nov. 21 at Your Theatre at Willow Commons in North Conway, N.H. There will be a talk back after the show Saturday, Nov. 7. For more information visit or call 662-7591.

Katy Wright-Mead brings indie film home

Katy Wright-Mead, formerly of Fryeburg, Maine, left the Mount Washington Valley in 2001 to become an actress in New York City. Now, eight years later, she is returning, but not empty handed. She brings with her “The Graduates,” featuring her first major film role, for its New Hampshire/Maine premiere.

“The Graduates,” a coming-of-age comedy about a group of friends who head to the beach for one last hurrah before heading off to college, will be playing one night only at the North Conway Twin Theater in North Conway, N.H. Thursday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. There will be a question and answer after the screening with the cast and crew and an after party at Flatbread. Tickets are $8.

“I'm really excited about it,” said Wright-Mead, a 2001 graduate of Fryeburg Academy. “Every time we bring 'The Graduates' to the theater again I get really excited because it is new people that I am watching it with and that energizes me to see people react to the film every time. So to bring it to my hometown and have people I know reacting to this great film and knowing that I brought it there makes me really proud.”

Although Wright-Mead's role in the film is small, she has been intimately involved with the film's post production and marketing.

“I really believe in it,” said Wright-Mead. “I also think it is a great opportunity for me to start learning the behind-the-scenes stuff, how to market. I've sort of been living in the world of 'The Graduates' for a while now.”

And it has been a world that has been good to Wright-Mead and one that she is still excited by. She is eager to see the response on her old stomping ground.

“The first reaction is: 'Oh my God, it is a real movie,' and that is compliment of course,” said Wright-Mead. “My family are all movie lovers and it is really cool to hear them dissect the film and pick out points that they really like and show respect for it as a film and not just my movie, not just something I did, but as a real professional product.”

“The Graduates” was independently produced outside of the Hollywood system for $95,000. The typical model for the distribution of Hollywood film is a saturation of advertising on TV, the Internet, newspapers and radio for a simultaneous nationwide release with a DVD release to follow a few months later. A small percentage of independent, or indie, films are picked up and given this treatment.

“You'd be amazed how many indies just die on the shelf because people have gone onto other things or they just give up or they just don't see how or if they can do it themselves,” said “Graduates” director Ryan Gielen.

But Gielen didn't give up on his film when it wasn't picked up for distribution by one of the Hollywood studios.

“He [Gielen] considered this a business that they were starting and I don't think a lot of independent films do that and that's a unique thing,” said Wright-Mead. “Ryan shot indie film tips and tricks on set thinking ahead of time that this is another way to promote the film. And I know there were other things he did right off the bat in pre-production that were meant to help promote the film done the line.”

The cast and crew have been touring with the film across the country setting up screenings similar to the one in North Conway since May and previous to that were on the film festival circuit picking up awards at the Seattle True Indie Film Fest and the Rhode Island International Film Fest.

"We jokingly refer to it as: 'We don't have a movie, we have a circus,' ” said Gielen. “You just have to flog it everywhere because you don't have the television or radio presence that major studio films do.”

In self-distributing his film, Gielen has embraced free social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and it has yielded him a massive online following. He also has “The Graduates” on, iTunes, Netflix and the free video site Hulu.

“If someone is completely dedicated to watching movies through Netflix or completely dedicated to finding movies on iTunes and watching them on their hand-held device and that is how they consume movies, why shut that person out if you're an indie film?” said Gielen.

Getting on these sites wasn't difficult and, according to Gielen, it is possible with a little hustle to be in all these places within a few months of completing a film.

“The downside of those outlets is they don't give you a great turn financially,” said Gielen. “You benefit from those outlets by being available everywhere, so if someone decides to watch your movie they can and will be able to find you in all their usual places.”

Even with that downside, the easy access of his film has helped drive interest to it and push DVD sales and for Gielen, it has always been about finding new ways to keep interest in his film. In keeping with that idea, he is developing new spinoffs from the film including a making of documentary, a remixed version of movie that will be available for free in the spring and a soundtrack contest in which people can vote at to help create a new soundtrack for the film.

“We gave away our first soundtrack for free," said Gielen. “We had over 10,000 people download it in the first six months. It did great because people really fell in love with the film before they even saw it just from the music and so we wanted to extend that.”

The next step after “The Graduates” is, naturally, another film and Gielen has begun financing a film about a troupe of young, hungry actors who decide to put on an original musical to resurrect their failing careers.

“Now that 'The Graduates' has done so well, we are going out and raising a much bigger budget to do this next one independently as well," he said.

But that doesn't mean that “The Graduates” has been kicked to the curb just yet. As long as there is interest, Gielen will keep “The Graduates” out there because for him there's no greater experience as a filmmaker than to sit with an audience and watch the film.

“Just from a film guy's perspective, the film is so much more enjoyable to watch in a crowded theater than at home,” said Gielen. “We'll tour as long as we can fill a theater, as long as there is excitement about it.”

'This Is It' reminds why Jackson was the King of Pop

Over the last decade, Michael Jackson was more known for his bizarre, headline-making behavior than his talent as a performer. Thankful, the documentary “This Is It” is a powerful and immensely entertaining reminder of how extraordinarily talented Michael Jackson truly was.

When Michael Jackson died in June there was a lot speculation and vicious rumors surrounding his death. As in life, his death became the center of a media frenzy. Many questioned whether he was actually fit enough to perform the scheduled 50 shows in London he was rehearsing for.

“This Is It,” compiled from hours of rehearsal footage, proves without a doubt that Jackson still had it. Yes, at times he appears winded and he admits to saving his voice, but, at 50 years old, he more than holds his own against dancers who are 20 to 30 years younger than him.

It is spine-tingling to see Jackson, even in this rail thin, drastically altered form, going through all his familiar moves: the spins, the “he-hes,” the “hos” and the crotch grabs. He had a hypnotic ability to seem like he was walking on air. He still had complete control over his body and he makes it all look so effortless and graceful. No one could move like Michael Jackson.

The film, directed by Kenny Ortega, Jackson's collaborator in the elaborate production he was mounting in London, doesn't delve into any scandalous material. There are no interviews that touch upon his alleged drug use, his plastic surgery, what he may or may not have done with minors or even his death. All the interviews from crew members and performers are glowing tributes to Jackson.

It is clear that the Jackson family kept the film from portraying Jackson in a negative light, and while some viewers will be hungry for the dirt, this film isn't the place for it. Is there footage of him as an ego maniac or terribly fatigued? Perhaps, but what is on showcase here shows a man who was focused, fit, alert, generous and able to laugh at himself.

Ortega does let the audience in on Jackson's creative process, something rarely seen, and it is fascinating. Jackson was no puppet. He knew exactly what he wanted, and his need for perfection would be trying for anyone if those present didn't have so much admiration for him.

Using the rehearsal footage, Ortega approximates what the final show was going to be like and it looks like it would have been nothing short of amazing. Ortega and Jackson filmed new footage for songs likes “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller” that would've been shown on stage and interacted with by the extraordinary dancers and musicians Jackson had surrounded himself with.

The “Smooth Criminal” footage seamlessly integrated Jackson into a gun fight with Humphrey Bogart. It is thrilling stuff, as is, appropriately enough, the new “Thriller” material. The most powerful set piece of the production was likely to be “Earth Song,” Jackson plea for ecological awareness. Filmed bits of a rainforest being destroyed would have been combined with an actual bulldozer coming out of the stage.

“The Way You Make Me Feel” would've been given a “West Side Story”-vibe, and the rehearsal footage of the song is one of the film's highlights. There also would've been smaller moments as when Jackson sings the ballad “Human Nature,” which even with Jackson restraining his voice is beautifully and movingly performed.

“This Is It” is a must-see theatrically. It is a reminder of why Jackson was the King of Pop and proof that he still reigned supreme.