Friday, December 31, 2010

From the Mount Washington Valley to the Big Apple

 N.H. singing group becomes first amateur group to perform at Radio City Music Hall

“Oh my God, they were the singers,” Jean Suter, of Long Island, N.Y., said as the members of Alpenglow took their seats in front of her after performing as the opening act from the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 28. “I feel so special to be sitting behind you.”

Alpenglow, a group of singers from the Mount Washington Valley area of New Hampshire, won the Dove Hair Care Brush with Greatness Sing4All contest, which included an all-expenses-paid trip to New York and the opportunity to become the first amateur choir group to sing at New York's historic Radio City Music Hall.

“It definitely sounded right,” Antulio Arroyo, events supervisor at Radio City, told the group after a backstage tour of the music hall.

The group, which consists of Mary Bastoni-Rebmann, Emilie Jensen, a senior at Kennett High School, Matt Stoker, a junior a Fryeburg Academy, Taylor Hill, a senior at Kennett, twin brother and sister Liam and Mae Van Rossum, eighth graders at Bartlett Elementary School, and Abby Miller, a sophomore at Kennett and a private voice student of Bastoni-Rebmann, sang “My Favorite Things” and “Winter Wonderland” just before the 8 p.m. performance featuring the Rockettes.

“My childhood has been completely amazingified,” Jensen said of the experience. “This day has been like nothing in my entire life. I'm still in shock, basically. I don't even know how to express everything that has happened.”

Jensen has good reason not to be able to find the words to describe the experience. Radio City Music Hall is a city landmark and one of the most recognizable theaters in the world. The Christmas Spectacular, which dates back to 1932, remains the theater's crown jewel.

“It was amazing. It was more than you could ask for,” Miller said. “The stage was just amazing. It was huge, and just looking out you just felt the best that you possibly could.”

The snow storm that arrived Sunday, just days before their New York debut, nearly prevented the members of Alpenglow from having that feeling. The group was scheduled to fly out Monday, Dec. 27, at 6 a.m. If the group members hadn't left earlier they would have missed the performance.

“I was online and on the phone all afternoon, evening, into the night on Christmas tracking the weather and letting the rest of the group know what was going on,” said Keith Force, who shot and entered the required video of the group into the contest.

When group members were unable to get in touch with their contact at Dove, they took it upon themselves to make their own ways to New York. Miraculously, everyone managed to beat the storm — much to the surprise of Dove, which had nearly written them off.

"Dove was very pleased that we made the decision to come early as it was a weekend and the office was closed," Bastoni-Rebmann said, "The weather did not deter this group."

Everyone agreed stepping out on that stage and looking out into the audience was a special moment that made all the extra effort to get there and the hard work leading up to the performance well worth it.

“It was definitely a much needed reward,” Hill said. "We worked so hard so finally being able to do all that and getting that reaction from the audience was awesome.”

The group received a hearty applause from the audience after each song, and it was gratifying for everyone in the group to see the audience enjoying the performance.

“We saw people in the back dancing, and we looked up into the balconies and everyone was just having such a great time,” Stoker said. “I think it made us feel more comfortable on stage. We just did what we did and it was absolutely incredible. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Alpenglow has only been in existence since Nov. 17 and formed specifically for the contest, which required them to submit a video of them performing Rodgers and Hammerstein's “My Favorite Things.”

“That is very impressive,” Rockette Amy Ling said of the short amount of time the group has been together. “Their voices jell very well. It was very pure.”

Alpenglow didn't reach that level overnight. It was a developed process that included warm-up performances in the valley.

“We had a few experiences up to this point performing live in front of audiences in North Conway and Jackson,” Rebmann said. “I think that was great for them to have those stepping stones, so that they got comfortable as a group to perform in an environment where you never know how it is going to go.”

For Bastoni-Rebmann, as great as the experience of gracing the Radio City Music Hall stage was she was more taken by the poise and confidence that the kids in the group displayed in such a huge moment.

“I was more involved with how the kids responded and watched them stay centered,” Rebmann said. “They were performers first and a performing family first, and they didn't let the distractions of the excitement take them away.”

Bastoni-Rebmann couldn't stress enough how impressed she was that the kids didn't allow themselves to get taken away by the external stuff and that they stayed focus.

“I wasn't as nervous as I thought I was going to be,” Hill said. “I've used this word so many times on this trip, but it was really surreal and I think I was trying to soak it all in before it was over and it was a lot of fun.”

Hill wasn't the only member in the group surprised to see that nerves didn't get the best of them.

“I was a lot less nervous than I thought I'd be,” Mae Van Rossum said. “I thought
I'd be shaking and stuff, but I wasn't. Lucky me.”

Mae's brother, Liam, was a bit scared about going on stage and performing to an audience of thousands, but stayed in the moment.

“I was frightened and all but I pulled through it,” Liam said. “I'm just really overjoyed. I am so lucky that Mary chose me to do this because she could've picked anybody for the cast, but she picked me. It was great.”

It was actually the unexpected TV interviews for Fox 5 in New York and Entertainment Tonight that had some of the group members more rattled.

"Those (interviews) were nerve-racking,” Hill said. "I didn't like those. I mean, I'm sure if I am ever able to do something like this again I'll be more trained and I'll be more use to it, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it was awesome.”

Joining them for the interviews was Idina Menzel, the official spokesperson for the contest, who  video conferenced with the group during the voting period of the contest. Her appearance before the show was kept secret from the group.

“We met her at the studio and so we showed up and 'Oh there's that lady from Dove from the other day and she brought Idina with her, whoa',” Liam Van Rossum said. “I didn't even realize she was in the room. She is a real great person. She had a wonderful personality.”

Menzel, who was in the original casts of “Rent” and “Wicked” and has a recurring role on the TV show “Glee,” reiterated the advice she had previously given the group and encouraged them to attempt to further reach their potential.

“Meeting Idina, such a huge celebrity on Broadway, and having her input on what we do and having her tell us we can go far and that we just need to reel it in and live in the moment was absolutely incredible,” Stoker said.

In addition to performing on stage, Alpenglow performed in the lobby before the show and gave a private performance of “Winter Wonderland” to a couple of the Rockettes in Radio City's Roxy Suite.

“They were wonderful,” Rockette Amy Lenhardt said. “I was really, really impressed.”

And the feeling was mutual from the group, particularly from Jensen, who has been a dancer for 11 years.

“I love the Rockettes,” Jensen said. “They are so great, the precision is just ridiculous. I'd love to be one, but sadly I'm not tall enough, but they have the technique that is just precise and so perfect. I love it, I love every second of it.”

And all it goes back to Dove Hair Care, of all things, for allowing this amazing opportunity to happen. The origin of the contest came from wanting to expand upon an ad campaign that featured the song “My Favorite Things.”

“We came up with this idea of wouldn't it be fun to look for America's next best glee club and do something grassroots and start from the ground up and place this contest,” Michael Bordainick, marketing manager on Dove Hair Care, said.

The scale of the contest was small. Alpenglow won with only 7,026 votes, but Dove wasn't expecting millions of votes.

“Everything you do can't be huge,” Bordainick said. “You can't have the same scale of something like 'Glee,' so we knew this would be smaller, but it isn't necessarily any less impactful for the people you touch. I think for us it was about being more impactful for a select group of people over being less impactful for a larger group.”

Dove got more than expected with Alpenglow and is happy with the way things turned out.

“They are even better live than watching the video,” Bordainick said.

Alpenglow is grateful to Dove for the opportunity. Thanks to Dove and the supportive Mount Washington Valley community whose votes made the win possible, the members of Alpenglow are now part of the 78-year-old legacy of Radio City Music Hall. That's a Christmas gift that will last for years to come.

Friday, December 24, 2010

New 'TRON' is a visual stunning popcorn film

“TRON: Legacy” is an interesting case of a major studio investing millions of dollars into a sequel to a movie that was box office dud. In the 28 years since the original, Disney's “TRON” has developed a cult following, but a large portion of the general public is probably thinking: “What the heck is a TRON?” or “Wait, there was a first?”

When “TRON” came out in 1982 it was a showcase for groundbreaking technology. It was the first film to have extended computer animated sequences and through strong editing did an impressive job integrating actors into computer generated sequences.

The original film was about how Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a video game programmer and hacker was sucked into the digital world he created. Now on the other side of the screen, the games, including the famous light cycle battle, are much more dangerous.

In this world the programs are doppelgangers of their creators, an idea that is used as a major jumping off point in the sequel. “TRON” ended with Flynn escaping from the digital land known as The Grid, but “Legacy” reveals that he became obsessed with the world and kept going back and eventually was taken hostage by his own program, Clu (also Bridges).

“Legacy” explains all this in an effective prologue and then fast forwards 20 years to reveal that Flynn is still missing and his orphaned son Sam (Garrett Hedlund, “Four Brothers”) is a mischievous rebel that refuses to take over his father's company. Inevitably, Sam is also zapped onto The Grid. The rest of the film is attempting to bringing dear old dad home while battling off the tyrannical Clu, who wants in on the real world.

The Flynns have help from Quorra (Olivia Wilde, TV's “House”), a particularly special program that has been Kevin's protege. Wilde gives an interesting performance. Quorra is a strong, confident fighter, but there's more to her than the typical butt kicking babe. Wilde gives the character a childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. There's a way she watches father and son interact that is perfect. A dinner scene between the Flynns and Quorra is a quietly hilarious awkward reunion.

As with the original, the plot is nothing spectacular, but not completely lacking substance. There is a theme that too much time spent in the digital world (the Internet, video games, etc.) can lead to a disconnect from reality. It is barely explored, but at least it is there.

The story is serviceable and engaging enough, but it is really just an excuse for the visuals and, on that basis, the film works because there are indeed some stunning visuals. This is a richly conceived universe that expands on motifs from the original. The upgraded light cycle sequence is thrilling as are the numerous disc battles. The visuals are perfectly complemented by a score by electronic music duo Daft Punk, who also make a cameo appearance.

Through digital technology Bridges is able to play Flynn at his actual age and Clu looking 30 years younger. It is an impressive, if not all together seamless, achievement. There's never any doubt that it is Bridges, and in some scenes it is amazing how good it looks, but much of the time it looks too waxy and digital, but this works since Clu is a digital clone after all.

While the process is not perfect, it is great fun to see Bridges playing off his younger self. Bridges plays Flynn as a broken man who has gone inward. There's a bit of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” in Flynn, especially in lines like “you're really messing with my whole Zen thing, man.” Clu is a standard, but effective villain.

Hedlund is a likable hero and has good chemistry with both Bridges and Wilde, but he is easily overshadowed by both.

Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) has a fantastic supporting turn as an androgynous night club owner on The Grid. Sheen has limited screen time, but steals every scene with a campy persona and high energy.

Bruce Boxleitner returns as Alan Bradley in the film's bookend scenes in the real world as well as briefly as Tron, if only since the movie bares his name. It is nice to see another original cast member and Boxleitner is good with the limited time he has. There's an implication that if there are more films in this franchise that he'd feature more prominently.

Fans of the original film will enjoy this update. It is a bit clunky in places, but so was the original. The film does work as a stand-alone piece though, so sci-fi fans should also appreciate what is on display here. It is definitely a niche film and it is a good one — not great, but, certainly good fun.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Even more subversive songs to get through the holidays

Last week I provided a list of five songs that offer a different take on the holiday season. With Christmas a week away and the pressure to create the perfect holiday building up, I am presenting five more songs to ease the tension.

"Christmas In Hollis" — Run DMC (1987)
This is a happy hip hop holiday song about Christmas in Queens, N.Y. The song includes such endearingly goofy lyrics as "It was December 24th on Hollis Ave in the dark/When I seen a man chilling with his dog in the park/I approached very slowly with my heart full of fear/Looked at his dog, oh my God, an ill reindeer."

"I Won't Be Home for Christmas" — Blink 182 (1997)
Goofball pop/punk rockers wrote this anthem for all those who are driven up the wall by the holiday season. The song features bitter, but funny lyrics like: "It's time to be nice to the people you can't stand all year/I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer"

"O Holy Night" — Eric Cartman (1999)
"South Park" dedicated a whole episode to satirizing holiday music back in 1999. This is one of the tamer songs from the episode with the spoiled Cartman butchering the holiday classic to hilarious effect.

"Oh Shit, It's Christmastime!" — Mad Tea Party (2009)
This uke-abilly band — that would be rockabilly with a ukulele — vents their frustration for Christmas in this infectious two-minute ditty. The cheerily sung cynical lyrics include sentiments that anyone can relate to, if only fleetingly: "It's Christmas, forgot about the pagans and Jews/It's Christmas and it makes me blue."

"Christmas Night of the Living Dead" — MxPx (2009)
It was perhaps inevitable, especially with their increasing prominence in pop culture, that there would be a zombie-themed Christmas song. Punk rockers MxPx present this bloody tale of Christmas carnage featuring the chorus: "Christmas night of the living dead/My face is green and the snow is red."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Five non-holiday holiday movie

Every holiday season the same dozen or so movies get played over and over again. Heck, “A Christmas Story” is annually aired for 24 hours on Christmas day. But there are alternatives — films that aren’t necessarily about the holiday season, but feature key scenes or plot points centered around Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Here are five options to help provide something different this holiday season.

“The Apartment” (1960)
This Billy Wilder comedy stars Jack Lemmon as an office worker who is promised upward mobility if he allows executives to use his apartment for their trysts. Things become complicated when Lemmon falls in love with the spurned mistress (Shirley MacLaine) of his boss (Fred MacMurray). It is on New Year’s Eve that MacLaine has to decide between the two men in her life in this poignant, surprisingly dark look at love.

“Trading Places” (1983)
A couple of Wall Street bigwigs (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) decide to switch the lives of one their star traders (Dan Aykroyd) with a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) and bet whether Murphy will rise to the occasion and Aykroyd will become just another bum. Aykroyd spends a good chunk of screen time as a drunken Santa before teaming up with Murphy to get payback. Their revenge scheme includes a lengthy New Year’s Eve party sequence on a train involving, among other things, Aykroyd in black face, Jamie Lee Curtis in a mountain climbing outfit and a gorilla.

“Die Hard” (1988)
It is easy to forget that “Die Hard,” the movie that made Bruce Willis an action star by trapping him in a building with sophisticated terrorists led by Alan Rickman, is set during the holiday season. In fact, it was a Christmas party that brought Willis' New York cop to the Los Angeles office building in the first place. The holiday backdrop is just one aspect that helps to fuel the tension and adds an extra layer of humor. It was a theme that was carried over to “Die Hard 2.”

“When Harry Met Sally” (1989)
One of the quintessential modern romantic comedies chronicles the relationship of the title characters (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) over the years from adversaries to friends and eventually lovers. The closing scenes are at New Year’s Eve party in which the couple finally realizes that they’re perfect for each other. It is a satisfying conclusion to a movie that is an observant, funny and smart look at relationships.

“About a Boy” (2002)
Hugh Grant stars as a man who lives off the royalties from a Christmas song his father wrote. He invents an imaginary child to pick up women at a single parents support group, but instead of finding a fling he picks up a new friend in the form of an awkward 12-year-old boy with a suicidal mother. This odd couple helps each other to become better version of themselves. There are scenes at an oddball Christmas party and, more crucially, Grant meets the first woman (Rachel Weisz) he ever wanted something real with at a New Year’s Eve party. It may sound trite and cloying, but it is funny, heartfelt and genuine.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Singing group in contest to sing at Radio City Music Hall

Online voting open through Dec. 20

To paraphrase the lyrics to “New York, New York,” if you can make it there, you can make in anywhere and the recently-formed singing group Alpenglow is getting its chance to do just that thanks to a singing contest sponsored by Dove soap.

Alpenglow has been named one of the four finalists in the national Dove Hair Care Brush with Greatness Sing4All contest. If it wins, the group, which formed specifically for the contest, will get to open for the Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular on Dec. 28.

“Sharon Ball came across the Dove Haircare Brush with Greatness contest on the Internet the day after 'Seussical' closed,” said Mary Bastoni-Rebmann, who is part of Alpenglow and was instrumental in forming the group, which drew heavily on the cast of Arts in Motion's production of “Seussical the Musical.”

To enter the contest, Alpenglow had to upload a video of the group singing the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “My Favorite Things.”

“With the support of our parents and friends, we were able to put together our video in less than a week, and produce it with the highest of quality,” said Alpenglow member Emilie Jensen, a senior at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H.

The group rehearsed quickly over a couple of days and set up a mini production at Amy Frechette's house. Bastoni-Rebmann handled props and costume as well as the choreography with Sharon Ball. Floyd Corson accompanied the group on piano and Keith
Force shot the video with the help of Max Belkin, who provided the camera.

“The making of the video was a whirlwind,” said group member Matt Stoker, a junior at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. “It's thrilling to know that we pulled together such a fantastic project with so little time. You could see in everyone's eyes while we were working on this video that we wanted to do this 110 percent and with all of our hearts, and I feel that that is what we did.”

Alpenglow consists of Bastoni-Rebmann, Jensen, Stoker, Taylor Hill, a senior at Kennett, twin brother and sister Liam and Mae Van Rossum, eighth graders at Bartlett Elementary School in Bartlett, N.H., and Abby Miller, a sophomore at Kennett and a private voice student of Bastoni-Rebmann for the last two and a half years.

“We rehearsed only two times before we actually filmed the video, and I almost thought that the stress of it all outweighed the actual reward. I was so wrong,” Hill said. “I am so proud of all the hardworking people who helped this come together, and even the other groups, because this was not a very easy task.”

That work clearly paid off as the group made it to the final four and it is now up to online voting to decide who gets to go to New York City. Voting is open through Dec. 20 and can be done daily by anyone with a Facebook account by visiting

“I was told by a family friend that we had made the final four,” Mae Van Rossum said “At first I didn't believe her. I was so happy I thought I was going to cry.”

One of the rewards of making the final four was a video conference with Tony-award-winning actress, Idina Menzel, who was in the original casts of “Rent” and “Wicked” and currently has a reoccurring role on “Glee.”

“Idina was so nice and sincere,” Miller said. “She answered all of our questions and laughed at Liam's corny jokes.”

Liam Van Rossum had prepared for the video chat by watching videos of Menzel on YouTube and knew he discovered the perfect question upon watching a video of her as Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, in “Wicked.”

“When it came time for questions I asked, 'Kermit the Frog once said that it's not easy being green, but you handle it nicely, how do you do so?'” Liam Van Rossum said. “And then it came to a conversation of how annoying green makeup is.”

Menzel was impressed by the “sweet and charismatic” group and advised them to just
to have fun and, if they win, to stay in the moment and not let nerves take them out of themselves.

“I think that they are terrific,” Menzel said. “I heard lots of great voices in there and lots of real raw talent and I think they had some great smiles and they are definitely strong in the personality.”

The members of Alpenglow were thrilled by the opportunity to talk with Menzel and appreciated her openness and advice.

“Meeting with Idina was simply a dream come true as she is one of my idols,” Stoker said. “She was so down to earth and kind and supportive. We all were very relaxed and enjoyed our time with her greatly.”

Stoker and Hill appeared together in Arts in Motion's production of “Rent” this past summer so it seemed only appropriate that Alpenglow sung a song from that show to Menzel.

“They sang 'No Day But Today' for me,” Menzel said. “Which was a real treat because that's my favorite song from the show and I sing that often in my own concerts. They had the harmonies perfectly right.”

Although Menzel can't play favorites, she did enjoy her time talking with members of Alpenglow, which is currently leading in votes but will need help to keep that lead.

“It was a nice way to spend the afternoon because it is inspiring talking to young, really talented people,” Menzel said.

Have an off-beat Christmas: Different songs for holidays

Everywhere you go they can be heard. In stores. On the street. On the radio. They're on the attack and there's too many to fight them off. Yes, Christmas songs have arrived and there's no stopping them. So, now I provide the third installment of subversive songs for the holiday. The first dates back to 2006 and the second to 2008.

“Cool Yule” — Tony Rodelle Larson (1962)
Probably about as obscure of a Christmas song as you'll ever find. I discovered this a few years back mis-labeled as being performed by William Shatner. It is easy to understand the confusion as Larson's broken speech patterns do indeed bring to mind Shatner's riffs on such songs as “Rocket Man” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This beatnik riff on “Twas Night the Night Before Christmas” is definitely way out and is a fantastic change of pace.

“There Ain't No Sanity Clause” — The Damned (1980)
English punk band The Damned released this song just in time for the holiday season, but it failed to chart perhaps because no one wanted to have the Santa Claus bubble popped for the youngest yuletide revelers. The lyrics are barely intelligible, but include gems like “Vanians got a visit from a guy named Drac/Says he's from the blood bank wants his 10 pints back.” It is the sing-a-long anthem-like chorus that brings this one home.

“I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas” — Relient K (2007)
Christian punk/pop band Relient K's second Christmas album mixes sincere rock-tinged holiday music with songs that lampoon the season. In this case, we have the latter with a fast, rocking cover of the novelty song “I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas.” The snarling punk attitude and crunching guitars suit lyrics like “I broke my bat on Johnny's head/Somebody snitched on me” quite well.

“Another Christmas Song” — Stephen Colbert (2008)
Satirical pundit Stephen Colbert did a hilarious parody of holiday specials complete with “unexpected” guests and “impromptu” sing-alongs. The special's songs either subverted pre-existing songs or, in this case, are something completely new. Lyrics like “The tree is frozen, the winter’s bright/Who’d have thought the wise men look so white” are made all the funnier by Colbert's authentic crooning and the familiar jazzy sound of the music.

“Merry Something to You” — Devo (2009)
Yep, Devo, those quirky new wavers who are often dismissed as one-hit wonders recorded a song for the holidays. Blending cheery, generic holiday music with the synthesizers and drum beats they are known for, the band creates an infectious little ditty. Although best known for the song “Whip It,” Devo often used their songs to satirize society and that's most definitely the case here as they proclaim: “Believe what you want nothing's really true.”

Friday, December 03, 2010

Could 'Tangled' be Disney's last fairy tale movie?

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who along with director John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation, declared that “Tangled,” Disney's reworking of the “Rapunzel” story, would be the last fairy tale/princess movie that the company produces, at least for now.

It isn't that Disney has run out of fairy tales to choose from. “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “The Snow Queen” were actually in development before Catmull and Lasseter decided for the new direction. The decision is motivated by money.

Last year's “Princess and the Frog,” Disney's first princess movie in more than a decade, wasn't the moneymaker the studio had hoped for leading to all sorts of speculation as to why. The general consensus seems to be that the appeal of princess movies is too narrow and one expert quoted in the Los Angeles Times article theorizes that young girls have already moved beyond princesses.

“By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses,” said Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of media in children's lives. “They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

The article also suggested that elementary students are more interested in big budget action films like “Iron Man” and “The Transformers” and that with those as possible options wouldn't choose to watch a fairy tale.

When I was younger I watched both action films and animated fairy tales. At age 8 my dad took me to both “Batman Returns” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Back home, I'd gladly watch “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” one day and “The Little Mermaid” the next. Perhaps times have changed, but I think it is possible children today also have diverse tastes. We are selling them short to simply give them what we think they want.

Both Catmull and Lasseter have come from Pixar, which has a near flawless track record of witty animated films with substance. With them at the helm, Disney Animation should be in good hands, but this choice to axe the fairy tale seems rash. One film does not make a trend.

I'm not convinced the reason why “The Princess and the Frog” underperformed was that the appeal was too narrow. Films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” had a broad appeal despite featuring princesses at their centers because they had an ideal mix of humor, heart, action and songs. They were engaging and could be appreciated by both children as well as their parents. “The Princess and the Frog” tried to recreate that vibe but perhaps simply missed the mark, and audiences may have sensed that.

“Tangled” was retooled and retitled to become disassociated with the fairy tale that inspired it. Disney may have overcompensated with the name change, but the reworking of the material wasn't a bad choice. The male lead Flynn (voiced by Zachary Levi of TV's “Chuck”) was made into a roguish bandit, not dissimilar to Aladdin, and Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) was given a more active role in her story instead of just passively waiting in her tower.

In the process of trying to distance themselves from the fairy tale, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the new directors Catmull hired for “Tangled,” stumbled upon the old formula that worked such wonders in the early to mid 1990s. Once again there is a just right balance of laughs, thrills and heart tugging.

As with all the best Disney animated musical, "Tangled” features two comic relief sidekicks. Rapunzel has a chameleon named Pascal, who is her only friend and confidant, and Flynn is being pursued by Maximus, a horse from the castle guard. Both of these characters are worthy of standing alongside the likes of Sebastian, Abu and Timon and Pumbaa. They are essentially silent film characters that provide wonderful slapstick humor.

Most of songs are largely forgettable, but two get it right. “I Can See the Light” makes a valiant attempt at reaching the soaring levels of a ballad such as “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin” and nearly makes it. The very funny “I've Got a Dream” follows in the tradition of having at least one big, infectious comic number.

If “Tangled” turns out to be the swan song for the Disney animated fairy tale, at least it is a good one. But given that the film made $68 million in its first five days, perhaps Disney will not be so quick to forsake one of their mainstays.

Dana Cunnigham releases new live album

Some things in life turn out better than ever could have been expected.

“It just really made sense,” Dana Cunningham said regarding turning a recording of a concert at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine into her fourth album.

“Live at Stone Mountain Arts Center” was originally intended as an album exclusively for pianist Cunningham's fans as a way of fund-raising for her next studio album, but when she heard what she had it became clear it was special.

“It was just such a great capture and had gone so well,” Cunningham said. “The sound was so good and we just thought, 'Let's just make this a full fledged recording and put it out there.'"

The album, which also features cellist Max Dyer and Jeff Oster on horns, condenses the evening's two sets into just over an hour. Virtually all of the talk was removed from the album, only applause and one slightly audible "thank you" remain. There are nine pieces that haven't really been heard and three or four that have been previously recorded, but not with horn or cello.

“It was great fun because it was so good, surprisingly good because you never know what is going to happen,” Cunningham said. “We hadn't much time to rehearse prior, and some of the things we did we had never done before.”

The choice to record at Stone Mountain sprung from a long-time relationship with Carol Noonan, the founder of the arts center.

“Carol is so devoted and knows every facet of what makes everyone happy, and you feel that joy when you are there — that people are truly happy, having a good time," Cunningham said. “It is a beautiful venue, it is the right size, it is close to where I live.”

Cunningham and Noonan are teaming once again for an annual Christmas concert at the Little White Church in Eaton Saturday, Dec. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Although this show is sold out, Cunningham will be performing a second concert Sunday, Dec. 5, at 4 p.m.

"One of things people enjoy is that Carol and I are so different that we really have a lot of banter back and forth that people find humorous because we both tease each other,” Cunnigham said.

Dyer, who not only appears on the new live album but Cunningham's Christmas album, “Silent Night,” will be at both performances. The Sunday concert will also add flutist Julia Hendrickson and poet Marnie Cobbs to the mix.

“I think Carol's voice and the depth of my own music really invites people to a more contemplative place, so that they can pause,” Cunningham said. “That's one of the reasons I do what I do because I think that the culture is so fast and so chaotic externally that we need some support to balance that with our own internal quiet, so this program is a chance to center and get a little bit of calm inside before everything really starts to rush.”

Tickets for the Sunday concert are $20 and are available at White Birch Books, The Eaton Store and online at Advance tickets are requested, but tickets may also be available at the door. Cunningham's new album is available for purchase on her website.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Top 10 favorite songs of 2010

With a little over a month left in 2010, I've been looking back at the music I've been listening to on a near constant repeat and I've compiled this list of my favorite songs of the year. I don't claim these as the year's best, but merely the songs that helped define my 2010.

10. “Telephone” - Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce
Released as a single in January this barely makes the cut. Lady Gaga is simultaneously a pop star and a satire of one that towers over contemporaries like Ke$ha and Katy Perry. Her songs are infectious, but under all the polish, strong songwriting. Check out Pomplamoose's cover of “Telephone” on YouTube to hear that there's more to the song than at first listen.

9. “I'm Awesome” - Spose
One of 2010's sleeper hits came from an unexpected source: a 25-year rapper from Maine. The endearingly low-fi production and tongue-in-cheek rhymes make for a goofy dig at the over-the-top boasting that has always been a fixture of hip hop music.

8. “Fuck You!” - Cee-Lo Green
This song, a throwback to R&B and soul of the 1970s, is every bit as good as “Crazy,” Cee-Lo Green's huge 2005 crossover hit with Gnarls Barkley. With Green's powerhouse vocals and offbeat lyrics like “Yeah I'm sorry, I can't afford a Ferrari, But that don't mean I can't get you there” make this a fresh, fun track. Gwyneth Paltrow also did a knockout version of it on “Glee.”

7. “In the Sun” - She & Him
Actress Zooey Deschanel and folk/country singer M. Ward returned in 2010 with their follow up to their 2008 debut. When actors decide to become musicians it is often dubious at best, but Deschanel's vocal have a unique flavoring that when paired with a nostalgic sound and witty lyrics make for a combo that's hard to deny.

6. “Wheels” - Jamie Cullum
For many this jazz pop artist is just the English Harry Connick Jr., and while he is quite willing to croon the standards, he also has an ear for crafting his own sweeping pop songs in the vein of 1970s piano based rockers like Elton John and Billie Joel. “Wheels” has a piano part that grabs instantly and builds to a sweeping chorus.

5. “Garbage Truck” - Sex Bob-Omb
Written by Beck for a fictional band in the movie “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” this is the probably the first love song ever written from the perspective of a sanitation worker. Clocking in at less than two-minutes it is a quick burst of pure garage band rock.

4. “From Above” - Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Singer/songwriter Ben Folds teamed with author Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) for the album “Lonely Avenue” with Folds providing music to Hornby's lyrics. Not unsurprisingly, the lyrics are like short stories in song format. “From Above” tells the story of a pair of soul mates that go through life just missing each other. The melancholy lyrics are infused with an upbeat sound to create a pop song with substance.

3. “Stylo” - Gorillaz
Gorillaz, the cartoon band created by Blur's Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett in 2000, has very much turned into the real deal. From the beginning the band's sound was a mixing pot of different genres, but on their third album, “Plastic Beach,” the combination of pop, rock, hip hop, soul and New Wave is at its most cohesive yet. “Stylo” features a driving synth hook and excellent guest performances by Bobby Womack and Mos Def.

2. “Four Seconds” - Barenaked Ladies
Steve Page, one of the primary songwriters and localists recently left the band, but his absence is not felt on their 2010 release “All in Good Time,” which features their typical blend of cheery pop with alternatingly clever and sincere lyrics. “Four Seconds” is easily the most fun track on the album and brightens my mood every time I hear it.

1. “Fresh” - Devo
Yes, Devo, the band behind the song “Whip It,” put out their first album in 20 years and it is fantastic. Devo is often wrongly dismissed as a one-hit wonder novelty act, but the influences of their pioneering sound can be heard throughout the radio. The time was right for their return. Appropriately enough the album's first single “Fresh” didn't sound stale and the rest of the album is full of giant hooks and the band's signature idiosyncratic lyrics.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The beginning of the end of Harry Potter

The film journey of the now not-so-young wizard Harry Potter is just one more film a way from completion. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was the seventh and final book in author J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful book series, but Warner Bros. is releasing it in two parts.

The decision to split the film clearly allows the studio to squeeze every last bit of money out of its billion-dollar franchise. The two parts combined will comprise one five-hour film. This would've been a tough sell, but fans still would've come out. A five-hour film would have received fewer screenings at movie theaters though, so the split makes solid financial sense.

The length is not unjustified. “Deathly Hallows” was the longest of Rowlings' series and densely packed with details. A compressed three-hour version would've gotten the job done, but much of the nuance of the story would have been lost.

More so than any of the other films, this is the first screen adaptation that feels almost exclusively made for the fans. Previous adaptations have caused some grumbling about things that were cut for time; clearly with five hours between two films to play with, that's less of an issue now.

This new film makes no attempt to try bring non-fans into the fold and, at this point, why should it? You're either a fan or not. Casual fans be warned though, this film takes its time and those who aren't completely emotional invested in these characters may start getting antsy.

The plot has the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes tapping into an essence of evil) and his henchpeople the deatheaters taking over the Ministry of Magic and making Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) public enemy number one. Harry is the chosen one, the only one who could kill Voldemort.

Each entry in this series is progressively dark than the last and this is the bleakest yet. There are no more fun and games at Hogwarts Academy. Harry and his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out on their own to seek horcruxes, objects that contain parts of Voldemort's soul and the key to undoing his immortality.

While there are brief appearances by the massive list of British acting greats that the series has accumulated over the years, including Brendon Gleeson, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, the ever sinister Alan Rickman as Snape and the creepy and insane Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, this is largely a three-man show with Radcliffe, Grint and Watson required to do all the heavy lifting. They are up to the challenge.

One of the joys of this film series has been watching these three young actors grow as performers. It is remarkable no re-casting ever occurred. Who would've guessed back when this all start with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” in 2001 that the casting director had chosen this wisely? These three have developed into fine actors capable of struggling with complex emotions without a single word of dialogue.

Much of the screen time deals with the trio camping out in the forest trying to make sense of their journey. A horcrux they have in their possession brings out unpleasant feelings, particularly in Ron who becomes jealous of Harry and begins to fear he may be losing his girlfriend Hermione to Harry. These fears come to the fore in a dream sequence that's shocking in its cruelty and its content: There's partial nudity and intense kissing.

The tone of the film is foreboding, pensive and somber. There are long stretches where the plot is barely moving forward, but the character dynamics are given shading. There's a lovely scene in which Harry and Hermione share a dance. It is a moment of brevity with the characters remembering, if only for a moment, that it was like before all the darkness.

The film's deliberate pacing is peppered with sequences of taut action that are more thrilling than anything previously seen in the series. The opening features Harry's defenders humorously becoming Harry clones to throw his pursuers off. This gives way to a taut chase through the streets and skies of London.

There is also an intense sequence involving breaking into and escaping the Ministry of Magic and a battle with Voldemort's pet giant snake. All this material earns the film its PG-13 rating, and the youngest Potter fans may be frightened.

Amidst all the gloom and action there's also a beautiful animated sequence that explains the deathly hallows of the title. It is a graceful and artful moment that probably wouldn't have made the cut in an abridged version of the book. It is moments like that which make the extra length feel worthy and reminds how sad it will be see this franchise come to an end.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A look at the mind of a critic

Critic is seen as a nasty word. Often when I say I am a critic I am asked, “Well, what do you do if you like something?” Critics, by default, don’t hate everything. Nor is it the critic's job to rubber stamp everything as being perfect. A good critic knows things aren’t as black and white as good and bad. There are many grays in analyzing arts and entertainment.

Many people assume critic is derived from the words criticism or critical, which tend to be associated with negativity as in “stop being so critical.” But critical has another connotation. One Merriam Webster definition for critical is: “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.” That sounds like an ideal definition of what a critic does, but the role of a critic goes deeper.

For me, the word critic comes from critique. Merriam Webster defines critique as “an act of criticizing; especially: a critical estimate or discussion.” The keyword in that definition is discussion. By writing a review I am presenting another voice in the greater discussion of whatever art I am writing about. It is merely an opinion. These things are not absolutes. My critiques can be ignored as being off-base and inaccurate, that's fine. There is no right or wrong. My views aren't better than anyone else's, but, in theory, they are backed by years of experience and education, which may make them worth listening to. It doesn't make my opinion any more correct, though.

I write about film, theater and music because I love it. The experience of discovering something new is exhilarating. When I stumble upon something that speaks to me, whether it moves me, makes me laugh, makes me think or all of the above, I want to share it with the world. Conversely, when I encounter a piece of art that disappoints me I want to steer people away from it. One of the roles of a critic is to act as a guide. But I certainly don't go into something looking to tear it apart. I go in hoping for the best, not the worst. All I ever try to do is give my honest opinion because I have an audience and it would be doing my readers a disservice if I was anything less than honest.

I don't know if I can explain my actual writing process or even what I am looking for because so much of that is subjective. Recently, I had a discussion with someone about the actor John Cusack. This person believes he is a terrible actor because “he's not living the role. He's pretending. Acting is not for people who want to pretend to be someone else; it's for people who want to make their role their life and become that person.” I replied, “Not all great acting has to be disappear-into-the-role method acting.” My debater quite rightly informed me that is just an opinion. Point being, even what is considered great acting is up to debate. One person's good, is another person's bad.

What I am looking for changes based upon what I am watching or listening to. When I write a review I am trying to explain my experience — how it made me feel and react and hopefully pinpoint the why behind those feelings and reactions. I write reviews for the same reason artists create: I'm trying to be understood and have people understand how I experience things. It is about connecting with the art, the artist, the audience and the world. It is participating in an ongoing discourse and creating a give and take. Simply put: I am just another voice trying to be heard.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Have a good 'morning'

One theme that continues to come up in my reviews is that a formulaic film isn't necessarily a bad thing. A film working within a template can be good if the content is worthy and the actors are on top of their game. When that happens, the formula fades away. “Morning Glory” is a prime example of this.

The film centers on Becky (Rachel McAdams), a producer for a morning show in New Jersey, who is fired, but catches a break and gets a job as a producer on a last-in-the-ratings national morning show not unlike “Today” or “Good Morning, America.”

Becky's plan for turning the show around is to fire the wooden, prima donna male co-anchor (Ty Burrell) and hire Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a washed-up award-winning evening news anchor with a contractual obligation to the network. Mike thinks a morning show is beneath him and refuses to play ball — much to the frustration of Becky, her crew and the show's female anchor (Diane Keaton).

“Morning Glory” is working with a lot of familiar plot lines: the struggling business/show that needs to improve against the odds or face the axe; the workaholic who needs to learn to balance work and play; and the bitter veteran who eventually softens. This can be eye-rolling stuff when handled poorly, but luckily there's a good amount of actual wit and heart in Aline Brosh McKenna's script.

McKenna also wrote “The Devil Wears Prada” a film where the seams of its formula were often too visible, but that was saved by sharp, cynical humor and brilliant performances by Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. Like “Devil Wears Prada,” “Morning Glory” is a peek behind the scenes of a world the public isn't that familiar with from the perspective of a female protagonist. Of course, the world of a fashion magazine is a bit more exotic than that of a morning show.

“Morning Glory” has far less bite than “Devil Wears Prada,” but, within the confines of its light comedy, it does address the blurring line of entertainment and news as well as discuss the value of soft news versus hard news. Just that little bit of thoughtfulness helps the film feel fuller.

The film is slow to start. It feels like the movie is merely spinning its wheels, but the screenplay is actually taking its time setting things up that pay off both comically and emotionally toward the end of the film. Audiences members who are patient will be rewarded with a second half full of big laughs.

It is ultimately the cast that really sells this material. McAdams is one of the better actresses of her generation. She has a likable screen presence and plays Becky as bright, fast-talking, intelligent, a bit awkward and loveable. She has movie-star looks, but acting chops to back them up. When the movie dials down for serious moments she makes them credible even when they feel contrived.

Ford is not known for his work in movies marketed as comedies, but as Han Solo and Indiana Jones he was more than able to deliver a sharp one-liner and his work in “Working Girl,” a film not dissimilar to "Morning Glory," is noteworthy. Here he plays Mike with a grimacing gruffness and delivers his zingers with an effectively dry deadpan.

Ford's performance feels one-note, which becomes clear is the point when you get to the scene in which Mike finally lets his emotional guard down. It is a tender scene that is all the more affecting because you don't expect it from the character.

Keaton has fun bantering with Ford and throwing the occasional diva tantrum, but the film under-utilizes her talents. The same goes for Jeff Goldblum as Becky's boss, who even with limited screen time manages to make throwaway lines like “is that what you want?” memorable thanks to his signature offbeat line delivery. Patrick Wilson has the obligatory love-interest role, and while he's more of a plot device than an actual character he does have chemistry with McAdams.

“Morning Glory” is directed by Roger Michell, who has made such well-crafted films as “Notting Hill” and “Changing Lanes.” He is an assured filmmaker that knows how to make good-looking film. This isn't groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be. It is simply solid entertaining light fare.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'Due Date' is not quite funny enough

“Due Date” is a movie that is equal parts funny and frustrating. There are laughs, but drastic shifts in tone and characters that aren’t particularly likable make for an uneasy film-going experience.

This is director and co-writer Todd Philips follow up to his wildly successful “The Hangover.” Philips reunites with Zach Galifianakis, who after bouncing around Hollywood for more than a decade became a star with his scene-stealing performance in “The Hangover.”

Many people are sure to compare the two films, but “Due Date” is essentially a reworking of John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay, a wannabe actor on his way to Hollywood, meets Robert Downey Jr.’s Peter Highman, who is on his way to Los Angeles for the birth of his child, outside an airport in Atlanta. Naturally, due to an absurd
misunderstanding, the mismatched duo must drive across the country together.

Downey’s character has anger issues that are severely agitated by Galifianakis’ behavior. There are several moments in which Downey attacks Galifianakis verbally and, in one case, physically. In spite of these abuses, the movie has scenes where the two act like best buds. These drastic shifts in mood make Downey’s character seem almost bi-polar.

Galifianakis is basically playing the same character he played in “The Hangover,” but even more awkward and dense. His performance in “The Hangover” was sort of endearing, but this new variation on similar qualities is just too much. Galifianakis goes from being oddly funny to just irritating.

We are right there with Downey’s frustration with the character; in fact, it is unbelievable that anyone would stick with Galifianakis after the string of things he puts Downey through, the least of which is a car accident.

There’s an incident at the Mexican border that stretches credibility to a breaking point. Galifianakis stages a rescue of an arrested Downey that breaks several laws and results in a stolen vehicle and yet there are never any repercussions.This sequence is key to why the film doesn’t work. It is over-the-top and broadly comic to the level of something like “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”

Clearly, a comedy doesn’t need to be 100 percent realistic as long as it works within the world it creates. The problem is, “Due Date” has moments of drama that are played completely straight and based in reality.

Throughout the film, Galifianakis is carrying his father’s ashes in a coffee can, which leads to scenes where he gets emotional about his father. These moments of pathos, while well acted, come jarringly out of nowhere. One moment we are suppose to be laughing at the character and the next taking pity on him. It is an off-putting feeling.

It isn’t that comedy and serious moments can’t exist in the same movie.“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” successfully balanced comedy and pathos using the exact same premise and character dynamic as “Due Date,” but the moments of drama in that film seemed to flow naturally from the characters. It helped that you liked Steve Martin and John Candy in that film. You wouldn’t want to know either of the main characters in “Due Date.”

There are some very big laughs in “Due Date,” especially involving a bit where Galifianakis’ father’s ash are mistaken for coffee. The film opens with Downey describing a dream about a bear and the birth of his child that is bizarrely funny. Galifianakis has a silly walk that is indeed quite amusing. Unfortunately, the tone issues undermine any comic energy from building.

Familiar faces like Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride and RZA pop up for a scene or two, but are largely wasted. The biggest waste is Michelle Monaghan as Downey’s wife. Monaghan’s break out performance was opposite Downey in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” and the idea of seeing them together again is appealing, but alas Monaghan doesn’t get to play a character, she gets to be a plot point.

“Due Date” isn’t a complete waste of time, but if you absolutely must see it, wait for it to come to DVD and get it through Netflix or Redbox.

Friday, November 05, 2010

'A' great new teen movie

Bumming around YouTube the other night I found a clip of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis explaining the difference between a cliché and a convention. “When we see something done badly we call it a cliché and when it is done well we respect it as a convention.” It is a fine distinction, but the point is just because a film follows a formula doesn't make it bad, it is the execution that counts.

Teen movies often get dismissed as mindless entertainment and, unfortunately, most films targeted at teens are deserving of the dismissal because they pander to their audience instead of respecting it. This is what makes “Easy A,” so refreshing. Here's a film that doesn't condescend to its audience and that will have broad appeal beyond the teen and 20-something demographic it was made for.

“Easy A” is a shrewd, self-aware reworking of themes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Scarlet Letter” and conventions from 1980s teen films, particularly the work of John Hughes. The script by Bert V. Royal, author of the play “Dog Sees God,” an equally astute teen reworking of Charles Schulz' Peanuts, is both observant and funny. Like Hughes, Royal seems to have a keen memory for what it was like to be a teen.

The film's protagonist is Olive (Emma Stone) who, through a webcam confessional, explains how a little white lie told to her best friend (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity very quickly transformed her from an unknown good girl to an ostracized bad girl.

A gay classmate (Dan Byrd) who is constantly being bullied asks her to pretend to have sex with him to prove his straightness and appease his tormentors. She takes pity and soon word gets around to other geeks and outcasts. Olive trades her fake sexual favors for gift cards to Tommy Hilfiger and

At first, Olive enjoys the notoriety and embraces her new reputation, but it isn't long before the high school Christian club begins to crusade against Olive's seemingly trampish ways.

If handled poorly this kind of material that could turn odious rather quickly, but Royal's script has genuine wit and allows its characters to be intelligent. Olive is raised by parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) who are well-spoken and open-minded and have instilled these qualities into their daughter.

Much of the events are painted in broad strokes, particularly the Christian club led by Amanda Bynes' Marianne. But there are details and moments in the performances, particularly Stone's, that have truth to them.

The way Stone nervously babbles on a date or the sequence in which she falls in love with “the worst song ever” are familiar, but feel right. The scene in which Byrd begs Stone for help has an unexpected emotional honesty.

Director Will Gluck has his camera whiz through the high school campus showing the speed in which a rumor spreads in the era of Facebook and cellphones. This is hardly new news, but the visualization of it is clever and on point.

This is a breakout, star-making performance for Stone, who has done good work in movies like “Superbad” and “Zombieland,” but proves she can carry a movie. Here, given a lead role, she reveals herself to be an apt comic actor with the ability to deliver intelligent, fast paced dialogue believably. Similar to Ellen Page in “Juno,” Stone takes dialogue that some may accuse of being too clever by half and makes it seem natural.

While on the subject of “Juno,” Tucci and Clarkson are probably the best screen parents since that film. These are two of the best character actors in the business and though their screen time is limited they provide such warmth, humor and naturalness to their characters. The same can be said of Thomas Hayden Church as Olive's favorite teacher.

Most teen movies are male centric, but dating back to Hughes' “Sixteen Candles,” a film “Easy A” directly references, there has been a long standing tradition of teen films with female heroines. “Easy A” is worthy of standing proudly along side the likes of “Heathers,” “Clueless,” “Election” and “Mean Girls” as a shining example of what a teen movie can be.

Arts in Motion's 'Seussical' is whimsical fun

It is with a heavy heart that I must impart that “Seussical” is not quite magical.
The pieces are there with some to spare.
A show with much to dig has a cast that's just too big.
But worry not, for there's still much fun to be got.

“Seussical the Musical,” which opened last night at Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H. and is running this weekend and next Friday through Sunday, is another ambitious undertaking by Arts in Motion that is big and bright.

The show, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is primarily a reworking of the books “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches the Egg,” but incorporates other Dr Seuss characters including Gertrude McFuzz (Taylor Hill) and the Cat in the Hat (Chris Madura), who provides narration.

Horton (Matt Stoker) with his giant ears is able to hear the Whos, the tiny inhabitants of a speck of dust. He vows to protect the whos in the the face of much adversity and ridicule lead by Sour Kangaroo (Jen Meers). Horton is then tricked into sitting on the egg of Mayzie LaBird (Sarah Ansaldi). The only person that believes in Horton is Gertrude whose massive crush on him goes entirely unnoticed.

Parallel to Horton's story is the goings on of Who. JoJo, the son of the Mayor (Craig Holden), is a big thinker and his imagination constantly gets him in trouble causing his parents to send him off to a military academy. In the sweet song “Alone in the Universe," Horton and JoJo bond over being outcasts for their unique world views.

The role of JoJo is double cast with Oliver Clay-Storm and Liam Van Rossum trading performances. I saw Clay-Storm, an impressive young actor who, unlike a lot of child actors, delivers his lines with feeling and has a good grasp of tone and inflection. He is an able singer as well. This is a kid to watch as he gets older.

Stoker makes a likable Horton and he's easy to root for. Even battling a cold, Stoker provides strong singing. Madura has fun as the Cat in the Hat, who pops up throughout the show to guide JoJo and to fill in the audience on what's happening.

Madura leads the show's opening number “Oh the Things You Can Think” and gets things off to a great high energy start. That energy is sustained for most of the first act, but things sag during the first half of the second act in which Horton is taken away to become a circus performer.

The turning point is Hill's performance of “All for You,” Gertrude's declaration of her love to Horton and the explanation of the many trials she went through to find him. It is a fun song delivered with charm and gusto by Hill.

This production of “Seussical,” directed by Mary Bastoni-Rebmann and music direction by George Wiese, is at odds with itself. The leads are well cast and the roles are played on a professional level, but then you have a bloated supporting cast of performers as young as 5.

There are scenes that require these youngest performers to simply jump around on stage looking cute. Now there's nothing wrong with that, but it has its place and here it merely distracts from the hard work of everyone else. Other scenes incorporate ballet numbers that, while well-performed, feel out of place. This is not an attack on the kids, they are indeed cute, but would be better suited for a recital.

Even with this shortcoming, this is a fun show enhanced by colorful set design by Tom Rebmann that captures the look of Dr. Seuss' books. Likewise the costumes by Patty Hibbert, Valerie Smith and Katrina Carus do a nice job of helping to create the world of Seuss.

The show ends with a wonderful and lively song version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” It will have you leaving the theater with a smile.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and children. For more information or to order tickets visit

Friday, October 29, 2010

Come and visit your good friend 'Sweeney'

This past weekend I was joined by my friend and fellow entertainment writer Brian for a “Sweeney Todd” marathon, and you'd be surprised how many versions we managed to dig up.

The most famous incarnation of the tale of the murderous barber is Stephen Sondheim's operatic 1979 Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” but the roots of the story go much deeper.

The exploits of Sweeney Todd date back to a Victorian penny dreadful called “The String of Pearls” (1846–1847). Although not a real historical figure, it is possible that the character is a composite of several 19th century urban legends.

The details and motivations of the character vary, but the basic story always remains the same: Todd is a barber who offs his clientele and his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett bakes the remains into meat pies.

Todd first appeared on film in 1936 as portrayed by the appropriately named Tod Slaughter. The film has not aged well and the story is muddled and unclear, but as a point of reference it is still holds some interest for diehard fans. It does feature an amusing catch phrase, “I'll polish you off” and a so-bad-it-is-good performance from Slaughter.

Sondheim's version would darken the character. Previously, Todd's motivation was purely greed, but in the musical Todd is seeking vengeance against a judge who sent him away on trumped up false charges so that he could make a move on Todd's wife.

The meat pie aspect of the plot is also given new dimension as it is used in biting social critique. As the song “Little Priest” notes, “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above/How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below.”

With its mix of satire, black humor and tragedy, "Sweeney Todd" is perhaps Sondheim's most ambitious and best show. “Sweeney Todd” cleaned up at the Tony Awards that year winning Best Musical, Best Actor for Len Cariou as Todd and Best Actress for Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett among others.

There's no documentation of the original cast production of “Sweeney Todd,” but a DVD is available of the 1982 national tour and does feature Lansbury.

Late in her career Lansbury became associated almost exclusively with the good-natured mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.” For some it is hard to imagine her any other way, but she is capable of going to dark places, not only in “Sweeney Todd,” but in her Academy Award winning turn in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

In 1998, a TV movie “The Tale of Sweeney Todd” starring Ben Kingsley in the title role presented another variation on the themes, but alas this version is only available on VHS and I was unable to get a hold of it.

Writer/director Kevin Smith featured “Sweeney Todd” prominently in 2003's underrated “Jersey Girl.” The climax of the film involves the 7-year-old title character starring as Mrs. Lovett in a talent show production of the song “God, That's Good.”

The scene features Ben Affleck as Todd and Liv Tyler as Toby, the boy that helps in the bakery. The juxtaposition of a 7-year-old with this dark material is quite amusing and Tyler is actually better than she needs to be for the intentionally low-rent production values.

In 2006, the BBC produced a version starring Ray Winstone that once again has the basic plot elements, but departs from both greed and vengeance as Todd's motivation.
In this version Todd slits throats simply because he can. He's portrayed as a serial killer that just can't help himself. This interpretation of Todd makes him quite possibly even crazier than Sondheim's version and yet Winstone makes the character human.

The latest film version is director Tim Burton's 2007 adaptation of Sondheim's musical with screenwriter John Logan and frequent star Johnny Depp in the title role. Burton removed several songs tied to a romantic subplot involving Todd's daughter Johanna and Anthony, the sailor that saved him. He also removed much of the satirical elements of the show.

There are flashes of the musical's macabre humor, but Burton's version places a clear focus on Todd's vengeance and the tragic elements of the plot. It is worthy reworking of the material that makes the show less operatic and more intimate.

With the exception of the Kingsley version, all of the versions mentioned in this article can be found on Netflix.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Game cast makes 'RED' fun

“RED” is the latest graphic novel title to be given the big screen treatment. Haven't heard of it? That's just fine. Hollywood learned long ago just because a comic book doesn't have a name like Batman or Superman attached to it doesn't mean it can't be great box office fodder.

Literature has always been a source of inspiration for film. The comic book, in the eyes of a studio executive, is even better. The movie comes pre-storyboarded. One less person to hire.

The “RED” of the title is an acronym for Retired Extremely Dangerous in reference to former CIA agents, who are, well, you get the picture. Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, who after a failed attempt on his life rounds up his old team including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox as a former Russian adversary turned ally. Naturally, Willis and crew stumble upon an elaborate conspiracy.

Also in tow is Mary-Louise Parker as Moses' pension worker who he falls in love with over the phone. Realizing his affectionate tones have made her a target he kidnaps her, but soon the romance novel junkie is gleefully along for the ride. Parker has a nice chemistry with Willis and adds to the quirky vibe of the film. Karl Urban is the man on their tail and proves to be a worthy adversary.

This year has featured a lot of films about rogue mercenaries, soldiers of fortunes or government agents. We've had “The Losers,” “The A-Team” and “The Expendables.”
We've also seen a couple movies featuring women tagging along with an assassin or government agent in the form of “The Killers” and “Knight and Day.” The upcoming “The Tourist” starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie will also cover this ground with the genders reversed.

These films were largely not critically well received, although some were hits. The great French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” and while “RED” was probably in production the same time as all these other films, the line still seems applicable.

This is the kind of movie where you just enjoy the cast tossing around one liners and looking cool shooting guns and blowing stuff up. It seems like a modest goal to achieve, but “The Expendables” failed at achieving it. Of all the films listed above, in many respects, “RED” is the movie “The Expendables” should've been.

“RED" has a sense of camaraderie and fun that was sorely missing from “The Expendables,” a film that took itself far too seriously. Though not a great film, in comparison to the dire “The Expendables,” “RED” is a masterpiece.

The plot for the film is negligible, it hangs together and makes sense, which is always a plus, but is merely the excuse to have these actors play together. The screenplay for “RED” by Jon and Erich Hoeber is populated with sharp lines and offbeat character shading, particularly for Malkovich's character whose brain was warped from years of LSD testing.

Malkovich, a master of playing kooks, steals the movie with an off-kilter, jittery, paranoia-fueled energy. If there's one reason to see movie it is for Malkovich. Just watching him carry around a giant, fluffy, stuffed pig is the worth the price of admission in itself.

A classy Academy Award winning actress of Mirren's caliber may seem out of place in this sort of material and while it is an underwritten role, she clearly is relishing getting to play with the boys. She adds a bit of grace to the proceedings.

Willis and Freeman do Willis and Freeman. Both actors are so well known and loved by audiences that just bringing their considerable charisma and well-worn personas to the table is all that is necessary, at least for lightweight fare like this. But neither actor is merely going through the motions. As with the rest of the cast,
they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.

And let's not forget Ernest Borgnine, who, at 93, makes a very welcomed appearance as a records keeper.

This is a film that thanks to a crisp, high energy visual style and fine acting keeps things moving. Things are kept light, and here's that word again, fun.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Something more than 'Ordinary'

Arts in Motion has been known largely for musicals, but with such shows as “Steel Magnolias” they have dipped their toe into dramatic work. Now with “Ordinary People” they are taking a cannon ball into the deep end of heavy drama.

“Ordinary People,” which opened Thursday, Oct. 14, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is running Thursday through Saturday for the next two weeks, is a domestic drama based on Judith Guest's novel about the disintegration of an affluent suburban family in the awake of the death of one son and the attempted suicide of their remaining son Conrad (Ged Owen). This is a play that digs deep into raw emotions and is a powerful study in how people deal with tragedy.

Guest's novel was also turned into a critically and commercially successful film in 1980 starring Timothy Hutton as Conrad, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as his parents and Judd Hirsch as his psychiatrist. The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Hutton.

This is a lofty legacy to step into and Arts in Motion's production directed by Glenn Noble does it justice even if it doesn't quite achieve greatness. The production plays well on a certain level. The acting is there and the emotions present, but the show just doesn't quite go deep enough. It is hard to even pin point why. Sometimes there's just an elusive factor that can't be explained. The line between good and great is often a subtle one. In this case, what is on display is good.

Hutton may have won a supporting actor Oscar for his work as Conrad in the film, but the character is very much the lead. Owen's central performance as Conrad was going to be a make or break for this production and ultimately he does carry the show.

The play is essentially structured as a series of scenes of Conrad interacting with different people including his father (Rob Clark), mother (Pam MacDonald), psychiatrist (Tom Rebmann), friends (Kodi Barrows and Zachary Whitley), a girl he knew when in a mental hospital (Jessica Pappalardo) and a potential girlfriend (Shelby Noble).

Owen has a natural way with dialogue that doesn't feel forced, but there's a sameness to Owen's performance. There's not much variation in his line delivery throughout, just a general melancholy. This could be interpreted as harsh criticism, but in a way it is in step with the character.

Conrad is desperately trying to keep his emotions in check because any emotion, good or bad, stirs up painful memories and feelings of guilt regarding his brother's death and his attempted suicide. When Owen does have outbursts, as with a confrontation with his cold, emotionally-detached mother, they are unexpected and carry weight.

MacDonald's Beth is a fascinating character. Her way of dealing with grief is to bottle it up and to go on creating a perfect facade. She is obsessed with appearance and what people will think of her and her family. She carries a resentment towards Conrad and one of the emotional cruxes of the piece is whether she loves her remaining son.

MacDonald captures Beth's frigidness well and makes the character's self-centeredness both infuriating and as a point of sympathy. After all, she became that way because she couldn't deal with the loss of a son.

Clark is good as Calvin, a father who is trying too hard to connect with his son. Where Beth's reaction was to close off, Calvin's was to open up, but he doesn't know how and his interactions with his son are awkward and uncertain. Clark plays this awkwardness well.

The actor that brings the best out of Owen is Noble as Jeannine, a girl who has her own dark past. Dramatically, Jeannine is the character who helps Conrad get away from his own problems and to empathize with someone else. Noble has a couple monologues that are quite affecting and emotionally bare.

“Ordinary People” is not an easy piece to take on and it is commendable to see Arts in Motion take on challenging material. As a company they're expanding and with growth spurts there are growing pains. This production isn't perfect, but it represents a theater company that is a work in progress. That progress is worth checking out.

Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased at the door, reserved by calling 356-5776 or online at

Zombies were people too: The progression of the zombie film

The zombie genre, much like the undead creatures at the center of these films, just won't die. Popularity of this horror sub-genre has up and downs, but never goes away entirely. Starting with the 2002 adaptation of the the video game “Resident Evil,” the fervor for zombies has had a resurrection of startling resilience.

Zombies weren't always decaying corpses with a hunger for brains. The roots of the zombie can be tied to Haitian voodoo and the belief that through sorcery a dead body can be revived to do the bidding of their resurrector. This incarnation of the zombie was utilized in horror films of the 1930s into the 1950s, but never really took hold the same way the modern variation has.

The modern film version of the zombie first made its appearance in 1968 in George Romero's “Night of the Living Dead.” Romero established many of the motifs of the film zombie including their hunger for human flesh, the pandemic themes, the transfer of the “disease” through biting and that they can only be stopped by destroying the brain.

Although Romero's "Night" was the first to present the zombie in this fashion on film, he was highly influenced by the EC Comics “Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror" and "Weird Science” as well as Richard Matheson's “I Am Legend.” The creatures in “I Am Legend” are more vampire than zombies but the book, which inspired the films “Last Man on Earth” and “Omega Man,” featured the viral theme that Romero would borrow.

In the 1920s, horror author H. P. Lovecraft explored many of the undead ideas that would infuse Romero's “Night of the Living Dead.” Lovecraft's “Re-Animator” would later be adapted into a gloriously gruesome and tongue-in-cheek film in 1985.

Romero would continue to explore the zombie genre in 1978's “Dawn of the Dead” — believe-it-or-not a shrewd satire on materialism and consumerism — and in 1985's “Day of the Dead.” In addition to “Re-Animator” and “Day of the Dead,” 1985 also saw the release of “Return of the Living Dead,” a self-aware parody of “Night of the Living Dead,” which itself inspired two sequels.

Following this mid-1980s boom, the mainstream popularity of the zombie genre waned, but the 1990s rewarded loyal fans. In 1993, “Return of the Living Dead III” was a surprisingly affective tragic love story that removed all of the comic elements of its predecessors.

In 1992 Peter Jackson, nearly a decade away from his work on “Lord of the Rings,” made "Dead Alive," one of the goriest, but most uproarious entries into the zombie genre with a son desperately trying to hide that is mother has become a member of the undead. The film features, among other things, a zombie birth, a butt-kicking priest and a sweet love story.

With the new millennium came increased interest in the zombie. There have been both major theatrical releases as well as a never-ending stream of low budget direct-to-DVD films and amateur fan films. The genre has expanded to include everything from zombie strippers in the subtly titled “Zombie Strippers” to zombie Nazis in “Dead Snow.”

The best of the of the 21st century zombie films is 2002's bleak, but beautifully shot English film “28 Days Later,” which featured a blend of scares, humor and more humanity than usual in the genre. The increased interest also brought Romero back to the genre starting with 2005's “Land of the Dead” which finished his original story arch. In 2008's “Diary of the Dead,” Romero sent his series to the early days of zombie outbreak for a commentary on the Internet era's constant need to communicate.

On the comedy end, 2005's “Shaun of Dead” combined the sensibilities of a British romantic comedy with an homage to the zombie genre that was largely played for laughs, but had moments of emotional weight. Last year's “Zombieland” showcased a similar balance of laughs and heart.

The popularity of the zombie is most tangibly evident through “zombie walks,” organized public gathering of people dressed as zombies that occur globally. The world record for the largest zombie gathering was set at The Big Chill Festival in Ledbury, Herefordshire, UK on Aug. 6, 2009 with 4,026 participants.

In other words, the zombie has become a massive pop culture entity that people hunger for as much as the zombie yearns for brains. But if the zombie apocalypse ever does come just remember: Aim for the head.

Friday, October 08, 2010

'Social Network' is a brilliant film

Movies can have the ability to act like time capsules of a specific time and place. I can watch “All the President’s Men” and have a window on the frustration and uncertainty of the 1970s or watch “Wall Street” and get a peek at the yuppie era at its pinnacle. “The Social Network” may well be cut from the same cloth. Twenty years from now people born today may look at it and go, “Oh, that's what it was like.”

Some will be quick to dismiss this as the Facebook movie, but they'd be wrong to do so. This isn't some movie of the week chronicling the creation of one the Internet's most popular and successful social networking sites. Oh, you get that back story, but you also get an incisive character study of a very particular type: the smartest guy in the room who is too smart for his own good.

There is substantial talent behind this film. The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the TV series “The West Wing” and movies like “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Sorkin, a sharp, observant, witty writer who populates the script with choice lines, treats this material with same amount of depth and substance as his work dealing in politics.

The director is David Fincher, whose resume includes such explorations into the darker side of humanity as “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.” There may not seem to be anything ominous about the creation of Facebook, but Fincher's direction adds a certain menacing undertone as the popularity of Facebook spreads and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg gains power.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Zuckerberg, the Harvard undergrad who was the creative force behind Facebook. The film is structured as a series of flashbacks told from two intertwined depositions for lawsuit trials. One involves Zuckerberg's co-founder (Andrew Garfield) being pushed out of the company and the other a set of twins (remarkably and seamlessly both played by Armie Hammer) who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea for what would become Facebook.

Eisenberg has played his share of awkward motor-mouthed nerds in movies like “Zombieland” and “Adventureland.” He has mastered the likable nebbish. It is remarkable that Woody Allen hasn't cast him in one of his films yet. But while his work in “The Social Network” is a variation of that persona, there's something more unsettling about Zuckerberg.

As portrayed in the film, he is a coldly intelligent elitist, who talks fast, but not nearly as fast as he is thinking. In nearly every shot of Eisenberg you can sense that his mind is constantly going and that he can't be bothered to slow down to explain himself to lesser mortals.

In the nearly 10-minute opening scene, Zuckerberg's condescending conversation with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) leads to him being dumped. The film contends it was this rejection that fueled the creation of Facebook.

The unexpected wild card of the film is pop star-turned-actor Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker. Parker's Internet phenomenon blew up in his face, so, at least according to the film, the minute he heard about “thefacebook” he
immediately set out to weasel his way into a piece of the action.

Timberlake doesn't make his first appearance until late into the film, but he ups the ante. What may seem like stunt casting on paper is anything but. This is a real, full performance. Timberlake oozes confidence, but there's a calculating underlying sinisterness to his charm as he manipulates Zuckerberg against his co-founder. It is a strong performance that matches Eisenberg's exceptional work.

With “The Social Network,” Fincher and Sorkin dare to make a film where the protagonist isn't likable, yet in spite of Zuckerberg's unpleasant attributes, Eisenberg doesn't make him an entirely unsympathetic character.

Late in the film as dirty deals begin to unfold, there's a moment where Eisenberg allows for an unspoken moment of regret that is palpable. The film's final moments show a man worth billions of dollars, but with no friends. This is no spoiler because it is how the film shows this moment that is poetically perfect.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

M&D serves up 'great' low-brow fun

“The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” a bawdy low-brow, but clever five-years young off-Broadway musical, opens Thursday, Oct. 6, at M&D Productions’ Your Theatre in North Conway and will be playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks.

As one would expect with a name like “The Great American Trailer Musical,” the show trades in broad white trash and red neck stereotypes. It is an easy target to be sure, but the book by Betsy Kelso with music and lyrics by David Nehls is populated with a high quota of genuinely funny fast-paced one-liners.

In terms of structure, this is deeply rooted in old traditions. A trio of women (Brenda Bailey, Jennifer Sias and Amy Nicole Smullen) form a Greek chorus of sorts that provides back up vocals for nearly all the songs and provides a humorous running commentary of the events as they are unfolding.

As strange as this may sound, the plot is not dissimilar to that of Shakespeare’s comedies. A twist in the end will be predicted quite easily by frequent theater goers, but the show doesn't take itself serious and doesn't expect this plot development to surprise anyone.

Set at Armadillo Acres in Starke, Fla., the musical centers on Jeannie (Elaine Kondrat) and Norbert (Gary Wilkinson). Jeannie hasn't left the trailer in 20 years following the kidnapping of her baby boy. Norbert is frustrated, so when Pippi (Natasha Repass), a stripper on the run, comes into town, a love affair begins. Things become further complicated when Pippi's marker-sniffing, gun-totting ex-boyfriend Duke (Eric Jordan) comes looking for her.

Musically the show is a relative to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” As with both those shows, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” is vibing off of 1950s and early 1960s rock.

The show is populated with a fair amount of ballads. A ballad when poorly written can bring a show to a halt, but here lyrics like “I gotta make like a nail/ And press on” are just irreverent enough to keep things fresh and unexpected. Another number called “Flushed Down the Pipes” comes complete with choreography featuring toilet brushes also deconstructs the usual heavy-handedness of most musical ballads.

There are also big numbers like “The Great American TV Show,” which has Bailey taking on the role of a Jerry Springer-esque talk show host trying to sort through the sordid plot developments.

The cast is clearly having fun with this coarse, loose material. Bailey, as the landlord of the trailer park, has an appropriately big personality and a set of pipes to match it. Smullen as the dimwitted Pickles has some of the play's choicest quips and delivers them with perfect timing. Sias fills out the girl-group Greek chorus well and the trio has good chemistry.

Repass could have a harder edge, but is sufficiently trashy as Pippi. She is such a warm, upbeat performer that she makes Pippi likable despite taking on the role of a mistress. We even feel bad for her during third-act developments.

It is Jordan though who steals the show. He doesn't appear until late in the show, but his high-energy performance revitalizes the production just as it was beginning to spin its wheels. More than anyone else in this cast, he seems to understand you have to sell this material big. Subtlety is not necessary. His song “Roadkill” is a comic highlight.

At around 90 minutes, this is quick, light and fun show. It is junk food theater, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a meal of Doritos and Diet Dr. Pepper is more satisfying than a filet mignon.

For more information and tickets call 662-7591.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Stone and Douglas present a kinder, gentler Gekko

When a sequel is made more than 20 years after the original or last installment in the franchise, it is sure to raise some concerns, but Oliver Stone's follow up to his own “Wall Street” is the rare sequel that justifies its existence both creatively and financially.

In 1987, Stone took a behind-the-scenes look at the dirty dealings on Wall Street only a year after an insider trading scandal made headlines. Now in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Stone takes on the 2008 market meltdown.

The main character of the 1980s edition was Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, a young, naïve broker who is taken under the wing of the oily do-anything-to-make-a-buck Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Few people probably even remember Sheen in that film. His character was more of a plot device to be manipulated by Gekko.

Douglas won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gekko, but, a strange thing happened. Although Stone meant him as a villain, he became an icon to would-be Wall Street hot shots. The film was meant as a cautionary tale, perhaps cautioning against the very greed that led to 2008's market fiasco. It would appear that perhaps Douglas was far too persuasive in his delivery of the infamous “greed is good” speech.

The new film opens with Gekko being released from jail in 2001 after an eight-year sentence for his crooked transactions and then flash forwards seven years. As with the original, Gekko is a supporting character to a younger main character.

This time around we have Shia LaBeouf as a broker who is not nearly as green as Sheen's Fox. When vicious rumors lead to his mentor and employer's (Frank Langella) firm going under, LaBeouf's Jake Moore seeks vengence against the man behind it: Bretton James (Josh Brolin).

Gekko is brought back into the plot because Jake wants to marry his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie hasn't spoken to her father in years, and a deal is established between Gekko and his future son-in-law. Gekko will supply Jake with information against Bretton and Jake will help repair the relationship between father and daughter.

“Wall Street” was a film about fathers and father figures. Charlie Sheen's real life father, Martin, even appeared as Bud Fox's blue-collar father, who represented good to Gekko's bad. The twist is this time Gekko is the father who wants to do good.

The film lacks the cynical bite of the original and in some ways, like the Gekko character, Stone has gone soft. Stone isn't making a documentary by any means, but he does give a very basic explanation of what happened in 2008 that is clear, concise and will make sense even to those with only rudimentary understanding of the way the economy works.

As a piece of entertainment, “Money Never Sleeps” is efficient at setting up and creating its drama. Stone is painting with broad strokes and using big emotions. The character conflicts and struggles, though somewhat contrived, are effective largely due to the strong cast.

LaBeouf, in his first truly adult role, is a substantial upgrade from Sheen who felt like a lightweight in the original. After wasting the promise he showed in films like “Holes” and “Disturbia” on the “Transformers” series, LaBeouf proves he can handle dramatic scenes believably.

The supporting cast is tops. Veterans like Langella, Susan Sarandon and the 94-year-old Eli Wallach all get a few solid scenes and Brolin is just as cooly sleazy and charismatic as Douglas was in the original “Wall Street,” but as was the case the first time this is Douglas' movie.

Relatively speaking, this is a kinder, gentler Gordon Gekko. Douglas still plays him with a cocky assuredness, but he is also seeking redemption and repentance. There is a scene of surprising tenderness between Douglas and Mulligan as he begs to be let back into her life. For many this will not be the triumphant return of the great Gordon Gekko that they were looking for, but, fear not, old habits die hard and flashy the great manipulator shine through.

Many expected Stone's new “Wall Street” to be an angry indictment of the corruption on Wall Street that lead to 2008's financial crisis. In actuality, there is very little anger in the film. The feeling is more frustration. Stone's target isn't Wall Street, but everyone. As Gekko notes “everyone is drinking the same Kool-Aid.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

10 fake movie bands that make real music

Fictional bands are often employed in films as tool of satire or as a stand-in for a real band. Sometimes, though, the fake bands, comedic or otherwise, turn out to be pretty good with material that could top the charts in reality and, in some cases, it actual does.

Here is a list of 10 great fictional movie bands. In compiling this list I had to establish some guidelines. The Blues Brothers and Tenacious D did both appear in movies, but don't make the cut because, although they are fictional bands, both released albums that produced hits before the release of their respective films.

Characters from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” were also considered but ultimately weren't included since the film was an adaptation of an off-Broadway musical.

Two movies based on comic books appear on this list. Although these bands did appear in a previous medium, the music they perform was created specifically for the film versions and thus their inclusion on this list.

10. Wyld Stallyns from The “Bill and Ted” Movies (1989, 1991)
Two California teens are in a rock band that will one day create music that will bring peace to the world. To make sure the dimwitted duo stays together they travel through history and to hell and back. Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted "Theodore" Logan don't appear higher on this list because the one song we hear from the band is a Kiss song that in no way could ever bring balance to the world.

9. Sex Bob-Ombs from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
This movie was released just over a month ago, but the Sex Bob-Ombs are absolutely worthy of inclusion on this list. The title character (Michael Cera) is the bass player for the band, which has a crunchy, imperfect garage band sound. The four songs that quirky rocker Beck wrote for the film clock in at less that eight minutes, but they are short, raw blasts of rock bliss.

8. Josie and the Pussycats from “Josie and the Pussycats” (2001)
I make no secrets about my love for the music in this underrated adaptation of the comic book characters. It was only a few weeks ago I was singing its praises in this paper and I'll keep doing so until more people discover the joys of the shiny pop-punk songs that were created for this surprisingly sly spoof of the music industry.

7. Mitch and Mickey from “A Mighty Wind” (2003)
Directed by mockumentary master Christopher Guest, “A Mighty Wind” was essentially the folk version of “This is Spinal Tap.” There were several fictional folk acts in the film, but it is Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) that provide the film with a heart. Their song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" received an Oscar nomination.

6. Marvin Berry and The Starlighters from “Back To The Future” (1985)
This is the band that is playing during the crucial school dance scene that decides the very fate of time traveler Marty McFly's (Michael J. Fox) existence. When Marty takes the microphone and leads the band in a blistering version of “Johnny B. Goode,” Marvin Berry is quick to call his cousin Chuck to share the “new sound.”

5. Crucial Taunt from “Wayne's World” (1992)
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's goofy cable access duo were one of the few “Saturday Night Live” sketches to successfully make the transition to the big screen. Wayne and Garth worship two things: rock and babes, so it is no surprise that Crucial Taunt's lead singer Cassandra (Tia Carrera) is Wayne's dream girl. Plus she wails on a killer cover of “Ballroom Blitz.”

4. Stillwater from “Almost Famous” (2000)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe's shares a fictionalized version of his time writing for Rolling Stone magazine as a teen. The stand-in for several bands, but primarily Led Zeppelin, is Stillwater, which includes Jason Lee as the lead singer and Billy Crudup as the guitarist. The original material is good, particularly “Fever Dog,” but it is the tour bus singalong of Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” that is the movie's magic moment.

3. The Wonders from “That Thing You Do” (1996)
Tom Hanks made his debut as a writer and director with this playful look at the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder in the 1960s. This isn't a look at the dark underbelly of rock, but in its cheery way it does have some shrewd things to say about the music industry. The Oscar-nominated title track is sensational and just about impossible to dislike.

2. Soggy Bottom Boys from “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000)
The Coen Brothers depression-era reworking of “The Odyssey” featured a trio of chain-gang workers on the lam that by chance become the Soggy Bottom Boys, a singing sensation the sweeps the South. Life imitated art and, quite unexpectedly, the blues soundtrack raced to the top of the charts giving the fake band real success.

1. Spinal Tap from “This is Spinal Tap” (1981)
Rob Reiner's mockumentary about a washed up hair band's disastrous comeback tour is a classic that is quite possibly the most on-target satire of rock music ever made. The songs, such as “Big Bottom” are absurd, but only a hair more so than real metal bands. In the wake of the success of the film, the fictional band became real and actually toured and released albums.