Friday, February 26, 2010

Scorsese's 'Shutter Island' disappoints

“Shutter Island,” a film that is both fascinating and frustrating, represents a rare misfire from legendary director Martin Scorsese.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, the author of such books-turned-films as “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” “Shutter Island” focuses on two U.S. Marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) who are sent to a hospital for the criminally insane in hopes of being able to find an escaped patient (Emily Mortimer).

DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy but he may never be able to leave the island to tell the world what he has discovered. From the get-go, the head doctors of the island, played by acting greats Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, seem up to something.

Teddy is haunted by memories of his late wife and the atrocities he saw at a concentration camp during World War II. As the film progresses his sense of reality becomes increasingly warped. Is he going insane or are the employees of the island simply attempting to ruin his credibility?

The film recalls Alfred Hitchcock's “Vertigo” as well as “The Wicker Man” and Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining.” All these films deal in a reality that is becoming increasingly unstable and on forces working to undermine the protagonist.

There's are also moments that bring to mind the kitschy horror films of William Castle, who made such films as “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghosts.” The idea of Scorsese making a campy horror film does have appeal, but “Shutter Island” is attempting to be somber, paranoid-filled thriller, so these isolated flashes of camp work against that objective.

The film's biggest problem is that it is such an amalgamation of conflicting tones that it is hard to get a read on the film. This is meant to be a psychological thriller, so having the audience off balance is a good thing, but somewhere along the way there is a break and the film becomes less engaging. You still watch and admire the craftsmanship, but there's no emotional connection.

Part of what feeds this disconnect is that early on it is clear that the film is building towards some big final reveal and so eventually you just sit there waiting for the big twist to occur. It is a long wait with the film clocking in at over two hours. When it finally does arrive, it is rather anti-climatic and requires Kingsley to do a lot of explaining.

This is a departure for Scorsese in terms of genre and he feels out of his element. Scorsese almost always seems in complete control of his films; here at times he seems slightly lost at sea. The perfect example of this is the comically overwrought score that is employed heavily in the early scenes. It distracts instead of helping to create a mood.

Is the film still worth a look? When your as prolific a filmmaker as Scorsese, it is inevitable that your work will be looked at with a more critical eye. And while this doesn't hold up against his best work, there are still things to admire about it.

There is a suspenseful sequence in the corridor of the ward where the worst of the criminally insane are held that has an effectively chilling atmosphere. Some of the dream sequence are startling and create an unsettlingly surreal mood.
Unfortunately, in both cases, Scorsese is unable to sustain these moods.

The acting throughout is solid. DiCaprio plays the film on an unremitting level of intensity as he interacts with a cast of reliable character actors including Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Michelle Williams, Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch.

So, yes, this is not Scorsese at the top of his game, but even a lesser Scorsese film is still better than most films released on a weekly basis.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

'From Paris with Love' is formula fromage with a bite

“From Paris with Love” is the latest action film from Luc Besson, the French filmmaker who does American-style action films better than most Americans. As with many, but not all, of the works associated with his name, this is a movie with little substance, but a lot of pure, visceral fun.

Besson as either writer, producer or director has made such films as "The Professional," “The Fifth Element,” “The Transporter” series, the underrated “Unleashed” and last year's “Taken.” Although his films are typically set in Paris, his films are usually in English.

Here Besson takes on the role of producer and story handing over the directing to “Taken” director Pierre Morel and the screenwriting to Adi Hasak. Although different in tone from “Taken,” it follows the same structure: A brief prologue sets up an excuse for nearly non-stop action and then said action commences.

The set-up is that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the assistant to the U.S. ambassador, who lives a double life as a lowly CIA operative. This uptight would-be spy gets his chance to prove his mettle when he's hooked up with an unorthodox wild-man of a super agent (John Travolta). Together this mismatched duo will banter back and forth and prevent a terrorist attack.

This is a formula genre film through and through, but there's nothing wrong with that if the film engages within the confines of its formula. “From Paris with Love” is essentially “Lethal Weapon” in Paris.

The film works thanks to some cracking dialogue and a clever script by Hasak, whose only other credit is a film from 1997 called “Shadow Conspiracy.” Don't worry, there's a reason you haven't heard of it. Clearly, the 13-year gap between scripts did him well.

At the center of the film is a bald Travolta giving his best, most entertaining performance in years. He has a maniac energy that powers the film. He spits out quips as fast as the many rounds of bullets that he fires at the never-ending stream of faceless enemies.

Travolta is an actor whose career has some Everest-like peaks and some Death Valley-like lows. For the last decade, he's been trying to climb out of the valley that “Battlefield Earth” sent him to. The last few years he has been making progress getting back to the top of his game most notably with his cross-dressing turn in “Hairspray” and in last year's “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

“From Paris with Love” is a reminder of just how good he can truly be and how much fun and magnet of a screen presence he can be when he lets loose all of amble charms.

Rhys Meyers, perhaps best known as King Henry VIII on HBO's “Tudors,” is a good balance for Travolta and they play off each other nicely, but unfortunately the Irish-born actor struggles with an American accent. Still, although not necessarily a perfect fit, he gets the job done.

As with “Taken,” Morel proves to be a competent director of a fast-paced action. There are no stunning set pieces, but the action is well executed and exciting while watching it. This is video game style action where the bad guys pop up and the good guys shoot them. It can get old very quickly, but to Morel's credit he keeps things moving and interesting.

This is a popcorn movie and it is proud of it. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. It is a fun, undemanding 90 minutes. Check your brain and enjoy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The music or the misery: An exploration of why we listen to pop music

Every Valentine's Day I have a tradition of watching “High Fidelity,” the 2000 John Cusack vehicle based on Nick Hornby's novel about a music-obsessed record store owner's attempt to understand why all his relationships ultimately seem doomed.
The solace I find in this film is not the subject of this article, but rather a question the film presents that, if dwelled upon, forces us to look at the very reason we listen to music and how it affects us.

“What came first: the music or the misery?” asked Cusack's Rob Gordon in the opening scene of the film. “People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Ten years after the film's release, the question remains unanswered. Sure, it is a chicken or the egg question that has no correct answer, but that doesn't mean the question doesn't warrant exploration. With both love and potential heartbreak in the air on the eve of Valentine's Day, the time has come to explore this mystery.

At first blush, the answer seems obvious: the misery has to come first because it is emotion that drives the creation of the music.

“If we look historically … we were emoting these things long before we were able to articulate them,” said Rick Hensley-
Buzzell, a music therapist at Mount Washington Valley Psychological Services. “The emotion had to come first because the ability to create that emotion in some sort of standardized language — the language of music — didn't come until much later.”

So, there's the answer. Case closed. But there's really more to it because, as Hensley-Buzzell notes, once music was created we now “have a common language to be able to convey those emotional ideas and recreate those emotional ideas.”

Essentially, music has become such an ingrained part of culture that it is no longer a one-way street. There's a give and take between the emotion and the music.

“In terms of love songs, this feedback loop reinforces itself, as people then attempt to attain a level of perfection in their own relationships which they have heard so much about via songs and movies, and which has been strummed lovingly into their ear since day one,” said Ben Hammond, a 2001 graduate of Fryeburg Academy who studied music technology at McGill University in Montreal. “We all hope one day to love as strongly as Peter Gabriel does while singing 'In Your Eyes,' though perhaps seeing the doorway to a thousand churches in just one girl's eyes is a bit unrealistic.”

If our query can't be answered with the simple black or white answer of which comes first, then perhaps the question becomes: How do we choose to interact with music?

“I dive deep into lost-love songs when I’ve lost a love,” said Brian Charles, the owner of The Music Shop in North Conway and a Julliard-trained professional musician and composer. “Bonnie Raitt’s 'You Can’t Make Me Love You” is now a deeply set permanent marker in my brain from a divorce 15 years ago. I just don’t have the heart to listen to 'love' love songs when I’m down.”

Nikki Martinez, the former morning show host on Magic 104, also sees music as a way of marking our lives, but sees how we allow music to affect us as a choice.

“Whether it be a song full of cherries and chocolate fountains or pain that you didn't think existed, I think you can choose to either have control of your own feelings, or you can let music control the attitude you're in,” Martinez said. “I personally decide to control my feelings and let music be a type of soundtrack for life.”

This idea of the "soundtrack of our lives" is key to understanding how we interface with music and how it does affect our mood. Music acts as memory trigger to a certain time, place and feeling.

“If I hear the song 'Heaven' by Bryan Adams, I'm back in high school feeling the heartache of a lost girlfriend," Hensley-Buzzell said. "So I can be in a great mood, hear that, and even 25 years later go, 'Man, that really crushed me back then.' So it is relational; it is all about what we project on to [it] … There is a difference between what it is and what it represents.”

Hensley-Buzzell stresses the distinction that, yes, music has the ability to change a mood by recalling a previous emotional state, but that it doesn't create a new mood. The emotion is already within us — it is the music that activates it. It is a distinction that local music teacher, actor, singer, choir director and theater director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann is also quick to make.

“The music we choose to listen to is a direct result of how we feel,” said Bastoni-Rebmann, who has a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her master's. “Songs of love will serve as a vehicle to allow the reaction to happen. The feelings and experience, either positive or negative, are already inside, and music gives one permission to let it out.”

Charles believes the ability for music to allow people to let it out is at the core of what pop music is all about. It is pop music's pure, straightforward messages that allows it to speak to us so clearly when we are feeling down.

“[Pop music] doesn't require too much looking under the surface,” Charles said. “The song is identified as pop because it is a song that doesn't require more than one meaning at a time — maybe there's a double entendre thrown in here or there, but once it goes beyond that it stops being pop. So, boy do I want a simple message when I'm feeling bad. I don't want to look into the deep, dark depths of my soul as much as I'd like to get over this period.”

Furthermore, Charles sees music as connecting to a community that allows us to not feel alone.

“What better than to find someone to commiserate with who won't ask you any questions and who won't put you on the spot, doesn't have any needs of their own — they are just there to provide solace,” Charles said.

Hensley-Buzzell agrees with this concept of music as something to connect with, but takes it one step further, suggesting that music helps us to sort out who we are in relation to the world.

“A lot of the pop music will go away because it talks about people on people,” Hensley-Buzzell said. “But when you get to something that allows us to experience the world, the universe, spirituality larger than ourselves, I think that's what music allows us to do, to tap into and give us some perspective.”

So, now we're starting to get into the very reason we listen to music. Music is a universal experience. We all seem drawn to it on some level. Genre preferences may differ from person to person, but the impulse is the same.

“We listen to music because it is a thoroughly human trait,” said Therese Davison, of the Kennett High School music department. “It resonates with our human bio-grammar, meaning that the human body responds to music in a primal capacity related to an innate musical intelligence. Music is a means of communication that exists in a realm other than the tangible or the verbal and goes beyond the cultural conditioning of one’s environment.”

What Davison is talking about is based in science and how our brains actually work. On a certain base level, music speaks to us.

“Music and profanity have a very similar tie in that they are able to speak to lower functions in the brain,” Hensley-Buzzell said. “They are able to speak to the emotional centers of the brain, which are much more protected, almost like first brain, survival, like our reptilian brain that is inside of us.”

But maybe we are getting too cerebral in the what, why and how we listen to music. Music undoubtedly affects us and perhaps it doesn't truly matter what comes first, the emotion or the music. Maybe the key to it is to be aware of the relationship we all share with music.

“Whether it's the chicken or the egg, everyone knows that love songs are exaggerated,” said Hammond. “But maybe that's the way they should be to give us cynics hope that maybe, just maybe, it really can happen. And if nothing else, it gives us acoustic guitar players a cheap way to score points with our wives/girlfriends/potential Valentines.”

That's a good final thought as we either embrace or brace ourselves for the day of love. And if you don't have anyone to hold this year, there's always that reliable, unquestioning friend known as music.

Friday, February 12, 2010

M&D's 'Cuckoo's Nest' flies high

The first thing you notice about M&D Productions' staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” is its astounding set designed by Deborah Jasien. It authentically recreates a psych ward and gives a believable setting for the actors to play in. The set is indicative of the quality and care that went into the entire production.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” which opened Thursday, Feb. 12, at Your Theatre in Willow Common in North Conway and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, is about how Randal P. McMurphy (Kevin O'Neil), a convict who has been deemed potentially insane, shakes up the mental institution he is sent to.

This is not an easy show to produce. Not only because of its complex struggles between sanity and insanity, free-thinkers versus the establishment and how institutionalization affects someone, but simply because it is such a well-known show.

The play, based on the novel by Ken Kensey, was first staged in 1963. Twelve years later the famous film version was released and earned Jack Nicholson his first Academy Award as well as wins for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress for Louise Fletcher. It is an iconic film with performances from Nicholson and Fletcher that became benchmarks.

M&D's version, directed by Dennis O'Neil, holds its own against such a formidable predecessor. I've seen one other stage production of “Cuckoo's Nest” in London's West End starring Christian Slater in the lead role. Slater was phenomenal in the role, but the production was flawed and in many ways M&D's production outshines it.

One of the innate problems with the show is the monologues delivered by the character Chief Bromden (Dan Tetreault). When delivered directly to the audience they can be confusing, since the character is believed to be mute, and pull you out of the show. Dennis O'Neil corrects this potential problem by having these speeches pre-recorded and allowing them to become internal monologues.

Kevin O'Neil, who recently won best actor at the New Hampshire Theater Awards for his work in M&D's “Facing East,” gives another stellar performance. Those familiar with his previous work may be skeptical about his casting, but he makes the role his own. He has the right level of off-kilter high energy and a gleefully mischievous laugh. But his performance isn't just a looney taking over the looney bin; he hints at the real anger that lies within McMurphy.

Sarah Charles has perhaps the most difficult role in the show as Nurse Ratched, the head nurse that McMurphy butts heads with in a power struggle for control of the ward.

Ratched truly believes her methods are helping her patients even though to many she may seem like a sadist who enjoys tormenting these men. To go too far in that direction, though, is wrong. To go in the other direction and play her too soft is also the wrong approach. Getting that balance somewhere in the middle is what is so tricky about the character.

Charles does a nice job of finding that balance although she may be a bit too soft at times. It is believable, though, that she'd have power over these broken men. Charles even garners some sympathy for Ratched. Ratched loses herself in the conflict for control with McMurphy and ultimately does something that leads to tragedy.

The cast of inmates is stellar, and what this version gets absolutely right is how McMurphy changes these men. It isn't in a heavy-handed way, but by the end the changes are obvious. The friendship that develops between the chief and McMurphy is the heart of the show, and Kevin O'Neil and Tetreault play it beautifully.

Other noteworthy inmates include Tom O'Reilly as Dale Harding, who starts out as mousy and insecure, but as the show progresses slowly picks up more of McMurphy's traits. Eric Jordan as the stuttering Billy Bibbitt as also quite good. It would be easy to overdo a role with a stutter, but Jordan admirable underplays the role and makes it believable.

This is show with both big laughs and big emotions, and this production captures just the right tone in delivering both. If you are a fan of “Cuckoo's Nest” you won't be let down. If you haven't seen or read any of its previous versions, then this is a very good introduction.

Friday, February 05, 2010

What happened to the romantic comedy?

This week I reviewed Arts in Motion's production of the romantic comedy “Almost, Maine,” which got me thinking about the current state of the genre within the world of film. As an avid fan of the romantic comedy, I can tell you it is pretty bleak out there.

It has always irked me that most of the time examples of the romantic comedy are dismissed as much maligned chick flicks. The pleasures of a good romantic comedy transcend gender, but unfortunately most of what is now passed off as representatives of the genre do target a primarily female audience.

The romantic comedy as we know it today has roots in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. These films were marked by slapstick antics, misunderstandings, double entendres, innuendos, rapid-fire dialogue and a sense of anarchy.

The conclusion of these films, in which the two people the audience has been rooting to get together finally get together, were often tagged on, seemingly arbitrarily. Here in lies the key to the screwball comedy: The ending doesn't matter. It is how you get there that counts.

A lot of people will complain that they don't like romantic comedies because they are predictable, but that really misses the point. Of course the two people who hate each other at the beginning of the film will fall in love by the end of the film. Part of the reason we go to these films is for the comfort that love always prevails, if only for 90 minutes.

What distinguishes a romantic comedy is how it works within its familiar formula. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies today is not only are they borrowing the template from previous films, but the content too. The journey to the ending, the part of the film that needs to be fresh and original, is being telegraphed from other, better films.

Take for example, “The Ugly Truth.” There is a scene that involves Katherine Heigl orgasming quite loudly in a restaurant. The scene can't help but recall a similar classic scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”

“Leap Year” is another prime example of a film that wastes the considerable charms of its leads, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. The plot is essentially a lift from 1934's “It Happened One Night” with two strangers becoming unlikely partners on the road in hopes of getting the female lead to her true love.

It isn't the plot that is problem, but the fact that there is not a single scene that hasn't been seen before. There's even that oh-so-familiar scene where the two people who hate each other have to pose as a married couple because of some plot contrivance. This leads to them inevitably being forced to kiss each other only to realize, oh wait, that actually felt good. Can we please, please, please retire this scene.

It isn't all bad. Writer/director Nancy Meyers' “It's Complicated” involves a love triangle between Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin and while there are definitely scenes of familiar comedy, there also scenes of real humor and tenderness.
Meyers remembers to write actual characters rather than cogs in a plot. Her films, which also include “Something's Gotta Give” and “The Holiday,” aren't perfect, but she has characters that approximate real human behavior.

Not that they are requesting it, but my advice to aspiring screenwriters who choose to write within this genre is to go back and watch movies like “Bringing Up Baby,” “You Can't Take It With You,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Annie Hall,” When Harry Met Sally" and an assortment of others. Study these films, but don't steal from them. Look at how the dialogue is written and notice how the characters, even if they are archetypes, aren't one-dimensional. At the end of the day, you have to have characters you actually care about.

Arts in Motion's 'Almost, Maine' is definitely a good time

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, Arts in Motion's delightful production of the romantic comedy “Almost, Maine” makes for an ideal night out.

Written by playwright John Cariani, “Almost, Maine,” which opens Friday, Feb. 5, at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine, is a series of nine offbeat stories of love. The show was first staged at the Portland Stage in 2004 where it went onto become the theater's most successful show. A well-received run off-Broadway followed.

In its original staging, four actors played all 19 roles in the show, but director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann decided to cast each role individually allowing for a diverse showcase of local talent both young and old.

The show is set in a fictional town in Maine, and there are things that will ring true for people who live in Northern New England. For example, in a very funny scene, a couple of snowmobile buddies (Rob Clark and Katrina Carus) have a lot of layers to strip off before they can take their relationship to the next level. For the most part, though, the play is dealing with universal themes and ideas and mines its humor and pathos from there.

Cariani's warm and witty script features many scenes involving high concept ideas. In “Her Heart” a woman (Beth Scrimeger) literally carries her broken heart in a paper bag. In “Getting It Back” a spurned girlfriend (Brooke Sanderson) attempts to return her love to her boyfriend (Zach Whitley) in several giant bags. “This Hurts” features a character (Jake Dunham) who can't feel pain. In another scene characters literally fall in love with each other.

On the page, these ideas may seem too abstract to work, but on stage they work quite well thanks to Cariani's deft writing and Bastoni-Rebmann's light direction, which brings out the best in her cast. The actors get the correct mood of lighthearted whimsy with an occasional undercurrent of pain and uncertainty.

Each scene follows a similar arch, whether it is about finding or losing love, that ends with an “aha moment” that puts a button on the scene. For the most part this formula is effective and charming, but at least in one case the writing is too clever for its own good.

Cariani does get so much right, though. The prologue featuring two young lovers (David Fulton and Kelsey Lildejahl) absolutely nails the awkwardness of early love. Lildejahl and Fulton perform it just right. It is a short scene but an excellent hook that sets the tone for the rest of show.

“Sad and Glad” captures a similar uneasiness when a lonely guy (Ged Owen) runs into his ex-girlfriend (Taylor Hill) at a bar. The scene is both funny and painful as the overlapping dialogue and uncomfortable exchanges will be all too familiar to most people in the audience. Owen and Hill, both playing older, pull the scene off nicely.

Another highlight is “This Hurts.” The exchanges between Dunham and Hanna Paven in this scene feel completely natural and are genuinely sweet. “The Story of Hope,” which features a woman (Pam McDonald) looking for the man who proposed to her, but with whom she never gave an answer, has a poignancy that sticks.

It is large cast that also includes Shelby Noble, Gage Crawford, Andrew Clark, Holly Fougere, Jason Fougere, Marshall Allen, Reid Clark and Erika McCarthy. I can't possibly praise everyone individually, but there isn't a weak person in the cast. Perhaps that's because the actor just had one scene to work on and polish until it shined.

Whether you have a loved one or you're a hardened cynical single, “Almost, Maine” should sufficiently warm your heart. Performance dates are Feb. 5, 6, 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees on Feb. 7 and 14 at 1 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens. For more information visit