Friday, March 26, 2010

Catch some 'disco' fever with Arts in Motion

Kennett Drama and Arts in Motion travel back in time for “Disco Inferno,” a bright, light and altogether goofy stringing together of hits from the 1970s.

Like “Mamma Mia” and “We Will Rock You,” “Disco Inferno,” which continues at the Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway March 26 and 27 at 7 p.m., is a show that brings together a collection of unrelated songs. The plot is secondary to the music.

Set in 1976, the shows chronicles the rise and fall of Jack (Rafe Matregrano), a would-be singer who works at a disco. He makes a pact with Lady Marmalade (Hanna Paven), an associate of the devil, and soon becomes famous and rich, but, naturally, at the cost of his personal life.

Quick side note about the script. Writer Justin Sepple includes songs that were written after 1976, which in nearly all cases could've been fixed by setting the show in 1978. I know it is silly to expect historical accuracies in a show called “Disco Inferno,” but the laziness of Sepple still irks me. A joke about Ringo Starr with a reference to something from the 1980s was particularly irksome.

Clearly, not every audience member is going to notice or care about such details. I'm a geek and these sort of things bother me, but not enough to ruin the enjoyability of director Glenn Noble's production, which while overlong is a lot of fun.

"Disco Inferno" is essentially 1970s karaoke, but, for the most part, it is good karaoke. This isn't embarrassing, laughable drunken karaoke, but rather the kind where you pull the person aside afterward and say: "Wow, that was really great. Have you ever thought about going on 'American Idol?'"

And Simon would've been proud of Shannon Reville who absolutely nails "I Will Survive." Reville, who also did the show's choreography, plays Jack's girlfriend. Matregrano and Reville have a sweet chemistry together that shines on songs like “Don't Give Up on Me Baby.”

Paven is another stand out belting out a sultry version of “Hot Stuff” and later joining Hayley Szekely for a lively rendition of “Pop Muzick.”

Jamie McDonough gives an entertaining performance as Kathy, a girl with a tough shell, but a soft inside. She only has one song, “Streetlife,” but she makes it memorable.

Kevin Ahearn as Jack's awkward best friend provides solid comic relief, particularly in a scene that flashes back to the day The Beatles broke up. Ahearn's attempts to woo the girl that will later become his girlfriend (Shelby Noble) fail miserably as he keeps accidentally referencing Beatles songs.

At the center, holding the show together, is Matregrano, a charismatic performer with vocal abilities that match or even surpass his acting abilities. “Instant Replay” is particularly memorable as is “Disco Inferno,” “Play That Funky Music White Boy” and “Starman,” in which Matregrano accompanies himself on acoustic guitar.

This is undemanding, light entertainment that doesn't pretend to be anything more. It also proves to be an impressive showcase for young local talent.

For more information or to purchase tickets visit

'Repo Men' wastes promising premise

With the passing of the health care reform bill, the futuristic thriller “Repo Men” is a film that has become a film of the moment. In its own gory, action-filled way, the film makes a very valid case for health care reform.

Set in a future where health care for profit has run wild, “Repo Men” starts out as a sharply observed satire, and, like the best satire, it takes a seemingly innocent idea and plays it out to its logical extreme. If a repo man can repossess your home or your car for being overdue on payments, couldn't he also repossess prosthetic organs too? That's premise at the core of “Repo Men.”

Jude Law stars as Remy, who along with his long-time pal Jake (Forest Whitaker), works for a company that sells expensive artificial organs to costumers who can't afford them. If a costumer fails to make a payment after 90 days, Remy, Jake or one of the company's other repo men will break into their home and quite literally rip the organ out of their body.

It is grim, grisly stuff and it is presented with a cold, cynical detachment that is both darkly comic and disturbing. Liev Schreiber as Remy and Jake's boss is a perfectly slimy salesman who helps to sell the film's artificial organs as well as the satire of Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner's script.

Law has a great scene with RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan as a musician with an artificial heart that Law must repossess. Law is a fan and is asked to help RZA finish what will be his final song. There is a poignancy to the scene as RZA accepts his death as if Law is the Grim Reaper.

Things go awry with the repossession and results in Law getting his own expensive artificial heart. Not only has he lost his heart, but the stomach for his work. When he gets behind on his payments he decides to take down the whole system.
This is a turning point for the film. Everything that follows is in step with a more formulaic sci-fi action film. The film still entertains, but it feels less fresh and more familiar. The arc of Law's character is a sci-fi standard, which was most recently seen in “Minority Report.”

Using a well-worn plot is not the death of a film. It isn't the destination, but how you get there that counts. Luckily, there are just enough quirky pit stops to keep this journey interesting. One such offbeat touch involves a 9 year old performing knee surgery. It is such a gloriously unexpected moment that you wish there were more like it instead of tired scenes involving Law's wife (Carice van Houten) and his new lover (Alice Braga).

Miguel Sapochnik's direction is competent and he handles the “Matrix”-style action scenes late in the film well. There is a nice mood, but too often the film feels like a car commercial for Volkswagen.

When things go slack, you still have Law and Whitaker, both top actors, making the material work even when it is losing some strength. Their camaraderie feels authentic and you sense they are genuinely friends. When Law goes rogue, the conflict that strains their friendships adds some real dramatic tension.

"Repo Men" is a movie that is good enough entertainment. It isn't a bad time, but it is a film that started out with potential it didn't quite live up to. Certainly worth a look if you're a fan of the genre or the leads, but it won't win over non-fans.

Friday, March 19, 2010

'Green Zone' delivers politically-minded action

Movies about the Iraq War haven't exactly been the path to box office gold. “Green Zone” is a big budget Iraq War film and the subject matter still remains a tough sell. Even “The Hurt Locker,” the recent Best Picture winner, only made
$15.7 million during its theatrical run, which in actuality is a modest success considering its small budget and limited release.

With a budget of $100 million, “Green Zone” has only made $16.8 million in its first week. At least the film is on its way to making its money back, but, as with previous films tackling the subject, “Green Zone” is more about making a statement than making a buck. Kudos to Universal for backing it.

This marks the third collaboration between Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, the director of the last two films in the “Bourne” series. The marketing of the film would lead you to believe this is essentially Jason Bourne in Iraq, but that is really a misnomer. Greengrass' kinetic, visceral, raw style of action is still present, but while it was front and center in the “Bourne” films, it takes a back seat to politics in “Green Zone.”

Oh, there's plenty of action: foot chases, gun fights, explosions, etc., but there also questions raised about the very reasons of the war. Some will be quick to dismiss the film as a heavy-handed liberal propaganda piece, but the film deals with some well documented truths. It is how those truths are presented that may rub some people the wrong way.

Set in 2003, the film focuses on the search for weapons of mass destruction, the reason for the United States' military presence in Iraq. Damon stars as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who is seemingly the only soldier frustrated by the fact that every site they raid in search of WMDs turns up empty and with zero evidence of weapons ever being there.

Miller begins his own search for the truth to who is providing the dodgy intel and uncovers a web of lies, deceit and cover-up. During his personal mission, he find allies in CIA man Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) and journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) and an enemy in Pentagon intelligence officer Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who will do anything to protect the truth.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," simplifies everything by making each character represent a larger group of people in reality.

Damon's Miller stands for anyone who questioned the search WMDs, but it is extremely unlikely one soldier did the things he does. Ryan's journalist represents all journalists who unquestioningly reported what they were given. Kinnear's Poundstone is basically a stand-in for the entire Bush administration. Streamlining this big issue down to a a few players makes it easier to present as a palatable action film.

The film doesn't dumb down, though. There are good and bad guys within the U.S. Army, and good and guys in Iraq. The film strives not to make the idea of hero and villain black and white. Miller is given a tip by an Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) who becomes an important part of the plot.

Freddy's frustration is that he is automatically assumed to be the enemy and constantly must prove his loyalty. He is a man who loves his country and just wants what's best for it. In many ways he is the most interesting character in the film and helps to put a very human face to the story.

The acting throughout is strong. The ever-versatile Damon has mastered this sort of stoic minimalism. He face is hardened into the expressionless mask of a soldier, but it isn't a hollow performance if only because Damon has developed such a powerful command of the screen that makes it easy to almost instantly identify with him.

“Green Zone” works as both an action film and as a film that questions the reasons behind the Iraq War. Could a film have been made that chronicled the shadiness involving WMDs in a more intricate and complex way? Yes, and there are documentaries that have those details, but by squeezing these ideas into an action film, the issues may find a wider audience. It isn't a perfect melding of pop entertainment with loftier ideals, but it is a worthy attempt at something more than just a mindless action film.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Burton in 'Wonderland'

The twisted mind of Tim Burton has taken on the equally warped mind of Lewis Carroll in the latest Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland.” The pairing is a good fit, and this is a visually impressive take on the familiar story.

Burton was an animator for Disney in the early 1980s, but they didn't see eye to eye. After movies like “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” made him a superstar, Disney lured him back by allowing him to make his dream project: “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” After he made the critically-acclaimed, but box office dud “Ed Wood,” Disney moved on again.

So, now Burton and Disney are together again and Disney must be very pleased indeed. The movie made $116 million its opening weekend, which is an unheard-of number for a spring release. Some will claim this was a sell-out move on Burton's part, but I say more power to him for getting Disney to front the $200 million bill for this loopy adaptation of Carroll's beloved books.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King”) freely blend elements of “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” with “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” with a new framing device and central story.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now nearly 20 and only recalls her last visit to Wonderland (or Underland) as a nightmarish dream.
Her mother wants to marry her off to a wealthy fop who wants to repress Alice's whimsical mind that is full of strange, seemingly mad thoughts. When Alice gets a glimpse of the White Rabbit, it is down the rabbit hole once again.

Underland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and a prophecy says it is Alice who will slay the queen's dragon-like Jabberwocky and restore the throne to the goofy, but good White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice has lost her “muchness,” as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) tells her, and the movie is about her becoming much more mucher.

Burton is well aware of how iconic all these characters are and dispenses with lengthy introductions. It may be confusing for little children or for those who have managed to have zero exposure to the story, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Carroll's world is supposed to be slightly off-kilter.

This is very much a straightforward Disney fantasy adventure in terms of its plotting, but it is the vivid art direction and odd flavorings that Burton adds that give the film a personality that is distinctly his own.
Working with Depp for the seventh time, the duo have created a fittingly bizarre characterization of the Mad Hatter. Under

Burton, Depp goes out on huge acting limbs that sometimes don't always work, but his Mad Hatter is a wonderful creation. At times a lisping fool, his madness sometimes materializes into genuine anger towards the Red Queen. There is also a come- and-go Scottish bourque that is quite amusing.

Bonham Carter is appropriately menacing as the Red Queen and adds lots of idiosyncratic touches in her line deliver, but those familiar with her work in the TV movie “Merlin” will recognize that she's doing a riff on the villainy that she portrayed in that film.

Wasikowska is quite effective as Alice and an engaging lead. She has a way of being completely sincere and believable when surrounded by all these special effects. She makes you care about Alice's struggle to be who she really is.

There is also excellent voice work from Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Timothy Spall as the dog Bayard and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit. Matt Lucas (“Little Britain”) is transformed into both Tweedledum and Tweedledee and has some of the movie's best laughs.

This “Alice in Wonderland” isn't a mind-blowing experince, but it is dark, weird and comic in unexpected ways. It is visually stimulating throughout and, thanks to the performances, always engaging.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Actors 'Bare' all in pop opera

Growing up is never easy. Adding the judging eyes and ears of a Catholic school only makes it worse. “Bare: The Pop Opera,” which opens Thursday, March 11, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. knows this all too well.

Following on the heels of M&D Productions' youth musical productions like “Godspell” and “Footloose,” “Bare” is perhaps the most ambitious show the company has attempted with a largely high-school-age cast. The students in the cast reach the higher bar that director Ken Martin has set for them.

“Bare” revolves around the story of Jason (Billy Cavanaugh) and Peter (Kyle Mulcahy), two gay teenagers struggling with understanding and accepting their feelings. Peter doesn't want to keep it a secret anymore, but Jason fears the repercussions of letting the world know. When Ivy (Courtney Phelps) falls in love with Jason it becomes a chance for so-called normalcy.

Although the show has the ongoing debate of sexuality and the Christian faith at its center, the emotions this struggle creates are universal to the experience of growing up. The show's book by John Hartmere and Damon Intabartolo knowingly remembers and re-creates the teen angst of not knowing one's place and the desire to belong and be understood. The characters in “Bare” battle with being true to themselves even as they try to find out who that self is.

Yes, this is an opera in the sense that nearly every line is sung, but the music is not that of a traditional opera. This is very much based in the traditions of pop music with influences from Motown. The show features 36 songs. This would be a daunting task for trained professionals, let alone young performers who are still learning. Musical director Tracy Gardner worked extensively with the cast and has got them to an impressively high level of performance.

The leads are very strong. Mulcahy so badly wanted to play this role that he has been commuting three hours one-way from Franklin Pierce University to play Peter. His passion and commitment to the role absolutely comes across in every moment he is on stage. He isn't afraid to be open and vulnerable especially on songs like “Role of a Lifetime” and “Ever After.”

Cavanaugh, who, as the program notes, had only ever sung in his bathroom, very nearly matches Mulcahy. He makes Jason's struggle with his identity feel authentic. The perfect straight act that Jason presents begins to crumble and Cavanaugh plays that conflict well.

Phelps, who last year was the female lead in “Footloose,” has taken a massive step forward as a singer and has several powerhouse moments. She is particularly strong on “All Grown Up," where she taps into painful, raw emotions.

Jessica Pappalardo as Jason's sarcastic loner sister gets some of the best lines in a show that is full of funny lyrics that range from clever to crass. In songs like “Plain Jane Fat Ass," she gets the snarky self-deprecation just right.

Rae McCarey get the juicy role of Sister Chantelle and plays her to the hilt as a tough soul sister. In a dream sequence she comes out as a Mother Mary who is more likely to be on her way to Vegas than Bethlehem. McCarey, flanked by a couple of angel backup singers (Amy-Nicole Smullen and Janette Kondrat), belts out the showstopping “911! Emergency.” She also shines on “God Don't Make No Trash.”

Other highlights include Kelly Karuzis, as Peter's mother, delivering the heartbreaking “Warning,” and Ged Owen, as the student drug connection, performing an amusing rap.

This is a show that will have you laughing heartily one moment and dabbing away tears the next. This is a Kleenex show, for sure, but it is also one that earns every single tear.

Tickets are $15. For reservations call 662-7591.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Oscars just got bigger

Sunday night the 82nd annual Academy Awards are airing at 8 p.m. on ABC, but this year the notoriously long award ceremony is going to be a little different. This year the Best Picture category has been expanded from five to 10.

It is a curious decision, especially when paired with the choice to have two hosts, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. There have been two hosts in the past, but it just seems like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided since they were doubling things they should also double the hosting duties.

Many reasons have been batted around as to why the category was expanded. The change could be an attempt to return the show to its roots. Up until 1943 the best picture category featured 10 films. It could be possible that the academy is attempting to honor that tradition.

The more cynical interpretation of this move is that it is motivated by ratings. The academy has been struggling for years to keep a balance between nominating quality commercial films that mainstream audiences will be familiar with alongside art house and independent cinema that the general moviegoer may not be familiar with. By expanding the category by five, there can be an even split between the two groups. In theory more people will watch with more familiar titles nominated.

This struggle between commercial films and art films goes back for decades. If we dig further back in Academy Award history we will discover that not one, but two Best Picture awards were given out at the first ceremony in 1929. “Wings” won Most Outstanding Production and “Sunrise” won Most Artistic Quality of Production. Essentially, this comes down to best film as a spectacle and best film as art.

If we are bringing back old ideas, this seems like one that should have been dusted off as well. Both big-budget commercial films and art films when done well are equally valid and both should be honored. It certainly would be helpful this year.

Easily the most spectacular, visually stimulating film of 2009 was “Avatar,” a film that is an extraordinary technical achievement. I'm not sure it is the best film of the year, but it certainly would be a lock for a Most Outstanding Production award. This would then make way for a movie like “Precious,” “Up in the Air” or “A Serious Man” to take the Most Artistic Quality of Production.

The reason the two separate Best Pictures categories were probably tossed out in the first place is that you inevitably encounter gray areas. Just look at this year's nominees for evidence. “The Hurt Locker” and “District 9” can be viewed on a purely surface level as rousing spectacles, but there's a second level to these films that raises them to artistic achievements.

Of course, we only have the one category, which means that we will mostly likely get a repeat of “Titanic,” the last film “Avatar” director James Cameron directed. Everything else reeks of deja vu. “Avatar,” just like “Titanic” before it, is the most expensive film made to date and has gone on to become the highest grossing film of all time at $2.5 billion worldwide.

When Cameron won Best Picture for “Titanic” in 1998 he proclaimed himself the king of the world. Chances are come Sunday he'll still reign supreme. But I'm hoping for an upset. I'm on team “Hurt Locker.”