Monday, June 28, 2010

Film lovers and guides: A case for the film critic

In the July 2010 issue of Vanity Fair Jeff Wolcott wrote a piece entitled “Cinema Purgatorio” about the nationwide trend of film critics being fired or as the article's subtitle puts it: “A threatened species, film critics have been bemoaning lost jobs and vanishing outlets. Andrew O'Hehir's Salon smackdown of his colleagues fuels a debate over whether professional movie reviewing should exist at all.”

Small papers across the country have been letting go of their film writers, but even the veterans at some of the nation's heavy hitters are no longer safe. Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer, Todd McCarthy of Variety, David Ansen at Newsweek and Mike Clark of USA Today have all been — as the English would say — made redundant. On TV, “At the Movies,” the industry changing program created by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, will be canceled as of Aug. 14.

So, are film critics no longer wanted or needed? Or is it just a sign of the recession? In a bid to trim budgets, are newspapers and magazines, much like schools, cutting the arts first?

Toby Young wrote in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” his memoir about his disastrous tenure at Vanity Fair, that it is glossy magazines like Vanity Fair that say what's in and what's out. It isn't so much that they set the trends, but by spotlighting things they make them events. As Young puts it: “If Keith Richards falls over in a pub and there are no journalists around to witness it, did it really happen?”

Young was writing about the power of Vanity Fair in the economically booming mid-1990s, now is a very a different time and the journalism world is taking just as much of a hit by the recession as other industries.

But if Young's theory that "the New York glossy posse are the Sybils everyone listens to,” still remains true then the fact that Vanity Fair is addressing this trend is a big deal. The journalist did in fact see Keith Richards fall off his stool.

Here though we have an interesting case of journalists covering other journalists. The critics have turned onto each other. Wolcott's piece is heavy on quotes from other critics, who are in turn often commenting on other writers. So, now I'm going to add to this on-going cycle of commentary. After all, that's what the world of criticism should be: an on-going discourse. When I or anyone else writes a review it isn't the be-all-end-all but one more voice in the greater discussion. There is a give and take not just with the art itself, but with other critics and the readership as well.

Which is what is so distressing about the reaction of many of the critics cited in Wolcott's article, particularly Salon's O'Hehir who bluntly told his colleagues to “shut up” and stop whining about the loss of their jobs. He may have a point, but there's a kinder way to tell people to pull themselves up and move on.

Time magazine's Richard Schickel outdoes O'Henir in terms of spewing bile. On a panel discussing Boston Phoenix columnist Gerald Peary’s documentary, “For the Love of Movies,” which looks at the craft of film criticism, Schickel said: “Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do? I don’t know honestly the function of reviewing anything.” Harsh words coming from someone who is paid to give his opinion about movies.

The reason so many people choose to write about film, or any art for that matter, is right in the title of Peary's film: it is out of love. When someone becomes a critic, for the right reasons, it is not about tearing down other people's art, but rather sharing the joy of discovering a piece of good or great art. If their criticisms of work they deem unworthy are at times harsh it is because they are let down that the piece didn't meet its potential. Writers like A.O. Scott, of the New York Times, and Michael Philips, of the Chicago Tribune, have this mentality. In their writing and as the hosts of “At the Movies” for its remaining months you can see their genuine passion and love for cinema.

Of course, there's always that on-going debate that critics are out of touch with the tastes of the general audience. The accusation is that critics always heap high praise on films with a narrow audience and slam films with broad appeal. While critics do often champion high brow films, they also praise quality mainstream films. Their standards just tend to be a bit higher, simply from having seen so many more films than the average filmgoer.

At the end of the day, this is all opinion. A critic's opinion is no better or worse than the average viewer's, it is merely a more educated one. The more you read a particular critic the more weight you give their opinion. You may not necessarily agree with them all the time, but if you're a loyal reader than you'll know where your tastes differ, which goes back to the idea of criticism being a discussion. A critic is just a guide trying to point you to good films and away from bad films, especially since some people rarely make a trip to a movie theater. When you do go, a good critic wants to make sure you have a good time. That's their ultimate function.

As someone striving to be a film critic, I hope this isn't the death knell of a profession I adore. Twitter, blogging, YouTube, Facebook and other forms of social networking have given everyone a platform in which to share their opinion. Thanks to Twitter those opinions are instant and 140 characters long. Is this film criticism's Achilles' heel? A whole generation is growing up wanting everything short and instantaneous. It is a time of transition. The worlds of print, broadcast and online are mingling and combining and at this junction it is unclear what will come out in the end. Does the long form review have a place in this new world? I think so. I hope so.

Friday, June 25, 2010

'Toy Story 3' is full of laughs, thrills and heart

Each summer we get a barrage of new big budget entertainments, some are good, even great, and some are just plain awful. Throughout it all though, one name remains a consistent source of quality entertainment: Pixar. It started 15 years ago with “Toy Story” and now all our favorite characters are back for a third adventure together.

A lot of sequels — let's face it, most sequels — are cheap cash-ins that hope to bring up more wealth before the well goes dry. Make no mistake about it, “Toy Story 3” will make buckets of money, and already has with a $109 million opening weekend take, but this is a film that equals its wonderful predecessors with an ideal blend of laughs, thrills and pathos.

The original “Toy Story” asked a simple question: What would our toys be like if they came to life when we weren't looking? The second film deepened the theme by asking: How do our toys feel when they are no longer needed or wanted? This new film further explores that theme when the toys' beloved owner Andy packs up to go off to college, leaving behind all his childish playthings.

In spite of the protests of leader Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks), Andy's toys think they have the solution to their abandonment issues: get donated to the Sunnyside Daycare Center where there will be a never-ending supply of children to play with them.

Things aren't so sunny, though, at the daycare which is run by a deceptively cheery strawberry-scented bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Lotso sends Andy's toys to the toddler room where kids play rough and it becomes all too clear to the gang that their new home is a prison.

The latter half of the film becomes a parody of prison break movies that is rather ingenious and inventive, especially the way Mr. Potato is utilized. This escape sequence is thrilling, funny and even a little frightening as the toys are put into genuine peril. It is no spoiler to say they make it out, but there's a moment where it is unclear how.

All the major characters have returned including Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark replacing the late Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggie bank (John Ratzenberger) and Barbie (Jodi Benson).

There are also lots of new characters often with too little screen time. Several big-name actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Bonnie Hunt provide only a few lines of dialogue to their characters. This is somewhat disappointing, but on the other hand if too much time was given over to introducing all these new characters in greater detail the film would've become overly bloated and unwieldy.

Beatty's Lotso is an effectively bitter villain, although his character follows similar beats to Stinky Pete from “Toy Story 2.” Of the new characters, it is Michael Keaton as Ken that really steals the show. His courtship with Barbie and his protests that he isn't a “girl toy” are some of the movie's biggest laughs. Timothy Dalton also scores as a hedgehog stuffed animal with serious acting aspirations.

For the first half or so, the film is merely an extremely well-crafted comedic adventure with a collection of old friends, but that is just the set up. Towards the end things become darker, richer and more interesting. The script by Michael Arndt keeps finding unexpected ideas, jokes and emotions. A development with Buzz is too juicy to reveal, but it is absolutely hilarious. As with
Arndt's “Little Miss Sunshine,” he manages to work within a formula and against it at the same time.

The conclusion, which unites the toys with Andy, finds the perfect way to wrap this story up. In quiet pauses and in the way Andy talks about his toys with great affection, there's a exploration of the relationship we have with our things that is done with a lot of grace. Sure, the things we buy are just inanimate objects, but we attach meaning to them and project emotions and memories onto them.

For a generation that grew up watching these films, the end will make their hearts swell. The final scenes are so sweet, so tender and carry a surprising emotional weight. You will leave the theater with a completely satisfied grin.

Friday, June 18, 2010

New 'Karate Kid' surprisingly worthy

In 1984, “The Karate Kid” was about a New Jersey kid moving to California and being beset by bullies until a kindly Japanese man trained him in karate. In the 2010 version we have a Detroit kid sent off to China, but bullying is clearly an international language. All jokes aside about how everything today is made in China, this is a surprisingly worthy remake.

In actuality this is “The Kung Fu Kid,” which was the original working title, but then that defeats the purpose of the film's existence in the first place: name association. Right now, Hollywood is all about the idea of pre-awareness. “The Karate Kid” is a fondly remembered film with a built-in audience. If today's kids haven't seen the original, their parents certainly have.

The other raison d'ĂȘtre for this film is to be a vehicle for Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who are both producers on the film. His casting is a blatant example of nepotism and the film was tailor made for him.

With the cynical rant out of the way, it can be said that the film is engaging in spite of or perhaps because of its well-worn formula. There are qualifiers to this recommendation, though.

Smith is slightly above adequate as the lead. He isn't bad, but he isn't great either. He has a definite screen presence, and the physical abilities he achieves are quite impressive. The martial arts on display in this film are far more advanced than anything in the original.

There is a chemistry between Smith and Jackie Chan as his mentor and Smith has some cute romantic scenes with Wenwen Han. He is best when he relaxes and has someone to play off of, but too often he plays everything with a dead-pan seriousness.
In early scenes he comes off as too whiny and not particularly likeable, which was also true of his work in the remake of “The Day Earth Stood Still.” He is improving as an actor, though, and doesn't sink the film by any means.

With a running time of two hours and 20 minutes, the film is a bit too long. Most of the padding comes for showcasing China,
which brings us to the third reason the film exists: to be a PR piece for modern China. But the Chinese setting is also one of the film's saving graces. It helps justify remaking the original by giving the film a new flavor. Plus the locations are beautiful shot by cinematographer Roger Pratt.

What ultimately makes this film work is the fantastic performance by Chan as Mr. Han. Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi was the heart of the original film and he brought a real sense of wisdom, humor and warmth to a character that could have been merely caricature. Chan also provides these qualities to the new film.

This is Chan's best performance in an English language film. In the start of his career he played things broad and comedic and created a style of film fighting all his own. Now in his 50s, Chan has had to mellow slightly, and here he shows a more serious side. This is perhaps his most nuanced and even soulful work on film. He may even make you cry during the drunken scene where, like with Mr. Miyagi in the original, we learn why he pulled away from society.

Taraji P. Henson, so wonderful as the mother in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” once again takes on the role of mom, but here the job is much more thankless. It is to Henson's credit as an actor that she brings at least some substance and wit to an underwritten role.

The film inevitably ends with a kung-fu tournament, in which Smith's Dre fights his tormentors and seeks respect and balance in life. Although the conclusion is foregone and follows the same rhymes of it predecessor, right down to the final fight, the tournament sequence still excites.

When a formula is done well, you almost can't help but get sucked in. As much as you may try resist it, this new “Karate Kid” will get its hooks in you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Devo returns with 'Something for Everybody'

The other day, by means I cannot disclose, I got a hold of Devo's first new album in 20 years, “Something for Everybody,” two days early. I shared my enthusiasm with an acquaintance via instant messaging and got: "Who is Devo?" Inevitably, two words clued this person in: “Whip It.” This is fine, I realize to the general public Devo is just a one-hit wonder. So, while I can excuse not knowing Devo, I cannot forgive the next exchange. When I said Devo was an acquired taste, I was informed that it was one acquired by “awkward teens in the 1980s and 1990s.” I took great offense to this. After all, I acquired my taste for Devo in my 20s.

To the casual listener, Devo seems like nothing more than a novelty act interchangeable with a dozen other New Wavers. Devo actually sprung out of the art rock and punk scene of the mid-late 1970s. Thanks to the advocacy of David Bowie and Iggy Pop they were able to score a record deal. Their pioneering use of synthesizers and digital noise and sound effects helped pave the way for New Wave, techno and electronica.

Devo's impact can be heard throughout pop songs currently on the airwaves from Gorillaz to Lady Gaga. The 1980s sound that Devo helped create has been making a resurgence for several years that seems to be cresting. If there was a time for Devo to make a comeback album than this is it.

There is nothing really new on “Something For Everybody” and, yet, the album isn't stale. Too often when a band produces a new album for the first time in decades it seems like nothing more than a shameless cash grab or the material just isn't up to snuff. That is not the case here. Devo's original spark and magic is still very much present.

The lead off single “Fresh” is aptly named and is quintessential Devo. With an instantly infectious lead guitar part provided by Bob Mothersbaugh, driving drums, the band's signature use of synth and Mark Mothersbaugh's idiosyncratic vocals it deserves to stand along side Devo's best.

Some are likely to complain that a lot of the beats, riffs and digital effects have been heard on previous albums and that the band is merely reshuffling and repackaging their catalogue. On some songs this feels more apparent. The opening to “Sumthin'” sounds awfully similar to “Whip It” even down to the whip sound effects. Yet, the songs still remain so catchy, ear-worming their way into your mind, that it is hard to complain.

Devo seem to be aware of this possible complaint and directly address it on “What We Do” which features the cheeky lyric: “What we do/Is what we do/It's all the same/It's nothing new.” The lyric also doubles as a satirical commentary in the tradition of the de-evolution themes that spawned their name. Later in the song, the lyrics address a never-ending cycle of consumerism: “Being breathing pumping gas/Cheese burger cheese burger/Do it again.”

I've always found that at least some of Devo's songs are partially influenced by 1950s pop, girl groups and rockabilly, particularly the songs from “Freedom of Choice.” That tradition of echoing the 1950s, albeit filtered through Devo's electronic formula, is continued here on “Please Baby Please” which even including some “whoa-os.”

“Mind Games” is a typically bitter, cynical take on love that features such biting lyrics as “If you think black is black
/And white is white/ Open up your eyes /And get it right.” Naturally, the lyrics are effectively put into direct juxtaposition with catchy, upbeat music.

“No Place Like Home,” with its use of piano and string arrangements, is perhaps the most surprising moment on the album. Fear not, Devo hasn't entered the realm of sappy ballads. The piano and strings are seamless integrated with Devo's familiar guitar and synth template and add an emotional weight to the song's lyrics which address our impact on the planet.

Throughout the album, the band sounds tight and vocally Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale don't sound like they've aged a bit. The guitars, which became less prominent and eventually disappeared as the band got deeper into the 1980s, are back in a big way. This a good union between the synth heavy side of Devo and the punkier sound of early Devo. The songs may no longer be groundbreaking, but they remain solidly entertaining. Basically, Devo is back.

Friday, June 11, 2010

'Greek' is a very funny, character driven comedy

On paper, “Get Him to the Greek” sounds like a calculating money grab. The film takes a supporting character from the moderate hit “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and spins him off into his own film. Hollywood loves a sequel, even just a sort of sequel, and name association matters more than quality, but low and behold the return of Aldous Snow is a hilariously worthy one.

Although “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has a following, for many this will be the first introduction to British comedian-turned-actor Russell Brand's Aldous Snow. This is fine as this new film is completely self-contained.

Aldous is a bundle of hard-partying and hard-drinking rock 'n' roll cliches. In a bid to stir up revenue in a struggling music industry, a record label head (Sean “Diddy” Combs) sends one of his flunkies (Jonah Hill, who, in an odd decision, is playing a different character than the one he played in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) to bring Aldous from London to Los Angeles for a 10th anniversary concert at The Greek venue.

For Hill's Aaron, this is a big break and it seems like an easy enough gig, but Aldous draws Aaron into his rock-star lifestyle leading to a long line of delays that nearly causes them to miss the big concert date. That's pretty much it in terms of the plot, but the film is more than what it seems.

The trailer makes it look like nothing more than a string of wild party scenes, but half the gags in the trailer aren't even in the film. There are plenty of wild, crude and outrageous comedic situations, but there's also a surprising amount of character development.

“Get Him to the Greek” is the latest film to come from the Judd Apatow stable. Whether as a writer, producer or director, his name has been associated with some of the biggest comedies of the last five years or so including “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” The formula is simple: raunchy, low-brow humor paired with heart. What is so unexpected is the amount of sweetness that is found in this rock 'n' roll tale.

Apatow is in the producer role this time with Nicholas Stoller (who also directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) writing and directing. Stoller, like so many of the actors and writers that Apatow surrounds himself with, has a keen sense of warped, anything-goes sense of humor paired with an ability to create genuine, human characters.

That combination is most evident in a detour to Las Vegas to see Aldous' father (Colm Meaney), a back-up musician for a Rat Pack cover band. There's father-son bonding mixed with an uneasy tension that is both comedic and that oddly carries a certain amount of dramatic truth. The film never gets too weighed down in heavy emotions, and this sequence takes a glorious turn for the weird when Combs' Sergio shows up to get Aldous and Aaron back on track.

Brand and Hill have a real comic chemistry together and they make this material work. There's also a clear sense of the two bonding and becoming friends. That connection is what grounds the film and makes it more than just another dumb comedy.

Although he is essentially playing a variation of his real-life persona, Brand is actually quite good. He can act, sure, thus far, he can only play one thing, but few people can even do that. He has a distinct screen presence and not only can deliver a comedic line, but when required, he can handle emotional moments well. Brand is set to star in a remake of the Dudley Moore movie “Arthur,” and, based on his work here, that seems like a good fit.

Hill, who in films like “Superbad” had a more maniac persona, dials down his broader comedic tendencies to give a more low-key and amicable performance. He makes an ideal foil for Brand. Combs, who does actually own a record label in real life, has fun lampooning the music industry and his own persona. The man has comic timing and steals several scenes.

The music in film is lyrically very amusing, but musically not bad and Brand is believable as a rock star. There are some authentic-looking parodies of music that are also on target — particularly those featuring Rose Byrne as Aldous' pop star ex-girlfriend Jackie Q.

“Get Him to the Greek” is raunchy to be sure, but stick with it because it is also truly funny and features characters worth getting to know.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fryeburg Academy graduate Rebecca Howland hits the big screen in 'Witch Way'

Rebecca Howland, a 2002 graduate of Fryeburg Academy, is a sunny, outgoing person — not that you'd know this from her latest acting job in the film “Witch Way,” which is having its premiere Sunday, June 13, at 2 p.m. at the Red River Theater in Concord, N.H.

“I would describe her [my character] as awkward and anti-social,” Howland said. “I've always had friends, and she is a character who never had any.”

In “Witch Way” a group of college students have their minds set on solving the 100-year-old mystery of the Clifton witch and of the supposed curse she left behind. Howland's Danielle has access to the haunted estate in question.

“Everyone on the set believed she was like her character because she stayed in the character the whole making of the film,” said Mary Wicca, the director of the film.
“She really got into the method acting, which really gave her some amazing creep out scenes.”

Of course this level of commitment did have its downside too.

“She isolated and she felt bad,” said Wicca. “She got her feelings hurt because they didn't include her in some things because they thought that's how she really was.”

Howland, who currently lives in Concord, admits that at times it was a depressing process, but ultimately she enjoys playing different types of characters and exploring different emotions.

“I always describe acting as therapy,” Howland said. “We've all had times where we feel lonely and I just played that up and it forced me to deal with those emotions.”

The movie is officially opening in October and will be shown at the Flagship Theater cinema chain as well as at some affiliated theaters. This distribution deal was established before the film was even made and was the impetus behind the making of the film.

“The film was inspired by a friend of mine who owns a chain of theaters who was telling me about a screenplay he was writing and I was in the middle of writing a book,” Wicca said. “I put my book on hold because I asked him, 'If I make a film will you play it your theaters?' And he said, 'Absolutely.' So, I got cracking on it.”

Wicca based the film on true events surrounding a haunted house she grew up in. She visited a nearby graveyard and did research on who was doing the haunting.

“I kind of took the story of the two people that haunted the place and fictionalized and blew it up with exaggeration and made a really interesting story,” Wicca said.

Wicca structured the script in such way that there was not much scripted dialogue. Throughout the production there were secrets she gave to the actors to deploy at certain times to get naturalistic reactions from her cast.

“They had a basic script, a basic storyline,” Wicca said. “I didn't want anyone memorizing lines or force acting, so what I did was I gave them a lot of freedom to do a lot of improv.”

For Howland, this chance to improvise within a character was an exciting opportunity.

“I thought it was actually pretty cool,” Howland said. “Because I really like certain TV shows like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and 'It Is Always Sunny in Philadelphia' and stuff like that where it is not really scripted, so it was kind of exciting for me because you just get into your character and just go with it.”

Although Howland has always enjoyed acting, she did the so-called right thing and studied something more practical in college.

“My parents don't have a lot of money so I thought I would be responsible and go to school for something that I may have had better luck getting a job in,” Howland said.
“But I got out of college and, I hate to sound negative, but I saw people who literally had their GED getting jobs over me and getting paid more, so I though what the hell, you only live once. So I started auditioning for things.”

“Witch Way” is the fifth project and the fourth feature-length film Howland has been involved with, but in terms of the size of the film's red carpet premiere, the press coverage and the film's distribution this is the biggest project she's been involved with to date.

Howland became involved in the film the same way most of the cast did, through a listing on the classifieds Website Craigslist. The cast that came together formed lasting bonds and friendships.

“We all connect really well and we've all kept in touch,” Jeff Gabbard, one of the actors and the unofficial spokesperson for the film, said. I actually just worked on a FX pilot with [cast mates] Sarah Newcomb, Heidi Nicole and Ashley Caron.”

Gabbard, of Wakefield, N.H., and a former employee of the Black Bear Cafe in Ossipee, actual suggested that Newcomb join the cast of “Witch Way” after working with her previously on a short film.

“It is really nice in the small acting community in New England; a lot of us help each other out and tell each other when a good audition is coming up or a cool project and we try all to get on it together,” Newcomb, of Wolfeboro, N.H., said. “It is nice little community like that.”

“Witch Way” is the first film in a proposed trilogy, with Wicca and the cast all returning in the fall to begin work on the second film. Everyone involved hopes the first film will grab the attention of potential investors.

“We're really hoping with this movie people will be able to look at it and say, 'Well, this is what they could do with absolutely no budget,'” Howland said. “Because it came out pretty well for that fact that we pretty much had no budget and there wasn't very much experience in terms of everyone involved in it.”

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Friday, June 04, 2010

'Shrek Forever After' is thin, but still fun

Nearly a decade has passed since the first “Shrek” came out. It became the first film to win an Academy Award in the newly formed Best Animated Feature category — and for good reason, too. It was sharp, uproariously funny, imaginative and even at times tender. Now we have “Shrek Forever After,” the fourth installment of the series, and franchise fatigue is settling in.

This latest “Shrek” isn't bad, but at this point it is no longer fresh. The first film was a sly satire on fairy tale characters and of Disney's often sanitized versions of these dark tales. But now, four films into the series, the satirical world is accepted as its own universe and the lampooning is substantially duller. The first two films were consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Those moments of laughter are far fewer.

As the film opens, Shrek (Mike Myers), now a father of three, has become bored with family life and is yearning for the days when he was feared ogre. Enter Rumpelstiltskin (Walk Dohrn) who offers Shrek one day in his old life. Naturally, there is a tricky catch that thrusts Shrek into an alternate universe where he never existed and Rumpelstiltskin is tyrannical dictator. Shrek has
24 hours to figure out how to fix it or he'll cease to exist.

Yes, it is the old “It's a Wonderful Life” routine and while it is hardly an original twist, it does offer some unexpected moments. The opening scenes with Shrek and his family show how stale this franchise had become, so at least the alternate world offers some variation.

In this world Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is the hardened leader of the ogre resistance against Rumpelstiltskin. She wants nothing to do with Shrek and he must court her all over again. Some things never change, though, and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) almost instantly becomes Shrek's best friend again.

The funniest thing about this alternate world, and the film overall, is that Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), now Fiona's pet, has become pampered and fat. This leads to several great visual and verbal gags. Banderas' Puss in Boots is easily the best thing in the franchise at this point. This is supposedly the last in the series, but a Puss in Boots spin-off seems like a viable and worthy way to keep this money train moving forward.

Overall, the voice work remains solid. Myers is actually giving a genuine performance that makes the tired you-don't-know-what-you-have-until-you-lose-it theme work far better than it should. Murphy is still funny as Donkey, although he is let down by writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke who play the card that Donkey likes to sing far too much.

Diaz gets to have some fun being the tough leader type who is slowly softened by Shrek. Craig Robinson is nice new addition as the resistance's chef. He scores a few very big laughs.

The animation remains as impressive as ever, but on one occasion it is almost too good. There's a moment early in the film in which horses pulling a carriage look completely real. That level of realism is distracting, but it is an isolated moment. Mostly the film remains a bright, colorful universe.

Although this installment is not nearly as funny as its predecessors, a sincerity and tenderness that were always in the background have moved to the fore. Over time we have garnered a lot of affection toward Shrek, Donkey, Fiona and Puss in Boots, and that goodwill goes along way to keeping “Forever After” watchable.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

A 'streetcar' worth riding

M&D Productions is taking on a cultural icon with its production of Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which open tonight, June 3, at Your Theatre in North Conway, NH at 8 p.m. with additional dates June 4, 5, June 10-12 and June 17-19.

This is quite possibly M&D's biggest show to date, not in terms of scale, but in the expectations and pre-conceived notions that come along with the show, which remains one of the most famous in both American theater and cinema.

For a community theater to take on a show carrying such cultural weight is no small undertaking, but this cast under the assured direction of Richard Russo has pulled it off and managed to retain all of the complexities and power of Williams' masterpiece.
“Streetcar” is the tragic story of Blanche DuBois (Christine Thompson), who seeks sanctuary and solace with her sister Stella (Heather Elise Hamilton) in New Orleans.

Blanche, a fallen Southern Belle desperately trying to cling to an image of herself that may no longer exist, comes into direct conflict with Stella's blue collar husband Stanley Kowalski (Ryan Sturgis).

In talking about “Streetcar,” it is impossible to ignore the specter of the 1951 film version or, more specifically, Marlon Brando. Stanley Kowalski was one of Brando's first film roles and the one that made him a star. It still remains one of his signature performances and it is difficult to separate Stanley from Brando.

Sturgis tackles the difficult task of playing Stanley and captures all of the character's raw magnetism and explosive rage. He doesn't do Brando, but like Brando, he has a brooding, frightening intensity that is paired with the emotional maturity of a child. Stanley is smarter than he looks, though, and Sturgis silently finds those moments where Stanley's wheels are turning.

But this is really Blanche's story and her show. Thompson manages to get all the complex shading of her character, which director Russo refers to as the female Hamlet in terms of the emotional journey the character goes through.

Blanche has been wearing so many masks and facades that even she isn't really sure who she is and where the line between reality and fantasy is anymore. As the show progresses, that line becomes increasingly blurred. She is a character that is fragile and vulnerable, but also has tremendous strength. Thompson gets all of that and does so in a way that isn't false or shrill. She makes Blanche sympathetic and believable.

The structure of the show is one that offers Blanche hope in the form of one of
Stanley's poker buddies, Mitch (Adam Kee). Mitch is a sweet and awkward momma's boy who falls easily under Blanche's charms. Kee is very likable, and in his scenes of courtship with Thompson the show nearly enters the realm of lighthearted romantic comedy. Throughout it all, though, there is always a sense of danger from Stanley and from the secrets in Blanche's past.

In the middle of all this is Hamilton's Stella, who is forced to be a buffer between the clashing personalities of Stanley and Blanche. She is constantly jumping through hoops to keep both happy. Most of Hamilton's performance is reaction. Watch her face in the final scene to see how good she really is. She doesn't say a word and you know exactly what she feels.

In addition to the fine acting, the production's set and tech are equally top notch. The set designed by Deborah Jasien effectively recreates the cramped two-room apartment as well as the iconic stairs that Stanley stands below as he so famously screams “Stella!” Lighting design by Mark DeLancey captures the perfect mood for the sultry New Orleans settling, and jazz musical interludes reflect the atmosphere of the city.

For more information and tickets call 662-7591.