Friday, August 27, 2010

'Switch' is a better than average rom-com thanks to Bateman and Goldblum

“The Switch,” a straight-forward romantic comedy with a modern twist, isn't a groundbreaking film, but it is one with many small pleasures that add up to an appealing overall experience.

Although Jennifer Aniston gets top-billing as Kassie, a 40ish woman who turns to artificial insemination, this is really Jason Bateman's film. Bateman stars as Wally, Kassie's best friend who secretly yearns for more.

Wally is hurt when Kassie turns to a sperm donor named Roland (Patrick Wilson) rather than to him. He is a neurotic hypochondriac and she doesn't want those traits for her offspring. In a drunken stupor Wally switches his sperm in place of the donor's. Conveniently enough he blacks out and forgets the switcheroo.

Flash forward seven years and Wally meets Kassie's son (Thomas Robinson) and notices more than a few of his traits in him. The rest of the film is Wally getting up the nerve to tell Kassie the truth while at the same time dealing with the fact that she is now dating Roland.

The set-up is needlessly convoluted and the story follows what Roger Ebert calls an “idiot plot” in which everything could be resolved if the characters just talked, but then you wouldn't have a movie. Execution goes a long way to making an idiot plot palatable, and luckily the cast and directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck find ways to over come a sometimes clunky script.

Allan Loeb's screenplay, much like his script for “21,” is pure formula, but individual scenes and lines work and hold things together. The tone of the piece leans more toward comedy drama of something like Billy Wilder's “The Apartment” than the frantic, forced comedy of recent romantic comedies.

Bateman, a fantastic deadpan comedian, shows a more dramatic and sincere side that gives the film a strong center. His scenes with Robinson have unexpected tenderness and sweetness. Robinson's Sebastian collects frames, but keeps the photos that come with the frames. He creates stories for each photo. The scene in which he explains this to Bateman sneaks up on you and is surprisingly affecting.

The film's wildcard is Jeff Goldblum as Bateman's friend and boss. It is a throwaway role of the male lead's confidant, but Goldblum brings such gusto and panache that he nearly hijacks the movie. He has such a unique line delivery that he can even take standard dialogue and make it hilarious. Just watch how he works the not intrinsically funny line “that is ill-advised” for all it is worth.

Juliette Lewis has similar duty as Aniston's eccentric friend, and like Goldblum she was an energy all her own that helps to invigorate every scene she's in. Lewis and Goldblum are reminders of how good supporting actors can help take a movie from average to above average.
Their presence in scenes ups everyone's game.

Aniston is fine and knows know to deliver a barbed line, but she is more of a plot point than a character. The story requires her to have the kid and for Bateman to woo her and that's about it. It is a relief, though, that her character isn't made into a shrill, high-strung twit, an all-too-common portrayal of women in romantic comedies these days.

Wilson has an even more thankless role. His only function is to complicate things for the two leads. It is a tried and true love triangle formula and it is played honestly, but with little substance.

In spite of its familiarity and shortcomings, “The Switch” works, not so much as a romantic comedy, but as father-son film. The scenes between Bateman and Robinson really are charming and special and, along with the excellent support of Goldblum and Lewis, that's enough to make this worth a peek.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rejoin the age of aquarius with 'Hair'

Even before The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's production of “Hair” begins, the cast is on stage and in the aisles dancing, jumping and spinning in the spirit of the 1960s setting of the musical. As the guy sitting next to me noted, “Look at the energy they have.”

When the show does start, the cast isn't confined to the stage and actors often return to the aisles to sing and dance. There's also a fair bit of direct interaction with the audience. During the intermission, the cast still remains in character and mills around interacting with the audience. This makes “Hair” a far more immersive experience than your average night of theater.

In keeping with the immersive nature of the production, the set design by David Dwyer isn't restricted to the stage. Brightly designed signs of protest and the slogans of the hippie movement are spread throughout the theater along with Christmas lights hanging from the rafters.
“Hair” made its Broadway debut in 1968 following a reworking of an off-Broadway production from 1967 and was the first of its kind: a rock musical that caused controversy with its use of profanity, displays of sexuality and portrayal of drug use.

The show is thin on plot and focuses on a “tribe” of hippies led by Berger (Jesse Havea) and Claude (Patrick Roberts). Most scenes don't even attempt to drive the story forward, but simply create an atmosphere and show the lifestyle of the tribe.

This is a meandering, laid-back show, and director Nathaniel Shaw brings an appropriately mellow tone to the proceedings. The central conflict involves Claude getting his draft notice and trying to find a way to dodge, but even this isn't used to springboard to a traditional narrative where the tribe comes together to try to save their friend.

“Hair” opens with a rousing rendition of one its most famous songs, “Aquarius,” with Tunisia Hayward's powerhouse voice leading the rest of the ensemble. In all the numbers, many of which, unlike “Aquarius,” have irreverent and subversive lyrics, the cast sounds fantastic.

The band is on stage behind the cast for this production. This helps to rectify the problem of the band drowning out the singers, an issue that has plagued the company all season. There are a couple moments in which performers don't project enough, but for the most part the issue has been corrected.

Playing drug addled hippies is not an easy task. If it is played too big or cartoonish, the actors just come off as a bunch of Cheech and Chongs. Luckily, that is not the case as the cast finds a nice balance

Havea has a charismatic cockiness as Berger, but also hints at a buried anger that bursts through in several scenes. Robert's Claude is both a part of the tribe and an observer as he attempts to document their lifestyle for a movie.

It is Claude who has to directly face the reality of the Vietnam War and Robert deals with this struggle well. A sequence involving a bad trip that includes zombies that represent Robert's fears of going to war is particularly affecting.

This is a large cast so to spotlight any one performer is not meant as a slight to the rest of the cast. Andrew Lipman, as was true in “Singin' in the Rain” and “The Full Monty,” is a scene-stealer of the highest order. His appearance as Margaret Mead, an older woman curious about the hippie lifestyle, is a show highlight.

Today “Hair” acts like a time capsule of the ideals of free love, the struggle of the civil rights movement and the frustration toward the Vietnam War. The book and lyrics by Jerome Ragni and James Rado touch upon tragic themes, but for the most part this a relatively sugarcoated look at the hippie movement. More radical things were also going on during this time period, but Ragni and Rado chose to capture the energy, spirit and brightness of the moment.

Of course, we have the advantage of having knowing what happened beyond 1968, and Shaw includes a concluding scene which has the cast getting a glimpse of the future through a series of sound clips set to John Lennon's “Imagine.” It is a powerful moment that leads to a spine-tingling performance of “Let the Sun Shine In.”

Those only familiar with the 1979 film version should know that it drastically rewrites a couple key characters and that several plot elements are altered. So, if you think you don't need to see this because you've seen the movie, you'd be wrong. They are two completely different experiences.

Tickets are $32 and may be reserved at the box office at 356-5776, which is open daily from 11 a.m., or online at

'Scott Pilgrim' is geek heaven

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is a hybrid movie. It is part comic book, part video game, part anime, part romantic comedy, part rock musical and whole enjoyable.

The set-up for the story is pretty basic: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy must fight for girl's love. In this case, our hero Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) quite literally fights off Ramona Flowers' (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes in order to win her love.

Although literally is perhaps the wrong word. The characters in the film live in a heightened reality that follows the logic of 16-bit video games of 1980s and 1990s. Everyone in the film accepts this reality, but essentially, the film is a giant allegory for the trials and tribulations of dating.

The film, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, is a rather shrewd look at the early stages of dating and the awkwardness of running into a significant other's ex. We all dream about what we'd like to do in these situations. “Scott Pilgrim” simply puts us squarely within the protagonist's video game and comic book fueled fantasies.

This marks English filmmaker Edgar Wright's first American production (although it is set in Toronto). In his previous films “Shaun of the Dead and “Hot Fuzz,” Wright showed a knack for deadpan humor, strong visuals and blending genres. Here, though, he attains another level.

Wright uses the old “Batman” series approach of having words like “pow” pop up on screen, but takes it a step further and has the words “ding dong” appear when a doorbell is pressed or “ring” when a telephone rings. It is done in a way that is both clever and refreshes an old idea.

The fights are staged like fighting games such as “Street Fighter” or “Mortal Kombat,” albeit entirely bloodless. These are brightly visualized and this is probably the first film to approach the look, feel and fun of a video game.

Wright really is a perfect match for the material and in many ways this a big budget, more stylized version of “Spaced,” the TV series he created with Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes. Both “Scott Pilgrim” and “Spaced” are about arty pop-cultured obsessed 20-somethings trying to sort out life and love. That could describe any number of films and TV shows, but those familiar with the series will see a similar tone and style in the dynamic of the characters.

The film is basically a series of fights, but there's also a surprisingly amount of character development. We care about Scott and Ramona. Before meeting Ramona, Scott was dating the fabulous named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a 17-year-old high school girl, and an odd love triangle forms. Knives isn't merely a throwaway character, and, while Scott is fighting not only for love but self-respect, she is going on her own parallel journey.

Winstead's Ramona isn't a flatly written love interest. She is struggling with leaving her past behind, finding out who she is and learning to trust. On occasion she steps up to fight for Scott, so it isn't a one-sided battle. Winstead has a vibrant screen presence, but isn't merely a pretty face. She has some excellent comic timing and delivery.

The film is also populated by great supporting characters. Kieran Culkin is a scene-stealing deadpan delight as Scott's gay roommate. His dry deliver is impeccably spot-on as is Alison Pill as the drummer of the band Scott is in.

Then there are the exes themselves, who include future Captain America Chris Evans and former Superman Brandon Routh. Evans as an action star does a great job parodying arrogant actors and Routh amuses as a dimwit with psychic abilities he gains from being a vegan. Jason Schwartzman shows up as the final ex and clearly relishes playing a cocky, cynical, sleazy villain.

Cera gets a lot of flak for giving the same performance in every film, which really isn't fair. He has a persona he plays, but he does have range within that persona. It isn't like Cera is the first actor to get famous doing variations on the same act, and he's very good at what he does. He has a fast-paced line delivery that really works, but he also knows where to pause and let a line breathe. Here he gets to show a slightly tougher edge alongside his usual awkward nice guy routine, and he pulls it off nicely.

“Scott Pilgrim” won't be for everyone, but it will have a very loyal following. This is a movie for geeks, and they will embrace it wholeheartedly. This geek certainly did.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A cut above 'other' parodies

With “The Other Guys,” Will Ferrell and frequent collaborator director Adam McKay take on the buddy cop film. This is a genre that seems like far too easy a target, but as with “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” Ferrell and McKay's weird comic sensibilities find new laughs in familiar territory.

“The Other Guys” stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg stars as a couple desk jockey New York cops living in the shadow of a pair of super cops (played with gloriously over-the-top bravado by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson). After the hot shots die in an unexpectedly hilarious manner, it is time for “the other guys” to step up.

Following the formula of the genre, Ferrell's button-upped character is perfectly content to stay at his desk, while the hot-headed Wahlberg is hungry to hit the streets. The plot, which involves Ferrell and Wahlberg taking down a white collar criminal (the always funny Steve Coogan) is negligible. It is merely there to string the jokes along and allow for some jabs at the current state of our country.

Following on the heels of Kevin Smith's critically maligned “Cop Out,” this is the second film this year to parody the buddy cop genre (third if you count parts of “MacGruber”). “Cop Out” was more homage than outright satire and played like a decent entry in the genre. It was no “Beverly Hills Cop,” but it was on the level of “Fletch.”

The buddy cop genre has long been in the realm of self-parody, but “The Other Guys” works as a parody by looking and sounding like the real thing, but adding completely absurdist elements. The only way to truly satirize this genre is to go out on a limb for big, strange laughs.

McKay and co-writer Chris Henchy also know that to make those laughs really work they need to take the time to develop a strong central dynamic between Ferrell and Wahlberg. Having that at the core allows for the comedy to work. Edgar Wright's “Hot Fuzz” took a similar approach. That film also went for absurdist laughs, but the characters made the material stick.

As with all buddy cop films, the two leads banter back and forth, but here the barbs take on a stranger dynamic. The best and oddest moment in the film involves Ferrell's comeback to an insult involving a tuna and a lion.

Wahlberg who has played his share of cops in movies, most memorably in “The Departed,” has a lot of fun playing with his tough guy persona. He is constantly on the verge of explosion. As he did in “Date Night,” Wahlberg shows assured comic timing that reveals a possible new direction for his career.

Ferrell on the other hand dials down for a lot of the film. For those who find his comedic persona grating this may be a nice change of pace. Wahlberg's needling eventually unleashes the Ferrell we know, but it is fun watching the slow build to that eruption.

Eva Mendes has a funny role as Ferrell's impossibly beautiful wife that Wahlberg can't believe is actually Ferrell's wife. Michael Keaton makes a more than welcomed return to mainstream comedy as the chief who has to work at Bed, Bath and Beyond to make ends meet. Between this and his work in “Toy Story 3,” Keaton seems to be back in a big way and it is nice to have him back.

Most parodies today simply redo scenes from other movies with a slight change and hope that it passes for comedy. It is nice to see a parody with a bit more ambition than that. “The Other Guys” doesn't always work, but when it does the results are hugely funny.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

M&D presents powerful production of 'All My Sons'

In the wake of a season that has featured “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” M&D Productions takes on another heavyweight of American theater with Arthur Miller's post-World War II domestic drama “All My Sons,” which opens Friday, Aug. 13, at Your Theatre at Willow Common in North Conway, N.H. and is running through Aug. 28.

“All My Sons,” much like Miller's most infamous works “The Crucible” and “Death of a Salesman,” is an incisive indictment of the worst side of America. Joe Keller (Richard Russo), main character of “All My Sons,” represents the dark side of capitalism and the pursuit of the American Dream at any cost.

During World War II, Joe's company manufactured parts for planes going into combat. Something went wrong with one of the orders with tragic results. The action of the play is set three years later with events setting into motion a discussion of whether Joe set his partner up to be a patsy for a mistake he knowingly made simply to make a buck.

The play opens with Joe sitting out in his yard talking with his neighbors (Eric Jordan, Andrew Brosnan, Elaine Kondrat and Janette Kondrat) and his son Chris (Scott Katrycz). The scene is like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life: the perfect picture of America.

These early scenes almost play out like a sitcom. They are low key and charming, but soon the cracks within the surface start to show. Joe's wife Kate (Deborah Lyons) is desperately clinging to the idea that Larry, her other son, who remains MIA since the end of the war, is still alive. She goes into hysterics if anyone suggests otherwise.

Kate becomes further unraveled when Ann, (Kate Gustafson) Larry's former sweetheart, Chris' soon-to-be fiancée and the daughter of Joe's partner, comes to town. Things escalate even further when George (Ken Martin), the son of Joe's partner, also shows up.

Director Dennis O'Neil gets extraordinary work out of his cast. Everyone gives naturalistic, unforced performances that flow with the material rather than against it. There's no showboating, scene chewing or overly stagey acting.

It is the material, which reminds why Miller is regarded as one of the great American playwrights, that allows for this realistic approach. The dialogue has an understanding that life isn't as black and white as much of our entertainment makes it out to be.

Even life's darkest moments have moments of lightness and humor and Miller weaves in zingers and moments of whimsy that help both ease and increase the tension at the same time. We get to laugh or smile for a moment, but know that things will ratchet up again quickly.

O'Neil and his cast delicately perform this material and dig deep into themes of morality and responsibility not only to your self, but to humanity as a whole. The play stirs up a lot of raw emotions that the actors are not afraid to take on with unflinching conviction.

This cast is so uniformly strong from the lead roles to the support characters that to spotlight any one or two people would be unfair to whole. This is a true example of a cast working together seamlessly as an ensemble.

The remarkable thing about this play is how fresh, relevant and how perceptive it is. Written only two years after the end of World War II, it is written with insights that seem like they came decades after the war. Miller doesn't use the war in a shameless or exploitive manner, but in a way that accentuates and adds weight to his critique of the American Dream.

M&D's production is a strong piece that builds and builds as the show gets heavier and darker with each new act until it reach a conclusion, that even if you are familiar with, will hit you hard.

For more information and tickets call 662-7591.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Arts in Motion mounts ambitious production of 'Rent'

CONWAY — No one can say Arts in Motion doesn't have ambition.

The theater company opens its production of Jonathan Larson's “Rent” at Kennett High School's Loynd Auditorium in North Conway, N.H tonight, Thursday, Aug. 5. It seemed like a fool's task to take on a show of this size, weight and musical complexity with a cast of mostly high school age performers, and yet, against the odds, the production has come together surprisingly well.

“Rent” is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera “La bohème” and centers on a group of starving artists attempting to create and survive in New York's Lower East Side. The impoverished artists of “La bohème” were plagued by tuberculous. In “Rent” it is HIV and AIDS that the characters battle against.

There's a large cast with several key players. Mark (Matt Stoker) and Roger (Paul Allen) are a struggling filmmaker and songwriter, respectfully. Mimi (Taylor Hill) is a exotic dancer with a drug problem who Roger falls for. Maureen (Hanna Paven) is Mark's ex-girlfriend and a performance artist currently dating Joanne (Morgaine Andrews). Tom Collins (Chris Madura) is a philosophy professor that falls for the drag queen Angel (Ezra Alves). Benny (Ged Owen) was Mark, Roger and Maureen's roommate, but sold out and is now their landlord.

“Rent” is a rock opera and although there are minimal scenes of dialogue this show — like a true opera — nearly everything is sung with a total of 42 songs. This is no easy feat for a seasoned cast of professionals, let alone a group of young amateurs. Director Mary Bastoni-Rebmann has worked with the cast for months getting their singing to a very high level of quality.

Disclaimer: I saw the final dress rehearsal and that night there were technical difficulties with the sound and for large portions of the show the live band on the stage drowned out the actors. This was frustrating because when I could hear the actors I was impressed with how good they sounded. I was assured by Bastoni-Rebmann that the sound issue would be worked out by opening, so this shouldn't be an issue.

The set designed by Tom Rebmann is an impressive recreation of a New York street that includes fire escapes and scaffolding. The costumes by Shelly Paven also bring a level on authenticity to the production. This doesn't look like a cheap knock off of “Rent.”

“Rent” represents the ethnically and sexually diverse mosaic that is New York. Arts in Motion's doesn't achieve that, but its production, for the most part, is well cast. The show deals with some heavy subject matters, and, while some of the actors struggle with the material, they bravely tackle it. Big ensemble numbers like “Rent” and “La Vie Bohème” are admirably mounted and performed.

Allen's Roger is a highlight. He has a powerhouse voice and broods well. His scenes with Hill's Mimi have a genuine tenderness and emotional rawness. They share several duets including “Light My Candle” and “I Should Tell You” that work quite well.

Paven's Maureen gets to perform the fantastically bizarre and funny “Over the Moon” and it is an excellent showcase for her. Throughout the show, Stoker's Mark is our narrator and he makes a good guide. His best song is “Tango: Maureen” with Andrews' Joanne.

Alves is miscast as Angel. He seems silly instead of sensual in numbers like “Today 4 U,” but does create some sweet scenes with Madura. When things turn dark for this character, Alves rises to the occasion and creates genuine pathos.

The show's second act is marked by heavy emotions that this production does reach. A scene involving the memoriam of a dead character is deeply affecting. The strongest song in the production is the heartbreaking “Goodbye Love” in which several of the key relationship end at the same time.

This isn't a flawless production of “Rent,” but to attempt a community production of this show and do it justice at all is an achievement in itself. I know that seems like faint praise, but any fan of “Rent” knows it isn't.

“Rent” runs Thursday through Sunday until Aug. 15. All seats are $15 and can be purchase at or at the door.

The mix tape: Old is new again

The Internet can make wonderful things happen. On April 21, 2009, I posted a video on YouTube entitled “The Joys of the Mix CD and Mix Tape.” Like most of my videos it wasn't seen by many people. Nearly a year and half later it only has about 60 views. But sometimes you only need to be seen by one person.

Three weeks ago I received a message on Facebook from a woman named Alek O. She is putting together an art exhibit in London dedicated to mix tapes in October. Based upon my video she thought I might want to contribute. I answered with an unequivocal yes.

My love of making mix CDs is notorious among my friends. The process borders on obsessive compulsive. Compiling one 80-minute mix CD takes me hours, and once I start I can't stop until it is finished. I've been up until 5 a.m. perfecting a mix.
The transitions need to be as smooth and as seamless as possible. There needs to be a flow and mood. Within mixes there can be different themed sections: a rockabilly section could give way to a hip hop section. But no matter how varied or diverse a mix is, it should never be jarring unless of course that's your intention. Everything should seem like it belongs. That is the sign of a great mix.

I tie my interest in mixes back to making radio shows with a boom box that had a single cassette player and a built-in microphone. I'd record theme songs from my favorite TV shows or songs from movies and introduce them with all the wit a 7-year-old could muster. I vividly remember dedicating Peggy Lee's “He's a Tramp” from “Lady and the Tramp” to my mom.

It wasn't until the release of 2000's “High Fidelity” with its mix tape making hero Rob Gordon that I became completely hooked. Many hours were spent sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by CDs and tapes trying to create the ideal tape for personal use or for a specific friend. Hearing about Alek's project brought all these memories back.

Alek is from Italy, but living in New York through September. She has put this exhibit on once before in Berlin. That would be the real Berlin, not the one in our lovely state of New Hampshire. The exhibit is an example of found art with Alek collecting mix tapes and playing them from an old boom box. The mix tapes are accompanied by a track list and a history of the mix including when it was made and who it was made for. A mix becomes a time capsule not only of the music on it, but of the impetus behind its creation and the emotions attach to it.

I am contributing a mix entitled “The UK Mix.” I made it prior to a trip to England in either 2000 or 2002. The idea was to include all bands from the United Kingdom. I botched it in one case: Jimi Hendrix. In my defense he did gain his fame in England and has English band members. I remember listening to this tape in the car with my parents on the way to the airport.

This contribution didn't seem enough, so I took it one step further, one that Alek wasn't expecting or even requesting. Monday evening I got a hold of a boom box and a two-hour blank tape and once again — like the teenage version of me — sat on my floor surrounded by CDs creating a brand new mix tape. Alek was thrilled to have such an addition to her a exhibit. A newly minted mix taped is a rare entity in 2010.

It was fascinating reconnecting with this old technology. The old techniques came back as I got flashbacks from a decade earlier. Each song had to be put on individually and I had to make note of the time to make sure I didn't go over.

In the era of MP3 players and streaming music the cassette tape seems quaint. And yet there was something very exciting and more personal about making a mix this old way. The process was not nearly as obsessive as the modern day equivalent and was much more based on impulse. It felt more organic and immediate as I grabbed songs at will while still being concerned about the flow of the mix.

Through new technology and social networking I reconnected with an old technology. There's something poetic about that. The title for my new mix tape sums it all up: “Old is New Again.”