Friday, October 29, 2010

Come and visit your good friend 'Sweeney'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Game cast makes 'RED' fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 15, 2010

Something more than 'Ordinary'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies were people too: The progression of the zombie film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 08, 2010

'Social Network' is a brilliant film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information and tickets call 662-7591.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Stone and Douglas present a kinder, gentler Gekko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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