Friday, November 26, 2010

Top 10 favorite songs of 2010

With a little over a month left in 2010, I've been looking back at the music I've been listening to on a near constant repeat and I've compiled this list of my favorite songs of the year. I don't claim these as the year's best, but merely the songs that helped define my 2010.

10. “Telephone” - Lady Gaga featuring Beyonce
Released as a single in January this barely makes the cut. Lady Gaga is simultaneously a pop star and a satire of one that towers over contemporaries like Ke$ha and Katy Perry. Her songs are infectious, but under all the polish, strong songwriting. Check out Pomplamoose's cover of “Telephone” on YouTube to hear that there's more to the song than at first listen.

9. “I'm Awesome” - Spose
One of 2010's sleeper hits came from an unexpected source: a 25-year rapper from Maine. The endearingly low-fi production and tongue-in-cheek rhymes make for a goofy dig at the over-the-top boasting that has always been a fixture of hip hop music.

8. “Fuck You!” - Cee-Lo Green
This song, a throwback to R&B and soul of the 1970s, is every bit as good as “Crazy,” Cee-Lo Green's huge 2005 crossover hit with Gnarls Barkley. With Green's powerhouse vocals and offbeat lyrics like “Yeah I'm sorry, I can't afford a Ferrari, But that don't mean I can't get you there” make this a fresh, fun track. Gwyneth Paltrow also did a knockout version of it on “Glee.”

7. “In the Sun” - She & Him
Actress Zooey Deschanel and folk/country singer M. Ward returned in 2010 with their follow up to their 2008 debut. When actors decide to become musicians it is often dubious at best, but Deschanel's vocal have a unique flavoring that when paired with a nostalgic sound and witty lyrics make for a combo that's hard to deny.

6. “Wheels” - Jamie Cullum
For many this jazz pop artist is just the English Harry Connick Jr., and while he is quite willing to croon the standards, he also has an ear for crafting his own sweeping pop songs in the vein of 1970s piano based rockers like Elton John and Billie Joel. “Wheels” has a piano part that grabs instantly and builds to a sweeping chorus.

5. “Garbage Truck” - Sex Bob-Omb
Written by Beck for a fictional band in the movie “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” this is the probably the first love song ever written from the perspective of a sanitation worker. Clocking in at less than two-minutes it is a quick burst of pure garage band rock.

4. “From Above” - Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Singer/songwriter Ben Folds teamed with author Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) for the album “Lonely Avenue” with Folds providing music to Hornby's lyrics. Not unsurprisingly, the lyrics are like short stories in song format. “From Above” tells the story of a pair of soul mates that go through life just missing each other. The melancholy lyrics are infused with an upbeat sound to create a pop song with substance.

3. “Stylo” - Gorillaz
Gorillaz, the cartoon band created by Blur's Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett in 2000, has very much turned into the real deal. From the beginning the band's sound was a mixing pot of different genres, but on their third album, “Plastic Beach,” the combination of pop, rock, hip hop, soul and New Wave is at its most cohesive yet. “Stylo” features a driving synth hook and excellent guest performances by Bobby Womack and Mos Def.

2. “Four Seconds” - Barenaked Ladies
Steve Page, one of the primary songwriters and localists recently left the band, but his absence is not felt on their 2010 release “All in Good Time,” which features their typical blend of cheery pop with alternatingly clever and sincere lyrics. “Four Seconds” is easily the most fun track on the album and brightens my mood every time I hear it.

1. “Fresh” - Devo
Yes, Devo, the band behind the song “Whip It,” put out their first album in 20 years and it is fantastic. Devo is often wrongly dismissed as a one-hit wonder novelty act, but the influences of their pioneering sound can be heard throughout the radio. The time was right for their return. Appropriately enough the album's first single “Fresh” didn't sound stale and the rest of the album is full of giant hooks and the band's signature idiosyncratic lyrics.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The beginning of the end of Harry Potter

The film journey of the now not-so-young wizard Harry Potter is just one more film a way from completion. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was the seventh and final book in author J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful book series, but Warner Bros. is releasing it in two parts.

The decision to split the film clearly allows the studio to squeeze every last bit of money out of its billion-dollar franchise. The two parts combined will comprise one five-hour film. This would've been a tough sell, but fans still would've come out. A five-hour film would have received fewer screenings at movie theaters though, so the split makes solid financial sense.

The length is not unjustified. “Deathly Hallows” was the longest of Rowlings' series and densely packed with details. A compressed three-hour version would've gotten the job done, but much of the nuance of the story would have been lost.

More so than any of the other films, this is the first screen adaptation that feels almost exclusively made for the fans. Previous adaptations have caused some grumbling about things that were cut for time; clearly with five hours between two films to play with, that's less of an issue now.

This new film makes no attempt to try bring non-fans into the fold and, at this point, why should it? You're either a fan or not. Casual fans be warned though, this film takes its time and those who aren't completely emotional invested in these characters may start getting antsy.

The plot has the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes tapping into an essence of evil) and his henchpeople the deatheaters taking over the Ministry of Magic and making Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) public enemy number one. Harry is the chosen one, the only one who could kill Voldemort.

Each entry in this series is progressively dark than the last and this is the bleakest yet. There are no more fun and games at Hogwarts Academy. Harry and his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) head out on their own to seek horcruxes, objects that contain parts of Voldemort's soul and the key to undoing his immortality.

While there are brief appearances by the massive list of British acting greats that the series has accumulated over the years, including Brendon Gleeson, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, the ever sinister Alan Rickman as Snape and the creepy and insane Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, this is largely a three-man show with Radcliffe, Grint and Watson required to do all the heavy lifting. They are up to the challenge.

One of the joys of this film series has been watching these three young actors grow as performers. It is remarkable no re-casting ever occurred. Who would've guessed back when this all start with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” in 2001 that the casting director had chosen this wisely? These three have developed into fine actors capable of struggling with complex emotions without a single word of dialogue.

Much of the screen time deals with the trio camping out in the forest trying to make sense of their journey. A horcrux they have in their possession brings out unpleasant feelings, particularly in Ron who becomes jealous of Harry and begins to fear he may be losing his girlfriend Hermione to Harry. These fears come to the fore in a dream sequence that's shocking in its cruelty and its content: There's partial nudity and intense kissing.

The tone of the film is foreboding, pensive and somber. There are long stretches where the plot is barely moving forward, but the character dynamics are given shading. There's a lovely scene in which Harry and Hermione share a dance. It is a moment of brevity with the characters remembering, if only for a moment, that it was like before all the darkness.

The film's deliberate pacing is peppered with sequences of taut action that are more thrilling than anything previously seen in the series. The opening features Harry's defenders humorously becoming Harry clones to throw his pursuers off. This gives way to a taut chase through the streets and skies of London.

There is also an intense sequence involving breaking into and escaping the Ministry of Magic and a battle with Voldemort's pet giant snake. All this material earns the film its PG-13 rating, and the youngest Potter fans may be frightened.

Amidst all the gloom and action there's also a beautiful animated sequence that explains the deathly hallows of the title. It is a graceful and artful moment that probably wouldn't have made the cut in an abridged version of the book. It is moments like that which make the extra length feel worthy and reminds how sad it will be see this franchise come to an end.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A look at the mind of a critic

Critic is seen as a nasty word. Often when I say I am a critic I am asked, “Well, what do you do if you like something?” Critics, by default, don’t hate everything. Nor is it the critic's job to rubber stamp everything as being perfect. A good critic knows things aren’t as black and white as good and bad. There are many grays in analyzing arts and entertainment.

Many people assume critic is derived from the words criticism or critical, which tend to be associated with negativity as in “stop being so critical.” But critical has another connotation. One Merriam Webster definition for critical is: “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.” That sounds like an ideal definition of what a critic does, but the role of a critic goes deeper.

For me, the word critic comes from critique. Merriam Webster defines critique as “an act of criticizing; especially: a critical estimate or discussion.” The keyword in that definition is discussion. By writing a review I am presenting another voice in the greater discussion of whatever art I am writing about. It is merely an opinion. These things are not absolutes. My critiques can be ignored as being off-base and inaccurate, that's fine. There is no right or wrong. My views aren't better than anyone else's, but, in theory, they are backed by years of experience and education, which may make them worth listening to. It doesn't make my opinion any more correct, though.

I write about film, theater and music because I love it. The experience of discovering something new is exhilarating. When I stumble upon something that speaks to me, whether it moves me, makes me laugh, makes me think or all of the above, I want to share it with the world. Conversely, when I encounter a piece of art that disappoints me I want to steer people away from it. One of the roles of a critic is to act as a guide. But I certainly don't go into something looking to tear it apart. I go in hoping for the best, not the worst. All I ever try to do is give my honest opinion because I have an audience and it would be doing my readers a disservice if I was anything less than honest.

I don't know if I can explain my actual writing process or even what I am looking for because so much of that is subjective. Recently, I had a discussion with someone about the actor John Cusack. This person believes he is a terrible actor because “he's not living the role. He's pretending. Acting is not for people who want to pretend to be someone else; it's for people who want to make their role their life and become that person.” I replied, “Not all great acting has to be disappear-into-the-role method acting.” My debater quite rightly informed me that is just an opinion. Point being, even what is considered great acting is up to debate. One person's good, is another person's bad.

What I am looking for changes based upon what I am watching or listening to. When I write a review I am trying to explain my experience — how it made me feel and react and hopefully pinpoint the why behind those feelings and reactions. I write reviews for the same reason artists create: I'm trying to be understood and have people understand how I experience things. It is about connecting with the art, the artist, the audience and the world. It is participating in an ongoing discourse and creating a give and take. Simply put: I am just another voice trying to be heard.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Have a good 'morning'

One theme that continues to come up in my reviews is that a formulaic film isn't necessarily a bad thing. A film working within a template can be good if the content is worthy and the actors are on top of their game. When that happens, the formula fades away. “Morning Glory” is a prime example of this.

The film centers on Becky (Rachel McAdams), a producer for a morning show in New Jersey, who is fired, but catches a break and gets a job as a producer on a last-in-the-ratings national morning show not unlike “Today” or “Good Morning, America.”

Becky's plan for turning the show around is to fire the wooden, prima donna male co-anchor (Ty Burrell) and hire Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a washed-up award-winning evening news anchor with a contractual obligation to the network. Mike thinks a morning show is beneath him and refuses to play ball — much to the frustration of Becky, her crew and the show's female anchor (Diane Keaton).

“Morning Glory” is working with a lot of familiar plot lines: the struggling business/show that needs to improve against the odds or face the axe; the workaholic who needs to learn to balance work and play; and the bitter veteran who eventually softens. This can be eye-rolling stuff when handled poorly, but luckily there's a good amount of actual wit and heart in Aline Brosh McKenna's script.

McKenna also wrote “The Devil Wears Prada” a film where the seams of its formula were often too visible, but that was saved by sharp, cynical humor and brilliant performances by Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt. Like “Devil Wears Prada,” “Morning Glory” is a peek behind the scenes of a world the public isn't that familiar with from the perspective of a female protagonist. Of course, the world of a fashion magazine is a bit more exotic than that of a morning show.

“Morning Glory” has far less bite than “Devil Wears Prada,” but, within the confines of its light comedy, it does address the blurring line of entertainment and news as well as discuss the value of soft news versus hard news. Just that little bit of thoughtfulness helps the film feel fuller.

The film is slow to start. It feels like the movie is merely spinning its wheels, but the screenplay is actually taking its time setting things up that pay off both comically and emotionally toward the end of the film. Audiences members who are patient will be rewarded with a second half full of big laughs.

It is ultimately the cast that really sells this material. McAdams is one of the better actresses of her generation. She has a likable screen presence and plays Becky as bright, fast-talking, intelligent, a bit awkward and loveable. She has movie-star looks, but acting chops to back them up. When the movie dials down for serious moments she makes them credible even when they feel contrived.

Ford is not known for his work in movies marketed as comedies, but as Han Solo and Indiana Jones he was more than able to deliver a sharp one-liner and his work in “Working Girl,” a film not dissimilar to "Morning Glory," is noteworthy. Here he plays Mike with a grimacing gruffness and delivers his zingers with an effectively dry deadpan.

Ford's performance feels one-note, which becomes clear is the point when you get to the scene in which Mike finally lets his emotional guard down. It is a tender scene that is all the more affecting because you don't expect it from the character.

Keaton has fun bantering with Ford and throwing the occasional diva tantrum, but the film under-utilizes her talents. The same goes for Jeff Goldblum as Becky's boss, who even with limited screen time manages to make throwaway lines like “is that what you want?” memorable thanks to his signature offbeat line delivery. Patrick Wilson has the obligatory love-interest role, and while he's more of a plot device than an actual character he does have chemistry with McAdams.

“Morning Glory” is directed by Roger Michell, who has made such well-crafted films as “Notting Hill” and “Changing Lanes.” He is an assured filmmaker that knows how to make good-looking film. This isn't groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be. It is simply solid entertaining light fare.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'Due Date' is not quite funny enough

“Due Date” is a movie that is equal parts funny and frustrating. There are laughs, but drastic shifts in tone and characters that aren’t particularly likable make for an uneasy film-going experience.

This is director and co-writer Todd Philips follow up to his wildly successful “The Hangover.” Philips reunites with Zach Galifianakis, who after bouncing around Hollywood for more than a decade became a star with his scene-stealing performance in “The Hangover.”

Many people are sure to compare the two films, but “Due Date” is essentially a reworking of John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Galifianakis’ Ethan Tremblay, a wannabe actor on his way to Hollywood, meets Robert Downey Jr.’s Peter Highman, who is on his way to Los Angeles for the birth of his child, outside an airport in Atlanta. Naturally, due to an absurd
misunderstanding, the mismatched duo must drive across the country together.

Downey’s character has anger issues that are severely agitated by Galifianakis’ behavior. There are several moments in which Downey attacks Galifianakis verbally and, in one case, physically. In spite of these abuses, the movie has scenes where the two act like best buds. These drastic shifts in mood make Downey’s character seem almost bi-polar.

Galifianakis is basically playing the same character he played in “The Hangover,” but even more awkward and dense. His performance in “The Hangover” was sort of endearing, but this new variation on similar qualities is just too much. Galifianakis goes from being oddly funny to just irritating.

We are right there with Downey’s frustration with the character; in fact, it is unbelievable that anyone would stick with Galifianakis after the string of things he puts Downey through, the least of which is a car accident.

There’s an incident at the Mexican border that stretches credibility to a breaking point. Galifianakis stages a rescue of an arrested Downey that breaks several laws and results in a stolen vehicle and yet there are never any repercussions.This sequence is key to why the film doesn’t work. It is over-the-top and broadly comic to the level of something like “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”

Clearly, a comedy doesn’t need to be 100 percent realistic as long as it works within the world it creates. The problem is, “Due Date” has moments of drama that are played completely straight and based in reality.

Throughout the film, Galifianakis is carrying his father’s ashes in a coffee can, which leads to scenes where he gets emotional about his father. These moments of pathos, while well acted, come jarringly out of nowhere. One moment we are suppose to be laughing at the character and the next taking pity on him. It is an off-putting feeling.

It isn’t that comedy and serious moments can’t exist in the same movie.“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” successfully balanced comedy and pathos using the exact same premise and character dynamic as “Due Date,” but the moments of drama in that film seemed to flow naturally from the characters. It helped that you liked Steve Martin and John Candy in that film. You wouldn’t want to know either of the main characters in “Due Date.”

There are some very big laughs in “Due Date,” especially involving a bit where Galifianakis’ father’s ash are mistaken for coffee. The film opens with Downey describing a dream about a bear and the birth of his child that is bizarrely funny. Galifianakis has a silly walk that is indeed quite amusing. Unfortunately, the tone issues undermine any comic energy from building.

Familiar faces like Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride and RZA pop up for a scene or two, but are largely wasted. The biggest waste is Michelle Monaghan as Downey’s wife. Monaghan’s break out performance was opposite Downey in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” and the idea of seeing them together again is appealing, but alas Monaghan doesn’t get to play a character, she gets to be a plot point.

“Due Date” isn’t a complete waste of time, but if you absolutely must see it, wait for it to come to DVD and get it through Netflix or Redbox.

Friday, November 05, 2010

'A' great new teen movie

Bumming around YouTube the other night I found a clip of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis explaining the difference between a cliché and a convention. “When we see something done badly we call it a cliché and when it is done well we respect it as a convention.” It is a fine distinction, but the point is just because a film follows a formula doesn't make it bad, it is the execution that counts.

Teen movies often get dismissed as mindless entertainment and, unfortunately, most films targeted at teens are deserving of the dismissal because they pander to their audience instead of respecting it. This is what makes “Easy A,” so refreshing. Here's a film that doesn't condescend to its audience and that will have broad appeal beyond the teen and 20-something demographic it was made for.

“Easy A” is a shrewd, self-aware reworking of themes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Scarlet Letter” and conventions from 1980s teen films, particularly the work of John Hughes. The script by Bert V. Royal, author of the play “Dog Sees God,” an equally astute teen reworking of Charles Schulz' Peanuts, is both observant and funny. Like Hughes, Royal seems to have a keen memory for what it was like to be a teen.

The film's protagonist is Olive (Emma Stone) who, through a webcam confessional, explains how a little white lie told to her best friend (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity very quickly transformed her from an unknown good girl to an ostracized bad girl.

A gay classmate (Dan Byrd) who is constantly being bullied asks her to pretend to have sex with him to prove his straightness and appease his tormentors. She takes pity and soon word gets around to other geeks and outcasts. Olive trades her fake sexual favors for gift cards to Tommy Hilfiger and

At first, Olive enjoys the notoriety and embraces her new reputation, but it isn't long before the high school Christian club begins to crusade against Olive's seemingly trampish ways.

If handled poorly this kind of material that could turn odious rather quickly, but Royal's script has genuine wit and allows its characters to be intelligent. Olive is raised by parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) who are well-spoken and open-minded and have instilled these qualities into their daughter.

Much of the events are painted in broad strokes, particularly the Christian club led by Amanda Bynes' Marianne. But there are details and moments in the performances, particularly Stone's, that have truth to them.

The way Stone nervously babbles on a date or the sequence in which she falls in love with “the worst song ever” are familiar, but feel right. The scene in which Byrd begs Stone for help has an unexpected emotional honesty.

Director Will Gluck has his camera whiz through the high school campus showing the speed in which a rumor spreads in the era of Facebook and cellphones. This is hardly new news, but the visualization of it is clever and on point.

This is a breakout, star-making performance for Stone, who has done good work in movies like “Superbad” and “Zombieland,” but proves she can carry a movie. Here, given a lead role, she reveals herself to be an apt comic actor with the ability to deliver intelligent, fast paced dialogue believably. Similar to Ellen Page in “Juno,” Stone takes dialogue that some may accuse of being too clever by half and makes it seem natural.

While on the subject of “Juno,” Tucci and Clarkson are probably the best screen parents since that film. These are two of the best character actors in the business and though their screen time is limited they provide such warmth, humor and naturalness to their characters. The same can be said of Thomas Hayden Church as Olive's favorite teacher.

Most teen movies are male centric, but dating back to Hughes' “Sixteen Candles,” a film “Easy A” directly references, there has been a long standing tradition of teen films with female heroines. “Easy A” is worthy of standing proudly along side the likes of “Heathers,” “Clueless,” “Election” and “Mean Girls” as a shining example of what a teen movie can be.

Arts in Motion's 'Seussical' is whimsical fun

It is with a heavy heart that I must impart that “Seussical” is not quite magical.
The pieces are there with some to spare.
A show with much to dig has a cast that's just too big.
But worry not, for there's still much fun to be got.

“Seussical the Musical,” which opened last night at Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H. and is running this weekend and next Friday through Sunday, is another ambitious undertaking by Arts in Motion that is big and bright.

The show, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is primarily a reworking of the books “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches the Egg,” but incorporates other Dr Seuss characters including Gertrude McFuzz (Taylor Hill) and the Cat in the Hat (Chris Madura), who provides narration.

Horton (Matt Stoker) with his giant ears is able to hear the Whos, the tiny inhabitants of a speck of dust. He vows to protect the whos in the the face of much adversity and ridicule lead by Sour Kangaroo (Jen Meers). Horton is then tricked into sitting on the egg of Mayzie LaBird (Sarah Ansaldi). The only person that believes in Horton is Gertrude whose massive crush on him goes entirely unnoticed.

Parallel to Horton's story is the goings on of Who. JoJo, the son of the Mayor (Craig Holden), is a big thinker and his imagination constantly gets him in trouble causing his parents to send him off to a military academy. In the sweet song “Alone in the Universe," Horton and JoJo bond over being outcasts for their unique world views.

The role of JoJo is double cast with Oliver Clay-Storm and Liam Van Rossum trading performances. I saw Clay-Storm, an impressive young actor who, unlike a lot of child actors, delivers his lines with feeling and has a good grasp of tone and inflection. He is an able singer as well. This is a kid to watch as he gets older.

Stoker makes a likable Horton and he's easy to root for. Even battling a cold, Stoker provides strong singing. Madura has fun as the Cat in the Hat, who pops up throughout the show to guide JoJo and to fill in the audience on what's happening.

Madura leads the show's opening number “Oh the Things You Can Think” and gets things off to a great high energy start. That energy is sustained for most of the first act, but things sag during the first half of the second act in which Horton is taken away to become a circus performer.

The turning point is Hill's performance of “All for You,” Gertrude's declaration of her love to Horton and the explanation of the many trials she went through to find him. It is a fun song delivered with charm and gusto by Hill.

This production of “Seussical,” directed by Mary Bastoni-Rebmann and music direction by George Wiese, is at odds with itself. The leads are well cast and the roles are played on a professional level, but then you have a bloated supporting cast of performers as young as 5.

There are scenes that require these youngest performers to simply jump around on stage looking cute. Now there's nothing wrong with that, but it has its place and here it merely distracts from the hard work of everyone else. Other scenes incorporate ballet numbers that, while well-performed, feel out of place. This is not an attack on the kids, they are indeed cute, but would be better suited for a recital.

Even with this shortcoming, this is a fun show enhanced by colorful set design by Tom Rebmann that captures the look of Dr. Seuss' books. Likewise the costumes by Patty Hibbert, Valerie Smith and Katrina Carus do a nice job of helping to create the world of Seuss.

The show ends with a wonderful and lively song version of “Green Eggs and Ham.” It will have you leaving the theater with a smile.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and children. For more information or to order tickets visit