Friday, January 28, 2011

'Strings' is a better than expected romantic comedy

Natalie Portman was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her completely exposed and raw performance in the intense psychological thriller “The Black Swan.” She's the odds-on favorite to win and is absolutely deserving of the accolade. It is a movie worth seeing, but it is deeply disturbing. I recommend pairing it with something light, fluffy and fun as a palate cleanser.

Conveniently enough, Portman is also presently starring in the romantic comedy “No Strings Attached,” a film that is the perfect after-dinner mint to the heavy meal that is “The Black Swan.”

The romantic comedy is in a pretty dire state. Recent entries into the genre have been ranging from bland to noxious. “No Strings Attached” proves to be ahead of the current curve. It is a film that works thanks to a funny script by Elizabeth Meriwether and a strong cast.

Portman stars as Emma, a commitment-phobe who avoids emotional attachments, who agrees to enter into sex-only relationship with Adam (Ashton Kutcher). Soon Adam wants more and so does Emma, but she refuses it to allow that to develop.

The plot of the film is nothing remarkable and, as is the nature of a romantic comedy, is entirely predictable. As an audience, we know that Emma and Adam will wind up together. What distinguishes a romantic comedy is whether it can make us care enough to go through all the plot contrivances that keep the two leads apart for 90 minutes.

Kutcher is one of the more critically maligned actors working today. His mere presence in a film will usually get the whole thing dismissed. Kutcher is not a great actor and has been in his fair share of thoroughly mediocre films. I am always one to give credit when it is due and here he is likable and charismatic.

Portman, who has shown she can do bubbly and cute in films like “Garden State,” gets to show that she can do comedy with a rougher edge. She has some raunchy dialogue that she delivers effectively. She is sexy and funny in a way we haven't quite seen from her.

While the film's use of vulgarities or crude humor never goes to the level of a film like “There's Something About Mary” it does earns its R rating. Thankfully the film isn't crass to simply be crass. The humor is character-based, and, while characters are often sketched broadly, Meriwether's script does keep things on a plane of reality. Even if the dialogue is heavy on quips, her characters speak like human beings rather than characters in a movie.

It is often the case in these sorts of films that the two leads have a circle of wisecracking friends and confidants, and that is the case here. These supporting characters, though, are very well cast and also truly funny.

On Kutcher's side there is Jake Johnson and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Bridges, who showed he was a good actor in "Crash," has a nice deadpan delivery. On Portman's side there is Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg”), Mindy Kaling (“The Office”) and Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”). Gerwig is a particularly bright spot in the cast, and there is a charming subplot in which she starts dating Johnson.

The film's ace in the hole is Kevin Kline as Kutcher's father, a former sitcom star who is perpetually on drugs. Kline is such a brilliant comic actor that he even shines in what easily could be a throwaway stock role. When he starts dating Kutcher's dimwitted ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond) the result are quite hilarious.

In the final third of the film, Emma's fears of getting too close drive the two apart, but just as the film is beginning to stretch credibility and our patience, the script delivers big laughs from unexpected places. Even Lake Bell, as the awkward colleague that briefly, and inevitably, becomes a potential love interest for Kutcher, gets some real laughs.

This is not a great film, but it is lightweight, low-key entertainment that delivers on that level and that's not something to be dismissed. Good light entertainment is hard to come by these days.

Friday, January 21, 2011

New 'Hornet' doesn't quite soar

The latest incarnation of “The Green Hornet,” a vigilante hero that dates back to 1930s radio, is a diverting, often clever entertainment that, given the talent involved, could've been something truly special.

“The Green Hornet” is directed by Michel Gondry, an imaginative music video director who has made such visually interesting and quirky films as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind Rewind.”

Actor Seth Rogen, who stars as the titular hero, and writing partner Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay and bring the same kind of slacker humor that worked so well in their scripts for “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.”

Rogen and Goldberg are also producers on the film and their sensibilities may have forced out some of Gondry's personality because this definitely feels more like a Seth Rogan film than a Michel Gondry film. This is too bad as the Rogan/Gondry combination is an intriguing one. There are indeed inspired moments sprinkled throughout the film that point to the stranger, more idiosyncratic film this could've been.

The script does come at the material from a subversive slant that gives the film a different flavor than most superhero films. The film is almost a satire of the genre, but it loses steam when it goes on auto pilot and becomes a rather routine action picture.

Originally, the character of Britt Reid was a newspaper publisher by day and masked vigilante by night who was always aided by his trusted confidant Kato (played here by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou). In this version Reid is the slacker son of a newspaper publisher (Tom Wilkinson), who inherits the job when his father dies from a bee sting.

Kato was played by none-other-than Bruce Lee in the short lived 1960s TV version of “The Green Hornet.” The series was an early showcase for Lee's fighting prowess. One of the unintentional jokes of the series was that it was really Kato that did all the true heroics while the Green Hornet got all the credit.

This new spin on the characters acknowledges this disparity and plays off it. Reid becomes a well intentioned, but ineffectual schlub of a hero. Kato is not only a martial artist master, but a genius inventor who tricks out their ride, the Black Beauty, with all sort of fun bells and whistles including, quite hilariously, a turntable. The jealousy that begins to build between the duo — culminating with an amusing brawl — is the best thing about this film.

Similarly, the villain is written with a humorous twist. Christophe Waltz, whose villainy in Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds” won him an Academy Award, plays an aging Russian drug kingpin who is having a midlife crisis. He doesn't take it well when people say he is no longer scary. He is open to constructive criticism, but those who give it are not likely to live to see another day.

Waltz is in danger of become typecast as baddies, which is a shame because he is so good at adding color and shading to his characterization. As with “Inglourious Basterds,” he creates a villain that is intimidating and yet oddly likable.

Cameron Diaz appears as a potential love interest for Rogen and Chou, but it is an underwritten role. Writing for women is one of Rogen and Goldberg's limitations. They are great at writing male bonding banter, but write women from the point of view of awkward geeks. Consequently, there is little chemistry between either of the male leads and Diaz. Rogen and Chou do have chemistry and their playful give-and-take is fun.

Which brings us to Gondry. There are moments where his personality as a filmmaker comes shining through. In a scene early in the film Rogen raids his father's expansive garage and fools around with a woman in every car. It is played in high speed and gets a huge laugh. Much later in the film, Gondry does a visually clever variation of the splitting of the screen as news spreads from one person to two to three and so on.

Gondry also handles the fight scenes well. He employs slow motion, a cliché at this point, but manages to keep it fresh by making the action clear and allowing us to see the logic behind the fighting. Overall, having Gondry as a director seems like a missed opportunity. Had his imagination run unchecked the film could've left a lasting sting.

Abby Miller: Future singing 'superstar'?

Abby Miller, a sophomore at Kennett High School, has dreams of being a professional singer and is being proactive in making it happen. Miller, who in December performed as part of Alpenglow at Radio City Music Hall, recently went to the week-long International Presentation of Performers (iPOP) convention in Los Angeles. She joined other kids from all over the world to get the chance to perform in front of agents, casting directors and record labels. At the end of the week she wound up with a manager in New York and is working with a record label in Los Angeles.

What was the process like?

I've been in an agency in Boston for about six months and they are the ones that you audition with to go down [to the convention]. Then they bring in coaches to train you. There's a group of 30 of us and every weekend we travel down to Boston and we just start training and going over monologues and commercials. I had to have two songs to sing on the big stage, so it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.

What were these auditions like?

You could either do acting, singing, modeling, dancing. I did acting and singing. I needed two songs and a minute cut of them so I sang “Cowboy Casanova” and “Somebody to Love.” I also needed a monologue, a commercial, a TV beauty commercial and a scene, so it is a lot of stuff.

You were there for a week, was it intensive?

We didn't get to go outside. The whole convention is in this big hotel. You're just up in your room for maybe 10 minutes and then down doing an audition and then going to practice and then doing another audition or going to watch someone do an audition. Yeah, it is crazy.

When did you get interested in performance?

I started realizing I wanted to sing in second grade, but I really started to make a change in my life about two years ago and that is when we started looking for a place that could help me do that.

When did you get hooked up with Mary Bastoni-Rebmann?

I think it was like two years ago. She's just changed my voice completely. Made me a different singer. I owe it all to her.

What are your hopes with this new manager?

I write my own songs, so singing is my passion. I would do acting to get into singing, but really in the future I'd like to just sing, so with this new guy in L.A. we're recording my songs and making demos to send to bigger labels to get me into a bigger industry. My dream would be to be able to sing my songs on a big stage.

Would you consider moving out to L.A.?

Absolutely. My whole family is for it, not necessarily right now, but eventually. The only one I'd worry about is my little brother because he still goes to school here, so it is kind of a hard thing. But I'd definitely go out there in a heartbeat.

You released a Christmas album, so what was that like?

We worked on this album for two months and I'd go after soccer practices and go down to Madison and we did an eight-song Christmas CD. It was a fund-raiser to get to L.A. It was awesome. It was my first real recording experience. It was a lot of work staring at a little room for three hours a night, but it was really great. It wound up being a good CD and we sold a lot of them.

How have you been balancing singing and all that with school work?

Well, I actually have mid-terms this week, so it is a little bit stressful to try to catch up on tests and learn things before mid-terms, but in the end I want singing to be my career, so I am going to focus on school, but also know what all this is for — singing — so you've got to find a happy medium.

Have you had any encouragement at Kennett? Have you had any teachers that have really been motivational?

I'd say I usually get pretty close with a lot of my teachers. They've all been for it and excited and telling me to not be worried about the work I'm going to miss, but to go and take advantage of this opportunity. I also got a lot of support from peers, which was nice. Like I'll walk down the hallway and hear people yell “Superstar!” so that's fun too. Everyone was really supportive so that was really nice to see.

Are you exploring the social media side of things like putting yourself on YouTube or doing anything like that?

Not yet. We are working on getting my songs copyrighted and then that would be the next step would be putting them out everywhere. We are talking about sending things to the Ellen Degeneres show. I am going to be doing Skype lessons with a vocal coach in L.A., so we are starting to branch out that way, but it is how we want to go about that we aren't really sure of.

When you were out there meeting all these people, seeing all these agents, did you get a lot of positive feedback?

Yeah, it was really nice, especially for my parents to be able to go out and get information that they wondered from actual industry professionals, so that was really cool. To get feedback from your performance, they'd have workshops that you'd go to and you'd sing your song and they'd say, OK, your physicality was good, but you need to work on your face expressions or you need to work this part of the stage more. It is really good to hear from people that do it every day.

Did everyone who went wind up with something?

It is really rare for a whole agency to get a 100 percent call-back rate and ours did, for the second year in a row, which was really cool. It is nice to see that your friends are successful. Usually people don't and that's sad to watch kids who will be crying, but it is all about determination.

Was it encouraging to get that reward?

Yeah, it is always going to be encouraging to hear “Yeah, we think you're good.” You know, it is not just your family that thinks you're good, these strangers are saying “Yeah, we want to work with you and develop you and hopefully get you out there.” It is really encouraging.

Friday, January 14, 2011

What's the score? Electronic and orchestral meet in 'TRON: Legacy'

When watching a film it is easy to become so absorbed by what we are seeing that we take what we are hearing for granted. A film's score, or sometimes lack of one, is crucial to how we respond to a film. It is very often the score that tells us how we're suppose to react to what we are seeing.

I was reminded of this fact when I recently got a hold of the “TRON: Legacy” score. Listening to it separate from the film it became all the more clear how crucial it was to the film's success.

The film's music is by French electronic duo Daft Punk, a fitting choice given the first film's synthesizer-based score by Wendy Carlos. Fans of the band expecting a 90-minute techno jam are going to be let down. Daft Punk has done something far more interesting.

There are moments of the fevered electronic beats you'd expect from the band behind thumping dance tracks such as “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” but what is unexpected is how orchestrally based the soundtrack is. The score is in turns dark, moody, thrilling, melancholy, moving and elegant. Simply put, it is awesome.

Traditionally, film scores have emulated classical music and have been created by composers trained in that style. Perhaps the best example of this is John Williams who has created some of the most memorable and thrilling scores in film history including “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.” and “Harry Potter.”

In the late 1970s into the 1980s, the use of synthesizers and digital effects in film scoring became popular. This trend was most effective in horror movies where creepy soundscapes were created. John Carpenter's sparse, but relentless score for “Halloween” is a good example of this.

Wendy Carlos created all sorts of strange atmosphere for her scores for Stanley Kubrick's “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining.” The scores for George Romero's “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead” were also heavy on synthesizers and were so effective in creating a menacing mood that the were later sampled by the group Gorillaz.

Electronic-based scores also made a good fit for action films, most notably the work of Harold Faltermeyer, who did memorable, if now somewhat dated, scores for such films as “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Fletch.”

Daft Punk's score for “TRON: Legacy” blends the orchestral and electronic traditions with striking results. Moments of pulsating dance beats are combined with soaring string arrangements and blaring horns in a way that is seamless and often brilliant.

In places Daft Punk even throw in the digital bleeps and bloops of 1980s video games, but this score doesn't feel like a nostalgic throwback. Everything is smoothly integrated.

Daft Punk wasn't the only band this year to venture into composing for film. Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails did the score for “The Social Network.”

Nine Inch Nails, like Daft Punk, deals in electronic music, but is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Whereas Daft Punk deals in danceable, sunny pop, Nine Inch Nails is heavy, dark and menacing. Reznor brought that vibe to his score for “The Social Network” and in the process gave the origin story of Facebook a sinister edge and amps up the tension of seemingly mundane activities.

It is a good score that works brilliantly with director David Fincher's vision and the razor sharp wit of Aaron Sorkin's script. Even so Daft Punk's achievement feels more significant in terms of personal growth. Reznor's score sounds like Reznor's music, albeit channeled and focused to a new purpose.

Daft Punk's score, on the other hand, is an expansion and departure from what the group is known for, and yet at the same time doesn't squash the band's distinct personality. The score feels new, fresh and like something even more rare: a step forward.

Carol Noonan's new album helps fund free music series at Stone Mountain Arts Center

Carol Noonan is using her new album, "Waltzing's for Dreamers," for good.

"This year our neck of the woods seems to be feeling the economy more than any year," Noonan, owner of Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, said. "For that reason, we have wanted to put on some shows this season where the admission was free, but it costs us almost $1,000 just to open our doors when we have a show, without even paying an artist."

Noonan's solution to this dilemma is to have the proceeds from the sales of her new album go towards covering the costs of this music series, which takes the name of the album.

"I got a sponsor to help pay for the recording, and the album sales will help pay for the free shows including the artist," Noonan said. "The more albums I sell, the more free shows I will do."

The album is a collection of original songs and some of Noonan's favorite covers, recorded and produced at Stone Mountain with engineer Pat O'Donnell and mastered through the kindness of Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering Studios. There will be an album release show with Noonan and her band, featuring Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, on Thursday, Jan. 20, at 8 p.m. at Stone Mountain.

"I did my vocals for the most part without headphones or amplification," Noonan said, "Just me with my guitar on our stage facing out the big windows."

Friends, both new and old, of the arts center contributed to the album, including drummer Jay Bellerose, Scottish fiddler and cellist Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Wailin' Jenny's singer Heather Masse, bluegrass great Leigh Gibson and singer pianist Jon Carroll. Of course the album also features Noonan's band mates, guitarists Levine and Barry, Sonny Barbato on accordion, Billy MacGillivray on drums and Richard Gates on bass and vocals.

Noonan hopes that her sound "is not like anyone else's." In the simplest terms she is an acoustic singer/songwriter with folk tinges. "Waltzing's for Dreamers" is a reflection of that and features low-key music with dynamic arrangements.

"This was the first album where I have used the really raw approach to recording, combined with technology," Nonoon said.

Noonan, Levine and Barry recorded their parts on the Stone Mountain stage, but a lot of the guests on the album recorded somewhere else and e-mailed the files in.

"I know that's how everyone is doing it these days, but we are kind a frozen in time up here," Noonan said. "It was the only way to get everyone. We are all so busy, including me. I did a lot of my tracks in my apron."

As for the free show series, there are five free shows on the books right now: Session Americana on Friday, Jan. 21, Maeve Gilchrist and Sarah Jarosz on Friday, March 4, Kerri Powers on Saturday, April 16, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers on Saturday, July 17, and Honey Dewdrops on Sept. 29.

"We also serve dinner before the show, so we are not totally working for free," Noonan said. "So everyone benefits."

Patrons who come for these free shows are requested to bring a donation in kind (food item, or food for the humane society, etc) for that night to keep the spirit going.

"I hope people buy the album to support my music and to support this cool series at the same time," Noonan said.

The cost of the CD release show is $35. For more information visit or call (207) 935-7292.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Coens' 'True Grit' is the best kind of mainstream entertainment

Remaking a classic or well-regarded film is always a dubious enterprise that is often marked by scorn from the public if not handled delicately. When true filmmakers decide to take on a remake, though, it is something to pay attention to.

The Coen Brothers’ new version of the western “True Grit” is the rare remake that may actually be better than its predecessor.

The first adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel starred John Wayne as the drunken eye-patch-wearing U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn who reluctantly teams with a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) to aid Mattie Ross, a plucky, strong-willed 14-year-old girl (Kim Darby), and get retribution against the killer of her father.

Made in 1969, the first film earned Wayne an Academy Award for playing somewhat against his heroic image. Cogburn is a flawed, gruff hero, and while it wasn’t a huge departure for Wayne it was a welcome change for Wayne late in his career.

So, why bother adapting the novel a second time when a perfectly fine film already exists? The novel was written from Mattie’s point of view, and the Coen Brothers wanted to restore her voice in the story as well as an omitted epilogue.

The Coen Brothers are among the most distinct, inventive and unique filmmakers working today. Many will be expecting the duo to come at this material at a weird angle, but never ones to repeat themselves they do something quite unexpected: a straightforward adaptation.

Those hoping for something different may be let down, but this is such a near perfect example of pure filmmaking that it is hard to dismiss it as “sell out” film or unworthy of the Coens' talents. They have taken a good film and made it better and richer.

In the new film Jeff Bridges more than ably fills Wayne’s eye-patch with Matt Damon stepping into the role of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. This is Steinfeld's first major role and she makes a striking impression.

Steinfeld, who at the age of 13 is actually a year younger than the character, delicately plays that odd transition age between child and adult. Steinfeld projects a confidence, intelligence and strength well beyond her years.

The way Steinfeld manipulates a horse trader is quite funny, but helps to establish her character. While Steinfeld's Mattie proves herself to be capable of handling herself in the adult world, she also reveals her youth as when she gleefully attempts to break campfire tension with a ghost story.

Bridges, who despite wearing a nearly identical eye patch, doesn’t attempt to imitate Wayne’s famous swagger or speech patterns. Instead Bridges creates a characterization all his own that is broad, but with subtle shading.

Rooster seems like a drunken, bumbling fool, but he has a good heart and values that always swim to the surface no matter how much booze they are drowned in. There is a scene in which Rooster seems indifferent to Damon’s LaBoeuf harshly spanking and whipping Mattie, but when it goes too far he puts LaBoeuf in his place.

It is also a very funny performance with Bridges endlessly rambling about his love life. Even in the humor though the Coens and Bridges finds underlining conflict. When LaBoeuf questions Rooster's shooting skills and Rooster fails at showing his shooting prowess, the scene gets laughs, but Bridges also reveals Rooster’s bruised ego.

Damon also finds a delicate balance of humorous banter with genuine heroism. Like Rooster, LaBoeuf is a good, but flawed man with his shortcoming being his cockiness and vanity.

Josh Brolin, in the small but crucial role of murder Tom Chaney, creates a vivid villain. Chaney plays dumb to mask his darker side, but when Brolin reveals that side it is truly frightening. When Mattie gets her retribution, you feel the man deserved it.

The Coen Brothers are such assured filmmakers that nothing rings false. This is the best kind of mainstream entertainment. It has everything you want: humor, action, moments to make you cheer, unexpected thrills and heart-wrenching pathos. A climatic sequence of selfless heroism is full of such undeniable power. If it doesn't move you, nothing will.

'Music athlete' Mitch Alden releases his first solo album

"I call myself a music athlete," Mitch Alden, of the band Now is Now, said.

Alden, a full-time musician from Limington, Maine, who frequently performs throughout the Mount Washington Valley at such venues as White Mountain Cider Co., Tuckerman Tavern and the Red Parka Pub, is also a long-distance runner who believes the running is making him a better musician.

"It really does help the singing and I've noticed my voice is getting better and my ability to play longer sets and my ability to resonate with my voice," Alden said.

Alden is releasing his first solo album, "Old Habits," this month. The album was recorded in Chicago with the help of his friend Matthew Hennessy, a music engineer, in October. Alden also wanted to run the Chicago marathon, so logically, why not do both? He underestimated how daunting each task is separately, let alone back to back.

"It was funny, I got out there and I totally forgot what making a record was like since it was four years since I had, and I realized it was a lot harder than I remembered," Alden said.

Alden arrived in Chicago Oct. 4, recorded right up until Oct. 9 and ran the marathon Oct. 10.

"You are doing 10 hour days in the studio where you arrive at 10," Alden said. "The fast food starts coming at 2, I've got to stay away from them, you are eating dinner at a pub at 9 o'clock at night. Not really the way you want to rest up to run 26.2 miles."

He finished the last day of recording and showed up at the start line a bit tired, but still gave it his all during the race.

"I didn't run the best race that I've ever run, I blame it on just my recording and being exhausted, plus the heat," Alden said. "It was definitely my strongest race considering all that I did, but I wound up making what I think is a really strong record."

With this new album, Alden, who plays more than 200 show a year, 75 percent of which are solo acoustic, wanted an album that better represented these solo performances.

"A bunch of folks come up to me during my set and are like, 'Which of these three CDs sounds like what I am hearing?' And I'm like 'Well, there's a little bit on all of them,'" Alden said. "I wanted something more where the majority of the record is what you are hearing solo."

Alden is the creative force behind Now is Now, a rock band with '90s alternative flavoring. Alden's solo album won't be a drastic departure for fans of the band.

"Now is Now should be called the Mitch Alden Band, but I am not pretentious enough to call myself that and I wanted my band to have more of a statement name," Alden said.

The biggest difference with this album, the first Alden has self produced, isn't so much in content, but how it was recorded.

"I wanted the songs to develop more from an acoustic guitar singer/songwriter perspective then layer on top of them rather than the other tunes where you get the rhythm tracks and then put on top of them," Alden said. "It definitely has a different vibe to it."

This solo album doesn't mean he has forsaken his band, though.

"I still love the band, I still play with the band," Alden said. "There are actually three tunes on his new record with the band, which are consistent with the other records."

With this new album in hand, Alden plans to continue to do what he has been doing: performing as much as he can and getting his music out there.

"I threw the ego out a long time ago," Alden said. "I am just like a bartender. I am helping people out. I'm helping to make the venue money, and if I do that they are going to ask me back and I never have to sit in a cube again. And while I'm at it I'm going to make records, sell records and make people happy. It is a really nice thing I've got happening."