Friday, February 25, 2011

2011 Academy Awards are likely to be easy to predict

I follow movies like most people follow sports, so the Academy Awards are my Super Bowl. I'm well aware that it is just an overblown party for Hollywood types to pat themselves on the back for a job well done and yet each year I am compelled to watch with a mixture of elation and horror.

The 83rd Academy Awards are on ABC Sunday, Feb. 27, starting at 8 p.m. with the odd pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting. This year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science got it mostly right with the nominations, at least as correct as you can be in something as objective and often arbitrary as picking the best films of the year.

Where the academy did go wrong, almost consistently does so every year, was in ignoring fine comedic work. There are examples of the academy nominating and even awarding comedic performances — notably Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda” and Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny — but comedy is largely seen as being easier than drama and thus is dismissed. There needs to be a separate category for comedy.

This year at least two comedies, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” and “Get Him to the Greek” were worthy of at least consideration. At the very least, these films should've received best song nominations as they both had fictional bands in them that performed surprisingly good songs. Quirky rocker Beck wrote the songs for “Scott Pilgrim” and “Greek” features songs written and/or co-written by Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp, and Mike Viola who has written or produced songs for such films as “That Thing You Do” and “Walk Hard.”

That rant aside, in terms of who wins, it is a rare year where those who should win and those who will win are likely going to be one in the same. It should be a very predictable year and my predictions are the same as just about everyone.

Natalie Portman will most certainly get the Oscar for best actress for her powerful work in “Black Swan.” There's some discussion that Annette Benning could win for “The Kids Are Alright” simply because hasn't won an Oscar, but this would be a huge upset if this happened. This is Natalie's year.

Colin Firth is a lock for best actor as King George VI in “The King's Speech.” Firth has been a reliable actor for decades now, primarily used in romance or romantic comedies, but in 2009 he was allowed to go deeper in “A Single Man.” Now he gives another nuanced performance. He was nominated for a “A Single Man.” He will win for “The King's Speech.”

Helena Bonham Carter is a near sure thing for best supporting actress. If there is a wild care category this year, it is this one, but Carter is an actress who hasn't won and who has been consistent in both period and modern roles. Her work in “The King's Speech” is her most warm and human in years.

Geoffrey Rush is absolutely superb in “The King's Speech” and in any other year the statue would go to him, but Christian Bale will win for his extraordinary performance as a junkie in “The Fighter.” Physically he transformed himself, but most is more remarkable is that he doesn't play it for broad cliche. This is a subtle performance with real shading.

Of the 10 films nominated for best picture the general consensus is that the race is between “The Social Network” and “The King's Speech.” As of now the debate seems to be leaning more towards “The King's Speech,” but I'm going to go against the grain and say “The Social Network.”

It is a film that is a reflection of this moment in time and 10 years from now it will be time capsule film. Beyond that it is a highly entertaining film that manages to find a way to turn the seemingly mundane creation of Facebook into something approximating a thriller.

If it doesn't win picture, the academy may compensate by giving David Fincher best director and best adapted screenplay to Aaron Sorkin. But if Tom Hooper wins for best director put all your money on “The King's Speech” to win.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Fantasticks' is fun, light theater

It is easy to see why “The Fantasticks” is the world's longest running musical with its original off-Broadway production running 42 years and 17,162 performances. The show is inoffensive, non-confrontational, has some catchy tunes, has some good laughs and is just about impossible to actively dislike. It is light entertainment at its purest.

Friday night Arts in Motion opened their production of “The Fantasticks,” a fund-raiser for Dollars For Scholars, at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center at Fryeburg Academy. It will be performed their again Saturday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. before switching to Kennett High School's Loynd Auditorium Saturday, Feb. 26, and Sunday, Feb. 27.

The show, a reworking of the Greek story of Pyramus and Thisbe, is about two fathers (Keith Force and Rob Owen) who pretend to feud to trick their children, Matt (Matthew Stoker) and Luisa (Emilie Jensen) into falling in forbidden love. With the help of El Gallo (Rafe Matregrano), a bandit who also doubles as the narrator, the fathers stage an elaborate abduction of Luisa that turns Matt into a hero and thus ends the fictitious feud.

This may sound like I've given away the whole show, but things don't immediately head to a happy ending. Things become complicated in the second act and love is given a test by El Gallo.

The production is well cast, although at times uneven. Jensen is a stand out as Luisa, an ugly duckling who went mad when she discovered she had become pretty. The character is naïve and childlike and Jensen brings both qualities across perfectly and is consistently funny throughout.

She also has a fabulous powerhouse that is almost too powerful as she, at times, drowns out Stoker and Matregrano. Both Stoker and Matregrano are strong singers in their own right, but they struggle to reach Jensen's volume. The actors are not using any sort of microphones for the Fryeburg production, but should have amplification at Kennett, so the differences in volume will probably be balanced out at those later performances.

Stoker, like Jensen, does a nice job capturing a dimly innocent quality as Matt, who is older than Luisa, but certainly not wiser. Their flirtation is on the level of elementary school playground and is silly and sweet.

Matregrano makes a good narrator of the piece and provides some moments of menace. He is essentially a puppeteer pulling everyone's strings. This is literalized in the show's best number “Round and Round” in which, through clever choreography, it appears as if Matregrano is controling Jensen's movements.

Force and Owen are funny and have a good bantering chemistry as the fathers, but while they act their roles just fine, their singing is lacking. It is fine when they are singing a duet together because their limited singing abilities provide songs like “Never Say No” a goofy charm. It becomes more distracting though when they are paired with the other cast members who all have superior voices. Even so, they are comic characters, so you can give the singing a pass.

There is also good supporting work from Reed Van Rossum and Craig Holden as a couple of actors employed by El Gallo. Holden has a lot of fun with his character, an aging performer, who at least sort of remembers the many parts he has played. Van Rossum, dressed as an Indian and speaking with an inexplicable, but quite amusing cockney accent, also earns some big laughs.

So, while the production is flawed, director George Wiese has done a nice job of working with the cast he has to create a show that on balance is an entertaining, easygoing evening of theater.

For more information or tickets visit

Seeing 'black' and 'blue'

Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan” is deeply disturbing, but not because of graphic imagery, although there are some unsetting visuals. Much like Aronofsky's first two films, “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream,” this is a film about a descent into madness that doesn't go for cheap thrills. This is a true psychological thriller that builds an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that crescendos into a final moment that is like a punch to the stomach.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a ballet dancer who gets the lead in a production of "Swan Lake." It is a dual role, and, while she is perfect for the role of the delicate White Swan, her director (Vincent Cassel) finds her lacking as the darker Black Swan. Her struggle to play the role begins to fracture her sense of reality.

Nina is deeply sexually repressed and lives with an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) who has pushed perfection on her daughter. These two issues come into direct conflict as Nina searches for how to play the Black Swan. Nina becomes obsessed with being perfect and the screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin explores how far is too far in the pursuit of great art.

There is a much talked about sexual encounter between Portman and Mila Kunis as a fellow dancer and potential rival. This isn't a gratuitous sex scene and isn't likely to titillate because in context there is an uneasy tension that turns nightmarish. The awakening of Nina's sexuality is key to the character's unraveling.

The film is up for five Oscars include best picture, best director and best actress for Portman. It would be a massive upset if she didn't get the award. Portman's Nina is a performer who ultimately loses herself to a character she must betray. It is easy to imagine that Portman had to be careful to not have life imitate art because her performance is exposed, raw and pushes things to the limit.


As the title implies, “Blue Valentine” is not a sunny look at love. This is an often painfully honest and realistic look at relationships. It is a film that shows both the good and the bad, but also just the routine — the little details that build to the big problems that can end a relationship.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling stars as a married couple with a young daughter. Williams' Cindy is a nurse and Gosling's Dean is a high school dropout who works as a painter. The marriage is clearly stagnated. Dean is oblivious, but it is obviously wearing on Cindy.

The film bounces back and forth between the present and flashbacks of when they first met and fell in love. We are shown the beginning and the end of the relationship. The how and why behind the disintegration of the relationship are left out.

It would seem like the film's essential drama is missing, but the film works because of the striking juxtaposition of the early days of the relationship with the current situation. It isn't hard to imagine how things got the way they did. The characters are drawn so realistically and recognizably that it is easy for the audience to fill in the blanks.

Much of the film was improvised and both actors are so naturalistic that it creates situations that feel authentic. Scenes of their first date have all the awkwardness of a first encounter, but also the sense of attraction and flirtation. What rings even more true are the quiet confrontations that mask bigger issues that inevitably come to a head. To the film's credit, neither person in the relationship is vilified. Williams isn't made into an angelic nurse and Gosling doesn't become a deadbeat alcoholic wife beater. Both characters are flawed individuals.

Williams received an Oscar nomination for her work and it is very good, but Gosling may be better. He creates two distinct versions of Dean, and, while the younger version was hardly perfect, we are sad to see what the older version has become: a good person who had potential, but wasted it and regressed to an infantile version of himself.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Student Artist Profile: Trumpet player Tasha Jost follows her music dreams

Tasha Jost, a senior at Kennett High School, is a trumpet player and a singer. She started in music in the fourth grade but got more involved outside of school during her sophomore year when she auditioned for and was accepted to New Hampshire's All-State Music program. The following year she was accepted for both All-State and Jazz All-State. She also accepted for a national festival, which afforded her the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

What was the experience of going to D.C. Like?

It was a very cool experience. We performed in the Kennedy Center, so that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There were people from all over the country. A lot of people from Montana. I was the only person from New Hampshire. We stayed there for a whole week and flew out there with my parents. It was a lot of sightseeing and rehearsing. It was definitely a very cool experience.

Did you get to perform for anyone specifically?

I don't think anyone of importance was there other than parents, but it was just being in that building and being on a stage that so many famous people have been on before that was the really cool part.

And what about All-State?

For New Hampshire All-State we'd go to Concord for a weekend each April and you get to work with a guest conductor, usually from a university. Last year I worked with the director from Hofstra University. It is just another cool weekend you get to spend with other high school musicians who are interested in the same things you are interested in.

And you've performed with The Swingtones?

Yep, I did, for I think like three years. I played trumpet and sang with them and that was cool. They've sort of broken into a smaller group since then, so I'm not involved with them anymore.

That was a positive experience?

Yes, definitely. I don't get a lot of opportunity to play big band jazz music and that was just an opportunity that I wouldn't have gotten.

What do you hope to do when you're out of school?

I've auditioned at some colleges and I'm auditioning at UNH this weekend and I'm hoping that I'll be going to a music program either at Ithaca College or UNH next year. That is pretty much, for the next four years, what I want to do, you know, get better at what I do. And then after that? Who knows?

What do you like to perform most?

Style-wise, classical music is my favorite. Playing in a orchestra, if I could have exactly what I wanted that's exactly what I would do, but it is not going to happen most likely.

Would you be open to playing in a jazz band again or a ska band or something like that?

I love ska music. I played in my first ska band at camp this summer and it was very interesting.

What are some of your influences or favorites to listen?

I listen to a lot of Boston Symphony Orchestra. I listen to a lot of musicals too. I guess, actually my dream job would be to play in a pit orchestra on Broadway. I listen to Alison Balsom, she is a female trumpeter from, I believe, England and she's probably who I strive to be most like because she's really making a name for herself in trumpet classical performance and that is just very cool to me.

How has it been balancing academics with music and sports?

Well, I only play one school sport a year and that's volleyball and that happens in the fall. It is really stress at the beginning of year because you've had the whole summer to let your brain just turn to jelly and you come back you're expected to do work and keep your grades up and stay involved. I try to practice [trumpet] once a day for at least an hour, sometimes an hour and a half. I do a lot of homework over the weekends. I have a study hall now so I do homework then, too. But I've done a pretty good job of keeping good grades and balancing friends and family and school.

Have you received a lot of encouragement from the school for your music?

Definitely. My band director and my trumpet teacher, they are both really supportive. Mr. Moylan, whenever he sees me in the hallway, is like “Hey, I read another thing about you” or “I heard your last performance, it was great.” It is definitely a supportive atmosphere there. At home, my sister is a musician and my parents both play instruments, so they totally understand what is going on and they definitely support me.

For a video version of this profile click here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mount Washington Valley well represented at NH Theatre Awards

“We gladly accept this award on their behalf ...” became the on-going theme of the ninth annual New Hampshire Theatre Awards, which were held at last Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

It was ironic that so many winners were unable to accept their awards as there were several people representing Mount Washington Valley theater companies who would've gladly accepted those awards. Alas, despite numerous nominations, the valley's M&D Productions, Advice to the Players and Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company went home empty handed.

But it isn't all bad news for theater in the valley. In many categories all three local theater companies made it to the top three.

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's production of “Hair” was a top three in nearly every category they were finalists in. “Hair” received recognition for best production-musical, best director-musical, Nathaniel Shaw; best music director, Todd Lindamood, best choreographer, Nathaniel Shaw; best lighting designer, Victoria Miller; best sound designer, Phil Zychowski; best costume designer, Shana Goldberger; best supporting actor-musical, Evan Smith as Hud; best supporting actress-musical, Liz Clark Golson as Jeannie. Two of the three final spots for best actors were filled by actors in “Hair”: Patrick Roberts as Claude and Jesse Havea as Berger.

M&D Productions' production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” received four top three nods: best production-drama/comedy; best director-drama/comedy, Richard Russo, best supporting actress-drama/comedy, Heather Hamilton as Stella Kowalski; and best sound designer, Ken Martin.

Advice to the Players received top three for best supporting actor-drama/comedy for Robert Bates as Polonius in “Hamlet” and best supporting actress-drama/comedy for Candace Clift as Dromio of Syracuse in “The Comedy of Errors.”

Much like in a court case, New Hampshire theaters from all corners of the state are judged by a jury of their peers. Every theater that submits show to be adjudicated most go out and do the same for other companies. Each production is seen by six adjudicators with their scores being averaged together to create the list of finalists and, ultimately, the winners.

As for the award ceremony, it is tailored to be a clone of such big gala showcases as the Tony Awards and Academy Awards. All the hallmarks of a bloated award ceremony are here including poorly scripted dialogue for the presenters, which is then delivered stiltedly and flatly by said presenters. The presentation rivaled even the Oscars in its running time, clocking in at around four hours in length.

So where did the time go? Much of the evening was given over to an ongoing and, supposedly, comedic discussion of the merits of dramas versus musicals. The evening was also punctuated by performances from several of the nominated productions.

The show opened with a hilarious and well-written and performed parody of “You Won't Succeed On Broadway” from “Spamalot,” which featured shout outs to both M&D and Advice to the Players.

Nearly all the performances were musical numbers, but Andrew Codispoti, of Advice to the Players, performed the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet.” Another highlight was the Peacock Players' lively and impressively danced and sung “It's Your Wedding Day” from the musical version of the Adam Sandler movie “The Wedding Singer.”

Betty Thomson, 84, received the lifetime achievement award. She was feisty and funny in her acceptance and warned the band to not even think about playing her off. When it was brought to her attention she had a message she said, “That's OK hun, because you aren't getting me off yet.” She earned her time and she was going to talk as long as she pleased and most of the audience seemed just fine with that.

To see highlights from the ninth annual New Hampshire Theatre Awards click here.

M&D's 'Anne Frank' is powerful theater

M&D Productions opens its 2011 season with a powerful production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which open Thursday, Feb. 10, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and will be performed for three weeks Thursday through Saturday.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a challenging show because, for obvious reasons, the story of two Jewish families hiding in a secret annex to escape the Nazis during World War II is highly sensitive material. If handled poorly a production of “Anne Frank” could veer from ham-fisted to unintentionally funny. M&D's production is neither of these things.

Jessica Biggio is quite the discovery in the title role. At just age 14 she commands the stage in ways far beyond her years. Biggio, by the nature of the role, has several monologues delivered directly to the audience and she doesn't miss a beat.

Anne is a care-free, hopeful spirit who struggles to keep her rambunctious energy in check while living with seven other people. In the span of the years living in the annex she butts head with everyone, but also matures and even finds love with Peter (Ged Owen), the son of the other family staying with them.

This is a role that touches on every emotion and Biggio handles the role with grace and poise. In the lighter moments she isn't too precocious and in the heavier moments she doesn't over play. In fact, no one in the cast goes over-the-top. There's a lot of crying in this show and few things are more awkward to watch on stage than bad fake crying, but there's none of that here.

Biggio is surrounded by a strong ensemble cast. Richard Russo is the compassionate patriarch, Christy Hikel is Anne's mother, Courtney Phelps is Anne's sister Margot, Bill Knolla is the dentist they take in, Kevin O'Neil, Suzie Laskin and Owen are the Van Daan family and Julie Lanoie and Dan Phelps are the couple that are helping them hide away.

Russo delivers a monologue in the show's epilogue that is absolutely heartbreaking. It is delivered in a way that brings across the tremendous loss and puts the concluding events of the play into all too true and tragic context.

Courtney Phelps, who has been in such productions as "Footloose" and "Godspell," is barely recognizable and reveals depths that had previously gone untapped. Hikel does a fine job trying to remain the strong mother, who struggles to connect with her daughter. There's a tender scene where mother and daughter finally share a moment of kindness.

O'Neil and Laskin are good as the bickering couple staying with the Franks. When O'Neil is caught sneaking food at night it leads to a confrontation that brings to the fore tensions that had long been simmering.

Knolla as the gruff dentist who becomes Anne's roommate provides some needed comic relief.

The show isn't a 90-minute downer. There are moments of humor and hope. A Hanukkah scene in which Anne manages to make presents for everyone is warm and touching. It is a just about perfect scene.

The ensemble has a beautiful space to play in — an impressively designed recreation of the annex by set designer Deborah Jasien. There are two rooms as well as an attic and director Dennis O'Neil uses the space well with often things happening in both rooms as well as the attic. The production would be worth seeing multiple times just to focus attentions on different aspect of the action.

Victoria Miller does fine work lighting the set and, when necessary, creates an appropriately somber mood.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" puts a face on the Holocaust atrocities. Numbers and statistics are often hard to comprehend. With this production you get to intimately know these eight people and the sorrow of their loss is palpable. M&D honors their names.

For more information or for tickets call Your Theatre at 662-7591.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Confessions of a single guy

My birthday is two days after Valentine's Day. I'll be 28 this year.

Growing up, February was my favorite month because I doubled up on the cards with money enclosed. The checks ran dry long ago. In elementary school you were required to give Valentine's Day cards to everyone, so that was nice as well. As an adult, the obligatory cards are few and far between. This time of year it becomes all the more apparent that I'm single, which, as I get older, feels more pathetic.

I am not single by choice. I've never been much for the bar scene. I can be painfully shy in social situations. If someone initiates the conversation first, I'm fine and an exchange of dialogue will flow naturally. Approaching others I don't know very often terrifies me as I become gripped by a fear of rejection. This paralyzing trepidation, as is usually the case with these sorts of things, can be tied back to injustices I incurred in adolescence.

Most of my life has been spent in the dreaded friend-zone. I've lost count of the number of times of heard variations on the following phrase “You're a really great guy, but I can't see you as more than a friend.” Hearing that over and over again begins to take a psychology toll and you can't help but wonder: what is wrong with me? Am I releasing the wrong kind of pheromones? Am I releasing any pheromones? Perhaps, I talk about myself too much or don't listen enough. I am working on both.

Of course, it is just a line. It is a way, in theory, to soften the blow of the rejection. Even so, there is a certain truth to it. I've been told by women that the fireworks, the magic, the spark isn't there with me. I am too amicable, easy-going and, well, friendly. Whatever the reason that I am friends only material, I call their bluff. I become a friend. It has paid off as I've made some important friendships this way. In truth, I don't mind the friend-zone, but, naturally, desire more.

So, I have turned to the world of online dating and, much to my surprise, I've been quite successful at securing dates. My site of choice for the last year has been the free website, which is every bit as good as the pay-site At both sites though I encountered the same phenomenon. I would send lots of messages out and receive very few responses. On many occasions I'd spend 30 minutes to an hour constructing a message and get nothing back. In talking to the women who did respond I discovered that the problem is that most of the women on these sites have inboxes stuffed with crude, none-to-subtle propositions for sex. The good, unfortunately, gets tossed out with the bad.

I've been able to secure dates because okcupid has an instant messaging service. I search for profiles of women who are online and when I find a profile I like I send a clever one-liner or directly reference something from their profile. I still get ignored, but more often than not I get a response. Something about the immediacy makes it harder to dismiss. It helps that the first thing I say isn't about the size of a certain piece of my anatomy. Many of these exchanges peter out, but some eventually leave okcupid for other social media before moving onto phone conversations and dates.

There have been positive experiences and disastrous ones. There have been sweet, intelligent, witty women and raving loons. I had a conversation with a girl who claims she sold her soul to the devil in exchange for the power to beguile all men. Apparently, I am immune to her bewitching charms. There also seems to be a high number of women on okcupid with serious emotional issues. This leads me to wonder if everyone on dating sites are damaged goods and therefore what does that say about me?

I am discovering more friends on okcupid than love interests and after years of frustration of being just the friend I am simply embracing it. In the past, I was trying too hard. There was a desperation in my pursuit for love. I've come to a place where I'm glad to make new connections and create a network of new, worthy friends who can enrich my life. Should one of these friendships turn to love that will be welcomed, but I'm no longer going to sweat it. I've come to dating later than most and I'm experiencing it at my own, perfectly healthy pace. The more I think about it that doesn't sound pathetic at all.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Student Artist Profile: Emily Layne — Drawing from life

Emily Layne, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, is an aspiring artist with an interest in graphic novels. She recently did a graphic novel adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado” as an assignment for Mr. St. Pierre.

When did you get into art?

When I was younger, my dad started dating a woman and she was an artist and worked with art. She influenced me. Whenever we'd hang out or when I went over to visit them we'd do art projects and draw all day.

What sort of things do you like doing?

When I was younger, I mostly focused on anime, but since then I've kind of moved out of that into my own style, but it reflects a lot of cartoon and anime mix as far as the style goes. Abstraction. I like to draw that people might be thinking rather than what's really there with a lot of stuff, I mean not all the time, but a lot of time I like to look at how things look in the mind versus how they look actually in the world.

What are some of your influences?

I like to look at other artists' works and I find a lot of stuff comes from that, not their work itself, but…I don't know how to describe it. I look at other people's work and integrating concepts or just thinking. My friend printed me off all kinds of stuff to draw like silence or running water and just stuff like that seems so every day, but when you try to do draw it really makes you think.

Do you have any particular artists that you are a fan of?

Jhonen Vasquez, the man who did “Invader Zim” and he does “Johnny the Homicidal Maniac” and there's another one, what's his name, he does an online comic called “Serenity Rose” — it is on — but he does really funky stuff. I can't think of anyone's names. That's awful. A lot of them are just screennames that I can't even think of. If you were hoping to hear me list of really famous artists...

No, no, no.

OK, good because I don't know any famous artist names. I know Van Gogh and all that stuff, but I could never look at their paintings and tell you who did what because I am terrible with that smart people knowledge.

Before you did this comic book/graphic novel for St. Pierre had you had any interest in doing that before?

Yes, I had. I found “Serenity Rose” a long time ago, a couple years ago, and that influenced me and I started doing comic books. I did my own kind of comics a while ago. When I heard we were going to do a graphic novel class at school I was like, “Oh my God, that's awesome.”

What do you want to do when you are older?

Oh gosh, the ever famous question. I am not really sure actually. I want to go to art school and I want to do something with art. It might be doing comics and it might be doing signs for…anything. It doesn't really matter. I just figured I'd find what I find.

Are there any particular graphic novels or comic books that you are really fond of?

The manga series, like mangas from Japan. I was always really fond of “Jing: King of Bandits” and “Gundam,” but they are all pretty much the same style. The stories, I always enjoyed the stories, they were really cool. As far as American stuff would be concerned it would be the “Teen Titans” and most of the superhero stuff. I wasn't ever really fond of just regular day-to-day life stories. Reading them is fine, but when they're on paper you kind of want action when you're looking at pictures. You want to see some blood and gore.

Click here to watch the video version of this profile including samples of Layne's work.

Five underrated romantic comedies for Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and, with the cold and snow often keeping us home, it is the ideal time to cuddle up with some movies. This time of year a lot of familiar and worthy romantic fare gets brought out, but there are also plenty of underrated or forgotten romantic comedies that fit this season of love just right. Here are five such films.

“Night Shift” (1982)
Ron Howard directed his “Happy Days” co-star Henry Winkler in this film about a morgue that is turned into a brothel. Given the scandalous subject matter the film is surprisingly sweet and good natured. Winkler nicely places against his Fonzie-type and Michael Keaton, in his first film role, is hilarious as Winkler's partner. Shelley Long is the hooker with a good heart that Winkler falls in love with. The film is dated, but in its own off-beat way it is a minor gem.

“The Sure Thing” (1985)

Director Rob Reiner made this film between two classics, “This Is Spinal Tap” and “Stand By Me.” The “The Sure Thing” isn't as brilliant as either of those films, but it is still a sweet, honest and funny look at young love. Two exact opposites (John Cusack, in his first lead role, and Daphne Zuniga) are forced to travel cross country together and inevitably fall in love. It is a classic plot dating back to one of the earliest screwball comedies, “It Happened One Night,” but is played sincerely and with plenty of warm humor.

“Defending Your Life” (1991)
This high-concept comedy from writer/director/star Albert Brooks offers up a unique twist on the afterlife. Before getting into heaven you must defend your life choices in a trial. Those unworthy get sent back to Earth to try again. Brooks falls for Meryl Streep, who is definitely on her way to heaven, while his chances don't look so good. Rip Torn is a scene stealer as Brooks' lawyer, but it is the low-key chemistry between Brooks and Streep that anchors this extremely clever and often hilarious comedy.

“Singles” (1992)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe has made two iconic modern love stories with “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire” and while “Singles” isn't of the same caliber it is a charming look at love in the early 1990s. The film follows several sets of characters looking for love in Seattle, which allows the film to become a time capsule of the grunge music scene. There are good performance throughout particularly from Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott and Matt Dillion as a would-be rocker.

“Keeping the Faith” (2000)
Few people would've guessed that actor Edward Norton's directorial debut would be a romantic comedy about faith. Norton stars with Ben Stiller as a priest and rabbi who both fall in love with Jenna Elfman, a former childhood friend who re-enters their lives. It sounds like a bad “A priest and rabbi walk into a bar” joke, but the film is thoughtful, sophisticated and funny. The three leads have charm to spare and have strong support from Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach and a rare bit of acting from director Milos Forman.