Friday, May 27, 2011

Latest 'Pirates' is good enough

Here's the short review of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the fourth in the wildly successful Disney franchise: more of the same, which depending on your frame of mind, can be a positive or a negative.
“Curse of the Black Pearl,” the first in the series, wasn't a perfect movie, but it introduced us to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, a wholly original characterization that sparked an otherwise routine pirate yarn. Also, in comparison to this new film there was an energy in the pacing and a moody atmosphere in Gore Verbinski's direction.
Verbinski also directed the bloated second and third films, which both had long, dull patches, but even those films had some interesting visuals and imaginatively staged action set pieces. “At World's End” became down right surreal at times.
Many assumed that all you needed for a successful “Pirates” movie was Depp, but, now with a new director, Rob Marshall, it is apparent how integral Verbinski was in giving those films their offbeat loopiness.
“On Stranger Tides,” which begins anew without the characters played by Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley, starts out promisingly with much of the quirky charm of the earlier films in tact. Impersonating a judge, Sparrow saves fellow pirate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from a hanging and then after a brief meeting with King George (Richard Griffiths) makes an elaborate escape that includes swinging from chandeliers and stealing a pastry or two in the process. It is good fun. 
Then the plot proper begins. Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former flame, is impersonating Sparrow and gathering a crew to search for the fountain of youth. Turns out Angelica is the daughter of the dreaded Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and Sparrow is now a reluctant member of his crew.
Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbossa, now working as a captain for the English Royal Navy, who is also pursuing the fountain. Just for good measure the film throws in the Spanish in the pursuit as well because, hey, why not when you have a $250 million budget?
The introduction of the new characters like McShane's formidable Blackbeard and Cruz's feisty Angelica along with the re-introduction of Sparrow and Barbossa is all well handled, but then the film doesn't really seem to know what to do with itself.
There's some business about needing the tear of a mermaid to make the fountain of youth work. This brings about a sequence involving an attack by web-slinging vampire mermaids/sirens. One (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is captured and this leads to a cornball love subplot with a young man of faith (Sam Claflin) who is a part of Blackbeard's crew in hopes of saving his soul. These two are so dull that those who complained about Bloom and Knightley will be begging for their return.
Then there's Depp, who continues to provide his oddball line readings, but all the things that were so unexpected about the Jack Sparrow character in the first film have become the expected. Depp is still entertaining, but the character feels somewhat restrained and less of the element of anarchy he was in the previous films. In many ways, he has been softened — he admits to having feelings for Angelica — and made into a more traditional hero. It takes away some of the fun of the character.
Rush, who was so gloriously hammy in the previous films, also seems more subdued here. Even McShane, after a great first introduction, is lacking something. The whole thing feels ever so slightly off.
So, is it entertaining? Yes, while you're watching it is a diverting couple hours. It just isn't likely to linger. This is disposable, forgettable summer fare, which is fine, but we've come to expect more than just that from Captain Jack Sparrow.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Arts in Motion does good 'work' with Helen Keller story

Arts in Motion Theater Company takes on “The Miracle Worker,” the inspirational story of Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, who, thanks to her live-in tutor, Anne Sullivan, overcomes her handicap in a time when no one thought it was possible.
“The Miracle Worker,” which opened Thursday, May 19, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is running Thursday through Sunday this weekend and next, focuses on the initial struggle of Sullivan (Julie Lanoie) to get through to the young, undisciplined Helen (Megan Perrin).
While “The Miracle Worker” is a cherished piece of theater, this probably has more to do the sheer power of the story than the play itself, which suffers from an uneven script by William Gibson. The first act is clunky, trite, heavy handed and allows for little subtlety.
As is the case with many plays, the first act is all mechanism, setting up the drama of the second act. The first act ends with a very funny scene in which Sullivan attempts to teach the unruly Helen table manners. It nicely sets up the second act, which shifts Helen away from her parents (Julianne Brosnan and Craig Holden) to one-on-one tutoring with Sullivan.
The second act is where the true drama of the story lies and what audiences respond to and remember most. The strength of these scenes more than compensates for the flaws of the first act and builds to a conclusion that is difficult not to be moved by.
The above criticisms are addressed at the play itself, not this production, which is very fine indeed. They are limited by the material in that first act, but then this would hold true of any production. Even the original New York Times review of the play in 1959 noted that elements of the show were “at times clumsy.”
This is a well-cast production with a assured direction by Barbara Spofford and a fantastic set by Deborah Jasien that recreates the 19th-century Keller estate.
Spofford and lighting designer Joshua Adams make some interesting lighting choices in the second act that make a lasting impression. When Helen and Sullivan have shifted to the garden house for private lessons, a spotlight is used to direct attention to events either in the garden house or main house. It is an effective bit of directing.
Lanoie, in spite of a come-and-go Irish accent, is very good as Sullivan, a strong-willed woman who fights for her beliefs and ideals. Lanoie is able to bring across that passion, but also portrays Sullivan's fears of failing Helen. It is a delicate balance between self-assuredness and insecurity that Lanoie handles well.
Perrin has a challenging role as Helen. Not only must she play blind, but, with the exception of grunts, yelling and crying, it is also a largely silent performance. It is kind of performance that could become laughable, but Perrin is convincing. While many in the family assume she isn't smart, Helen isn't stupid. Perrin is able to get that across in such scenes as when she has a mischievous grin after locking Sullivan in her room.
Holden as the aging southern father with a fondness for talking about the Civil War is quite good. He has a commanding stage presence, perhaps too much so at times. There are moments when it appears he confusions shouting with acting. On the other hand, there is a tender, soft spoken scene in which, after much contention, he praises Sullivan's work.
Brosnan is also solid as the loving, compassionate mother who refuses to believe Helen is a locked chest that can never be opened. She brings a genuine, motherly sense of warmth to her performance.
This is a well-mounted and acted piece of theater that honors Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Reserve seating online or by calling the box office at 356-5776 or purchase tickets at the door.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Student Artist Profile: Hannah Paven — Having 'fun' acting

Hannah Paven, a senior at Kennett High School, has been acting in school and community theater for years and has gathered a long list of performance that includes “The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe,” “Rent,” “Almost, Maine,” "Steel Magnolias” and “Guys and Dolls.” She was also in Jubilation, the Kennett High School glee club, which made it to the top five in the Fox 23 Glee For All video competition last November.
When did you get into singing and acting?
I have been singing for a very long time, probably since I was, I don't know, 4 or 5. It started in New Jersey with more like church group singing and then moved to theater in fourth or fifth grade. I think my first show was “The Pirates of Penzance” back in the day and ever since I've just loved it, so I haven't stopped.
How many shows do you think you've been in at this point?
Oh gosh, I don't even know. I think I was in like eight in just the past two years, so I'm going to say close to 20.
What has been your favorite performance?
I really liked “Guys and Dolls,” I was Adelaide, which we just did in the spring. “Steel Magnolias” was fun, but I think “Rent” was probably my favorite as Maureen.
What was the most challenging performance?
Probably “Rent” with Maureen. It was fun, but it was hard because it is such a big show to take on, but that was fun. Adelaide was hard in “Guys and Dolls.” It was different from anything I'd ever done, but I liked it a lot. It was fun.
I know in both those cases, “Rent” and “Guys and Dolls,” you rehearsed for months. What was that process like?
“Rent” was vigorous. It was almost every day for the summer, but it was awesome. It kept me occupied for the summer and it was something I really like to do, so it was fun. “Guys and Dolls” was just long because of the weather and all the cancellations, but it was fun. It really helps you bond with the cast having lots of rehearsals and the shows came out pretty well, so I think it worked well.
What are you hoping to do after graduation when you head off to college?
This fall I'm going to University of Vermont and studying early childhood education, as of now, but I plan on double majoring with theater as well.
When you come home do you think you will continue to participate in community theater?
Definitely, I don't want to give it up.
Who are some of your influences musically or acting wise?
I would say that I idolize Idena Menzel. She is probably the top for me. I just think all her work is amazing and I want to be in every show she's been in. Doing “Rent” was awesome because she was the same role I was, so it was kind of cool to play the same role Idena Menzel once played.
Ideally, if you could, would you want to do the whole go to New York and do Broadway thing?
If I could, I would, definitely. I think it is a hard business and it is definitely difficult to get roles. There are so many people out there who are so talented, but if I could, I would. It would be fun, but it is not something I am putting all my eggs in the basket. I'm not going to just settle for that.
Are there any roles you really want to do in the future?
I just saw “Spring Awakening” and I fell in love with the show, so I'd definitely like to play Wendla in “Spring Awakening” because it is an awesome role and really fun.
I realize that you've mostly done musical theater, but what has it been like with having to do straight acting like with “Steel Magnolias” and “Almost, Maine”?
It is difficult. It is definitely a challenge for me because I definitely like more of the Broadway show tunes. “Steel Magnolias” was probably one of the hardest roles I ever played just because I had a medical condition and I had to do it on stage and it was really difficult. I definitely prefer musical theater over normal theater. There's definitely a difference though.
Do you have any plans for the summer in terms of performances or singing?
No, not really. I might be auditioning for a couple shows here and there, but we'll see. I'm trying to do something for the summer, but if it doesn't happen that's fine because it is a big summer with trying to get ready for college and everything. But I'd like to.
Is there anything happening with the glee club?
I know that they are doing it again. I'm personally not doing it because it is the end of senior year and I've got a lot of chaos going on. I know they re-held auditions and that they have a whole new group of people. From what I hear they are doing really well. They should be doing a couple performance for the Fourth of July is what I heard.
What was that whole Fox thing like?
That was exciting. None of us really thought it would go anywhere really. It was kind of just presented to us last minute. We just did it and then we found out that we were in the top five. We were all really excited. It was fun to be on TV. It was nerve-racking, but really fun and a good experience.
Do you have any final thoughts about why you like acting, why you like singing or what you want to do?
I always say I like acting because it gives me a chance to be someone else that I am not on stage and you can be anyone. I've been Susan in “Narnia” to a '50s girl and it is really fun to just be in the costumes and just be someone else you're not everyday.

'Priest' is all bark no bite

“Priest,” the sci-fi, western vampire movie, quite literally isn't much of a movie with a running time that clocks in at 78 minutes minus the closing credits. This turns out to be a blessing as even that feels too long.
This is the kind of film that spends so much time on looking cool that the filmmakers forget about such things as character development and getting performances out of the actors that aren't so wooden you could start a fire with them.
Based on a Korean comic, “Priest” is all style and no substance. The premise is that in the future beastly vampires have over-run the planet, but, thanks to a special order of priests with exceptional vampire killing skills, their attacks were quelled. What remains of humanity lives in a walled-off city led by a Big Brother-esque monsignor (Christopher Plummer).
Having done their duty these priests are no longer needed, but one of them (Paul Bettany) goes rogue after hearing of a vampire attack on his brother (Stephen Moyer) that resulted in the kidnapping of his niece (Lily Collins). When Bettany is joined by a small town sheriff (Cam Gigandet) in the pursuit of the girl, the plot becomes a pale knock off of “The Searchers.” A fellow former priest (Maggie Q) sent to bring Bettany back also joins the cause.
Bettany is a talented, charming actor who is wasting his talent on this kind of schlock. The wit he brought to his roles in movies such as “A Knight's Tale,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Master and Commander” is nowhere to be seen. Granted his character is supposed to be stoic, but there's no weight to the performance. He's merely dry, stiff and uninteresting.
This is Bettany's second time working with director Scott Charles Stewart following 2009's “Legion,” so he clearly enjoys working with him and it must be fun to make these stylized action scenes, but the fun rarely translates onto the screen.
Bettany gets no help from Gigandet, who simply can't act. He poses, he preens and brings the same frozen facial expression to every emotion. Had his performance been stronger maybe Bettany would've had something to play off of.
The only actor that truly registers is Karl Urban as the villain of the piece. He is the kind of seductive, charismatic, funny, confident villain that audiences love to hate. He has the film's best lines and moments, but he also, unfortunately, has very little screen time and isn't enough to save the film.
There are some nice touches. Bettany's priest uses crosses that become ninja stars while battling vampires, which is, admittedly, a cool visual. There is a brief animated prologue that is better and more interesting than the film itself.
There's an interesting premise here, essentially a western with vampires, but the execution is poor. Isolated moments hold interest, but without well developed characters we simply don't care. With another 20-30 minutes to actual create characters instead of cardboard cutouts, this could've been a good a movie. As is, it is just a missed opportunity.

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Thor' is mighty indeed

It now seems like you know it is summer time when you have the arrival of the first superhero movie of the season. This year summer comes early with “Thor,” the latest film from Marvel Studios.
“Thor” is one of the stranger heroes in the Marvel comics family. Well, strange is perhaps the wrong word given the Marvel universe features a bevy of mutants and oddities, but he's an unlikely choice for a comic book superhero given his origins in Norse mythology.
Kenneth Branagh, best known for directing and starring in Shakespearean film adaptations such as “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” directs “Thor.” He may seem like an odd choice to direct a big budget superhero film, but he brings a gravity to the scenes in the realm of Asgard. Norse mythology, even in this watered down state, has much of the same sort of drama Shakespeare's plays dealt in.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, is set to be named the new king of Asgard, replacing his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but the ceremony is interrupted by an attack by the ice giants, a rival race from a neighboring realm. The impetuous Thor goes against his father's wishes and leads an attack on the ice giants' world thus undoing an already tenuous truce.
Angered by his arrogance and vanity, Odin strips Thor of his power and his mighty hammer and banishes him to Earth where he'll only regain what he has lost by learning humility and compassion. Luckily, Thor meets a trio of scientist played by Natalie Portman, Stellan SkarsgÄrd and Kat Dennings who help him overcome his flaws.
The other key player in all this is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief and Thor's brother. His motives and intentions are ambiguous for much of the film. Is he just a prankster or a schemer? It is probably only Branagh's presence as director that begs the Shakespeare comparison, but there's a bit of Iago from “Othello” in Hiddleston's Loki. It is a strong performance that makes the character dimensional and sympathetic even when doing sinister things.
Hemsworth, who had a small but crucial role as Kirk's father in 2009's “Star Trek,” is quite fantastic in the title role. He certainly looks the part, handsome and muscular, but that's really the easy part. Any number of male models could get the look right.
What Hemsworth brings to the table is raw charisma. He plays the fish-out-of-water scenes on Earth very well, allowing Thor's now misplaced bravado to create an amusing juxtaposition with the world around him. He also gives Thor a complete arc. Hemsworth does a fine job portraying Thor's ego at the beginning of film and showing his transformation into a more humble and better being by the end.
Portman is also charming, warm and funny as Thor's love interest and she does have chemistry with Hemsworth, but there's just not quite enough there on the screen. We're suppose to believe they've made a deep connection, but it feels as if a scene or two is missing. The film would've benefited from more time with them together.
Inevitably, there has to be a bad action showdown at the end, with Thor and a trio of Asgardian friends (sort of his Merry Men) doing battle with the Destroyer, which is sent to Earth to put an end to Thor and everything that stands in its way.
It is an exciting, well-handled action scene, but as was true of “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” two previous films from the Marvel, it is the middle, character-driven section of the film that works best. It is the care that each of these films puts to making characters we actually care about that makes them such satisfying pieces of entertainment.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Student Artist Profile: Jonathan Dana — Keeping the beat

Jonathan Dana, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, plays drums in the academy’s jazz band, which has won numerous awards both at state competitions and at Berklee. His father, Michael Dana, is the film teacher at the academy and has worked in the film industry. This gave Jonathan access to equipment most kids don't get to use.
When did you get into drumming?
Basically when Mr. LaCasce told me to play drums. I was in middle school, sixth grade, and I was interested in drums. I started in fifth grade just banging on stuff and then in sixth grade Mr. LaCasce said ‘Why don’t you play in MOJO’ which was then the Molly Ockett Jazz Orchestra. Molly Ockett was the middle school I went to. That was how I started and I have been playing for him ever since.
When did you start seeing that you were getting to a really proficient level?
Freshman year I knew it was a serious program because you’re seeing the people that are coming out as seniors. I was like “Wow, I’m really going to have work to get to this level.” That’s when I got serious about it and I went to camp. At Camp Encore I really learned a lot about playing jazz drums. That’s where it kind of fueled all my inspiration for playing during the school year — that all started at camp. I went to camp every year since and it just got better and better and you just keep on playing and eventually you get better no matter what you do.
Is it jazz drumming specifically that you play or do you play other kinds of music?
Yeah, there is a rock program there too, but the jazz program is much bigger and that’s where all the awards come from and stuff like that. So, I guess jazz drumming is more my forte.
What has it been like getting all these accolades with the jazz groups?
It is just overwhelming. You become desensitized to it all. You know it is another first place win, great, what else is new? It is baffling how this little small town, Fryeburg, Maine can produce such amazing music. It is really quite fantastic.
What are all the award that you’ve received?
Just this year alone, we’ve won first place for Berklee, second place in big band, first place in combo, which I was in, first place in vocal jazz, and that’s all the state. Berklee was first place for vocal jazz and that’s a national competition.
Do you have any desire to continue performing music outside of school?
Yes, it is definitely one of my passions. I don’t think I want to go into it for a living just because it is so hard to make a living playing any kind of instrument, but it is so much fun. I love it. And to get to the level where you are proficient enough to just get up and go and play. It is just great to jam with people, so I find a lot of joy in that.
Do you have any interest in forming your own band or creating your own music?
Yeah, I’m writing stuff actually on Logic [Studio] on the computer and I have a huge 88-key midi keyboard and I make beats actually. Just cool — not just rhythms, but sounds too, almost like a hip hop beat. Now I am going into writing songs with lyrics. I just won a poetry contest in Conway just last night, so that helps to write good lyrics. I am really interested. I play guitar, a little bit of trumpet and piano. I just like to fool around and see what I come up with.
Now with your father, have you done any sort of experimentation into film?
Oh, absolutely. Since I was a very small child I’ve always been very interested in that because it has just always been around and really high quality stuff.  It has been really easy to have access to the best kind of HD video camcorders and stuff like that. I am actually just finishing a project called “A Small World” by Jonathan Dana. We have a lot international boarding students that come to Fryeburg Academy and I interviewed about 10 or 11 of those kids about their culture and what it is like in their country and the differences. Now I am compiling it and trying to fit it all down to 10 minutes. I am at 25 minutes right now, so I have to cut in half somehow, but it is a lot of good material. That’s going to be done in the next couple weeks.
What are you hoping to do after graduation?
I am going to Clark University. I sent in my enrollment. I think I am going to study cultural studies. I just went to China with a friend and stayed at his apartment in Shanghai and I was just really interested in the differences in culture and how to relate. How like some Chinese may find it rude to even wear shorts in public. Stuff that Americans would never know. I think, since I already have a little kick start on knowing a little bit of Chinese culture, why not go further and learn about all the cultures. I think that’ll be really interesting.
How do you think you might combine your interests in culture and music and film in the future?
Well, that’s the thing. I’m trying. I’m trying to find a way to do that. I’m doing it right now with the movie actually. Because I’m also writing the score to the movie as well, or the short film I should say. It is just like a little piano riff, guitar thing, no vocals, but it is a cool start and I combined all my talents there. But I’ll see what else I can do on a professional level.
Well, I guess that’s it, unless you have any other thoughts on what you do or your aspirations for the future.
I hope to make the world a better place, somehow, so I’ll start that my first year out of college.

'Fast Five' does the impossible: it is actually decent

“Fast Five” is the fifth movie in this title-challenged street racing series. First we had “The Fast and the Furious” a decade ago. Then came “2 Fast 2 Furious” followed by “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Perhaps concerned by being too wordy with the third film, part four dropped the "the" and went with “Fast and Furious.” Now furious is out of the race too. At this rate the inevitable sequel will likely be called “F Six.”
All jokes aside, the film is sort of a minor miracle. Five movies into a series that wasn't that illustrious to start with, this should be the most stale piece of bread around. Somehow, against all odds, the film is actually decent.
As with the last film, “Fast Five” opens with a spectacular James Bond-style stunt sequence. This time, it involves stealing cars off a moving train and ends with our anti-heroes, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, having to drive one of the cars off a cliff. The whole sequence, to borrow the stage name of one of the film's co-stars, is ludicrous, but it is also thrilling and highly entertaining.
Diesel's Dom and Walker's Brian are on the lam in Rio de Janeiro with Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) who is pregnant with Brian's baby. The death of some federal agents gets pinned on them, which brings down the fury of the FBI's top headhunter (Dwayne Johnson). To have the means to disappear forever, the boys plan to steal $100 million from Rio's crime kingpin.
Screenwriter Chris Morgan along with director Justin Lin, three-time veterans of the series, have wisely removed nearly all the street-racing elements from this new film. They instead have positioned it as a heist film, and this gives the film a certain degree of freshness if only because the familiar characters are now playing in a new genre.
To pull off the heist, the film brings together a team comprised of cast members from all the previous films: Matt Schulze from the first film, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges from two, Sung Kang from three and Gal Gadot and Tego Calderon from four.
The cast has good chemistry together even if some of the acting is only mediocre at best. There's a let's-get-the-gang together vibe similar to Steven Soderbergh's “Ocean's” movies that goes a long way to helping the film over its shortcomings.
Walker, who seemed too young for his character back in 2001, has grown into the part over the years even if his acting prowess hasn't had a similar growth spurt. Diesel is still a marble-mouthed mumbler to rival Sly Stallone. Even with their limitation there's a certain fondness that has developed for these actors in these roles.
Johnson makes a formidable and worthy adversary. There's an unavoidable throw down between Johnson and Diesel that should satisfy those who are into that kind of thing. Bridges and Gibson provide some nice comic relief. The ladies of the cast provide little more than their physical assets.
The film ends like it begins with an absurd but energetic and exciting action sequence with Walker and Diesel behind the wheel of two separate cars that have literally pulled a vault from the building it was in. They hit the streets of Rio dragging the vault behind them. Most movie car chases are instantly forgettable, but “Fast Five” deserves credit for originality, at least in this one aspect of the film.
This is by no means high art. It isn't even high-end entertainment, but it works as mindless action escapism and without the nasty hangover you get from a Michael Bay movie.