Saturday, August 27, 2011

New 'Fright Night' matches original

Remakes are a tricky business. If you don't respect and honor the original you'll anger the fan base, but at the same time if you don't do something fresh and new, you beg the question: Why bother? “Fright Night,” a remake of 1985 horror comedy, is a well-crafted film that justifies its existence.
Unfortunately, “Fright Night” is not a hit. It made about $8 million in its opening weekend, but it actuality that's not too shabby. The film is modestly budgeted at $17 million dollars and will easily make that money back.
It is just a shame that isn't having the bigger success it deserves because it is better than a lot of films that do become runaway hits. “Twilight,” I'm looking at you.
The original “Fright Night” was about a teen who believes his new neighbor is a vampire. He convinces Peter Vincent, a local late-night horror host played by Roddy McDowall, to aid him in battling the beast next door. In the update Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) enlists an occult magician (David Tennant) to face off with the bloodsucker named Jerry (Colin Farrell).
This is a remake with a good pedigree. It is written by Marti Noxon, who was a regular writer for both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin off series “Angel.” She is very familiar with this material and knows how to handle self-aware humor with out pushing it too far while at the same time providing real shock moments.
Director Craig Gillespie's first film was the quirky “Lars and the Real Girl,” which was about a young man with paralyzing social anxiety who orders a sex doll, but then starts treating it like a real woman that he is dating.
As a director, Gillespie may not seem like the natural choice to do a horror comedy, but his experience as an indie filmmaker clearly helped him in working on a tight budget and in keeping a focus on the characters. Gillespie creates a darker mood than the original and there is plenty of gory action and chases, especially in the back half of the movie, but the film always puts the characters first.
Jerry, as played by Chris Sarandon in the original, was suave, sophisticated. That cannot be said of the new Jerry. Farrell brings an intense bad-boy sex appeal to the character. He is a genuine lady killer. Farrell seems practically feral at times, but also has a calm, menacing intensity in the way he passive aggressively taunts Charley without directly threatening him. It is a fantastic performance that makes this film fundamentally work.
Tennant as the updated Peter Vincent has a lot of fun mocking the arrogant rock-star personas of so-called magicians like Criss Angel and David Blaine. He has a great bit of business in which, while talking with Yelchin's Charley, he slowly strips away his wig, phony beard and piercings. Tennant gets a delicate balance between lecherous star and reluctant, even cowardly, hero.
In a departure from the original, it is Charley's friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who is convinced Jerry is a vampire while Charley is the skeptical one. In this version Charley starts out the film not entirely likable. He sold out his friendship with Ed to become popular and there's a certain sadness in the Charley and Ed dynamic this time around.
Mintz-Plasse, who will perhaps always be known as McLovin from “Superbad,” is very good in the smaller, but crucial role of Ed. He does his same thing here, but what he does as a comic actor is effective. Within his persona, though, he finds some unexpected darker, dramatic notes that actually improve upon a character that in the original was mostly annoying comic relief.
Imogen Poots as the obligatory love interest is given a bit more to do than be a damsel in distress. Yes, the finale of the film is rescuing her, but as was true of the original, there is an interesting dynamic there. Yelchin, who is a consistently solid actor, and Poots have a believably sweet chemistry. There's a tender moment in which Poots tells Yelchin why she really likes him.
“Fright Night” isn't anything you haven't seen before, but it is a rare remake that may just be an upgrade of the original. There are authentic laughs and scares and at the center a terrific vampire as they once were before they started to brood and sparkle instead of bite and suck.

Friday, August 26, 2011

'A Chorus Line' is a great night of theater

Sometimes after watching a show that won a slew of Tony Awards, I just don't see it. What was so great about that show? Perhaps it is just the quality of the production not doing the show justice. That was not an issue with “A Chorus Line,” a truly great show, brought across beautifully by the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company.
“A Chorus Line,” which opened at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. Tuesday, Aug. 23 and is running daily except Monday through Sept. 4, literally has a bit everything: fantastic dancing, tuneful songs, heartbreaking monologues, crass laughs, sweet humor, physical comedy and moments of quiet introspection.
The show is deceptively simple in its structure. Zach, a director (Grant Golson), and his assistant (Joseph Tudor) are holding auditions for four men and four women for a chorus line. The show is the audition process for the final 17.
Zach doesn't want them to just perform for him. He wants them to talk about themselves. We get a look into the psyche of each of the auditioners and begin to understand how they got into dancing as well as their fears and insecurities.
The cast works exceptionally well as an ensemble. When required to dance together they do so with precision timing, except for those cases when someone is suppose to be dancing poorly. After all, this is meant to be an audition. The singing is also strong with complex harmonizing coming across well.
This isn't just ensemble work, though. The format of the show allows for everyone to get their moment, some a bigger chance than others. There really is no weak link in this cast.
Each person in the audience will come away probably liking someone different, which is the nature of the show. In a way each member of the audience is their own director making their picks for who should make the final cut.
Sarah Beling as Cassie probably has the biggest role of all the auditioners. She has a romantic past with the director and after a failed attempt to make it in Hollywood has returned to New York looking for any work she can get. Zach feels the chorus line is beneath her. Their conflict is the closest the show comes to a traditional storyline. Beling does a good job bringing across her desperation as well as her yearning to simply perform. Her solo number “The Music and the Mirror” is rather beautiful.
Catherine Yudain is very good as Shelia, a 30-year-old dancer who hides behind an aggressive, sardonic attitude that masks the hurt that was caused her during her troubled childhood. On “At the Ballet,” she is joined by Tara Tagliaferro and Kelsey Thompson in a song about how dancing was her only escape.
The show's most powerful moment goes to Jack Haynie as Paul. He stands alone on the stage and gives a straight monologue about growing up and struggling with his homosexuality and finding himself as a dancer in a drag show. Haynie gives a performance that is exposed, vulnerable and moving.
On the lighter side of the spectrum is Christopher Timson as Bobby, a rich kid who grew up with increasingly weird habits. Timson gives a broad and campy performance that is very funny.
The show's biggest laughs come from Liz Golson as Val who on the bawdy “Dance Ten; Looks Three” explains how she got plastic surgery to make her body match her dance abilities. It is a hilarious number and Liz Golson brings it across exceptionally well.
Brittany Santos leads the cast in “What I Did for Love,” a song about the passion everyone auditioning feels about dancing. Santos has a strong and captivating voice.
This is a completely entertaining piece of theater with great singing, dancing and acting throughout. It is hard to imagine someone coming away without liking at least some aspect of the show.
Tickets are $30. For tickets or call the box office at 356-5776.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

'Tree of Life' is film as art

I believe there are three kinds of films: film as art, film as entertainment and film that has both artistic and entertainment value. Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life” falls squarely in the art category. It is a film that will confound and bore some, while leaving others enthralled.
This is a film that defies how we as an audience have been trained to watch films. There is no real plot to speak of. The film is certainly about something, but there is no three-act structure — no clear beginning, middle or end.
Questions like “What's going on?” Or “What does that mean?” are very likely while watching “The Tree of Life.” The best way to process the film is emotionally. Many scenes play with little or no dialogue and rely solely on the power of the images and accompanying music. To be sure this is often an astoundingly beautiful film. If anything, simply looking at the visuals of the film is worthy.
The primary focus of the film is a husband and wife (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan). Pitt, a former naval man, is a harsh disciplinarian, who is psychological and, eventually, physically abusive to his family. Chastain plays a sweet, innocent, childlike mother, who, despite the passage of time, always retains an ageless beauty.
Through this family, Malick is attempting to explore the meaning of life, love and existence. It is an ambiguous exploration to say the least that yields some revelations, but no clear answers, which is probably the point. There are no true answers to these questions, only the search for them.
The acting in the film is strong throughout and has a natural quality. It's almost as if we aren't watching actors, but merely peering in on real life. Yet, at the same time, there's an ethereal quality to much of the film.
Pitt is very good as the stern father who, as an audience, we grow to find loathsome and yet he does have moments of sympathy. Some films would portray the character simply as an abusive monster, but there's more complexity here.
The film looks at how strict disciple without compassion can cause the opposite of the desired effect. The middle son Jack, played by the excellent McCracken, turns bitter, rebellious and even mean. He also loses respect for his mother because she allows herself to be treated so poorly.
Jack is later played by Sean Penn, but the actor is asked to do little more than brood and look weary. The older Jack does allow the audience a clue, though, on how to possibly process a film that at times seem impenetrable. What we are seeing, at least in part, are likely Jack's memories. The film jumps around time, much like someone flipping through memories and, as with memories, there is a certain dreamlike quality.
Much of the film is filled with seemingly unrelated images of nature — crashing ocean waves, waterfalls, sunflowers, sunsets — so much so that, at times, the film feels like a nature documentary. Malick even shows us nothing less than the creation of the universe and progression of our planet. There are even brief scenes featuring dinosaurs. It is hard to say what these visuals have to do with the family at the center of the film except to place them into a larger context of existence.
This is most definitely not a film for everyone. It is slow and meandering and  certainly will try many people's patience. Still there's something there. If anything, this is a conversation starter even if only to figure out what you just watched.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

'Jesus Christ Superstar' showcases great singing

Arts in Motion Theater Company brings Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the Loynd Auditorium stage in North Conway, N.H. for the next two weeks with shows Thursday through Sunday. Though based on a book you may have heard of, this is not your typical passion play.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” first appeared on Broadway in 1971 following the release of an album. The show is a rock opera loosely based on the gospels' accounts of the last week of Jesus' life with lyrics by Tim Rice that feature contemporary slang, attitudes and references. It isn't a black-and-white portrayal of these events and plays in the grays by showing Jesus' insecurities, doubts and flaws and his betrayer, Judas, as a tragic, even sympathetic figure.
Arts in Motion's production, working from a concept by Gregory Charette under the direction of Mary Bastoni-Rebmann and music direction of Tracy Gardner, is a showcase for several good singers and some solid acting.
Rafe Matregrano returns to the role of Jesus Christ having previously performed it in M&D Productions' “Godspell.” He has a strong voice that is sometimes stretched to its limits, but when he stays with his range he has rather sweet voice.
Most importantly, Matregrano gets the emotions right. He does not hold back in this performance. His anger and hurt towards Judas is clearly visible on songs like “Strangething Mystifying” and “The Last Supper.” Matregrano is strongest on the more contemplative songs particularly on “Gesthsemane,” a song in which Jesus struggles with whether he is able to willingly let himself die.
Holly Reville is fantastic as Mary Magdalene. She has a pure, clear and beautiful voice that is perfectly highlighted on “Everything's Alright.” She brings a lot of warmth and compassion to the role. Her performance of “I Don't Know How to Love Him” is one of the show's best moment.
Paul Allen is sharing the role of Pilate with Matt Stoker. I saw Allen's take on the role, so I can only comment on that. Allen has a powerful and commanding voice. He doesn't make an appearance until late in first act on “Pilate's Dream” and while he may not be the most beloved character, you're eager for his return.
Like Matregrano, Allen gives a complete performance. He doesn't simply sing the songs, but puts genuine feeling into them. “On Trial By Pilate,” he makes his frustration toward Jesus clear as well as his unwillingness to condemn him and the pressure put on him from the masses calling for Jesus' death.
Jahn Deschambeault as Judas has a strong voice, but, because of technical difficulties with the microphones, hearing her voice was often difficult. Her performance is good and she is able to hint at Judas' emotional turmoil, but doesn't quite fully bring it across.
This microphone issue also marred Ged Owen's performance as Caiaphas, the high priest who sees Jesus as a threat to the nation. It is a shame as Owen gets to show off his capable use of the lower ranges of his voice. Unfortunately, sometimes you can't hear any of it. Hopefully, these audio issues were just opening night hiccups that will be sorted out as the show progresses.
Abby Miller has one solo as Simon Zealotes and her powerhouse voice is one that leaves a lasting impression.
Stacy Sand as King Herod has fun on “Herod Song.” The song is Herod's mocking plea to Jesus to perform some miracles and prove he is the son of God. Sand is flanked by a line of Rockette-style dancers and the number is the show's highlight in terms of dancing.
Elsewhere it is the dancing that is the show's weakest element. The stage often just feels cluttered and chaotic and it seems as if the performers are, at times, wandering around aimlessly. The show also feels somewhat disjointed with scenes working well together as stand-alone pieces, but not really ever connecting.
The use of video was largely superfluous, but there are some directing choice that work extremely well as when Jesus' shadow falls on to the crucifix that is the center piece of the stage during the interspective “Gesthsemane.”
Ultimately, it is the singing that make this worth checking out. Tickets are $15 and $12 for students and seniors. For more information or tickets,

Friday, August 12, 2011

More than a 'couple' of laughs

Need a laugh? How about several of them? M&D Productions has the solution with its production of “The Odd Couple: The Female Version,” which opened Thursday at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks.
Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple,” the story of slob and a neat freak who decide to move in together, has seen many incarnations and first appeared on Broadway in 1965. The play spawned the successful 1968 film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, which in turn spawned the popular TV series that aired from 1970 to 1975 starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.
On the 20th anniversary of the show, Simon decided to revisit the characters, but with a gender reversal. Thus, Oscar, the slovenly one, and Felix, the fastidious one, became Olive and Florence. Julianne Brosnan takes on the role of Olive and Jane Duggan that of Florence, and they make a good team.
Brosnan, who last year appeared as the uptight Sister Aloysius in “Doubt,” gets to let loose as the proudly messy Olive while Duggan makes it rather easy to see how anyone would be driven crazy by Florence after mere hours together let alone days and weeks. This is comic dialogue that is all about delivery and timing and these two, under the direction of Rich Russo, hit every line just right.
Much of the female version is word for word the same as its predecessor. All the most iconic moments, such as the linguine scene, are still intact. There are two major changes in content. Poker night with guys is now Trivial Pursuit with the ladies. In the original version Felix and Oscar have a date with their neighbors, the Pigeon sisters from England. In the female version Florence and Olive have a date with the Costazuela brothers from Spain.
This production has gathered together a strong group of women to play the Trivial Pursuit night friends. Karen Gustafson as Mickey “The Cop,” Janette Kondrat as the sarcastic Sylvie, Christina Howe as Renne and Pa'Mela Ramsay as the dimwitted Vera have terrific chemistry together, and the scenes have an easygoing flow. There's a great energy when a suicidal Florence arrives late to Trivial Pursuit after her husband leaves her.
It is with the brothers that Simon actually upgrades upon the original. The brothers are still struggling with the English language which leads to some confusion of terms that have the flavor of classic vaudeville.
As played by Eric Jordan and Doug Collomy, the Costazuela brothers are absolutely hilarious. They come in during the second act and re-energize the show. Collomy speaks in a fast, high-pitched voice that is just right, while Jordan is slightly more suave of the duo. It is board caricature not dissimilar to the “two wild and crazy guys” character from “Saturday Night Live,” but it works extremely well. Duggan has the most stage time with these two, and the way these three play off each other is priceless.
The laughs come fast and often in this production and they are long and hearty. Some dialogue may be missed over the roar of the laughter and that's no exaggeration.
Call the box office at 662-7591 for tickets.

Attend the ballad of 'Sweeney Todd'

 A murderer is on the loose, or so proclaimed ads in The Conway Daily Sun, but fear not: This madman resides only on the stage of the Eastern Slope Inn in North Conway, N.H. The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” opened Wednesday, Aug. 10, and is playing through Aug. 20.
Grant Golson plays Sweeney Todd, formerly Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after a 15-year banishment on false charges. He seeks vengeance against the crooked Judge Turpin (Kevin O'Neil) who destroyed Todd’s life so many years earlier. With Todd’s wife dead and his daughter, Johanna (Brittany Santos), the ward of the Turpin, he sets up shop as a barber waiting for the opportunity to give Turpin an extra close shave.
When Todd’s initial attempts at bloody retribution fail, he decides that all of humanity deserves to fall at the hand of his blade. His ally in this scheme is Mrs. Lovett (Victoria Bundonis), who bakes Todd’s victims into her meat pies. This adds an aspect of sharp social critique particularly on the wickedly funny “Little Priest.”
Director Andrew Glant-Linden and set designer Daniel Thobias open the production at an insane asylum with the inmates forming a chorus that sets up the show with “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” As the show begins proper, the padded cell walls of the set are pushed and pulled to transform into 19th-century London and the inmates become the characters of the play.
This staging choice is a departure from the original, which first opened on Broadway in 1979, but as the show progresses it makes more and more sense as you realize all the primary characters are driven by obsession. For Todd that obsession is killing Turpin, for Turpin it is sheltering Johanna all for himself and for Mrs. Lovett it is her misguided love for Todd.
Even the seemingly normal characters like Todd's daughter and her suitor Anthony (Peter Carrier) are driven by a love that is more like a fixation. Upon further inspection the lyrics to “Johanna,” the sweet ballad Anthony sings to his new love, have a certain darkness to them. “I'll steal you, Johanna, I'll steal you/Do they think that walls could hide you?/Even now, I'm at your window/I am in the dark beside you/Buried sweetly in your yellow hair.”
Golson, who has appeared in a variety of productions for the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company including “Annie” this summer and “Music Man” and “Singin' in the Rain” last summer, makes a terrific Todd.
This is something different for Golson. He broods fantastically and has a powerful voice. On “Epiphany” he revels in Todd's madness. What makes the performance work so well are the smaller details, the barely noticeable facial expressions and gestures.
Bundonis is Golson's equal and helps provide the show with much needed moments of brevity. She has assured comic timing and just a touch of campiness that plays nicely off of Grant's more somber performance. This juxtaposition is most hilariously apparent on “By the Sea.”
O'Neil is appropriately unsettling as Turpin, as is Andrew Lipman as his right-hand man, The Beadle. Carrier and Santos have less colorful roles as Anthony and Johanna, but perform admirably.
This is large ensemble cast that is put to the test by perhaps Sondheim’s most challenging musical, which features dense, overlapping operatic lyrics. The cast is up to this difficult task, but in a few cases struggles to be heard as the live music drowns out the performers. This is a problem that continues to plague productions at the Eastern Slope Inn stage.
The worst example of this occurs during “Kiss Me” and “Ladies in Their Sensitivities.” These songs are sung simultaneously, one in the foreground and one in the background, and when you add the band it creates a wall of sound in which nothing can be made out.
Isolated moments like that aside, this is still a solid production. This is a show that requires a lot of singing of its cast and, under George Wiese's musical direction, there are moments that are genuinely spine-tingling and shouldn't be missed.
Tickets are $30. For tickets or call the box office at 356-5776.

Friday, August 05, 2011

'Cowboys and Aliens' is solid entertainment — no really

“Cowboy and Aliens” may sound like the title of campy, low-budget film, but, surprisingly enough, this is a straightforward, well-crafted, big-budget western that just happens to feature aliens.
The premise of aliens interacting with cowboys may be hard for people to accept, but is it really any more silly than aliens invading modern times? Why wouldn't aliens stop by Earth in the 1800s?
Director Jon Favreau, working with producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, grounds the film in reality. As was true with his “Iron Man” movies, as goofy as the premise may be, he treats the material seriously.
Now serious doesn't mean not fun, but merely that this isn't a broad comedy or parody of the western and sci-fi genres. Instead it is a slick hybrid of elements of both that, while flawed, is entertaining and has unexpected emotional weight.
What adding aliens into the western formula also does is give a common adversary to unite former enemies. In this film town folk, cowboys, bandits and Native Americans all join forces to face off with what they refer to as “demons.” This makes for an interesting and different dynamic.
The film opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with a strange, futuristic metal device on one of his wrists. He has no knowledge of who he is, but he has deadly skills that come to him innately when bandits try to take him hostage. This set up makes Craig's character a bit like Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” movies.
Craig's unknown man heads to a local town where he's recognized as a wanted man with a long list of crimes and is thrown in jail. Then the aliens fly in, activating the device on Craig's wrist, which turns out to be a weapon. The aliens kidnap several town folks before Craig can use his newly discovered weapon. A reluctant alliance is made between Craig and the town folks and they set out to rescue their kin.
Favreau has done a good job recreating the old West, or at least the film version of the old West. The period detail feels authentic. This isn't a rushed film. When the action scenes arrive they are thrilling, but Favreau and his team of six writers take the time to establish the characters and fleshing them out into more than mere stock characters.
Before the aliens arrive we are introduced to a slew of familiar western characters: the sheriff (Keith Carradine), Doc, the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), the preacher (Clancy Brown), a tyrannical rancher that runs the town (Harrison Ford), the rancher's fool son (Paul Dano), the rancher's Native American ranch hand (Adam Beach) and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde).
This is an exceptionally strong ensemble cast with even the smallest roles filled by talented actors. Brown, probably best know to sci-fi fans as the villain in the first “Highlander” film, is a pleasant surprise. As the preacher, he gives a warm, low-key performance that sidesteps cliche. In a couple of the film's strongest scenes, Brown attempts to teach Rockwell how to shoot while also discussing the existence of God.
Ford is in his gruff old-man mode and few actors snarl out a line like he can, but under the crotchety facade, there's a good man. The film nicely develops the relationship between Ford and Beach. This becomes the emotional spine of the film.
Craig gets to play stoic and heroic, but keeps the performance grounded in real emotion. Much like with his portrayal of James Bond, he brings a quiet intensity to his character. He develops an interesting chemistry with Wilde, who is more than just a love interest. There's a plot development with her character that could lose some audience members.
There are definitely elements of the script that are silly – the aliens are essentially intergalactic prospectors looking for gold – but the film overcomes this by refusing to wink at the cameras. The straightforward approach paired with strong acting from everyone involved makes this a solid piece of escapist entertainment.