Friday, September 30, 2011

A nice evening in the 'Park'

CONWAY — Summer may be over, but The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company is sneaking in one last show of professional theater with Neil Simon's “Barefoot in the Park” which opened Sept. 28 and is playing through Oct. 1 and Oct. 5 to 9 at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse.
Real-life married couple Grant and Liz Golson star as Paul and Corie Bratter, newlyweds who after a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel move into a small fifth floor (sixth if you include the stoop) apartment with a hole in the skylight, no bathtub and dodgy heat.
This isn't the first time the Golsons have shared the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's stage as a couple. They most notably played lovers in the 2008 production of “Cabaret.” There real-life chemistry is evident and translates well to the stage.
“Barefoot in the Park” first debuted on Broadway in 1963 and later spawned a film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in 1967 and a short-lived TV series with an all black cast in 1970.
The play chronicles the first few days in their apartment including a dinner party in which Corie attempts to set up her single mother (Caroline Nesbitt) with Victor Velasco (Craig Holden), the kooky neighbor who lives in the attic. Paul, an uptight, slightly neurotic lawyer and Corie, an energic free spirit, have their marriage put to the test and begin to question if they rushed into it.
As with Simon's other works, the show is peppered with sharp one-liners. In Simon's world, everyone — including the telephone repairman (Patrick Roberts) — is quick witted and has excellent comic timing. Simon's stylized dialogue remains very funny even if some of the references are dated.
Grant Golson proves himself to be an excellent physical comedian. The look on his face after carrying Corie's mother up to the apartment after a night out is priceless. The way he pulls a blanket over himself for a night on the couch after a fight with Corie is a small moment that gets a big laugh.
Liz Golson has a bright smile and bubbly personality that makes Corie easily likeable. Corie, under the outgoing front, is actually quite insecure and is quick to jump to the conclusion that her mother disapproves of her actions. It is this insecurity that ultimately leads to her question the marriage. Liz Golson doesn't let this subtext overtake the performance, but hints at it just enough.
Nesbitt protrays a mother who is a good sport. When Nesbit first walks into the unfurnished apartment she does a good job of hiding her disappoint and trying to stay positive and support. During the blind date with Holden, Nesbit's awkward anxiety gets some solid laughs.
As for Holden, the role of Victor Velasco is a familiar variation on the sorts of characters he plays so well. Aging eccentrics are a good fit for Holden; what that says about the actor I'll leave up to you to decide. Holden and Nesbitt develop a sweet chemistry together. Their budding romance runs parallel to Paul and Corie's young love and acts as an example and reminder to the couple when things start to crumble.
“Barefoot in the Park” is a light, easy-going night of theater. It is simply a charming play with some big laughs and a sweet love story.
All shows are at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $29. Flex Passes good for four admissions are $100. Special rates for larger groups are also available. For reservations or information call the box office at 356-5776 or visit

'The Help' is a genuine 'I laughed, I cried' movie

“The Help” is a sleeper hit — a movie that performs far better than anyone expected. Since its release on Aug. 12 it has made more than $150 million. That's no small feat for a summer full of superheroes duking it out with super villains.
In a way though the villain of “The Help” — the perpetuation of deep-seated racist traditions in the 1960s — is far more troubling and cringe-inducing than any of the fantastic plots cooked up by this summer's baddies.
“The Help” focuses on Skeeter (Emma Stone), a white Southern girl from a wealthy background who bucks all the Southern ideals her mother and friends have tried to instill in her. She hungers to be a writer in New York City. Instead she gets a job writing a cleaning column for a local paper. She seeks advice from Aibileen (Viola Davis), a friend's black maid. This encounter leads to the idea to  write a book from the perspective of the help.
At first Skeeter's only subject is Aibileen, but others join including the sassy and strong willed Minny (Octavia Spencer). Standing in their way is Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a bigot that essentially represents all racist Southerns. It is a broadly written and performed character, but the character serves its purpose well.
The other major character is Celia (Jessica Chastain), a socially outcast white woman, who bonds with Minny and treats her more like a friend and equal than a servant. There relationship adds a complexity to the film that wouldn't have been present had the film focused solely on the good, noble Skeeter versus the cruel and manipulative Hilly. Chastain gives a sweet, funny and lovable performance and has a wonderful dynamic with Spencer.
Stone, who up to this point has proven herself to be one of the most promising, charming and funny actresses of her generation, shows dramatic range and depth. Scenes with her mother, played by Allison Jenney, and the maid (Cicely Tyson) who helped raise her have emotional power.
The heart of the belongs to Davis, who gives a subtle, powerful performance. There is a stillness and control to her performance that helps ground the film in reality, which is important to balance out the films broader moments.
Director Tate Taylor, who also adapted the screenplay from Kathryn Stockett novel, finds a good balance between heavy dramatic moments and light comedy. The tonal shifts are rarely jarring as the characters, even if they only represent different archetypes, are so well defined and performed.
Some, including the Association of Black Women Historians, are accusing “The Help” of being racist for filtering these black women's story through a white woman. This is an exaggeration. Could this story be told solely from the perspective of these black maids? Yes. Is the subplot involving Stone attempting to find love unnecessary and distracting from the main story? Yes, but the device of Stone writing a book on the behalf of these woman isn't contrived. The civil rights movement was based on whites and blacks working together.
Clearly, this is a film that takes on the issues of race and gender persecution, but the story is relatable to anyone has faced and attempted to overcome adversity. The empowerment that they feel is moving and uplifting.
The film does simplify the race issue. It essentially sanitizes what was happening to make it more palatable to the mainstream. Some may see this as a negative, but it has allowed the film and its message be seen by more people.
This isn't to say the film doesn't address much of the ugliness of the time period head on, but it is packaged in a way that is more accessible. It is easy to be dismissive of this approach. A harder more realistic version of this material could've been made, but it wouldn't have received the wide exposure this film has had. So, there's a trade off.
The above isn't an attack of the film, but merely a description. Dramatically the film is deeply satisfying. This is a “I laughed, I cried” film. There are some very big laughs paired with tears of both sorrow and joy. The film moves alone briskly and despite a running time of over two hours, the film is engaging from beginning to end.

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Brave' trailer sparks debate on portrayal of women in movies

A few months ago the teaser trailer for “Brave,” Pixar Animation's summer 2012 release, made its debut online. It marks the first Pixar film to star a female protagonist. Millions are excited to see it and it will undoubtedly be a hit, but one popular comment on the official YouTube posting of the trailer was disconcerting. 

“I got uninterested as soon as the hood was pulledoff,” the since removed comment said in reference to the reveal of the character's gender. The internet is full of idiotic comments, but what was troubling about this one was, before it was removed, it received more than 2,000 likes.

I found this startling and posted a video on YouTube asking what the popularity of this comment meant. Is it a reflection of a society that is still uncomfortable about the idea of strong female protagonists? Surely that couldn't be the case as there have been numerous butt kicking women in both film and television.

The responses were interesting, surprisingly polite and well reasoned. Not something you see too often in the world of YouTube comments. 

A user named GhostOrchid said: “I tend to think it's a mix of two things. One: there is an odd dislike in society of strong female characters. I think it's threatening to some people to see a female character that does not conform to stereotype. And two: female lead characters tend to be writtenvery, very poorly. I enjoy seeing a female lead, but all too often they're written in a way that makes me feel as though they're simply a man in drag. They're too busy being tough to be a real character.”

Unfortunately, that statement seems to be true in most cases. Hollywood writers don't  seem to know what to do with female characters in the action genre. Superhero movies have been big money makers, but women haven't been given their due. This could be because the two female superhero properties that have made it to the big screen, “Electra” and “Catwoman,” were box office flops. This was largely due to poor writing and clumsy directing. Hollywood execs are quick to learn, but they learned the wrong lesson. They decided that female superheroes were box office poison. 

As for GhostOrchid's “man in drag” observation, the only idea writers have come up with to give female action heroes their femininity back is to give them maternal instincts. The best examples of this are Linda Hamilton's Sarah Conner in “The Terminator” movies, Sirgorney Weaver's Ellen Ripley in the “Alien” movies and Uma Thurman's Bride in the “Kill Bill” movies. 

A user named autumnwindflower wrote: “Women can somehow relate fine with either a male or female lead. However, men seem to have a much more difficult time relating with a female lead. That's why they almost always are hot and scantily clad — men can enjoy the eye candy without sacrificing their masculinity.”

This also seems to be an accurate assessment.  I'm sure for many men that is the case, but I know that I can easily relate to female characters if their experiences are similar to my own. I remember seeing the Natalie Portman movie “Anywhere But Here” at 16 and found that I related to the main character quite a bit as we were about the same age. There were things that her character goes through that are gender specific, but other things applied to teenagers at large and I responded to that. 

Other users commented that perhaps people were responding negatively not to the fact that Merida, the main character in “Brave,” is female, but rather she doesn't match the standards of beauty we've come to expect. A user named dummeeule wrote “People expect the females to look like 'hot babes' or whatever society brainwashes them with.” 

This is true. We are bombarded with images of skinny woman who have been primped, pulled, painted and photoshopped into perfection. Merida is animated and therefore shouldn't fall under the same often  misguided modern qualifications of beauty and yet she still is.

It could be that I am, as a user named Teleisawesome suggested, “overreacting,” but, even if that is the case, this is a complex issue worth discussing and one I will continue to explore in the future.

Friday, September 16, 2011

'Contagion' a thoughtful, human drama

In “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh's pandemic film, the movie “Jaws” is directly referenced. This is fitting because just as “Jaws” scared people out of the water, “Contagion” will surely make people second guess touching, well, everything. “Contagion” is a germaphobe's worst nightmare. 
In the last few years we've had our share of overhyped pandemic scares with  swine and bird flu. “Contagion” imagines a bird flu-like virus that is far more virulent and deadly. Instead of killing thousands, it kills millions and is spread merely by touch.
The film isn't an end-of-the world disaster film. Yes, we do see glimpses of rioting and pillaging, which given the recent chaos in London, feels all too timely, but the film is more focused on the pursuit of a cure and how society might actually react to this situation. The movie doesn't go for cheap scares, but creates an atmosphere of paranoia and unease.
Similar to Soderbergh's “Traffic,” the film follows several parallel stories. These storylines are kept self-contained with only some overlapping here and there. Matt Damon is featured in the main plotline in which a husband loses both his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son to the virus. He is immune to the disease and is extremely protective of his daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron) as it is unclear if she has his immunity.
Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jude Law is a blogger with dubious intentions and Marion Cotillard works for the World Health Organization. 
The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns focuses not so much on the spread of the virus, but of fear and misinformation. Burns also raises interesting moral and ethical questions. Fishburne informs his wife to leave the city before there is an official public announcement. Is that the wrong thing to do? Perhaps, but who wouldn't have done the same thing in his position? 
Damon is very strong as a husband and father that in very short order loses nearly everything. Left with only his daughter, he focuses all his energy on keeping her safe. Their dynamic is an interesting one. Jacoby-Heron becomes frustrated that she can never leave the house, but at the same time she honors her father's wishes. There is a very sweet scene in which Damon makes his daughter a prom right in their home.
Law gives a slimey, yet ambiguous performance. His character is perhaps the least likable in the film, but even he has moments of humanity and raises issues that are valid and worth exploring. Fishburne plays the perfect boss. He has an interesting relationship with Winslet in which not only is he her superior, but offers himself as a confidant and support.
Of all the plots, Cotillard's story is the one that gets shorted. She is kidnapped by a fellow researcher (Chin Han) to ensure that his dying village in China is one of the first to get a vaccination. The plot is dropped for a while and the next time we see her she isn't a captive, but a teacher working with the children of the village. How this transformation occurs is not seen.
Paltrow's performance is brief and contained mostly to flashbacks. Scenes of her seizure and death are deeply disturbing. Elliott Gould makes a small, but memorable appearance as a researcher that makes a breakthrough in discovering a cure.
A lot of other familiar faces make appearance in the film including Bryan Cranston, Enrico Colantoni and Demetri Martin. From the biggest to the smallest roles everyone fills their parts well. This is great ensemble cast working with a strong script.
Despite advertisements that make this look like a thriller, this is well acted, thoughtful drama that puts a very human face on what might happen if there ever truly was a pandemic.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A look at 'United 93' and 'World Trade Center'

It is 10 years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Five years ago, three films were made about the day: “United 93,” “Flight 93” and “World Trade Center.” I avoided these films upon their release. I knew I wasn't ready to watch them. Even now I was uncertain, but the time felt right.
Oliver Stone's “World Trade Center” was the big budget Hollywood treatment of the tragedy. The story centers on the true story of two Port Authority police officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) trapped in the rubble of the buildings.
The film is semi-successful. The harrowing recreation of Ground Zero is remarkable. It feels as if Stone and his crew went back in time and were filming on location. There are powerful images throughout the film and Stone is careful to not exploit this sensitive material.
The film is its most affecting and powerful when it focuses on Cage and Pena, who are separated and pinned down, keeping each other awake, and therefore alive, by talking to each other. The film loses some of that power when it cuts away for flashbacks and to see their families reacting to them being missing and then, ultimately, discovered.
This device could be effective, but the problem is the writing of these scenes. The screenplay by Andrea Berloff is too melodramatic and cliche when presenting these domestic scenes. Some of the acting saves the material though. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a nuanced, controlled performance as Pena's wife, which only accentuates how broad, shrill and over-the-top Maria Bello's performance as Cage's wife is.
“United 93” and “Flight 93” both tell the story of the hijacked flight that didn't reach its destination and instead crashed near Shanksville, Pa. when passengers foiled the hijackers. “Flight 93” was a TV movie made for A&E whereas “United 93” was theatrically released.
I didn't watch “Flight 93.” One film on the subject was enough for me. Between “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” “United 93” is the film to watch. Unlike “World Trade Center,” the scale is small and intimate. The film cuts between Flight 93, the Air Traffic Control Tower in New York City, Air Traffic Control Center in Ohio and the NORAD base.
Director Paul Greengrass uses handheld camera work that gives an immediacy to the material that makes you feel as if you are on the plane or in the air traffic control tower. There's an authenticity to the film because much of the cast is full of actual air traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants and military personnel. Ben Sliney, the FAA's national operations manager, who made the decision on 9/11 to shut down all air traffic operations in the United States, actually plays himself in the film.
Greengrass did extensive research with the families of those who died in the crash to make sure to honor these people the best he could. Much of the film's action isn't actually on the plane, but in the towers in which the confusion and chaos of realizing something is very wrong is palpable.
Once the action does move solely to the events on the plane the film is relentless intense and emotionally charged. Passengers call their families, but, unlike “World Trade Center,” we don't cut to the family members. We are stuck on that plane with the passengers.
The final moments of “United 93” as the passengers realize they have to overtake the hijackers are heroic and heartbreaking.
Both “United 93” and “World Trade Center” are reminders that while the events of Sept. 11, 2011 showed the worst of humanity they also brought out the best.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

'Our Idiot Brother' is congenial low-key comedy

“Our Idiot Brother” deserves to be a big comedy hit, but alas it is struggling at the box office. I blame the title, which sells the movie short. This isn't a film like “Dumb and Dumber” that is full of silly, stupid humor. Instead it is a surprisingly sweet comedy about a dysfunctional family.
The film opens with Ned (Paul Rudd), the titular idiot brother, being sent to jail for selling pot to a uniformed police officer. When he gets out, his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) has a new guy (T.J. Miller) and won't let him move back onto their organic farm. Even worse, she refuses to give him back his dog Willie Nelson. Ned is left with nowhere else to go but the homes of his three sisters (Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer).
Given Rudd's appearance in the film — shaggy, long hair and beard paired with neo-hippie clothes — and the fact that he has a dog named Willie Nelson, it would be easy to think this is going to be a stoner comedy. The film isn't, and while there are a couple pot-related jokes, at the core this comedy about family.
Ned isn't really an idiot at all. He does things that can be perceived as stupid, but in actuality his biggest fault is that he is good hearted, trusting and believes that people are, for the most part, generally good.
The film's theme seems to be that the world is full of selfish, self-involved jerks and if you're a nice, honest person then you're an idiot. The script by first-time screenwriters David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz concludes we're ultimately better off being like Ned. 
The arc of the film is fairly obvious from the beginning. All of his sisters have problems in their life that they try to ignore. When Ned's honesty brings these faults to the fore they use him as scapegoat for everything that is wrong in their lives. Of course, Ned's good nature wins everyone over in the end.
This material could be very cloying and insincere if handled poorly, but the script has enough moments in it that feel true. The sisters are fairly flatly written and one-dimensional, but they are played by some of the most charming actresses working today. The caliber of the work by Deschanel, Banks and Mortimer makes some of the more shrill, less pleasant aspects of these character more tolerable.
The tone of the film is light and low key and full of laughs both verbal and physical. Rudd is very good as Ned in a role that is slightly more laid back than his usual fare. His dry, deadpan timing is still there, but it is dialed back in a way that is sweet and lovable. You just want to give him a hug.
Rudd, who despite being one of the most reliable comic actors in such films “Anchorman,” “Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” “I Love You, Man” and “Role Models,” still isn't a household name. This could be because he is a generous performer who doesn't showboat.
Even when in the lead role, Rudd always works as part of an ensemble cast or at the very least a duo. He's the kind of comic actor who feeds off of those around him, and when he's surrounded by equally funny and talented actors everyone just becomes better.
This holds true for “Our Idiot Brother.” This cast works extremely well together. Rashida Jones as Deschanel's girlfriend is a standout and easily the most likable of all the women in the cast. She is very funny in a subplot to rescue Willie Nelson. Adam Scott also scores laughs as Banks' would-be boyfriend. Scott and Rudd have a couple scene were they trade banter that is easy-going and full of wit.
There is one scene that makes the film attain another level. It is a confrontation between Ned and his sister in which the normally soften spoken and passive Ned finally snaps. The way it is handled has such emotional honesty that it gives everything before and after it more meaning and significance. The scene changes a consistently funny comedy into something deeper and better.