Friday, October 28, 2011

'Ides of March' is a good, but not great political drama

Politics are saturating the atmosphere as potential presidential candidates vie for the Republican nomination. “The Ides of March,” George Clooney’s new film as co-writer, director and star, offers a look behind the scenes of that process. Not surprisingly, it is a dirty world.
“The Ides of March” is based on the 2008 play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, which was loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean. The retitling of the movie is in reference to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated and would imply that this story will have its own assassination. It doesn’t.
The title is a metaphor for the backstabbing that occurs to get ahead and for the death of ideals of Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Meyers, the second in command for the presidential campaign of Clooney’s Mike Morris.
Trailers and advertisements for the film have made it appear to be a taut, fast-paced political thriller. It isn’t. It is a deliberately paced drama that shows the inside workings of a political campaign much the same way that “Primary Colors” did in 1998. That was a broader and more savagely funny look at the process, but both films follow the same arc: the disillusionment of a campaign staff members who at one point truly believed in their candidates.
“The Ides of March” is a more dramatic, even heavy-handed, approach to the subject matter. There’s a twist involving an intern played by Evan Rachel Wood that isn’t exactly what you expect, and it works. Another twist is then added on top of the first that is a bit of a stretch. Wood’s performance can't be faulted though. Like the rest of the cast, she is excellent. She is charming, intelligent and, when needed, emotionally vulnerable. 
This plot development is the linchpin on which Gosling’s belief in Clooney swings, and in the final third of the film Gosling’s character goes from idealist to hardened cynic. It is a transformation that is well acted by Gosling and, while you’re watching it, is effective and believable, but doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The timeline of the film is mere weeks. Gosling’s character seems pretty quick to sell his candidate out at the first sign of imperfection.
Perhaps this is the limitation of the source material showing through. The film does very much feel like a play, which isn’t a bad thing, but perhaps the material could’ve been further expanded for the film. Maybe the changes in Gosling’s character should have developed over the span of several months.
Despite these flaws, this is well crafted and exceptionally well acted film. The performances in this film are what make it work.

Clooney is believable as a presidential candidate, so much so that if his character were to run in real life he’d probably get a nomination.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of Clooney's campaign staff and he gives a fantastic speech about loyalty. Paul Giamatti is head of the rival candidate's staff and in a few scenes steals the movie. His character tries to court Gosling to his side. When Giamatti reveals his true intentions it is a shocking moment.
Marisa Tomei is solid as a journalist who helps introduce the film’s ongoing theme of friendship. What does that word mean in the political world? It is a good question, and the way it is explored is interesting.
Outside of the acting, the best thing about “The Ides of March” is the feeling that we are getting an inside look. The film opens with a microphone check for a speech and closes with Gosling being prepped for a TV interview. These behind the scene details are fascinating as are the behind-closed-doors conversations that the characters have.
The games, manipulations and tricks that are played to win in politics are not exactly surprising, but are engaging and thought provoking as presented by Clooney and his cast.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The new 'Thing' doesn't quite live up to the old 'Thing'

When talking about seeing the “The Thing,” the semi-remake prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing,” it feels like an Abbott and Costello routine.
“I just saw the new ‘Thing’”
“What thing?”
“The Thing.”
“Listen if you don’t want to tell me what you saw that’s fine.”
“I already told you what I saw. I saw the new ‘Thing.’”
“What thing?”
The 1982 version of “The Thing” was itself a remake of 1951’s “The Thing from Another Planet.” That film was set in the North Pole whereas the 1982 and 2011 installments are set in Antarctica. Each film involves a small, isolated group of scientists and researchers dealing with a hostile alien.
In the 1951 film it was a creature (played by James Arness in alien makeup) that evolved from plants rather than animals. In the 1982 and 2011 version it is a shape shifting creature that can assume the shape, memories and personality of any living thing it comes in contact with. Anyone can be the Thing, which in both the 1982 and 2011 films leads to an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion.
The 1982 film had the Thing arrive in a United States research center in the form of a dog being chased by a helicopter piloted by the two survivors of a battle with the creature at a Norwegian base. The 2011 film shows what happened at that Norwegian base.
First-time director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. clearly has a genuine love for Carpenters film and this film does a nice job of recreating the look and feel of the earlier film. Sets were recreated in remarkable detail, which the many fans of the previous film should appreciate greatly.
Some fans of the 1982 film have asked: What’s the point of making this film? The argument being that the mystery of what happened to the Norwegians was part of the allure and appeal of the 1982 “Thing.”
It was a safe assumption that the action that unfolded at the United States base followed a similar arc to that of the Norwegian base. Now we know it was almost exactly the same; in fact, it is so similar it starts falling into the category of remake.
The film’s roster of characters features a mix of Norwegian researchers and American experts flown in to help dig out the creature who has been frozen for 100,000 years. This includes paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World”), who becomes the film's main protagonist much in the same way Kurt Russell did in the 1982 film.
Having a female lead character gives the film a different dynamic than the 1982 version and inevitably recalls Sigourney Weaver’s work in the “Alien” films. Winstead gives a solid, believable performance in the film. The film doesn’t transform her into an unrealistic action hero, but rather a smart, strong woman who takes hold of a terrifying situation.
The rest of the cast, which includes Joel Edgerton (“Warrior”) as a pilot, is indistinct and interchangeable. There’s very little character development. Carpenter’s film didn’t exactly have fully developed characters, but there was a sense of camaraderie in that film that is sorely missing here.
The film’s best scene is a new twist on the 1982's film's iconic scene testing to see who is human and who is a Thing. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer comes with a clever variation on that scene that is logically sound and makes sense.
Which brings us to the question of the special effects used to create the creature. The 1982 version was made in a time before CG effects and featured an effectively gooey mixture of puppets, prosthetics and other practical effects.
This new film uses some practical effects, which is welcomed, but leans a bit too heavily on computer effects. A more even blend of the two styles would’ve been more effective. That being said, there’s definitely some good, creepy and gory scenes that, while not nearly as shocking as anything in the 1982 film, do provide some good scares.
Overall, this new “Thing” is decent entertainment. It honors its predecessors, but doesn’t match or surpass them. Of its kind, it is well made with moments of genuine suspense. You can certainly do worse if you’re looking for a horror film this Halloween.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Music for food: Red Gallagher presents benefit concert for food pantry Oct. 15

CONWAY — Musician Red Gallagher, of Center Conway, has been living and performing in the Mount Washington Valley and Lakes Region for three years now. He decided it was about time to give back.
“I decided to do a benefit for the [Vaughn Community Service] Food Pantry because of the good work they do,” Gallagher said. “I've been doing a similar food pantry benefit concert in Minneapolis for 15 years, every Thanksgiving, and I've wanted to get something going here that would benefit the community and help me become a more contributing member of my new community.”
Gallagher will present a concert to benefit the food pantry and honor long-time volunteer Bob Therrien. The event will take place at The Salyards Center for the Arts at 110 Main Street in Conway Village, Saturday, Oct. 15, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
“I've been wanting to do something at the Salyard Center,” Gallagher said. “It is very intimate, very small. It would hold 150 people, maybe more, but they'd be really crammed. And I thought it would be perfect for a first-time event like this because if we draw a crowd at all it would be great. But of course the dream is to fill the place, have this become a successful and maybe do it every year.”
Gallagher, a long-time entertainer at the The Balsams Grand Resort, will be performing a mix of humor and straightforward blues and boogie. He will play a mixture of dark, funny songs including original compositions and parodies and covers of songs by people like John Prine, Steve Goodman, Shel Silverstein and Pat Donohue.
“I don't do a lot of slow ballad, sad stuff,” Gallagher said. “I leave that to the people that do it better and one of them is my wife, Lorraine, and she will be, as she often is with me, a special vocal guest and she'll do probably four to six songs in the course of the evening.”
In addition to the Gallaghers, Balsams pianist Greg Goodwin will open the show with a half hour of jazz and popular music at the grand piano. Goodwin is a long-time friend of the Gallaghers and was even in the best man at their wedding.
“He's a virtuoso,” Gallagher said. “His repertoire is jazz-pop crossover, due in large part because of where he plays — the dining room up at the Balsams. You have to play songs people are familiar with, but his love is jazz, so he gives it a real special flavor and texture.” 
Suggested donation for attendance will be $10 per person or $5 and items of non-perishable food.
“We're going to keep it short, we're going to keep it early and we're making it cheap,” Gallagher said. “I want it to be a fun thing for people to have an alternative of something to do on a Saturday night.”
For more information call 986-7736.

'Misery' loves company

CONWAY — Stephen King is the modern master of macabre, so with Halloween in the air, it only seems natural to turn to him for some scares on the stage. “Misery's Child,” M&D Production's original adaptation of King's novel “Misery” directed by Ken Martin, brings one of author's most psychological disturbing tales vividly to life.
Of all King's work, “Misery,” with its tale of an author being trapped and tortured by a psychotic self-proclaimed number one fan, seems the most natural fit for a fiendish evening of theater. With only two actors, “Misery's Child” manages to keep the audience captivated.
After a brief prologue in which romance novelist Paul Sheldon (Richard Russo) receives an award, we hear the sounds of a car accident. In the next scene Paul is bedridden and being tended by his savior, the overly cheery Annie Wilkes (Janette Kondrat), his top fan. At first Annie seems like a well-intentioned, if somewhat kooky nurse, but it doesn't take long for Paul or the audience to discover how unstable and deranged Annie is.
Any number of cliches could be used to describe the experience of seeing “Misery's Child,” which opened last night at Your Theatre in North Conway and is running Thursday through Saturday until the end of the month. It'll put you on the edge of your seat. It'll make your skin crawl. These phrases are accurate, but don't do justice to the caliber of the work in this show.
Kondrat's performance is truly and often deeply unsettling much in the same way Kathy Bates was in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the role in the 1990 film. Kondrat, who says she has avoided watching the film, matches Bates iconic performance. They way she turns in a moment from sunny and nearly childlike to angry, spiteful and violent is seamless and disturbing. There's an unrelenting tension as you never know what will set Annie off next.
In playing Annie, Kondrat gives a risky performance. She goes for big emotions with intense highs and lows. In a scene showing Annie in a profoundly depressed mood, Kondrat creates an almost entirely different character and yet it springs naturally from the rest of her performance. It is astounding work.
Russo's role is less showy, but in many, and certainly different, ways just as challenging. His performance is almost entirely based on reaction. Russo gives a restrained and precisely timed performance. It is also a quiet performance. His subtle, controlled facial expressions say everything when the dialogue is scant. We see fear, agony, confusion, dread and even joy in Paul's small victories.
The show also gives Russo some rich monologues where Paul talks to himself when he is left to his own devices trying to figure out if there is any way out of Annie's trap. The most harrowing and brilliantly performed of these is when Paul is left stuck in bed with no food, water or medication for two weeks. It is difficult to watch.
Beyond the psychological games played between Paul and Annie, which are in turns disturbing and darkly comic, “Misery's Child” is also a well-observed look at the craft of writing. Russo does a good job of portraying the process of writer as Paul is forced to write a new book just for Annie.
These performance are housed in a beautiful rural house set designed by the consistently amazing Deborah Jasien. The lighting design by Mark DeLancey aids in creating a mood of dread when necessary. The sound design by Martin and Elaine Kondrat utilizes creepy music and effective use sound effect, particularly during the car crash, to help create an atmosphere of unease.
For those who enjoy the thrill of being scared, “Misery's Child” is a fantastic night out and one that will stick with you long after the final bows.
For more information and reservations call 662-7591.

Friday, October 07, 2011

'Farmageddon' is a well-intentioned, but under developed documentary

“Farmageddon” is a documentary that sheds light on an unseen issue: the government's persecution of small family dairy farms. The problem is writer/producer/director Kristin Canty doesn't really have much to say about the subject other than it is bad.
Canty, whose intentions are clearly noble, decided to make “Farmageddon” after discovering raw milk was able to cure her son's allergies. In talking to local farmers she discovered much of their troubles and wanted to share their stories.
As a first time filmmaker, Canty deserves credit for putting together a film that looks professional. This doesn't look like something slapped together over the weekend. It is clear a lot of time, care and effort was put into the film and it does show.
The first 30 minutes of the film are compelling as Canty shows some disturbing imagery of farms being raided at gun point. Farmers share anecdotes that are shocking. One family had imported sheep to start a dairy farm, but the USDA went after them, eventually killing the sheep out of fear of the spread of mad cow disease, which there is no proof of sheep carrying. Other families had milk and yogurt and supposedly contaminated feed confiscated.
This would be a good subject for a 15 to 30 minute news segment on such programs as “Dateline” or “60 Minutes.” As a film, the material is stretched too thin and is repetitive. We are shown more farms given the same cruel inexplicable treatment and hear more tearful stories that certainly carry emotional weight, but we are never given answers or context.
Canty and the numerous family she interviewed want to know why both national and state governments are picking on the little guys over safety and healthy regulation instead of going after big commercial farms.
The conclusion that Canty comes to is that agribusiness must have the government in its back pocket. It isn't a huge leap to make and it is quite possibly the case, but Canty provides zero evidence to back up this assertion.
Canty only talks to the owners of small farms. There was no apparent attempt to talk to owners of larger farms. She does state that she tried to contact government officials to give the other side of the story, but was only able to get a couple to go on camera. Out of frustration she says, “People from the government don't really want to talk for some reason, which bums me out.” In that moment, despite the slick look of the film, you know you're in the hands of an amateur.
For the 85-minute run time, you mostly only hear one side of the story and sometimes her subjects make dubious statements. Kevin Brown, author of “The Liberation Diet,” states “Real food like butter, like real milk, like eggs have been made the devil in the world of food to the point where people are afraid to eat real food and unfortunately the result of that is 72 percent of the country is obese or overweight. Heart disease, cancer rates and diabetes rates are at all-time highs, and every year it is getting worse.”
That is just faulty logic. Would there be less obesity if people only ate “real” butter, eggs and milk? It is possible, but once again the film is dealing with ideas that are unsupported and Canty never seeks out the facts to support her claims. The inclusion of material like this does a disservice to her primary subject: the owners of these small farms.
Canty does provides interesting information about why milk pasteurization became standard practice and Dr. David Acheson, food policy consultant and former FDA/USDA administrator, offers some insight into why there are strict regulations on milk. No one ever explains or even attempts to justify the extreme behavior against small farms.
By the conclusion of the film in which Canty blatantly states, “I made this film to be a cautionary tale for consumers,” it is apparent that you've watched the visual equivalent of a school report. Is it a report worth seeing? A qualified yes. Seeing the way these farmers are treated is shocking, and the film is worth a look if only for that footage.