Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking back at film trends in 2011

In the past I’ve compiled lists of my favorite movies of a given year. This year I’ve decided to document certain positive film trends in 2011.

The thinking man’s sci-fi film

When most people hear science fiction they probably think of space battles, post-apocalyptic worlds or, perhaps, giant robots beating the crap out of each other, but good science fiction can be used to explore big ideas.

“Source Code” starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a military man who, through the marvels of modern technology, is sent into the last eight minutes of another man's life. This other man is on a train that is bombed, and it is up to Gyllenhaal to find the bomber in hopes of preventing a larger scale attack. “Source Code” plays like a condensed version of “Groundhog Day” with a mad bomber. The focus isn’t the bomber though, but Gyllenhaal’s conversations with Michelle Monaghan as a fellow passenger on the train.

“The Adjustment Bureau” was a high-concept romantic thriller about a politician (Matt Damon), who meets a dancer (Emily Blunt) and has an instant connection. The problem is the men of the titular bureau serve a higher power and Damon and Blunt being together is not part of the plan. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose work has been the basis for such films as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report,” the film explores fate versus free will in a way that is accessible. It also helps that Damon and Blunt have palpable screen chemistry.

“In Time” uses its sci-fi premise, a future in which time literally is money, as an allegory for current economic woes. In writer/director Andrew Niccol’s world all people have been genetically altered to not age past 25. The catch is you are given only one more year to live beyond 25. The rich can live forever. The poor die young. “In Time,” like “Source Code” and “Adjustment Bureau” has a romantic element to it with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried teaming up for some “Bonnie and Clyde” meets Robin Hood adventures. It is handled in a way that is clever and thought provoking.

The return of the romantic comedy

In recent years the romantic comedy has been a dire wasteland with films like “The Ugly Truth” requiring their female leads to be shrill, uptight control freaks. All romantic comedies have the same ending. It is how you get there that counts and that journey, of late, had been painful. It was a relief that 2011 marked a return of romantic comedies with intelligence and wit.

Much was written about “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits” being the same movie — friends who decide to have sex — but both films were well made and funny. “No Strings Attached” featured solid performance from Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher and a fine supporting performance by Kevin Kline as Kutcher’s father. “Friends with Benefits” was the better of the two, though, with the cute couple of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Elfman and Richard Jenkins. The writing was a bit sharper and the characters felt more like real people with real problems.

“Crazy Stupid Love” was an ensemble film with humor and heart. Steve Carell is dumped by his wife Julianne Moore and gets a makeover by a womanizing playboy (Ryan Gosling) who takes pity on him. Gosling then meets Emma Stone and realizes he wants more than just flings. Carell and Gosling’s dynamic is the best thing about this film. Stone continues to reveal herself to be a shrewd comic actor able to also handle dramatic scenes.

Even Woody Allen returned to the romantic comedy genre with the wonderfully fanciful “Midnight in Paris.” Owen Wilson stars as a writer who idealizes Paris in the 1920s and magically gets whisked back there every midnight to hobnob with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Somehow the signature Allen dialogue coming from Wilson's typically laid back performance makes both familiar personas feel fresh.

Sequels and remakes that surprise

Every year we are bombarded with a seemingly endless parade of sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. This year had its fair share of rubbish ones, but there was also a high quota of such films that were actually rather good.

“Rise of the Planet of Apes,” a prequel that showed how the intelligent apes that Charlton Heston first encountered back in 1968 came to be, proved to be surprisingly engaging. Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” gives another superb motion-capture performance as Caesar, the ape that will lead the revolution. The heart of the film is the relationship between Caesar and his surrogate father played by James Franco. It is a long time before ape revolt breaks loose and the film earns that final action sequence.

Horror remakes are often particularly barren land, but “Fright Night” and “The Thing,” which was half prequel/half remake, were made with clear affection for their originals. “Fright Night” in fact may actually be an improvement over the charming but cheesy 1980s original. Colin Farrell gives a truly menacing performance as the vampire next door and there’s a nice tongue-in-cheek tone. “The Thing” doesn’t surpass the 1982 version, but it does honor it. The film is aided by a strong performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

“The Muppets” proved to be the triumphant return of everyone's favorite felt friends. Co-written by human star Jason Segel and featuring fantastic songs by Flight of the Conchord's Bret McKenzie, the film captured the essence and magic of Jim Henson's creations.

“Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the fourth in a franchise many counted as down and out, may well be the best of the series, or at the very least matches the first. The masterful set piece of the film features Tom Cruise climbing Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

“X-Men: First Class” took the flat-lining “X-Men” franchise and brought it back to life by going back to the beginning. The strong cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the future Professor X and Magneto, a smart script and assured direction by Michael Vaughn made this high energy fun. If only all sequels, remakes and reboots could be made with this level of care.

Summer of the superhero

The superhero movie has become a mainstay of the summer movie season and this held true for 2011. In addition to “X-Men,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Green Lantern” all graced the silver screen. With the exception of “Green Lantern,” which was still watchable, these were all examples of high quality big-budget entertainment. These movies had style, atmosphere and substance. Looking ahead to 2012, the summer of superheroes will continue with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Avengers” which unites Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America.

Laughs, tears and song: A look back at 2011's theater scene

As 2011 comes to close it is clear that a vibrant theater scene continues to thrive in North Conway, N.H. North Conway’s two community theater companies, Arts in Motions and M&D Productions, and one professional company, Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company, put on a wide range of comedies, dramas and musicals over the course of the last 12 months. Here are highlights for each of the companies’ seasons.

Arts in Motion

Arts in Motion started the year off with “The Fantasticks,” a light, frothy entertainment that was a showcase for its, mostly, young cast including Matt Stoker, Rafe Matregrano and Emilie Jensen. Jensen in particularly left a lasting impression thanks to assured comic timing and powerhouse vocals. In the show's best number “Round and Round,” through clever choreography that was performed with precision, it appeared as if Matregrano was controlling Jensen's movements like a puppeteer.

Matregrano later appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” reprising the role of Jesus Christ, which he previously played in M&D’s “Godspell.” The role allowed Matregrano to show off his impressive vocal range, but he wasn’t the only one in the cast that made an impact. Paul Allen in the relatively small but crucial role of Pontius Pilate had a powerful voice matched by commanding stage presence. Holly Reville brought warmth and compassion to Mary Magdalene. She had a pure, clear and beautiful voice. Matregrano, Allen and Reville didn’t merely sing the songs, but put genuine conviction, passion and turmoil into them.

Kennett High School teamed with Arts in Motion for “Guys and Dolls,” a production whose rehearsal schedule didn’t mesh with Mother Nature’s schedule. Canceled rehearsals led to a stressful but rewarding run up to opening night. The principal leads of the show, Taylor Hill, Hannah Paven, Philip Mathieu and Kevin Ahearn, had roles that allowed them to stretch and play against their usual types. “It was a completely different role from things I've done in the past,” Hill said. “Sarah is really conservative. I'm not really used to playing a conservative role, so I guess that was challenge in itself.”

Arts in Motions’ best show of the year was “The Miracle Worker,” the moving and inspiring story of Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, who, thanks to the love, support and perseverance of her live-in tutor, Anne Sullivan, overcomes her handicap in a time when no one thought it was possible. Limited by a clunky first act that is a flaw of the show rather than the production, director Barbara Spoffard and the actors found the heart and soul of this true story. Julie Lanoie was a solid Sullivan and found the delicate balance between self-assuredness and a fear of failure. The power of the scenes in the second act in which Lanoie worked one on one with Megan Perrin as Helen was undeniable.

M&D Productions

M&D Productions had a busy year with nine productions. The year’s strongest for M&D was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” an emotionally draining production that was a moving tribute to all those who died during the Holocaust. Under the direction of Dennis O'Neil, all the actors gave performances that nearly a year later still linger. Jessica Biggio was quite the revelation as Anne Frank. At 14, she showed skills well beyond her years and handled the role with grace and poise. Richard Russo as the patriarch of the family had a final monologue that was profoundly moving.

A close second for raw power was “Misery’s Child,” an adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery,” the story of an author held captive by his self-proclaimed number one fan after a nearly fatal car accident. This is just a two-person cast, but the caliber of the performances and direction by Ken Martin made the production an engrossing and unrelentingly tense experience. Once again Russo, this time as author Paul Sheldon, gave a subtle, quiet, restrained and precisely timed performance. Janette Kondrat as his nurse/captor Annie Wilkes gave a surprising performance unlike anything she had done previously. The way she turned in a moment from sunny and nearly childlike to angry, spiteful and violent was deeply disturbing.

The provocative musical “Spring Awakening” was another high point of the year that had the company bringing in a few professional actors. It is a testament to the level of talent of our local “amateurs” that the cast blended together seamlessly. The pros didn’t come down to a lesser level, everyone comes up to their level ability. Of those locals, the best of the cast was Molly Paven, who had strong vocal and acting range.

A reliable talent throughout the season was Eric Jordan, a consummate scene stealer of the highest order. His work as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” was a highlight of that production. It was a wonderful physical performance that took its toll on the actor, but that was worth it. In “The Odd Couple: The Female Version” Jordan along with Doug Collomy, completely re-energize the second act as the hilarious Costazuela brothers. Jordan even showed off low-key romantic charm as the only male cast member of “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.”

Another constant throughout the year was set designer Deborah Jasien who consistently created astounding sets in the limited space at Your Theatre. In addition to her work for M&D, she did set designing for Arts in Motions’ “The Miracle Worker.”

Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company returned for its 41st season of professional summer musical theater and put on five shows and added a sixth show, “Barefoot in the Park,” in the fall. “Barefoot in the Park,” a Neil Simon play, marked a departure for the company which has traditionally stuck with musical theater. Real-life couple Grant and Liz Golson, regulars with the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company, returned for this special fall production to play newlyweds who have their love put to the test when moving into a small New York apartment. Grant Golson proved himself to be an excellent physical comedian and Liz brought a bright smile and bubbly and likable personality.

The Golsons had already proven their worth earlier in the season. Grant Golson had the title role in “Sweeney Todd,” the season’s best production. It is a darkly satiric, musically complex tragedy of revenge that isn’t easy to perform, but the ensemble pulls it off. Director Andrew Glant-Linden and set designer Daniel Thobias developed their own unique staging of the production. The show opens at an insane asylum with the inmates forming a chorus that sets up the show. 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. It was a fascinating choice that added a subtext that all of London was mad. At the center of the show was Grant Golson, who was in fine form vocally.

Liz Golson had a memorable performance in “A Chorus Line,” a show with the simple plot of potential dancers auditioning for a director (the mostly disembodied voice of Grant Golson). She gets the show’s biggest laughs 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. “A Chorus Line” is an ensemble show, though, and as such there were other highlights in the cast including Jack Haynie, who gave an exposed, vulnerable and moving monologue about his character growing up and struggling with his homosexuality and finding himself as a dancer in a drag show.

The season also featured old favorites “Annie” and “Damn Yankees” that were well mounted and remained fun, but overly familiar. The bright and buoyant energy of the youthful “Hairspray” was a welcomed variation that provided breezy fun.

Friday, December 23, 2011

New Holmes adventure is a fun 'game' to watch

Director Guy Ritchie joins forces once again with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law for another revisionist take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

As was true with 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes,” this is not Doyle’s Holmes, and purists who were turned off by Ritchie and Downey’s interpretation of Holmes the first time will continue to be unimpressed by the second go around.

In many respects, this Holmes is a 19th-century James Bond. He is still an analytic genius with the ability to see the big picture, but he is no longer a man of quiet, introspective thought. Here he is a man of action. Not only is Holmes a thinker, he is a fighter. Scratch that, he’s a brawler.

The scale of events in the film are also on a Bond level with Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), plotting to create world war for his own financial gain.

Harris, a character actor who some may recognize, but aren’t likely to remember from where, is ideally cast as Moriarty. There had been rumors that Brad Pitt was to be cast as Holmes’ intellectual match, but Harris was the right choice. Having someone as big as Pitt in the role would’ve been distracting.

The world of Ritchie’s Holmes is very over-the-top, but Harris isn’t, which creates an interesting push and pull with the material. Instead he is quiet and controlled in a way that is unsettling. There is an air of arrogant superiority and condescension about him that makes an audience love to hate him.

Holmes fans who have been repulsed by this version of the detective should at least take some solace in the fact that the dynamic between Holmes and Moriarty feels in tone with the source material. While Holmes has numerous brutal physical altercations throughout the film, his battles with Moriarty are of the wits. The climax of the film is a thrilling mental match up over a game of chess.

Much of the success of these new Holmes movies falls squarely on Downey. He brings a high energy to the character and a perfect balance of serious acting with winking humor. Once again, Law returns as the much put upon Dr. Holmes and, as was true in the first outing, Downey and Law have a fantastic dynamic.

Holmes is struggling with the fact that he is losing his only true friend and his partner in crime fighting to married life. There’s an interesting, playful tension between the two of them.

Rachel McAdams also returns as Holmes’ love, but the plot quickly dispatches her. The new female lead is Noomi Rapace (of the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movies) as a gypsy who may have unintentional ties to Moriarty’s plot. It is clear she is a talented and interesting actress, but she isn’t given much to do.

Stephen Fry gets the juicy role of the “other Holmes” as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. It is a fun, dry comic performance. There is a particularly funny scene in which the completely nude Mycroft greets Watson’s wife (Kelly Reilly) and is completely oblivious to how uncomfortable she is by his birthday suit.

The best thing Ritchie adds to the Holmesian lore is what could be termed as “Holmes vision.” In slow motion we see the way Holmes’ mind works as he plots out his plan of attack against attacking adversaries. This is something that worked brilliantly in the first film and it continues to work well here.

Above everything else, though, even when Ritchie can’t resist maniac editing or huge explosions, there is a cleverly written script by Michele and Kieran Mulroney that is full of wit and twists that work. The ending is genuinely surprising, funny and completely satisfying.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Arts in Motion's 'Life' is heartwarming theater

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has been a holiday film classic for decades. For some the holidays aren’t complete without watching Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, the man who doesn’t realize how significant his life truly is. But Arts in Motion is offering the chance to see a different version of this familiar favorite.

This play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” adapted from the film by playwright James W. Rogers, is being performed at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine Saturday, Dec. 17, at 1, 4 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18, at 1 and 4 p.m.

Directed by Mary Bastoni-Rebmann, the production is an impressive technical achievement. It snows on that stage and it is pretty magical to see. There is some wonderful period costumes by Patty Hibbert. The set designed by Tom Rebmann effectively evokes the small-town quality of Bedford Falls. Many set pieces are wheeled in when necessary, the best being the bridge in which George (John Paiva) is contemplating his suicide.

Paiva has a challenging role not just because he’s the lead, but because Jimmy Stewart’s performance is so iconic and ingrained in people’s minds. The temptation is to do an impersonation, but then what’s the point in watching the new version?

Paiva doesn’t merely imitate, which is good, but there’s something ever so slightly off about his performance and it is hard to pinpoint. Stewart has a naturalness to his performance that Paiva doesn’t quite have. He isn’t bad. He does have a strong stage presence and likability and in isolated moments he is solid.

The “You want the moon?” scene with Julie Lanoie as Mary Hatch, George’s love interest, is cute and sweet. Outside of the heartwarming conclusion, the most emotionally powerful and satisfying scene is when George and Mary decide to use their own money to keep the Building and Loan open during a low point in The Depression.

This is a large cast full of well-known characters like Clarence the angel (Craig Holden), Uncle Billy (Marshall Allen) and mean old Mr. Potter (Gino Funicella). Allen does nice work as the absent-minded Billy. Funicella has moments of menace as Potter, but is perhaps a bit too hammy. Holden was an obvious choice for Clarence, but sometimes typecasting works well.

It is in the second act of the show that we get the often parodied plot device of George getting to see what the world would be like if he was never born. During these scenes the show is building emotional energy, but then the dramatic thrust is brought to a halt with a scene involving carolers. The scene runs long, but is being tweaked before the show’s opening Saturday.

The show ends brightly. The conclusion to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” much like “A Christmas Carol,” is full of such warmth and positivity that only the most bitter and cynical person would not be moved by it. In spite of myself, I felt some tears well up as George learned he truly does have a wonderful life.

For more information call the box office at (207) 935-9232 or visit

'Chances Are' offers early example of Downey's talent

In honor of the release of “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Robert Downey Jr.’s second time inhabiting the shoes of the famous detective, I wanted to take a look at a film early in Mr. Jr.’s career.

The high-concept romantic farce,“Chances Are” from 1989 has fallen off of every one’s radar, but it is a fine early example of Downey’s abilities as a comic actor and a film worth seeking out.

In the first scenes of the film, the happily married Louie Jeffries (Christopher McDonald) dies in an accident and is whisked up to a heaven similar to the one that appeared in Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” a film “Chances Are” owes a lot to in terms of tone and theme.

In this case heaven is a way station for souls waiting to be reincarnated. Louie does not take death well and is allowed to skip the line and be reborn. The problem is he didn’t receive an inoculation shot that will erase the memories of his previous life with his wife, Corinne (Sybil Shepherd), and best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal).

Louie is born again as Alex, who, 22 years later, takes the form of Downey. Alex winds up meeting and falling for Louie’s daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson) and eventually meeting both Corinne and Philip. Once Alex enter’s Louie’s house all the old memories come flooding back leading to some very confused emotions.

Turns out Corrine has been carrying an unhealthy torch for Louie this whole time. Philip has become a surrogate husband and father, but never officially took over either role despite secretly loving Corrine.

Now that Alex has Louie’s memories he is repulsed by Miranda’s advances, which leads to several great awkward exchanges. Similarly, the scenes in which Alex must convince Corrine he is in fact Louie are played just right. It is even funnier when Corrine not only accepts, but embraces it. This is further complicate by Philip deciding he finally will profess his love to Corrine.

In essence you have a Shakespearean case of mistaken identities except in this case the two identities are housed in one person. I love quadrangle develops between Alex and Miranda, Louie and Corrine, and Corrine and Philip.

As with any comedy of errors, despite the odds, everything neatly works out and everyone winds up with the correct partner. When done poorly this can be groan inducing, but when done correctly it is breezy, feel-good fun. The latter is the case with “Chances Are,” which features a witty script by Perry and Randy Howze. The movie strikes a nice balance to between frothy comedy and low-key romance.

The film certainly has its flaws. The great composer Maurice Jarre, who wrote scores for such films as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” provides a similarly epic score to “Chances Are” when it needs something more whimsical. The score is too overwrought and on-the-nose with telling you how to feel that it becomes laughable and distracting. This is a minor shortcoming and in a way has its own charms. I began to predict when the music would swell on the score with a knowing grin.

Through it all you have Downey at the center in a performance that allows him to be charming, goofy and tender. In “Chances Are,” Downey has a light touch and shows his apt timing for physical comedy in several fine set pieces. It is very likely it is this performance that helped get him the title role in “Chaplin,” arguable his break-out role and one that lead to his first Oscar nomination.

In the years since Downey made his comeback from his public downward spiral into drugs, he hasn’t made a blatant romantic comedy like “Chances Are,” but his assured comedic timing and finesse with dialogue are the key to the success of so many of his characterizations. The way he banters with Gwyneth Paltrow in the “Iron Man” movies and Jude Law as Watson in the “Sherlock Holmes” films follows the beats of screwball comedy.

Over the years, Downey has developed impeccable line delivery. He does snarky one-liners better than just about anyone, but underneath even the most barbed dialogue there’s a genuineness that makes even narcissistic jerks like Tony Stark in “Iron Man” likable. Cynical sincerity is what helped make Downey a star.

Friday, December 09, 2011

A good Scrooge carries M&D's 'Carol'

What would the month of December be without a local production or two of “A Christmas Carol?” Now one man can only take so much of the beloved Charles Dickens' tale of a cold-hearted, penny-pinching cynic who finds the spirit of Christmas and carries it all year. So, here I am reviewing M&D Productions’ good, but unremarkable production of “A Christmas Carol.”

M&D Productions went a slightly different route with the classic. The production, which opened at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. Thursday, Dec. 8 and is running Thursday through Sunday for the next two, is based on an adaptation by playwright Doris Baizley, which adds a story frame of a bitter stage manager (Bill Knolla) gathering a traveling troupe of actors together to mount a production of “A Christmas Carol.” But the actor playing Ebenezer Scrooge has gone rogue, forcing the stage manager to step up to fill the role.

After that set up, the show begins proper and more or less stays true to the Dickens' story. There is a playful moment in which Knolla, now as Scrooge, flubs his first use of “Bah humbug” and has to be coached by the actor playing Scrooge's nephew Fred (Robbie Distasio) on how to do the line. It is funny bit, and more of that sort of self-aware winking would’ve helped add an extra twist to the material. Alas Baizley’s adaptation drops the theater inside jokes after that exchange.

“A Christmas Carol” is such a timeless tale it is hard to screw it up, but there’s also only so much you can do with it. How successful a production of “A Christmas Carol” lies almost solely on the quality of actor playing Scrooge. In Knolla, M&D Production has found a most excellent Scrooge.

Knolla contorts his face into a believable nasty, grimace. He spits out iconic lines like “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” with a venomous vigor. When Scrooge has his change of heart, Knolla makes his childlike jubilation apparent.

As the narrator, Shelly Morin brings seemingly boundless and joyous energy to the proceedings. Her bright smile is full of good cheer that easily transfers over to the audience. She also doubles as Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former partner who warns of the three spirits, who will come to visit Scrooge. She makes a fittingly frightening Marley.

Elsewhere the cast is hit and miss, but other highlights include Steve Hoyt as an effectively earnst Bob Cratchit, Oliver Clay Storm as a charming Tiny Tim and Elaine Kondrat makes a pretty good Ghost of Christmas Past.

The show is punctuated by moments of the cast breaking into carols making the show a semi-musical. The songs are brief, but well sung.

People often forget how dark “A Christmas Carol” is, and in one scene in particular M&D’s Productions stages a truly creepy moment. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scene concludes with the entire cast donning Scrooge masks and tormenting the real Scrooge. It is an unsettling moment that is enhanced by moody lighting.

The set is sparse, with Scrooge’s bed as the centerpiece. Other furniture and chairs are brought in as necessary, but this is a simplistic staging and it works at achieving its modest goals. At around 80 minutes it is a quick and efficient production that gets the audience in and out and ends brightly.

For more information or tickets, call the box office at 662-7591.

Offbeat, quirky songs for the holidays

Over the years I've written quite a few lists of off-beat, dark, subversive Christmas songs. These songs are the alternatives to the familiar ones saturating the airwaves. I have now compiled them all in one piece and added five more. Enjoy.

“Cool Yule” — Tony Rodelle Larson (1962)

I discovered this a few years back mis-labeled as being performed by William Shatner. It is easy to understand the confusion as Larson's broken speech patterns do indeed bring to mind Shatner's riffs on such songs as “Rocket Man.” This beatnik take on “Twas Night the Night Before Christmas” is most definitely way out.

“Monster’s Holiday” — Bobby "Boris" Pickett (1962)

After the “Monster Mash” became a hit this quickie sequel was churned out. There are some amusing riffs on holiday classics, but it is mostly a shameless rewrite of the original. It was a minor hit, but didn’t remain a holiday classic.

"Silver Bells" — Paul Simon and Steve Martin (Sometime in the late 1970s)

This rare show rehearsal starts out simple enough with Simon doing a lovely version of this classic song, but soon Simon's singing becomes mere backdrop for Martin deadpanning through a cynical monologue on the true meaning of Christmas that ranges from goofy to racy.

"Father Christmas" — The Kinks (1977)

Leave it to The Kinks, the same band that sang about an encounter with the transvestite "Lola," to write a song about mugging Santa. Ray Davies' sunny delivery masks the nastiness in lyrics such as "Father Christmas, give us some money/Don't mess around with those silly toys/Well beat you up if you don't hand it over."

"Christmas in the Stars" (from the "Star Wars" Christmas album of the same name) (1980)

Strange and frightening things began to happen after the tremendous success of the original "Star Wars" including an astounding awful 1978 Christmas special. Lessons weren't learned, though, and two years later came a Christmas album. "Christmas in the Stars" is so bad as to become campy fun.

“There Ain't No Sanity Clause” — The Damned (1980)

English punk band The Damned released this song just in time for the holiday season, but it failed to chart perhaps because no one wanted to have the Santa Claus bubble popped for the youngest yuletide revelers. The lyrics are barely intelligible, but, it is the sing-a-long anthem-like chorus that brings this one home.

"Christmas in Heaven" — Monty Python (1983)

Monty Python was always known for loopy songs that often pointed out the hypocrisies or the idiosyncrasies of society. In the film "The Meaning of Life," Graham Chapman sings a caustic song about the consumerism and commercialism that runs rampant during the holiday season that includes lyrics like: "There's great films on TV/"The Sound of Music" twice an hour/And ‘Jaws’ one, two, and three."

"Christmas In Hollis" — Run DMC (1987)

This is a happy hip hop holiday song about Christmas in Queens, N.Y. The song includes such endearingly goofy lyrics as "It was December 24th on Hollis Avenue in the dark/When I seen a man chilling with his dog in the park/I approached very slowly with my heart full of fear/Looked at his dog, oh my God, an ill reindeer."

"Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" — The Ramones (1989)

The Ramones were still kicking around in the late 1980s cranking out three-cord ditties. Surprisingly, one of the best songs from this era is a Christmas song that manages to capture the tension of the season.

“Santa Song” — Adam Sandler (1993)

Everyone is familiar with Sandler’s "Chanukah Song," but he actually did a Christmas themed song that pre-dates its by a year. In this one Sandler sings about all the reasons he won’t be getting a visit from Santa. Best line: “Santa don't like bad boys — especially Jewish ones.”

“12 Days of Yaksmas” — Ren and Stimpy (1993)

There have been numerous parodies of the “12 Days of Christmas." Which is your favorite really comes down to personal preference. As a youth in the 1990s, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the warped antics of this dog and cat team.

"Little Drum Machine Boy" — Beck (1996)

"The Little Drummer Boy" gets morphed into an odd dance and rap flavored Chanukah anthem featuring "the holiday Chanukah robot of funk." Beck is a chameleon-like musician who blends different genres with amazing skill. It is hardly traditional, but certainly original and memorable.

"The Night Santa Went Crazy" — Weird Al Yankovic (1996)

Don't be fooled by the sweet guitar strumming of the opening. This Christmas carol turns humorously sour fast. Yankovic turns his twisted mind on Christmas in the story of the night Santa finally snapped and became a "big, fat, disgruntled yuletide Rambo."

"I Won't Be Home for Christmas" — Blink 182 (1997)

Goofball pop/punk rockers wrote this anthem for all those who are driven up the wall by the holiday season. The song features bitter, but funny lyrics like: "It's time to be nice to the people you can't stand all year/I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer"

"O Holy Night" — Eric Cartman (1999)

"South Park" dedicated a whole episode to satirizing holiday music back in 1999. This is one of the tamer songs from the episode with the spoiled Cartman butchering the holiday classic to hilarious effect.

"Bizarre Christmas Incident" — Ben Folds (2002)

This aptly named song from the tongue-in-cheek piano man unfolds a dark tale of a man encountering Santa in the night. The song answer the question of what would happen if Santa got stuck in the chimney. Needless to say, it doesn't end pretty. Best in enjoyed by those who like their humor black.

“Elf’s Lament” — Barenaked Ladies (2004)

On “Barenaked for the Holidays” the Ladies presented a collection of Christmas favorites as well as original songs featuring their quirky sense of humor. On this song an elf complains “I make toys, but I've got aspirations.” Bonus: this song features vocals from Michael Bublé.

"Mr. Heat Miser" — Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (2004)

The song first appeared in the 1974 stop-motion animation special "The Year Without Santa." Thirty years later the swing revival group Big Bad Voodoo Daddy recorded the definitive version of the song for their holiday album "Everything You Want for Christmas."

“I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas” — Relient K (2007)

Christian punk/pop band Relient K's does a fast, rocking cover of the novelty song “I'm Getting Nuttin' for Christmas.” The snarling punk attitude and crunching guitars suit lyrics like “I broke my bat on Johnny's head/Somebody snitched on me” quite well.

“Another Christmas Song” — Stephen Colbert (2008)

Satirical pundit Stephen Colbert did a hilarious parody of holiday specials. The special's songs either subverted pre-existing songs or, in this case, are something completely new. Lyrics like “The tree is frozen, the winter’s bright/Who’d have thought the wise men look so white” are made all the funnier by Colbert's authentic crooning.

“Present Face” — Garfunkel and Oates (2008)

This female comedy-folk duo combines disarming charming and simple hooks with goofy and/or raunchy lyrics. In this case the duo leans toward the silly side as they sing about the all too familiar face people make when the get a present they don’t like.

“Christmas Tree” — Lady Gaga featuring Space Cowboy (2008)

Leave it to Lady Gaga, the reigning pop queen of weirdness, to co-write a Christmas song filled with dance beats and dripping with sexual innuendos. It is most definitely not family friendly, but the audacity is admirable.

“Merry Something to You” — Devo (2009)

Yep, Devo, those quirky new wavers, recorded a song for the holidays. Blending cheery, generic holiday music with the synthesizers and drum beats they are known for, the band creates an infectious little ditty. Devo often used songs to satirize society, and that's most definitely the case here as the band proclaims: “Believe what you want nothing's really true.”

"It's Christmastime!" — Mad Tea Party (2009)

This uke-abilly band vents its frustration for Christmas in this infectious two-minute ditty. The cynical lyrics include sentiments that anyone can relate to, if only fleetingly: "It's Christmas, forgot about the pagans and Jews/It's Christmas and it makes me blue."

"Christmas Night of the Living Dead" — MxPx (2009)

It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a zombie-themed Christmas song. Punk rockers MxPx present this bloody tale of Christmas carnage featuring the chorus: "Christmas night of the living dead/My face is green and the snow is red."

Friday, December 02, 2011

It's the return of the Muppets: Yaaaaaaaaay!

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights, it’s time to re-meet the Muppets and it is quite the sight. Yes, after a more than a decade-long hiatus from the big screen the Muppets have returned in all their glory in “The Muppets.”

In “The Muppets,” Kermit the Frog and the rest of the gang have broken up and have been largely forgotten by the world. A trio of fans, Gary (Jason Segel), his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary’s adopted brother Walter, who is a Muppet, but doesn’t seem to be aware of that fact, head to Los Angeles to tour the now decrepit Muppet Studio.

Through chance, Walter discovers an evil tycoon (Chris Cooper, in a gloriously campy performance) wants to tear the studio down to drill for oil. Gary, Mary and Walter seek out Kermit and gather everyone together to put on a telethon in the style of the old “Muppet Show.” That's it in terms of plot and that’s really all you need.

Segel, a huge Muppets fan in real life, co-wrote the script with Nick Stoller and their love of the characters comes through in every moment of the movie. This is a joyful tribute to the characters and a throwback to the original show and the first few films. Much like “The Muppet Movie” there is a self-aware tone to the material that is fun. The script is full of real wit and even some heart-tugging pathos.

Jim Henson’s felt friends became an unlikely sensation in 1976 on “The Muppet Show,” which spawned three films from 1979 to 1984, “The Muppet Movie,” “The Great Muppet Caper” and “Muppets Take Manhattan.”

Following Henson’s death in 1990 it was unclear if the Muppets would go on without him, but his son, Brian, continued the legacy in a new series of films from 1992 to 1999 with “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “Muppet Treasure Island” and “Muppets from Space.”

In 2000 Jim Henson’s children sold the Jim Henson Company to a German company. Shortly after the purchase that company faced financial difficulties and Henson’s children struggled to buy back their father’s company. They did and, in 2004, sold the all rights to Disney.

All this back and forth with the company may explain why in the new millennium the Muppets were relegated to TV movies, commercials and music videos. In the entertainment world, there was much discussion to whether the Muppets were even cultural relevant anymore, and so it is fitting that the new film uses that as a jumping off point.

It was a series of video on YouTube, including the Muppets’ take of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that helped prove that the Muppets popularity hadn’t waned and paved the way for the new film.

“The Muppets,” as with the previous films, is a musical, and a rather effective one, too. Familiar songs like “The Muppet Show Theme” and “The Rainbow Connection” are recreated, but there are several new songs written by Bret McKenzie, one half of the New Zealand folk comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. His songs are bright, catchy and funny. Highlights include “Life’s a Happy Song,” “Me Party” and, my personal favorite, “Man or Muppet” in which Gary and Walter each ponder if they’re a “Muppet of a man or a very manly Muppet.”

Directed by James Bobin, who worked with McKenzie on the “Flight of the Conchords” TV series, there is an irreverent, but never vulgar tone to the material. This is gentle family friendly material that will appeal to both kids and adults.

All the favorite Muppets are here including Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Scooter, the Swedish Chef, etc. Everyone gets their due, even if only briefly. As was the case with “The Muppet Movie,” this new film is full of celebrity cameos. Some are very funny and some are gratuitous, but everyone seems happy to be on screen with these beloved characters.

Segel and Adams as the human stars of the movie are cheery and energetic. They may have too much screen time, after all this is a Muppets movie, but they are good company and play well off the Muppets.

The film is made in such a way as to appeal to fans, but also reintroduces the characters to a new audience. Above everything else this is a genuine feel-good movie that will have you smiling as you leave the theater. I was grinning like a fool from beginning to end.

Student Artist Profile: Matt Stoker's 'eye opening' journey in theater

Matt Stoker, a senior at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine, has acted throughout the valley in numerous productions for M&D and Arts in Motion including “Dog Sees God,” “Rent,” “Seussical: The Musical” and “The Fantasticks.” Last December, thanks to a contest through Dove Haircare, he performed as part of Alpenglow at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. He will next be seen in Arts in Motions’ production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center at Fryeburg Academy Saturday, Dec. 17 at 1, 4 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 18 at 1 and 4 p.m.

It has been a year almost since the whole Radio City Music Hall thing. How’s it been?

I was actually just thinking about that earlier. It has been good. Definitely looking back on that, that’s got to be my fondest performing arts memory by far. It is incredible to think that roughly this time last year we were scrambling around trying to get votes from the community and pull everything together. I’m really glad that it happened and I kind of wish I was doing something exciting this Christmas. It is kind of lax around here.

That was crazy. Even just from my perspective.

Yeah, it was a whirlwind all right.

Did you feel any different? Do you think anything changed in the wake of that?

Yeah, I mean now I can put in all my bios for my shows that I performed on Broadway. That’s quite an accomplishment. That always brings up some conversation. But being on such a big stage, I didn’t think it was going to feel different than being around here, I mean I did, but not that different. I got out on stage and looked up and there was just tiers and tiers of people and I was like “Wow, this is what it feels like to be one of the big stars, the big leagues.” That’s incredible. So, yeah it definitely has changed my perspective on where I want to go and what I want to do with my life. It was eye opening.

So, it did solidify that this is what you want to do, that you want to be a performer?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Hopefully that’s going to be where I am. I'll be there permanently. Hopefully. We’ll see.

When did you first get into performance?

Wow. Well, I’ve been singing since I was very little. Back in England, I used to sing in a choir and at my church. Since then I’ve grown up and didn’t really do anything seriously until high school, until I came to the academy with Brent Lacasce. I really got into music and I heard about auditions around North Conway with M&D Productions and I went out thinking maybe it's something I’ll give a shot. And it turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life. It really did show me that musical theater was for me, so I’m very thankful for that and to M&D for that. Since then I’ve had a lot of opportunities open up for me and it has really steered me in the right direction, so it is good. I’m excited about it.

Coming from this as a singer and then trying acting, how did you take to acting?

It was harder. It was definitely harder. Singing for me always came as a natural thing. My grandfather was an incredible tenor. I’ve always just enjoyed singing. I’ll sing badly to the auto-tuned stuff on the radio now. My mom hates it. It was a lot harder acting. Getting on stage and portraying a character who maybe is suicidal or is mentally disturbed in a way or something that is totally outside of the box, outside of what I am and what I am comfortable with is hard at first, but after awhile you get into the character and it becomes something you are more familiar with and it definitely opens your eyes. I don’t know. It is really hard to describe. It is definitely something you need to fall into. It is something you need to get used to, sitting on stage and having the lights blaring down on you. But it is what I live for: the adrenaline, everything, just when I am on stage and everyone is just enjoying what I am doing and what I am putting out there for them.

Now with “Dog Sees God,” was that your first non-musical?

It was. That was an interesting show. I wasn’t quite sure I was prepared for what the show was going to be. I flipped through the script when M&D told me about it and I said “Yeah, I’d love to audition for this” and I got cast as the very reclusive piano player that was gay and everyone hated him for being gay. I ended up finding out a lot more about myself through that character than I have probably through any of my other characters. It was a fun role to play. It was eye opening. Was that the only straight [non-musical] show I’ve done? I think it is. I’ve definitely stuck more to musicals. I am in a straight show right now, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and that will be going up the middle of December in Fryeburg.

What role are you playing in that?

I am Sam Wainwright. Now I am going to be honest: I’ve never actually seen the movie, so I know people are going to be like: “What? You have not seen that movie?” I just haven’t. I know who that is now reading through the script, but yeah that's who I ended up playing.

Are you looking forward to it?

I am looking forward to it. It is going to be a great show. Mary [Bastoni-Rebmann] is, oh my gosh, by far one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. Going to New York with Mary, we’ve become very close. It is like working with one of my best friends and it is a lot of fun, so I’m very excited to do this show.

What would say your favorite performance is, outside of Alpenglow?

I’m going to have to go with “Rent.” It was a tough role for me vocally as well as acting wise. It is probably the first role I struggled with the way I was going to sing it, the way I was going portray the character. It was interesting being a character who was on the outside looking in, not as much being a part of the story. That was hard to portray, being more of the narrator role instead of being an actual character in the story. I think the camaraderie that came from the cast, we were together for months on end, day in, day out throughout the summer of 2010. It was definitely one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with and I’ve become like family to them and them to me. We still talk and we hang. That was definitely one of the best experiences in theater for me.

What are you hoping to do after high school?

That’s a million-dollar question. I am going to college definitely. I’ve actually got to go home and send off some college applications. As for what I am doing, I’m going to do computer programming and I’m also going to double major in musical theater. Now those are very different things, but hopefully I’ll find, when I get there, I lean one way or the other and I’ll kind of just fall more into that, but it could be I double major the entire way and I get a major in both. We’ll see how that goes. Let’s be honest, actors don’t make a lot of money. Even in the big leagues, the flow of cash isn’t secure, so that’s the reasoning behind the computer programing.

That’s not a bad idea. On the side you can just do some freelance Web designing, make some money that way.

Exactly. Hopefully I’ll be all set in that regard.

Do you have any final thoughts on why you do what you do?

Not really besides to say thank you to all those who inspired me throughout the years: to M&D for helping me find my love of musical theater; to Arts in Motion for providing me with some of the most incredible casts I’ve worked with and most incredible shows; to Brent Lacasce for helping me become the singer that I am today through his vigorous vocal jazz exercises; and to, of course, my mom, who drives me around to all these crazy places. She is definitely a force to be reckoned with, but she’s probably the most inspiring person in my life.