Friday, December 28, 2012

'Jack Reacher' delivers action with smarts

"Jack Reacher" opens with a shooter making preparations to go on a shooting spree. We are forced to see through the shooter's scope as he picks off five people in a crowd. This would be difficult to see in any context, but given the recent school shooting in Connecticut it is particularly rough to watch.

Despite that disturbing opening, the film does prove to be quality entertainment, as odd as that may sound. Don't mistake me here, the shooting of innocent civilians is by no means entertaining. The film is not exploitive or callous with its imagery.

The entertainment value comes from the retribution and justice dished out by Tom Cruise as the title character, a righteous ex-military cop. This isn't just some mindless revenge-film though. There is humor, ranging from slapstick to sharp, biting banter, that helps lighten the mood without going as far as trivializing the subject matter.

Reacher is the star of 17 books by Lee Child. His first film appearance is taken from the novel "One Shot." There have been rather vocal discussions from fans that the 5-foot-7 Cruise has no business playing the 6-foot-5 Reacher.

Having not read any of the books, I can't say whether Cruise captures the essence of the character, but, as the film version of the character, he's entirely believable as a tough guy able to handle himself in a five on one fight. Reacher is more than just a brute though and Cruise is also strong at portraying a brilliant investigative mind that is able to see things others have missed.

Reacher enters this story upon hearing about the shooting. He knows a secret from the shooter's past and wants to make sure he pays for his crime. His tune changes when he starts looking closer at the crime with the help of the defense lawyer (Rosamund Pike) on the case. Soon it becomes clear to Reacher that the shooting was a frame job. As he begins digging deeper he uncovers conspiracies tied to a mysterious man known as The Zec (Werner Herzog).

The film is written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, best known for writing "The Usual Suspects." Again, having not read "One Shot," I don't know how much of the dialogue comes directly from the book, but it is sharply written and often has a sardonic wit to it. The fight scenes, which are often brutal and visceral, are also presented with a darkly comic tone.

There's an exciting chase scene featuring Cruise behind the wheel of red muscle car (a Chevrolet Chevelle SS) mostly because vintage cars look way cooler than newer ones. The chase is well executed and engaging, but the punchline to the scene is what makes the scene one of the more memorable and clever chases in recent years.

Cruise, who was also the film's producer, has surrounded himself with a solid supporting cast. Most notably the reliable character actor Richard Jenkins as a district attorney and Robert Duvall as the owner of a gun range. Duvall doesn't show up until the final third of the film, but brings an unpredictable and fun energy to the proceedings.

Pike is a good foil to Cruise, but she is a strong actress with little to play. She is mostly required to listen to Reacher's theories and be skeptical at first only to then marvel at how brilliant he is. She spends most of the film in wide-eyed shock of the unfolding events.

German director Herzog has some fun as the villain, but is largely wasted. He has one truly unsettling monologue that sets him up to be a great, memorable villain, but then he spends the rest of the film simply trying to look scary or intimidating.

It is Cruise that makes all this work. Cruise has always been a charismatic screen presence, but now the older model Cruise seems even more in control of his swagger. He flashes his charming grin a few times, but for the most, he is comes across as focused and determined. It is a performance that recalls his steel cold villainy in "Collateral," but this time used for good.

Cruise is a great movie star, so it is easy to forget how good of an actor he can truly be. "Jack Reacher" reminds you of both.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On stage: A bountiful year of theater in North Conway, N.H.

North Conway may not be Broadway, but we are blessed with three theater companies, Arts in Motion, M&D Productions and the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company which put on productions ranging from good to excellent. The last year proved to be a bountiful year of theater.

Arts in Motion

Arts in Motion started the year off with an elaborate production of "Peter Pan" featuring two different Peters, Natasha Repass and Taylor Hill, who traded off playing the role between performances, and Paul Allen as a flamboyantly over-the-top Captain Hook.

In April, Arts in Motion presented "The Last Romance" at the Whitney Center and at Denmark Arts Center in Denmark, Maine. This one-weekend production directed by Mary Bastoni-Rebmann explored the transformational power of love. In May, there was "MOMologues," a show just in time for Mother's Day that presented a wide range of universal mom situations. In August, the kid-friendly "Charlotte's Web," and in November the special 20th anniversary original production "Shake, Rattle and Roll."

Arts in Motion's big summer show was a lively production of "Little Shop of Horrors." Director Barbara Spofford got fine performances out of the cast with Chris Madura standing out in the lead role of Seymour Krelbourn. Madura brought the nerdiness of the character across, but also managed to be a confident stage presence with a commanding singing voice.

Throughout the year, Mary Bastoni-Rebmann continued her children's theater workshops, week-long excursions into all aspects of theater, which concluded with a final performance at the end of the week.

In 2012, Arts in Motion Theater Company did fewer big long-running stage productions, but were still active in the community by collaborating with local businesses to create special events. In September, the company once again collaborated with Mount Washington Auto Road for the speakeasy casino night. In October, they teamed with Conway Scenic Railroad to put on the "Murder Mystery Dinner Train." and joined Settlers' Green to create Zombie Village, an evening that included a zombie walk, a "Thriller" flash mob and other undead antics.

M&D Productions

M&D's 2012 season, started off with the company taking their second crack at "Glengarry Glen Ross," David Mamet's look at the dark side of real estate salesmen. The production, directed by Dennis O'Neil, featured strong performances throughout. Of the stellar cast the standouts were Scott Katrycz as the loud-mouth schemer Dave Moss and Ken Martin as Shelly Levene, a man who is barely holding onto his dignity.

April's "Burn This" was an intelligent, funny and heartbreaking exploration of what it means to lose someone and the good that can come up out of the pain. Eric Jordan, normally a reliably hilarious comic relief actor, revealed previously untapped dramatic acting chops. It was an emotional raw, subtle and unpredictable performance.

The theme of confronting loss continued in May with "To Gillian on Her 34th Birthday," which focused on a weekend gathering of friends and family on the anniversary of the titular Gillian's death two years earlier. Katrycz played Gillian's husband and gave a well balanced and controlled performance that never felt maudlin. He was matched by naturalistic performances by Jessie Biggio as his daughter and Janette Kondrat as his opinionated, but caring sister-in-law. Rob Clark provided scene-stealing comic relief.

July's "Lie of the Mind," Sam Shepard's exploration of the repercussions and the self-perpetuating nature of abuse, was one of M&D's strangest, darkest, and most emotional raw productions. Kondrat gave a heart-wrenching performance as woman suffering brain damage after an attack from her jealous husband (Brian Chamberlain). Everyone in the strong ensemble cast, which included Daniel Otero, Bill Knolla, Stacy Sand and Kate Gustafson, got their moment to shine, but Christina Howe revealed previously unseen depths as an actress playing a woman full of bitter hatred and venomous vengeance.

After the intensity of "Lie of the Mind," M&D went 180-degrees in the opposite direction with August's "The Real Inspector Hound," Tom Stoppard's parody of the mystery genre. The show was fast paced, quick witted, lighthearted fun with the game ensemble cast which featured Kevin O'Neil, Martin, Jordan, Karen Gustafson, Kondrat, Knolla, Andrew Brosnan and Jane Duggan giving gleeful broad performances.

In September, M&D Productions put on "An Evening of Broadway," a collection of Broadway songs featuring standards and new soon-to-be classics. The event was a showcase for the valley's numerous exceptional singers of all ages including Polly Valiant, Megan Perrin, Ashley Iwans, Shana Myers, Kelly Karuzis, Shelly Morin and others.

October's "Halpern and Johnson," a thoughtful and funny rumination on life and love, offered a fine showcase for two actors. In the title roles, Russo and David H. Bownes play two older gentlemen, who come to find out that they both loved the same woman. It is show driven by dialogue and the strength of its two actors. Russo and Bownes both gave compelling and honest performances.
In November, M&D put on the stellar musical "Next to Normal," an exploration of the rippling influence of mental illness on a family. Holly Reville, as a mother struggling with bi-polar disorder, powerfully portrayed her character's fears and confusion. Reville shares several heartbreaking scenes with Eric Andrews as her husband, Troy Barboza as her son and Molly Paven as her daughter.
M&D ended out the year with a short, but sweet adaptation of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" featuring Stacy Sand gloriously hamming it up as the Grinch.

Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company

"Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree," the third installment in Dan Goggin's popular "Nunsense" kicked off the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's 42nd season. The "Nunsense" series which features a group of singing, joke-cracking nuns from Hoboken, N.J., may be musical theater at its laziest, but at least the Mount Washington Valley Theatre's production was put on with high energy and well sung by an amicable cast. The best of the cast was Jennifer Lauren Brown as a tough talking nun from Brooklyn. Her sassy attitude shined brightly in songs like "A Cowgirl from Canarsie."

The company's fantastic ensemble also enlivened "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a one-act musical comedy centered on six quirky adolescents participating in a spelling bee overseen by three eccentric adults. The show's songs are upbeat and fun, but it is the characterizations in "Spelling Bee" that stand out the most. Once again it was Brown who left the most lasting impression with the surprisingly heartwrenching "The I Love You Song."

"Stop the World, I Want to Get Off," a dated relic from 1961, concluded the season. This is a show that while featuring some lovely songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley including "What Kind of Fool Am I" also runs rampant with sexist humor. Still, the stellar ensemble was able to rise above the material. Andy Lindberg, who appeared in the infamous pie-eating contest scene in the film "Stand By Me," starred as the philandering cad Littlechap. Lindberg had a powerful set of pipes and an easy-going likeable stage presence, despite his character's often deplorable actions. Hillary Parker was fun and funny playing the multiple roles of all of Littlechap's conquests.

Although, "Stop the World," concluded the season it was "Man of La Mancha" that stood as the strongest production of the 2012 season. Based on Miguel de Cervantes's classic 17th century novel "Don Quixote," "Man of La Mancha," uses a story frame in which a fictionalized version of Cervantes tells the story of Don Quixote in a prison during the Spanish Inquisition. Larry Daggett was tremendous in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote. He was able to make both characters distinct. His Quixote is full of bravado and performed with a Shakespearean quality. Daggett's rich and powerful voice helped to make the show's most famous song, "The Impossible Dream" memorably moving.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A middling 'journey' to Middle Earth

Director Peter Jackson returns to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of a new trilogy following the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf and a merry band of dwarfs.

Jackson has made the dubious decision of stretching "The Hobbit," a 300-page book written for children before the epic "Lord of the Rings," over three films by adding material from in the appendices of "Lord of the Rings."

When it was announced "The Hobbit" would be three films (originally planned as two), I was deeply skeptical and this first film, clocking in at 169 minutes, hasn't entirely convinced me it was the right decision. Having seen the film twice, I can say there are many great scenes that are completely wonderful, but there are also parts that feel like padding.

The film opens with a thrilling prologue in which the dwarfs lose their kingdom and wealth to the gold-coveting dragon Smaug. Then there are some pleasant, but entirely superfluous scenes with old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood). Eventually, the story begins proper with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) inviting young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) on an adventure with a motley crew of 12 dwarfs eager to take back their home and gold from Smaug.

This leads to the film's first truly delightful sequence: Bilbo dealing with the unexpected gathering of Gandalf and the dwarfs in his Hobbit hole. Freeman is hilarious in this scene as the anxiety ridden and increasingly flustered hobbit. The lively song "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" is a real treat.

The initially hesitant Bilbo ultimately can't resist the temptation of seeing the world outside his quiet little life and joins the adventure, which includes encounters with trolls, goblins, wolves and orcs. The confrontation with the trolls, whom intend to eat Bilbo and the dwarfs, is another fantastic scene. It is exciting with a sly sense of humor as Bilbo delays the trolls by discussing the best way to cook dwarf.

A visit to the elven kingdom of Rivendell, which in the book is time of relaxation, is full of tension. In fact much of "An Unexpected Journey" has been darkened to match the mood of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." "The Hobbit" had a different, lighter tone than the more densely written "Lord of the Rings."

Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the dwarfs, has become a brooding tragic hero on the level of Bruce Wayne. He has a nasty chip on his shoulder in regards to elves and Mr. Baggins. In terms of storytelling, this works fine for the film, but it is a departure from the book that could disappoint fans. Thorin's pride, a key theme of the story, is established, though, and will prove important in subsequent films.

The addition of a vengeful adversary from Thorin's past who is chasing after the dwarfs adds more action, but feels gratuitous rather than enriching and deepening the story.

These complaints don't ruin the film. Far from it. As was true with "Lord of the Rings," Jackson has made a film that is often astoundingly beautiful. There is so much going in every scene that you can simply stop following the characters and take in the beauty of the sets and environments. Jackson's Tolkien films are the best advertising that New Zealand — the stand in for Middle Earth — could hope for.

The acting throughout can't be faulted, although many of the dwarfs do get lost in the mix. McKellen, appearing as Gandalf for the fourth time, is still a sheer delight bringing humor, warmth, wisdom and just a hint of kookiness to the role.

Freeman is an ideal Bilbo. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He brings the necessary humor to the role, but also makes Bilbo's discovery of hidden strengths feel honest. He has a speech about missing home and yet deciding to stay on his journey that is genuinely touching.

Easily the best scene in the film is Bilbo's game of riddles with the spindly schizophrenic Gollum (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere in the film, Jackson has pumped up the action significantly, but these scenes are purely character driven. Freeman and Serkis brilliantly play off of each other. Serkis, who masterfully portrayed Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" is quite possibly even better here. He deserves an Oscar.

While the battle of wits is highly entertaining, a wordless a moment of compassion and mercy from Bilbo is just as an important. It may be the single best moment of filmmaking and acting in the whole film. In a few brief seconds, Jackson expresses a whole passage from the book. It is a moment of restraint and subtlety that acts as reminder that while Jackson is a tad bit self-indulgent, he also remains a skilled filmmaker.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

12 favorite Christmas cover songs

Classic Christmas songs have been covered and reinterpreted hundreds of times over. With Christmas mere days away, here are 12 of my favorite covers of iconic Christmas songs.

"Baby, Its Cold Outside" - Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone
Recorded for the "Elf" soundtrack, singer/actress Zooey Deschanel was joined by the mysterious jazz/blues singer Leon Redbone. Deschanel later recorded an equally charming gender-reversed version of the song for her duo She and Him.

"The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)" - Hootie and the Blowfish
A straightforward, but highly effective cover that benefits from leader singers Darius Rucker's soulful and soothing vocals.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan
Quirky Canadian rockers play it straight creating lovely harmonies that are beautifully complemented by fellow Canadian McLachlan's powerful voice.

"Jingle Bells" - Brian Setzer Orchestra
Setzer reinterprets "Jingle Bells" with his familiar swinging rockabilly stamp. It is a hoot to hear him change the "one horse open sleigh" to a "57 Chevrolet."

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - Coldplay
A sparse take on the song that with nothing more than piano and singer Chris Martin manages to capture the pensive, nostalgic nature of the song.

"Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" - Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Perhaps the most iconic cover of "Little Drummer Boy." Recorded for a Christmas special in 1977, mere months before Crosby died, Bowie didn't want to sing "Little Drummer Boy," so a new part, "Peace on Earth," was written specifically for him. The track remains one of the great collaborations for Christmas or otherwise.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" - Rubber Band
The Rubber Band took Christmas songs and mashed them up with Beatles song. In this case "Rockin' Around the Christmas" has been seamlessly blended with "I Saw Her Standing There."

"Rudolph the Reindeer" - Jack Johnson
Johnson refuses the familiar song with his unique brand of chill acoustic rock. His delivery is fun and his reworking of the lyrics are unexpected and amusing.

"Sleigh Ride" - KT Tunstall
Scottish songstress lends her voice to a buoyant, uptempo reworking of "Sleigh Ride." It is drenched in pop sheen, but undeniably infectious. Tunstall also has a wonderful live version.

"12 Days of Christmas" - John Denver and The Muppets
In 1979 Denver recorded a Christmas album with The Muppets. One of the better tracks had a different muppet taking on one of the 12 days of Christmas. Is it any surprise that Miss Piggy sings "five gold rings?"

"White Christmas" - Otis Redding
Soul singer Redding seemingly combines "White Christmas" with his own "Try a Little Tenderness" to create a fresh take on the Irving Berlin classic.

"Winter Wonderland" - Phantom Planet
Phantom Planet is best known for the song "California," but they did an equally wonderful tribute to cooler landscapes. It starts out with simple acoustic and builds to a nice pop-rock feel.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A pair of Christmas grumps take to the stage

Many of the actors are cast in several roles, which leads to some confusion. Violet Webster plays both the role of young Scrooge's fiancee Belle and, later, Mrs. Cratchit, which gives the appearance that Belle married Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit. This gives an unintended, albeit amusing, subtext to the proceedings.

Some of the children, though, are quite good with Sophia Gemmiti as Marley's ghost and Snowden O'Neill as Bob Cratchit as standouts. O'Neill has a great facial expression of utter confusion when Scrooge reveals his change of heart in the concluding scenes.

Robirds, a first-time actor, gets off to a rough start, but grows into the role. He's better at portraying the joyful Scrooge at the end of the story than the gruff curmudgeon of the beginning.

In addition to both being about a grump who learns the true meaning of Christmas, the biggest thing these two production have in common is narration. Narration can be a useful tool in getting information across in a play or a film, but it can also can be detrimental to the storytelling if relied on too heavily.

Clemons adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" commits one of the biggest sins of theater and film: It tells rather than shows. It feels as if half or more of this reworking of Scrooge's visitation by three ghosts is told through narration. Often Dickens' language, read by an unseen narrator, is used to describe events that aren't even happening on stage. The narration often comes across as stage directions that no one is following.

In contrast, the narration in M&D's "Who Stole Christmas?" is used sparingly and there is always a direct correlation between what is being spoken and what is happening on stage. The narrator (Cynthia Johnson) remains on stage throughout the show and at one point is even directly addressed by the Grinch (Stacy Sand).

Sand makes a fantastically gruff Grinch and is clearly having fun hamming it up as a cartoonish villain. She also gets nice support from Ryan J. Orlando and Jodi Zwicker-Perrin as Cindy-Lou's parents.

"Who Stole Christmas?" borrows elements not only from the Dr. Seuss book, but from the 1966 animated TV special and the 2000 film. From the animated version comes the iconic songs "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas" and from the film version the subplot of consumerism taking over Christmas and the song "Where Are You Christmas?," which is sweetly sung by Polly Valiant as Cindy-Lou Who.

Both productions look great. Clemons' production features a lovely painted backdrop that effectively recreates 19th-century England. The costume designs by Amy Anderson and Susan May also do a nice job at creating the look of the era.

For "Who Stole Christmas?" Deborah Jasien has constructed a wonderful Seuss-like set and costumes to match, which are nicely enhanced by makeup done by Janette Kondrat.

Director Ken Martin also keeps "Who Stole Christmas?" short at 35 minutes, making it a good show for even the youngest of children. Clemon's "A Christmas Carol" is longer, around two hours with a 20-minute intermission, making it more appropriate for older children, perhaps 7 and up.

Tickets for "A Christmas Carol" are $10 for adults and $5 for children under age 12. For more information or to order tickets, call The Eastern Slope Theater Box Office at 356-5776. Tickets for "Who Stole Christmas?" are $15 for adults, $10 for students, seniors and veterans, family four-packs are $40 and children under 5 are free. Call 662-7591 for a reservation.

Friday, December 07, 2012

A holiday film 'rises' to the occasion

Every holiday season there is at least one new Christmas-themed family movie released into theaters. Lately, these films tend to have a hip or revisionist take on the Santa Claus mythology. This year is no different with "The Rise of Guardians" presenting Santa as a member of an Avengers-esque super group of mythic childhood figures.

Based on a series of books by William Joyce, "Guardians" unites Santa (Alec Baldwin, sporting a fantastic Russian accent), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman, not holding back his natural Australian accent), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman and, the rookie of the team, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) as guardians of childhood innocence.

Their adversary is the Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law), who has long been forgotten and is eager to return with a reign of fear and nightmares. Law gives an appropriately sinister vocal performance and the character design is genuinely creepy without being too terrifying for younger viewers.

The mischievous and fun loving Jack is the main character of the story. He has no recollection of his past before gaining his powers over ice and wind and can only be seen by other magical beings. This leaves him feeling lost and confused. He reluctantly joins the team after the promise that they'll help him regain his memories.

This is all pretty standard good versus evil stuff, but it is the telling and the characterizations that make "Rise of the Guardians" unexpectedly good and rather special. The film has a good pedigree including a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, whose plays such as "The Rabbit Hole" and "Kimberly Akimbo" blend warm humor with a searing emotional honesty.

Lindsay-Abaire brings surprising emotional weight to the proceedings, particularly to Jack's origins. The film is light and funny, but Lindsay-Abaire isn't afraid to be dark and deal with heavy emotions.

Most children's films have a theme that you should believe in yourself. While that's present in "Guardians," the message also goes a bit deeper. There's an important idea that not only is it necessary to believe in yourself, but to have others believe in you, too. One of the film's most powerful moments is when Jack is finally seen, both literally and figuratively, for the first time.

The other key name attached to the film is producer Guillermo del Toro, the visionary and imaginative filmmaker of such films as "Pan's Labyrinth." While he didn't direct the film, his visual stamp can be seen throughout much of the vivid designs of the characters and settings.

The film is visually rather stunning and manages to feel unique in a market saturated by computer animation. Sandman and his sand, in particular, stand out. Sandy, as he is nicknamed, can't speak, so his ever shifting sand does the speaking for him. On the surface he is sweet and unassuming, but his sand makes him a formidable fighter. It is an inspired variation of the Sandman character.

In fact, all of the characters are clever and creative versions of these well known figures. Santa, with his Russian accent, is a tough brawler and handy with a sword, but still retains his good cheer and sense of wonder. Baldwin has a speech about the core essence of Santa that is sweet and touching.

Jackman's Easter Bunny has a sassy attitude and snarky wit and nicely butts heads with Pine's Jack. There's a development with the Easter Bunny late in the tale that is both hilarious and adorable.

The Tooth Fairy, who has an army of hummingbird helper fairies, is underdeveloped, but nicely voiced by Fisher.

In the supporting characters category, it is revealed that it isn't the elves that make Santa's toys, but a team of yetis. This is an inspired idea and the yetis get some of the film's biggest laughs. On the other hand, the elves, which are portrayed as dimwits, come off like cheap knock offs of the minions from "Despicable Me."

"Rise of the Guardians" is more than just another Christmas movie. It is a smart, funny, heartfelt and an entirely engaging film that should appeal to both kids and adults alike.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

When news is fake, who you gonna call?

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, news articles started floating around the Internet that Bill Murray, after years of protest, was finally signing on to appear in "Ghostbusters 3." The source for all these articles was a fake story from the website Super Official News. That this fictional story proliferated so quickly is emblematic of the current state of journalism in the brave new digital world.

A website named Super Official News should be a tip off that perhaps the news from it may not be credible, but, ignoring that, there is no indication that the website is meant as parody. Most of the content is rarely outrageous or absurd enough to be satirical.

Articles like "New Drug Craze Leaves 3 Teenagers Hospitalized," "Announced – The Big Lebowski 2: The Dude Goes To Washington," "Mars Rover Finds First Signs Of Life On The Red Planet," "Blazing Saddles The Musical Coming To Broadway" and "Papa John's Apologizes: Offers One Free Large Pizza Per Household Till The End Of The Year" are all in the realm of possibility and are written in ways that are believable.

It isn't until you scroll to the bottom of the home page that you find this disclaimer: "This entire site is pretty much just a resume containing a collection of my writings and such for the off chance that someone like The Onion ever happens to stop by."

A website like Super Official News is just proof that what the people at the satirical newspaper and website The Onion do isn't easy. Some might say you can't blame these other websites for falling for the "Ghostbusters 3" ruse, but, yes, you can and, more importantly, should.

In the era of social media and smart phones, news travels faster than ever before. It is a race to be the first to publish a juicy headline. If you can't be first then you better be damn sure to have your own story about the hot topic in hopes of driving traffic to your website.

There is no longer time to fact check. Just get the news out. Any errors can be corrected later. Can you imagine if a surgeon operated this way? "I'm pretty sure I know how to do this surgery, but, if I screw up, we can always fix it later."

Some mistakes are unavoidable in journalism, but, ideally, a story should be published with 100 percent accuracy, at least to the best of the author and their editor's knowledge. In the rush to get the news out as fast possible, accuracy is falling by the wayside.

This is a dangerous development in journalism, especially given the speed in which a story can go viral. The falseness of the "Ghostbusters 3" news is harmless, but what about when harder untrue news spreads?

Once something goes viral it is much harder to get the truth out. A follow up story or correction may go unseen once a big story starts trending. The truth can very quickly be twisted into something untrue. It is even worse if you start out with something false. We are breeding an environment of misinformation and ignorance.

It took me all of five minutes to discover the "Ghostbusters 3" news wasn't true. Increasingly, we seem to be creating a society that is no longer curious. We want news quickly, but don't take the time to digest it before moving onto the next big thing.

In this high speed world, take nothing at face value. If it isn't a source you trust, double and triple check the story. Even if it is a trusted source, be skeptical, be curious, be hungry for knowledge. There's always more to the story.

Friday, November 30, 2012

'Pi' a beautiful filmgoing experience

Director Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," based on the popular book by Yann Martel, is an extraordinary visual experience with some of the most beautiful images to appear in a film in this or any other year.

"Pi" is not about the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, although that is where the title character gets his name. Pi, played at various ages by Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur, is an Indian who goes on a life affirming and changing journey.

Pi's family in the French part of India runs a zoo, but, when money becomes tight, they must sell the zoo and animals and move to Canada. Things turn tragic when the ship they are taking sinks somewhere in the Pacific. The teenage Pi (Sharma) is the sole survivor sharing his lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi must find a way to coexist with the tiger as the two float across the Pacific for more than 200 days.

Astoundingly, Richard Parker, with few exceptions, is a computer-generated creation. I was unaware of this fact and never doubted whether the tiger was real. Most of what is on the screen was created by a computer, but none of it causes a disconnect with the viewer. Bad special effects can pull an audience out of a movie fast, but the visuals in "Pi," while often fantastic and from a heightened reality, are so crisp and clean that you never question them.

Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the film's art direction team have made a world that is difficult not to be drawn in and engrossed by. The mirror-like ocean often reflects the sky creating images that are often like moving paintings. A sequence involving glowing sea creations is glorious to behold.

Although "Pi" is sparse on plot, there is more to the film than just its visuals. Pi, even before being stranded in the ocean with a tiger, was going through a religious exploration that had him practicing Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all at once. The film doesn't preach that one religion is superior to another or even that religion is superior to science, but rather the importance of believing in something. This is a welcomed and refreshingly open view on faith.

Sharma, making his acting debut, gives an extraordinary performance, especially when you realize, with the tiger not actually there, that he was acting to nothing. His performance is deeply expressive, honest and authentic and goes a long way to helping sell the more fanciful visuals. You believe he is out on that lifeboat. Sharma's performance is a complete journey emotionally, intellectually and physically.

The film's plot is told through a story frame in which the adult Pi (Khan) is telling the tale to a writer (Rafe Spall). It is a cliche story structure that can be effective, but doesn't necessarily help here. It causes the story to stall in the early stages of the film. Luckily, the film stops cutting back to the present just when it was becoming overly distracting.

That being said, Khan is very good as the adult Pi. He hints at the emotional turmoil of the story he's about to tell just in his tone, facial expressions and body language.

The film doesn't begin with the ship sinking. Lee takes the time to show Pi's life in India as a boy and a teen. Some audience members may be itching to get to the ship sinking, but these early scenes are essential to establishing the film's themes and investing us into Pi's perilous journey.

Lee makes a point not to rush any of his films, but sometimes the "Pi" starts to sag a bit in the middle. This is a minor quibble, though, in a film boiling over with this much visual splendor and imagination. This is definitely a film to see on a big screen. The bigger the better.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Washington gives intense performance in powerful 'Flight'

"Flight," a definite contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, opens with a terrifying, gripping plane crash, but it turns out that the aftermath of this crash is far more intense than the event itself.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), the pilot of the doomed plane, manages to crash land his malfunctioning plane in a way that, amazingly, kills only six of the 102 passengers and crew members. His extraordinary feat, which includes temporarily flying the plane inverted, should make him a hero, but the investigation of the incident reveals that he was drunk while flying.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis from a script by John Gatins, the film becomes a character study of a tragically flawed man who does a heroic act. He is a highly functional alcoholic, who we painfully watch start drinking over and over again.

The president of pilot's union (Bruce Greenwood) and a lawyer (Don Cheadle) for the airline are quite willing to cover up the fact that Whip was drunk while piloting the plane. His impaired state had nothing to do with the crash, and if he hadn't been in that cockpit everyone would've died. But Whip needs help and covering up his actions isn't about protecting him for jail time, but merely saving the face of the union and airline.

In a parallel story we see the struggles of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict who overdoses at the same time of the crash. Nicole and Whip meet in the hospital as they are healing from their respective traumas.

Their first encounter is sneaking a smoke in the hospital stairwell. They are joined by a cancer patient (James Badge Dale) with only days to live. It terms of story, this character, who only appears in this one scene, seems extraneous, but he adds color and helps to introduce important themes into the film. It is the kind of scene that a lesser filmmaker may have seen as non-essential, but it is a credit to Zemeckis that he sees the value of a scene that exists only to build character and mood.

Reilly, who audiences may recognize as Mrs. Watson in the new "Sherlock Holmes" movies, gives a vulnerable and honest performance as a broken woman trying to pull the piece of her life back together. Her performance feels heart-wrenchingly real and is full of subtle moments. She has an eye twitch that is a brief moment that stayed with me as a representation of the authenticity of her performance.

The relationship that develops between Reilly and Washington is the heart of the film. Whip, despite his drinking problems, is a good guy and wants to help and save Mary from her terrible life. He takes her in and she tries to take care of him at his worst, but, as she tries to get clean and sober, it becomes harder for her to stand by him.

Washington, an always reliably great actor, gives one of his most exposed performances. He digs deep into a complex character. He makes Whip charming and likable at the same time that he is frustrating and infuriating. Whip is a man with many great qualities that often get lost in a sea of booze.

On a technical level, per usual from the director of such films as "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Forrest Gump," and "Castaway," the film is incredibly well crafted.

The visual effects in that opening plane crash are flawless and believable. It is a striking opening, but it is the way Zemeckis handles the movie's raw emotional conflicts that linger far longer. Zemeckis and Washington aren't afraid to create a protagonist that is often difficult to like.

As was true of "Forrest Gump," Zemeckis has populated the soundtrack with songs that always fit the moments just right. The theme song for a drug dealer character played by John Goodman is perfection.

"Flight" is often a difficult to watch, but a rewarding film. The film builds to Whip facing a hearing about the crash. How this scene concludes is one of the most powerful moments in any film this year.

Friday, November 16, 2012

'Fall'ing for James Bond all over again

"James Bond turns 50 with "Skyfall," Daniel Craig's third appearance as the British super spy. It is a smashing 007 adventure with thrills, laughs, pathos and plenty of knowing nods to Bond's past.

Starting with 2006's "Casino Royale," the Bond franchise was sent back to square one. In "Casino Royale" we saw the newly minted 007 on his first mission. He was rough around the edges and more physical than any previous Bond. There was nary a gadget to be found. This Bond needed only his fists, gun, intellect and charm.

The follow up, "Quantum of Solace," was the first direct sequel in the series with Bond actually dealing with the loss of a loved one. He became a man of few words. This was a Bond that was heartbroken and out for revenge. While the film was an interesting exploration of a more vulnerable Bond, it also turned off many fans of the character who missed the spy who killed the baddies with a wink.

This installment focuses on the past of M (Judi Dench), Bond's boss, and protecting the names of undercover MI6 agents. A larger-than-life villain named Silva (Javier Bardem), who has a personal grudge against M, has stolen a drive with these names. It is, naturally, up to Bond to stop this man.

The problem is Bond, left for dead in the wowser opening chase scene, is missing a step or two. He is not is his sharpest mentally, physically or emotionally, but damned if the man doesn't love his country. He is determined to get the job done. Craig, the most fully dimensional Bond, is still tremendous in the role finding a perfect balance of physical menace, vulnerability and suave charm. It has been fascinating watching Craig grow into the Bond universe instead of simply being dropped into it.

Directed by Sam Mendes, this is the first film to be directed by an Academy Award-winning director and in terms of its visuals and its emotional grounding it shows. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created some breathtaking visuals particularly in Shanghai and in the hills of Scotland.

The film also has dramatic heft, something new to the Bond franchise since "Casino Royale." Mendes and his screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan delve into dark areas of M and Bond's past. There's plenty of action and wit, but these more serious elements are welcome additions.

Unlike, "Quantum of Solace," Bond definitely has sense of humor back. He has playful banter with M, the new tech guru Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve (Naomie Harris), a fellow agent and one of the film's prerequisite Bond girls.

One of the joys of "Casino Royale" was that Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was a Bond girl who was compelling in her own right. She came across as Bond's equal and her scenes with Craig had a genuine spark. "Skyfall" slightly lets down in the Bond girl department.

Harris is solid and does have a chemistry with Craig, but, as in the past, it is an underwritten female role. There is a twist with Harris' character that should please fans.

Bérénice Marlohe, as the bad Bond girl, is even less there. She is given one compelling scene, but then is quickly disposed of. I suppose that is true to Bond formula, but one that is feeling increasingly dated.

On the other hand, Dench's M is a strong, well-written female role. Dench, who makes her seventh appearance as M, finally gets some substantial scenes to act. She has a fantastic speech about the relevancy of spies in the modern, technological world.

The supporting cast also includes juicy roles for Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, but it is best to let audiences discover where they fit into the story on their own.

And then there's Bardem's villain, a gloriously over-the-top characterization in the tradition of Gert Frobe's Goldfinger and Donald Pleasance's Blofeld. As was true of Bardem's frightening work in "No Country for Old Men," he has a sinister presence, but here he adds acting choices and line readings that create a character that is flamboyant, amusing and unsettling.

While it isn't perfect — there's a slow patch in the middle and some odd choices like a computer-generated man-eating komodo dragon — "Skyfall" gleefully returns many, but not all the familiar motifs of the Bond franchise. By the end of the film, all the most beloved elements of the series are in place for "Bond 24" and it is hard to imagine anyone not being eager for the next installment.

Friday, November 09, 2012

'Seven Psychopaths' offers dark, violent laughs

"Seven Psychopaths" is not for everyone. It features some gruesome visuals not for the faint of heart. It is vulgar and violent, but also morbidly funny and philosophical.

This is playwright Martin McDonagh's follow up to his first film "In Bruges," another darkly comic, yet poignant movie. While "Seven Psychopaths" doesn't have the same emotional weight as its predecessor, it is a compelling exploration of the darker side of the human psyche.

The film has been marketed as a violent, but broadly comic film largely because of the presence of quirky actors like Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson in the cast. It isn't as goofy as the trailer makes out to be and while it is often a very funny film, it goes to macabre and disturbing places.

Colin Farrell stars as Marty, a screenwriter struggling to write a script called "Seven Psychopaths." All he has is the title and the idea that he doesn't want his film to be about mindless action. He turns to his own life to find the psychos for his script. It turns out he doesn't need to look far.

Marty's best friend Billy (Rockwell) kidnaps dogs with Hans (Walken) and then collects the reward for finding them. Billy takes the beloved Shih Tzu of a gangster (Harrelson) which gives Billy all sorts of fodder for his screenplay. Billy and Hans also turn out to have dark secrets.

Billy, attempting to help out Marty, posts an ad looking for psychopaths who may want to be written about in a movie. Enter Zachariah (Tom Waits), a serial killer that kills other serial killers.

This is a fantastic cast and everyone is on their A-game. Farrell, an underrated actor who is often better than the material he appears in (this summer's remake of "Total Recall" comes to mind).

As with "In Bruges," McDonagh has given him a juicy role. Marty is an alcoholic writer, one of the oldest cliches around, but Farrell does nice work avoiding the pitfalls of playing a drunk. One reading of the film could be that the film is about an alcoholic coming to terms with his disease.

Walken brings the idiosyncratic line readings and unpredictable energy he has become beloved for to the table, but also reminds us that he is a nuanced actor who can do wonders in a quiet, wordless moment.

Rockwell (who appeared with Walken in McDonagh's play "A Behanding in Spokane") brings an amusingly over-the-top manic energy to the film that helps to counterbalance some of the more graphic imagery.

Harrelson and Waits have smaller roles, but don't throw them away. Waits has an mencing oddball aura about him. Harrelson plays a tough guy that goes very soft when it comes to his dog.

In many respects, "Seven Psychopaths" recalls "Adaptation," in which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is failing to adapt "The Orchid Thief" and writes himself into the script. Marty — a clear stand in for McDonagh — has writer's block and also makes his way into the script he is writing.

We assume that the script Marty is writing is the movie we are watching, but, because the film is about a writer, it is hard to know what is truly happening and what is fabrication. Several characters die in the course of the film, but perhaps they didn't. Writers are notorious for stealing from their life and embellishing. Is that what Marty is doing? Is that what McDonagh is doing?

One certainly hopes McDonagh's life isn't this violent. The film simply could be a metaphor for his struggles as an Irish playwright trying to work within the Hollywood system. There's a push and pull within the film between what McDonagh wants (a meditation on life and death) and what Hollywood wants (generic gunfights and violence).

"Seven Psychopaths" also recalls Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," films that presented criminals and gangsters talking and interacting like real people rather than movie cliches. The dialogue in those films was hip and smart. In the years since, numerous filmmakers have attempted to emulate Tarantino's style of writing, but most have failed.

McDonagh is one of the few writers to play in Tarantino's playground and pull it off with the same balance of wit and substance. McDonagh is by no means a Tarantino clone though. He has his own distinct voice and is more philosophical. They are similar in their desire to write characters that are smart and to play against traditional genre expectations. In both cases, it is a relief to have a filmmaker who refuses to dumb down and who is willing to take chances.

'Next to Normal' offers funny, powerful exploration of mental illness

CONWAY — M&D Production is presenting "Next to Normal," a Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical that honestly and openly confronts the effects of mental illness on a family.

"Next to Normal," which opened Thursday, Nov. 8, and is running Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. centers on the Goodman family. Diana (Holly Reville) isn't much of a mother or wife as she struggles with bi-polar disorder and often loses sense of reality. There's a reveal about half way through the first act that makes Diana's psychosis more clear, but for the sake of this review I'll write around this plot point.

Diana's daughter Natalie (Molly Paven) is largely ignored despite being a stellar student and musician who is graduating from high school early and has a free ride to Yale. She can't get out from behind the shadow of her brother Gabriel (Troy Barboza), who is seen as perfect in the eyes of Diana. This is most poignantly addressed in the bitter song "Superboy and the Invisible Girl."

On songs like "I'm the One" and "There's a World," Gabriel is a negative influence on his mother and an enabler. He very literally is the cause of all her problems, which is something Diana refuses to admit to the detriment of herself and her family. Barboza creates a character who is charming, likable and sympathetic, but who we also begin to dread seeing.

Dan (Eric Andrews) is a husband and father who after 16 years of dealing with his wife's disease is desperate for some sense of normalcy. Andrews plays Dan as the calm center of the family trying to keep things in control, but under the surface you can see that his wife's struggles are taking their toll. He's often in denial as in the song "It's Gonna Be Good."

Paul Allen plays two separate psychiatrists attempting to treat Diana, one of which suggests electric shock therapy. Allen is a solid vocalist, who is good with delivering witty lines, but doesn't seem quite present enough in some scenes. For a psychiatrist, he doesn't really seem to truly be listening when Diana is talking. Perhaps this was an acting choice though.

Allen and Reville do have an amusingly awkward dynamic as Diana often confuses doctorly concern for flirtation. This is funniest in the song "My Psychopharmacologist and I." At one point Reville also visualizes Allen as a "scary rock star."

Diana's behavior drives a deepening wedge between her and Natalie, who eventually turns to drugs to deal with the turmoil of her family life. Paven is strong playing a girl who put all her focus on school as a means to get away for the problems at home, but then her desperation for an escape sends her down the wrong path.

Paven has a nice chemistry with Joe LaFrance as Henry, the sweet slacker who she begins dating. He tries to be there for her, but she's scared to expose him to her family's problems.

Reville has the most challenging role of the show and is quite good. She genuinely brings across Diana's fears and confusion. Reville's performance has a real sense of being lost in Diana's thoughts and emotions. Reville shares several heartbreaking scenes with Andrews, Barboza and Paven. The final reconciliation between mother and daughter on "Maybe (Next to Normal)" is a satisfyingly cathartic moment.

With more than 30 songs, there is more scenes of singing than there are of dialogue. Traditionally, characters burst into songs in musicals because their emotions are so big they can no longer be contained. In this case, all the characters are living with their emotions very close to the surface and thus explode into song quite frequently.

The score, featuring music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, blends traditional musical-style ballads with elements from bluegrass, rock, pop, jazz, punk, classical and metal. The music is enhanced by a live band that plays with vigor. The band includes Rafe Matregrano as music director and on drums, Tracy Gardner on keyboard, Ashley Iwans on violin, Eric Jordan on bass and Nat MacDonald on guitar.

Director Ken Martin has done a fine job balancing the delicate nature of this material. For all the heavy drama of "Next to Normal," it isn't a downer. The show is full of wit and warmth. As the show concludes with the stirring "Light" there's a sense of hope that while things may never be entirely normal, they can be close enough.

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

Friday, November 02, 2012

50 years of James Bond

The release of "Skyfall" on Nov. 9, will officially mark 50 years of James Bond. "Skyfall" is the 23rd official Bond film — the 1967 "Casino Royale" parody and Sean Connery's return to the role in 1983's "Never Say Never" are generally excluded — and while there have been highs and lows over the years, Bond still remains one of the most reliable sources of entertainment.

Bond was introduced to the movie-going world in the form of Connery in 1962's "Dr. No." Connery provided a perfect mix of raw machismo, charisma and wit. He could be rough and tumble one moment and then pour the charm on the next moment. He was able to play the material both seriously and with tongue placed in cheek. The playful innuendos that became increasingly more tired and obligatory as the series continued were delivered with a just right wink by Connery.

Those early Connery films set up the template. There were always two Bond girls: one good, one bad, a grandiose villain bent on world domination, the delightful gadgets provided by Q, the sassy exchanges with secretary Miss Moneypenny, spectacular action and, of course, the double entendre spiked dialogue.

Of those first films, 1964's "Goldfinger" still remains the most iconic and oft-parodied Bond film. In addition to the gold obsessed titular villain (Gert Frobe), the film includes the most memorably named Bond girl, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), and the henchman Oddjob (Harold Sakata) with his lethal hat-throwing abilities.

The second Bond film, 1963's "From Russia With Love," is noteworthy for being perhaps the most suspenseful of the series. Much of the film is set on a train and plays more like a Hitchcockian thriller than the slam-bam action adventures the series would evolve into.

Also of note of the Connery films is 1967's "You Only Live Twice." Scripted by Roald Dahl, famous for writing such children's classics as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda," it is the most delightfully odd Bond film.

George Lazenby stepped into the role for one film, 1969's "In Her Majesty's Secret Service." He admirably acclimated to the role, but passed on continuing on even though he fought hard to get the role in the first place. The film is the closest to the vibe of the original source material of any of these early films. It also has the most unexpectedly heart-wrenching ending of any Bond film.

Then came Roger Moore, who, even though he appeared in the most Bond films, remains the weakest 007. Moore's Bond was all charm and little intimidation. Under his tenure as Bond, the series eventually de-evolved into pure camp and silliness. Bond was even sent into space for 1979's "Moonraker," a shameless attempt to cash-in on "Star Wars." That path was temporarily corrected with the more serious "For Your Eyes Only," but by the time Moore finished his run as Bond in 1985's "A View to Kill," the series had badly lost its way.

A new actor has always been a chance for renewal for this franchise. In the late 1980s, Timothy Dalton's two Bond films, "The Living Daylights" and "License to Kill," saw a return to a harder edged persona. The Dalton films moved away from over-the-top excess and went for straightforward action.

With the cold war over at the open of the 1990s, the series waited five years to figure out what to do without the franchise's long standing villain of choice: the Russians. Ultimately, the franchise decided to stick with Russia as the settling for "GoldenEye," Pierce Brosnan's crackerjack first appearance as Bond, but the baddie was a British agent (Sean Bean) taking advantage of the instability of post-cold war Russia.

It was 1997's "Tomorrow Never Dies" that would prove to have the quintessential Bond villain of the 1990s, a Rupert Murdock-esque media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) set out to create a world war so he could profit from telling the story via print and broadcast media. In these two films, Brosnan was almost on the same level as Connery, but by the time of his fourth film, "Die Another Day," campiness had once again over taken the franchise.

It has always been a delicate balance with the Bond movies of serious-minded action with a playful, self-aware tone. It is when the films become all about their own self awareness that they stop working.

Which brings us to Bond's latest era with Daniel Craig in the role. Starting with 2006's "Casino Royale," the series went back to square one showing us the origin of how Bond became Bond. Craig's Bond is still rough around the edges and more physical than previous incarnations. He is also given emotions to grapple with, something new for an actor playing Bond.

"Casino Royale," while removing most of the familiar motifs, did a fantastic job of balancing action, suspense, drama and humor. The follow up, "Quantum of Solace," was the first direct sequel to a Bond film and also the first to have Bond deal with unresolved emotions from a previous film. It worked as an action film, but felt lacking as a Bond film. It was a largely humorous, but necessary departure that helped to develop a more dimensional Bond. With two films of character development out of the way, this new film promises to be a return of the Bond we know and love. Here's to another 50 years of 007.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why do we watch scary movies?

My girlfriend, who has little to no tolerance for being scared, recently asked why I watched horror films. How was it that I could derive any pleasure out of films that disturbed me? With Halloween less than a week away, it is a question worth pondering. Why is it that many of us seek out fear whether through extreme activities such as skydiving, going to a haunted house, reading a creepy book or watching a frightening film?

I turned to friends, some who work in the film industry, and asked them what they thought the impetus behind watching scary films is?

Meagan Frappiea, an assistant editor for Ken Burn's Florentine Film, suggests that horror films allow us to "grapple with our own inevitable death" and face our anxieties by putting them into a larger context that makes them less formidable.

"Seeing how warped and twisted the human mind can become gives us a basis of comparison for ourselves and those around us," Frappiea said. "Ultimately, I think reveling in our fears as a form of entertainment makes them less intimate and consuming. It's a visceral emotion we can share. It takes the boogie man out of our head and puts him on the screen."

Frank Farley, a doctor of psychologist at Temple University, discussed in a WebMD article this idea of needing to explore things different from our own life and trying to understand the unknown.

"There's a long history of people being intensely curious about the 'dark side,' and trying to make sense of it," Farley said in the article. "Through movies, we're able to see horror in front of our eyes, and some people are extremely fascinated by it. They're interested in the unusual and the bizarre because they don't understand it and it's so different from our everyday lives."

By exploring things that are different from our life it also helps to make our own lives seem normal and make our own problems pale in comparison to the horrific images on the screen. This perhaps holds most true for people who have to deal with terrible things because of their line of work.

"I think when you see horrible things in real life — like accidents, fire victims, rape victims, literally holding amputated limbs in your hands — you might crave seeing something worse to 'normalize' your own experience," Ben Hammond, whose girlfriend is a firefighter/paramedic, said. "There's a seemingly bizarre embracing of death [in the fire and rescue culture] and its inevitability, evidenced by frequent use of skulls in the fire symbology. As was explained to me, there's no point in trying escape or ignore death, as you face it every day in both your patients, your colleagues and yourself. Instead, it's almost treated as a formidable opponent that demands your utmost respect."

In the same WebMD article Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication at Purdue University, suggested that there is gratification in watching and surviving a horror film.

"It's not that they [horror fans] truly enjoy being scared," Sparks said. "But they get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening. They enjoy the feeling that they 'made it through.'"

Leon Rappoport, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, brought up a similar idea in the WebMD article. For adolescents there's the appeal of horror films being taboo. We weren't allowed to watch these films as kids, so there's a draw to the forbidden.

"Most of these films depict transgressions of conventional values and morality," Rappoport said. "There's an attraction to their 'forbidden' nature, in the same way that many adolescents want to know what it's like to drink too many beers, smoke cigarettes, or drive their car too fast."

That statement rings true to me, and probably just about anyone. While I'm by no means a horror aficionado, there was a curiosity to explore these films as I got older. But I quickly found where my line of interest was.

Beyond mere escapism, I watch films to understand the world around me. There's solace in watching a film (or reading a book or listening to song, for that matter) that one can relate to or that helps make a bit more sense of life. I admire any film that gets some sort of emotional or intellectual response from me, and sometimes that emotion is fear.

Some ideas, the exploration of human nature, for example, can only be addressed by going to dark, frightening places. I find value in going to those dark places, but only if I go there for a reason. Horror films that are gratuitously gory and violent without any meaning or emotional grounding have no appeal to me.

For Blake Merriman, the writer and one of the leads of the forthcoming indie film "Drinking Games" (, the root of our fascination with fear is evolutionary.

"Fear is a very primal emotion," Merriman said. "The reason for its existence seems very clear: survival. Fear keeps us from doing stupid things. Fear keeps us from changing patterns that have kept us alive thus far. I would argue that fear is the strongest, most hard-wired and fundamental emotion we have."

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft famously said something very similar: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Merriman believes modern life is largely one without fear and that we feel as if something is missing without exercising our instinctual fear mechanism. It is through horror films that we are able to activate this most basic part of our reptilian brain.

"The really quality intense thrillers, the really scary movies, like 'Alien,' 'The Shining,' 'Psycho,' etc. engage us, activate that fear, and get our adrenaline pumping," Merriman said. "It's giving our hard-wired, primal fear mechanism a solid workout. Having a full experience from a solid horror/thriller movie often feels the same as having just had sex — another hard-wired, evolutionary mechanism for survival. And, hey, it's safer than jumping out of a plane or engaging in a gunfight."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Affleck's 'Argo' a taut look at a little known part of history

Based on a true story is often a dubious statement. Many films make that claim and take a kernel of truth and expand it to the point of being a mere shadow of reality. In "Argo," Ben Affleck's third film as a director, some liberties are taken in telling an obscure bit of history, but the most absurd elements are the parts that 100 percent true.

"Argo" takes place during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/1980. For 444 days 52 Americans were held hostage after the seizure of the American Embassy. Six Americans managed to escape before the takeover and were left bouncing between houses before being taken in by the Canadian Ambassador (Victor Garber). After several months of hiding, it became clear they wouldn't be safe much longer and the United States government needed a plan to get them out of Iran safely.

Here's where life becomes stranger than fiction. Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent known for getting people out of high-risk situations, concocted a plan to use his contacts in Hollywood to set up a fake production company and go into Tehran under the cover of a Canadian film producer scouting a sci-fi film called "Argo." The six Americans would take on the cover of the rest of his crew.

The story was classified until 1997 and wasn't made public until a 2007 article in Wired magazine. There was an almost immediate interest in turning the story into a film, with George Clooney initially set to write and produce the film. Clooney eventually just took on the role of producer with writing duties being given to Chris Terrio.

Affleck stepped into the director's seat and he has delivered a near perfect thriller that relies on wit and intelligence over gunfire and explosions. He seamlessly blends archival news footage with a striking recreation of the seizure of the American Embassy. The look of the film emulates the style of gritty 1970s films, which helps in creating an authentic atmosphere.

The pacing of the film is just right, with slow-building tension that reaches a peak when Mendez and the six Americans make their way through the airport. The climax has far more close calls of trying to get past Iranian security than reality had, but it does make for exciting and highly entertaining film-going experience. For the most part, this is a faithful presentation of what happened, and, while Affleck and Terrio do embellish the truth toward the end, they thankfully stop short of going over-the-top Hollywood style.

Terrio's screenplay is light on characterization, but is a precise, well-oiled machine full of surprising moments of wit. The material back in Hollywood has a sharp satirical edge that is enhanced by John Goodman as real life make-artist John Chambers and Alan Arkin as a fictionalized producer.

Goodman and Arkin provide the film with some much needed comic relief that helps to break up the relentless building tension. Affleck doesn't let the humor undermine the seriousness of the situation, but provides just enough to supply a necessary release. Goodman and Arkin are both wonderful.

Affleck, as an actor, gives a quiet, nuanced, non-showy performance. Some could complain he is too flat, but that's the point. Mendez is a man you're not suppose to notice. He simply comes in and efficiently gets the job done. The same can be said of Affleck's performance.

The six Americans are played by largely unknowns and a few familiar faces such as Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan and Clea DuVall, but no big names. This was the right choice as huge stars may have distracted from the realism that Affleck effectively achieved throughout the film.

Bryan Cranston gets a juicy role as Affleck's boss in the CIA. He provides the film with some gravitas as well as some nice cynical line readings.

This is thoroughly engaging film worth seeing as both a piece of entertainment and as a spotlight on a bit history that doesn't get discussed enough.

12 alternative songs for Halloween

In previous years, I've written articles exploring alternative songs for Halloween gatherings. This time, I've dug deeper to find quirkier and even more obscure songs. So, if you're tired of busting ghosts, mashing monsters and werewolves from London, take a look at the 12 oddities below.

"The Lurch" - Ted Cassidy (1965)
This is a sunny 1960s song sung by Cassidy in character as Lurch from the "Addams Family" TV series. The theme to the "Addams Family" may be a standard of Halloween parties, but this oddball song will be a snappy edition to any Halloween party.

"Drac's Back" - Andy Forray (1979)
A lot of rock stars including Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones got on board with disco, so why not Dracula? In this song, good ol' Drac is on the prowl at discos, warning that those on the dance floor may not be tipsy, but actually a bit woozy from blood loss.

"The Monster Rap" - Bobby "Boris" Pickett (1985)
Everyone knows "The Monster Mash." It is practically synonymous with Halloween. Few are aware that there was a sequel that attempted to cash in on the blossoming hip hop scene. Here the monster is taught how to speak through the wonders of rap.

"Transylvania 6-5000" - Carl Sigman, Jerry Gray and William Finnegan (1985)
In the 1980s it seemed like every film had a theme song that referenced the movie's title. Most weren't as ubiquitous as "Ghostbusters." The "Transylvania 6-5000" film was a poor horror parody starring Jeff Goldblum. The song is an inordinately catchy lost new wave gem. It is so rare that it can only be heard in the opening credits of the film.

"Anything Can Happen on Halloween" - Tim Curry (1986)
Before there was "Harry Potter" there was the "Worst Witch," another series of books about a school of witchcraft. The books beget a 1986 TV movie which features the fabulous Tim Curry crooning about the joys of Halloween. The song is a hoot with loopy lyrics like: "Your teacher could become a sardine/Your dentist could turn into a queen/Has anybody seen my tambourine?"

"TerrorVision" - The Fibonaccis (1986)
Another song from an obscure 1980s horror comedy — this one is actually enjoyable in a campy sort of way. The song has a 1950s horror movie vibe updated for the 1980s that makes it both creepy and danceable.

"Haunted House" - Elvira (1995)
Elvira is a valley girl version of Vampira who began hosting late-night horror movies in the 1980s. Her branding has spread though to movies, video games and Halloween song compilations in which she contributed her own comic twist on the holiday. This hard-rock flavored song features lines like "Hey, can you ghosts keep it down please? I'm trying to get some sleep here."

"Burn The Witch" - Queen of the Stone Age (2005)
Foreboding hard rock is this band's bread and butter. The song begins with a rasping growling voice proclaiming to "burn the witch" and breaks into a funky, driving bass line and thumping drums. Front man Josh Homme sings such cryptic lyrics as "Ask yourself/Will I burn in Hell? Then write it down and cast it in the well."

"Dracula's Lament" - Jason Segel (2008)
For years, actor Jason Segel attempted to conjure up a "Dracula" musical to be performed with puppets. It seemed that dream would never come into fruition. In the movie "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" we get to see a glimpse of his opus. And it is hilarious.

"Monster Mask" - Pomplamoose (2011)
The popular YouTube duo sings a sweet song about how "Everyone feels like a monster sometimes." It is a heartwarming song, but it also features some excellent use of iconic dialogue from classic horror films that creates a nice Halloween atmosphere.

"Shia LeBeouf" - Rob Cantor (2012)
This song re-imagines actor Shia LeBeouf as a cannibalistic murderer lurking in dark forests. It is absurd, catchy and riotously funny.

"Zombie" - Family Force Five (2012)
A rap-tinged dance track about the ever-popular zombie. The song follows the journey from outbreak to the pleasure of living life as a zombie. The chorus which proclaims "watch me walk, watch me walk like a zombie" will infect your mind and stay awhile.

Friday, October 12, 2012

'Arsenic and Old Lace' offers dark, slapstick laughs

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is one of funniest movies ever made. Directed by Frank Capra from adaptation by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein of Joseph Kesselring's play, the film is a perfect pairing of inspired looniness with macabre humor.

M&D Production is presenting "Arsenic and Old Lace" as part of their dinner and a movie series Oct. 16. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. with the movie starting at 7 p.m. The menu, prepared by Mark DeLancey, features meatloaf, garlic mashed potatoes with homemade gravy, buttered peas, side salad and assorted desserts and beverages.

Cary Grant stars in the film as Mortimer Brewster, a newspaperman and author known for his diatribes against marriage, who winds up in love and married after all.

The film is set in the home of his aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) with whom Mortimer is excited to introduce his new bride (Priscilla Lane). Instead, Mortimer stumbles upon his aunts secret hobby: killing lonely older men and burying them in the basement.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Mortimer's homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his sniveling plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) decide to visit the beloved aunts as well.

Poor Mortimer is also dealing with his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and yells "Charge!" every time he runs up stairs.

Director Capra was best known for slices of Americana in which idealistic characters like George Bailey, Jefferson Smith, John Doe and Longfellow Deeds would stand up to and defeat cynicism. Capra was just as comfortable doing madcap comedy as evidenced in such films as "It Happened One Night" and "You Can't Take It With You."

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is his maddest comedy and also his darkest. In terms of direction, in several scenes he creates a creepy atmosphere that relies heavily on shadows. These darker elements form an interesting tension with the overall lighter tone of the material. These more foreboding moments are handled delicately and never overpower the comedy.

Grant considered his performance terribly over the top and called this his least favorite film. It is a shame that Grant wasn't able to see that his acting choices were just right. The performance is indeed over the top, but gloriously so.

In its way, it is very brave performance because Grant went huge in a way that could've been overbearing. Clearly, Grant believed he had done just that, but Grant's wide-eyed facial expressions and manic energy are an ideal match to the material, which blends slapstick, fast-paced dialogue, the absurd and dark humor.

The rest of the cast is equally inspired. Hull, Adair and Alexander all reprised their roles from the original Broadway production and their comfort with the characters is evident. Hull and Adair are very funny as the quintessential sweet, lovable older ladies. They genuinely see nothing wrong with what they are doing.

Massey is made up to look like Boris Karloff which leads to a funny running gag about his appearance. In the original Broadway production it really was Karloff in the role. Massey gives both an intimidating performance that creates great comic tension with the lunacy around him.

The quirky Lorre, the master of whimpering, weaselly sidekicks, is always a welcomed screen presence.

Those who haven't had a chance to see this comedy classic should take advantage of M&D's dinner and a movie night. Tickets are $10. For reservations call 662-7591.

Friday, October 05, 2012

'Looper' is a time travel film full of wit, action and surprises

Writer/director Rian Johnson's "Looper" is a tricky film to discuss. It is a densely packed piece of science fiction with intricate layers. Once you understand the film's logic, it is easy to follow. In terms of the characters' objectives, the plot is simple and direct, but to explain it in too great of detail ruins the numerous surprises the film has to offer.

"Looper" is set in 2044, a time in which time travel doesn't exist, but 30 years into the future it does. The process is illegal, but the mob uses time travel to send back people they want to dispose of. Men known as loopers are hired to be at a certain place to kill these people sent back in time. The victims are always bound with a hood over their head.

These men are called loopers because eventually the old versions of themselves will be sent back and the younger version kills the older. Their services are no longer needed, the loop is closed and the looper gets a big pay day, but he is always aware that in 30 years he'll be killed.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a drug-addicted looper saving up is money to leave for France for his retirement. Things become complicated when Joe's older version (Bruce Willis) is sent back without a hood and young Joe hesitates at the trigger. Now old Joe is on the loose and young Joe's boss (Jeff Daniels) wants both Joes dead.

That is merely the set up. Johnson's script goes to dark and unexpected places. Old Joe is on a mission in 2044 to protect a loved one in the future. What this mission entails is the latest thing you'd expect a character played by Bruce Willis to do.

The film builds to a final confrontation on a farm run by Emily Blunt and her young son (Pierce Gagnon). Blunt's character doesn't appear until late in the film, but is more than an obligatory damsel in distress or love interest.

Blunt's character made a terrible mistake that she's trying to rectify. She doesn't play the character as weak, but strong and resourceful. How she becomes entangled with the two Joes should not be spoiled, but it packs an emotional wallop that no one is likely to see coming.

Time travel stories are usually filled with paradoxes that create plot holes. Johnson attempts to address that issue in his approach to time travel. One neat trick is that young Joe's action in the present instantly changes old Joe's memories. Any injuries that young Joe endures appear as scars on old Joe. Johnson uses this in clever ways.

The film also gets to play with the question: What if you got to talk to your older self? There's a great scene in a diner between Levitt and Willis. Their conversation is direct. There isn't much time for philosophical musings. Instead there is a barded exchange as the older, wiser Joe literally looks back on his more foolish, younger self. Much of the dialogue of the scene is simply meant to give the audience plot information, but it is written in such a smart way and performed so perfectly by Levitt and Willis that the scene has a real spark.

Both actors are stellar throughout. Levitt, who starred in Johnson's first film "Brick," a hard boiled film noir set in high school, brings a hardened, brooding intensity to young Joe, but also adds subtleties as he slowly connects to emotions he had long disconnected from.

Willis, who has explored time travel before in "12 Monkeys," brings his expected kick-butt action persona to the table, but doesn't merely walk through this role. This is a dramatically heavy role and Willis reminds that in addition to being a great action star he can also be a great actor.

Johnson borrows themes, visuals and motifs from other time travel movies, most notably "The Terminator" and "12 Monkeys," but the film doesn't feel like a retread of previous films. He has fully rendered his world and its rules. The film feels fresh in its approach to time travel.

"Looper" is not merely about the mechanism of its plot though. It is deeply grounded in emotion and ultimately the story is driven forward by real and relatable emotions. The conclusion finds a way to close the loop on the story in a way that is surprising, satisfying and will lead to a lot of discussion afterward.

'Halpern and Johnson' offers a great showcase for Russo and Bownes

CONWAY — Two older men who have been linked for over 50 years by a shared love for one woman finally meet in M&D Productions production of "Halpern and Johnson," a thoughtful, funny and honest rumination on life and love.

"Halpern and Johnson," which opened Thursday, Oct. 4, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday until Oct. 20, began as an obscure 1983 TV movie starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. Decades later the author Lionel Goldstein expanded the hour-long film to a two-hour play.

As the show opens, Joe Halpern (Rich Russo) is mourning at the grave of his recently deceased wife as another man approaches with flowers. This man, Dennis Johnson (David H. Bownes), reveals that he had a secret relationship with Joe's wife, Florence, that even predates Joe's relationship with her.

What follows is these two different men — Joe is working class and Dennis is an accountant with a tendency for flowery language — discussing the woman they both loved. Both learn things about the woman they thought they knew and have their views on themselves and life challenged.

Dennis has a distinct advantage over Joe since he has been aware of his existence for 50 years and would talk with Florence about Joe and their life together. Dennis even knows Joe's favorite drink and sandwich.

Joe is understandably infuriated to learn of this decades-long deception. Dennis, after lying to himself for years, sees knows nothing wrong with his relationship with Florence as it wasn't sexual. They simply met "thrice a year" to talk. That certainly is innocent enough, but that both Dennis and Florence decided to keep it secret reveals it isn't pure as Dennis would like it to seem. Emotional cheating is still cheating.

Goldstein's script doesn't paint Dennis as a villain and Joe as a saint. Both men are written with complex shading. Each man has both virtues and flaws and are written and portrayed by the actors sympathetically.

Late in the show, Joe reveals information about his relationship with Florence that makes him no better than Dennis and yet, in a way, it was Dennis' behavior that may have created the atmosphere for Joe's actions.

The play is very dialogue heavy with the burden of that falling on just two. Each actor has a full range of emotions to portray: hurt, anger, jealousy, regret, wistfulness and even warmth and compassion. Russo and Bownes prove more than up to the challenge.

Director Ken Martin gets performances from Russo and Bownes that are credible and honest. Each actor handles their lengthy passages of dialogue with ease, but, perhaps more importantly in a show like this, also seem to truly be listening to each other rather than just wait for their turn to speak. Each actor seems present and engaged.

Russo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. His facial expressions as he listens to the supposedly virtuous relationship his wife had with another man are priceless. He also reveals deep pain during a monologue about his past.

Bownes plays Dennis Johnson as a pragmatic and logical man who uses highfalutin language to distance himself from his emotions as if intellectualizing them will make them less painful. The emotions don't stay in check, though. Bownes makes Dennis' love for Florence seem very real especially as he nostalgically remembers when they first met.

"Halpern and Johnson" may simply be two people talking, but when the conversation is this engaging, revealing and relatable that's all you need. M&D's production of "Halpern and Johnson" is only the third ever produced, which makes the show all the more of a splendid discovery.

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

No 'trouble' with a formula film done right

On the surface, "Trouble with the Curve" is about baseball, but while there is plenty of scenes at baseball games and the sport is discussed extensively, the film is really about relationships and reconciliation.

Clint Eastwood stars as Gus, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves whose eyesight is going. His contract is up and a young hotshot within the organization (Matthew Lillard) wants to put him out to pasture for not embracing computers and statistics. In this regard, the film is the opposite of "Moneyball," last year's film about ignoring the wisdom of baseball scouts and looking purely at the numbers.

Gus' loyal friend and colleague (John Goodman) asks Gus' daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join Gus on the road as he scouts Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a potential big league hitter with an even bigger ego. If Gus makes the wrong call it could mean his job. Gus and Mickey have a strained relationship at best and extreme communication issues.

While at games scouting Gentry, father and daughter cross paths with Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a pitcher turned scout. Gus had scouted Johnny and they have a mutual respect. Mickey begins a tentative flirtation with Johnny.

"Trouble with the Curve" is pure formula. Naturally, Gus and Mickey's time together finally helps them to communicate with each other. Of course Mickey and Johnny fall for each other. And it goes without saying that Lillard's smug character will be proven wrong for his blind trust in statistics. It is how it is all played out that makes the film so pleasurable.

Some stories are about their plots, but other stories are character driven and the plot is merely there to give the performers a platform to stand on. The baseball aspect of the story really could be replaced with anything else. It merely adds color and serves as the background issue to bring these characters together.

The film clearly has a love of baseball that sports fans will appreciate, but even those who could care less about baseball can become emotionally invested in the characters. The screenplay by first-timer Randy Brown does a nice job of developing the three central characters. There are good dialogue-driven scenes between Eastwood and Adams, Adams and Timberlake, and Eastwood and Timberlake. Their relationships feel real.

Eastwood is playing a variation on the bitter gruff, grumbling old man with a buried heart of gold that he has been doing for at least a decade. His performance here is a softer version of his work in "Gran Torino." Within his familiar persona, Eastwood finds quiet, subtle grace notes as when he touchingly talk/sings "You are My Sunshine" at his wife's grave.

Adams, a bubbly screen presence who can handle both comedy and drama, gets to show off both skills in this film. In her scenes with Eastwood she reveals the lasting hurt of years of abandonment and her desperation to reconnect with her distant father. With Timberlake she showcases her lighter side as the two trade cute banter.

Pop star turned actor Timberlake continues to prove he is a genuine actor. His range isn't huge, but he is likable and has a natural unforced quality that can't be faked. He is strongest at comedic repartee, but he is also credible in the quieter dramatic moments. He creates an easy chemistry with Adams.

Goodman takes the generic best friend role and makes it so much more than what is on the page. He has become such an expressive actor that he can say more in his body language and facial expressions than with an entire monologue.

Lillard has a standard villain role that the film's formula requires. It is a thankless role that he doesn't really do much with.

The film is cleanly directed by Robert Lorenz making his directorial debut after being Eastwood's assistant director for decades. Like Eastwood's directing, Lorenz isn't showy, but simply tells the story and gives the characters room to breathe and develop.

Anyone watching knows that everything is going to be tied up nicely by the end, but how the film does it is quite a neat trick and deeply satisfying. The conclusion reminds that even a formulaic film can still surprise.