Friday, February 24, 2012

'The Artist' is a charming tribute to the silent era

“The Artist,” the odds on favorite to win best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, is a tough sell to mainstream audiences. Not only is it black and white, but it is also a largely silent film and many modern moviegoers assume that such a film would be boring. Those who are hesitant, though, should take the leap because “The Artist” is an engaging, accessible and charming film.

Set during the late 1920s into the early 1930s, “The Artist” marks the transition from silent film to talkies. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), like many silent actors of the time, goes from being a huge star to unemployed once talkies gain popularity. In his place, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), an actress he helped get her first job, rises to fame. George struggles with his pride as Peppy offers to help him.

Of course, silent films aren’t truly silent as they have music. What they lack is spoken dialogue and realistic sound effects. This means that silent actors had to be very expressive and that the film score was even more important in getting across a sense of tone and mood. “The Artist” has an excellent score by Ludovic Bource that alternates from light-hearted whimsy to wistful melancholy. The score even quotes Bernard Hermann’s score for “Vertigo” to interesting effect.

Dujardin is an actor who seems like he was born in the wrong era. He seamlessly fits into the silent film format. He makes George part Charlie Chaplin, part Douglas Fairbanks and part Gene Kelly. With a broad smile and expressive face, he is effortlessly charismatic. He is paired with an adorable dog named Uggie who, excuse the cliche, will melt hearts.

Dujardin is an actor who seems like he was born in the wrong era. He seamlessly fits into the silent film format. He makes George part Charlie Chaplin, part Douglas Fairbanks and part Gene Kelly. With a broad smile and expressive face, he is effortlessly charismatic. He is paired with an adorable dog named Uggie who, excuse the cliche, will melt hearts.

Bejo, who like Dujardin has a bright smile and the ability to say everything with just a look, also seems made for silent film. John Goodman, who plays a movie studio head, is clearly relishing the opportunity to be broadly expressive. He has a great moment when he begrudgingly concedes to one of Peppy’s wishes.

“The Artist” does an excellent job of emulating the style of the silent film era, but some critics of the film have claimed that you’d be better off watching the classic work of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and others.

It is true that “The Artist” doesn’t best classic silent film, but it is a good entry point. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius is also using the silent film format to comment on silent film in a way that the originals could not.

There is a dream sequence in which Dujardin’s George can’t speak, but suddenly the world around him does have sound. It is brilliant allegory for the transition from silent to sound movies. Many actors could no longer work because they had terrible speaking voices. Ironically talkies silenced them.

“The Artist” also gets to add more modern acting techniques to the silent format. While the actors do perform broadly in many cases, there also moments of quiet introspection that seem to be more a reflection of today’s acting styles. It is fascinating to see the two acting styles working so well next to each other.

One of the other joys of “The Artist” is a dance sequence that recalls the work of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Modern dance scenes are highly edited, but Hazanavicius shoots his dance number like they used to: one long take with the actors in full frame so you can see their every move uninterpreted. Dujardin and Bejo aren’t flawless dancers, but it is a wonderful sequence because, like the rest of the film, it is a reminder of a time not quite forgotten.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Taking a look at this year's Best Picture nominees

The 84th annual Academy Awards, air next Sunday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. on ABC, so let’s take a rundown of the nominees.

Two years ago the Academy upped the limit of films nominated in the best picture category from five to 10 to allow for a better mix of art films with more popular films. This year they changed the rule so that the final list can be between five to 10. The Academy made this change to assure that the final list didn’t have unworthy films padding out the list to 10. This year the complicated process in which votes are counted only deemed nine films worthy.

The new process seems strange because surely in any given year there are at least 10 great films. Film critics across the nation come up with such lists every year and none of which have needless space fillers.

Surely, there was a 10th film that could’ve filled out the list. At the very least the final “Harry Potter” film should have been there if only as the culmination of one of the most consistently solid film series in film history.

Of the films there were nominated, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is definitely the odd duck. The film is neither particularly popular with audiences or critics. On the review-gathering website Rotten Tomatoes, only 45 percent of critics gave it a positive review. So, how did it make the cut?

Studios save the films they feel can get Oscar nominations until the end of the year. Academy voters are notorious for having short memories. This is why most of the films nominated are from the last few months of the year.

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a patented Oscar bait movie. It has big stars and even bigger emotions. The Academy loves a good, or even a bad, weepie. The film is about a child dealing with the death of his father in the 9/11 attacks and an adventure centered around what is perceived as a final clue from the father.

This is essentially the same plot as Martin Scorese’s “Hugo” albeit that film is set in France in the 1930s. Both films are nominated for best picture, but Scorese’s film, which is full of wonder, magic, humor and heart, only points out of the deficits of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”

Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is the sort of dense drama that the Academy is known for honoring, but, it is also the weirdest film on the list. It is a film made as art rather than entertainment and it is beautiful to behold, often moving and thought provoking, and one of the more impenetrable films in recent years.

Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is the kind of melodramatic epic that the Academy loves. The film follows a horse as it trades hands and sides during World War I. It is a well crafted anti-war film that is very good at hitting emotional buttons.

Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is a whimsical, intelligent fantasy about a writer (Owen Wilson) who magically gets transported to Paris in the 1920s every midnight. The film becomes an exploration of how nostalgia has a way of blinding us to the good things right in front of us. It is not only of Allen’s best and funniest films in recent years, but of his whole career.

“The Artist,” the odds on favorite to win best picture, is a black and white (largely) silent film set during the 1920s and 1930s. A silent film made today is a tough sell and some have complained that it is a good emulation of the silent film era, but that you’re better off just watching classic silent films. Even so it is charming and sweet film powered by the immensely likable Jean Dujardin.

“The Help” is a crowd favorite exploring the civil artist movement through the maids that worked in Southern homes. It is an imperfect film, but it hits all its emotional bases with big laughs and big tears. It is an excellent showcase for some great actresses and it is likely to pick up some acting awards.

“Moneyball” stars Brad Pitt as the general manager of the Oakland A’s who, with the guidance of a young economist (Jonah Hill), buys a team based on statistics rather than traditional scouting techniques. On the surface, it is a movie about baseball, but, even if you know little about the game, it is still an engrossing, well acted drama with elements of light comedy.

“The Descendants” stars George Clooney as a father of two daughters simultaneously dealing with the imminent death of his wife and the knowledge that she was cheating on him. Co-writer/director Alexander Payne finds surprising moments of humor and emotional truth and in a film that feels honest and genuine.

Friday, February 10, 2012

M&D wins big at N.H. Theatre Awards

It was a good night for M&D Productions last Saturday at the 10th annual N.H. Theatre Awards at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H. The company took home three awards and placed in the top three in four other categories.

For community theater, M&D’s “Talley’s Folly” won best set designer (Deborah Jasien), best director (Richard Russo) and best actor (Ken Martin as Matt Friedman).

When reading the finalist for best actor, the presenter joked, “Wow, that’s a lot of lines Ken, good for you.” Indeed it was a lot of lines. “Talley’s Folly” is a two-person romantic comedy/drama, in which Martin had the lion’s share of the dialogue. The show opens with Martin delivering a lengthy monologue directly to the audience.

Back in June I wrote this of Martin’s performance: “Challenged with an accent that could potentially sink his whole performance, Martin overcomes this would-be shortcoming and gives a solid performance. He makes Matt awkward, a bit goofy, but completely sincere and lovable.”

Jasien, who consistently does extraordinary work with the limited space at Your Theatre, really outdid herself for “Talley’s Folly.” In my review of the show I wrote: “The boathouse is yet another astounding bit of set design by Deborah Jasien.

The stage is entirely transformed complete with vegetation and flora. The authenticity of the set makes it easy to disappear into this story for 90 minutes.”

The N.H. Theatre Awards aren’t decided by votes, but rather an adjudication process with representatives for each company scoring the other companies. Each show will be scored in various categories by numerous adjudicators. The highest average score is the show that wins the award.

Through this process making it top three is also an honor. “Talley’s Folly” was top three for best actress (Heather Hamilton as Sally Talley), best production, best lighting designer (Mark DeLancey) and best sound designer (Ken Martin).

On the professional side of things, the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company didn’t take any awards away, but left a mark on the ceremony. The company placed in the top three with “Hairspray” in the categories of best choreographer (Nataniel Shaw), best actress (Amber Coartney as Tracy) and best actor (Richard Sabellico as Edna).

As for the ceremony itself, it was a bloated affair clocking in at four hours. Most of that run time was padded with scenes from some of the shows up for awards. The quality of scenes ranged for shrill so-called comedy with M&M Productions’ “The Good Doctor” to a well performed bad idea with the Majestic Theatre’s “Frankenstein: A New Musical” to joyful, buoyant entertainment with the Peacock Players’ “Dinosaurs: The Musical” and the Community Players of Concord’s “The Drowsy Chaperon.”
Even with the over length of the evening, it is a worthy night that showcases how much amazing theater talent New Hampshire has to offer.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

'Descendants' rings true

“The Descendants” is up for five Academy Awards this year including best picture and best actor for George Clooney. Is it really that good? I’d say yes, but this is a film that is dividing audiences.

I’ve heard several anecdotes of people coming out of this movie underwhelmed or even saying it was awful. Not everyone needs to love a certain film. There is no right answer in what makes a film, or any piece of art, good or bad, but, I can’t help but wonder what it was that turned people off from a film that I found to be so funny, honest, moving and genuine.

The answer could lie in what a person’s expectations are when they go to see a film. For some, watching a film is meant to be pure escapism and they don’t want reality reflected back at them.

“The Descendants” is a film that feels real from the way characters interact to their emotions. It is an entertaining film that includes moments with the power to move as well as some big laughs. This is a film that may hit too close too home for some viewers and this may be what causes a disconnect from the picture.

Set in Hawaii, the film centers on Clooney’s Matt King, a distant, but loving husband and father of two daughters, dealing with a wife in a coma who will die if taken off life support. He now must inform friends and family about his wife’s inevitable death, but that’s not all that is on his plate.

Matt’s eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that his wife was cheating on him. This creates deeply mixed emotions in both father and daughter. They are both grieving the loss, but at the same time are full of anger toward her.

Father and daughter set out to find the man (Matthew Lillard) that was seeing their wife/mother. Along for the ride is Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra’s boyfriend. She wants him there for moral support. At first he seems like nothing more than a dimwitted punk, but as the film progresses it becomes clear why Alexandra wants him there.

Oh, but there’s more. The title refers to Matt and his many cousins being the descendants of former Hawaiian kings. It is up to Matt to decide what to do with the last bit of land still entrusted to them.

This may seem like an overly busy plot or fodder for a harried screwball comedy, but director and co-writer Alexander Payne finds a delicate balance. Life can be like this. Tragedy can strike at the most inconvenient times and you must deal with it all.

As was true with his other films “Election,” “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” Payne has a way of writing dialogue that feels authentic. His characters are intelligent and well spoken, but don’t speak in forced movie dialogue. The story never becomes schmaltzy, trite or overly manipulative.

As a director he gets performances that are grounded in real emotion. With material like this it could be easy to have big, over-the-top performance. That isn’t the case here. The performances are balanced, controlled and well measured.

Clooney gives a quiet, subtle performance. Some may unjustly hold Clooney’s looks against him as if a man in Matt’s position couldn’t look like Clooney. The performance speaks for itself, though. There are several moments in the film that simply focus on Clooney's face and he says more in silence than he could with a whole monologue. He captures Matt’s emotional turmoil and struggle to connect with his daughters

Woodley, who stars in the TV show “The Secret Life of the American Teen,” brings depth that her TV work never even hinted at. Like Clooney she must juggle complex shifting emotions of hurt and anger and she handles it gracefully.

The rest of the cast is also superb. Amara Miller, in her first acting job, as the youngest daughter holds her own with Clooney and Woodley and gives a believable and complete performance. Lillard, who is known for goofy comic performances, gives a surprisingly effective dramatic turn. Judy Greer, Robert Forrester and Beau Bridges do solid work as Lillard's wife, a grandfather and cousin respectively.

This may seem like a downer of a movie, but it isn’t. There is sadness in this story to be true, but it also finds laughs that are never exploitative. It may not be for everyone, but for those who get on its wavelength, it is a film that is warm, tender, funny and thoughtful.

Great acting brings Mamet's words to life in 'Glengarry'

Following an award-winning 2007 production of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” M&D Productions is taking another crack at David Mamet’s play with the same director, Dennis O’Neil, and largely the same cast.

“The reason we want to do it again is because we want to do it at our [Your Theatre] space,” Mark DeLancey, the executive director of M&D, said. Their 2007 production was done at the less intimate stage at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse.

This new production, which opens Feb. 9 and is running Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, takes advantage of the intimacy of the theater to help create the claustrophobic atmosphere of Mamet’s look at the dark side of real estate salesmen.

The new production also adds the opening scene that Mamet wrote for the 1992 film that wasn’t in the original play. This scene, the film’s most famous and oft-referenced, featured Alec Baldwin as a big shot brought in by the unseen owners of the shady real estate office to motivate the salesmen. He presents them with a cruel sales contest, the losers of which are rewarded with a pink slip.

In writing the screen version of the play it was as if Mamet saw a way to improve his own show. It is a heck of an opening scene that helps clarify everything that follows. It ups the stakes for the characters and gives the reason for their desperation. Director O’Neil takes on the Baldwin role himself and delivers the iconic monologue with vigor.

Mamet’s dialogue is laden with profanity, but it is also very sharp and observant of human nature, particularly the way men interact. He writes the way everyone wishes they could speak. Those clever things you think of saying hours after a conversation, Mamet has his characters think of in the moment.

The characters of “Glengarry Glen Ross” are more akin to con artists than real estate agents. They present the land they sell as the American dream, but the land is rotten and so is the dream. The way Ricky Roma (Kevin O’Neil) manipulates a possible client (Dan Phelps) is slimy and deplorable and yet, at the same time, you see the tremendous pressure put on these men as personified by the character Shelly Levene (Ken Martin).

Levene, a former hot-shot salesman, hasn’t had a sale in months and holds onto past glories to justify his existence. In the first scene following the prologue he desperately begs office manager John Williamson (Tom O’Reilly) for some good leads. Martin does fine work portraying a man who is barely holding onto his dignity.

The structure of the show is interesting, too. The first act is broken up into three separate scenes each with two men interacting. Each scene is forcefully driven by one of the actors, with the other taking a reactive role.

This give-and-take dynamic is most amusing in the scene between Scott Katrycz as the loud- mouth schemer Dave Moss and Andrew Brosnan as the mousy George Aaronow. Aaronow can barely get a word in, but Moss keeps saying “You’re right!” more or less to his own statements. The scene takes an unexpected dark turn that Katrycz and Brosnan play nicely.

The second act of the show shifts to an office setting and becomes an ensemble piece that pays off on everything set up in the previous one-on-one scenes. There’s very often two or three conversations going on at once and the dense overlapping dialogue is performed with precision by the entire cast.

Set designer Deborah Jasien, once again, creates not one, but two, impressive sets. Act one has a rotating Chinese restaurant set that spins around between scenes to reveal the next pair of actors. When the curtain comes up for act two, the restaurant is gone and an entirely believable office set is in its place.

Since director O’Neil and his cast are returning to this material, it is clear they’re very comfortable with it. There are complex shifts in tones going on here, but the show always feels focused and well paced. It is testament to the caliber of Mamet’s writing that suspense is created through dialogue alone. These actors match that writing and create characters that we both detest and empathize with at the same time.

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

Friday, February 03, 2012

'The Grey' is more than Liam Neeson vs. wolves

“The Grey” is being advertised as Liam Neeson versus killer wolves, which does a disservice to the film. This is a intense, emotional journey of a group of men trying to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness.

The film opens with Neeson’s Ottway writing a letter to his wife who for reasons unknown has left him. Knowing anything about Neeson’s personal life adds extra weight to this scene. Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson died in 2009.

You can hear the genuine pain in Neeson’s voice discussing his fictional wife. Images of the character’s wife haunt him throughout the movie building to a heartbreaking revelation that makes you wonder if the wife aspect of the script was the reason Neeson took the role in the first place.

The film centers on a group of seven roughneck oil-rig workers who survive a horrific plane crash, but are left in dire weather conditions and with ticked off wolves after them.

This premise of wolves actively hunting humans stretches credibility, but if you are able to look past that, the film is handled in a way that is thoughtful and, within the context of the film, believable.

Co-written and directed by Joe Carnahan, who made the bombastic “Smoking Aces” and “A Team,” “The Grey” has a measured pace that allows for character development. The film isn’t essentially character study of men and what it truly means to be a man.

The film was shot in British Columbia and the actors very often seem to battling against real snow storms. The authenticity of these scenes in the wilderness helps create tension. There are tautly suspenseful scenes, particularly one involving how the men will cross a ravine.

Those expecting a lot of action are going to be disappointed. The film is more interested in quiet moments rather than big action scenes. There are surprisingly philosophical conversations on faith and fear.

We don’t learn much about these characters' back stories. “The Grey” is in a long-standing tradition of movies about men. Much like a lot of war movies, the characters each represent an archetype: There’s the family man (Dermot Mulroney), the obnoxious loud mouth (Joe Anderson), the tough guy who is more bark than bite (Frank Grillo), the smart, rational guy (Dallas Roberts) and, of course, the reluctant leader (Neeson).

In “The Grey,” the group dynamic is also meant to run parallel with the wolf pack that is tracking and killing them for intruding on their territory. Neeson’s character is the alpha of the group. His authority is challenged by Grillo, who is very easily put in his place.

Each actor gets a moment or two to stand out. Mulroney has a touching monologue about his daughter. Outside of Neeson, Grillo has the most interesting character. For the most of the movie he a detestable jerk, but he slowly begins to redeem himself until finally you find yourself surprised by how much you actually care about him.

Then there is Neeson, who as he approaches his 60th birthday, has reinvented himself as the thinking man’s action star. Neeson does tortured hero better than just about anyone. His low, soothing voice can easily burst in a booming snarl that would make even the most vicious wolf cower.

Don’t be fooled by the trailers. “The Grey” is a well crafted, intelligent piece of filmmaking. Those anticipating brutal man on wolf battles will be greatly letdown. This is an emotionally draining film, but one worth watching.