Friday, May 25, 2012

'Dictator' delivers rude, crude satire

"The Dictator" is the latest rude and crude satire from the chameleon-like comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and, for fans of "Borat" who may have been let down by his follow-up "Bruno," the good news is this one works.

Collaborating again with director Larry Charles, Cohen has created another loud, abrasive caricature that he uses to lampoon American culture and politics. Unlike "Borat" and "Bruno," the film doesn't take the form of a mockumentary in which Cohen fools real people in a crasser version of "Candid Camera." Instead "The Dictator" is a straightforward narrative film.

It was wise to move away from the mockumentary format as the conceit was already growing stale in "Bruno" and would've been moldy and rancid in a third outing. Plus no longer having to trick real people allowed Cohen to gather a cast of cameos from big names including John C. Reilly (in a very funny torture scene) and Megan Fox.

It is worth exploring Cohen's previous characters to put "The Dictator" and his new persona Admiral General Aladeen into context.

Borat was an over-the-top version of how Americans perceive foreigners used to reveal United States' xenophobia and ignorance to the rest of the world. The film's satire was on target, and while it was perhaps over praised as a brilliant indictment of America's worst qualities, it still was often very funny and raised interesting points in the process.

Bruno was an over-the-top homosexual stereotype who is supposed to reveal people's homophobia. The film failed because Bruno's behavior was so outrageously offensive that it went beyond being about his sexuality. If a straight man acted the way Bruno did it would be just as offensive and thus it entirely undermined the point Cohen was making.

Which brings us to Aladeen, a cartoonish version of dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. As a character he is slightly different from Borat and Bruno because in spite of the unbelievably offensive things that come out of his mouth he is oddly likable and sort of sweet.

The plot of the film has Aladeen coming to New York to address the United Nations only to be betrayed by his advisor (Ben Kingsley) and replaced by a double. Aladeen is left wandering the streets beardless and nameless. He is taken in by a health food shop owner (Anna Faris) and teams up with his former nuclear physicist (Jason Mantzoukas), who much to his surprise is alive despite being sent to execution, to regain his power.

In "The Dictator," Cohen, Charles and co-writer Alec Berg (a former "Seinfeld" writer) use Aladeen to comment on post 9/11 America. In one of the film's best and most on target scenes, a helicopter ride with a couple of American tourists leads to a hilarious misunderstanding.

The humor, as was true in his previous films, is outside of the realm of what some might call good taste. For Cohen, everything and everyone is a target, which is as it should be. Nothing should be sacred in comedy. No one can complain if everyone is made fun of and that's what Cohen does.

As a performer, Cohen can't be faulted. He commits to characters in a way that few modern comic actors do. While his films aren't always genius, as an actor he often is. He is a fearless performer.

Cohen ends the film with a speech that brings home the point of the whole film: that perhaps America really isn't any better than countries run by dictators. Is that an overstatement? Yes, but that's how satire works: you make a sweeping statement that gives pause and causes discussion and, hopefully, thoughtful debate.

M&D's 'To Gillian' offers honest, heartfelt laughs and tears

Some shows grab you instantly while others sneak up on you and slowly take hold. M&D Productions' "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," which opened Thursday, May 24, and is playing Thursday through Saturday until June 9, is the latter. It is a show that, rather unexpectedly, envelopes you in its characters, emotions and story.

"To Gillian" focuses on the weekend gathering of friends and family on both the birthday and anniversary of the death of Gillian (Lisa Fida), who died two years earlier. Her husband David (Scott Katrycz) is still in deep mourning. He has removed himself from life and resides year round at an island beach house. Every night he talks to Gillian's ghost or, more likely, his memories and his own tortured subconscious.

David's 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Jessie Biggio), his sister-in-law Esther (Janette Kondrat) and Esther's husband Paul (Rob Clark) are concerned for David and attempt to set him up with Kevin (Bethany Taylor), one of David's former college students. Also in the mix is Cindy (Ellen Hill) , David's 16-year-old running partner, with whom has a chaste relationship with even though she has a bit of a crush on him.

As playwright Michael Brady's script sets the plot in motion it seems a bit forced and even clunky. Initially, it seems like the show will be comprised of nothing more than one liners paired with a shallow exploration of grieving, but then the story and the character interactions become deeper and more complex. The dialogue becomes more authentic and begins grappling with real emotions.

Characters that started out as one dimensional are given more shading and depth through conversations that are bare and, often, painful. David is unable to see past his own grief and his family is finally calling him out on that. As the play progresses we begin to see characters heal and actually talk and listen to each other perhaps for the first time since the tragic accident that killed Gillian.

The strong cast brings this conflict, which has both laughs and tears and ranges from heartbreaking to heartwarming, across beautifully. Director Christina Howe manages to get performances that feel honest from the entire cast.

Katrycz believably portrays David's grief and his struggle to reconnect with the world, his daughter and to allow himself to, perhaps, find love again. It is a well balanced and controlled performance that never feels maudlin. His scenes with Fida have a melancholy sweetness in the first act that changes in a shocking way in the second act which puts a different color to the whole show.

Biggio, who was excellent in M&D's "Diary of Anne Frank" last year, continues to impress. She has a natural, easy stage presence and gives an expressive, genuine performance. Her emotions feel real. Biggio and Katrycz create a tangible father/daughter connection.

Kondrat gives a forceful performance as woman that has always been the rock of her family who can no longer keep her emotions in. She is particularly strong in an intense confrontation with Katrycz towards the end of the first act that raises the emotional stakes of the entire show.

Clark is the comic relief character of the production. Adorned with bright, garish outfits, he gets a laugh every time he walks on stage. He kills with a joke involving a priest, a man with no arms and a bell. But even Clark gets to show a tender, supportive side toward the end of the show.

Taylor is a bit one note in her performance, but has good chemistry with both Katrycz and Biggio and develops interesting relationships with them. Her character is meant to be a listener and a catalyst for change and Taylor does a nice job of coming across as a caring, compassionate ear.

Hill is given the task of playing a smart, sarcastic, but also hormonally confused teenager. Although some of her line readings are a bit stilted, she is quite good with sardonic one-liners and captures the angst of being a teen nicely.

It goes without saying, but I'll say it again, that Deborah Jasien's set design, this time a beach house with actual sand, is stellar.

This is a show that has dark, even depressing moments, but finds a happy ending that isn't a cheat and that is actually earned. This is a show that is emotionally satisfying and well worth seeing.

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

Friday, May 18, 2012

Burton and Depp serve up eighth round of 'dark' laughs

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp reunite for the eighth time to do a comic riff on the 1960s/1970s TV series "Dark Shadows."

Depp stars as Barnabas Collins, who in the effective Gothic 18th century prologue rejects the love of servant girl Angelique (Eva Green). The spurned Angelique is a witch who curses Barnabas to being a vampire, kills his true love (Bella Heathcote) and locks him a box. All and all a pretty normal reaction to rejection.

The film flash forwards to 1972 when Barnabas is finally released from his prison. He seeks out the remains of once illustrious manor and remnants of his family. Angelique is still alive and has been assuring the failure of the Collins family. She is also still harboring a crush on Barnabas. He is still rejecting her. She's still being witchy. Some things never change.

We are also introduced to what remains of the Collins family including Michelle Pfeiffer as the matriarch of the family, Chloƫ Grace Moretz as her moody daughter, Jackie Earle Haley as the groundskeeper and Helena Bonham Carter as a live-in psychiatrist. Barnabas also meets Victoria (also played by Heathcote), the reincarnation of his true love. She is working as governess for young David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), who communicates with the ghost of his dead mother.

After all the characters are introduced, the film's focus shifts to the love/hate relationship between Barnabas and Angelique. This central conflict does yield a lot of entertainment value including a raucous fight/sex scene and some well written barbed exchanges. Depp is given some lively insults that are spoken in a very prim and proper manner.

Green is a fantastic mix of menacing and sexy. Depp gives a nicely measured and controlled performance. He gives an eloquent recitation of the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker."

But it is unfortunate that so many of the other characters get sidetracked. Pfeiffer in particularly feels underutilized especially since at first she is presented as suspicious of Barnabas and as having hidden motives.

The Victoria character also feels underwritten. Outside of one exchange with David, we don't see any of their interactions nor do we really get much sense of the love between her and Barnabas. It would've been nice to have Victoria's relationship with both David and Barnabas fleshed out.

Burton has been taking some hard knocks for this film and other recent productions such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland," which prove popular upon release, but are then largely derided.

The main criticism, from both professional critics and the general public alike, seems to be that Burton is going through the motions and that his newer films lack the originality, personality and creativity of his earlier films like "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" or "Nightmare Before Christmas."

The implication of such criticism is that Burton is no longer the young, vibrant, passionate filmmaker he once was and now he's just another cog in the Hollywood machine churning out mass market product.

That doesn't seem fair. Burton has been making big budget movies since "Batman." While some films he makes are more clearly commercial products, he also does deeply personal projects like his forthcoming stop-motion animation expansion of his short film "Frankenweenie."

Burton is still very much the same, offbeat, quirky filmmaker making the films he wants to make. Burton is an auteur filmmaker meaning he has a distinct style and likes to work with the same people. This can be perceived as a staleness and lack of growth as a filmmaker, but for those who appreciate what he does it is a comfort. You know what you get with a Burton film.

It may seem as if I'm trying to make excuses for "Dark Shadows" being not as good as Burton's previous films. It is true, if you put "Dark Shadows" next to "Edward Scissorhands" it pales in comparison, but the film is entertaining in its own right.

"Dark Shadows" has much to admire. The whole cast is solid with Haley and Moretz standing out in the supporting cast. As always with Burton, the art direction is spectacular. The film looks amazing and finds an interesting tone of quirkiness balanced with an uneasy tension. This holds most true during scenes at a ball which features Alice Cooper as himself. Cooper's music is effectively utilized in the sequence.

This is middling Burton, not bad, not great, but it succeeds at what it sets out to do. Burton still remains such an interesting filmmaker that even when he is not on his A game, it is still more compelling than most films that come out any given week.

Friday, May 11, 2012

'Avengers' is a smart, funny, thrilling summer smash

"The Avengers," which brings together several of Marvel comics biggest heroes, is, as the Hulk might say, a smash. It is critically hailed, publicly loved and blasting its way through box office records.

In just three days it has made $200 million in the United States alone. There have been plenty of summer blockbusters that have made huge money at the box office that have been rather odious, but "The Avengers" is not just another loud, special effects machine akin to the headache-inducing "Transformers" franchise.

While, like the "Transformers" films, "The Avengers" concludes in chaotic action and effects, the huge difference is there are characters that we are emotionally invested in and a sharp sense of humor that doesn't rely on juvenile jokes that a 10 year could write. Basically, the filmmakers behind "The Avengers" actually respect the intelligence of their audience.

The film's hero roster includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They are brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the secret government agency SHIELD.

Each of these characters have either starred in their own film or at least featured in another film, even if only in a cameo. For each of the films feeding into "The Avengers," Marvel Studio has been smart in choosing directors that not only fit the material, but have a real love for the comic book mythology.

With "The Avengers" they found an ideal match in director/co-writer Joss Whedon. As the creator of the shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly" and "Dollhouse," Whedon has a key trait important to making a film like this work: He knows how to juggle ensemble casts.

For a film so loaded with characters, Whedon has pulled off a neat trick. Everyone gets their moment to shine. There is an even dispersal of dialogue and scenes between the characters that never feels forced. The interactions and scenes flow naturally.

The plot isn't particularly special. It is a standard superhero origin story, which follows these beats: A character gets powers, struggles with these gifts and then faces first challenge. The difference here is the characters have their skills in the beginning, so the conflict is for this group of big egos to learn how to work together as a team.

Their adversary is the demi-god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the adopted brother of Thor, who has been banished from his home world of Asgard. In his banishment, the heartbroken Loki has turned bitter and vengeful and has set his sights on Earth, the planet Thor fell in love with during his own banishment in last year's "Thor." Loki has an alien army at his disposal and, naturally, he wants nothing less than world domination.

Before facing Loki, there will be a lot of infighting between the Avengers, often spurred on by a captured Loki. Comic book fans will thrill to see such match-ups as Iron Man versus Thor, Black Widow versus Hawkeye and Thor versus the Hulk.

What rises the film above the standard plot is that it is told exceptionally well. Whedon's script, co-written with Zach Penn, is peppered with clever lines and unexpected hilarious moments, particularly from the Hulk in the climatic battle. The banter between the characters has a real spark and the actors are given interesting things to do dramatically. While this always stays a popcorn entertainment, there are still moments of weight.

The acting across the board is top tiered. Downey continues to ooze charisma, as the quick witted "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist," who despite all his snarkiness has a huge heart.

Downey's cocky charm is nearly matched by Hemsworth, who shows flashes of Thor's arrogance alongside the humility he learned in his own film. Evans, who comes across earnest and sincere, continues to be a good match for Captain America

Ruffalo, coming into the role of Bruce Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, gives a compelling performance. He is a man no longer comfortable in his own skin because he knows "the other guy" is lurking below.

Hiddleston is a fantastic villain. He brings a genuine sense of menace to the screen. Hiddleston is particularly unsettling in an exchange with Johannson that recalls scenes from "Silence of the Lambs."

The bottom line with this movie is this: If you have eagerly been anticipating this film, you'll love it. If you've seen and enjoyed at least once of the previous films, you'll have a good time. If you have no interest in any of these characters, it still won't be your cup of tea. If you're on the fence, give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Kasey Bartnick — Dance is her happy place

Kasey Bartnick, a senior at Kennett High School, is the captain of the dance team and treasurer of the Kennett Key Club. She has also danced in several of the Kennett Drama Club productions co-produced with Arts in Motion including, most recently, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

How did you get into dance?

I started dancing when I was little, probably 5 years old. My mom took me to dance classes at Tina Titzer's, but only stayed there for about a year and then I got back into it freshman year. At the high school they have dance classes during school, so I did that and then sophomore year I joined the dance team because Holly [Fougere] was the teacher of the dance class and coach of the dance team, so she got me into it.

Is there a particular style of dance that you enjoy doing most?

I like jazz dance the most probably because it is flirty and it is just really fun. You can do technical stuff, but still be able to let loose a little.

What kind of dance styles have you experimented with?

With dance team we do all sort of things. On Fridays we do ballet, full team, and then we do hip hop, jazz, lyrical, some modern, so it is a little bit of everything.

Have you or do you have any interest in choreography?

I do. Right now, I am choreographing a duet with my friend Katrina [Prime] for the showcase and hopefully trying to do choreography for a trio with Lindsay [Spadaccini] and Nicole [Bean], so I'm working my way into it. Sometimes I ask Holly for help with it.

You've done things with drama?

Yes. I've been cast the last three years of the Kennett Drama Club with Arts in Motion.

What roles?

The past one was "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and I was a fairy. The one before that was "Guys and Dolls" and the year before that was "Disco Inferno."

And is it always just the dance aspect of it?

Yes. This year all the fairies had lines, so I had like five lines.

How does it differ dancing in a production like that rather than a stand alone dance piece?

In the plays I get more into the character. We had a lot of makeup for ["Midsummer"]. We had leaves all over and we had to be kind of creepy, so throughout the whole play I had to be the same character. When I am dancing in a showcase or at a competition and we have different dances I take on different characters for each dance or not characters, but attitudes towards what I am doing.

Do you hope to continue dancing?

I do. I am not sure what I am doing next year. I might go to NHCI part time, but still live at home. I am either going to try to find a dance studio to work at or, maybe, help Holly out with the dance team. I haven't talked to her about, but I thought it might be fun to be assistant coach or something.

What would your dream job be if you could just get anything?

I don't know what I want to do yet. I kind of got interested in sign language a couple of years ago. I've been trying to find a class to go to, so maybe an interpreter for deaf people, but I'm not sure yet.

What drew you to dance? Is there any particular thing that inspires you to dance or speaks to you about dance?

Dance is, I don't know how to explain it, when I walk into dance practice it is place where I don't need to worry about everything that's going on at school or home or with my friends. All I have to focus on is remembering dance moves or the next move I am going to have to make. The team is like our family and they always make me laugh. Dance is a place to go to make me happy — where I can be most comfortable basically.

Do you have any final thoughts about your past in dance or what you want to do in the future?

Just a shout out to Holly because she puts so much time into dance team and she's there for us all the time. She is just a really good coach. She is kind of like, not a mentor, but like an older sister to all of us. She reminds us to keep our grades up and to focus on what we want to do and our dreams. She is just really inspiring.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt offer up an 'engaging' romantic comedy

"The Five-Year Engagement" is a romantic comedy — a genre that is often dreaded by many because, at least lately, they are rarely romantic or particularly funny. Blissfully, that is not the case here. This is a charming film that is a perfectly balanced romantic comedy.

This is the latest film to come from producer Judd Apatow, who, not even including the films he has written and directed, has an impressive roster of films associated with his name including "Anchorman," "Superbad," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Bridesmaids."

Generally speaking, the Apatow formula is raunchy, crude humor paired with sweetness and well developed characters who seem real rather than cookie-cutter comedy cliches.

Of the large troupe of actors, writers and directors that Apatow likes to work with, "Five-Year Engagement" co-writer and director Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel, who co-wrote the film with Stoller, have become the best and most reliable.

The film stars the immensely likeable Segel and Emily Blunt as a couple whose engagement keeps getting delayed. Their relationship is tested when they move to Michigan when Blunt's Violet gets a two-year job as a research assistant that gets extended indefinitely. Segel's Tom feels as if he's had to sacrifice his culinary career and struggles to find himself.

People who know me know that I love a good romantic comedy, but the problem is most modern romantic comedies are so disconnected from any plane of reality and feature characters so bereft of any redeemable qualities it is difficult to have any sort of rooting interest in whether the central characters find love.

"The Five-Year Engagement" is just as formulaic as any other example of the genre — in fact the only part in which it sags is during the inevitable plot development that splits up Segel and Blunt — but the difference is these are characters we grow to like and even love.

The central couple is surrounded by a strong supporting cast of quirky friends and family of the couple, a requirement of all romantic comedies. Rhys Ifans as Blunt's boss and a rival for her affections is dryly funny and Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer get some nice and unexpected moments as Tom's parents. The standouts of the supporting cast though are Chris Pratt, as Tom's best friend, and Alison Brie, as Violet's sister.

Pratt brings the same sort of affable charm that he provides in the show "Parks and Recreation" and gets some of the film's best jokes including some bathroom humor featuring Michael Jordan as the punchline. Brie, so hilarious on the show "Community," slips nicely into a British accent and steals every scene she is in. Her best scene involves her and Blunt having to speak in Elmo and Cookie Monster voices in front of her daughter.

Blunt and Segel are a great on-screen couple with a genuine sense of chemistry. They feel like a real couple, which isn't something you can say about a lot of on-screen pairings. It is easy to stay emotionally invested in these characters. When they fight it feels authentic rather than contrived.

Segel recently said in an interview that he finds "romantic comedies to be overwritten and you hear people speak perfectly and that's not how people argue. When I hear perfectly crafted arguments I lose interest." The dialogue in "Five-Year Engagement" reflects that attitude. Yes, the characters are often very sharp and quick-witted, but other times they stumble over their words in a way that is recognizably human.

This marks the fourth collaboration of Stoller and Segel following Stoller directing Segel's screenplay for "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Stoller writing and directing the "Marshall" spin-off "Get Him to the Greek" and the duo writing last year's "The Muppets."

They are a shrewd team that is able to work within the romantic comedy genre, but they write dialogue and characters that rise above the mechanics of the plot. They realize it is the journey that counts not the destination. They populate their films with oddball characters, smart dialogue, and a lot of heart. "The Five-Year Engagement" continues their winning streak and it'll be exciting to see what they do next.

Derek Strassburg has a passion for film

Derek Strassburg, a senior at Fryeburg Academy, is involved in both film and theater. He won an award for his performance in "Coming Through the Rye" in the one-act competition at the Maine Drama Festival. He's also recently written a script that he's now trying to film.

When did you get into theater?

I suppose the very beginning would be in middle school. In eighth grade I decided to sign up for the school play, or audition for it I should say. I did it, I guess, because my friends wanted me to do it and then as time went on I became a freshman in high school and I signed up for theater again. I suppose my real passion for it began my junior year when I found I really enjoyed acting, and that's how things are now.

You were in the one-act competition and won an award?

I won, I forget exactly what the award was called, special commendation for my acting.

What was the role?

I was Mr. Steven Carroll in "Coming Through the Rye."

Did you enjoy the character?

I think I did. In the play he's an optimist and then he clashes with this other character called Steve who is a pessimist. I pictured the arc, as he's positive and then he becomes more, at least internally, negative about the world, but my director said just be positive throughout. I enjoyed playing more positive.

Do you have any favorite performances of yours.

Probably that Mr. Carroll character because I worked on it so hard and I think that's the character I've worked on the hardest.

When did you become interested in film?

In a way, I've always had an interest in film. I really enjoyed science fiction movies, when I was a kid, and I started researching them and then learning more and more about movies and then that started opening me up to other genres to me. Now I'm open to any movie genre.

You have written a script?

Yes, the script is called "White Dynamite." It is a story about a white guy who has all the qualities of a blaxploitation character who gets paired up with a black detective who is serious minded and doesn't really like White Dynamite very much and they get paired up on a bank robbery case.

And you are directing this?

Yes. I am rehearsing a lot so we don't have to do a lot of takes and to see problems that I might not have noticed in the script — things that don't work visually. It is more of a straightforward thing. It is not going to be a homage or parody or anything like that.

Do you think because of the premise that people are automatically going to go in thinking it is a comedy.

Well, it certainly has comedic elements. The comedy is going to be sort of fish-out-of-water because it is just this guy acting so apart from everyone else and the comedy will come from that.

Is it going to play off of buddy cop movies?

Yes, it is very much derivative of buddy cop movies.

Would you say the tone is something like "Lethal Weapon" or "48 Hours?"

It gets a bit more personal in the end. I don't know if I'd really be able to say that it is totally like this movie or totally like that movie in the style. For the first half of the movie, I'd probably say, it is something like "Lethal Weapon," but then maybe the last half is something a bit more personal?

Is this a short film or feature length film?

It is going to be 30 minutes.

Are you going to record a blaxploitation score for this in the style of "Shaft" or "Superfly?"

Yes, we're going to be recording a funk-rock track with a band.

What's the name of the band?

We have a rock band at our school called Punkapalooza and I was thinking of hiring them.

When are you hoping to have this done and do you think you'll bring it to any festivals?

I do have one specific festival I am shooting for. The Kah Bang Film Festival [in Bangor, Maine]. The deadline is June 1, so I'm going to have it done by then. I guess I should bring it to more festivals. I was also thinking of selling copies of it.

Would you put it up on YouTube?

There is some foul language in the film and we're going to have two different audio tracks. We are going to have a censored audio track. We are going to change around some of the words so they are more appropriate. It is kind of like a TV broadcast version like when they say, I don't know, melon farmer. That would be the free version and then the uncensored version you'd have to pay for.

What are you hoping to do in the future?

I have an idea for a documentary. Basically it would be bringing an interviewer and a camera to a movie theater and before people walk into the movie just ask them why they are there, why they wanted to see this movie, so on and so forth. It would be a documentary about movies and why we see them.

What are you doing as far as school after high school?

I am going to Southern Maine Community College and I'm going to major in communications and new media.

Do you have any final thoughts about acting and film?

I enjoy acting. It is something I'm not sure I'll be doing for the rest of my life. I love film. I have a passion for film and it is something I think I'll be doing for the rest of my life.