Friday, August 31, 2012

'Rome' a mixed bag off Woody Allen stories

Woody Allen continues his European film tour, which has included stops in London, Barcelona and Paris, with "To Rome With Love," a collection of stories set in Italy's capital that hits more often than it misses.

Coming off of the delightful "Midnight in Paris," one of Allen's best films in this or any other decade, "To Rome With Love" is a slight disappointment. For more than 40 years, Woody Allen's annual new film has been as reliable as the changing seasons. With that level of production, not every film can be great. On balance though, his latest entertains.

"To Rome With Love" weaves together four different stories. In story one, a middle aged architect (Alec Baldwin) visits Rome for the first time since his youth and runs into a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg) who is considering cheating on his sweet girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with her best friend (Ellen Page), a sexually charged faux-intellectual actress. Baldwin freely, and inexplicably, pops in and out of this trio's life. The best interpretation of this is that Baldwin is reliving and advising his memories.

This is the best and funniest of the four plots. Baldwin is very funny as he sarcastically advises his younger, more foolish self. Eisenberg effectively plays a variation on Allen's nebbish neurotic. He gets laughs just with his facial expressions as he listens to the outlandish things that come out of Page's mouth. As Page has proved in the past, she can deliver fast-paced dialogue better than just about anyone in her generation. Only Gerwig seems shortchanged in this story arc.

In story two, a perfectly average Italian man (Roberto Benigni) becomes a celebrity for no reason at all. He is hounded by the press and paparazzi who want to know everything about him from what he had for breakfast to whether he thinks God exists. Live footage of him shaving is a major scoop. This plot is an amusing commentary on our ever increasing obsession with celebrity and how, thanks to reality TV, anyone can become a false idol. The ultimate theme of this plot reveals Allen's thoughts on his own celebrity.

The third story features Allen's first on screen appearance since 2006's "Scoop." Allen is a retired opera director who visits Rome with his wife (Allen regular Judy Davis) to visit their daughter (Alison Pill) who is engaged to marry an Italian (Flavio Parenti). It turns out the father (Fabio Armiliato) of Pill's fiance has the ability to beautifully sing opera. The problem is he can only sing in the shower.

This is a one-joke story, but at the very least it is a very funny joke, with a nice, and not overly heavy-handed, message that isn't too late to follow a dream.

In the fourth, and weakest, story, a recently wed couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) arrives in Rome only to lose track of each other. Through a misunderstanding, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) must pose as the new bride while meeting high-profile family members. While this is happening, the real bride is off contemplating an affair with a movie star.

Whenever Allen cuts to this plot line the film comes to a halt. With its reliance on dumb characters, lame slapstick and tired one-liners, this story is terribly unfunny. The infidelities perpetrated by the couple also leave behind a nasty after taste. The dubious theme seems to be that a little adultery is good for a marriage.

There's actually a lot of adultery in the film, but, in the other stories, it is used to explore a larger theme. This doesn't exactly excuse the behavior, but it gives it a purpose.

This is decent Allen, but I'll take that over most of the films that come out on any given week. At 76, Allen still seems sharp and spry and with no indication of slowing down. For Allen it isn't so much quantity over quality, but that he simply needs to keep working. It would seem that filmmaking is like breathing for Allen and he'll continue to make films until his final breath.

To paraphrase a line from "Annie Hall," Allen's film career is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. More power to him.

"To Rome With Love" is playing at the Majestic Theater at The Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

Friday, August 24, 2012

'Stop the World' is well acted, but flawed

CONWAY — The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company ends its 42nd season with "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" a handsomely mounted and well acted production that nevertheless seems to be having an identity crisis.

"Stop the World," which opened Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse and is playing through Sept. 2, was first produced in 1961 and has not aged particularly well.

Musicals and plays are often a product of when they were written. Shows like "The Music Man" or "Damn Yankees" are clearly from the 1950s, but have a certain timeless quality. "Hair" is a show that captures the vibe of the 1960s and acts as a time capsule. "Stop the World" reflects an attitude of an era gone by, but simply feels dated.

"Stop the World," written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, tells the story of Littlechap (Andy Lindberg), a lowly tea boy for a big English company. His station in life begins to change when he gets the boss' daughter, Evie (Hillary Parker), pregnant. He marries her and gets a promotion at work. Through hard work he makes his way into the higher ranks of the company.

Littlechap is dissatisfied with his life, though, and jumps into the arms of several women (all played by Parker). Naturally, it is only late in life that Littlechap sees the error of his ways and realizes that all he needed was the love of his wife.

Littlechap comes off as a philandering cad who does often deplorable things, and yet, it is presented as light fun. Littlechap is a tragically flawed figure, but, as directed by Nathaniel Shaw, it is hard to sympathize with him even though Lindberg is likable in the role.

The original production of "Stop the World" had a circus as a backdrop, a metaphor for life as a circus, and Littlechap was dressed as a mime. Shaw removes both of these aspects and it is to the detriment of the show. There's a certain sadness to a mime, often portrayed as sad clowns or fools, that just in appearance would help to bring across the tragedy of Littlechap.

"Stop the World" has an odd shifting tone that is clearly difficult to balance. The show goes from broad slapstick featuring mimed actions that recall the silent film era to savagely on-target social and political satire to a morality tale in the final scenes. Individual elements work and entertain on their own but don't hang well together. At least in this production, the darker concluding scenes, which are supposed to be poignant, feel entirely unearned.

The cast can't be faulted, though, as everyone involved does accomplished work.

Lindberg, who appeared in the infamous pie-eating contest scene in the film "Stand By Me," has an easy-going stage presence especially when he asks to "stop the world" to address the audience. He has a strong voice that stands out on the shows best songs "Gonna Build a Mountain," "Once in a Lifetime" and "What Kind of Fool Am I." He is also good at portraying the aging of Littlechap and is particularly strong at bringing across the character as an old man.

Parker has the thankless role of Evie, who is given nothing to do but have kids and nag. Parker does get to let loose and have fun playing the various women Littlechap meets including a Russian, a German and an American. Her characterization of these women are fun and funny and enliven the production.

The rest of the cast is made up of an ensemble featuring Natasha Repass, Emilie Jensen, Jennifer Lauren Brown, Liz Wasser, Erica Moore and Lizzie Porcari. Everyone plays multiple roles and these players often upstage and get bigger laughs than the leads. While their comic timing, facial expressions and body language are admirable and greatly appreciated, you can't help but feel that their antics reveal a production that doesn't trust its central plot.

For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit

'Odd,' but wonderful family film

"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is the sort of heartwarming live-action Disney film that used to be the company's mainstay for decades. In recent years, modestly budgeted family comedy/dramas have been replaced with bloated, big-budgeted action extravaganzas. "Timothy Green" is both a throwback to feel-good Disney films of the past and something deeper and richer than the typical Disney fare.

Writer/director Peter Hedges' screenplay, from a story credited to Ahmet Zappa, focuses on Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) a couple who are unable to conceive a child. One evening, in an attempt to move on, they write down all the ideal attributes they'd want their kid to have. They bury this list in their garden. A magical wind, not dissimilar to the one that carried Mary Poppins, blows in and the subsequent storm brings Timothy (CJ Adams), a boy with all the qualities Cindy and Jim asked for as well as leaves growing out of his ankles.

Hedges, who wrote and directed the warm and funny "Pieces of April" and "Dan in Real Life," wrote "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and co-wrote the screen adaptation of "About a Boy," knows how to write characters and family dynamics that feel real. His characters are smart and funny without feeling overly written.

"Timothy Green" is simple and formulaic, but doesn't feel hollow in spite of a seemingly trite, silly premise. The story is framed with the Greens at an adoption agency telling the story of Timothy in hopes of being able to adopt a child. This device lets the audience know that Timothy's time is limited, which gives a poignancy to many of his scenes. Timothy is there to help his adopted parents learn to be parents.

The film is clever in the way that it delivers the Greens' various wishes of their dream child ("honest to a fault," "our kid will rock," "just once our kid scores the winning goal") in unexpected ways. Timothy is not the perfect child, that's not what Cindy and Jim wanted, but he is funny, open, friendly and ever so slightly odd.

Timothy quickly wins over Cindy Aunt Mel (Lois Smith) and Uncle Bub (M. Emmett Walsh). Jim's gruff, distant father (David Morse), Cindy's know-it-all sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Cindy's witchy boss (Diane Wiest) are tougher sells, but eventually warm to Timothy.

Timothy develops a sweet relationship with Joni (Odeya Rush), a girl who discovers his leaves, but instead of mocking him for his difference likes him for it as she as her own secret. They quickly form a strong bond as they begin building a special world all their own. Adams and Rush have a easy, believable chemistry.

Through Timothy, Joni is able to embrace her own differences with pride. Hedges doesn't hit the audience over the head with this moment, but simply presents it without drawing attention to it and is all the more affecting due to the restraint.

Adams' strong performance goes a long way to making the film work. Often child actors can come across as too precious and cute, but Adams finds a delicate balance between being sweet and likable, but also emotionally honest. His performance is natural and unforced. Along with the two leads in Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." it is one of the best child performance to come around in quite some time.

The cast surrounding Adams is exceptional strong. Garner and Edgerton give heartfelt performance that easily could've been overly sappy and cloying, but instead feel based in real emotion.

All the supporting characters are loosely sketched and fairly one-dimensional, but they serve their purposes and are given life by the talented cast. Hedges is telling a fable that plays more on an emotional than intellectual level. The actors enrich their characters with genuine feeling and convictions.

At its core, Hedges' film takes on a serious subject, a family not being able to conceive and trying to adopt, in a way that is light and whimsical. The film is a tearjerker, but Hedges gentle tugs on the heartstrings instead of shamelessly yanking on them.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse is the place to 'bee'

The Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company's 42nd season continues with the light and funny "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which opened at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. Aug. 7 and is running through Aug. 18.

"Spelling Bee" is a one-act musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. It predates "High School Musical" by a year, but is similar in tone and themes, but is, you know, good. The show centers on six quirky adolescents participating in a spelling bee overseen by three eccentric adults.

William Barfee (Joshua Levin) is the ultimate nerd with a special technique of spelling with his foot, Olive Ostorvsky (Jennifer Lauren Brown) is a sweet, word obsessed girl with parental issues, Chip Tolentino (Jake Levitt) is the previous year's winner, Marcy Park (Emilie Jensen) is an over achiever, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Jill Twiss) is the gay rights advocate daughter of two dads, and Leaf Coneybear (Alex Herrea) is a particularly weird child who goes into a trance when spelling words.

The spelling bee enthusiast Rona Lisa Peretti (Liz Wasser) runs the show with Douglas Panch (Ryan Murvin), a man with unknown personal issues, providing the words and parolee Mitch Mahoney (M. Elijah Caldwell) acting as a comfort councilor. The cast often takes on double or triple roles in flashbacks and dream sequences.

Four people are chosen out of the audience to fill out the ranks of the spellers and are actually called upon to spell. It is a cute gimmick, but one that adds needless running time to the show.

The show's songs are upbeat and fun, but it is the characterizations in "Spelling Bee" that stand out the most. While the characters aren't much more than archetypes they are given bright personalities that this talented cast bring vividly alive.

Herrera, with a talking finger, strange clothes and stranger antics, is a scene stealer. He makes Leaf a loveable kook.

Levin is very funny, nerding out in a big way on songs like "Magic Foot." He makes seemingly bland catchphrases like "Of course" and "I know!" hilarious. He also develops a sweet, tentative flirtation with Brown's Olive.

Jensen is solid as an uptight priss who shines on "I Speak Six Languages," a lively number in which she shows off her many talents ranging from karate to wine making.

Wasser nails the perky teacher-type and has an amusing comic chemistry with Murvin. Some of the shows best laughs come from the definitions and usages of words in sentences, and Murvin delivers each one perfectly. Caldwell has the smallest role, but has a dynamic stage presence that is memorable.

Director Nathaniel Shaw and choreographer Lisa Rumbauska keep the show moving at a brisk pace. One of the show's highlights is a scene that starts in high speed and then, riotiously, is performed in slow motion.

Musical director Michael Hopewell has done a fine job guiding this cast of uniformly strong vocalist. Kenneth John Verdugo provides a nice gymnasium set. Costumes by Barbara Erin Delo do a good job of making the cast look younger. Victoria Miller provides effective lighting.

The show does have one song, the generically titled "The I Love You Song," that is surprisingly heartwrenching. The song explores Olive's emotionally distant parents and her troubled home life. Brown pours a lot of hurt into her performance, building to a powerful final moment. It is the emotional highlight of the show and helps deepen an otherwise fluffy show into something with a bit more substance.

For more information or tickets call 356-5776 or visit

Bourne-less Bourne film more than a shameless money grab

"The Bourne Legacy," the fourth film in the Jason Bourne series, doesn't actually star Matt Damon's Bourne. How does one make a Bourne film without Bourne? You center it on another super spy similar to Bourne and have Bourne's action in the previous films have a direct effect on this new character.

On the page, "Bourne Legacy" seems like nothing more than a shameless cash grab, but it is less shameless than you might think. "Bourne Legacy" runs congruent with the actions of "Bourne Ultimatum," the third film in the series, making it less a sequel or prequel and more a parallel-quel.

Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, one of a new breed of super spies created by a government program called Outcome. These agents are given pills that enhance mental and physical abilities. This is an intriguing idea of the government essentially getting these super agents addicted to a drug to keep them loyal. The amnesic agent of the previous films is replaced with an addict agent.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy, who has been a writer on all the previous films, doesn't spoon feed the audience. For a while, it is unclear what is going on or who Renner is. Whether "Legacy" takes too much time and is needlessly confusing is certainly up to debate. There are references to Treadstone and Black Briar, the government agencies from the previous films, and a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo that doesn't really add up too much. It eventually does make sense.

Basically, what the plot boils down to is that Bourne represents the failure of Treadstone, and Outcome fears there will be backlash once public gets more wind of that. The program head played by Edward Norton decides to dissolve Outcome and kill its field agents and anyone who knows too much information. That is a familiar plot device, but a cliche can still play if it is presented well and Gilroy does a reasonable job presenting it.

Aaron evades death and saves an Outcome doctor (Rachel Weisz) in hopes of her being able to get him his drug fix. She doesn't have any pills, but there is a way to makes his enhancements permanent.

As was true of "Michael Clayton" and "Duplicity," Gilroy's other films as writer and director, he is fascinated with showing the mechanisms behind things we normally don't see. There have always been scenes of men and women in back rooms surrounded by computers in these films, but Gilroy gives us even more of that this time. This seems to intrigue Gilroy far more than elaborate action scenes and indeed there is less action in "Legacy." There are a couple fight scenes spread throughout and an elaborate chase in the end that feels tagged on because it has to be there. It is well delivered and exciting, but slightly forced.

Every one of these films has one or two characters that stands in a room of monitors and barks random instructions. It has always been a thankless role filled by great actors (Chris Cooper and Brian Cox in "Identity," Cox and Joan Allen in "Supremacy" and Allen and David Strathairn in "Ultimatum"). This time it is Norton's turn. Norton is such a good actor that he makes his dialogue work better than it really should. He has a moment of wide-eyed shock and indignation that I was quite fond of.

Renner, who brought an unpredictable energy to films like "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town," seems a bit restricted having to play an agent trained to be cold and emotionless, but he does work some expressive moments in.

Aaron is a different personality-type than Bourne, who became increasingly more stoic as the series progressed. In early scenes in the film, Aaron is congenial and curious when he encounters another agent. He also provides a twitchy intensity when he starts jonesing for his meds. There's a backstory that helps add interesting shading to the character's motivation.

There is a definite break in the character though in the final scenes. The first hour of of film is more thoughtful and character driven. When Gilroy switches to the obligatory action finale, Aaron basically changes into Bourne. Which begs the question: Why did they bother spending the time to develop a character to toss out that development?

Even with its flaws, though, "Legacy" is a worthy expansion of the Bourne film universe and it would be interesting to see a Damon/Renner mash up in the future.

M&D serves up some 'real' laughs

After the intense drama of Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," M&D Productions is going for something a good deal lighter with "The Real Inspector Hound," Tom Stoppard's parody of the mystery genre, which opened Thursday, Aug. 9, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks.

M&D is going from its longest show — at two hours and 45 minutes — to its shortest at 65 minutes. "The Real Inspector Hound" is like an after dinner mint after the heavy meal that was "A Lie of the Mind."

In that short running time, Stoppard packs a lot in as he explores the idea of a play within a play and breaking the fourth wall. This is a show that can be viewed on two levels. It can be enjoyed simply as a madcap and absurdist comedy or as a satire that blurs the line between fiction and reality and dissects the very role of theater itself in a way that can lead to some meaty discussion after the show.

But I don't want to become too pretentious or ponderous in my reading of the show lest I become like the self-aggrandizing critics of Moon (Ken Martin) and Birdboot (Kevin O'Neil), who are tasked to review a murder mystery.

Moon and Birdboot can barely be bothered to watch the show as they are too busy talking about themselves and pontificating prose for their reviews that has nothing to do with the actual content of the show. Moon is constantly muttering about his station as a second-string critic, and Birdboot is distracted by romantic longings for the actresses on stage. About half through the show they actually take part in the very performance they're supposed to be reviewing.

The play within the play is a standard whodunit writ large with broad comedic flourishes. A madman is on the loose near the Manor Muldoon where the widowed Lady Muldoon (Karen Kustafson) and her guests Major Magnus Muldoon (Andrew Brosnan) and Felicity Cunningham (Janette Kondrat) are visited by Simon Gascoyne (Eric Jordan), who has had an affair with both women. The inept Inspector Hound (Bill Knolla) arrives just in time to provide no help at all.

Jane Duggan plays a maid who humorously speaks entirely in exposition or cryptic, foreboding monologues. Duggan facial expressions and overly dramatic line readings provide many of the shows biggest laughs.

The show's funniest scene involves Duggan serving tea in a maddeningly slow and precise manner, which increasingly infuriates Kondrat's Felicity. Kondrat does comic wonders with a fan that she is constantly folding and unfolding.

Everyone in the play within the play performs their parts in a gloriously campy fashion. Jordan spends most the production wide eyed and bewildered. Kustafson squeezes every bit of overwrought melodrama out of her intentionally cliche dialogue. Brosnan speaks in a Scottish brogue and rocks a fake moustache.

Martin, who also designed the impressive set, and O'Neil's performances are less broad, but no less funny as they perfectly capture the essence of an arrogant critic. Not that I speak from experience or anything.

Comedy is just as difficult if not more so than drama, but director Richard Russo keeps the pace appropriately fast and the humor well timed. Russo doesn't let the comic energy run completely out of control, but he also gives his actors the freedom to go big and goofy. It is not a spoiler to say there are several deaths, but one actor's extended death scene is particularly laugh-out-loud funny.

The sound design by Russo and Martin cleverly uses bits of Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme, Bernard Hermann's "Psycho" theme, Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" and other songs.

"The Real Inspector Hound" is quick, breezy, fun theater that, while not exactly profound, does reward an attentive audience.

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

Friday, August 03, 2012

'Rises' ends Nolan's Batman trilogy brilliantly

Director Christopher Nolan completes his dark, reality-based "Batman" trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises," which makes good on its title. Nolan raises a bleak film into something hopeful and uplifting.

Starting with 2005's "Batman Begins" and continuing with 2008's "The Dark Knight," Nolan has created a version of the Batman universe that, relatively speaking, is believable. The more fantastic aspects of the characters have been removed and replaced with more plausible variations. "Dark Knight Rises" asks for some suspension of disbelief, but far less so than your average superhero film.

Nolan, who co-wrote the films with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, has ingeniously taken various elements of Batman lore and combined them in a way that remains faithful to the source material even when altering the details.

The film picks up eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight." Batman (Christian Bale) has taken the fall for the horrific actions of Harvey Dent, the district attorney who was driven mad by the Joker. Dent was seen as Gotham's savior, and, with that image preserved, organized crime was swept out of the city.

With Batman retired and the love of his life dead, Bruce Wayne has become a crippled recluse stalking the dimly lit halls of Wayne manor as Alfred (Michael Caine), his loyal butler and confidant, looks on with evermore concern.

Wayne is brought out of hiding when a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into Wayne manor. Her actions turnout to be connected to the schemes of a brilliant terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy), who has his sights on the destruction of Gotham and Batman. To say more would start getting into the realm of spoilers, but a look back at "Batman Begins," while not necessary, would certainly be helpful.

One of the film's primary themes is whether there's such thing as a good lie. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) was able to clean up Gotham, but that admirable deed is hollow as it was based on a lie. Similarly, a lie Alfred told to protect Wayne's feelings may have done more damage than good. Secrets have a way of turning things rotten from the inside, out and Bane exploits that.

Bane's plot against Gotham brings Batman out of retirement, but Wayne has underestimated Bane, who proves to be a more than worthy adversary both mentally and physically. Comic book fans will know what happens between Batman and Bane and, yes, Nolan unflinchingly shows it. Hardy, his face almost entirely obscured by a mask, gives a deceptively nuanced performance. Just with his eyes and body language, he creates a formidable, frightening villain.

There are other characters at play here as well. Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, the new head of Wayne Enterprises, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, a young noble cop, Matthew Modine plays an older glory-seeking cop, and Morgan Freeman is back as Wayne's gadget man.

That's a large cast, but Nolan does a superb job juggling the characters and how they all intertwine. Nolan is a filmmaker who takes time to develop his themes and characters. The film clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, but the length is never noticeable as Nolan doesn't waste a single minute. From frame one, the film engages and begins building a nearly unremitting sense of dread and tension.

This is a film made on a huge scale. Nolan, unlike Michael Bay and other manic directors, doesn't edit his action scenes into confusing seizure-inducing messes. The film's stunning set pieces include an extraordinary opening heist in which one plane hijacks a smaller plane. There's a lot of screen time for the Bat-Pod and The Bat, Batman's new flying contraption, both of which are exceptionally cool.

Nolan also includes plenty of small, quiet moments. Most of the film is structured as Wayne interacting with a series of different characters each one, in their own way, helping him on his journey to not only save Gotham, but himself.

Bale gives his best performance yet in the series. His Wayne is a brooding, tortured man who has lost sight of who he is. Watching Bale play off this exceptional cast is just as thrilling as any of the elaborate action sequences.

Hathaway, who is playing Catwoman, but is never referred to as such, is fantastic. She provides a sultry, sarcastic cynicism to the film. She's hard, but not lacking compassion and neither a clear hero or villain, which brings a nice ambiguity to the character. Her scenes with Bale, as both Wayne and Batman, have a genuine spark.

Gordon-Levitt is also strong, particularly in a scene in which he confronts Wayne about a shared moment in their past. An interesting dynamic develops between Blake and Wayne that pays off in a big way.

Caine is heartbreaking as his Alfred struggles to watch Wayne go down a path he can no longer support. Freeman provides light, and necessary, comic relief. Oldman, once again, gives a subtle performance as the guilt-ridden commissioner.

What distinguishes "The Dark Knight Rises" from the average blockbuster is that, in spite of its massiveness, it is a deeply personal and intimate film. This is the perfect balance of entertainment and substance.