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.