Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Danny' and the provocative night of theater

"Danny and the Deep Blue Sea," which opened Thursday, May 30, at M&D Productions Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H., is an intense, dialogue-driven character study that, in its own way, is one of the most honest love stories you'll ever see.

Josh Lambert and Janette Kondrat star as Danny and Roberta, a pair of deeply flawed individuals who meet in a bar one night. They tentatively begin talking to each other and then don't stop.

They speak in an open and exposed manner for the first time in either of their lives. In the course of an evening and morning together they begin the long process of healing each others wounds.

The deep blue sea of the title is an obvious metaphor for the sea of despair that these characters have been desperately trying to keep their heads above. Each feel at any moment they could drown.

The play, written by John Patrick Shanley, who is best known for films like "Moonstruck" and play-turned-movie "Doubt," is almost a non-stop conversation that runs the emotional gamut. The dialogue in the first scene is nearly unremittingly tense and full of dark, traumatic secrets revealed by both characters. The second scene adds some levity as the budding couple attempt flirtation.

A break from the conversation only comes in the transition between scene one and two: a dance/sex scene choreographed by Johnathan Pina that is beautiful, violent, graphic and intimate. Be forewarned: there is nudity, but it is neither exploitative nor gratuitous.

The acting of the two leads is tremendous. Both performances are like exposed nerves with the raw emotions of each character always on the surface ready to explode.

Danny is always seething with anger and yet there is a gentleness under his seemingly beastly nature. Lambert is able to rage credibly, but the strength of his performance is the quieter, lightly comic moments as when he compliments Roberta's nose or when he admires a doll.

Roberta is a tormented soul who is unable to forgive herself for a secret from her past. She refuses to allow herself to move on, feeling that she must be punished. If no one else will punish her then, by her logic, she must do it herself.

Kondrat finds Roberta's pain in a way that doesn't feel contrived, false or manipulative. On the surface she makes Roberta sweet if removed from her surroundings, but this facade merely masks a simmering anger.

Lambert and Kondrat have a genuine chemistry and even though the characters have only known each other for a few hours, the actors make their sprouting love feel tangible and real. Most love stories are neat and perfectly packaged. That is not the case here. Shanley shows life with all its warts and imperfections, but also reminds that love can exist in a cruel world.

First-time director Eric Jordan has served his actors well and has done a wonderful job of shaping the delicate emotional landscape of this material. The show is just barely over an hour and that's perfect.

Jordan keeps the pacing of the dialogue fast, which is as it should be. Shanley dialogue doesn't need space to breathe. It needs to be compact and almost claustrophobic. These characters feel trapped. The dialogue must feel the same, as if it is trying to break free from the confines of the characters' minds.

Not everything is magically better in the conclusion, but, by the end, for the first time these characters have hope and that in itself is a powerful revelation for both the characters and the audience. Life is hard, but when you find someone to stand by you "I can't do it" can become "maybe I can."

"Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks at Your Theatre. For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

'Agnes of God' offers powerful exploration of abuse, faith

Faith, religion, abuse, psychological scars, innocence, guilt, insanity and murder and the effects, implications and meanings of each of those words are powerfully explored in "Agnes of God," a taut three-person drama, which opened at M&D Productions' Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. Thursday.

"Agnes of God," which is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, centers on Agnes (Natasha Repass), a novice nun who is accused of murdering her baby, a baby in which she claims she never saw and has no memory of giving birth to. Dr. Martha Livingstone (Christine Thompson), a court-appointed psychologist, has been sent to the convent to determine if Agnes is sane.

Agnes, who came to the convent with little knowledge of the outside world, is "an innocent" according to the Mother Superior (Jane Duggan). She is blessed with a beautiful singing voice that Mother Superior believes means she is touched by god.

The delicate, childlike Agnes is also deeply disturbed. She sees visions, both transcendent and troubling. Are her hallucinations brought on by years of childhood abuse or is she a modern saint communicating with God? After all, as the Mother Superior notes, the saints today would be dismissed as raving loons.

Mother Superior gets into an ideological battle with Livingstone, who is an atheist with a justifiable hatred toward nuns because of a dark secret from her past. Both want to protect and save Agnes, but have very different views on how to do so. Mother Superior wants to shelter Agnes from the cruelty of the world, whereas Livingstone wants Agnes to face her deep scars from abuse she doesn't understand.

"Agnes of God," written by John Pielmeier, is an excellent actors' showcase, and award-winning director Richard Russo has once again pulled great work out of his cast. It helps that the characters are richly written with multiple dimensions. Even the Mother Superior role is more complex than at first glance.

Thompson, who is on stage the whole time, has the most challenging role. In addition to interacting with Repass and Duggan both individually and together, she delivers monologues directly to the audience. Thompson is required to run the complete emotional gamut from a tough cynical psychiatrist just there to do a job to someone who is completely emotionally invested in Agnes' plight. Along the way Livingstone's beliefs are shaken and her resolve tested.

It is a difficult role that Thompson delves into completely, giving a subtle performance that slowly reveals her character shifts. She only really stumbles in her final monologue, but that is more a limitation of the writing than her. Pielmeier's script throughout is full of intelligent, probing, affecting and occasionally funny dialogue, but that concluding monologue feels forced as it tries to neatly bring plot threads and themes together.

Duggan perfectly captures the mannerisms, body language and speech patterns of a Mother Superior, but this is a character that isn't written broadly or as a stern cliche. She is warm and caring toward Agnes and also shows moments of subversive wit in her conversations with Livingstone. Duggan explores these shadings in a way that feels natural and unaffected.

Repass has the showiest role as she is required to go to dark places and perform some intense scenes. It is to Repass' credit that even when she must say and do outrageous things that the performance stays grounded in a place that feels real. Repass captures the sweet innocence of Agnes, but also reveals the hurt and confusion the sweetness masks. Agnes is a tragic character that Repass makes heartbreakingly believable.

The set by Deborah Jasien is simple, but also beautiful. The lighting design by Ken Martin works with the set to create interesting visuals that are quite effective.

This is a show that stirs discussion and asks the audience to confront heavy emotions and ideas. It is a challenging, but worthy of evening of theater in which you can't help but admire the craft of everyone involved.

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

Remembering Roger: A tribute to a great critic and man

Thursday, April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert, arguably the most renowned film critic ever, passed away. It has taken me some time to process this information and I am still grappling with what this loss means to me on a personal level. I'm not ashamed to admit I've shed several tears.

Ebert along with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, were my first introduction to film criticism and analysis and, ultimately, the inspiration behind my desire to become a film critic. In fact, when Gene Siskel died on Feb. 20, 1999, I called a friend and told them I would fill the void his absence left behind. Now, with Ebert gone, I feel even more compelled to carry forth the legacy of these men.

It feels strange to have such a strong emotional response to the death of someone I never knew personally and yet, in a way, through his writing and TV shows, I knew him very well. For more than a decade, every week I would go to to discover Ebert's thoughts on the latest releases. It deeply saddens me that I will never know his thoughts on future films, but I take solace in the fact that I can still read any of his 7,202 reviews and rewatch decades worth of his various TV shows.

His loss didn't come as a complete surprise. His output slowed recently with Richard Roeper and other critics filling in writing reviews for his website. But part of me, irrationally, always thought I'd be reading him. After all, he always bounced back from his battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Just two days before his death he wrote a blog laying out his plans for the future. In the face of adversity, he always looked ahead with hope and drive. It is this aspect of Ebert that made him not just a great critic, but a great man.

When cancer robbed him of his ability to speak, he turned to Twitter and blogging and found a whole new generation of fans. Where others would've slowed down from an illness, he became more prolific writing sometimes nine movie reviews a week as well as keeping up on his blog that explored everything from his personal struggles with cancer to politics.

Ebert, the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, had become the elder statesman of film criticism, but he was hardly out of touch with what was current. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, such as Andrew Sarris, who also recently passed away, he didn't romanticize film past so much so that he dismissed the present. He truly loved cinema, both high art and pure entertainment.

His passion for film was evident in his writing and through the numerous incarnations of the "Siskel and Ebert" movie review show, which first began in 1975 under the title "Opening a Theater Near You." He was not afraid to emote about a film, even one that may be considered "bad." He had a soft spot for adventure and sci-fi films that reminded him of the youthful zeal he had reading similar tales as a boy.

Ebert's writing style was both informal and formal at the same time. He wrote as if he was speaking directly to you, but he never condescended. He had a genuine wit and could also be poetic and elegant in his writing. I've always tried to emulate that myself.

He was a beacon of good criticism and quality writing in a sea of tabloid, sensationalistic entertainment journalism. So much of what passes for film criticism today is shallow, superficial and more interested in gossip and whether a film will be a box office hit than actually critiquing the film.

The idea of intelligent discourse about film that Ebert and Siskel first introduced to the public is fading away. This is a shame because film is important. Movies are a reflection of us. Ebert knew this and used his reviews and his TV shows to attempt to seriously explore not just film, but the human experience. He invited us all on that journey.

I've cherished every moment of that journey and hope to continue it and perhaps, like Ebert did for me, bring others along for the ride. That seems like the best way to honor the life of a man who was so much more than just a film critic. He was a mentor, guide and a friend. I will never forget his impact on my life.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Worth the price of 'admission'

How much a film is enjoyed is often all about expectations. "Admission," from its poster to its trailers, is being marketed as a romantic comedy starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Even most of the reviews are describing it that way, and the consensus seems to be it isn't a very good one. That's because it isn't a romantic comedy.

Fey stars as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer, who, as the film opens, is dumped by her pompous English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) and is in line for a big promotion if the current admissions cycle goes well.

Richard Roeper in his review of "Admission" said "the whole college admissions process seems more suited for a drama than a comedy." And yet, much of the film does lean more toward drama than outright comedy.

"Admission, " based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is a film that falls perfectly under the label of comedy/drama or dramedy. The characters are often witty, funny and charming, but this isn't a film stringing together a series of punchlines or comic set pieces.

As was true of director Paul Weitz other films, such as "About a Boy" and "In Good Company," "Admission" is, generally speaking, more interested in exploring emotions and studying characters than going for easy laughs. The title isn't just in reference to college admissions, but to characters admitting things to themselves and others.

When Rudd's John Pressman, who runs an alternative school in New Hampshire, enters the picture, it seems the film is set up to be just another standard romantic comedy. Indeed a sweet, low-key flirtation develops between Fey and Rudd, but that is just one aspect of the film.

John believes one of his students (Nat Wolff) is the son that Portia gave up for adoption. How this information affects Portia, allowing her to awkwardly get in touch with her long-dormant maternal instincts, is the driving force of the story.

The student, Jeremiah, is a prodigy, but his grades don't reflect his brilliant mind. Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton and Portia cannot remain objective through the screening process. She begins fighting hard for him to be accepted into the Ivy League university.

One of the most refreshing things about "Admission" is that it side steps predictability. Toward the end of the film there are scenes that seem as if they will played out in a familiar, formulaic manner and, surprisingly, they don't. Instead, these scenes go for something more honest and truthful.

Few actors working today are better than Fey and Rudd at delivering sharp, clever dialogue, but the film also allows them to showcase more serious sides. While the film doesn't delve into the realm of dark, heavy drama, it does offer a serious-minded look at parental dynamics. Portia has a strained relationship with her ultra-feminist mother (Lily Tomlin) and John is struggling to be a good father to his adopted son (Travaris Spears).

Tomlin gives a great supporting performance. It is a feisty, sardonic performance that earns some of the film's bigger laughs. As a mother, Tomlin's character is cold and distant, which allows for some effective dramatic moments with Fey.

Spears gives a nice performance, too. He isn't required to just be a cute kid, but, instead is treated as an adult. His interactions with Fey and Rudd feel natural and unforced.

Not everything in the film works. Scenes peppered throughout the film involving Sheen feel out of step with the tone of the rest of the film. The writing paired with a surprisingly cartoony performance from the normally stellar Sheen makes these scenes very sitcom-y. It is the only time the film goes for cheap laughs.

"Admission" is already being dismissed as a box office bomb, which is a shame because the film deserves to find an audience. This is a sweet, funny adult-minded drama and there are people who want to see that. Too bad those marketing the film didn't trust their product enough to realize that.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Disney takes a worthy trip to 'Oz'

Disney, with the help of director Sam Raimi, is off to see if the wizard can grant the wish of box office gold in "Oz the Great and Powerful," a prequel to the "The Wizard of Oz."

This is not Disney's first attempt to visit Oz. That would be 1985's "Return to Oz," a distinctly darker vision than the brightly colored musical interpretation of Oz that everyone has come to know and love.

"Return to Oz" has its charms, but like this latest film, has the distinct disadvantage of being compared to one of the most beloved films of all time. No film can possibly live up to those expectations. Any new Oz film needs to be accepted on its own merits.

Despite there being 17 books by L. Frank Baum exploring the land of Oz, this new film creates a largely original story and introduces several new characters. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have decided to tell the story of how traveling circus magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) arrives in the land Oz and becomes the infamous wizard.

The film also shows the origins of the green-skinned, broom-riding Wicked Witch of the West, which have been explored in the book "Wicked." Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire offer up their own take on how the witch becomes so wicked.

Oz, the man, is portrayed as an egotistical shyster and charlatan with dreams of being a great man. His ambitions have caused him to give up on love and friendship, which we see in the wonderful black and white opening scenes.

In Kansas, Oz is needlessly cruel to his assistant (Zach Braff) and pretends to be unhurt when Annie (Michelle Williams), the love of his life, tells him she is marrying another man. As was true of "The Wizard of Oz," these characters have counterparts in the land of Oz.

Franco may seem like an odd choice for the role of Oz. He gives a grinning, sometimes off-putting performance. At times, he seems to be trying too hard. This may well be the point, though.

This Oz is not supposed to be particularly likable at first, but, to Franco's credit, he makes Oz just human enough that we are willing to follow him. Toward the end of the film, when Franco has Oz drop the smarminess, he is quite endearing.

Once Oz arrives in Oz, he is mistaken as a powerful wizard and he is told if he defeats the Wicked Witch he'll become the wealthy ruler of Oz. This begins Oz's journey away from being a selfish man toward being a good, caring man and in the process becomes the great man he so yearns to be.

The first person he meets in Oz is Theodora (Mila Kunis), one of three witches in Oz. She is sweet and naive and falls hard for Oz's reckless charms. The other witches of Oz are Glinda (Williams) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Naturally, some witches are good and some are bad, but to get into where allegiances fall would spoil the film of its surprises.

All three women give solid performances, but Kunis makes the most lasting impression. Theodora is the witch with the most depth and a compelling story arc. Kunis projects an childlike innocence mixed with a poignant melancholy that is effective.

Just as Dorothy gathered companions in her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, so does Oz in the form of Finley (voiced by Braff), a kindly flying monkey, and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), a fragile, but feisty porcelain doll.

While not as memorable as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, Finley and China Girl are good foils for Franco's Oz and are essential to him becoming a better man. Braff's Finley provides nice comic relief and China Girl is the heart of the film. Both characters are computer generated but Franco develops a believable, and even tender, relationship with both characters.

Speaking of computer-generated visuals, as is too often true with big budget films of late, "Oz the Great Powerful" relies too heavily on CG effects. At times the visuals in the film are stunningly beautiful, other times they feel hollow, impersonal and lack the magic that "The Wizard of Oz" captured more than 70 years ago.

That being said, Raimi's direction does help in making the visual fabric of the film work, particularly with his penchant for unexpected camera angles. Raimi got his start in the horror genre with the playfully subversive "Evil Dead" series. Some of that mischievousness to scare makes it into "Oz" most explicitly in the truly frightening upgrade to the flying monkeys and in Oz's time in the twister that sends him to the land of Oz.

"Oz the Great and Powerful," while not a new classic, fares well at both honoring the 1939 while also attempting to create a new vision. It is a fun, brightly colored adventure with a good deal of humor and a surprising amount of heart.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Best in 'show': Self-aware musical is hilarious, poignant

The word of the day is meta. Definition: a term used to describe a work of art that is characteristically self-referent. Example: "[title of show]," a musical about two writers writing the very musical that the audience is watching.

For a further clarification of the meaning of meta see M&D Productions' production of "[title of show]," which opens Thursday, March 14, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Sunday for the next two weeks.

Jeff (Chris Madura) and Hunter (Paul Allen) are a pair of theater geeks in New York stuck bouncing around dead-end jobs. They stumble upon a theater festival requesting script entries and, even though they only have three weeks before the deadline, they decide to write something. As they struggle to think of something to write about, they begin to write about the struggle to think of something to write about.

Soon Jeff and Hunter are joined by their friends Susan (Lia Gilmore) and Heidi (Molly Paven). The show becomes a hilarious deconstruction of the tropes and cliches of musicals. It is also an examination of the creative process which chronicles the quartet's acceptance into the festival, a successful off-Broadway run and infighting as Hunter and Jeff must decide if it is worth compromising their work just to make it on "the Broadway."

Madura and Allen are ideally cast as Jeff and Hunter, and director Ken Martin gets energetic performances out of them. Madura is dryly funny as Jeff, a know-it-all who is constantly correcting Hunter when he misspeaks. Hunter is the more outgoing and perverse of the duo, and Allen has fun with his often raunchy dialogue. Both actors have some great one-liners that they deliver with well-timed precision.

Musical director Rafe Matregrano, who also plays piano and appears on stage as Larry, the largely excluded pianist, has worked hard with the cast. In addition to being truly funny, Allen and Madura have strong voices and really make the songs, well, sing. A highlight, both in terms of singing and humor, is "An Original Musical," in which Allen takes on the role of a jive-talking blank piece of paper.

In smaller roles, the girls initially struggle both vocally and in completely inhabiting their characters. In the scene in which Susan and Heidi first meet, both Gilmore and Paven's line delivery feels stilted and flat and is not an indication of better things to come. As the show progresses, though, Gilmore and Paven's performances do improve and its likely as the show's run continues they'll become even stronger.

"[title of show]" features a fix of self-aware humor, coarse one-liners, low-brow jokes and inside jokes about theater and music. The more you know more about theater, music and the creative process, the funnier the show will be. That isn't to say the show isn't enjoyable if you don't know a lot about any of that as there is plenty of genuine wit in the dialogue and music that just about anyone can appreciate.

But "[title of show]" is more than just a collection of random skits and silly songs. There is also a honest exploration of insecurities that is relatable to everyone, not just creative or artistic people. This is most humorously and poignantly addressed in the song "Die Vampire Die," in which vampires are metaphors for fears and doubts that try to bring you down. The song is sung with equal parts attitude and vulnerability by Gilmore.

On "What Kind of Girl Is She?" Gilmore and Paven sing a duet about whether they're liked by each other or who is favored by Jeff and Hunter. Once again, this is an effective and easily relatable exploration of fears we all have. Gilmore and Paven vocally compliment each other nicely and are stronger together than apart.

Toward the end of the show, the song "Nine People's Favorite Thing" beautifully encapsulates the themes of the show: it is more important to be true to yourself than to compromise who you are to just be liked more or fit in better. This is not a groundbreaking message, but "[title of show]" delivers it in a way that is heartfelt, funny and sincere rather than trite and preachy.

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

Friday, March 08, 2013

'Jack' tries too hard to be a blockbuster

In 2010, Disney's live action "Alice in Wonderland" made $1 billion worldwide. Studios took notice and began their own productions featuring fantastic and magical worlds. This is why last year gave us not one, but two revisionist takes on "Snow White" and why "Jack the Giant Slayer," an action-heavy reworking of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" story, exists.

"Alice in Wonderland" was directed by Tim Burton, a director known for his highly recognizable style and quirky sensibility. Giving him a $200 million budget to play with was a risk that paid off for Disney. So, other studios started throwing big money at visionary directors.

Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema tossed Bryan Singer, the director of the first two "X-Men" films and "Superman Returns," some magic beans and $195 million and hoped for some profits to sprout sky high.

The scheme didn't go exactly as planned with "Jack" making $27 million in its opening weekend. "Jack" has already been labeled as a flop, which isn't exactly fair as the film is, for the most part, fun and entertaining.

Dismissing a film as a box office disaster simply because it didn't instantly find an audience undermines its chances of building a word-of-mouth following. Unfortunately, with Hollywood budgets growing ever larger in size, a film must go big or go home in its opening weekend.

To create the giants, "Jack" uses motion-capture technology, in which an actor performs the character and his performance is then animated over by computers. This is the same technology used to create Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" and can be very effective. In "Jack," though, the visuals are hit and miss. At times the giants look remarkably realistic and in other moments they seem cartoonish.

Hollywood needs to realize simply tossing a lot of money at the screen will not secure a hit. Computer-generated effects have become the way to go for Hollywood films, but these effects have the tendency of being not so special. Audiences are beginning to feel digital fatigue.

Digital effects are a fantastic tool and can be used to create wonderful visuals that previously would've been impossible to do, but films can rely too heavily on them. The best examples of computer-generated visuals have them paired with more practical effects like models, puppets and animatronics.

Could "Jack" have been made on a much more modest budget and have achieved the same goals? Certainly. Films like "Paul," "Ted" and "District 9" featured impressive animated characters that audiences stopped seeing as created by a computer. These films all had more humble ambitions, though, whereas many Hollywood films are straining too hard for bigger, better visuals instead of trusting an audience to appreciate strong characters and story. Of course when big visuals and a good story and characters come together as with last year's "Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises," the results are tremendous both financially and as entertainment.

"Jack" does have strong characters and a decent plot. The cast, featuring such familiar and welcomed faces as Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane and Stanley Tucci as well as the likable up-and-comer Nicholas Hoult in the lead role, is in fine form. The ever-reliable Tucci is clearly having a lot of fun as a conniving advisor to the king (McShane) who plots to rule the giant. McGregor is equally engaging by approaching his Errol Flynn-esque character with a slight, knowing sense of humor.

The script by David Dobkin, Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney is witty and has a nice sense of humor. Singer's direction is sure handed and visually appealing. The only issue "Jack" has is that it seems to be trying to be bigger than it truly is.

"Jack's" most successful sequences are the simplest. The film's best scene involves Jack cleverly rescuing McGregor from being baked by a giant. Similarly, the way Jack defeats a giant using a beehive is both funny and suspenseful.

In contrast, the climatic storming of the castle, while well handled and fairly engrossing, also feels more familiar. This is clearly where much of the budget went and, honestly, more of the smaller, one-on-one confrontations with the giants would've been more dynamic and compelling than the large scale battles.

If you're a fan of fantasy adventures, "Jack the Giant Slayer" is worth a trip to the theater. It has its flaws and probably would've been better if the studios behind it hadn't tried to blow it up into the next blockbuster, but it does what it sets out to do: provide a fun twist on a timeless tale.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Oh the irony: Seth MacFarlane's satirical approach to hosting the Oscars misunderstood

The reaction for Seth MacFarlane's performance as host of the 85th annual Academy Awards was, as expected, a mixed bag. Reviews ranged from high praise to outrage at his supposedly tasteless and offensive jokes.

MacFarlane, the creator of such popular shows as "Family Guy" and "American Dad" and co-writer and director of last year's hit comedy "Ted," is known for humor that pushes the boundaries of what is considered appropriate.

Those who are most vocally attacking MacFarlane's material at the Oscars seem to be missing what he was doing. There's a satirical and ironic tone to MacFarlane's jokes that may be flying way over people's heads.

One Lincoln joke in particular seems to be rubbing many the wrong way, but that was the point.

"The actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth," MacFarlane dryly joked promptly receiving a massive groan from the audience, which was entirely expected. MacFarlane quickly retorted "Is 150 years too soon? If you don't like that, I've got some Napoleon jokes to tell you."

This was the real punchline. MacFarlane was commenting on a society that has become overly sensitive and politically correct. Many jokes followed this same formula including this quip about the use of the N-word in "Django Unchained": "I'm told the screenplay was loosely based on Mel Gibson's voicemails."

Once again there was grumbling from the audience. MacFarlane swiftly responded with "Oh, so you're on his side."

These two jokes point to the possible overarching theme of the evening: to get people to not be so uptight. As a society, we have created many sacred cows, subject matters that are deemed as off bounds for comedy. MacFarlane ventured into one such area with a joke about Chris Brown's 2009 assault of Rihanna.

"['Django Unchained' is] the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who has been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie."

This rather dated joke caused quite a bit of backlash as if MacFarlane was the first to ever tell a joke about Rihanna and Brown when in fact this has been fodder for late night hosts for years. But perhaps it is a joke that should not have ever been told in the first place.

Amy Davidson in the New Yorker wrote, "Relationships are complicated, and it can take a woman more than one attempt to leave an abuser. But if any woman who goes back is told that she has forfeited sympathy and can be written off with mockery — that the whole thing is now an amusing spectacle — then we'll end up with more dead women."

Does making light of domestic violence, in a way, make it more acceptable or make it harder for victims to be taken seriously? Perhaps, but, in another light, issues like domestic abuse rarely get discussed in public forums. MacFarlane's joke forces the subject into the spotlight and gets it discussed even if it is only to say, "How dare he make that joke?" From that starting point, there can be more a serious debate.

Many comedians trade in gender and racial humor. If a joke is merely perpetuating a stereotype, that is when it begins to simply be offensive. It is hard to know where the line is between something that is genuinely funny and something that is just blatantly sexist or racist. Comedians are constantly testing where that line is and crossing it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing if the line is crossed to make a larger comment or observation.

Joking about Daniel Day-Lewis' well documented method acting in which he was always in character as Lincoln, MacFarlane asked the actor: "If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio lot, would you try and free him?"

This joke could be construed as racist, but, as with a lot of humor, it is the context that saves it. The joke is not about race or slavery, but rather about Day-Lewis' commitment to his craft. MacFarlane takes that commitment to an amusingly absurd level.

I could see regular Oscar host Billy Crystal telling this joke with no one batting an eye at it. Much of the negative reaction to MacFarlane may simply have been predetermined for many people because of the type of humor he's associated with. If someone is adamant that they will not like something, then they'll make certain they don't.

Of course, some jokes are simply silly for the sake of being silly such as MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs" song. The bit is so goofy it is hard to imagine anyone being offended by it and, yet, it did ruffle feathers. It is admittedly entirely juvenile, but, hey, sometimes we need a bit of that in life, especially at an often self-important award ceremony.

Certainly, not every joke MacFarlane told hit the mark. Some truly were wince worthy, but, more often than not, his material delivered. Yes, he played around with sensitive subject matters, but what MacFarlane's Oscar-hosting gig reminds us is that political correctness is the death of comedy. So, lighten up. Learn to laugh. After all, life is too short not to.

Friday, February 22, 2013

In defense of the Academy Awards

The 84th annual Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. This is the culmination of an award season that seems to add several new award shows every year. I've never particularly cared about the other ceremonies. I just wait for the big one.

For many people, it is understandably hard to care about the self-congratulatory love fest that is the Oscars. Even though the crowning of who is the year's best is entirely subjective and there is no correct answer, each year I'm once again emotionally invested in the final outcome.

It may seem silly to care about who will win at the Academy Awards, or any award show for that matter. It doesn't change anything. I will still adore a film that doesn't win or even get nominated. So, even though the outcome of the Oscars really doesn't matter in the big picture, why should I or anyone else care?

We care because when we fall in love with a movie we feel an emotional attachment to it and we will defend it to the bitter end. This is the same deep connection sports fans form to their chosen team. For myself and other film fanatics, the Oscars are our Super Bowl.

Beyond that, the Academy Awards have value in spotlighting films that the public may have missed and pointing people in the right direction.

There are a lot of films that come out in any given year. When they start making their way to DVD, it can be hard to decide what is worth investing time and money into. Instead of seeing the Academy Awards as a bunch of Hollywood blow hards patting each other on the back, look at it as a chance to be educated.

Who gets nominated and wins isn't an exact science and omissions will occur. It is certainly not a perfect system, anything that is opinion driven never will be. That is why a film like "The Dark Knight Rises", which many would say was not only one of the most popular films of the year, but also one of the best, was completely ignored. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has its biases and superhero movies is one of them.

The academy has been accused of being out of touch with the tastes of mainstream audiences. It is a fair criticism and the snubbing of "The Dark Knight Rises" is certainly an example of that. On the other hand, the Oscars aren't meant to merely mirror what is most popular, but to showcase excellence in filmmaking.

Sometimes what is popular and great is one and the same as with "Lord of the Rings" or "Titanic." Other times it is a film the general public missed entirely or would never consider watching.

Last year's big winner was "The Artist," a black and white silent film that most average moviegoers would dismiss outright as too old fashioned to be interesting to modern audiences. The shame in that is "The Artist" was one of the most charming and engaging films to come out in 2011. Thanks to the attention it received at the Academy Awards, people who would not have given it the time of day may give it a look.

Similarly, 2009's "The Hurt Locker" was little seen by audiences in theaters. It won against "Avatar" which made billions worldwide. You could debate which film is superior — I'm in "Hurt Locker" camp — but it was most definitely "Hurt Locker" that needed to have people pointed to it.

This year's nominations for best picture, for the most part, are a collection of films that have already found a mainstream audience. The exceptions are the French film "Amour" and the indie film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Foreign language films and indie films often struggle to find an audience because they are rejected as too arty and therefore not as entertaining as a big blockbuster film.

This is a reasonable assumption as a lot of so called art films can be difficult to engage with, but a film like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a wonderful film for the whole family. It is the rare film that truly captures the perspective of a child including a sense of magic and wonder.

"Amour" is a harder sell to American audiences because not only is it a foreign language film, but it focuses on a love story of a couple in their 80s. I haven't seen "Amour" yet as I haven't had access to it.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't watch as many foreign films as I should, but, again, this is the value of the Academy Awards. It is an excellent guide to films you wouldn't even necessarily be aware of.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Heather Masse gets jazzy with a legend on 'Lock My Heart'

When Heather Masse, a 2000 graduate of Fryeburg Academy, was younger she used to play and sing through a Dick Hyman playbook. Now, nearly 20 years later, Masse has not only met the 85-year-old jazz pianist, she has recorded the recently released "Lock My Heart" with him.

"I think she'd be pretty darn excited," Masse said of what her 12-year-old self would make of recording with Hyman. "I sort of feel the same way that I did back then. I just feel so fortunate and so lucky to have played with such a legend...He is such a great person and also his musicianship just totally blew me away even more than I thought it would."

Masse, a member of The Wailing' Jennys as well as a solo artist who released "Bird Song," a collection of original songs in 2009, first met Hyman through Garrison Keillor during one of her regular appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion." Keillor thought the two should play together and so they did on Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

"It was one of those magical moments when you're really connected to the other person and there's just this buzz and so that was really fun," Masse said.

It was a couple years later that she decided to record a jazz album. Masse, who feels a connection to the songs of the 1940s and 1950s, wanted to record with someone from that era.

"There is something so different with playing music with someone who really lived those songs and was around when they were popular songs," Masse said.

On a whim she contacted Hyman about performing on the album and was "ecstatic" to discover he was quite willing to oblige.

Initially, having only met Hyman once, she worried about collaborating with him. She knew they had musical chemistry, but was concerned about being separated by three generations and whether they'd be able to connect on a personal level. Her fears proved unwarranted.

"It was such a joy," Masse said. "He was just fabulous and so open, so creative. We basically went into the studio and took all live takes and each take was so different because every song he was bringing forth all these new ideas and all this neat creative stuff that brought me out of my shell a little bit too and let me explore things that I wouldn't have necessarily if I hadn't been playing with him."

The positive feelings were reciprocated by Hyman, who also used the word "joy" in describing the experience of working with Masse.

"What a singer! [She's] in perfect command of her technique, with the grasp of all sorts of styles, and with the improvisational ability of a jazz, blues, folk performer always at hand," Hyman said in the liner notes of the album. "I consider myself lucky to have been able to work together with her. And she absolutely surprised me when she unexpectedly pulled out another personality entirely and began to sing 'I'm Gonna Lock My Heart.'"

The whole album is a wonderful showcase of Masse's versatile voice, but, indeed, "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key" is a truly unexpected surprise.

"That was sort of a fluke actually," Masse said. "I knew that song from the Billie Holiday version and really was just playing around in between tracks and I just started singing in that voice. It is sort of my Billie Holiday/Betty Boop voice and I was not being serious. Dick heard it and said 'We have to do the song that way!' At first, I was like 'I don't know,' but it just turned out to be really fun and a fun way to have a new energy on the album."

The songs on "Lock My Heart," a collection of jazz classic mixed with original compositions by Masse, were selected by Masse with some input from Hyman. Recording took place after a single day of rehearsal in Hyman's studio in Florida.

Masse greatly admired Hyman's library of original sheet music of songs from the 1940s and 1950s and was fascinated to discover how drastically the arrangements have changed over the years.

"There's a way of playing those songs now that aren't actually the real arrangements of those songs, so people play them differently," Masse said. "It was really neat to have him go into his little library and take out the sheet music and open it up and see how different some of the chords were and even melodies were sometimes different than how I'd learned them because they changed so much over the years."

Masse's own songs sit perfectly and seamlessly next to these great standards, but in her songwriting process she rarely sets out to emulate a particular era of music.

"Usually my songs come organically and I'm not really thinking ahead," Masse said. "Sometimes it is more thought out and preconceived. Usually my songs come out all at once."

Her song "I Called You" is a particularly strong example of her talent as a songwriter. The lyrics tap into universal fears like whether our love will be reciprocated and if we will be remembered, needed and wanted. While the song is a mournful love ballad, the origins of the song were something entirely different.

"It started out as being a song about the Alzheimer's patients I used to work with as a therapist and activities director in an Alzheimer's unit for a couple years when I lived in Boston right after college," Masse said. "I was thinking about the disease and how much it affects these people. Their family members come in and they can't recognize their daughter or their son or their wife or husband. It started out with me thinking about that and how hard that must be, but it sort of turned into this love song afterwards."

"Lock My Heart" has been critically well received with glowing reviews from All About Jazz and

"Masse's voice is perfectly natural and fresh — lush and supple," C. Michael Bailey wrote in his All About Jazz review. "She is neither married to the melody nor has the compulsion to show off vocal fireworks. She is relaxed as opium and honey, yet is as exacting as a mathematical equation."

In an era of vocal bombastics by many of today's most popular female vocalists, there's something pure and refreshing about a performer who doesn't need to show off to prove a point.

"I think a great song doesn't need that," Masse said. "With a great song you can sing the melody and you don't need to use all the fireworks because it already has so much depth in it."

And that's exactly what "Lock My Heart" is: a collection of great songs beautifully brought to life by two immensely talented performers.

"Lock My Heart" ends with Masse singing "See ya later" and she does promise more.

"I just love the music of the American songbook," Masse said. "It brings me joy and it takes me to this other place when I am singing it, so I'll definitely have another one in the works at some point."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Exploring love and relationships with Woody Allen

This Valentine's Day, I've been thinking a lot about great films to watch for the holiday most associated with love and romance.

In past years, I have written from the perspective of a single guy. I was drawn to films that weren't necessarily about falling in love, but simply connecting with someone in an unexplainable, but deeply felt manner. I recommended such films as "Lost in Translation," "Before Sunrise," its sequel "Before Sunset" and "Once."

Those are still films I adore and endorse, but as I'm no longer single and more than a year into my first serious relationship, I have a new understanding and perspective on romance and relationships. This Valentine's Day, the films I keep gravitating towards aren't ones that will readily be on many people's lips: Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan."

When thinking about Allen's exploration of love and relationship dynamics, the film that probably first comes to mind is "Annie Hall." While it is more overtly funny and accessible than "Manhattan," it also offers a more bittersweet look at love. "Annie Hall" is actually a deconstruction of a relationship from beginning to end.

Where most romantic comedies end with the couple getting together, "Annie Hall" actually begins and ends with the demise of a relationship. The plot in between is Allen's Alvy Singer "sifting the pieces of the relationship trying to find out where the screw up came." Although the film concludes with the end of the relationship between Alvy and Diane Keaton's Annie Hall, it does offer a meaningful message as well as one of Allen's essential jokes:

"I thought of that old joke, y'know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but, I guess we keep goin' through it because most of us need the eggs."

As we hold our loved ones close, this is an important lesson to consider because love isn't always as perfect or as easy as it is in the movies. Indeed relationships can be completely crazy and yet, when you find love, it becomes something you need to survive. The absurdities become trivial in the big picture because, well, we need those eggs.

"Manhattan" offers a different, although just as significant, final revelation for Allen's film alter ego, this time named Isaac.

At 42 years old, Isaac is dating 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) at the start of the film. For some viewers, there may be an "ick" factor involved with that age difference that will be hard to get past, especially given developments in Allen's personal life in the 1990s, but there is a sweetness to Isaac and Tracy's relationship that overrides the potentially sleazy or salacious implications of such a relationship.

Isaac is surrounded by shallow pseudo-intellectuals who pretentiously compile the "Academy of Over-rated," a list that includes such greats as Lenny Bruce, Van Gogh and Ingrid Bergman. He is turned off by these phonies, but feels pressure to date someone more socially acceptable, even if it is dishonest to his true feelings. Isaac breaks up with Tracy for Mary (Keaton), who feigns the purity that Tracy genuinely has by constantly referencing her Philadelphia roots.

As the film draws to a close, Isaac sees the error of his way and realizes that he loves Tracy. He rushes to tell her and stops her just as she is about to leave to go to England for six months. Isaac pleads for her not to go, but Tracy simply says: "Six months isn't so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people."

That is the final line of the film and while this is an ambiguous ending, we know by Isaac's facial expression that he is willing to take that leap of faith. He appears calm and content and, even though we don't see what happens six months later, we feel hopeful for a happily ever after.

This concluding theme is more meaningful than something you'd get from a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Love does take a huge amount of faith and trust in another person. Both partners go in hoping and believing that the love will last. There is no way of knowing if that is true, and yet, when you find the right person, you trust that it will. Like Isaac, we choose to have a little faith.

So, this Valentine's Day, I embrace the messages of both "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan." I fully realize and accept that love is at times utterly insane, but I have complete faith that it is absolutely worth it.

Friday, February 08, 2013

'Warm Bodies' a fresh, funny and sweet zombie film

Zombies are considered mindless killing machines, but "Warm Bodies" starts with an intriguing premise: What if they weren't so mindless? What if they were aware of their state, but couldn't help themselves? What if they could fall in love?

Writer/director Jonathan Levine, adapting Isaac Marion's novel, flips the perspective of the traditional zombie film from human to zombie. We get to hear the surprisingly lucid thoughts of a zombie named R (Nicholas Hoult).

Hoult, who is in nearly every scene, is a crucial to the success of the film. He has an inherently likable screen presence and his nuanced, largely silent performance is entirely engaging. Hoult's facial expressions and body language let you know exactly what R is thinking and feeling even without the voice-over narration.

R is desperate to connect. Much like Louis in "Interview with the Vampire" was a vampire with a soul, R is a zombie with a soul. He collects items that remind him of his past life and brings them to the home he has built for himself in an airplane. He has a shockingly good vinyl collection and enjoys listening to John Waite's "Missing You."

Occasionally, R has "almost conversations" with M (Rob Corddry) and ventures into the city to find potential human victims. He'll eat anything with a pulse, but is "conflicted about it."

The remains of humanity have walled themselves off, but venture into zombie territory for supplies. This is how R meets Julie (Teresa Palmer) who stirs something in him that may cure his undead state. He saves Julie and brings her back to his pad. Julie, unexpectedly, develops feels for R and their budding love begins to have a positive effect on other zombies.

Zombie purists may scoff at the idea of a thinking and feeling zombie, but there is precedent within the genre to delve into these ideas. George Romero, who created the modern film zombie in "Night of the Living Dead," explored ideas of zombies having muscle memory of their past lives and even being able to learn in "Dawn of the Dead," "Day of the Dead" and "Land of the Dead."

The premise may also lead many to dismiss the film as another "Twilight," but, aside from having a human and a supernatural being fall in love, the films have little in common. In the "Twilight" films the characters are brooding and intense and there is no joy in the relationship between Bella and Edward. The characters in "Warm Bodies," both living and dead, are far more lively than the bland and stiffly acted characters of the "Twilight" series.

One of the pleasures of "Warm Bodies" is that there is playfulness, sweetness and energy in the way Hoult and Palmer interact that feels emotionally honest. Their connection seems authentic.

"Warm Bodies" is also distinguished by a sly sense of humor, particularly in R's observations on what it is like to be a zombie.

Corddry is a hilarious scene stealer giving a more subtle performance than he has given in past in such films as "Hot Tub Time Machine" and during his time on "The Daily Show." His timing is impeccable, especially in an exchange with R in which he translates for a band of non-speaking zombies.

Analeigh Tipton, as Julie's best friend, provides a dry, cynical sense of humor to the film. Tipton has an effective fast, dry line delivery that stands out most when she first meets R and throws a barrage of questions at him.

While the film is often very funny, it doesn't go completely over into parody. On several occasions, Levine, creates a feeling of dread and suspense particularly in regards to the "bonies," zombies who are beyond help. He establishes a bleak world and then introduces hope into it in the form of R and Julie.

There is also a thoughtfulness to the film including a commentary on the way humanity is so hooked into technology that we are essentially already zombies.

Perhaps most importantly, the film has a lot of heart with the main theme being the remarkable healing power of love. Even Corddry has an affecting moment in which he remembers a lost love.

"Warm Bodies" offers a refreshing twist on a familiar genre. It is a film that is equal parts funny, frightening and, yes, truly romantic.

See M&D's remarkable 'men'

CONWAY — Even if you've read "Of Mice and Men," you still won't be prepared for the potency of M&D Productions' production of John Steinbeck's iconic novella.

Directed by Dennis O'Neil, "Of Mice and Men," which opened Thursday, Feb. 7, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, is marked by rich and fully developed performances across the board from the large ensemble cast.

Set in California during the Great Depression, "Of Mice and Men" centers on George (Scott Katrycz) and Lennie (Dan Tetreault), a pair of migrant workers who bounce from plantation to plantation taking any work they can get. They are never able to stay in one place for too long as the mentally-challenged Lennie has a way of getting in trouble in ways he doesn't intend or understand. George feels protective of Lennie and loyally looks after him.

At their newest job they meet an assortment of characters including the boss (Joe LaFrance); Candy (Kevin O'Neil), a crippled handyman; Curley (Daniel Otero), the hot-headed son of the boss; Curley's new wife (Janette Kondrat), who seems to be a "tart" but claims she simply wants someone to talk to; Slim (Rob Clark), the respected, understanding mule driver; Crooks (Corey St. Jernquist), the black stable hand; and Whit (Eric Jordan) and Carlson (Andrew Brosnan), other workers on the farm.

George and Lennie are sustained through all their trials and tribulations by the dream of owning their own place. They are often told that hundreds of men have chased that fantasy only to fail and yet their dream is catching because they talk about it with such passion. Soon Candy and Crooks are believing in it, too.

Having something to hope and strive for is one of Steinbeck's essential themes. It is this dream that gives George and Lennie's life purpose and meaning. As Dennis O'Neil explains in his director's notes, "Of Mice and Men" is a richly layered story with new themes to be discovered.

"Whether one chooses to see 'Of Mice and Men' as an indictment of the American Dream against the backdrop of the Great Depression, a 'slice of life' look at the plight of the migrant worker, or, as I have come to see this piece, as a simple love story, it continues to strike personal chords in each of us," wrote Dennis O'Neil.

The key aspect of Dennis O'Neil's production is the love that George and Lennie feel for each other. This isn't a traditional love story, but the loyalty and compassion that these two men feel for each other is pure and simple. George and Lennie's relationship is beautifully portrayed by Katrycz and Tetreault.

Tetreault is nothing short of amazing as Lennie. Everything from his speech patterns to the way he walks feels accurate. He captures the childlike innocence of Lennie, but never overplays the character to the point of becoming mawkish or cartoonish. There are no cheap laughs or tears here.

He completely disappears into the character, so much so that even when he's not the focal point of the scene his actions and facial expressions are 100 percent in character. There is a moment when other characters are talking and you can watch Tetrault's face light up when they mention a keyword that means something to him.

Katrycz is an ideal match to Tetrault. He captures George's conflicted relationship with Lennie. George is often frustrated with Lennie, but can never leave him because, as he notes, once you get "used to a guy" it is hard to stop.
The way in which Katrycz patiently, even sweetly tells Lennie about the farm they will own one day is equal parts heart warming and breaking. Katrycz and Tetrault establish a connection that feels real. You sense how much George cares for Lennie.

The rest of the cast is equally strong with Kevin O'Neil as a stand out. He makes Candy upbeat and easy going at first, but also reveals a quiet sadness. When he sees a chance for a better life, hope fills him with new found zeal.

Steinbeck has said that Curley's wife wasn't given a name because "she's not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie." Even so, Kondrat manages to infuse her performance with a melancholy that helps make the character feel more substantial. Kondrat and Tetreault share a scene in which they discuss their dreams (although not necessarily with each other). It is a nice, well acted moment that makes the final turn of the scene all the more tragic.

Many in the audience will be familiar with this story, so it is a credit to the caliber of this production that the end still has the power to deeply move. This is show that will stick with you long after the final curtain falls.

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

Friday, February 01, 2013

Movie trends and actors that stood out in 2012

It was a strong year for movies in 2012, with the caliber of Hollywood's output a bit higher than usual. Instead of doing a traditional best-of list, I want to explore the trends and actors that were most prevalent in 2012.

Actors who were everywhere (in a good way)

Last year was a breakout year for two actors: Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Both actors were well established before 2012, but with four diverse films each, they raised their statures in big ways.

Tatum, who up to this point was largely dismissed as a pretty, but stiff actor, showed unexpected growth. Although I didn't see "The Vow" and "Magic Mike," he revealed surprising grace notes in the indie action flick "Haywire." It was "21 Jump Street" that seemingly came out of nowhere. This comic spin on the 1980s cop drama gave Tatum a chance to show off an unforeseen flair for comedy. It was the most relaxed he's appeared on film and could point to a new direction for his career.

Gordon-Levitt, a former child actor, spent a decade honing his skills in dark, indie dramas like "Brick" and "The Lookout." "(500) Days of Summer" brought him back into the mainstream in 2009. In 2012 he appeared in small, but crucial roles in two of the best films of the year, "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Lincoln," and starred in "Looper," a mind-bending slice of science-fiction, and "Premium Rush," a chase film featuring bike messengers in New York City." "Looper", one of the more ambitious films of 2012, is an intelligent, dark and challenging time travel film that offered Gordon-Levitt an excellent showcase. "Premium Rush" is not nearly as ambitious, but it is an example of pure suspenseful action fun.

Superhero movies

For the last decade or so there has been a flood of new superhero films each summer and 2012 was no exception with three top notch examples of the genre.

"The Amazing Spider-Man" sent the lucrative "Spider-Man" franchise back to square one with a new cast (Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Emma Stone as Peter's love interest, Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter's surrogate parents and Rhys Ifans as the villain), and director (Mark Webb). What seemed like nothing more than a shameless cash grab actually turned out to be a film written, performed and crafted with care. More films, amazingly enough, are welcomed.

"The Avengers" brought together an all-star list of superheroes including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the culmination of a series of films that kicked off with 2008's "Iron Man." Writer/director Joss Whedon pulled off the tricky feat of juggling all these characters and giving everyone their due. Whedon's script was genuinely witty and character driven rather than action driven. Tom Hiddleston is also terrific fun as the villain Loki.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan's completed his Batman trilogy with "The Dark Knight Rises." Nolan's Batman films have taken a different approach than most superhero films by taking a relatively real world approach to the material. The tone is brooding and intense on an epic, nearly operatic scale. "Dark Knight Rises" is a deeply satisfying conclusion that is both emotionally resonate and truly thrilling. Kudos also to Anne Hathaway for reinventing Catwoman in a fun and dynamic way.

Films starring children that didn't pander

I have been complaining for years that recent movies starring kids are too condescending to their young audiences, but 2012 had a surprising amount of films centered around children that dealt in real emotions.

Writer/director Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" offered an awkward and sweet exploration of young love. Full of Anderson's signature dry, quirky humor, the film also was tender and honest. Anderson got performances from his young leads (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) that felt completely unforced.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a rare film that shows the world from a child's perspective and manages to captures a youthful sense of wonder and awe. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis received an Oscar-nomination for her natural performance as Hushpuppy, a girl living a ramshackle life with her father in the "wet side" of a levee in an unspecified part of the Southern delta.

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” a fantasy film about a couple who magically grow a perfect son in their backyard, is blessed by another genuine child performance. Young CJ Adams gives a performance that isn’t cloying, overly cute or precious and the film around him, despite the premise, never becomes sappy.

Genre bending

The year also had its share of films that refused to play by the rules. Whedon's "Avengers" made big money, but he also wrote and produced the smaller "Cabin in the Woods," a subversive take on the horror genre. In the vein of the "Scream" series, "Cabin" twists genre conventions to wring out big laughs building to a conclusion that is audaciously over-the-top.

Martin McDonagh's "Seven Psychopaths" features gangsters, hit men, a struggling screenwriter and dognappers weaved together into a film that is equal parts gruesome, wacky, philosophical and macabre. It is a compellingly strange film marked by fine performances from such wonderfully idiosyncratic actors as Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell.

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino takes on the Western genre as only he can in "Django Unchained." Similarly to his "Inglourious Basterds," "Django" is a revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War South with a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) getting bloody retribution. It is often a difficult film to watch featuring language and visuals that can be hard to stomach, but Tarantino presents it all with his trademark panache. His ear for clever dialogue remains as true as ever and Christoph Waltz (who was so good in "Inglourious Basterds") remains an ideal vessel for its delivery.

Surprisingly enjoyable sequels and prequels

"The Bourne Legacy," a sequel without the titular main character, shouldn't have worked at all and yet, writer/director Tony Gilroy found a way to center a film around a new character (played by Jeremy Renner) that still felt a part of the world established in the previous three films. "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. Renner's strong central performances and the presentation of some compelling ideas keep the film engaging.

After the flat "Men in Black 2," "Men in Black 3" was the last film I'd expect to turn out as good as it did. Coming 15 years after the first film, "Men in Black 3" injected new energy into the series by sending Will Smith's alien-busting Agent J back in time to partner with a younger version of his partner Agent K (Josh Brolin doing hilarious and spot-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones). The film also has a twist toward the end that adds surprising poignancy to the whole series.

"Prometheus," Ridley Scott's prequel to his own "Alien," was visually one of the most compelling films of 2012. It had a more cerebral tone than "Alien" and asked more questions than it provided answers, but it features a stellar performance by Michael Fassbender as an overly curious android. It also includes a scene that nearly matches the gruesome "chest-bursting" scene from "Alien," you know if you're into that sort of thing.

On a more modest scale of entertainment, "Journey 2: Mysterious Island" is by no means a great film, but works as goofy, lighthearted entertainment. Plus where else do you get to see Dwayne Johnson sing "What a Wonderful World" while strumming a ukulele. Sometimes you've got to just enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

Click here for more thoughts on the films of 2012

M&D and Barnstormers well represented at N.H. Theatre Awards

The Mount Washington Valley was well represented at the 11th annual N.H. Theatre Awards at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H. Saturday, Jan. 26.

M&D Productions of North Conway, N.H. took home best actor in a community production of a drama or comedy for Richard Russo's work in "Halpern and Johnson," and Bob Shea, the artistic director of the Barnstormers Theatre in Tamworth, N.H. was honored with a lifetime achievement award.

This is M&D's second year in a row winning in the best actor category, with the award going to Ken Martin last year for his performance in "Talley's Folly." Russo also won an award last year in the directing category for his sure-handed direction of "Talley's Folly."

Of Russo's performance, I wrote in my review of "Halpern and Johnson" that "Russo gives a wonderfully expressive performance. His facial expressions as he listens to the supposedly virtuous relationship his wife had with another man are priceless. He also reveals deep pain during a monologue about his past."

The other essentially element of Russo's performance is that he truly appeared to be present, engaged and listening to his co-star, David H. Bownes, rather than just waiting for his turn to speak.

Although Russo was unable to attend the awards, he did send an acceptance speech that was read on his behalf.

"I am incredibly honored by this award and wish I could be there in person. I would like to thank the director, cast and crew of this show for making it such a memorable experience. I also thank M&D Productions for providing a safe and supportive, creative atmosphere in the wilds of North Conway."

In a video, Shea was honored and lovingly roasted for his tireless efforts as the artistic director of Barnstormers. The video included a fictional school in which students can learn to be an artistic director just like Bob Shea. This was an amusing tribute to Shea, who was reminded that receiving a lifetime achievement award doesn't mean there isn't anything left to achieve.

Shea kept his acceptance speech short and gracious. He fondly discussed his mentor Francis Cleveland, the Barnstormers' founder and artistic director for 64 years. Cleveland cast Shea in his first equity play, which Shea freely admits he was "terrible" in because he was trying too hard. Luckily, Cleveland took Shea "under his wing and straightened me out."

Cleveland shared this advice with Shea: "Be generous in rehearsal with your colleagues, especially be generous with your audience. Have the courage of your convictions, keep an open mind artistically, raise the bar, always raise the bar and challenge yourself. Don't be afraid to fail and venture beyond your comfort zone."

The N.H. Theatre Awards aren't decided by votes, but rather an adjudication process with representatives from each theater company scoring other companies. Each show is scored in various categories by numerous adjudicators. The highest average score is the show that wins the award. The ceremony honors both community and professional productions.

Through this process making it the top three is also an honor. M&D's "Halpern and Johnson" was top three in two other categories: best scenic design for Deborah Jasien and best director for Ken Martin. On the professional side of things Advice to the Players made it to the top three in the best actress category for Angela Smith in "A Merchant of Venice."

As for the award ceremony itself, it was an improvement over past years that too heavily relied on badly scripted banter between the presenters. The evening was still long, clocking in at nearly four hours long, but moved along more briskly than the previous two years I went.

Once again, several companies from across the state performed scenes from nominated productions. The highlight of these performances was the Peacock Players' rousing rendition of "One More Day" from "Les Miserable." The Peacock Players is a youth company, which makes the caliber of the singing all the more remarkable and awe inspiring. Similarly, Actorsingers' version of "Hard Knock Life" from "Annie" showcased some truly talented young singers.

It was an entertaining and worthy evening that shined a spotlight on the arts and the striking amount of quality throughout New Hampshire, including right here in the Mount Washington Valley.

Friday, January 25, 2013

'Silver Linings' offers honest exploration of the healing power of love

Writer/director David O. Russell's adaptation of Matthew Quick's novel "Silver Linings Playbook" is an uncommonly honest film exploring an unlikely pairing of subject matters: mental illness and love.

The film, as with the book, centers on Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is returning home to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) after an eight-month stint in a mental institution for an incident of extreme violence upon discovering his wife with another man.

Pat is bipolar with paranoid delusional episodes brought on by stress. He is obsessed with getting his wife back even though it is clearly a fool's errand. A restraining order is merely an obstacle to be overcome.

Into his life enters Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has her own bouts with depression, mood swings and anxiety. They begin a tentative friendship based on a pact: Tiffany will get Pat's wife a letter if Pat will join a dance competition with her. The film builds to that climatic dance competition. It will surprise no one that Pat and Tiffany are meant to be together, but what is surprising is how touchingly real these characters are.

The idea of a bipolar love story probably sounds bleak and "Silver Linings Playbook" does indeed have intense moments, but it also builds to something truly uplifting and romantic.

Most love stories have their potential lovers go through manufactured plot devices to keep them separated for 90 minutes. In contrast, Pat and Tiffany have real problems that they've been struggling with for years, for the most part, with no real support. In each other, they find understanding and someone who can make them better versions of themselves.

This is more than just a love story using bipolar disorder as a cheap gimmick to enliven a formulaic love story. "Silver Linings Playbook" is a serious character study of people dealing with mental issues. It doesn't just dismiss them as being crazy. We get to see the root of both Pat and Tiffany's issues.

In Pat's case his father is a ball of obsessive-compulsive superstitions and rituals associated with his favorite football team. Pat's father also has his own anger issues that got him banned from the local stadium. As for Tiffany, the way her husband died drove her to a promiscuous lifestyle that only fed into a depression she was already grappling with.

Mental illness is a subject matter that can easily become overwrought and maudlin. It is a tricky thing to capture because it requires the actor to go to dark places within themselves. It is easier to overplay the emotion instead of truly facing the subject.

Cooper and Lawrence, thankfully, do dig deep into these characters. Cooper, who to date has never been this good, creates a delicate and controlled performance. And control is the key word because Pat is a man constantly striving to stay in control and often failing even when his big heart is in the right place.

Cooper is required to have several explosive episodes, but we always empathize with Pat because Cooper and Russell make sure we understand the triggers behind these outbursts. Pat becomes overwhelmed by his emotions (ranging from deep-seated hurt to his burgeoning feelings of love) that he doesn't know how to process.

Lawrence's performance is every bit as good. Like Cooper her performance has an emotional rawness that feels authentic. There's also an unpredictability to her performance that fits a character who is attempting to understand her ever shifting emotions.

She makes Tiffany blunt, direct and fast talking. The way she confronts Pat's father about his theory that Tiffany spending time with Pat is creating bad "juju" for his team shows a woman that is strong and confident. It is a highlight of the film.

But Lawrence also reveals Tiffany's vulnerability especially in regards to her growing feelings towards Pat, which go unnoticed or reciprocated for much of the film.

Cooper and Lawrence have a chemistry that is volatile, which is fitting given their characters, but also sweet, in its own way, and believable. Moments like when Pat first asks Tiffany out and when they first hold hands are good examples of their unique chemistry.

The supporting performances throughout the film are equally strong. DeNiro in particular hasn't been this good in years. He gives a genuine performance instead of just a parody or watered down version of his previous work. A scene in which he admits his faults and limitations as a father is heartbreaking.

Chris Tucker, best known for the "Rush Hour" films, gives a surprisingly restrained performance as one of Pat's friends from the mental institution. In his other films, Tucker often seems to be trying too hard to be funny by relying on manic energy and shouting. Here he is relaxed and earns his laughs instead of forcing them.

"Silver Linings Playbook" is a rare kind of film. It tells a story that is, yes, romantic and often funny, but also portrays characters and difficult issues in a way that feels both real and true. This is a film to be treasured.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

'Promised Land' a well acted message film

"Promised Land" is not a religious film, but the elusion of the title to a holy and sacred place is intentional as the film is an unapologetically earnest case against the practice of fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from rock buried deep in the ground.

Written by its stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski and directed by Gus Van Sant, "Promised Land" will be dismissed by many as nothing more than liberal propaganda. You wouldn't be entirely wrong in calling it that. This is a movie that clearly has a message and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. This is an issue movie and while it is, at times, a bit preachy it is well acted and well written with a sly sense of humor.

Damon and Frances McDormand are representatives of a large natural gas company sent into a small, impoverished farm town to lease the townspeople's land for drilling. What, at first, is an easy sell becomes complicated when a high school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises issues about the fracking process and an environmentalist (Krasinski) comes to town to make sure Damon and McDormand don't succeed.

The tone of film recalls the work of Frank Capra, albeit it with some coarser language. All the Capraesque motifs are in place: an idealized view of small town living, a corporation being presented as corrupt and evil, and a good-hearted protagonist, who learns what is most important in life.

Damon's Steve Butler is a bit more complex though than the traditional Capra hero. Steve is a good man, but he is sometimes difficult to like as he has a tendency of being smug and condescending. He truly believes he knows what is best for the people of the town and so is quick to become flustered, dismissive or snide when confronted with an opposing view.

At the same time, he is genuine in wanting to help small town America as he saw his own home town fall apart when times became economically challenging. He can be warm and quick witted especially when flirting and bantering with a local teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt).

The arc that Steve goes through from a company man towing the line to someone who questions his employer's methods is a familiar one. Damon is such a strong actor though he makes Steve's transformation ring true and feel unforced.

His performance always feels present and in the moment. Damon has always been a very quiet, controlled and expressive actor. He is not a showy performer rather he is the kind of actor who doesn't seem like he is acting at all. His innate likability, even when he is saying or doing unlikable things, makes a viewer follow him anywhere.

Krasinski brings the same charm and wit that helped make him so endearing as Jim on TV's "The Office." He has several snarky verbal battles with Damon that are good for a laugh, but he is also effective in a monologue about how his family lost their farm to the lasting effects of fracking.

There's an over confidence to Krasinski's character though that is slightly off putting and there's a final reveal of his character that is surprising. It puts a different shading on his entire performance.

McDormand helps to add a healthy dose of humor to the film. She is a company woman through and through who is willing to do anything to win over the townspeople including singing at an open mic night. McDormand's character isn't painted as completely cold though and she has a nice chemistry with Titus Welliver as a supportive shop owner (who sells guns, gas, groceries and guitars).

Damon and Krasinski's script clearly leans more towards to the anti-fracking position, but does present both sides of the issue. Fracking does allow for the release of natural gas, a cleaner form of fuel, and the leases do inject money into towns that are financially struggling. On the negative side though there is the chance of destroying the surrounding environment.

The film isn't so heavy-handed as to saying that fracking is inherently wrong, but that states there is no guarantee that the process will be 100 percent safe.

Fracking is a complex issue and "Promised Land" doesn't really uncomplicate it, but it does work at starting a dialogue. It also succeeds as a showcase for Damon and Krasinski both as actors and writers. The script has a good voice and is often quite funny and clever, which helps make the film's message go down much easier.

"Promised Land" is playing at the Majestic Theatre at the Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

Friday, January 18, 2013

'Lincoln' brings history vividly alive

"Lincoln," director Steven Spielberg's extraordinary look at the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life, has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards and has been receiving many other accolades. It is absolutely deserving of all the praise.

Spielberg, who has had a fascination with the 16th president of the United States since he was a boy and spent 12 years researching the film, hasn't made a bio-pic spanning Lincoln's whole life. Instead he focuses on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. This is a wise choice as this is Lincoln's greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.

Much of the screen time is taken up with House of Representative debates and behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. This is a dialogue-heavy film full of various politicians bantering and bickering back and forth. In lesser hands this could have become deathly dull — and for some audience members it still might be — but thanks to Spielberg's share-handed direction, a sharp script by Tony Kushner and a stellar cast, the film is always engaging.

Lincoln is presented as a good, passionate man, who realizes he's in the rare position to do something for the greater good. At times, Lincoln almost comes across as saintly, a clear sign of Spielberg's reverie for the man, but Spielberg doesn't shy away from complex issues.

Lincoln needs to participate in some shady, even potentially impeachable actions, to get the 13th amendment passed. The ends justified the means and so history puts Lincoln down as a great man, but what if his cause had been less noble? Would we then look at his more morally gray choices differently?

The biggest key to the film's success is acting powerhouse Daniel Day-Lewis, who doesn't so much play Lincoln as inhabit him. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln's well-known ability to tell engaging stories with warmth and humor. Throughout the film, Lincoln tells long-winded seemingly irrelevant anecdotes. His easy-going oratory skills are what made Lincoln a beloved man, and Day-Lewis is able to portray that quality beautifully.

Clearly, we have no audio or visual documentation of Lincoln to go by, but Day-Lewis is so convincing in the role that you come away thinking you just spent time with the actual man. Just with his body language, facial expressions or the way he pauses in his reading of a line, he is able to create a characterization of a man rather than a myth.

This isn't solely Day-Lewis' show though. He is surrounded by one of the best casts collected in recent years, and everyone (with one exception) is in top form. Remarkably, Spielberg manages to juggle a large cast with everyone disappearing into their characters. Familiar faces include David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, and, most valuably, Tommy Lee Jones.

Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who is a key player in getting the 13th amendment passed. Kushner's screenplay gives Jones some fantastic acid-tinged verbal barbs which he delivers in his signature gruff style. It is a controlled and subtle performance that makes Stevens more than just a quip machine. The final reveal of what has been the driving force behind Stevens' passion is a surprising and touching moment.

Spader, Hawkes and Nelson provide comic relief as a trio of lobbyists hired by the Secretary of State (Strathairn) to bribe voters to get the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the amendment. They provide amusing color commentary during the House debates, and their backdoor political dealings are both fascinating and often rather funny.

The only weak link in acting is, surprisingly, Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. Mary was notoriously known for being emotionally tortured, particularly about the loss of one her sons. Field plays this anguish in a broad, hamfisted manner that feels very actorly.

Field struggles to capture the humanity of Mary, which stands out all the more when placed next to Day-Lewis' formidable performance. She does have one stinging put down in an exchange with Jones that is memorable, but otherwise the performance is shrill and distracting.

Everything else about the film is so superior, though, that Field's performance becomes a minor issue.

There is a more subtle ending that Spielberg could've chosen, but that is nit-picking. The ending doesn't take away from the overall power of the film. This is a compelling portrait of not only a man, but of an important time in our history. Spielberg has managed to bring history vitally alive. This will surely become a staple in history classes for a long time.

Friday, January 11, 2013

'Django' provides audacious mix of drama, action

The ever audacious Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "Django Unchained," is perhaps his most controversial. It is an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the form of a spaghetti Western featuring a vengeful freed slave getting bloody, bullet-laden retribution.

As was also true of Tarantino's previous film "Inglourious Basterds," a revisionist take on how World War II ended, "Django" is a revenge fantasy blended with historical fiction.

The titular character (Jamie Foxx) is a slave bought in the opening scenes of the film by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, who needs Django to identify a trio of men he is pursuing. Schultz promises Django his freedom and a cut of the bounty once these men are found.

Schultz discovers that Django has a wife (Kerry Washington) he wants to reunite with. Feeling obligated to help this man he's freed, Schultz agrees that after a winter together as a bounty hunting team, he will help Django rescue his wife from the particularly deplorable slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Tarantino doesn't shy away for the ugliness of the era. The N-word is used quite freely throughout the film. There is brutal violence against slaves including fights to the death for sport. While this is often a rich film full of the precise character details, clever dialogue and outlandish plot developments that Tarantino is known for, it is also not an easy film to watch. It is not for the squeamish.

The film's more difficult elements to watch are made palatable by the exceptional acting from everyone. Once again, as he did in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz steals the show. Following his Oscar-winning turn in "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz was typecasted as villain, so it is wonderful to see him use his considerable talents for a character we can simply love to love rather than love to hate. Waltz is an actor perfectly suited for Tarantino's intelligent, wit filled, eloquent monologues. He delivers them with humor, warmth and, when necessary, menace.

Foxx makes a compelling lead. Obviously, he has the most complete story arc of the film going from an uneducated slave to a sophisticated, smooth talking, gun-totting Western hero (or in this case Southern hero). Foxx keeps the performance grounded in a place that is real. He plays his anger at a controlled simmer that is effective.

DiCaprio, who doesn't appear until an hour into the film, seems to be relishing playing a villain. Tarantino has written a truly despicable character. Playing a character this unlikable is freeing, and DiCaprio clearly enjoys the freedom to be truly detestable.

Samuel L. Jackson gets a juicy role as Candie's head house slave. Jackson at first seems to be playing a stereotypical Uncle Tom, but slowly Jackson and Tarantino turn the cliche on its head. It is a subtle and focused performance that is among Jackson's best.

As has been true of Tarantino's film's since "Kill Bill," the tone of "Django" is often wildly all over the place. The film features a little bit of everything: affecting drama, intense suspense, over-the-top action, understated wit and slapstick. Not all of this sits together perfectly.

"Django" is made as an homage to spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films. Combining these elements with a stark presentation of the pre-Civil War South creates some surprisingly powerful and even moving moments.

Unfortunately, Tarantino's tribute, at times, turns into outright parody. There's a scene involving the KKK that plays like a Monty Python sketch that is equal parts funny and uncomfortable. It isn't a bad scene, but it feels extraneous and like something that would be more interesting to watch as a deleted scene.

Similarly, toward the end of the film there are moments that are played very broadly. These frankly silly moments get cheap laughs that do a disservice to the rest of the film although certainly don't go as far as to ruin the overall experience.

Much like Peter Jackson with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," Tarantino is a director who puts all his ideas, both good and bad, on the screen. In both cases, it makes for films that could be improved with some tighter editing. At least with Tarantino's film though you can say it is never boring. Tarantino's choice are, at times, questionable, but certainly not boring.

"Django," even with its flaws, is an exhilarating film-going experience. Tarantino's throw-everything-in approach is both a handicap and an asset because it makes his film unruly and unpredictable. Where most filmmakers play it safe, Tarantino takes risks. Sometimes these risks don't work, but it is always a blast to see him take those chances.

Friday, January 04, 2013

'Les Misérables' packs a powerful emotional punch

"Les Misérables," Victor Hugo's classic novel has been filmed numerous times, the first dating back to 1934, but the significance of this latest movie is that it is the first version of hugely popular musical version.

First staged in 1985, "Les Misérables" went on to become a global phenomenon and the second longest-running musical in the world behind "The Fantasticks." That it has taken this long for it to be adapted to the screen is surprising.

"Les Misérables," set in 19th century France, centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a slave prisoner who has survived 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. As the film begins, he is a free, but marked man unable to rebuild his life. He breaks his parole and sets out to create a new life, but forever lives in fear of the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

In addition to being the first film version of the musical, this "Les Misérables" is noteworthy because all of the actors are singing live on camera. Traditionally, when making a film musical, the cast records their vocals in a studio and then lips syncs on the day of filming. By having the actors sing live, the emotions of the performance are very much present.

As a musical, "Les Misérables" is light on dialogue making it closer in spirit to an opera. Nearly everything is sung, which makes the fact that everyone is singing live all the more astounding.

Purists may complain that the vocals aren't as technically perfect as they would've been pre-recorded, but there's an immediacy and vulnerability to these performances that could only be created in the moment.

The intimacy of the show is increased by director Tom Hooper's choice to shoot most of the film in close ups. This changes the way many of the songs are sung. The actors no longer need to project to the back of the theater. Introspective lines that would have to be belted out to reach the balcony can be whispered and capture an emotional honesty that would be difficult to achieve on stage.

This choice pays off throughout the film, but never more powerfully than during Anne Hathaway's extraordinary version of "I Dreamed a Dream." Hathaway's Fantine has just succumbed to a life of prostitution as a means to support her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). The song represents her heart and spirit breaking. Hathaway's performance is raw, completely exposed and heart wrenching. It is hard to imagine anyone not being moved by it.

A now wealthy Jean Valjean comes to an ailing Fantine's rescue and vows to take care of Cosette. The story jumps ahead several years as the older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love at first sight with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of a group of students preparing a rebellion. This reluctantly pulls Jean Valjean into their conflict and exposes him to Javert.

Other characters include the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), con artists who temporarily cared for Cosette before Jean Valjean and who amusingly continue to pop into the story. Cohen and Carter provide the film its much needed comic relief. Their song "Master of the House," is very funny and comes in just when we need it as we've just received some heavy emotional punches.

The other key character is Éponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves Marius. She sings "On My Own," a beautiful ballad of unrequited love.

Everyone in the cast, many of which are not known for their singing, are strong and everyone gets their moment to shine. Jackman, who has sung on Broadway, gives an emotionally bare performance that shows the growth of a man from broken and lost to compassionate and selfless. Seyfried reveals an amazing vocal ability, particularly in a song towards the end. Redmayne sings a vulnerable version of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," a song for his friends lost in battle.

The weakest singer is Crowe, who, although his voice isn't bad, doesn't seem comfortable singing and appears to be struggling with singing live. Because of this, his performance while singing often suffers. He is strongest when not singing although his final song does have weight and power behind it.

Overall, this is a profoundly moving and sweeping rendition of the musical. Not only does it find a way to distinguish itself from the stage version, but it manages to be a complete and robust filmgoing experience in its own right.