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.