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.