Thursday, July 21, 2016

"Captain Fantastic" No Superhero


“Captain Fantastic” a Hero Without Super Powers

By Skip Sheffield

On a more serious note we have “Captain Fantastic.”
I thought this was going to be a Marvel/DC Comics super hero adventure, but boy was I wrong.
Viggo Mortensen stars as Ben Cash, father of six children, whose wife Leslie (Trin Miller) has become incapacitated by bi-polar mental illness.
If you have ever known anyone with bi-polar disorder, and/or if you have ever lost friends or family to suicide, “Captain Fantastic” is the kind of film that will rip out your heart and stomp upon it.
As a last ditch resort to deal with his wife’s mental illness, Ben and his children have retreated to the Pacific Northwest to live off the grid by the land. Crops provide vegetables and meat is obtained by hunting and killing. Ben has home-schooled his children and urged them to be free-thinkers. The kids have been encouraged to emulate Noam Chomsky, a deep thinker and champion of the “New Left.” This is all well and good deep in the woods, but when Leslie Cash suddenly dies by her own hand, Ben takes it upon himself to bring his children to her funeral in Colorado, traveling in a large converted school bus. Ben undertakes this despite being threatened with arrest by Leslie’s father Jack (Frank Langella), a wealthy, conservative businessman.
Being a parent is challenging under the best of circumstances. Being a single parent with six children in the middle of nowhere is a Herculean effort.
Viggo Mortensen often plays bad guys. Ben Cash is a good guy, but he is seen as bad by much of the outside world. Boy howdy, can I relate.

“Captain Fantastic” is not for everyone. If you are a conventional bedrock conservative person, you will hate this film. If you have ventured to the edges of philosophical radical freedom, you will find much to admire. I think this movie is Viggo Mortensen’s best chance for Best Actor Oscar consideration.

Girls of a Certain Age Want to Have Fun Too


Girls Just Want to Have Fun

By Skip Sheffield

Who says women can’t be funny? Certainly not Jennifer Saunders, who is the principal writer and co-star with Joanna Lumley of “Absolutely Fabulous,” the movie.
“Ab Fab” as it is commonly called is based on a BBC comedy series that started in 1992 and still has a cult following.
I was not a part of that cult, so “Ab Fab” the movie is new to me.
Jennifer Saunders is Edwina “Eddie” Monsoon, whose leading client is waifish fashion model Kate Moss. Joanna Lumley is her best friend a sidekick Patsy Stone, a fashion magazine editor in swinging London.
Eddie and Patsy carry on as if they were still college chums, living a party life of drinking, shopping and chain-smoking cigarettes. In reality both women are showing their age, and their privileged life is precarious. Eddie is the mother of a sensible, disapproving daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) who is now in college.
The Ab Fab house of cards collapses when Kate Moss either slips or is pushed into the Thames River, and the two women become targets of a relentless mob of paparazzi.
Eddie’s solution is to flee to the South of France and start a new existence in Nice. That’s really all there is to “Ab Fab,” but for an unprecedented list of celebrity British and American cameos; everybody from Rebel Wilson as a rude flight attendant to Dame Edna (Barry Humphries) being her/himself.
The obligatory car chase scene is done with a three-wheel scooter, negotiating the narrow streets of Nice.
There is nothing of lasting value in “Absolutely Fabulous” other than the fact that girls of any age like to have fun.

Friday, July 15, 2016

"The Innocents" Pre-Dating Recent Terrible Events


The Suffering of “The Innocents” in a Most Cruel War

By Skip Sheffield

Man’s in humanity to man is well-documented. Man’s inhumanity to woman is even worse.
“The Innocents” is “based on actual event.” That’s what makes it harder to take.
The story is set at the end of World War II at a French Red Cross clinic. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage) is a Red Cross doctor treating French survivors of German camps, which had only recently been liberated by Russians.
A very upset Benedictine nun appears at the clinic and begs Mathilde to follow her to the nearby convent. What Mathilde discovers shocks her to the core. A holy sister is about to give birth and several more are in advanced stages of pregnancy. Mathilde is an atheist herself, but she feels doubly shamed for the sisters; violated against their will to break their vows of chastity and now unwed mothers.
The head nun, the stern Rev. Mother (Agata Kulesza) wants to keep a lid on the scandal but Mathilde feels the outrage should be exposed to the world. First the nuns were violated by their German captors, then the Russians came along and repeated the vile practice. Now there are Polish Communists around who share disdain for female chastity and purity.
Lou de Laage is an ethereal beauty who so enchanted in the recent Italian film, “L’attesa” (The Wait). She is up to a much bigger challenge here and she surmounts it with grace and dignity.
War is Hell as Gen. U.S. Grant declared most famously. Director Anne Fontaine offers a harrowing glimpse into a most heartbreaking Hell on Earth. It is not pretty, but it happened.

Dirty Business in Miami in "The Infiltrator"


Bryan Cranston Summons His Bad Boy to Play “The Infiltrator”

By Skip Sheffield

Bryan Cranston makes a most convincing badass.
Cranston, who is best-known as the meth-cooking teacher in “Breaking Bad,” plays an even ballsier character in the truth-based movie “The Infiltrator.”
Cranston plays U.S, Customs undercover agent and former accountant Robert Mazur. Mazur’s mission, set in 1986, is to follow the money to Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was raking in millions of dollars in profits for smuggling thousands of pounds of cocaine into the USA, mostly through South Florida as the Mendellin Cartel.
To perform his ruse Masur adopted the name Bob Musella, whose lifestyle was directly the opposite of the clean-living family man, Robert Mazur.
Going undercover is perilous duty. Doing it in Miami, Panama and Colombia makes it all the more dangerous.
The script, adapted by Ellen Brown Furman from Mazur’s memoir, is complicated and a bit long. It is long on procedure and short on action. The real villains in this story are the corrupt banks that laundered cash money and diverted it to legitimate businesses to make it seem legitimate.
All the while Robert Mazur was deep undercover, his worried wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) was unaware of the full extent of her husband’s double life. When Masur/Musella agrees to take on a fellow agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) as a pretend fiancĂ©e, things get even more complicated, especially when Bob, with Kathy on his arm, and Evelyn show up at the same Miami restaurant.
Going undercover is a dirty business. So is dealing large quantities of cocaine. I was around when all this stuff went down. I even had a couple good friends who did hard time dealing cocaine. The betrayal of friends is poignantly depicted in Bob’s friendship with the elegant Roberto Acaino (Benjamin Bratt), a close lieutenant to drug lord Pablo Escobar, and his associate Eminir Abreu (John Leguizamo), who seemed to like the thug life a little too much.
Bryan Cranston is an actor of great gravitas. He uses it to great affect as a middle-aged man agreeing to one last caper with express permission of the U.S. Government.

What Your Pets Say Behind Your Back

Pets Are a Lot Like Us

By Skip Sheffield

“The Secret Life of Pets” imagines that pets communicate and interact much like the humans that maintain them. It’s a pretty thin premise, but this computer-generated animated feature is amusing, especially for those who love their pets.
The main character is a terrier named Max (voice of Louis C.K.). His life revolves around his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), a young career woman in New York City. When she arrives he is ecstatic. When she goes for work, he is devastated.
Max’s life is turned upside-down when Katie shows up one day with a new rescued dog. She calls him Duke (voice of Erin Stonestreet) and he is a big, shaggy, slovenly dog.
Max has a girlfriend across the way. She is a dainty, lovely poodle called Gidget (Jenny Slate).
The main action of “Secret Life” occurs when Max and Duke venture into the outside world, all the way to Brooklyn. There they are the prey of ever-vigilant New York City dogcatchers. An uneasy alliance is formed with Snowball (Kevin Hart), a cuddly white bunny who is a rebel at heart and fierce leader of a ragtag army of abandoned pets who are united in their hatred of “the man” who rejected them.
Gidget emerges the unlikely hero of this story.
Anthropormorphism is the fancy term for ascribing human characteristics to animals. As long as we have pets, we will imagine their secret lives when we are away. “The Secret Life of Pets” feeds on that fantasy. It may not be real, but it is a lot of fun.

Female "Ghostbusters" Has a Few Good Laughs


Female “Ghostbusters” for a New Generation

By Skip Sheffield

To get to the point, “Ghostbusters” is more enjoyable than I expected. It probably helped that I saw the screening with two young females; my daughter and her significant other.
Director Paul Feig (“Spy, “Bridesmaids”) has basically recycled the original 1984 plot, but with women instead of men doing battle with CG-enhanced paranormal forces in New York City.
Those women are paranormal authors Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy); nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (a scene-stealing Kate McKinnon) and MTA worker Patty Toland (Leslie Jones).
This movie has rated terrible word-of-mouth even before its release. How dare they!, etc. So I invited two young women to see it. Surprise! They loved it.
Feig cast four of the funniest women in the business, plus dreamboat hunk Chris Hemsworth as their dim-witted receptionist, Kevin, playing the Annie Potts role.
I saw the original movie only once, but it left enough of an impression that I noticed sly references to the original.
Of course there is the New York City setting, which is loaded with ghosts. The ghost-busting girls first set up shop in a Chinese restaurant, then move to a decommissioned firehouse, as in the original.
They even have a Cadillac ghost-busting car, though it has been updated from a 1959 limousine to a late 1980s hearse, which is on loan from Leslie Jones’ character.
In another tribute to the original, Bill Murray plays a cameo as a paranormal debunker.

Is “Ghostbusters” better than the original? No. But it is a tolerable bit of nonsense that lets the girls have their day to play.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yes, It's Silly, but Once Upon a Mattress is Fun

A Princess of a Show at FAU

By Skip Sheffield

“Once Upon a Mattress” is one of the silliest musicals ever to become a Broadway hit. I have a soft spot for it, because my sister Sheila starred in the lead role of Princess Winnifred at the Theatre Intime of Princeton University in her freshman year at Westminster Choir College. We rode all the way from Columbus, Ohio, where my family had moved, to attend opening night. It was totally worth it.
It was just a short drive to Florida Atlantic University to see their Summer Rep production, which continues through July 31 in the Studio One Theater. Finding that black box theater is a bit of a trick. They even joked about it from the stage.
“Mattress” is set in 1552, but director Bruce Linser has updated the script with many modern references. Costumes are a big part of this show, based on the Princess and the Pea fairy tale.
The show is narrated by a Minstrel (Connor Padilla), a good-natured fellow with a strong singing voice. The songs, by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers), with lyrics by Marshall Barer, are no great shakes, but then again this is not exactly Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Musical direction is by Paul Reekie, who is onstage playing keyboards. It is a lively five-piece combo, the high point of which is when guitarist Kevin Stewart and trumpeter Rachel Steele venture into the audience for an instrumental “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s that kind of show.
Main characters are Queen Aggravain (Equity pro Maribeth Graham) and her mute but very randy King Sexitmus (another Equity pro, Barry Tarallo).
The Queen seeks to mate her weak-willed son Prince Dauntless (Eytan Deray) to a proper princess, but has had no luck until plucky Princess Winnifred (Emily Freeman) swims the moat to present herself.
Freeman has a strong, powerful voice, selling such weak songs as “The Swamps of Home” and “Spanish Panic.”
Commenting on the proceedings are a Jester (Clifton J. Adams), who takes center stage for a dance routine in green sneakers. A Wizard (Ross Frawley), often loses his wig or beard, and Lady Larkin (Tara Collandra) who is impregnated by the callous Sir Harry (Jordan Armstrong) is simply lovely.
Put on your party hat and enjoy “Once Upon a Mattress.” No heavy thought is required.
Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 FAU faculty, staff and alumni and $12 students. Call 800-564-9539 or 561-297-6121 or go to