Monday, April 27, 2015

"24 Days" a Dire Warning

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“24 Days” a Grim True Story

By Skip Sheffield

Sadly, the gripping hostage drama “24 Days,” playing Living Room Theaters, is based on a true story.
If you watch this Algerian-French production to the end you will know why I say “sadly.”
“24 Days,” directed by Alexandre Arcady, is based on a book by Ruth Halimi, mother of Ilan Halimi, kidnapped in 2006 at age 23 in downtown Paris.
Ilan was lured into an ambush by a pretty young woman. His captors demanded a ransom of 450,000 Euros; an impossible sum for Illan’s parents.
The kidnappers, a gang of 25 Barbarians let by Youssouf Fofana (Tony Harrison), an obnoxious, anti-Semitic Islamic extremist from Africa’s Ivory Coast, were convinced that Ilan’s family was rich, simply because they were Jewish.
That is only one of the anti-Semitic stereotypes depicted in this story. Ilan’s parents are in fact divorced and estranged. Mother Ruth (Zabou Breitman) is increasingly desperate and emotional. Father Didier (Pascal Elbe) is willing to go into debt for all he has to secure his son’s release.
The gang doesn’t care about religion or ideology as much as it does about money. They are extortionists pure and simple, and sadists for the cruelty and torture they impose upon helpless Ilan.

“24 Days” is a thoroughly unpleasant film, though unfortunately the mindset of the criminals portrayed, is quite accurate. If anything the precarious situation pitting nihilistic, murderous Islamic radicals against the rest of civilization has only worsened since 2006. Yes the French police could have done more, but against an enemy this terrible, there is no rational defense.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ageless Age of Adeline

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Blake Lively Charms as “Adeline”

By Skip Sheffield

Blake Lively is a special, interesting, unconventionally beautiful actress, facial imperfections and all. She carries the considerable burden of disbelief as the title character in the time-tripping romance “Age of Adeline.” The age specifically is 29. Shortly after the accidental death of her husband, Adeline Bowman is in a car accident that sends her car into freezing waters, which essentially puts her in a state of suspended animation. During a rare Sonoma County snowstorm, a bolt of lightning zaps her submerged car and acts as a defibrillator to get her heart beating again. As a side effect she is frozen at that moment in time.
As Dorian Gray and Benjamin Button previously learned, being ageless has its drawbacks. Born in San Francisco in 1908, we see Adeline pulled over by cops, thinking she has a fake driver’s license because her age lists her as 45. Adeline wiggles out of the squad car and goes on the lam, essentially for the rest of her life, changing her identity and address every ten years or so.
Because her daughter Flemming ages normally, once she hits college age Adeline sees less and less of her due to the obvious age difference. As the story progresses to the current day, Flemming is played by Ellen Burstyn, whose Flemming  is considering assisted living.
Another casualty of her condition is any close romantic relationship. Adaline’s resolve is tested to the limit by Ellis Jones (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman); a wealthy, persistent young man who pursues Adeline like a lovesick schoolboy- if a schoolboy had a limitless budget.
Pointing out logical absurdities makes no more sense than questioning the back story in Marvel’s “Avengers,” which also comes out next weekend. Instead we should relish the grace and conviction with which Blake Lively handles her unlikely character. The drama is ratcheted up with the introduction of Harrison Ford as William Jones, a former paramour of hers and father of Adeline’s current squeeze. Harrison plays William as seriously as if he were doing “Hamlet,” which is jolly good fun.

At the very least “The Age of Adeline” is a good date flick for cockeyed optimists who think, yeah, right, just maybe that could happen to me.

Freda Payne at Jazziz Nightlife April 30

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There’s More than “Band of Gold” To Jazz Singer Freda Payne

By Skip Sheffield

Freda Payne recently recorded a new album, and she’s making a live performance to promote it at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 30 at Jazziz Nightlife in Mizner Park.
Freda Payne is best known for her 1970 hit “Band of Gold.” As actress she understudied for Leslie Uggams in “Hallelujah Baby” and appeared in the Equity Theatre production of “Lost in the Stars.” In 1981 she briefly hosted her own TV talk show “Today’s Black Woman” and has found work in movies, on Broadway and off theater productions through the 1980s and 1990s.
The Detroit native has never given up on music, and in fact she is in a new phase.
“We played the Detroit Jazz Festival, and that resulted in an invitation to play at the Dirty Dog in Grosse Pointe,” reveals Payne by telephone. “Despite the name it is a classy place and it’s owned by a lady who is an heiress. The second time we played there Gretchen (Valande) came up to me and asked if I would like to record an album on her Mack Avenue label. I said we would be delighted.”
The result is “Come Back to Me Love,” a 14-song album produced by pianist-arranger-composer Bill Cunliffe, and featuring new songs by Gretchen Valande and Tom Robinson as well as jazz and big band favorites.
“We are using local musicians for this date,” reveals Payne. “I know we are in conflict with SunFest, but we will have a good time. I have heard great things about Jazziz.”
Tickets are $35 general admission, $55 stage left and $75 VIP. Call 561-300-0730 or go to www.jazziz.com.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Living Doll Unleashed

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Have You Hugged Your Robot Today?

By Skip Sheffield

If robots were to reach a technological level that they seemed human, could a mortal human being fall in love with one?
That’s the basic quandary of “Ex Machina,” a stylish science-fiction movie written and directed by Alex Garland (“28 Days After,” “Sunshine”). The not-so-secret weapon of this intriguing movie is 26-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who plays an artificial intelligence (AI) robot named Ava.
Ms. Vikander is breathtakingly beautiful even when suited up as a robot with bald skullcap, visible wires, electrodes and cathodes winking and bleeping away. My prediction is that this movie will propel Alicia Vikander to stardom as “Gone Girl” did for Rosamund Pike.
There are only three lead roles and one supporting cast in this far-out fable, set in some high-security lair perched in a gorgeous, mountainous region unspecified. In addition to Vikander’s Ava there is Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the secretive and enigmatic creator of Ava and fabulously wealthy owner of the posh laboratory/pad where she lives.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young tech wizard and employee of Bluebook, “the world’s most popular Internet search engine” created by Nathan at age 13. Caleb, a 26-year-old coder, entered a competition to win a week at Nathan’s private resort. He won, and he was helicoptered in under great secrecy to Nathan’s high-tech Land of Oz.
Once ensconced in his windowless room in the ultra-high security facility, Caleb is told by Nathan he is to interact with Ava while being observed.
Interact Caleb does, and so does Ava. Conveniently, Nathan’s getaway is subject to intermittent power outages when the all-seeing security cameras go dark and mute. During one of these outages Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan.
To spice things up, Nathan has a pretty Asian housekeeper and helper named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who may be more than just a helpmate. This is apparent when Caleb witnesses Nathan in an erotic dance with Kyoko.
Oh, and Nathan casually mentions Ava is equipped to fulfill a man sexually, and will feel good vibes in return.

“Ex Machina” is a big step beyond 2013’s “Her,” in which Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with the seductive voice of Scarlett Johansson, playing a computer that fulfilled his every desire. With this movie we get the visuals as well as the audios.  With computer technology advancing as fast as it is, “Ex Machina” may not be all that far-fetched.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Unfriended" Not Scary But Creepy

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“Unfriended” More Creepy Than Scary

By Skip Sheffield

“Unfriended” is billed as a horror movie. It’s horrible all right, but it is more creepy than scary- really yucky too.
“Unfriended” is about bullying; cyber-bullying to be more specific. The film is super low-budget with no name stars and only 80 minutes long. That’s plenty.
Like so many low-budget horror films, “Unfriended” involves clueless, cruel, selfish and sex-mad teenagers. The relentless cyber and real-time bullying of a girl named Laura (Heather Sessaman) has goaded her into committing suicide.
Bad stuff like this has happened in real life, which adds to the creepiness. Writer Nelson Greaves’ setup is that a group of high school friends in a chat room are visited by a Skype message from beyond, allegedly from Laura, seeking vengeance.
Spoiler alert: she gets it. All horror films rely on suspension of disbelief. This one needs total suspension of logic.
All of us have experienced annoying spam and destructive viruses on our computers. Most of us know how to avoid them. But these clueless teens, headed by Shelley Henning’s scheming Blaire, have forgotten if all else fails you can always pull the plug. But what if the image won’t go away?

Director Levan Gabriadze is from Russia. Perhaps he intended this film as propaganda on how wicked, ruthless and awful American teens are. I would hope he is wrong. If nothing else this movie warns Internet users of any age to be careful of what you post. If you don’t want the whole world to see it forever, don’t do it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Slow Burn Does a Righteous "Rent"

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A Vibrant, Joyful “Rent” at Slow Burn Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

Artistic director and choreographer Patrick Fitzwater asserts Slow Burn Theatre Company’s “Rent” is the first professional regional production of the Tony Award-winning, Pulitzer Prize Best Musical of 1996.
While Fitzwater says “Rent” is the “most mainstream” show put on by Slow Burn, it is plenty out there.
Inspired by Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” and written and composed by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” is set in Greenwich Village, New York in the turbulent late 1980s. It was Larson’s intention to write a rock opera to “Bring musical theater to the MTV generation.”
The MTV reference is already dated, but composer-lyricist Larson certainly had a way with words and music. Tragically he died of an undiagnosed aneurysm just before opening night at age 35.
Perhaps Larson felt “death’s winged chariot” hovering nearby, for a lot of people were engaged in risky behavior in late 1980s New York. The terrible specter of AIDs was just being discovered, and there would be many casualties before it was learned how to slow and control the disease.
Yet “Rent” is an upbeat tribute to the human spirit. Exhibit A is “Seasons of Love,” which leads off Act Two.
“In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, How do you figure a last year on Earth? Figure on Love.”
Exhibit B: “Finale/Your Eyes.”  “There is no future. There is no past. Thank God this moment’s not the last. There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, no day but today.”
If ever there is a celebration of living in the moment, it is “Rent.” This production is sparked by a young cast, all local, who sing the songs as if they lived them.
Mark Cohen (Mike Westrich) and Roger Davis (Bruno Faria) are the main guys who serve as kind of narrators. Deep-voiced Darrick Penny is a gay man in love with a drag performer named Angel (Bruno Vida). Angel is one of the characters who lives on the edge. So is Mimi (Abbey Perkins). Mimi is Roger’s girlfriend but sadly she also loves the drugs that have her addicted.
Amy Miller Brennan’s Maureen Johnson is a proudly-gay woman in love with Joanne Jefferson, played by the powerfully-voiced Christina Alexander. Brennan’s showcase number is a play-within-a-play,  “Over the Moon.”
With rent you must have a landlord, and he is Benjamin Coffin III (Rayner G. Garranchan), viewed as a turncoat because he once was a struggling Village person and now has a rich girlfriend whose daddy owns the building.
If you know “Rent” only from the 2005 movie do yourself a favor and see this vibrant stage production. It has so much more with a fantastic set by Sean McClelland, lighting by Lance Blank and precision live, onstage musical accompaniment by Caryl Fantell and her small but mighty band.
“Rent” runs through April 26 at West Boca High School Performing Arts Theatre. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 866-811-4111 or go to www.slowburntheatre.org.




Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ben Stiller Does Baumbach Again

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Ben Stiller Superb in “While We’re Young”

By Skip Sheffield

Palm Beach International Film Festival concluded its 20th season last week with the prickly, wistful romantic comedy “While We’re Young.”
Now “While We’re Young” has opened nationwide. If you like Ben Stiller, this movie is a must-see, for it is some of Stiller’s best work to date.
It is also writer/director Noah Baumbach’s best movie since “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005.
You know a movie is shooting high when it quotes Goethe in the opening titles. Ben Stiller is Josh Strebnick, a 44-year-old Manhattan documentary filmmaker who is stuck, physically and psychologically. After a promising debut, he has been at work for ten years for a follow-up he just can’t seem to complete.
His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) has been more than patient, but she is at the end of her tether. The couple hasn’t been out of New York for eight years, when they vacationed in Rome. Josh is too proud to accept help or advice from Cornelia’s father Leslie, played in a welcome turn by Charles Grodin.
One day seemingly by chance Josh and Cornelia encounter Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Coincidentally goofy but endearing Jamie, 25, is an aspiring documentary filmmaker who loved Josh’s first film and quotes from it. Darby makes ice cream and seems content to be in Jamie’s shadow. Jamie and Darby seem to live and absolutely free and unfettered life. Soon Josh and Cornelia are drawn into their world of hipster twentysomethings. Jamie films everything with a tiny video camera.
Josh and Cornelia feel flattered by the attentions of the young couple. They even cross over the line with stolen kisses.
As with “Greenberg,” Stiller’s previous collaboration with Baumbach, Stiller plays an annoying, self-centered yet decent, vulnerable character we learn to sympathize with. Josh feels he has squandered his youth, and he feels envious of the young and vital Jamie. Yet Jamie is not all he claims to be. Josh learns to his chagrin one is never too old to learn a new lesson in human nature.

“While We’re Young” resonates with those who no longer are. Maybe that’s why I related to this film so much. Maybe you will too.