Friday, October 24, 2014

Billy Crudup is "Rudderless"

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Billy Crudup a Haunted Soul in "Rudderless"

By Skip Sheffield

In brief, “Rudderless” is playing in only one venue, the Tower Theater in Miami, but this directorial debut by actor William H. Macy is now available by Video on Demand (VOD) if you so desire.
Billy Crudup plays Sam Penning, a high-powered advertising executive whose life blows up when his estranged son Josh (Miles Heizer) inexplicably goes on a rampage, murdering six fellow students at Central Plains State University. Sam immediately starts drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Divorced from his wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) he buys a sailboat and lives aboard, staying drunk most of the time. Sam hits the bottom of the barrel when he is fired from his menial house-painting job. When Emily dumps a load of his son’s effects on him, he discovers a number of CDs with really promising songs. He starts playing his son’s guitar and singing his songs. At the urging of young local musician Quentin (Anton Yelchin), Sam plays at a bar’s open mic night. Quentin enlists some other boys, and soon a full band is playing Josh Penning’s songs to local acclaim. With the help of a local music shop owner (Laurence Fisburne) the band seems poised to tour professionally, but when Josh’s old girlfriend (Selena Gomez) shows up, the gig is up.
Crudup shows what a fine actor he is, and Macy, who plays a small part, shows impressive directorial chops. It doesn’t hurt that co-star Felicity Huffman is his wife. As a struggling musician myself, I found “Rudderless” quite pertinent.

"Blue Room" a Morality Lesson

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Sex and Murder Most Foul in “The Blue Room”

By Skip Sheffield

“The Wages of Sin is death.”

That’s what it says in the Bible, Romans 6:23. I doubt that’s what Belgian novelist Georges Simenon was thinking when he wrote his novel “The Blue Room.”
“Blue Room” is the basis for a sexy French murder mystery written by and starring Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Amalric plays Julien Gahyde, a farm equipment salesman with a lovely wife Delphine (Lea Drucker) and a somewhat fragile daughter Suzanne (Mona Jaffart).
We meet Julien in bed with Esther Despierre (Stenanie Cleau).
“Do you love me Julien?” she says.
“”I think so,” he replies.
We then cut to a police interrogation of Julien. How many times has he enjoyed the carnal company of Esther? Only eight times in 11 months,” he replies.
The entire movie cuts back and forth between events leading up to two suspicious deaths, and the subsequent police investigation and court trial of the suspects. Although there is nudity and implied sex, rarely has an affair been so unsexy.
Why do people stray? In Julien’s case it seems to be boredom accompanied by opportunity. Esther’s ailing husband, a doctor, is rarely around the flat they have above a pharmacy, where Esther works. Suzanne has many allergies and maladies, so Julien regularly visits the pharmacy. Though he professes love for Delphine, it is obvious the thrill is gone, and she knows it. A weekend getaway to the Riviera fails to re-fire the passion of a love dying.
Meanwhile Esther is putting on the pressure for Julien to make a decision: divorce his wife and marry her or end the affair.
Mathieu Amalric is adept at portraying a weak character with a guilty conscience. As the investigation and trail wear on, Esther is interrogated too. Actress Stephanie Cleau co-wrote the screen adaptation with Amalric, so they are literally on the same page.
If you like mysteries with murder most foul, done with a Gallic twist, it is fun trying to second-guess the plot twists. Georges Simenon was after all a master of murder mysteries, and his famous detective, Jules Maigret, is the Gallic equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Fight Racism With Satire

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Satirical “Dear White People” Uses Laughter as Weapon

By Skip Sheffield

One of the best ways to fight racism is with humor, and in particular, satire.
“Dear White People” is a satire about racism on the college campus. It won writer/director Justin Simien Sundance Film Festival’s 2014 Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The timing is certainly right, for the key climactic scene takes place at a Halloween costume party.
The setting is fictitious Winchester University, presumably somewhere in the South. Winchester is a private school filled with wealthy, white snobs, jocks and frat boys. The four main characters are “token” black people admitted to help the school fill its minimum of minority students so donors could pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant.
Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is the most militant, activist member of the group- never afraid to speak out against perceived injustices. Perhaps not ironically she has the lightest skin. In the days before political correctness she would have been known as a mulatto. It can also be an insult.
Sam’s male counterpart is Troy Fairbanks, a handsome, ambitious, seemingly ideal guy who secretly has some bad traits that may get in the way of his desire to be class president.
Colandra “Coco” Conners is a sexy, gregarious woman who makes her views known on a public “Vlog” (video blog).
Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is the closest thing to an everyman character- that is if everyman had a bushy, towering Afro hairdo straight out of 1968.
In case we miss these characters are types, the director labels and defines them at the start of the story. Then he goes on to confound those stereotypes.
The white characters are for the most part stereotypes too, except for Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), editorial of the school paper who has liberal tendencies. We will see how liberal as the story unfolds.
The two main authority figures are Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), a man who seems equally wise to the ways of white and black people, and President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen), whose main concern is keeping benefactors happy.
It seems like race relations haven’t improved much since I was a college student, eons ago. At least with this film we have Justin Simien shining a light in dark corners and saying “Hey people, these things still exist,” yet with the beneficial balm of humor.

Monday, October 20, 2014

In Time for Halloween is "Carrie: The Musical"

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Just in Time for Halloween: “Carrie: The Musical”

By Skip Sheffield

It’s not exactly the feel-good show of the season, but Slow Burn Theatre’s “Carrie: The Musical,” playing through Nov. 2 at West Boca High School Performing Arts Theater, is nothing if not diverting and entertaining.
Stephen King’s novel of religious zealotry, high school bullying, teenage cruelty and telekinesis seems an unlikely choice for a stage musical. It still is.
That’s why the 1988 Broadway debut of the $8 million production was deemed a “notorious flop.” In fact some audience members booed as the final curtain rang down opening night.
Slow Burn artistic director Patrick Fitzwater has never been one to back down from a challenge. Once again he has met it by adapting an improved script and hand-picking the youngest cast of highly talented performers, aided and abetted by three older pros.
The pedigree of “Carrie: The Musical” is impressive. The book is by Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 movie version of Stephen King’s hit 1974 novel. The music is by Leslie’s younger brother Michael Gore, who won an Oscar for his 1981 “Fame” soundtrack, and Dean Pitchford, who also won an Oscar for collaborating on that film.
Fitzwater and musical director Caryl Fantel have concentrated on the musicality of the show. The ensemble harmonies are virtually flawless, and Fitzwater cast Equity powerhouse Shelly Keeler in her Slow Burn debut in the crucial role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret White.
“Religious zealot” is not really a strong enough description of Margaret White. Her narrow, fundamentalist view of what is sinful and what is good is obsessive and borders on demented. Her husband has understandably left her, adding bile to her bitter, warped view of life.
Her only daughter, poor Carrie (Anne Chamberlain), bears the brunt of her resentments. As a result Carrie is stunted emotionally and even physically. Although she is 17, Carrie has never had a period. When it comes, at the worst possible time in the school shower, it sets in motions a series of events that will end horribly at the high school prom.
Shelly Keeler is far and away the best, strongest singer in the cast. This helps balance the fact she is playing such a disagreeable character. Keeler brings home the pain and anguish of Margaret in the ballad “When There’s No One,” which is also the best song of the score.
Anne Chamberlain holds her own with her monster mom. Her character is described as “not pretty,” but Chamberlain is. This does not detract from her torment.
Jessica Brooke Sanford is the sympathetic Ying of Sue Snell, who attempts to defend Carrie. Cristina Flores is the cruel Yang of Chris, Carrie’s malicious classmate who hatches the plot that goes so horribly wrong.
Alexander Zenoz is most appealing as Tommy, Carrie’s good-guy prom date. Kristian Bikic is appropriately punkish as juvenile delinquent Billy.
Serving yeoman duty as the responsible adults as Anne Marie Olson as gym teacher Miss Gardiner and Matthew Korinko as school principal Mr. Stephens.
The timing of “Carrie: The Musical” couldn’t be better. This show is the perfect setup for the harmless hijinks of Halloween.

Tickets are $40. Student and Theater League discount tickets are available at the door. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 866-811-4111 or go to slowburntheatre.org.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reese Witherspoon Does a Good Deed in "Good Lie"








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Reese Witherspoon Does a Good Deed with “The Good Lie”

By Skip Sheffield

Reese Witherspoon did a good thing when she agreed to star in and promote “The Good Lie.” The title is taken from a term in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”
This truth-based movie, written by Margaret Nagle and directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) dramatizes the plight and flight of the “Lost Boys” from civil war-torn Sudan. We meet the “boys” (and one girl) as children. Ruthless militia invades their village, kill the adults and torch the huts.
A half-dozen children flee blindly. When a soldier spots one of them hiding in tall grass, the eldest,Theo (Okawr Jale), stands up and surrenders himself, saving the other children.
The group encounters a mass march and learns they are heading for safer territory in Kenya. After walking almost 800 miles and losing one of the boys to illness, the remaining four make it to a refugee camp. They are issued clothes and food by Red Cross volunteers. After putting their names on a waiting list, the quartet is overjoyed to learn they have been accepted in a program to take them to the USA to gain asylum. The joy is tempered by sorrow when the boys learn their sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) cannot go with them to Kansas City because of some arbitrary immigration regulation. Abital is sent to a foster family in Boston. The boys continue to Kansas City, where they are picked up at the airport by a somewhat scatterbrained employment agency counselor, Carrie Davis, played by Reese Witherspoon. Though Witherspoon is top-billed in movie ads, she does not make her appearance until 35 minutes into the film, and her entrance is not grand. If anything dark-haired Carrie is the anti-“Legally Blond” glamour girl. Carrie wears sloppy clothes and has an even sloppier apartment. She curses, drinks beer and has temper tantrums, but at heart she is a good soul. So is her tolerant boss, Jack (Corey Stoll).
There are many comical fish-out-of water scenes when the boys encounter American technologies, customs, and attempt to be gainfully employed.
Aspiring doctor Mamere (Arnold Oceng) is the natural leader of the group and literally a Chief since his older brother Theo was seized.
Tall, lanky Jeremiah (Ger Duany) is a spiritual person and sensitive soul who learns some harsh lessons about America’s materialist ways.
Paul (Emmanuel Jai) is the more rebellious and resentful of the group, which will cause problems.
All the African characters are played by real Sudanese refugees, which adds authenticity to an otherwise fictional plot. There is a strong but unobtrusive Christian message in the story. The only book the group has is a Bible, and the people who save them are professed Christians.

If you in need of a feel-good, we-are-the-world kind of movie, this is one for you. The situation in all of Africa has only worsened since Sudan refugees were cut off after 9/11, but for the 3,600 “Lost Boys’ who made it to the USA, there are heartwarming messages at film’s end.

Not the Stars, the Fault is in the Internet

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The Fault is in the Internet, Not the Stars

By Skip Sheffield

Everyone is messed up in “Men, Women and Children.”
That’s all you need to know about this latest offering from Jason Reitman, who brought us the superior “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
Yes, everyone is messed up, and it’s the fault of the Internet. That’s the short version of the novel by Chad Kultgen, on which the screenplay is based.
We follow a representative group of Texas high school students and their parents as they navigate the perils of the Internet age.
It’s not exactly news that most teenagers keep their eyes trained on handheld devices, and that they would rather text than talk.
I feel like an old fart because I do not have an Iphone and I refuse to text, but there are some people my age who don’t even have a computer.
Don Truby (Adam Sandler in a relatively straight role) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are plugged in and turned on, but not to each other. That’s where the trouble begins.
Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner frumped up with glasses and a severe hairdo) is an uptight control freak who insists on knowing where her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) is every minute of the day. You know the type, and it rarely turns out well
Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) is a recently-divorced, basically decent guy who is clueless as to how to get back into dating or how to deal with his teenage son Tim (Ansel Elgort, of “The Fault in Our Stars”), who is falling for a nice girl named Allison (Elena Kampouris).
Then there is Brooke (Katherine C. Hughes), a beautiful girl whose mom Donna (Judy Greer) wants her to succeed in show business so badly she is almost like her pimp.

Well it goes on; video game addiction, porn on the Internet, the dangers of chat rooms, anorexia, infidelity, inability to appreciate the simple, natural things in life. “Men, Women and Children” has its merits, a few laughs and some somber moments, but mostly it is things we already know, acted out by good-looking people.

General Sherman Said It Best

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War is Hellacious in “Fury”

By Skip Sheffield

“War is Hell!” General William Techumseh Sherman famously declared.
Sherman knew only too well. He was an early advocate of “Total War,” which he demonstrated with a vengeance with his infamous, devastating “March to the Sea” through Georgia in the War Between the States.
“Fury” puts the viewer in the center of a “Total War.” The story is set in the desperate last days of World War II in Germany, April 1945. Allied forces are attempting to conquer Germany, town by town, and the Nazis have desperately pressed into service every man, woman and child to fight back. Those who refused were hanged as traitors.
Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is a scarred veteran of the war who commands a Sherman tank (note the name) which has the hand-painted word “Fury” on its cannon barrel.
Contrasting with courageous, confident Collier is a new recruit named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who has been pulled out of a typing pool and pressed into service as a tank gunner.
In a plot device that echoes Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” Norman will spend the rest of the story ridiculed and shunned until he mans up and becomes the killing machine he is ordered to be.
There is nothing pretty or light about “Fury.” There is some rough humor amongst the rag-tag tank crew, which includes Michael Pena as driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia, Jon Bernthal as obnoxious good old Georgia boy Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, Jim Parrack as the level-headed Sgt. Binkowski and Shia LaBoeuf as the religious, moral voice, Boyd “Bible” Swan.
There are only two women of note in the story. As the tank presses further inland it encounters a bombed-out village in which two women are hiding in a building. Collier and Norman Ellison scout the building and encounter a German woman named Irma (Anamaria Marinca) and her pretty young niece Emma (Alicia von Rittberg). It is love at first sight for Norman and Emma, but it is a sadly brief interlude.

The main problem with “Fury” is that most of us have already heeded Sherman’s warning. You don’t have to be a veteran to know war is a terrible thing, but perhaps people need to be reminded again and again. Remember “The Alamo.”