Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"War Dogs" Bottom-Feed for Dregs in Miami

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A Made-in-Miami Scheme Called “War Dogs”

By Skip Sheffield

It comes as no surprise “War Dogs” originated in Miami. It is the Casablanca of America, full of strange, exotic and often desperate and dangerous characters.
“War Dogs” is based on a real-life scheme that emerged in Miami from the wreckage of the Iraq War.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is a struggling Miami entrepreneur, attempting to peddle high-quality bed sheets to senior living facilities. The problem is, no one seems to care much about the old folks’ comfort. David lives with his devoted girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas), who soon discovers she is pregnant.
Onto the scene bursts Ephraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a one-time junior high classmate of David’s in Miami Beach. Ephraim has been hustling in Los Angeles. Now he is thinking bigger. It is 2008 and the ill-advised Iraq War is raging. Ephraim explains that it costs the U.S. Government $17,500 to outfit just one soldier. When George W. Bush’s buddy Dick Cheney was discovered with his hand in the till, directing government contracts to his Haliburton Company, President Bush issued a directive for open bidding for all U.S. Military contracts. Ephraim convinces David they could get in on the gravy train, despite their lack of knowledge or experience. They begin small-scale at first, but lo they land their first contract and the payoff is big. The young twentysomethings create a shell company, AEY. Soon they have an office, staff, stationery and all the trappings of a real arms supplier.
Jonah Hill piled back on the pounds to play the reprehensible, amoral Ephraim. Hill is a most convincing slimy sleazeball. The boys get in way over their heads when they bid on and win the $300 million contract to supply the entire Afghan Army with arms and ammo. Thanks to shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper in a cameo) the boys find a cut-rate stash of arms and ammo in Albania. Complications ensue- deadly complications.

“War is the economy,” one of the characters declares early in the story. It figures that two young men inspired by the ultra-violent movie “Scarface” will run into real-life violence. In an offhand way “War Dogs” is a strong anti-war statement; at least as war is waged by the wasteful, inept U.S. Government.


Comedy is Not Pretty Or Easy


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“Don’t Think Twice” Looks Inside Improvisational Comedy

By Skip Sheffield

For a movie about comedy, “Don’t Think Twice” is a bit depressing. Stand-up comics do not have it easy. Every time they get onstage they face judge and jury in their audience. Some audiences are kinder than others, but inevitably comedians will get their feelings hurt. Comedian Charlie Chaplin explained the paradox most eloquently in his song “Smile.”
“Don’t Think Twice” is an ensemble comedy starring actual improvisational comedians in a fictional Chicago comedy troupe called The Commune. Writer-director Mike Birbiglia was obviously inspired by Chicago’s famed Second City, which since 1955 has been a farm team for some great talents like John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Tina Fey and many, many more.
Birbiglia is one of a half-dozen improvisational comics playing fictional versions of themselves. The lead character of Jack is played by Keegan-Michael Key, who is half of the comedy duo of Key and Jordan Peele. In the movie his partner is an attractive blond woman named Samantha (Gillian Jacobs). Other Commune members are Shy Sarah (Emily Skeggs), little Allison (Kate Micucci), plus-sized outgoing Lindsay (Tami Sagher), balding, bespeckled Bill (Chris Gethard) and exotic Amy (Sunita Mani).

The group aspires to win a spot on the comedy variety show “Weekend Live,” which is obviously inspired by “Saturday Night Live.” A problem arises. Jack kills at his audition and is accepted as a provisional member of Weekend Live. Sam was so nervous she didn’t even show up for the audition. Will Jack leave his loyal friends in the dust for TV stardom? An unlikely hero emerges in the face of yet another crisis with the troupe. Comedy is never easy. Improvisational comedy is the hardest of all. If you would like an inside look at the anxieties of performance, “Don’t Think Twice” is a good place to start.



Not Much Water But Plenty of Hell in "Hell or High Water"

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Desperation on the High Prairie in “Hell or High Water”

By Skip Sheffield

“Hell or High Water” is an old-fashioned title for an old-fashioned sort of film.
British director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Sons of Anarchy”) have cooked up a 1970s-style heist movie about two desperate characters in parched, broke West Texas. Imagine “Bonnie & Clyde” with two guys and zero romance; just nervous desperation.
Chris Pine is the most desperate character, Toby Howard. He is bummed because his wife (Dale Dickey) has divorced him, taken their two kids, and kicked Toby off his family ranch. The kicker is the ranch is $50,000 in arrears to Texas Midland Bank, which will repossess everything if Toby can’t raise $50,000 in just a week. Oh, and Toby has just discovered oil on the ranch but nobody knows.
Enter Toby’s older, wilder brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), who has just been released from prison. Tanner has a simple solution: rob banks; specifically small branches of Texas Midlands. More specifically the cash taken must be in denominations no larger than $20. This way the money can’t be traced. To further bamboozle “the man,” the money will be converted to gambling chips at an Indian-owned Oklahoma casino. The chips will then be redeemed not in cash but in a cashier’s check, made out to Texas Midlands Bank. Pretty slick, huh?
As with all schemes there are complications. The biggest is Tanner’s wild streak. The men were not supposed to physically harm anyone in their scheme, but Tanner blows that intention. The second complication is wily old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who wants to make one last major bust before he retires. Along for the ride is his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham), whom Marcus taunts with racist remarks about his Cherokee-Mexican origins.
So our sympathies are with Chris Pine’s noble character, but also with the crusty, resourceful Ranger who pursues him.
With scruffy clothes and a week’s growth of beard, handsome Chris Pine is scarcely recognizable from his clean-cut role of Capt. James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboot.
Ben Foster has specialized in loose-cannon roles, and Tanner Howard is the loosest of all. His is a character who literally does not care if he lives or dies. That is a quality that is scariest of all.

So if it’s action, suspense and plot twists you want, come to “Hell or High Water.” Just don’t expect any romance.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Czech Nazi Resistance Illuminated

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Anthropoid” an Inspiring True Story Of Czech Resistance to Nazis

By Skip Sheffield

The French resistance to the occupying German Nazis of World War II is better-known, but the movie “Anthropoid” reveals an equally brave and determined Czech resistance to its occupation by Germany.
“Operation Anthropoid” was the code name for an audacious plot by exiled Czech loyalists in London to infiltrate their Nazi-occupied homeland and assassinate Hitler’s third in command and main architect of the “Final Solution,” SS officer Reinhard Heydrich, who ruled Czechoslovakia with an iron fist and no mercy.
The story, based on actual news accounts, was written by director Sean Ellis, who upped the ante with a bit of romance. Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia at dawn in December, 1941. We see Josef hurriedly burying his parachute and trying to cover his tracks in the forest. He soon is confronted by a large, snarling dog and a man.
“You didn’t hide your parachute very well,” he says. “Follow me.”
The man is part of the Czech resistance, and he provides a temporary safe house for Josef and Jan. Josef senses something wrong.
“How much did the Germans pay you?” Josef demands. He then shoots the man and Josef and Jan steal the farmer’s truck and head for Prague.
In Prague they meet more clandestine Czech resistance fighters. They are provided another safe house with a woman, her young son and a daughter named Marie (Charlotte Le Bon). Marie’s best friend is a fiery red-headed resistance fighter named Lenka (Anna Geislerna). This is where the romance comes in. Jan falls head over heels for Marie. Josef develops a strong attraction to Lenka.
The tension builds as a deadline arrives for their target. Reinhard Heydrich is leaving for Berlin, so the men and their accomplices have only one shot to carry out their mission.
Rather than give out any more plot spoilers, let’s just say the mission was successful, but it carried a terrible price.
I was reminded of the movie “The Alamo” as Josef, Jan and their comrades are holed up in a church, surrounded by Germans. The odds were much less favorable for these Czech patriots.
Anthropoid is a tense, stirring tale of bravery, ingenuity and self-sacrifice. The best part of it is it is a true story. The Czech Republic survived the Nazis, threw off the yoke of the Soviet Union, and is a free country today.


Meryl Streep as the Deluded Diva

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Meryl Streep as the World’s Worst Singer

By Skip Sheffield

There are those who think Meryl Streep can do no wrong. In “Florence Foster Jenkins” she does wrong deliberately. She is both hilarious and touching as a New York Socialite with delusions she could be a great opera singer.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, born in 1868 and died in 1944, when this movie is set. She got her last name from an ill-fated first marriage to a man with syphilis. After his death she took up with a handsome but not very talented British actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). St. Clair was dedicated to Florence in his fashion, but he had a babe, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson) on the side.
Florence Foster was born into a Pennsylvania family with a certain amount of wealth. She took piano lessons as a child and became quite a little virtuoso. When she asked her father for the money to study music seriously in Paris, he refused. She rebelled by marrying the older Dr. Jenkins, which proved a tragic choice.
The whole of “Florence Foster Jenkins,” written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), is devoted to the advance preparations for Florence to perform her first public concert, at Carnegie Hall no less.
Florence auditioned pianists, and so we meet Cosme McMoon, played by Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, who threatens to steal the whole movie from the great actress.
Florence Foster Jenkins was simply terrible as a singer. She was consistently flat, her tempo was off and she mangled pronunciation of foreign words. She had founded the Verdi Club expressly as a showcase for her own recitals. She stacked the deck with wealthy friends who all assured her she was wonderful.
Through the expressive face of Simon Helberg we see the horror of Cosme McMoon; a serious young musician who is tortured by Florence’s mangling of arias.
Meryl Streep is actually a very good singer. It is a measure of her vocal skill that she could sing so horribly, and keep a straight face.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is a very funny film that is ultimately a tragedy. Meryl Streep is one of the few actresses in the world who can be-laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking at the same time. This movie is best appreciated for those who have dipped their toes into the perilous seas of musical performance. I am one of those poor wretches, and I loved this movie.





Saturday, August 6, 2016

Good Show MNM Productions

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“World Goes ‘Round” Touches All the Bases

By Skip Sheffield

Kander &  Ebb had a way with words and music. You can see and hear for yourself in “The World Goes ‘Round,” playing through Aug. 21 at the Rinker Playhouse of the Kravis Center.
Director Bruce Linser has set up the Rinker as a cozy cabaret, with tables down front, a bar in the lobby and the audience in seats on risers. The ensemble cast of five is uniformly excellent; each with his or her special appeal. Tenor Clay Cartland is the resident hunk. Michael Scott Ross is the slightly older everyman. Jinon Deeb has a powerful alto and facile comic talents. Lovely Shelly Keelor has a way with wistful dramatic numbers. Leah Sessa is the sexy ingénue and provider of the high soprano harmonies. Alone or together they are a force to be reckoned with.
Musical director and pianist Paul Reekie gets an amazing amount of sound from a five-piece onstage ensemble and even gets his own number; the self-deprecating “Mr. Cellophane” from “Chicago.”
“World Goes ‘Round” is not a “greatest hits” musical revue. John Kander and Fred Ebb struck gold with their musical “Cabaret” in 1966, but there are only three songs from that show, including its most hopeful dramatic song, “Maybe This Time.”
Much of “The World Goes ‘Round” are songs from musicals you probably never saw; such as Kander & Ebb’s first produced collaboration “Flora The Red Menace” from 1965, which yields the exquisitely lovely “A Quiet Thing.” That show marked the debut of Liza Minnelli, with whom the composers enjoyed a long association.
“The Act” was written for Minnelli, and the cast has fun with the comedy number “Arthur in the Afternoon.”
“The Rink” was never a big success, but three songs are sung, including the title song which dictates the entire cast sings on roller skates. “Yes” is a song you can’t say no to, from the otherwise forgettable “70 Girls 70.”
Perhaps you have heard Barbra Streisand sing the melancholy “My Coloring Book,” which is given a moving rendition here.
Kander & Ebb’s most famous song is not from a stage musical but the Martin Scorsese motion picture “New York, New York.” The composers know of heartbreak, as they so eloquently put it in “Sometimes a Day Goes By.”
“World Goes By” is funny, moving, and always entertaining. It is an impressive contribution to our cultural life from MNM Productions.
Tickets are $45 general admission and $60 table. Call 800-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Damon Beefs Up for "Jason Bourne"

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Jason Bourne Rides Again

By Skip Sheffield

“Jason Bourne” begins blurry in soft focus with a man who looks a lot like Matt Damon muttering “I remember…”
Matt Damon worked into the best physical shape of his life for his fourth time as amnesiac CIA black ops assassin David Webber, aka Jason Bourne. Damon first played the role in 2002 in “The Bourne Identity.” Writer-director Paul Greengrass returns to direct this $120 million production. Greengrass previously directed Damon in “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007).
The plot key to this wide-ranging adventure is that Bourne is recovering his erased memory in fits and flashes, with bits of brutal action in between. The first is between Bourne and a huge tattooed Russian man in a bare knuckles boxing match. Damon has developed some convincing fight moves, and he gets to use them all as Bourne is pursued by a ruthless assassin known only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel).
Making an appearance from previous Bourne chapters is his pretty colleague Nicky Parsons, played by Julia Stiles. Their reunion sets the stage for a thriller motorcycle chase through the streets and stairways of Rome.
CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) wants Bourne brought back in. A new CIA junior operative Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) feels she is best-suited to lure Bourne out of hiding. Damon and winsome Vikander spend some screen time together. While there is no time for romance, their chemistry is good. Another new character is tech wizard (and CIA collaborator) Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), who provides an important plot twist.
The movie builds to a smashing (literally) conclusion in the streets of Las Vegas. The Asset commandeers an armored police SWAT van with Bourne in hot pursuit in a stolen Dodge Charger. The mayhem must have been enhanced by computer-generated images. A large part of the $120 million budget probably went to destroyed vehicles.

The conclusion leaves an open door to yet another Bourne thriller. Damon better hurry, before he grows too old.