Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Weak "Alice Through the Looking Glass" Sequel

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“Alice Through the Looking Glass” a Messy Sequel

By Skip Sheffield

Curiouser and curiouser. That’s the polite way of describing “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” “A Mess” is more to the point.
Poppycock and folderol are old-fashioned words that explain the plot of “Alice.” The plot cost may $1.98 at a used book store for Lewis Carroll’s 1871 “Through the Looking Glass.” The rest of the $100 million budget was spent on computer-generated gimmicks, special effects, costumes and makeup.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who adapted Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010, pretty much threw out Lewis Carroll’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass,” and instead fashioned a new whimsical fantasy in which Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a bold twentysomething heroine, Captain of her father’s sailing ship, the “Wonder.” So director James Bobin (“The Muppets”) starts the movie with a blast of high-sea action with Alice and her crew fighting off pirates and dodging ragged rocks. This has absolutely nothing to do with “Through the Looking Glass,’ but it does give kids some CG action.
Back in London, Alice learns greedy real estate magnate (and former boyfriend) Hamish (Leo Bill) intends to seize the “Wonder,” trading the title for the house where Alice’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) resides. Otherwise he will evict her.
With things looking grim on the home front, Alice slips through the looking glass (mirror) of the title and returns to what formerly was known as Wonderland. Now it’s Underland, for no good reason.

Alice’s old friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in a major funk. He misses his family, the Hightopps, who have been abducted and possibly murdered by the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), now called Tracebeth. Tracebeth’s sister, Miranda (Anne Hathaway in a platinum wig) is now the White Queen. Borrowing from “Back to the Future,” Alice, with the help of a magical Chronosphere taken from Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen, outfitted in a ridiculous “Wizard of Oz” crossed with clockwork costume) will go back in time to save the Hightopp family. On her backward journey Alice meets familiar characters; the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the caterpillar/butterfly Absolem (the late Alan Rickman, to whom the film is dedicated) the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and Tweedle Dum/Tweedle Dee (Matt Lucas). Humpty-Dumpty (Wally Wingert) even gets a cameo, cracking up once again. There is much more back story and “stuff,” but it is all much ado about nothing, finally slogging to a treacly-sweet ending.


Penelope Cruz wants You to Weep With "Ma Ma"

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“Ma Ma” Wants You to Weep

By Skip Sheffield

Penelope Cruz wants you to shed some tears.
Why else should she produce and star in “Ma Ma,” a four-hankie, melodramatic Spanish weeper from writer-director Julio Medem, about a blameless woman who is stricken with breast cancer?
That’s not the only woe suffered by recently laid-off teacher Magda (Cruz), short for Magdalena. Her husband, a college philosophy professor, has been messing around with one of his students and has taken off for the summer to be with her. Magda is left to care for her young son Dani (Teo Planell), who is feeling neglected and unloved by his dad.
When Magda is sent to the hospital by her doctor Julian (Asier Etxeandia) to get an MRI, she meets a distraught man in the waiting room. Arturo (Luis Tosar), whom she met earlier at a soccer game (he’s a scout), has just lost his young daughter, who was run over by a car and killed. His wife survived but is in critical condition in the hospital.
Misery loves company, it has been said. When Magda gets the bad news that the two lumps in her right breast are cancerous, she is shocked. When Julian tells her she must have a radical mastectomy to beat the cancer, she resists but finally gives in.
Penelope Cruz has lovely breasts. Somehow the makeup people very effectively simulate a mastectomy and the hair-loss ravages of chemotherapy. It is unsettling, but it underscores Magda’s anguish.

Simultaneously Arturo gets the bad news his wife is in a coma and will be taken off life support. These two wounded people and the boy left in the wake find a way to re-form a family unit. However, the bad news is not over. “Ma Ma” does not have a happy ending, but it is not hopeless either. This movie is a serious look at the travails of the millions of women whose lives are touched by breast cancer. If you don’t weep with Penelope, you are stoic indeed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Love & Friendship" and Scheming


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Beautiful Kate Beckinsale a Devious Heroine of “Love & Friendship”

By Skip Sheffield

Kate Beckinsale is one gorgeous woman. She uses that beauty to great advantage playing the scheming, devious heroine of “Love & Friendship,” adapted by Whit Stillman from the 1794 Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan.”
Kate Beckinsale is Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow with impeccably good taste but little in the way of monetary resources. In an attempt to regroup, she visits the elegant Churchill estate owned by her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). Charles’ wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) is immediately and justifiably suspicious of Lady Susan’s intentions.
Lady Susan has two goals: to land Catherine’s hunky younger brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel) and hook up her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) with wealthy, older but idiotic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
Aiding and abetting Lady Susan’s schemes is her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who is married to the “very respectable” Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry).
More so than Catherine, Lady Susan has a jealous rival in Lady Lucy Mawaring (Jean Murray), who threatens to spill the beans on Lady Susan’s dalliances back in London.
Though it looks like Masterpiece Theatre with its gorgeous settings and beautiful vintage costumes, “Love & Friendship” is never dull or stuffy. The scene-stealer is Tom Bennett’s cheerful, blithering idiot Sir James Martin, who represents the intellectual vacuity of Britain’s wealthy landed gentry.

It is Kate Beckinsale who keeps us riveted to the screen. Beckinsale’s Lady Susan knows every trick in the book on the art of seduction, and it is marvelous to watch this deadly devious but always charming, fascinating woman in action.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Evergreen Dawn of the Age of Aquarius

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The Age of Aquarius Shines On at Kravis Center

By Skip Sheffield

It’s been almost 50 years since it was “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.”
So though Aquarius may be in its twilight years, “Hair” the musical lives on as a lively period piece. MNM Productions presents “Hair’ through June 5 in the Rinker Theater of the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
“Hair” was quite a sensation when it opened on Broadway in October of 1967. The Vietnam War was raging and “Hair” was adamently anti-war. The dialogue was laced with profanity and sexual situations. The most notorious part of the show was the Act One finale, when most of the cast sheds their clothes and stands proudly naked.
The current production retains the nude scene but it happens so fast if you blink your eye you will miss it. It is performed in very low light, so even if you stare it is hard to discern much.
The plot of “Hair” by Gerome Ragni and James Rado is minimal. It concerns a band of New York City hippies who call themselves “The Tribe.” The three main leaders are the outgoing Berger (Mike Westrich), the introverted Claude (Michael Scott Ross) and their girlfriend and roommate Sheila (Alexa Baray). Claude is being pressured by his conservative parents to cut his hair and join the Army. Will he or won’t he is the central question.
The best think about “hair” is its musical score by Canadian composer Galt MacDermot. Some of the songs became popular hits. The Fifth Dimension scored with “The Age of Aquarius” and “Let The Sun Shine In.” Three Dog Night had a big hit with “Easy to Be Hard.” “Good Morning Starshine” was recorded by several groups.
The rest of the score is incidental and novelty music as The Tribe goes about its daily routine of protesting the draft, singing songs of rebellion and non-conformity and celebrating sex in its many facets.
The ensemble cast of “Hair” is quite strong, with fresh young faces that weren’t born when the show was created. Mike Westrich is particularly appealing as irrepressible Berger. Michael Scott Ross is properly moody and conflicted as Claude. Alexa Baray gets to sing some of the best songs, but she is not the strongest singer. Her strength is in the dramatic department. My favorite supporting cast is Khadijah Rolle, a tiny woman with a big voice and good sense of humor which she demonstrates when she impersonates Abraham Lincoln. Elijah Word is fine as the representative lean, hungry and angry young black man, Hud.
The six-piece onstage band, led by musical director Paul Reekie, is fine and puts out an amazing variety and volume of sound for such a small group.
Much of “Hair” seems quaint and dated, but one thing about the show has never gone out of fashion: peace, love and happiness.
Tickets are $45. Call 800-572-8471 or go to www.kravis.org.




Wednesday, May 18, 2016

British Sports Car Madness

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Triumph TR-4s are tough as a truck. As a matter of fact their engine is derived from a truck engine.

For Love of a TR-4

By Skip Sheffield

I have owned more than half a dozen British cars through the years. Mostly they have been MGs, but one of my favorites from the lot was a 1964 TR-4. I spotted the car at shabby used car lot in Pompano Beach, Florida. The price was $500, and the guy was honest enough to admit it was going to need a clutch. I took a chance and plunked down my money. The car ran well and had a solid body with fiberglass hard top, no soft top. I babied the slipping clutch for about six months. When it got to the point I couldn’t merge safely onto I-95, I broke down and paid for new clutch, pressure plate and throw-out bearing. Wow, what a difference. The Triumph was faster and stronger than any of my MGs. I celebrated by having the car painted pale yellow.
The girl I was going with, who eventually became my second wife, was an aspiring model. Since she didn’t have a car of her own, I lent her the TR. To her credit she learned to shift quickly and soon was driving like an ace.
One day I got a call from her telling me the car had been stolen. Oh crap. I reported it to the police with little hope of seeing it again. Lo, in a few days I heard from the cops. We have found your car, they said. It was mired in sugar sand out in the woods. Evidently some kids hot-wired it, which is easy enough to do, and took it for a joy ride. The car was none the worse for wear. I had it hauled out and put back on the road. We married in 1975 and Lynda continued to drive the TR. In 1976 I decided to visit my sister in Chicago. I figured the TR had a better chance of getting there than with my other car, which was a 1948 Willys-Overland Jeepster.
So we took off with high hopes. Up around Daytona and began to smell a strong odor of oil. I pulled off, found a service station, and they discovered oil was leaking from the differential. They topped off the rear axle. In 20-20 hindsight I should have aborted the trip and gone back home. But I was young and impetuous and I wanted to go for it. At Columbus, Ohio, the oil smell had gotten worse. I visited another service station, and they said the rear end was red hot and they couldn’t touch it. After it cooled down they discovered it was nearly dry. Once again they topped it off and I took off again. As I approached LaFayette, Indiana, the car began to shake with terrible vibration. Then bang! There was an explosion like a cannon going off. I looked in my rear view mirror and could see the both rear wheels were coming out from the wheel wells. I tried to brake, but the pedal went to the floor. All I could do was slowly ease the car onto the right shoulder and hope it would stop before I lost one or both rear wheels. We came to a stop and I surveyed the damage. The differential had broken apart and the brake lines had been ripped out when the wheels separated. My first instinct was to say to Lynda let’s collect our stuff and walk to the nearest exit and just leave the car here. Just then a State Trooper stopped to investigate. I explained to him what had happened.
“You weren’t planning on abandoning the car there were you?”
“Oh no sir,” I lied. “I wouldn’t do that.”
The cop said he would arrange to have the car towed, and I would be billed later. He took us into town to the bus station. There we caught the first bus to Chicago.

I had neither the time nor the money to have the TR repaired in Indiana. My sister sold me her beat-up old Toyota so we could get back to Florida. A letter arrived from the tow company in Indiana with the bill. I called them to negotiate. They agreed if I mailed the car title to them, they would dismiss all charges. I didn’t have much choice. Somebody in Indiana got a nice TR-4. I had my pleasant memories of two years or so with that fun little car.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Crowe & Gosling The New Abbott & Costello?

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Meet The New Abbott & Costello in “The Nice Guys”

By Skip Sheffield

Meet the new Abbott & Costello: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.
Crowe and Gosling play mismatched buddies in the Shane Black comedy “Nice Guys,” set in a smog-saturated Los Angeles in the gritty, goofy 1970s.
Russell Crowe is in the serious straight-man Bud Abbott role of professional enforcer Jackson Healy. Ryan Gosling is in the nervous, screw-up Lou Costello role of Holland March, a shady private investigator who has become an alcoholic since his wife died, leaving him the single father of 13-year-old Holly (Angourie Rice).
Healy and March meet violently. Healy has been hired by Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who thinks she is being stalked by March.  Amelia wants Healy to scare March. Healy goes one better. He breaks March’s hand.
Meanwhile a porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) has gone missing and Amelia fears she is dead. Despite their differences, Healy and March are forced to join forces when Amelia herself disappears.
The Los Angeles of 1977 was a mean, nasty place. Shane Black’s script reflects all the negatives of a down and out City of Angels. Black first rose to prominence with “Lethal Weapon” and its sequels. Healy and March blunder about from location to location, occasionally fighting and dodging bullets from a ridiculous hitman named John Boy (Matt Boner, having a ball being creepy).
If there is a hero in this unsavory mix it is little Holly, played with wisdom beyond her years by Angourie Rice, who like Crowe is originally from Australia. Holly acts as her father’s keeper, chauffeuring March around when he is too drunk to drive even though Holly is too young to have a license.
Kim Basinger looks like she has been preserved in wax as Judith Kutner, local head of the Department of Justice. Like all the adult characters she is not as pure as she seems.

“The Nice Guys” makes me glad I made it through the 1970s relatively unscathed. It was a turbulent time here in Florida too. At least we can laugh about it now. This movie will certainly make you do that.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Louis Armstrong in 90 Minutes

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Life and Times of Louis Armstrong Compressed into 90 Minutes

By Skip Sheffield

Louis Armstrong never had it easy.
If you take nothing else home from “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” it is this melancholy fact. Terry Teachout’s one-man biographical play runs through June 12 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
Barry Shabaka Henley plays Satchmo as well as fellow trumpeter Miles Davis and his white manager Joe Glaser. The play is set on the evening of Armstrong’s last performance in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria in March of 1971. He records his memoirs on reel-to-reel tape.
Satchmo is in bad shape. He is short of breath and keeps an oxygen tank in his dressing room. Playwright Teachout, who also directs, was in the house opening night. He calls the play “a work of fiction freely based on fact.” In other words some things are overplayed and others underplayed for dramatic effect. Armstrong packed a lot into his 70 years, and if you covered everything you would be there all night.
So things are simplified. Miles Davis represents all the black people who felt Satchmo was a sellout to his own people and an “Uncle Tom.”
There really was a Joe Glaser, who had mob connections and became Armstrong’s manager. He represents all the white people who took advantage of Armstrong’s talent and good nature. As such he becomes the villain of the piece.
The shadow of bigotry and racial discrimination hangs heavy over “Sachmo at the Waldorf.” Armstrong lived through a time of strict racial segregation, and learned to cope with being a second-class citizen. He marvels that he is not only playing at the Waldorf, he is staying there in a suite.
Barry Shabaka Henley’s performance is both a tour de force and a workout. Though there is a trumpet onstage which he often picks up, he never plays it. The music you hear in the background is Louis Armstrong himself in recordings.
Louis was no angel. He was quite foul-mouthed and prone to anger behind his smiling fa├žade. No mention is made of his first three marriages nor his fourth and final one where he settled into relative domesticity in Queens, New York. That’s where Armstrong died not along after when this play was set. His house in Corona, Queens has become a museum and shrine to a singular American talent. This play is a lot more fun.
Tickets are $64. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.