Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Enigmatic "Great Wall"

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A Head-Scratching Monster Movie

By Skip Sheffield

“The Great Wall” is a real head-scratcher of a movie. Is it supposed to be an historical drama? Is it a really low-key comedy? Or how about a full-out monster movie?
There are plenty of pre-historic-looking CGI monsters swarming about and Matt Damon plays William, the dragon-slayer.
Perhaps something was lost in the translation. This is the first English language film for Chinese director Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers”). Also it is in 3-D format, which puts me at a disadvantage. I am blind in my left eye. In order to appreciate 3-D one must have full binocular vision. I have never had that. When I put on the silly 3-D glasses the image becomes clearer, but not perfect. There are ghost images that can only be realized by a fully-sighted viewer.
The plot, such as it is, involves William and his sidekick Tovar (Chilean actor Pedro Pascal) searching for “black powder,” which is another name for gunpowder. The duo gets imprisoned within the Great Wall just in time for an invasion by the CGI reptiles. The time is about 1,000 years ago, and black powder was a mysterious new invention. William’s main weapon is a bow and arrow, and of course he is a deadly shot. William enlists the help of Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) who happens to be an attractive young woman. Willem Dafoe plays a character named Ballad, whose purpose I never quite understood.

Predictably there is a final battle royal between William and all those CGI monsters. Guess who wins? I’m done with my head-scratching. See “The Great Wall” if you’d like. Visually it is very impressive.



Thursday, February 9, 2017

Am I Missing Something Here?

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Someone Out There Likes “Fifty Shades Darker”

By Skip Sheffield

Who are the people who are so enamored of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” potboilers?
Evidently they are not friends of mine. I asked several lady friends and they all begged off to an advance screening of “Fifty Shades Darker.”
So I went alone and sat with the wife of a popular movie critic. By way of small talk, I told her I once was so exasperated with my first wife I turned her over on my lap and spanked her bottom. I added she seemed to like it.
“I understand why she is an ex-wife,” my friend commented dryly.
So I don’t understand the whole S&M thing, but this sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not have as much of the sado-masochism fetish.
That’s just as well, but without it, the story, written by Niall Leonard, husband of original novelist E.L. James, is rather dull.
Dakota Johnson, outfitted in a mousy brown wig with short bangs, returns as Anastasia Steele, the virginal conquest of billionaire Christian Grey, played by the returning Jamie Dornan in an eternally rainy Seattle. How Grey became a billionaire at age 27, or what he actually does is never explained. The focus is on his relationship with Anastasia, usually called Anna, and their kinky pastimes. We get to see a lot of Dakota Johnson’s lithe body.
The plot, such as it is, is that Grey wants Anna back. He wants her enough to buy six of the large photographs she has mounted at an art exhibition.
Dakota Johnson is an attractive young woman, but my mind wandered to her silly wig, and her bright red lipstick that never got smudged no matter how fervently she made out.
Kim Basinger plays a new character, Elena Lincoln, who was a former lover and business partner of Grey. Marcia Gay Harden plays the thankless role of Christian Grey’s mom.

It doesn’t take a soothsayer to guess Elena Lincoln will be returning in yet another sequel. It remains to be seen if there are enough E.L. James fanatics to support another installment.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Journey Into The Past at Florida Renaissance Festival

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25th Anniversary Florida Renaissance Festival at Quiet Waters Park

By Skip Sheffield

The Renaissance Era began in Italy in the 14th century and spread throughout Europe through the 17th century. The Florida Renaissance Festival is considerably newer. It celebrates its landmark 25th anniversary on seven weekends from Feb.11 to March 26 at Quiet Waters Park, 401 S. Powerline Road, Deerfield Beach.
The Ren-Fest began as an idea in the head of Bobby Rodriguez, owner of a talent agency and a working musician himself. Rodriguez proposed his festival in 1990 but it did not come to life until 1992 in Snyder Park near Fort Lauderdale International Airport. The event ran just one weekend and attracted 3,000 enthusiasts. In 1997 the event moved to the larger Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Hollywood. It remained there for four years before moving to the even larger Quiet Waters Park. Rodriquez recruits acts from all over the country.
“Who knew?,” Rodriguez said recently. “I am totally blessed. I work all year ‘round to put together the festival. It is very labor-intensive. We try to raise the bar every year.”
There are several new acts this year. Debracey Productions presents jousting exhibitions with four fully-armored horsemen. “The Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean” is a new aerial high-wire thrill show. The Roving Blades play and sing Celtic and maritime tunes. “The Greatest Pirate Story Never Told” is an audience interaction show. Empty Hats are street performers of Celtic influence. The Tortuga Twins is a returning act of four comic performers. Carolina Celli perform down-home fiddle tunes, ballads and Celtic tunes.
“I have to go through all sorts of red tape to pull this off,” Rodriguez admits. “It’s actually easier to put on a show in New York of Chicago. But it’s worth it. It’s like an arts festival. The audience can be engaged as much or little as it wants. It’s pure escape from the 21st century.”
Tickets are $21 adults and $9 children 6-11. Children under 5 are free. Group discounts are offered. Call 954-776-1642 or go to www.ren-fest.com.



Saturday, February 4, 2017

Words Hurt in "Collected Stories"

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Emotional Fireworks From “Collected Stories”

By Skip Sheffield

The premise of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “Collected Stories” seemed rather thin. The two-character Donald Margulies play continues through March 5 at 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
A veteran writer and teacher holds court with a younger woman who idolizes her. Ruth Steiner (Anne-Marie Cusson) is past her prime of creativity, and coaches younger writers such as Lisa Morrison (Keira Keeley) on the mechanics of creative writing. The high point of her career was a brief fling with the self-destructive poet, Delmore Schwartz. In the course of a little over two hours with intermission, these characters will in essence trade places. Lisa will publish a poem and later a novel to great acclaim. Ruth, in failing health, will charge Lisa of intellectual theft, although it is she who encouraged Lisa to spread her creative wings.
Nothing is off-limits in creative writing. Everything in a writer’s life is fair game. Sometimes the subjects are embarrassing, hurtful or humiliating. That two female characters can hold the viewer’s attention for more than two hours is a tribute to both the writer’s skill and the actresses’ expertise.
For someone who has made a career with words, “Collected Stories” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies is essential. To be truly creative and unique, a writer must be ruthless. Casualties will result. The emotional fireworks that ignite in Act Two, after a time period of six years, are a satisfying denouement to an unspoken rivalry. Guest director Paul Stancato has judiciously placed hipster 1950s-1960s jazz to enhance the mood. The actresses need no enhancement. They make it real. If you have a creative endeavor moldering in some drawer, this may be the very spark to do something with it. Life is short but art is long.
Tickets are $66. Call 561-514-4042 or go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.



Thursday, February 2, 2017

Leave Disbelief Behind for "The Space Between Us"

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“The Space Between Us” Requires Disbelief

By Skip Sheffield

“The Space Between Us” calls for a lot of suspension of disbelief to buy into its far-out premise. It is set in some unspecified time in the future. A space shuttle takes off with a mission to colonize the planet Mars. One of the astronauts is a woman who discovers she is pregnant. Don’t they check for such things pre-takeoff? The unfortunate woman dies in childbirth, but her son survives to be the first human born on Mars. We flash forward 16 years and Gardner Elliot (British actor Asa Butterfield) has struck up an internet friendship with a feisty girl named Tulsa (another Brit, Britt Robertson) in Colorado. How this is possible, don’t ask. It is necessary to set up the romantic plot of boy from outer space in love with Earth girl. Both Butterfield and Robertson have unconventional beauty. Tall Butterfield has magnetic blue eyes. Tiny Robertson has tough girl charm. How else could she kick over a 1960s vintage Triumph motorcycle with ease?
Supporting players are Carla Gugino, Gary Oldman and BD Wong as NASA handlers of Gardner Elliot. It seems the Earth’s gravitational pull is too much for Gardner’s heart to withstand. So the NASA people chase him around while he is with Triumph girl, who by the way has an amazing talent for stealing vehicles.

So hey, the scenery is pretty and so are the principals. Rocket science this is not. Escapist entertainment it is.




Monday, January 30, 2017

Close, But No Cigar for De Niro's "Comedian"

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De Niro Attempts The Funny in “The Comedian”

By Skip Sheffield

Robert De Niro can do just about anything. He is the main attraction and the main character of “The Comedian.”
De Niro plays Jackie Burke, an over-the-hill insult comic along the lines of Don Rickles. Jackie is trying to get his mojo back, but he is reduced to playing retirement homes, whose clients only want him to play his character of Eddie, which gained him fame on television. Jackie Burke is sick of playing Eddie. He is so sick he attacks an audience member who heckles him. Jackie is rewarded with 30 days in the Nassau County, NY jail.
When he is released Jackie has to do community service at a soup kitchen. There he meets a fellow ex-con Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is young enough to be his daughter, if not granddaughter. To the credit of Mann and De Niro, they make this unlikely relationship somehow feasible. Call it an old man’s dream.
The biggest problem with “The Comedian” is it is not very funny. Danny DeVito does yeoman service as Jackie’s younger brother, and Pattie Lupone as his nagging wife. Another thing that does not ring true is that neither De Niro, DeVito nor Lupone are Jewish as per their characters. If I were Jewish I might take offense. Harvey Keitel as Harmony’s sleazy Florida real estate dad I believe.
There are some fun cameos from Cloris Leachman as a terminally elderly performer and Billy Crystal, Charles Grodin, Gilbert Gottfried and Brett Mann playing themselves.

Robert De Niro put heart and soul into this project, misdirected by Taylor Hackford (“A Officer and a Gentleman”). De Niro gets points for trying, but t’ain’t funny McGee. De Niro was much better as the pathetic comic Rupert Pupkin back in 1982 in "The King Of Comedy."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Love Dogs? This One's For You

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For The Love Of Dog

By Skip Sheffield

What is “A Dog’s Purpose?”
The short answer is unconditional love. Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom used W. Bruce Cameron’s screenplay of his 2010 novel to mount a tribute to canines and their human friends.
There is not just one dog in the story. It starts with a Red Retriever who escapes from a dog pound, and is rescued by a woman named Hannah (Britt Robertson). Hannah has a brother named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) who becomes very attached to the dog he names Bailey.
Dogs don’t live as long as humans. In time Bailey segues into different times and breeds as Buddy, Tino and Ellie. Josh Gad provides the various dog voices. The one constant is Ethan, who grows up to be Dennis Quaid. Hannah becomes Peggy Lipton, in a welcome return to the silver screen.
“A Dog’s Purpose” is aimed squarely at dog lovers. Ironically the movie has been protested by PETA because of a scene in which one of the dogs, a German Shepherd, jumps into a raging river.
My father hated dogs; therefore we never had one of our own. It was not until I was married with children that a dog came into my life. I consider myself better for the experience.

“A Dog’s Purpose” is sentimental, corny and clich├ęd, but it is filled with love. A dog’s purpose is to “Be Here Now.” That is good advice to humans of any age.