Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Crackling, Creepy-Good Spanish Murder Mystery

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“Marshland” First-Rate Spanish Crime Thriller

By Skip Sheffield

“Marshland” is the best motion picture to come out of Spain in many years. Now this gripping, often gruesome crime thriller has made it to the USA. South Florida had it first when it was a big hit at the 2015 Miami International Film Festival. Friday, Aug. 21 it opens at Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and Cinema Paradiso.
“La Isla Minima” as it is known in Spanish, is set in September, 1980 in the desolate, swampy, Andalusian lowlands of southern Spain at the tail end of the Gen. Franco regime. Two police homicide detectives from Madrid have been sent to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls last seen at a local fiesta. The mission begins inauspiciously. When the cops’ car breaks down, they lose one of their hotel reservations and the mismatched duo is forced to bunk together.
Juan (Javier Gutierrez) is the older, much hotter-tempered, more reckless cop. Pedro is the younger, much calmer and more circumspect cop. You could call them a good cop/bad cop duo. It doesn’t take the detectives long to discover there are “extenuating circumstances” to the girls’ disappearance. They had gone missing before but always returned. It wasn’t just a random disappearance. They girls were unhappy and they were behaving recklessly. The mother of the girls (Maria Varod) slips Pedro some damaged 35 mm film negatives that offer proof the girls were seeing men they shouldn’t see and going places they shouldn’t go. Their home life is turbulent. Their father (Perico Cervantes) is strict and disapproving and may be in some trouble of his own.
It doesn’t take long for the detectives discover murder most foul. The girls were raped, tortured and mutilated before they were killed, and they were not the only girls to meet such a grisly fate.

“Marshland” is a cracking good murder mystery with many a plot twist set in a time when Spain was moving from Franco’s repressive, corrupt dictatorship to a more liberal, democratic government. Juan symbolizes the old regime. Pedro is the new. In the middle are a lot of bad people, some of them connected directly to the throne of power. Like its setting, “Marshland” is dark, murky and creepy, yet it has an eerie beauty.

The Ying and Yang of Jesse Eisenberg

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Jesse Eisenberg in Two Polar Opposite Movies

By Skip Sheffield

This is Jesse Eisenberg’s week in movies, with two completely different starring roles.
“American Ultra” is a wild and wacky comic book take on a deadly CIA special ops killer with amnesia. Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a seemingly harmless stoner who is looked after by a devoted girlfriend, Phoebe Larson, played by Kristin Stewart. Neither Mike Howell nor Phoebe Larson are what they appear to be in Max Landis’ fanciful cartoonishly-violent script, directed by London-born Iranian Nima Nourizadeh.
No, Mike Howell is a deadly killer who springs into action whenever he and or Phoebe are threatened by anyone out to do them harm, and it seems just about everyone is. Playing against type, Eisenberg is a highly-trained master of mayhem and martial arts, using any handy available object as a deadly weapon. By the same token Phoebe is not the innocent girl she purports to be.
Also playing again type is “That 70s Show” good guy Topher Grace playing a rogue CIA agent, Adrian Yates, out to eradicate Mike Howell by any means necessary. Topher seems to relish playing a heartless, deceitful scumbag. Connie Britton wears the white hat in this romp, playing a “good” CIA agent, Victoria Lasseter.
Walter Goggins goes completely overboard as a toothless madman thug, Laugher. John Leguizamo is a “good thug,” Rose, while Bill Pullman and Tony Hale are “good” CIA guys.
For all its violence and fake gore, “American Ultra” is a very funny movie. The director lets us in on the joke with actual cartoon comic book sequence in the final credits. It’s good summer fun.


Eisenberg Gets Serious in “The End of The Tour”

Jesse Eisenberg is deadly serious as Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, upon whose book "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” Donald Margulies based his screenplay for "The End of the Tour."
Jason Segal plays troubled novelist David Foster Wallace, whose complex, 1,079-page book “Infinite Jest” caused a national sensation when it was published in 1996. The title “The End of the Tour” refers to a promotional tour for “Infinite Jest.” Rolling Stone assigned David Lipsky to travel with David Foster Wallace for the last five days of the tour, ending in Minneapolis.
“End of Tour” is primarily a two-char character dialogue between cautiously probing interviewer and his complex, elusive, much-troubled subject. Jason Segal has never played a role of such depth and scope. His is a performance of Academy Award worthiness. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is more a sounding board and reactor to Wallace’s ever-changing moods.

James Ponsoldt, who directed the wonderful “Spectacular Now,” has a deep appreciation for the suffering and ordeals of a brilliant, intensely creative person. For those of us who make a living as writer, “End of Tour” reminds us of the perils of the profession. Though I live in a universe infinitely smaller, less significant, and far away from David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself Sept. 12, 2008 at age 46, I could not help but be touched. This is not a feel-good movie. I was profoundly affected for several days.


Friday, August 14, 2015

A Holocaust Film Like One You've Never Seen Before

------------------------------------------------An Eerie, Haunting, Moving “Phoenix”

By Skip Sheffield

What an eerie, haunting and powerful little film is “Phoenix,” now playing at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton. A “film noir” in color, “Phoenix” is set in a ruined Berlin, Germany immediately after World War II. Adapted from Hubert Montelheit’s 1961 novel “Return From the Ashes,” “Phoenix” is a story of love, betrayal, loss and survival by director Christian Petzold. Yes, this is another Holocaust film, but it is much more than that.
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) is an Auschwitz survivor and only member of her family left alive. Lena has been terribly disfigured in the war. When we meet her in Switzerland she is completely bandaged and attended to by her best friend and fellow Holocaust survivor Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf), who has arranged for her to have plastic surgery in Berlin to restore her face.
Lene urges Nelly to have total facial reconstruction so that she has an entirely new face. Nelly disagrees. She wants her old face back. The doctor warns her she will never look exactly as she had before her injuries. We learn soon enough why she wants to resemble her old self.
“Phoenix” is a mystery wrapped in a romance, underscored by the madness and cruelty of the Holocaust. The romance is the unrequited love the Jewish Nelly feels for her gentile husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) who was also her musical partner when he accompanied Nelly’s singing.
The name “Phoenix” is not random. Though it is the name given to the shady nightclub where Nelly, now calling herself Esther, rediscovers Johnny, now called Johannes, it also recalls the Greek myth of the Phoenix, which rises from its ashes after death. Johnny is now doing menial labor in that same nightclub. Against Lene’s strongest warnings, Nelly pursues Johnny, who may have been the rat who betrayed her to the Nazis. There are echoes of Hitchcock’s great “Vertigo,” with a mysterious heroine with two personalities. Nina Hoss is a top German actress, but little-seen in the USA. Some may remember her from “A Most Wanted Man” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Suffice it to say she is a master actress who will grip your heart.
“Phoenix” has the best use of a song as plot device in recent memory. In this case it is the melancholy Kurt Weill masterpiece “Speak Low” (when you speak love). It is first heard early in the story and again at the searing, almost silent finale. In a sense virtually any film set in post-World War II Germany is about the Holocaust. In this case it involves more universal emotions. “Phoenix” is a masterful movie of love, loss, regret and ultimate survival.---------------------


The Rise and Fall of N.W.A. in "Straight Outta Compton"

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If You Like Rap You’ll Like “Straight Outta Compton”

By Skip Sheffield

It’s not easy to write about “Straight Outta Compton.” It starts with the name N.W.A., which is the Los Angeles gangsta rap group chronicled in this movie. The name stands for “N word” With Attitude. We are not supposed to use the N word in polite speech. The N word is all over “Straight Outta Compton. So is the “F word.” It seems no one can put together a sentence without the N or the F word.
If you don’t like rap music you won’t like “Straight Outta Compton.” I will admit up front I don’t much like rap music. To me it’s not really music, but rhymes strung together rapid fire in a boastful, offensive manner. Compton is a very poor area of Los Angeles. It is wracked with violence, crime and police brutality. No wonder its residents have an attitude.
“Straight Outta Compton” chronicles the rise and dissolution of NWA, starting in 1987. The title comes from the group’s 1988 debut album. The group consisted of neighborhood friends O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube. Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. plays Ice Cube. Corey Hawkins plays Dr. Dre. Jason Mitchell is Easy-E.  Neil Brown, Jr. is DJ Yella. Aldis Hodge is MC Ren and Marlon Yates, Jr. is The D.O.C.
Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were the dominant members of N.W.A., and it is perhaps inevitable there would be a falling out with two such strong personalities. Director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) seems determined to get in every little detail in about N.W.A.’s rise and breakup. The story is credited to three different writers and the screenplay to two more. Perhaps with so many people involved it was inevitable this movie is too long- more than two hours.
While the members of N.W.A. are played as good guys, there are some villains, starting with the Los Angeles Police. It is no secret that L.A. Police were particularly brutal with minorities and suspected gang members. N.W.A. gloried in their anti-police stance, and they were expressing what many black folks were afraid to say.
Record producer Jerry Heller, played by Paul Giamatti, is also painted as a villain for his financial exploitation of the group. Rival rapper and producer Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) is another villain for his strong-arm techniques.

For a group that had such a brief life (Ice Cube left in 1989 and the group dissolved in 1991), N.W.A. has an outsized legacy. I suspect a lot of their bravado and provocative statements about drugs, crime and women, was part of the act. I had the occasion to meet Ice Cube several years ago in Miami and actually he was quite nice, polite and soft-spoken. You can’t argue with success. Rolling Stone magazine numbered N.W.A. as 83rd in their “100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The group has been nominated twice for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think this movie may well put them over the top.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

PETA Will Never Protest This Circus

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The Human Circus of “Verekai” is in Town for a Limited Time

By Skip Sheffield

You don’t go to Cirque du Solelil for the story line. You go to this French-Canadian “Circus of the Sun” for its amazing human tricks and sheer, eye-popping spectacle.
“Verekai” is the show up through Aug. 23 at BB&T Center in Sunrise. Created in 2002, the story ostensibly tells what happened to Icarus of Greek mythology after he fell back to Earth. However Icarus is just an incidental character in the larger production.
The show begins informally, with a man and woman dressed in usher outfits playing around with audience members. Useful note: if you like front-row seats, you could well become part of the show.
The same man and woman will reappear in different costumes singing as part of the main show. Icarus makes his entrance overhead, wearing huge feather wings. When he falls to Earth he is broken and crippled. The colorful creatures he encounters in a land called Verekai will encourage him and help him get back on his feet again. The show is essentially done in mime. Although characters vocalize, they speak gibberish like no known language. Characters get their meanings across by vocal inflections. Though we don’t understand what they are saying, we get their meaning.
The music for “Verekai” is exotic and all-original, played by an onstage band that is hidden most of the time. The music sets the stage for the spectacular aerial, acrobatic, trapeze, balancing and juggling acts performed by beautiful, nimble performers from all over the world. I had no program so I can’t tell you who the performers were. Trust me; they are amazing and their feats breath-taking.
The BB&T Center is not one of my favorite venues, and to add to its drawbacks, $20 is demanded to park in their parking lot, so factor that into the price of a ticket. “Verekai” uses only half of the arena, so the sightlines are good and it has a relatively intimate feel. There are common factors in all Cirque du Solelil shows, including amazing, brilliant costumes and incredible feats of human dexterity. Yes, it literally is a circus, and not one the PETA will ever protest.
Tickets are $40-$100, available at TicketMaster. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.cirquedusolelil.com/verekai.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Thinking Lovely Thoughts at Wick Theatre

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A Big, Beautiful “Peter Pan” at Wick Theatre

By Skip Sheffield

“Peter Pan” is the biggest, most complicated show presented to date at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. It has one of the simplest stories, and it is by far the most fun. It runs through Aug. 23 and it is not to be missed.
“I Won’t Grow Up” is Peter Pan in a nutshell. That is a signature song from the 1954 Broadway musical starring Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. The tradition of having a small woman play Peter Pan dates all the way back to 1905, when Maude Adams originated the role in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play.
Barrie expanded the story in a 1911 novel, and the world has been mad about Peter Pan ever since.
I never got to see Mary Martin live as Peter Pan, but I did see Sandy Duncan in the 1979 Broadway revival, and Cathy Rigby in the 1991 revival, which returned in 1998-1999.
Shannon Mari Mills, who understudied Cathy Rigby for two years, and played other roles in “Peter Pan,” is the Wick’s Peter Pan. Mills is a little woman with a big voice, athletic body and the engaging personality required of the role. She is matched with Robin Haynes in the dual role of the stuffy Mr. Darling and the comically inept villain, Capt. Hook.
To cut to the chase, the coolest thing about “Peter Pan” is the flying and the exuberant song that celebrates it. Peter (Mills) makes a grand entrance flying through an open window of the Darling home in early 20th century London.  Peter has somehow lost his shadow, and it is up to the resourceful Wendy (Lindsay Bell) to sew it back on.
The Darling children John (Trevor Wayne) and Michael (Ryan Sell) are enchanted by the mysterious Peter, who encourages all three to “think lovely thoughts” and they will be able to fly. Fly they do. How they got all the rigging safely installed is part of Wick’s theatrical magic, under the music and stage direction of Michael Ursua. How they get rigged without the audience noticing is another wonder.
The second scene moves to Neverland, where Peter and his Lost Boys live. Neverland is a lovely place but fraught with peril. First there is the band of pirates, led by the foppish Capt. Hook with the equally inept first mate Smee (Wesley Slade). Then there is a large crocodile, which has already chomped off one of Hook’s hands. There is also a tribe of Indians who are actually pretty nice. Tiger Lily (Emily Tarallo) the nicest of them all.
The songs by Jule Styne are distinguished by lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The singers are accompanied by a recorded soundtrack. The show is already expensive enough without a live orchestra.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic and a bit wistful after seeing “Peter Pan.” However, if you “think lovely thoughts” everything will be all right.

Tickets are $55. Call 561-995-2333 or go to www.thewick.org.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Icarus lands in "Varekai" at BB&T Center

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Explore the Fantastic World of “Varekai” Through Cirque du Soleil

By Skip Sheffield

In Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the Sun in defiance of his father, and his fabricated wings, made of wax and feathers, melted, and he plummeted to Earth.
“Varekai,” the latest Cirque du Soleil production to hit South Florida, images what happens to Icarus after he fell from on high. “Varekai” has an exclusive 15-performance run at the BB&T Center in Sunrise Aug. 12-23.
As with all Cirque du Soleil shows, “Varekai” features fantastic sets and costumes and a story that offers hope for humanity.
“Once Icarus falls to Earth, other creatures help him learn to walk again,” explains Cirque spokeswoman Julie Desmarais. “This production has one-of-a-kind acrobatics, and it has a more intimate setting because we only use half of the arena.”
The setting is deep within a forest at the summit of a volcano. The forest is a magical, kaleidoscopic world filled with fantastical costumed creatures. All join to help Icarus rediscover the wonders of the world and mind.
“A guide oversees Icarus, like a great-grandfather,” Desmarais continues. “The music is all original and organic to the action. It mixes traditional French and Armenian style.”
The seating is restricted to just 3,000 seats, so it is limited, for this, the only appearance of “Varekai” in Florida. Tickets are $40 to $100 and parking is extra. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.cirquedusoleil.com/varekai.