Monday, June 27, 2016

Weiner-Dog Yea. Humans Nay.

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“Wiener-Dog” Yes. Humans, No Thanks

By Skip Sheffield

“Wiener-Dog” is one head-scratcher of a movie. You might think it’s a story about those long, low, lovable dogs called dachshunds, but it’s not really. It’s about people. Screwed-up people.
For his eighth film writer-director Todd Solondz, whose earlier works include “Welcome to the Doll House” and “Happiness,” has delivered another work guaranteed not to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.
The movie has four parts, related only by the winsome dachshund of the title. She is sprung from her cage at animal control by Danny (Tracy Letts), a self-absorbed suburban dad, who thinks the dog might cheer his 9-year-old son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor. Danny’s wife Dina (Julie Delpy) has a list of objections.
“Who will walk it? Who will clean up after it? “Do you know what spay means?” Danny thinks the dog needs “control,” which means stern discipline.
Remi does know about spaying, but the poor dog does not. She is spayed at mom’s insistence, then the parents go away and the dog gets into mischief, including pigging out on granola, which leads to an epic case of diarrhea, complete with the song “The Ballad of Wiener Dog” by Marc Shaiman of “South Park.”
Danny sadly takes the dog back to the pound, presumably to be euthanized, but a kindly veterinarian nurse, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) takes her home. Dawn embarks on a cross-country trip with her sleazy boyfriend (Kieran Culkin) and somehow the dog gets passed off to a couple with Down’s Syndrome.
There is an amusing quite literal Intermission, even though the film is only 90 minutes long, and then the story gets really dark. Dave Schmertz (Danny DeVito) is a would-be screenwriter and part-time college teacher whose life and career are unraveling. He is mocked by a young film student and his latest screenplay is rejected.  Just when we think things couldn’t get worse, we meet Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an embittered grandmother who hides behind huge dark sun glasses. Her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) has come to hit her up for money once again for her no-account artist-boyfriend (Michael Shaw). Nana begins hallucinating and seeing multiple red-haired girls.
Spoiler alert: If you think this is heading for a happy ending, think again. Weiner-Dog, the only noble, blameless character in this bitter story, is unceremoniously dispatched. We are left thinking life just isn’t fair. Maybe that is Todd Solondz’s point.


Friday, June 17, 2016

"Beauty and the Beast" Visits Browrad Center




A Disney Theme Park Ride Called “Beauty and the Beast”

By Skip Sheffield

“Beauty and the Beast” is like a Disney theme park ride; the first Walt Disney animated movie adapted for the theatrical stage. The national touring production continues a short run through June 19 at Broward Center for the Arts.
“Beauty” is an amazing theatrical jigsaw puzzle, with interlocking set pieces that roll around and change scenes in seconds. The costumes are flamboyant. The special effects are dandy. There is a story in there somewhere, but it isn’t much.
It begins with a prelude. A handsome, vain Prince turns away an old crone who is seeking shelter. Because he “has no love in his heart” the Prince is cursed by being turned into a terrible beastlike creature, played by Sam Hartley. He must find someone who will love him despite his physical appearance before a magic rose droops and dies.
 A pretty, brainy, bookish girl called Belle (Brooke Quintana) lives in town with her elderly father, an eccentric inventor named Maurice (Thomas Mothershed). Belle is pursued relentlessly by the town hunk, a vain braggart named Gaston (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek). Belle will have none of it.
When Maurice gets lost in the woods, he stumbles upon an enchanted castle which happens to be the lair of the Beast. It seems the household items were once humans who have fallen into a mysterious spell linked to the Beast. The gabbiest of the lot is a candelabra named Lumiere (Ryan N. Phillips). Phillips threatens to steal the show by his sheer force of personality.
When the town fool, Monsieur d’Arque (Danny Burgos), shows up wearing a scarf that belonged to Maurice, Belle demands to know where he found it. In the woods is the answer, so brave Belle sets out into the spooky woods and finds the same enchanted castle where her father is imprisoned.
Just about everyone knows the story from there. The Beast is fearsome and angry, but Belle is so lovely and compassionate she begins to break down his defenses. She in turn begins to see the Beast for the sensitive, caring soul he is.
Brooke Quintana and Sam Hartley are both strong vocally, but she is not the prettiest Belle I’ve seen, nor is Sam Hartley the most handsome Prince.
The real crowd-pleasers are Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek’s ridiculously vain Gaston and Ryan N. Phillips ever-smiling Lumiere. Melissa Jones’ Babette is quite the appealing coquette.
The cast vocal standout is Stephanie Gray’s Mrs. Potts, who is a teapot with an operatic voice. She delivers the signature song “Beauty and the Beast” with passion and thrills.
“Beauty and the Beast” is most entertaining with its extravagant production numbers. The most exceptional is “Be Our Guest,” with everyone getting into the act.
The orchestra is full and high precision, the dancing agile and athletic and the costumes opulent. Was I blown away? No. “Beauty and the Beast” is more a novelty than a life-changing experience. If you like Disney World you will like this show. I prefer shows of a little more substance.
Tickets are $30-$105. Call 954-462-0222 or go to www.browardcenter.org.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Heathers" a Hit at Broward Center

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A Visit to High School Hell with "Heathers"


By Skip Sheffield

High School was never quite this bad. That is what makes “Heathers: The Musical” so funny. The Slow Burn Theatre production of “Heathers” continues through June 26 in the Amaturo Theatre of Broward Center for the Arts.
“Heathers” is based on the 1988 sleeper cult movie of the same name by Daniel Waters. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy adapted the screenplay for the stage and wrote catchy tunes and lyrics.
“Heathers” is a satire on high school social hierarchy that morphs into a dark comedy about suicide. The Heathers in question are the three most popular and powerful girls at Westerburg High School. They are head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Sunny Gay), insecure, bulimic Heather Duke (Christina Flores) and the unofficial queen of the school, wicked Heather Chandler (Leah Marie Sessa). Outsider Veronica Sawyer (Abby Perkins) envies the Heathers, but they won’t let her into their inner circle.  Clever Veronica finds a way by forging a teacher’s note that excuses them from detention. Suddenly for good or ill, Veronica is in.
As gorgeous and sexy as she is, Leah Sessa's Heather Chandler is a really vile person and revels in her devilishness. She pressures Veronica into forging a love letter from football jock Ram Sweeney) (Justen Fox-Hall) to Veronica’s chubby wallflower friend, Martha (Stepanie Trull), who has had a crush on Ram since kindergarten. Martha is cruelly mocked and called Martha Dumptruck. In her misery she later will attempt suicide.
Ram’s best buddy Kurt Kelly (Domenic Servido) is another football jock with an inflated ego. In stark contrast to the status-seeking high schoolers is mysterious newcomer Jason “J.D.” Dean (Bruno Faria).
J.D. is obviously inspired by ill-fated movie star James Dean. He wears a dark trenchcoat and quotes Baudelaire, but there are even darker thoughts in his brain that will be unleashed later.
“Heathers” has Slow Burn’s customarily strong vocal cast. Abby Perkins is a particularly powerful belter. Bruno Farina was a wide vocal range and an exceptionally sweet and sensitive high tenor. The lively, rocking live band is onstage but unseen, but you sure can hear them. Perhaps the most striking thing about “Heathers” is its precision choreography by director Patrick Fitzwater. The characters are always in graceful motion, moving as one. The comedy roles of dumb dads “Big Bad” Dean and Kurt’s dad (and also Veronica’s dad) are handled nimbly by Ben Sandomir and Noah Levine, who have a big reveal toward play’s end.
In view of current tragic events in Orlando, the timing couldn’t be better for “Heathers,” which has a strong message for tolerance and understanding, expressed beautifully in the song “Seventeen”. Seldom has a morality tale been so funny.
Tickets for “Heathers” are $45. Call 954-462-0222 or 954-468-3280 or go to www.browardcenter.org.



More Than One Genius

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There is More Than One “Genius” in the Movie
By Skip Sheffield
“Genius” is a movie for English majors. You can’t get much more literary than a story about Charles Scribner’s Sons most celebrated editor, Maxwell Perkins, and the three most famous authors he guided: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.
“Genius” focuses on perhaps the most gifted of the trio: Thomas Wolfe, played Jude Law. Law affects a Southern accent to play North Carolina’s most honored writer.
Maxwell Perkins is played by another Briton, Colin Firth. The story begins in New York City in 1929. The nation is on the brink of the Great Depression but Wolfe is happy because his semi-autobiographical novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” has just been published by Scribner’s.
If it weren’t for Max Perkins, “Look Homeward, Angel” would not have seen the light of day. Wolfe was turned down by every other publisher in New York. No wonder, the manuscript ran to 1,100 pages.
Perkins saw something special in the rambling verbiage and agreed to take on Wolfe with the provision he cut the sprawling manuscript into something viable for the average reader.
So began what was an almost father-son relationship. Perkins was a family man with a loving wife (Laura Linney) and five beautiful daughters. Wolfe had lost his father at an early age. He was introduced to Perkins by Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman, scarcely recognizable), a wealthy married woman who was Wolfe’s strongest champion and lover.
Wolfe was a highly emotional man given to flights of ecstatic fancy and depths of dire depression. He quarreled with Perkins and Mrs. Bernstein and eventually broke with them both.
Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) are but bit players in this story, though Fitzgerald’s slow slide into alcoholism and obscurity foreshadowed Wolfe’s own premature demise. Wolfe died of tumors in his brain just 18 days short of his 38th birthday. British director Michael Grandage (“The Madness of King George”) has provided a fitting tribute to the Asheville, NC genius who was unappreciated in his lifetime but revered in all the years since.

A "Central Intelligence" No-Brainer

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Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart Have a Bromance

By Skip Sheffield

“Central Intelligence” is further proof we never leave high school.
Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart) is diminutive in size but big man on campus due to his sports prowess and his all-around winning personality He is the most popular member of the class of 1996.
Robbie Weidrich (Sione Kelepi) is clumsy, fat and shy. In a cruel prank, Robbie is dragged naked from the boys’ shower and thrown out on the gym floor to gales of laughter. The only one not laughing is Calvin, who lends Robbie his “Golden Jet” letterman jacket to cover himself as he exits humiliated.
Robbie never forgot that act of kindness. He grows up and shapes up and adopts the name Bob Stone. He looks just like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, because he is. On the eve of the Class of 1996 20-year reunion Bob, who, who has reconnected with Calvin via Facebook, is now a CIA agent. He shows up at Calvin’s accounting firm. He needs a little accounting help to retrieve some numbers of offshore bank accounts held by people up to no good.
Calvin is happily married to Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), his high school sweetheart. They were Prom King and Queen and they have been together ever since. Calvin wants no part of Bob Stone’s caper, but Bob is persuasive and flattering, calling Calvin a “snack-sized Denzel.” In the tradition of all mismatched buddy movies, Calvin grudgingly enters Bob’s dangerous world of intrigue.
That’s really all you need to know about plot. “Central Intelligence” entertains on the strength of its two main characters. Kevin Hart is a naturally funny man. He makes the most of his small size, especially in contrast to the mountainous Dwayne Johnson.
Johnson has become quite a comedian, mostly at his own expense. His character of Bob Stone has some absurdly offbeat quirks. He loves and always wears a fanny pack. His favorite movie is “16 Candles” and he adores Molly Ringwald. On the other hand he is a walking lethal weapon,well- versed in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.
Amy Ryan is Agent Pamela Harris, who may or may not be a villain. Aaron Paul is Phil, definitely a black hat. The director is Rawson Marshall Thurber, who has shown a way with subversive comedy in “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” and “We Are The Millers.”
“Central Intelligence” is mindless summer entertainment, but who wants to think? Loosen up and laugh it up and save the serious stuff for fall.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

"Hay Fever" a Pre-Seinfeld Play About "Nothing"

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A Play About “Nothing” From Another Time

By Skip Sheffield

Sir Noel Coward anticipated Jerry Seinfeld by 70 years or more. His 1925 comedy “Hay Fever” is a play about “nothing.”
“Hay Fever” opens the Summer Repertory at FAU and continues through June 26 in the Studio One Theater.
Director Jean-Louis Baldet admitted as much when he said “it has no plot and remarkably little action.” This is a comedy of manners where words and subtle human interactions are everything.
The setting is the grand Bliss Family House in Cookham, England, June 1925. Judith Bliss is a retired actress who still yearns for bright lights and adoring audiences. She is played by Equity Actress Kathryn L. Johnson, whose first appearance at FAU’s Summer Rep dates back to 2006. She is now a faculty member and assistant professor of voice, speech and accents.
Fellow Guest Equity Artist Barry Tarallo plays patriarch David Bliss, who evidently is a novelist but does little else in the way of work.
Mr. And Mrs. Bliss are what we call “idle rich.” They enjoy little dalliances with younger characters to spice up their life.
The first jolt to the Bliss idyllic weekend is a visit by their quarrelsome grown children Sorel (Samantha Kaufman) and Simon (Jordan Armstrong). Each of the kids has romantic assignations in mind, but as the house fills with guests that becomes increasingly difficult.
These visitors are Sandy Tyrell (Ross Frawley) a fawning admirer of Mrs. Bliss; Independent-minded Myra Arundel (Kimberlee Connor), who is Simon’s best girlfiend; Richard Greatham (Connor Padilla), a callow youth who fancies Myra, and Jackie Coryton (Brianna Handy), a naïf who gets caught in the crossfire.
Keeping her head while all others are losing theirs is stalwart, all-knowing family maid Clara (Shannon Ouellette).
“Hay Fever” takes place in three acts: Saturday afternoon as guests arrive and introduce themselves; after a 15-minute intermission Saturday Evening, when things get complicated, and Sunday morning, which is the funniest scene, as guests attempt to discreetly flee their hosts.
“Hay Fever” is an ideal actor’s exercise, which is probably why Baldet chose this piece. Each gets to try out a British accent and embellish the peccadilloes of their characters. The costumes and set are of professional quality, which enhances the illusion of an English country manor. There are no major tragedies or great life lessons learned. “Hay Fever” is a pleasant diversion from our unlovely everyday life; an old-fashioned idyll, if you will.
Tickets are $20 general admission; $15 FAU faculty, staff and alumni and $12 students. Call 800-564-9539 or 561-297-6124.



Young Love on the Rocks in Sicily

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Waiting for Heartbreak in Sicily

By Skip Sheffield

If you are hankering for romantic heartbreak, Italian-style, “L’Atesa” may be just the ticket.
“L’Atesa” means "The Wait" in Italian. That’s what the character of Jeanne (Lou de Laage) is doing at the Sicilian mansion of her boyfriend Guiseppe. Jeanne arrives at the house at a time of mourning. The brother of the lady of the house, Guiseppe’s mother Anna (Juliette Binoche), has just suddenly and unexpectedly died. The butler Pietro (Giogio Colangeli) says Anna will not leave her room.
“Am I eating alone?” Jeanne asks Pietro. Yes you are.
Jeanne has traveled from Paris to reunite with Guiseppe, whom she hasn’t seen since last summer when “something” happened.
When Anna finally emerges the next day, she is evasive and stand-offish. Anna knows something she is not telling Jeanne.
Director Piero Messina takes best advantage of the beauty of Sicily, and of Lou de Laage, who strips down to her panties to swim in the lake near the house. A couple days later Jeanne meets two boys on the lake. One is gay. One is not. Jeanne invites them both to come to Anna’s house., There Jeanne enjoys an innocent flirtation, dancing with the boys and pointedly flirting with the straight one. Jeanne is observed by Anna and thereby comes the reveal of the “something” that happened last summer.
“L’Atesa” is for romantics who remember how it was to be young and hopelessly in love. Such relationships are perilous. Messina contrasts the beauty of the setting with the turmoil Jeanne feels and the compassion Anna feels for her. It is a sad/beautiful story that may stir memories of something you did in your youth that foolishly blew a beautiful relationship.