Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes as Action Hero

Action Specialists Guy Ritchie and Joel Silver Re-invent British Sleuth

Lock, stock, and smoking Sherlock Holmes?

Robert Downey, Jr. brings his Iron Man swagger to the tweedy, intellectual role of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant super-sleuth, under the direction of British action specialist Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and American mega-producer Joel Silver.

This Sherlock is a master of martial arts as well as mystery-solver. He still smokes a pipe but he also wields a pistol and nunchucks.

Holmes shares bachelor quarters at 21 Baker Street with his mild-mannered best friend Dr. Watson, underplayed nicely by Jude Law. Watson has been upgraded too in co-producer Lionel Wigran’s original story. No bumbler this Watson, he engages in fisticuffs alongside Holmes and handles a gun expertly like the ex-soldier he is.

Dr. Watson is engaged to Mary (Kelly Reilly), a freckled Irish lass, and he already is in early stages of being henpecked.

Clearly Mary sees Holmes as a threat or perhaps even rival for Watson’s affections; a situation Downey has joked about on the David Letterman Show.

The show begins- and it is a show- with an eleventh-hour saving of a human sacrifice to some kind of black art ceremony.

Behind the scheme is malevolent Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an imperious villain with greasy slicked back hair and affection for large capes.

Blackwood is sentenced to hang, and hang he does. Dr. Watson verifies he has no pulse.

But in a warped parody of the Resurrection, Blackwood turns up very much alive, after his corpse is discovered to be that of another man.

Blackwood is head sorcerer for something called the Temple of the Four Orders, and it is his evil plan to wrest power from Parliament and install his own minions: hiss, boo!

Subtle this new Sherlock Holmes is not. The movie is so loaded with computer-generated special effects it is more a super hero fantasy than traditional British mystery.

But the computer-enhanced 1891 London looks great (North Manchester, England, and Brooklyn, New York provided some of the locations), and Downey and Law have a nice rapport.

Rachel McAdams is a luscious damsel-in-distress; a woman so smart she has outwitted Holmes twice, and Eddie Marsan provides solid support as the supportive, incorruptible Inspector Lestrade.

This amped-up Sherlock Holmes is no threat to Conan Doyle’s original, or even Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s popular collaborations in the 1930s and 1940s, but it is neat to have Britain’s greatest sleuth introduced to a new, attention-deficit generation. By the looks of the finale, there will be sequels.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"It's Complicated" an American French Sex Farce

Writer-Director Nancy Meyers Goes for Broad Comedy

Is there anything Meryl Streep can’t do?
The answer seems to be no.
Streep is in farcical broad comedy mode in “It’s Complicated,” written and directed by contemporary female comedy specialist, Nancy Meyers. Myers is far and away the most successful female writer-director-producer in Hollywood.
More to the point, Meyers knows how to make people laugh with her written word, an art she first proved with “Private Benjamin” in 1980
She also has a keen eye for casting just the right people. Who would have thought Meryl Streep would work so well with Alec Baldwin?
Streep and Baldwin are pitch perfect as a divorced couple who get back together for a fling, much to the shock and chagrin of all other family members,
Streep is Jane, a Santa Barbara caterer so successful she has hired Adam (Steve Martin), a high-end architect, to build an addition to her already large house.
Adam is recently divorced and insecure, but he takes a shine to Jane from the start.
Jane divorced Jake (Alec Baldwin) ten years ago after nearly 20 years of marriage. He had an affair and married Agness (Luke Bell), a hot younger babe. Jake is 50, flabby and not as potent as he once was. He’s been going to a fertility clinic at Agness’ insistence. because she would like to another child in addition to the young son she has.
You can tell the bloom is off the Rose for Jake, who realizes he still feels something for his fifty-something ex-wife. One night after too much to drink celebrating their son’s graduation, they fall into bed.
“You are an adulterer,” Jake gloats.
“I’m an awful person,” wails Jane, guilt-stricken already.
When Adam inevitably learns about the fling he is crushed and Jane feels guiltier than ever.
Jake and Jane’s grown children are understandably appalled at their parents’ irresponsible behavior, but this is a farce; an American French farce, if you will, and reactions are played for laughs by the same person who paired Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt in “What Women Want.” That 2000 movie was the most successful ever directed by a woman.
I don’t think “It’s complicated” will be that broadly popular. Parts of it are uncomfortable, particularly Alec Baldwin’s caution-to-the winds physical comedy.
Steve Martin is rather underused and his role so sketchy there is not a whole lot he can do with it.
But if sex farce tickles your funny bone, Streep and Baldwin are happy to oblige, with a little nudging from Nancy Meyers.

"Nine" a Dirty Old man's Delight

Fellini Purists Won't Like it, but "Nine" Entertains

By Skip Sheffield

“Nine” is a dirty old man’s dream- quite literally.
For this reason, opinion of this Rob Marshall musical extravaganza tends to divide along gender lines, though there are some guys who really hate it.
That group would be the Fellini purists, who feel everything the master Italian writer-director did is sacred and untouchable.
I’m not that way at all, and I freely admit I admire female pulchritude.
“Nine” is chock full of fabulous females of every description, representing the various types fancied by Federico Fellini, who was also a world-class womanizer. That fact no one can deny. The miracle is that he stayed married to the same woman, actress Guilietta Masina, for 50 years.
Fellini insisted his works were not autobiographical, but even a casual student of his art recognizes some of the important female figures in his life in the acclaimed 1961 film “8 ½,” which is the basis for the 1982 Broadway musical “Nine” on which screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella based this script.
I had the privilege of meeting Minghella in person and spending some time several years ago in Fort Lauderdale when he was promoting his film, “Breaking and Entering.”
Like Fellini, Minghella was proud of his Italian heritage and it shows in this otherwise Americanized movie by the director of “Chicago.” Alas Minghella died March 18, 2008, and this was among his last scripts.
“Be Italian!” is the exuberant theme song for the musical, but curiously Rob Marshall cast an Englishman, Daniel Day-Lewis, as Fellini alter ego Guido Contini.
That said, Day-Lewis handles the role quite well, though his singing voice is no great shakes. What is formidable about Day-Lewis is his dramatic ability, and Guido Contini is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, when he isn’t almost catatonic with depression.
With so many beautiful women in his life, why should Contini be so depressed? The simple answer is that Contini’s art is more important than anything else in his life, and at this moment he just can’t make it.
“Nine” is about artistic blockage when it’s not about Contini’s philandering escapades.
It’s about Catholic guilt too, instilled by the church and by his devout mother, played ironically by voluptuous Sophia Loren. Hey why not? Loren was a real-life inspiration to Fellini, who cast her in several films.
Playing Luisa Contini, the longest-suffering, most patient and forgiving wife a man could ever conceive, is French actress Marion Cotilliard, emoting up a storm even when she is not speaking a word. But when she sings “Take it All” watch out, she will break your heart.
On the other hand is brazen sexpot Carla, played with joyful abandon by Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. Ay Caramba! Cruz’s writhing, rope-dancing, acrobatic production number is nothing short of scorching, yet this is another fine dramatic performance as a woman ultimately scorned.
Yes, each of Guido’s women gets a production number. For Kate Hudson, as spunky American press agent Stephanie, “It’s Cinema Italiano.” For Fergie (Stacey Richardson) it’s a phantasmagoric number set at the beach, combining religious imagery with boys’ sexual desire.
Even Dame Jodi Dench gets her moment in the spotlight (“Follies Bergere,” no less), as does Nicole Kidman as Guido’s latest designated blond goddess, Claudia.
“A film is a dream,” broods Guido, in a beginning scene. “You kill it sometimes.”
Did Rob Marshall kill Fellini?
Nah, no more than Arthur Kopit did when he wrote the book, nor Maury Yeston, who wrote the music and lyrics, or Tommy Tune, who directed the 1982 Broadway production of “Nine.”
It won five Tony Awards.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Films

By Skip Sheffield

There is an abundance of new films opening this Christmas Day. I’ve had the opportunity to see four of them.
The most impressive of the lot is “Young Victoria,” starring Emily Blunt as England’s monarch so beloved she has the entire Victorian Age named after her.
The popular conception of Queen Victoria, especially in the USA, is of prudishness and decorum.
The reality of it is that Victoria was a flesh-and-blood woman who very much loved her Prince Albert. She bore him nine children and was devastated by his death in 1861- but this story is not about that sad period of mourning.
Screenwriter Julian Fellows has explored the sensuous, romantic side of a vibrant, intelligent young queen, and Emily Blunt beautifully embodies her.
The story begins in 1837 when Victoria was just 17. Her genial uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), is dying, and her status-seeking mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her devious advisor, Conroy, (Mark Strong) are scheming to wrest power from her on the pretext that Victoria is just too young to be monarch.
Victoria’s handsome cousin, Albert (Rupert Friend), is the nephew of King Leopold of Belgium. For political expediency the Duchess has invited Albert to the place to meet and possibly woo Victoria.
Despite initial doubts, the headstrong and somewhat rebellious Victoria finds a kindred spirit in Albert, who is also tired of being dominated by his relatives. Before he returns to Belgium, Albert asks if he might write Victoria. She grants him that right, and so by royal mail romance begins to blossom. Victoria was crowned Queen in 1838 at age 18, and it was she who proposed to Albert and married him Feb. 10, 1840.
It can’t be easy living in the fishbowl that is royal life, but somehow Victoria grew and flourished despite challenges and political battles around them. We see them when her chief advisor, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) is forced from power and an unfriendly Tory government takes over.
Above all “Young Victoria” is a romance, and a sumptuous, beautiful one at that. I will never again think of Queen Victoria just as an elderly dowager thanks to this fascinating depiction of Britain’s longest-ruling monarch (1838-1901).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Florida Film Critics Announce 2009 Winners

"Up in the Air" Wins No. 1 Spot

It has happened again. Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" has been named favorite 2009 movie by the Florida Film Critics Circle (FFCC). The film's star, George Clooney, has been named Best Actor, and director and co-writer Jason Reitman is Best Director.
In other FFCC rankings, Gabourey Sidibe won Best Actress for "Precious."
Christopher Waltz was voted Best Supporting actor for "Inglourious Basterds" and Mo' Nique earned Best Supporting Actress for "Precious."
Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber were recognized for Best Screenplay for "(500) Days of Summer."
"Avatar" won Mauro Fiore Best Cinematography.
"Sin Nombre" was voted Best Foreign Language Film.
"Up" won Best Animated Film.
"The Cove" earned Best Documentary.
Gabourney Sibibe earned special recognition as Breakout performer.

I liked "Up in the Air" and admired George Clooney's performance- his best ever- as a glib, globe-trotting corporate hatchet man, Ryan Bingham. I did not love the film.
It is hard to love someone as superficial, cold and distant as Ryan Bingham or his latest hottie fling, Alex Goran, played by Vera Farmiga.
Oh, there is onscreen heat generated by Clooney and Farmiga, but this is sex, not anything resembling love.
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted Walter Kirn's cynical novel about the heartlessness of America's large corporations and the emptiness of Ryan Bingham's jet-setting life (322 days on the run, and a sterile cubicle in Omaha as home base) with chilling effect.
Jason Bateman is appropriately hypocritical as Ryan's glad-handing boss, but the surprise is dewy Anna Kendrick as a whiz kid downsizer, Natalie Keener. Natalie thinks she has the science of downsizing refined to the next logical step: she doesn't even have to meet her victims; she does it by telephone-video conference call.
Of course if this works out for corporate, the days of free-spending, nice guy face-to-face termination are numbered, and so is Ryan's lifestyle.
Life has a way of defying expectations, and there are a couple of nifty twists in this decidedly unromantic film. Clever? Yes. A great film? No, I don't think so, not even by the standards of soulless 21st century corporate America.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Southeastern US Film Critics Announce Awards

"Up in the Air" Named Best Picture

The Southeastern Film Critics Association (SETCA), of which I am one of 44 voting members, has announced its winners for 2009 excellence in films.
Earning the Best Picture of 2009 award is Jason Reitman's serio-comic look at love on the fly, "Up in the Air."
I respectfully disagree with SEFCA on that. My favorite was the bittersweet Valentine to romantic love, "(500) Days of Summer," which earned slot No. 6 in the voting.
The awards were all over the place in other categories: George Clooney as the skirt-chasing corporate downsizing expert in "Up in the Air," with Jeremy Renner as runner-up for the explosive Iraq War drama, "Hurt Locker.
Meryl Streep got the nod as Best Actress for her incomparable French chef Julia Child in "Julie & Julia." Second place was Gabourey Sidibe as the tortured teenaged unwed mother in "Precious."
Best Supporting actor went to Christoph Waltz for Quentin Tarantino's violent "Inglourious Basterds" and Best Supporting Actress went to Mo 'Nique for "Precious."
Kathryn Bigelow was named Best Director for "Hurt Locker." Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber got the nod for Best Original Screenplay for their time-tripping "(500) Days of Summer." Best Adapted Screenplay was Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for "Up in the Air."
France's "Summer Hours" was named Best Foreign Film while "Food, Inc." nudged out the eco shocker "The3 Cove" as Best Documentary.
The Wyatt Award for the best best representing the Southern region was "That Evening Sun," starring Hal Holbrook.

The top Ten Films are as follows.

1 "Up in the Air."
2 "The Hurt Locker"
3. "Up"
4. "Inglourious Basterds"
5. "A Serious Man"
6. (500) Days of Summer"
7. "Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire"
8. "The Messenger"
9. "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
10. "District 9."

Due for voting this Friday is the Florida Film Critics Association, of which I am also a member.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Storytelling Ability of a Boy

pictured: Laura Carbonell, Bethany Anne Lind, Marshall Pailet

A Funny, Emotional Look at Young People and Love

Some people are in closer touch with their adolescent angst than others.
Playwright Carter W. Lewis seems intimately acquainted with his teenaged self, judging by "The Storytelling Ability of a Boy," enjoying a world premiere run through Jan. 17 at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan.
We can only speculate on what autobiographical details might be in any work of fiction, but the playwright admitted to me he was a brainy kid, and obviously he is a consummate storyteller, with a poet's gift of vivid language.
The storyteller of the title is Peck (Marshall Pailet), a self-professed outsider with only one close friend.
She is fellow outsider Dora (Bethany Anne Lind), a rebellious, potty-mouthed iconoclast in search of emotional engagement.
Their English teacher and mentor Caitlin (Laura Carbonell) is only a decade older than her students and still in a state of flux.
Recently divorced, Caitlin has fled from an abusive husband and is trying to get a new start in an unnamed Midwestern town.
Much of the beauty of "Storyteller" comes from the prose of Peck, who sees ordinary things in most extraordinary ways.
Because he is smart, not a jock and stand-offish, Peck is the butt of jokes and the target of bullies.
Dora is his fierce defender- a "Tomboy" in the best sense of the word- and Caitlin quickly joins the cause when certain incidents provoke violence.
The reality of adolescence is that it is a scary period; uncertain and an often violent time. Anyone who says otherwise has led a charmed life or is just not being realistic.
What Carter and his superb cast have accomplished is to make a thing of beauty out of the very things we fear and that may hurt us. "Storyteller" is at times harsh and profane, but so is life.
This, ladies and gentlemen, this is the real deal. I urge you to consider this fascinating, compelling play, performed quickly and without intermission under the incisive, compassionate direction of Louis Tyrrell. I do not think you will be disappointed.
Tickets are $45 and $48. Call (800) 514-3837 or visit

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mandela and Rugby Unite a Nation in "Invictus"

"Invictus" is ostensibly about Nelson Madela, the anti-apartheid crusader who spent much of his life in prison before becoming president of South Africa.
But "Invictus" is as much about a pivotal rugby match as it is about Mandela the martyr and statesman. Director Clint Eastwood has used the rugby world champion match as a device to tighten dramatic tension.
Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman with his customary authority, wit and compassion.
Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaaner rugby captain, is played by Matt Damon, complete with credible South African accent and convincing rugby moves.
It helps that Americans don't know that much about rugby, which is wildly popular in England and former British colonies, but scarcely known in the USA.
The big difference between rugby and American professional football is the rugby players do not wear the helmets or protective gear of American football. Rugby players mix it up with reckless abandon in a tougher, more violent but more intimate kind of combat.
And so a rugby match is an apt metaphor in the opposing sides of Caucasian colonial forces and black native South Africans. Mandela took brilliant advantage of a sport loved equally by white and black South Africans as a device to unite a nation.
Of course it is a huge simplification of what Nelson Mandela accomplished, but this is an American rah-rah action movie after all. The fact that is pays tribute to a brilliant, courageous and above all indomitable statesman is a bonus.
I know William Ernest Henley's "Invicus" by heart. I was puzzled by its choice for the title of a movie about overcoming colonialism, but after seeing this movie I understand. If ever there was an "unconquerable soul," it is Nelson Mandela.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What's in a Name?

Just Call Me Skip

Long-time friends will notice I have a different handle on Facebook: Norman Skip Sheffield.
The reason for that awkward nomenclature is that the name Skip Sheffield was already taken- by me.
When Boca Raton News closed so suddenly on Aug. 21, 2009, the e-mail access to all employees being dismissed was disabled.
As I was one of that unlucky lot I was cut off from everything, including my considerable e-mail address book.
After many failed attempts (I'm still quite a Luddite re the Internet) I had finally joined Facebook under my address under the name Skip Sheffield.
Theoretically Boca News owned everything I've written in their employ, including my name.
I suppose there could have been a way around that conundrum, but I am impatient and practical. I just joined again on my own e-mail address under a slightly different name.
My formal name is Norman L. Sheffield, Jr. My mother started called me Skippy when I was just an infant to differentiate me from my dad. When I reached my teens I followed Rick Nelson's lead and shorted my name to the more manly Skip.
Norman Sheffield died of cancer Feb. 18, 1997. I could have said goodbye to Skip, but my difficult father was nothing if not unique. No, I could never be Norman Sheffield, may he rest in peace.
In recent years I have been doing more international travel. Of course one must travel with a passport, and the name you register your plane tickets under had better match with the one on your passport.
Previously it was only cops, banks or telemarketers who addressed me as Norman. Now I was getting used to it.
I have always been fond of nicknames and aliases. I dreamed up the character Crash Crisby, a more daring, adventurous version of myself, when I was around 9. At age 18 I was working as a busboy at a country club in Columbus, Ohio when I found an unused nametag on the floor. It read "Hello, My name is Vernon Moder."
"C'est moi!" I realized. Vernon is my nerdier, pseudo-intellectual side.
My daughters carry on the family tradition. The two older ones, Mary and Laura, act out their fantasies in a musical group called Zombies! Organize! You'll find all three of my daughters including youngest Anna on Facebook, plus an alias or two.
I say bravo. Real life can be such a drag. A little fantasy makes it all bearable.

So you can Just Call Me Skip