Thursday, October 28, 2010

Loose Ends Are Tied in "Hornet's Nest"

By Skip Sheffield

“You came to kill me” are the first words heard in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” as hero Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) lies in a hospital bed, bruised and swathed in bandages, emerging from a coma.
The statement is pretty much the essence of all three parts of the Millennium Trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Professional computer hacker Lisbeth was abused by her father as a child, and she retaliated by trying to set him on fire at age 12. For poor Lisbeth it is kill or be killed.
Since her violent incidents with dad (she later went at him with an ax), Lisbeth has been in and out of mental institutions, and under the care of dubious guardians who have abused her further.
No wonder Lisbeth distrusts and dislikes men in general.
There is one notable exception: Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading investigative journalist at Millennium magazine. In installment one, “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Lisbeth helped Mikael uncover a half-century old Nazi plot involving mutilation and murder of women. In the course of their perilous investigation they have a torrid fling.
“Dragon Tattoo” remains my favorite of the Millennium trilogy because it combined mystery, suspense, blistering action and hot May-December romance. In part two, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” Lisbeth took center stage to become kind of an avenging feminist supergirl. As a result of her desperate altercations, she has a bullet in her head and two other parts of her body, and at age 27 she is accused of three counts of murder.
In this final installment, Mikael moves back to center stage as Lisbeth’s steadfast defender and protector, though feisty Lisbeth hardly needs to lean on any man for support. Her conscientious Dr. Jonasson (Askel Morisse) does his best to shield her from police and bad guys alike while she is helpless.
The Millennium series has made a star of Lisbeth Salander, a thin, slight, dark-haired beauty who does martial arts moves with a ballerina’s grace.
The problem with “Hornet’s Nest” is that it is much more static than either of the earlier chapters, and it is bogged with plot details that clutter its two hours-plus length under the direction of Daniel Alfredson.
The person who must be killed is Lisbeth’s purely evil father, Russian immigrant Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov). Zalachenko revels in his own evil, and he is contemptuous of anyone who thinks he can be defeated.
On that account there is some satisfying closure regarding the fate of Zalachenko, but there are oodles of other bad guys who must be dispatched by Ms. Salander.
Paramount among these is Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), a hulking platinum-haired giant who just happens to be Lisbeth’s half-brother. Other nasties include crooked psychiatrist Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbon), and Evert Gullberg (Hans Alfredson) and Fredrik Clinton (Lennart Hjulstrom), former heads of the shadowy, sinister “Section” political faction.
Once Lisbeth regains her health and readies to face the music in court with her compassionate lawyer, Mikhail’s sister Annika Giannini (Annika Hallin), she struts her all-black colors, teases her hair into a Mohawk, and re-inserts all the hardware into her various piercings in defiance of courtly decorum.
Plot threads tie up a little too neatly in this finale, but it still has action, intrigue and style. I cringe to think what is in store when this series is remade in the USA with American actors, so catch the real thing while you can.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Strong Leads Help Conviction

Swank Convincing, Rockwell Surprising in “Conviction”

By Skip Sheffield

The advance buzz on “Conviction” concerns Hilary Swank as possible Oscar contender, which would make her a three-time Best Actress winner. The real surprise is Sam Rockwell in his strongest screen role to date.
Swank and Rockwell play sister and brother, Betty Anne and Kenny Waters in this truth-based screenplay by Pamela Gray.
Director Tony Goldwyn establishes from the beginning this brother and sister are extremely close, probably out of self-protection due to an absent father and neglectful mother.
It is established that Kenny and Betty Anne were getting into mischief at a very young age. They were no strangers to the local police in their small town of Ayer, Mass.
It is also established that Kenny has a hair-trigger temper that can flare up suddenly regardless of consequences. We see it happen in a bar when Kenny violently threatens a guy who has made a disparaging remark about his young daughter.
In short Kenny is no angel and nobody’s role model, but is he a murderer?
First degree murder is what Kenny was accused and convicted of in 1983, two years after Katharina Brow was discovered murdered in a most horrific manner, with 30 stab wounds to her body.
Kenny had been questioned at the time of the crime, and he had the bad sense to wise off to the police investigator, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo).
Taylor was the wrong cop to mess with we learn later in the story, with Kenny in prison and Betty Anne obsessively working to get him a new trial.
Like the strong women Swank portrayed in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Betty Anne is a self-made, doggedly determined underdog who got her GED, went to college, and then law school to become a lawyer with just one client: her brother Kenny.
None of this happened overnight. It was 18 years of struggle that cost Betty Anne her marriage and nearly cost the embattled woman her two sons.
In this dramatization Betty is spurred on by her best friend Abra, played by Minnie Driver.
Heroes and villains are drawn quite literally. The former is a lawyer named Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), who pioneered using DNA testing to disprove convictions. The latter is Nancy Taylor (Leo) and the unseen district attorney Martha Coakley, who was loath to admit a mistake could have been made. Playing a most intriguing coerced false witness is a scarcely recognizable Juliette Lewis.
In the hands of less-skilled actors this could have been just another TV drama, but Swank and Rockwell, both affecting convincing heavy Mass. accents, draw the viewer into what is ultimately story of love transcendent, a sister for brother, against all odds.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Old Pros at Play in "Red"

By Skip Sheffield

First you should know “Red” stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous.
“Red” is a CIA conspiracy plot spoof adapted from a DC Comics graphic novel. It stars Bruce Willis as retired but extremely lethal black ops agent Frank Moses. Frank is bored and out of sorts in his quiet Cleveland suburb. His only diversion is lengthy phone calls to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker at her dewy-eyed best), a government pension employee who works in Kansas City.
The second thing you need to know is that this has an incredible cast of old pros having the time of their lives acting out ridiculous revenge fantasies.
You know this is a comic book right away when a squad of black-suited, masked gunman descend on Frank’s little house and riddle it with so many bullets the front porch falls off.
Frank Moses is of course unscratched, and he proceeds to dispatch his attackers one by one, as well as a second backup squad.
Then it’s off to Kansas City where Frank suddenly appears inside Sarah’s locked apartment. When she gets understandably alarmed, he gags her, binds her, throws her in the car and takes off for New Orleans. You just know this is comic book love at first sight.
First stop is Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), age 80 with stage 4 liver cancer, living in a nursing home. When Frank tells Joe the CIA has tried to kill him and he may be next, Joe is in.
Robert Schwentke directs at blistering speed, interspersing witty one-liners with amazing collisions, near-misses and huge fireball explosions.
Next up in Pensacola is Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich in his funniest, most over-the-top role ever) a wacky, paranoid survivalist who mistrusts cell phones, computers, the Internet and the modern world in general. Marvin has achieved his unique vision having been fed LSD experimentally for 11 years. He is perfect for this mission.
In Virginia the team picks up Victoria (Helen Mirren), a polished Brit with a lethal knack with a machine gun. Later Victoria’s former lover, Russian agent Ivan (Brain Cox) joins the band.
With a little help from Henry (venerable Ernest Borgnine), keeper of records deep in the bowels of the CIA, Frank will get the lowdown as to why CIA agent Cooper (Karl Urban) has been ordered to assassinate him. The trail will lead to arms dealer Alexander Downey (Richard Dreyfuss, as a snarling, sniveling villain), and up to the office of the Vice President of the USA.
The plot is patently absurd nonsense, with our heroes dodging bullets, missiles and flying vehicles and batting them away as if they were flies.
This is great stuff for the over-50 set, and I think kids can enjoy it too for all the action and mayhem. No one will ever mistake this for great art, but as slam-bang entertainment, at this moment in time it can’t be beat.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Young Frankenstein Invades Ft. lauderdale

Giddy, Bawdy Fun with “Young Frankenstein” at Broward Center

By Skip Sheffield

Is there anything Mel Brooks cannot do?
We know and love him for his witty and humorous writing, but Brooks has also acted, sung and danced, directed and produced film, television and theater, and he composes music and lyrics too.
“Young Frankenstein” the stage musical is Brooks’ latest creation, after the huge success of “The Producers” on Broadway.
“Young Frankenstein” runs through Oct. 17 at Broward Center for the Arts. It’s a giddy, silly, sexy explosion of song, dance and mock science fiction.
“Young Frankenstein” has inspired the kind of devotion that leads to word-by-word recitation of key gags by loyal fans.
The book, by Brooks and Thomas Meehan (“Hairspray”) is as true to the 1974 movie as is possible on a theatrical stage.
It is director Susan Stroman’s choreography that raises the stage show above the movie. This touring company features a bevy of beautiful, saucy dancing babes and an equally agile company of athletic young men.
Playing the guileless young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-Steen) is boyish Christopher Ryan.
The opening scene is set in Transylvania (“The Happiest Town”) in 1934, and Frederick’s grandfather, Dr. von Frankenstein, has just died, leaving New York Dr. Frederick the sole surviving heir.
Frederick is engaged to frosty Elizabeth (Janine Davita), who demonstrates her attitude with “Please Don’t Touch Me.”
When Frederick dutifully travels to Transylvania, he fist encounters Igor (That’s Eye-Gore) (Cory English), his grandfather’s faithful hunchbacked assistant (Hump, what hump?) and a luscious young Fraulein named Inga (Synthia Link), who is only too willing to be Frederick’s favorite laboratory helper. We can see where things are going with the corny, bawdy “Roll in the Hay.”
A scene-stealer in this show is Joanna Glushak as the haughty Frau Blucher, whose very name causes horses to whinny.
Another outstanding player is baritone David Benoit in the dual role of Inspector Kemp and the lovelorn, blind Hermit.
Then of course there is the monster himself, played by strapping Preston Truman Boyd, a creature first barely coherent but ultimately supple enough to tap dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in a tuxedo while reciting in Shakespearean tones.
“Young Frankenstein” is closer to burlesque than classic musical theater, but it sure is fun with its barrage of singing, dancing and cheerful innuendo. After all, a spoof is a spoof, and Mel Brooks is the spoofmaster general.
Tickets are $25-$65. Call 954-462-0222 or visit

A Horse, Schools and Clones

“Secretariat” a Winner for All Time

“Secretariat” is a good, old-fashioned, rah-rah sports movie, but it is more; an emotional underdog story about a determined woman and her equally determined horse.
The woman is Penny Chenery, portrayed by Diane Lane.
I have admired Diane Lane ever since I saw her in “The Outsiders” when she was only 17-years-old. Lane has paradoxical qualities: she is beautiful and feminine but a little rough and tough, worldly, and above all, sexy.
These are the perfect qualities to play Penny Chenery, who is described as an “ordinary housewife,” but really is a most extraordinary person.
Chenery was the owner of Secretariat, one of the most extraordinary racehorses of all time, and the last one to win the Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and the Preakness in 1973. Secretariat set records in the first two races that stand to this day.
As magnificent as Big Red (Secretariat’s nickname) was, the movie is as much about Penny Chenery’s personal struggle to train, compete and triumph in a lame-dominated sport.
The story begins back in 1969 in Virginia with an agreement struck by Penny’s father (Scott Glenn) and his wealthy, friendly rival, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). A coin toss was proposed to determine the pick of the next two foals of two championship horses. Phipps chose a weanling filly he thought was a sure thing. Chenery “lost” with the colt that would change the fact of American horse racing.
Adapting from journalist William Nack’s non-fiction book, Mike Rich has devised a gripping double underdog story that builds under Randall Wallace’s direction through trials, tribulations, setbacks and finally edge-of –the-seat racing triumphs. John Malkovich lends humor, pride and determination to his French-Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin
Particularly rewarding is the final display of photos of the real characters, including the fabled horse.
“Secretariat” is inspirational in an old-fashioned, can-do American way. It seems a miracle that Penny Chenery’s marriage survived all the challenges of her husband’s skepticism, the expenses of thoroughbred racing and her own defiant self-determination. But as the movie poster declares, this is “The Impossible True Story.” You will laugh, thrill and probably weep. This is Walt Disney entertainment at its best.

“Waiting for Superman” a Disconcerting Documentary

“Waiting for Superman” is the most important film documentary since “An Inconvenient Truth.”
It is no coincidence that both films were directed by Davis Guggenheim, a man who really knows how to make a point forcefully.
“Superman” should do for American public education what “Inconvenient Truth” did for global warming.
Guggenheim accomplished his goal by finding five appealing, typical kids facing challenges in obtaining a quality education and following the children through a school year in home towns of The Bronx, New York, Harlem, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles.
Guggenheim barrages us with grim facts and figures between scenes showing the children at home and in schools labeled as “drop-out factories.”
Contrasting the stories of failure is that of Bronx inner city native Geoffrey Canada, who rose above his circumstances and started a miraculously successful charter school in the worst part of Harlem.
Why a charter school, you might ask?
The simple answer is teachers’ unions and tenure rules. Defending the teachers’ point of view is teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten.
There is no simple answer to the fact of why America has slipped behind so much of the civilized world in education over the past 50 years, just as there is no simple answer regarding global warming.
“Superman” promises to be as controversial and volatile as “Inconvenient Truth,” but for those of us who have children in the public school system, or simply care about the kids struggling now, “Superman” is a ray of light shed on a very dark issue. Let the debates begin.

“Never Let Me Go” a Mournful Horror Film

“Never Let Me Go” is a mournful, melancholy melodrama based on the 2005 novel by Japanese-born British author, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Carey Mulligan stars as Kathy H, a girl raised in a sequestered boarding school in Hailsham, England.
Kathy’s best friends are Tom (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightly). What the kids don’t realize until too late is that they are clones being cultivated expressly as donors of organs for ailing human beings.
As horrifying as that thought is, screenwriter Alex Garland and director Mark Romanek pour on the melodrama with the specter of a doomed romantic triangle with all its regrets.
What “Never Let Me Go” does prove is that Mulligan, Knightly and Garfield are three of the best and brightest young actors of their generation,

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Face and birth of Facebook

Like or Unlike, “The Social Network” is One Good Movie

Are you on Facebook?
Many people are still holdouts, although FB claims a membership of 500 million and counting.
“Social Network” will leave FB naysayers declaring “I told you so.”
You could call “Social Network” the ultimate Revenge of the Nerd.
That nerd is Mark Zuckerberg, played with prickly precision by Jesse Eisenberg.
We meet Mark in the fall of 2003 at Harvard, where he is an undergraduate. Mark is dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), who has had enough of his short attention span, social awkwardness and obsession with computer programs.
Reeling from Erica’s rejection, Mark plays a cruel Internet prank that infuriates the female population of Harvard and crashes the university’s computer servers.
Perversely, the handsome, identical Winklevoss twins (Cameron and Tyler, both played by Armie Hammer), who are in every way Mark’s opposite, are impressed with Mark’s programming genius, and ask him for some help with a social dating network for Harvard students.
Mark accepts the challenge and goes one step further to create his own social network, which he calls The Facebook. He takes on as a partner his roommate Eduardo Savererin (Andrew Garfield) a wealthy Cuban-American from Miami who puts up $1,000 as seed money.
The Winklevoss twins, who epitomize the W.A.S.P. ideal, will spend the rest of the story using their wealth and privilege to force a legal judgment again Zuckerberg.
As the film’s slogan goes, “You can’t get to 500 million friends Without Making a Few Enemies,” and Zuckerberg proceeds to wrong his best friends on his way to becoming the world’s youngest billionaire and worldwide, certifable cultural phenomenon.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires,” Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is clever, suspenseful and ironically comic, featuring Eisenberg reciting complicated computer jargon with the speed of an auctioneer.
Some of the choicest comedy comes via Justin Timberlake, who plays Napster founder Sean Parker. Mark clearly develops a man crush on Parker, who is Mark’s gregarious, cocaine-fueled, womanizing opposite.
Parker was just another stepping stone for Mark, who can’t be bothered with the high life.
This movie was directed by David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) without any cooperation from Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg. Some have called it a hatchet job against Zuckerberg, but I don’t think so. If anything, it will only increase public admiration for the distant, mysterious, obviously brilliant Facebook creator.
I don’t think it will change any minds about Facebook. There are plenty of people who couldn’t care less about what other people are doing, and there are even more who simply use it as a tool for their own self-promotion.
So like it or unlike it, “The Social Network” is a heck of a good movie that should entertain even the worst skeptics.