Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hangover 2 Deja Vu; Ed Asner is FDR

One Gross “Hangover”

By Skip Sheffield

Memorial Day is a solemn, serious occasion.
“Hangover Part II” is about as un-solemn and un-serious as a movie gets.
The makers of the surprise hit “The Hangover” are trying to duplicate their success by making it cruder, grosser, more salacious and socially shocking than the first time around.
My friend Beth remarked on how social mores have slipped so much that a movie as tasteless and deliberately disgusting as “Hangover II” can slip by with an R-rating.
Enough of the soap box. Like "Pirates of the Caribbean,” there is nothing a film critic can say to deter an audience from attending. The coveted 17-25 age group loves booze, drug and gross-out humor, and this movie delivers. Hundreds were turned away from an advance screening at CityPlace in West Palm Beach.
Basically this is the same movie as the first with the same cast and same premise. Only the locale has changed: exotic Thailand instead of tawdry Las Vegas.
Once again Stu (Ed Helms), the nerdy dentist, is getting married, this time to a Thai beauty named Lauren (Jamie Chung). Once again the guys decide to have “just one beer” and once again they wake up in a strange place with no memory of the previous night and one of the party missing.
“It’s happened again,” mutters Phil (Bradley Cooper), the hunky handsome one. This time the missing person is Teddy (Mason Lee) the brainy 16-year-old brother of the bride-to-be. Once again with the inept assistance of prissy Alan (Zach Galifianakis, more annoying than ever), the guys will search for Teddy in the apparently lawless, often powerless and debauched city of Bangkok.
Comic drug mob boss Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is back too, but the funniest player is a small monkey named Crystal, who delivers drugs, smokes cigarettes and helps thwart bad guys.
What can one say about a movie whose most startling gag involves a trans-gender prostitute?
Enough said. This week’s other choice is another sequel: “Kung-Fun Panda 2.”

Ed Asner is “FDR” at Caldwell Theatre

At the other end of the artistic spectrum we have the beloved, respected and acclaimed actor Ed Asner as America’s 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in “FDR,” playing five performances Wednesday, June 1 through Sunday, June 5 at Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton.
Based on Dore Schary’s play “Sunrise at Campobello,” “FDR” covers the perilous years from Roosevelt’s inauguration in the depth of the Depression in 1933 to his death in the final year of World War II in 1945.
Asner has won seven of television’s Emmy Awards for the classic series “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Lou Grant,” but he is an accomplished stage actor as well. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $45, $60 and $75. Call 877-245-7432 or visit

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Is Will Ferrell the New Jack Lemmon?

Some Light in Dark Tale Starring Will Ferrell

By Skip Sheffield

Will Ferrell explores his serious side in “Everything Must Go.” You could call it a public service message that entertains.
Ferrell is Nick Halsey, a once hotshot salesman whom we meet on the worst day of his life. First he is fired by his much-younger boss. Then he goes home to discover the locks have been changed and all his possessions thrown out on the front lawn.
How does Nick respond to this calamity? He picks up a couple of 12-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Nick is a recovering alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon about as far as you can fall. His incensed and unseen wife has cancelled his credit cards and frozen his bank account. Nick’s car is repossessed. His only friend seems to be Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a chubby, lonely black kid who is kind enough to lend him his bicycle for trips to the mini-mart.
You could call this a contemporary “Days of Wine and Roses,” except it isn’t a married couple on the skids, just a sick, weak-willed man played by Will Ferrell.
Director Dan Rush expanded a bleak short story by Raymond Carter and lightened up its dire spirit. Ferrell can find comedy in the darkest places. Waking up to his front lawn’s automatic sprinklers splashing becomes a running joke. A grown man riding a child’s bicycle lugging 12-packs is a good sight gag, but there is nothing funny about alcoholism. Ferrell and his writer-director have the good sense to add fragments of hope to this forlorn character and his cautionary tale. Nick becomes a kind of mentor and father to Kenny, who has no dad. We learn Nick’s father was a raging alcoholic who abused his family.
Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pretty, lonely and pregnant new neighbor across the street, sees beyond Nick’s pathetic situation. So does Delilah (Laura Dern), an old high school classmate who seems willing to overlook Nick’s shortcomings.
When we learn Nick’s A.A. sponsor, a local cop named Frank Garcia (Michael Pena) may not have Nick’s best interests at heart, we feel even more sympathetic toward the fallen man.
In short “Everything Must Go” is a downhill slide that stops short of falling off a cliff. Just it case we don’t get the message there is one of Bob Dylan’s finest songs, “I Shall Be Released,” to drive it home. It’s a remarkable dramatic turn by an actor who wants to do more than just make people laugh.

Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider

A Beautiful, Poetic “Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider”

By Skip Sheffield

“Some people believe poetry can alter reality,” says Bethany, the plucky heroine of “The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider,” the final play of Florida Stage’s 24th season, through June 5 at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. By play’s end I felt inclined to agree.
Carter W. Lewis’s “Camel Spider” is about the nasty business of war and its collateral damage, but it also celebrates the beauty of the spoken and sung word.
As a one-time poet and lifelong journalist I greatly admire the tapestry of gritty reality and gauzy fantasy Lewis has woven out of thin air, with a minimum of hocus-pocus and special effects. The effect is achieved through the sympathetic, knowing guidance of director Louis Tyrrell and a wonderful cast, his fully inhabiting his or her character.
Bethany is played by newcomer Elizabeth Birkenmeier, a tiny, highly-intelligent and gifted actress currently working on her MFA at Carnegie Mellon school of Drama.
Bethany is 22, but Birkenmeier appears even younger; a childlike waif adrift in a cruel, harsh world.
The setting is a stark, unspecified military training facility somewhere in the USA. Bethany is seeking to discover the truth about her father, who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan.
I have always appreciated the irony of the term “friendly fire.” The end result is the same as hostile fire: injury and/or death. The weapons just happened to be in the hands of the soldiers who are supposed to be on your side.
In the case of Bethany and her deceased father, two of the soldiers who were on his side were eyewitnesses to the incident.
Stack (Todd Allen Durkin) and Denny (Eric Mendenhall) are “soldiers of fortune” to express it euphemistically, or mercenaries, to be more direct.
Stack is older and more cynical. Denny still clings to youthful idealism and conscience.
Bethany will use her womanly and poetic wiles to touch the men and appeal to their sense of decency. A lot is at stake. Bethany racked up a bill of $200,000 earning a BFA in “spoken word poetry,” and there is a wrongful death insurance policy.
They didn’t have such a thing as a spoken word degree when I was in college. It was called English Literature.
In the context of this play the term is perfect, because in between her cross-examination of the soldiers, Bethany embarks on wild flights of poetic fantasy.
There are two other characters: Bethany’s protective mother Loretta (Laura Turnbull), representing practical reality, and Ahmad Ahmadazi (Antonio Amadeo), an Afghan taxi driver who inhabits a realm somewhere between the reality of driving a cab and the dream world of the lyrics of the British musical group Led Zepplin. Ahmad also provides much-needed comic relief.
How this all melds together is hard to explain, but trust me: it works. “Camel Spider” is the most fantastic piece of theater I’ve seen so far in 2011. I think it is by far the most beautiful offering of Florida Stage’s 24th season, and a note-perfect finale for the first season at Kravis.
Tickets are $25 and up. Call 561-832-7469 or visit

A Deep, Beautiful and Joyous “Color Purple”

“The Color Purple” is also a beautiful show, continuing through Sunday at Kravis Center in the larger Dreyfoos Hall, but that beauty is laced with pain and suffering and ultimate triumph.
Part of the Kravis on Broadway series, “The Color Purple” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker movie and the Steven Spielberg film, as combined by playwright Marsha Norman.
Set in Georgia from 1909-1949, “Purple” is the story of two black sisters: Celie (Dayna Jarae Dantzler) and Nettie (Traci Allen).
Celie has the misfortune of being impregnated twice while young and forced into an abusive relationship with a tyrant called Pa Mark Hall). Her children are taken from her, and Celie is reduced to what amounts to slavery.
Sister Nettie on the other hand gets an education and goes to Africa as a missionary.
“Purple” is the story of Celie’s trials and sorrows, portrayed beautifully through song and dance. It is also the story of Celie’s friendship and love for Shug Avery (Tarena Augustine), a beautiful club singer who drifts in and out of her life and encourages her liberation.
“Purple” is filled with a large cast of colorful characters, in the best sense of the word, with many very funny and joyous moments balancing the drama.
Dayna Jarae Dantzler is a performer who grows before your eyes both in stature and voice, until by the finale she is a tiny, triumphant dynamo capable of raising the rafters of that beautiful hall. Catch it, as they say, while you can.
Tickets are $25 up. Call 800-KRAVIS-1 or go to

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Uma Seduces, Cave Dazzles

Uma Thurman a Femme Fatale in “Ceremony”

By Skip Sheffield

Every since she played the bad girl in “Kill Bill” I’ve thought of Uma Thurman more as an action figure than a sensitive, beautiful woman.
“Ceremony” corrects that misconception. Thurman plays a femme fatale named Zoe pursued by two men.
One is her fiancé, a famous filmmaker named Whit Coutell (Lee Pace).
The other is Sam Davis (Michael Angarano), a younger guy with whom Zoe had a brief fling.
Sam, a not-very-successful writer of children’s books, still secretly carries the torch for Zoe.
Sam hatches a crazy plot in which he convinces his friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) to join him in a beach getaway for the weekend. Unbeknownst to Marshall, Sam plans to infiltrate Zoe’s wedding and head it off at the pass.
Anyone who has tried to rekindle a love affair from the past knows it is difficult, if not impossible.
On one hand Sam is a quixotic, romantic idealist. On the other he is a pathetic, laughable loser.
Michael Angarano is such a skilled young actor that he makes his Sam appealing to both the “older woman” and to us. We laugh at his absurdity, yet we feel sympathy for Sam.
Much of the credit must go to writer-director Max Winkler, who must have inherited some of his dad Henry’s comedy instincts.
“Ceremony” is a wry and somewhat raunchy R-rated romance that jokes about delusions without heaping scorn. Oh, and Uma Thurman has never looked lovelier. The film is playing FAU’s Living Room Theaters.

Astounding “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

As a filmmaker, Werner Herzog is no wimp. He searched for El Doraldo in “Aguirre, Wrath of God.” He built an opera house in the middle of a jungle in “Fitcarraldo.” He documented the wrath of wild animals in “Grizzly Man.”
Now Herzog combines his love of art, history, naturally beautiful places and music in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” playing Shadowood and Regal Delray Theaters.
Chauvet Cave in France was sealed by a landslide for 20,000. In 1994 scientists discovered the entryway to a cavern as large as a football field. As extraordinary as that is, what makes Chauvet Cave unique in the world is its collection of cave paintings, some more than 30,000-years-old, as determined by carbon dating. This is more than twice as old as any previous archeological find. Furthermore there are petrified remains of Ice Age animals. Finally there are incredibly beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that glisten like jewels.
Thanks to his solid reputation, German filmmaker Herzog was given permission to film in the priceless, fragile treasure trove which will never be seen by masses of people, and to film in 3-D to appear more real.
For all this, Herzog has made an incredible gift of beauty, love and knowledge to the people of the world.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Circus, Trains and Romance

Circus, Trains and Love in “Water for Elephants”

By Skip Sheffield

If you love the circus and you love trains, you are already halfway to loving “Water for Elephants.” If you love an against-all-odds love story, then you are virtually guaranteed to love this movie, based on the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen.
Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson are the lovers: circus star Marlena and veterinarian Jacob Janowski.
The story is told by the elderly Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook in the present. Jacob alludes to a young circus employee that he knows about the terrible Benzini Bros. circus disaster of 1931. Not only does he know about it; Jacob was there when the disaster happened and he knows what caused it.
So begins Jacob’s yarn and a movie that careens from dramatic adventure to comedy, romance and melodrama, and back again under the direction of Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”).
It is the depths of the Depression and Jacob is taking his final exam to become a Doctor of Veterinary Science at Cornell. Jacob never takes the test, as he is interrupted by the terrible news both his parents have been killed in a car crash. If that weren’t bad enough, Jacob’s generous veterinarian father has mortgaged everything for his son’s education, and now the bank is taking everything.
This has a very 2011 ring to it, but that is one of the attractions of a story set in that terrible time in America. Everyone is needy, hurting and growing more desperate.
On an impulse Jacob hops on a train that turns out to be the Benzini Bros. circus train.
Jacob has the good fortune to fall under the protection of a genial alcoholic called Camel (Jim Norton), and that’s a good thing. August (German actor Christoph Waltz), the cruel, autocratic circus owner, regularly has his employees thrown off the moving train for reasons as simple as he can’t afford payroll.
Yes, August is a very bad guy and he is married to the very beautiful star of his show (Witherspoon), an expert equestrian and gymnast.
My opinion of Reese Witherspoon has shot up at least 30 points for pulling off this role and making it look easy. Reese rides trick horses, flies through the air, twirls on metal bars, and as a coup de grace, rides a 4-ton elephant named Rosie.
The pachyderm is as impressive as Reese. Where did they ever find an elephant that understands Polish?
Robert Pattinson is less impressive. His character is younger than Marlena’s and less sophisticated, but he seems a bit out of his league. The least successful part is his romantic scenes with Reese. I felt uncomfortable for him.
On the other hand Waltz is one dandy villain, full of pride, vanity and rage. The German accent doesn’t hurt either.
“Elephants” has many delights visually and dramatically. I loved the dwarf actor Mark Povinelli, who played Walter, a clown who loves his little dog.
So while this movie appeals more to women than men, I’m with the girls on this one.

Three stars

Bill Cunningham’s New York

So you think you are frugal?
After seeing the Richard Press documentary “Bill Cunningham’s New York” you may not be so smug.
Until recently Cunningham lived in a tiny artist’s apartment above Carnegie Hall. He has never owned a car. He travels New York City on a bicycle day and night, in all weather conditions. He always wears the same outfit, topped with a blue street sweeper’s smock he bought in Paris.
Cunningham is a photographer; a world-class fashion and lifestyle photographer for the New York Times. His photos chronicle the rich and famous as well as the poor and unknown. He has an uncanny fashion sense, and for this reason Cunningham is welcome at the highest-level fashion shows of the world. He knows the great designers, socialites and members of royalty, and they sing his praises in archival footage.
Cunningham prefers to find the beauty of street life amongst ordinary people living their lives. Because he has no material desires or social needs, Cunningham cannot be bought. He is 82-years-old, yet he continues to work. For his birthday he is honored at a surprise party at the New York Times. The love and respect for the man is palpable.
“I never miss a good picture,” he says modestly. Bill Cunningham is New York personified.

Four stars

Jeff Beck Rules

Photo by Tom Craig

Jeff Beck Rules Kingdom of Guitar

By Skip Sheffield

Ladies and gentlemen: Jeff Beck rules the Kingdom of Guitar.
This is no idle boast. I am one of the fortunate few who saw Jimi Hendrix live in concert with original sidemen Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding in 1968. Five of us traveled from Boca Raton to Tampa and back again the same night; a 400-mile round-trip, and totally worth it.
I was at the wheel of my friend Marty Caron’s 1967 for the trip back because everyone else was so tired. I was wired from the experience of seeing the most incandescent musician and stage performer I had ever seen in my life. As Jimi would have said, I was Experienced.
I thought of Jimi when Jeff Beck took to the stage for the SunFest finale on Sunday, May 1 in downtown West Palm Beach. Technically, Beck is the equal or possibly even better than Hendrix as a player able to coax the sounds of the universe out of a simple Fender Stratocaster. What made Hendrix one of a kind was his stage presence. “Electric” doesn’t begin to explain the incredible charisma Hendrix had.
Jeff Beck is not electric in that sense. He is a modest, humble, 66-year-old man of few words. He lets his guitar say it all. It is not just his speed or dexterity; it is the astonishing rage of Beck’s tonal landscape. I don’t know what kind of gadgets and gimcracks Beck might have had between his white Stratocaster and giant Marshall tube-type amplifier, but it really doesn’t matter. Beck does not sing and he barely speaks, yet he holds the audience transfixed through his endless riffs, no two of which are alike.
The first saw Beck live several years ago at Mizner Park Amphitheater. He played as a power trio, with a guy on bass and another on drums. This time it was a quintet, and what a quintet! Beck recruited Prince bassist Rhonda Smith for the bottom end. Ms. Smith can pluck, thumb and slap was well as any bassist of any sex, and furthermore the gal can sing. So can drummer Narada Michael Walden. If that weren’t enough, Beck also recruited former Sing sideman Jason Rebello, one of the finest British jazz pianists playing today, on key boards.
As much as I enjoyed Gregg Allman on Friday night, for me nothing could top the Jeff Beck experience.
At one point Beck said, “Bless You.”
Yes Jeff, I felt blessed. I hope you come back to Florida again sometime soon; perhaps for your “Rock & Roll Party to Honor Les Paul,” which recently came out on DVD.
For more on the sights and sounds of SunFest, go