Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Mozart's Sister," "Margin Call" and "Take Shelter"

History, Music and Romance Blend in “Mozart’s Sister”

By Skip Sheffield

Did you know Wolfgang Mozart had a sister? Did you know she may have been a musical genius too?
That is the premise of “Mozart’s Sister,” a beautiful and melancholy film by French writer-director Rene Feret, starring his daughter, Marie Feret, now playing at FAU’s Living Room Theaters.
I did not know about Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (Nallerl for short), born in 1751, four and a half years ahead of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, her gifted, certifiably genius younger brother.
The film begins in 1763 during the rule of King Louis XV of France. The Mozart family is plodding along in their carriage when father Leopold (Marc Barbe) discovers an axle has cracked and must be repaired to continue the tour that will ultimately take them to the Palace of Versailles and an audience with the King and his court,
The main attraction is 7-year-old Wolfgang (David Moreau), who is not only a virtuoso violinist, but composer of the music he plays. Sister Nannerl accompanies on harpsichord and piano and sings. She used to be the star violinist, but stern, chauvinistic Leopold insists violin is not for a woman. Furthermore he refuses to let her compose music or teach her how to write it down.
The family makes a detour to a convent that just so happens to have some very special guests. They are the illegitimate daughters of Louis XV, infamous for his debauchery. The eldest, Louise de France (Lida Feret, another of the directors daughters), takes an instant shine to Nannerl. The girls begin confiding, and Louise gives a letter to Nannerl to deliver to the boyfriend of her dreams at Versailles.
It is through this boyfriend the Nannerl, disguised as a boy, meets the Dauphin (Clovis Foulin), the only surviving son of Louis XV.
The Dauphin, shy and insecure, finds himself attracted to the messenger “boy.” When Nannerl confesses her true identity, the Dauphin is even more intrigued and asks her to compose something that can be played at his court.
“Mozart’s Daughter” is a frothy mix of history, romance and feminism. It is sumptuously beautiful, as much of it was filmed at Versailles. Music lovers will adore its soundtrack. It is highly doubtful how historically accurate it is, but it is a delicious “what if?”

A Tough "Margin Call" About the Financial Mess

“Margin Call” is a tough film about tough, deceitful characters much like the people who got us into our current financial mess.
An impressive debut by writer-director J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” boasts a high-powered cast to match its manipulative, treacherous characters.
It is the eve of the 2008 financial meltdown at a financial firm a lot like Lehman Brothers. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management specialist, is being rudely shown the door after 19 years of service. So are some 80 percent of the staff, without explanation.
On his way out Dale passes a flash drive to his young assistant, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto of “Stak Trek”), and warns, “Be careful.”
While his friends go out to carouse, Peter goes back to work on his own. Peter is a very bright guy; brighter than his boss, and it doesn’t take him long to have a “Eureka!” moment. It is bad, very bad. According to the projected losses of high-risk home loans, the whole company will soon be “upside down,” or owe more than it is worth.
“Margin Call” becomes a 24-hour race to make the best of the inevitable disaster at any cost.
Company man Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) feels anguish even as he instructs his staff to dump loans that will surely burn the buyer. CEO John Tuld (a steely Jeremy Irons) feels no such qualms, and coolly goes about his business as if it were another day at the office.
Another Briton, Paul Bettany, plays Dale’s amoral boss, Will Emerson like the villain he is.
Demi Moore pops up somewhat out of place as Sarah Robertson, a risk officer playing as tough as the boys.
This movie is filmed and presented, without musical soundtrack, as starkly as its subject. It provides no answers but it graphically depicts the nest of vipers that is Wall Street.

Acting Phenomenal in Troubling "Take Shelter"

The title “Take Shelter” does not give a clue as to its real subject, so I will cut to the chase. It’s about the onset of mental illness.
I am very interested in the subject myself, as I deal on a daily basis with mental health professionals. They do not have an easy job.
Michael Shannon is a powerhouse of an actor who has taken on a complex, conflicted character: Curtis, a manager at a sand mining company in Ohio. Curtis is a good husband to his lovely wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a devoted father to his deaf young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart).
“You’ve got a good life” says Curtis’ best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham) admiringly.
Unexpected storms brew in even the best of lives. The fierce, terrifying storms that begin to menace this tornado-prone part of the country are symbolic of Curtis’ inner life, which is teetering on the brink of sanity. Curtis becomes obsessed with building out his house’s storm shelter. He is convinced a storm of apocalyptic proportions is on its way.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols uses some of the tricks of horror-thrillers to depict the turmoil of Curtis’ mind represented in terrifying nightmares as he descends deeper into fear and paranoia.
“Take Shelter” is a bit long at two and a half hours, but Shannon and Chastain are fascinatingly emotive as the embattled father and the devoted wife struggling mightily to understand and sympathize him. Even the little girl is convincing without a word of dialogue.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with the sorrow of mental illness, this is a good film to help laymen understand the very real terrors, hallucinations and delusions that plague the paranoid-schizophrenic.

Altered History "After the Revolution"

Keeping the Light Aflame “After the Revolution”

By Skip Sheffield

Memory often distorts reality. Some good things become better than what they really were. Some bad things become worse, but as a rule we idealize the past.
“After the Revolution” is a thought-provoking play by Amy Herzog, running through Nov. 20 at Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
Emma Joseph is the main character in this work, impressively played by Jackie Rivera in her Caldwell debut. There is another main character we never see: Emma’s grandfather Joe, who died a year and a half before the setting in New York City in 1999.
Emma is a proud, idealist leftist who has just graduated from law school. Emma has established a legal defense in her grandfather’s memory. One of its first cases is a Black Panther Party member accused of murdering a Philadelphia policeman.
Joe Joseph was one of those Americans who became involved with the Communist Party in the USA, and as such he was summoned before the court of the House Un-American Activities Committee, headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Like many of the accused at these hearing, Joe plead the Fifth Amendment and refused to name names of alleged Communists. Because of this he lost his politically sensitive government job.
Sen. McCarthy and his zealous prosecution of “pinkos and Commies” have been largely discredited, but not all his targets were blameless, innocent victims of right-wing politics. There were Marxists who sincerely believed the Soviet Union had a better solution, and its dictator, Joseph Stalin, was not such a bad guy.
The truth is often found between extremes. Joe Joseph’s school teacher son Ben (Gordon McConnell) knows some things about his father that are not very flattering. In fact some things old Joe did were quite disturbing and even shocking. Worse, everyone in the family except Emma knows these secrets.
“After the Revolution” examines what happens to a character whose faith in her family is betrayed; not maliciously but out of misplaced loyalty and kindness. Events unfold quickly in the 11 scenes of Act One, which sets up the big reveal detailed in the six scenes of the shorter Act Two.
While the main thrust of the play is the anger, disappointment and disillusionment of Emma, there also is humor and wry wit in the script, played to maximum effect by the polished, experienced cast. There is authentically warm banter between ultra-liberal crusader Ben Joseph and his stalwart wife Mel (Nancy Barnett). This does not come as a surprise as they are married in real life. Barnett was an administrator for many years for Florida Stage, and this is her first acting job in quite some time. You can tell she relishes it.
Tiffany-Leigh Moskow makes the most of her screwed-up, druggy Jess, younger sister to Emma.
I’m sure Harriet Oser doesn’t mind being called an “old pro” since she is, and her comic sense is impeccable as Emma’s elderly hard-of-hearing step-grandmother.
Handsome Arturo Fernandez manages to find humor in his role of Emma’s paramour Miguel, the world’s most patient, perfect boyfriend.
Howard Elfman makes the best of his small role as a former friend of and potential donor to Joe’s foundation.
Guest director Margaret M. Ledford brings a deft touch to the proceedings, and as always Tim Bennett’s set is fine. Good show, ladies and gentlemen.
Tickets are $27-$50. Call 877-245-7432 or go to

Fiddler on the Roof: The Back Story

“Sholem Aleichem” Documents Celebrated Yiddish Writer

There is a lot more to Sholem Aleichem than “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye the careworn Russian dairyman was just one of thousands of characters and yarns created by the most prolific, celebrated writer in Yiddish literature.
“Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is his story, now playing at FAU’s Living Room Theaters.
The writer was born Sholem Rabinovich near Kiev, Russia in 1859. Early in his career he adopted his pen name, which loosely means “peace be with you.”
There was little peace for Russian Jews in the 19th century. Aleichem was born into a fairly prosperous family, but it was not immune to the political, religious and economic oppression of the Russian Empire in pogram after pogram. This is a well-researched and beautifully presented documentary by Joseph Dorman, with appearances by actors Peter Riegert as Tevye and Jason Kravits as Menachem-Mendl. Aleichem’s own 100-year-old granddaughter Bel Kaufman is a major source of recollection, and “Fiddler on the Roof’ lyricist Sheldon Harnick tells how the writer inspired him. Other scholarly sources are Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center and Mendy Cahan of Yung Yiddish, an Israeli center for the preservation of Yiddish culture.
You don’t have to be Jewish or speak Yiddish to appreciate the accomplishments of this endlessly-creative, hard-working artist. Sholem Aleichem is a writer for all time who crosses all political and cultural boundaries. This documentary is a fitting tribute.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"The Way" Earnest Family Project

“The Way” an Inspirational Film for Non-Religious People

By Skip Sheffield

“The Way” is tangible proof Martin Sheen is a good father. He’s a good grandfather too.
“The Way” is a family project for acclaimed actor Martin Sheen, his son Emilio Estevez and grandson Taylor Estevez.
Taylor Estevez, then 19, in 2003 undertook an 800-kilometer pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, from the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Actually Taylor drove the route with his grandfather, Martin Sheen, but the trip so inspired him his convinced his father, director-actor-writer Emilio Estevez, the subject was worthy of a film.
You could file “The Way” under “I” for inspirational, but it is not that simple. Emilio Estevez has crafted an entertaining fable about ordinary, non-religious people looking for meaning in their lives.
Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) is a California eye doctor whose son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) perished at the outset of a pilgrimage on “The Way” to Santiago. Avery drops everything to fly to France to identify his son’s body. When the body is cremated, Tom is inspired to undertake the pilgrimage himself to better understand his long-estranged son.
Along the way Tom meets three central characters who travel with him. The first is Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jolly Dutchman who is doing the pilgrimage simply to lose weight and get in better shape. Joost has an ample supply of pot and other mind-altering substances to make the journey easier.
Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is an angry divorced Canadian woman. Her quest is to stop smoking. Why she has to go all the way to Spain to do this is never explained.
Finally there is “Jack from Ireland,” a blocked writer of travel stories who would like to write a great novel.
Estevez freely admits he was inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” with na├»ve Dorothy and three ragtag oddball characters she meets on a quest to see the Wonderful Wizard.
There is no Wizard in “The Way,” but there is a physical goal and an unspoken spiritual message to make the most of whatever life throws at you. This is a religious movie for non-religious people, anchored by the quiet power of Martin Sheen, an actor who knows how to convey grief, anger, frustration and joy without making a big show of it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Good Germans as "Saviors in the Night"

By Skip Sheffield

Not all Germans were Nazis in World War II. Not all Germans were anti-Semitic either. A very small number of Germans risked their lives to save Jews from extermination camps. “Saviors in the Night,” playing at FAU’s Living Room Theaters, is the story of one such family.
“Saviors” is based in the best-selling memoirs of Marga Spiegel, played by Veronica Ferres in this Franco-German movie by Ludi Boeken.
Veronica Ferres is a delicately beautiful, blond, blue-eyed woman who like the woman she portrays, does not come across as the stereotypical “Jewish type.”
This was probably key to her survival, for Marga could move amongst the farmers and villagers of Westphalia and blend right in. For her husband Menne (Armin Rohde) it was a different matter. Menne was a horse-trader and looked the part of a Jewish entrepreneur. While Menne was popular and well-liked, his “Jewishness” forced him to go deep into hiding to survive.
The story begins in early 1943, as the Nazis were rounding up the last remaining Jews in Germany for death camps in “the East.” In the middle of the night Marga tells her young daughter Karin “We have to go!” Menne knew the Nazis were approaching, and in desperation he approached a local farmer, Herr Aschoff (Martin Horn) asking if he could take in his wife and daughter.
Aschoff agrees, though his wife (Margarita Broich) is fearful and his daughter Anni (Lia Hoensbroech), a loyal member of the Hitler Youth, is suspicious.
Because of her physical appearance Marga obtains Aryan papers through a ruse and clutches an Iron Cross for protection. The Aschoff family is Roman Catholic, and they take their Christianity seriously.
Marga is forced to disavow her husband and act like a loyal German, but there are many close calls as time wears on, eventually for two full years before the Allied liberation.
Not all of “Saviors” is grim. There are moments of humor and good cheer and even a little romance. In short “Saviors of the Night’ is not just another Holocaust story. It says in the Talmud “He who saves a single life saves the world entire.” This is an extraordinary tale of three lives saved at the risk of an entire community.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Real Steel Not Really About Battling Robots

Humans the Best Part of “Real Steel”

Would you play good money to watch robots box?
That questioned bugged me when contemplating whether or not to go to an advance screening of “Real Steel.” Since the screening was conveniently at the Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, I thought OK, I’ll bite.
As it turns out, I enjoyed “Real Steel” more than expected. I am no fan of boxing or the Transformers movie series about giant fighting robots, but “Real Steel” has a more human component to it, thanks largely to the performances of Hugh Jackman as a has-been boxer and fight promoter and Dakota Goyo as his 11-year-old adoring son.
The screenplay was inspired by a 1956 short story by noted science-fiction writer Richard Matheson.
Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is in desperate straits when we meet him. He has borrowed money from everyone he knows, including shady characters who vow to extract their pound of flesh. His ex-wife (Hope Davis) has married a rich, obnoxious older guy (James Rebhorn) who plans an expended honeymoon in Europe.
That leaves Max Kenton, (Goyo) in the lurch. The older man takes Charlie in confidence and says he will give him $50,000 up front and another $50,000 on their return if Charlie will take Max, the son he abandoned not long after his birth, off their hands.
In a plot that much resembles “The Champ,” father and son
build a relationship while Charlie tries to rebuild his career with an obsolete old robot called Atom.
The computer-generated robot action looks pretty convincing, but it is the father and son stuff that give this otherwise silly movie its warm appeal.

Restless Not for everyone

“Restless” an Offbeat Romance Not for Everyone

By Skip Sheffield

Perhaps it takes a near-death experience to fully appreciate “Restless.” This very offbeat young romance is preoccupied with death, near-death, and what it means to be fully alive.
A couple of my writing colleagues felt it was boring, self-consciously arty and disconnected from conventional reality.
I on the other hand was quite drawn in to this far-fetched tale of doomed love, written by Jason Lew and directed by Gus Van Sant.
“Restless” marks the screen debut of the late Dennis Hopper’s son Henry. Hopper plays Enoch Brae, an alienated high school drop-out who has been in shock and withdrawal from ordinary life since both his parents were killed in a car crash he alone survived.
Enoch lives with his Aunt Mable (Jane Adams) who has moved into his parents’ house to take care of him.
It’s a thankless task for poor Mabel. It would be easy just to brand Enoch as a self-absorbed, self-pitying brat, but what Enoch has going for him is his imagination. Enoch’s best friend is imaginary: a dead Japanese Zero pilot named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase).
Hiroshi is a very friendly ghost, and he is Enoch’s best and only real friend until he meets a pretty young woman at a funeral. Enoch has the macabre habit of attending funerals of people he doesn’t even know.
To most people this would be pretty creepy, but not to Annabelle (the peerless Mia Wasikowska). Death is very much on her mind, because she has a tumor on her brain that will kill her within three months.
I never liked “Love Story,” which had a similar weepy scenario, or “Terms of Endearment,” which was also moving but manipulative.
The character of Annabelle is no typical victim or object of abject pity. Annabelle has accepted the fact that death is a natural part of life. Unlike a victim of accidental death she knows what is in store. Instead of wallowing in despair she is determined to live every day she has left to its fullest; like the songbird who every nightfall thinks he has died, only to awake every morning singing a joyous song of rebirth.
Those of us who have faced the end and emerged miraculously on the other side know there is a clear choice on how to live life. Like Annabelle’s character, who admires Darwin and sees the incredible beauty of nature in everything around her, I choose to be grateful and glad to be alive.
Corny? You bet! “Restless” maybe be sentimental and unbelievable, but it is a fantasy I embrace, and these two fantastic young actors beautifully embody that fantasy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Comedy (Sort of) About Cancer

Cancer No Laughing Matter, But is it Better to Cry?

By Skip Sheffield

Cancer is no laughing matter.
How then, does “50-50” find nuggets of humor in such a serious situation?
This is the most amazing thing about “50-50,” inspired loosely by screenwriter Will Reiser’s real-life battle with the deadly disease. Reiser was just 24 when a large, cancerous sarcoma tumor was discovered in his back. Helping him cope with this crisis was Reiser’s good friend Seth Rogen. Both Reiser and Rogen are funny guys by nature, and when this diagnosis came in 2003, they were both writers for Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical television show “Da Ali G Show.” The germ of the idea to create a serio-comic look at cancer was born.
Seven years later the idea has come into fruition under the sensitive direction of Jonathan Levine. Likeable Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Will Reiser’s alter ego, Adam and Seth Rogen basically plays himself under a different name, Kyle.
At age 27 the otherwise healthy Adam is diagnosed with a cancerous sarcoma tumor in his spine. If diagnosed early enough, sarcoma is treatable with surgery, but because of the location of the tumor and the danger of the surgery, Adam is given only a 50-50 chance of survival.
A cancer diagnosis is awkward no matter how you look at it. If you are the person diagnosed, once you get over the initial shock and sorrow, a fear of the unknown sets in. You feel almost embarrassed to admit to your fragility.
For friends and family there is a tendency to over compensate with sympathy and/or total avoidance of the matter at hand.
All these things factor into Adam’s story. He undergoes the delicate surgery and his friend Kyle is grossed out when he has to change his dressing.
Adam’s girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) seems ill-equipped to deal with the seriousness of Adam’s condition.
Adam is assigned Katie (Anna Kendrick), a therapist just out of med school. Adam is only her third patient.
Adam’s mother Diane (Angelica Houston) goes into full denial mode.
It is only through a support group of fellow cancer patients that Adam gets some real understanding and tolerance.
I know none of this sounds very funny, but somehow it is. His head shaved as a consequence of chemotherapy, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is fearless and engaging. Seth Rogen, who is also producer of this film, puts his money and talent where his heart is as Kyle. Anna Kendrick is absolutely adorable as the wide-eyed, still innocent therapist.
Perhaps I am biased. It was almost eight years ago that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I opted for the radical solution of surgery. Sometimes you have to pay a steep price to keep on living. Through tears and laughter, “50-50” beautifully illustrates that process.