Friday, January 28, 2011

Two Contemplative, Downbeat Films

By Skip Sheffield

It’s the opposite of a slam-bang action weekend in new film releases, with two contemplative, dare we say downbeat? foreign films.
The oddly-spelled “Biutiful” is generating the most interest because it has an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film (Spain) and its star Javier Bardem is a Best Actor candidate.
There is no question Bardem does a masterful job as Uxbal, a Barcelona hustler involved in shady dealings, mostly involving crooked cops and illegal immigrants.
On the other hand Uxbal is a loving father to two young children, whom he is raising as a single parent because of their mother’s mental illness and utter irresponsibility.
His wife Marimba (Maricel Avarez) has sunk so low she does tricks as a prostitute when she is not sleeping with Uxbal’s no-count brother.
If this weren’t grim enough, Uxbal is trying to carry on his chaotic ordinary life with the knowledge he has terminal cancer and only a couple months left to live.
Yes, Mexican writer-director Alejandro Guillermo Inarritu has really heaped the misery on his leading character, yet Bardem’s Uxbal soldiers on with stoicism and generosity, even as he is entering the terminal stages of illness.
So you see the title, which is Uxbal’s young son’s misspelling on a crayon drawing, is anything but “Beautiful.” The paradox, if you stick with the story through its two-and-a-half-hour length, is that this is a tale of redemption. It is a remarkable performance by Bardem, surely one of the best actors in the world today.

“Another Year” Unexciting but Reassuring

“Another Year” is an unexciting title for an unexciting film by British director Mike Leigh. That is meant in a good way, because “Another Year” is a film of great subtlety, anchored by two fine character actors.
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a long-married couple still in love in the autumn of their years (the film is divided into the four seasons).
By contrast everyone around them is not happy at all. Gerri’s best friend Janet (Imelda Staunton) is almost comatose from depression. Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight) is pretty much a lush with other bad habits. Then there’s Mary (Lesley Manville) who also drinks too much and struggles with depression.
Tom and Gerri, so different from the cartoon characters, are almost apologetic for being so darn content, with fulfilling jobs, useful hobbies, and a good relationship with their grown son (Oliver Maltman). In short, the challenges of life do not get Tom and Gerri down.
For that “Another Year” is a lovely, uplifting and gently entertaining film.

"Company Men" Hits Close to Home

“Company Men” hit a little too close to home for me.
I was never a high-paid executive, but I had a job that I loved at a newspaper I had served since I was a 12-year-old delivery boy. When the Boca Raton News closed its doors I was not so much surprised as resigned. My worst fears had become a reality.
That was about 18 months ago, but I still miss the old routine.
“Company Men” follows three corporate executives after they are arbitrarily laid off from the fictional GTX ship-building organization.
Writer-director John Wells picked a likely field for downsizing and outsourcing, because American ship-building is as sickly as daily-delivered newspapers.
Ben Affleck plays the archetypical young hotshot: Bobby Walker, regional sales manager of GTX and owner of Porsche, dream house in Connecticut and fat expense account.
“Guess what I shot today?” brags Bobby as he breezes into work.
When Bobby realizes nobody is interested in his golf game, he becomes defensive.
“What happened? Did somebody die?”
Yes Bobby, your career just died along with a host of your best buddies.
“We work for the shareholders now,” announces a grim-faced Craig Nelson as CEO.
Anger, shock, disbelief, rage and sorrow are the immediate reactions of Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been with the company since its formation, and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a loyal company man if there ever was one.
For those of us who have been there, it is hard to feel sorry for these guys as they are knocked down to size. It is much easier to sympathize with the women in their lives, who for the most part prove more resilient and adaptable than the men.
It is richly ironic that Bobby is reduced to begging for a construction job from his gruff brother-in-law Jack Dolan, played with relish by Kevin Costner. Bobby deserves an humbling experience.
By contrast it is a lot harder on Phil Woodward, played with great gravity and inner turmoil by the strong, almost silent Chris Cooper.
For Gene McClary it is more a personal betrayal, and Tommy Lee Jones makes us feel his seething rage.
There is a faint uptick of hope in “Company Men” that keeps it from being totally bleak. As our economy struggles to regain its footing we can appreciate any little Atta boy we can get.
“Company Men” has been pretty much ignored in this year’s awards sweepstakes, but it is not a bad film, just very dark, with the cold slap of truth.

Prejudice Then and Now in "Clybourne Park"

Racial Prejudice Then and Now in “Clybourne Park”

By Skip Sheffield

White Flight: those were explosive works in the South during desegregation.
But white flight was not unique to the South. It happened all over the USA; anywhere citizens were fearful of minorities moving in and “breaking” their homogenous neighborhoods.
“Clybourne Park,” enjoying a premiere run through Feb. 6 at Caldwell Theatre, is about white flight and much more.
Playwright Bruce Norris has crafted two stories in two time periods 50 years apart. The first act is set in 1959 in the Chicago suburb of the title. Act Two is set in the same house in the same neighborhood in 2009. The cast of characters is different in each act, but they are played by the same actors who relate many of the same sentiments.
Russ (Kenneth Kay) and Bev (Patti Gardner) are a married couple on the cusp of major change. Their maid Francine (Karen Stephens) is in the process of packing up the couple’s possessions, for a sale is pending on their house.
Neighborhood vicar Jim (Cliff Burgess) has stopped by to offer some farewells and platitudes.
Russ is in a distinctly troubled state, talking to himself and uttering seemingly nonsense syllables, while his wife seems oblivious.
Russ becomes even more agitated when Karl (Gregg Weiner) and his pregnant, deaf wife Betsey (Margery Lowe) pay a call. It is not just a social call. Self-appointed neighborhood watchdog Karl has learned Russ intends to sell to a black couple. Karl sees the move as the first step in plummeting values and the ruination of the neighborhood.
The smiling reverend is not exactly neutral. He thinks his parish should buy the property to “preserve the character of the community.”
Caught in the crossfire are Francine and her good-natured husband Albert (Brain D. Coats), who are asked their opinions as “good negroes.”
“Clybourne Park” is billed as a comedy, and director Clive Cholerton and his cast do their best to delineate the laughs.
It is a comedy with bite however, rooted in a tragedy that is reveled toward the end of Act One. There are hidden meanings to the increasingly heated conversations, culminating in an explosive finale.
In Act Two Kenneth Kay has been reduced to a bit part as a hard-hat architect named Dan.
Karen Stephens and Brian D. Coats are now Lena and Kevin, head of the neighborhood association of the now black community. Lena is related to the family that moved into the house 50 years ago.
Gregg Weiner plays another pain in the butt character named Steve, who with wife Lindsay (Margery Lowe again) are the new owners of the house. They see it not as history, but a prime piece of real estate ripe for development.
Cliff Burgess plays another obsequious character: a Realtor named Tom. Patti Gardner is now a can-do lawyer named Kathy, representing the new owners’ selfish interests.
Things get darker and nastier as true feelings are revealed. Haunting the proceedings is the character of Kenneth (Andrew Wind) the late Korean War veteran son of the original owners.
“Clybourne Park’ was still finding its sea legs on opening night. The laughs were sometimes uneasy and a bit confused, but two powerful performances were already quite polished: Kenneth Kay’s smoldering, grieving father and Karen Stephen’s dual performance as ironically-knowing servant and a proud preserver of family history. The other characters are not as well-written, but they will no doubt come into sharper focus.
Tickets are $38 and $45 (students $10) and may be reserved by calling 561-241-7432 or visiting

Bad Stuff in "All Good Things"

“All Good Things” is the richly ironic title of a movie about very bad things like extortion, racketeering and murder.
“Good Things” is the fiction feature debut of Andrew Jarecki, maker of the unsettling documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003. The story is based on the real life drama of Robert “Bobby” Durst, the irresponsible, screw-up eldest son of a prominent New York real estate magnate.
The Bobby Durst character of David Marks is played by Ryan Gosling. Daddy Sanford Marks is played by stage and screen great Frank Langella.
The story begins in 1971 after David’s mother has met a violent death, of which we learn more later. Dressed in a tuxedo, David performs an emergency plumbing repair for Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a pretty, free-spirited coed and one of his father’s tenants.
The physical attraction is mutual and strong, giving David direction to his otherwise rudderless life. Against his family’s objections (“She’s never going to be one of us,” dad sneers), David marries Katie and they attempt to carve a new, good life in Vermont, running a health food store called All Good Things.
The idyllic period is short-lived. Dad arrives from New York in a chauffeured limousine. He has become a major landlord of seedy peep shows and questionable businesses in the pre-cleaned up Times Square area, and he demands that David rejoin the family business as a kind of bag man.
David protests weakly, and much to Katie’s dismay they return to New York. David quickly falls into his father’s shady business dealings while Kate attempts to better herself by attending medical school. Then she becomes pregnant and Bobby, to put it mildly, is not happy.
Katie Marks disappeared as did her real-life counterpart in 1982. David Marks is strongly suspected of foul play, but there is no body and no hard evidence. The story picks up again in 2000 when the case against David is reopened. There is no dramatic conclusion to this unsavory story of power, corruption, greed and lust. David Durst is still alive and well and it has been reported that he likes this film. While the powerful acting performances of Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst cannot be denied, the story is a real bummer man; the opposite of the American Dream.

"No Strings" Feel-Good Romp

“No Strings Attached” is the opposite of a bummer. It’s a feel-good, R-rated sexy romp about the power of true romance over mere animal attraction by director Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters”).
Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) are friends from early teen years at summer camp. They keep on bumping into each other until they both end up in Los Angeles in their early 20s. Adam is an aspiring script writer and Emma is working toward a medical degree at a teaching hospital. The mutual attraction that has been bubbling under the surface bursts forth in an erotic one-night stand that leads to another and another. In Elizabeth Meriwether’s witty script, the couple’s stereotypical sexual roles are reversed. Adam longs for cuddling and commitment. Emma wants slam, bam, thank you m’am and back to work.
“No Strings” has an entertaining supporting cast, lead by Kevin Kline as Adam’s aging Lothario movie-star dad Alvin. British actress Ophelia Lovibond amuses as Adam’s shallow ex-girlfriend and dad’s new flame. Rapper Ludicris shows he has both acting and comic chops as Adam’s roommate Wallace. Lake Bell is outstanding as Adam’s accommodating boss, who develops an awkward, funny crush on him.
Perhaps because I went into this with such low expectations I was pleasantly surprised at the genuine laughs amidst the raunchy material. “When Harry Met Sally” and “500 Days of Summer” said it better, but “No Strings” continues Natalie Portman’s roll as a formidable, sensuous starlet. Pretty boy Ashton Kutcher knows his limitations, and he cheerfully plays them to best advantage as an incurable romantic.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Pretty People, Pretty Songs, Predictable Story

The People and the Songs are Pretty, But “Country Strong” Story Weak

By Skip Sheffield

“Country Strong” could have been called “Country Song,” for it is a lot like a country-style weeper… drawn out to almost two hours long.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a country star who has been in and out of alcohol rehab for an unspecified length of time. We meet Kelly as she is being exhorted by her manager/husband James (real-life country star Tim McGraw) to make a comeback tour.
Kelly’s rehab sponsor, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) does not think this is a good idea. He feels Kelly is too fragile to face the rigors of the road, especially since the first stop is Dallas, where Kelly’s world crashed eight years ago. In a doubly tragic, foolish move, a pregnant Kelly had too much to drink before a concert and tripped and fell off the stage. The end result was a miscarriage.
This is a heavy burden for any woman to bear, and it would be presumptuous of me to say whether any person could ever completely get over such a trauma, even if she is given a baby quail by her husband to nurse.
Writer-director Shana Feste has already proved she has a way with a weeper with “The Greatest,” and if Kelly’s treatment were successful there would be no country song conflict.
And so with the enticement of an opening slot on the tour, Beau reluctantly goes along with the idea. Since this is a country song, you just know there is more lovin’ and cheatin’ about to go on behind the scenes.
Beau has been getting a little too close to Kelly. James knows this, but he has been messing around with Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), the beautiful young ex-beauty queen who has also been offered an opening slot on the tour.
In case you are wondering what possibly could be Chiles’ problem, it’s simple: stage fright.
Now don’t laugh folks. Many a potential star has been extinguished because of stage fright, but that particular trauma is not explored. With Beau by her side Chiles is just fine.
But wait, you country-savvy people are thinking, won’t Beau and Chiles inevitably fall into each other’s arms? And won’t Kelly get jealous when she finds out?
Bingo! Go to the front of the country songwriting class.
The good news is that Gwyneth Paltrow has a lovely singing voice, and she is given some good songs to sing.
Garrett Hedlund’s voice is even better: a smooth, deep baritone that makes we green with envy.
As for Chiles Stanton, her strong suit is her beautiful doll-like face. Her voice is okay and she sings on key, but it would have been more effective if she were confident enough to sing harmony with Beau instead of unison.
That’s the musician in me, and most folks won’t be concerned by such matters.
So if you want to see a bunch of pretty people singing pretty, “Country Strong” is your movie. Just don’t go expecting to hear Tim McGraw, because he don’t, er doesn’t, sing a lick.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Victory for the Gals in "Made in Dagenham"

“Made in Dagenham” a Cheeky Comedy about Equal Pay

By Skip Sheffield

You’ve come a long way, baby.
That was the patronizing slogan of a stupid cigarette ad campaign aimed at women back in the 1970s.
It came to mind when I saw “Made in Dagenham,” a British film based on a real incident at the Ford motor Company factory in Dagenham, U.K. in 1968.
The “girls” operated sewing machines to create the fabric for seat coverings. Because they were not deemed “skilled” workers, they were paid at a lesser rate than their male counterparts, working under terrible conditions.
Sally Hawkins, who was so terrific as an incurable optimist in “Happy Go Lucky,” plays Rita O’Grady, a typical British housewife who works on the assembly line in addition to her household chores.
The always-reliable Bob Hoskins plays Albert, head of the auto workers union. Albert takes a personal interest in the obvious injustice of the women’s situation, and he makes their cause his own.
Yes, “Dagham” is a bit like a British “Norma Rae” or “Erin Brockovich,” but it is done with inimitable English panache, with script by William Merchant under the direction of film veteran Nigel Cole, who helmed the cheeky “Calendar Girls.”
There is a certain self-deprecating gallows humor that characterizes working class British, and such is the character of the 187 women who at the urging of Albert, go on strike for equal pay.
Rita O’Grady becomes the reluctant leader of the movement. She finds more powerful allies in the beautiful wife of the factory boss (Bond girl Rosamund Pike) and the concerned government minister of labor (Miranda Richardson).
The ladies of Dagenham are a sight in their shellacked bouffants, 1960s attire and unflappable attitude. When it becomes unbearably hot in the summer, they doff their blouses. When it rains they unfurl umbrellas to protect against the leaky roof.
“Made in Dagenham” is a feel-good movie of downtrodden rising up and overcoming their powerful oppressors with good cheer and determination. Even if you don’t care much for feminism, it’s hard not to root for these feisty ladies, who in reality were instrumental in convincing Parliament to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Three stars

Kevin Spacey is Crafty, Devious “Casino Jack”

“Casino Jack” was a centerpiece film of Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which was dedicated to the memory of director George Hickenlooper, who died in October just before the festival began.
Kevin Spacey plays the supremely confident, thoroughly devious title character, lobbyist “Casino Jack” Abramoff.
“Mediocrity is what most people live with,” Jack lectures his bathroom mirror image. “We do more because we have to.”
This is one of those rise-and-fall sagas, in which we see Jack wheedling his way through the rich and powerful corridors of Washington, D.C. with an air of entitlement and superiority. Born into wealth, Jack became College Republican National Chairman, wielding influence while still an undergrad.
As egotistical as Jack is, Kevin Spacey makes him likeable; a devilish rogue, if you will, and if he is to be believed, a devout Orthodox Jew.
Jack is a gambler at heart, so it came natural that he would conspire with Native Americans to exploit their sovereign nation status to open hugely profitable gambling halls. Jack did not help the impoverished Indians out of the goodness of his heart. He extracted extravagant fees for his services, and his greed would be part of his downfall, thanks in large part to one suspicious, tenacious tribesman (Graham Greene).
Jack had a big Florida connection with his collaboration with a shady gambling cruise line owned by an even shadier character named Gus Boulis (Daniel Kash). Jon Lovitz does a funny turn as the fearful, hapless low-lever shyster Adam Kidan, who helped Jack get hooked up with Gus (with disastrous results).
Kelly Preston personalizes the damage inflicted by Jack’s selfish ways as his long-suffering son Pam, and Barry Pepper poignantly bears his betrayal as his business partner and protégé, Michael Scanlon.
But mostly “Casino Jack” is played for laughs, and it may well be Jack Abramoff who has the last laugh. After serving minimal time for conspiracy tax evasion, he was release Dec. 3, 2010 and is now back in circulation.

Three stars

Sunday, January 2, 2011

1980s Rock with "Rock of Ages"

By Skip Sheffield

Where were you in ’82?
If you are like me, no matter where you were or what you were doing it was to the beat of bombastic 1980s “big hair” bands like Foreigner, Night Ranger, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Pat Benetar and Whitesnake.
“Rock of Ages,’ running through Jan. 9 at Broward Center for the Arts, takes some of the greatest hits of these groups and incorporates the lyrics into a boy-meets-girl tale of fortune-seeking, bitter disappointments and rueful life lessons.
Yeah, Chris D’Arienzo’s book is pretty clichéd and corny, but the production itself is a catchy, guilty pleasure wave of comedy, wailing vocals, gymnastic dance moves and thundering heavy metal rock music.
The nominal star of the show is Constantine Maroulis, who plays nice-guy everyman Drew Bowie, a waiter and aspiring musician at a Los Angeles Sunset Strip club called the Bourbon Room (think Whisky-a-Go-Go), run by a towering hulk of man named Dennis Dupree (Nick Cordero).
Drew’s female counterpart is star-struck Kansas cutie Sherrie, played by Rebecca Faulkenberry.
Maroulis, an “American Idol” finalist, originated the role of Drew Off and on Broadway and was rewarded with a Tony Award nomination as Best Actor. Maroulis has the requisite long mop of curly dark hair and a piercing tenor voice that easily penetrates to the back of the balcony.
Narrating the show, which is set in 1987 but has some songs into the 1990s, is a character named Lonny (Patrick Lewallen). Lonny often breaks the “fourth wall” and talks and jokes in a conspiring fashion with the audience.
Pop songs are often blended in a clever manner, as when Drew and Sherrie have a picnic and sip wine coolers overlooking L.A. while singing “More Than Words” (Extreme, 1990), “Heaven” (Warrant, 1989) and “To Be With You” (Mr. Big, 1991).
There is an inevitable girl-loses-boy twist when Sherrie unwisely has a fling with Stacy Jaxx (Mig Ayesa), the preening, egotistical lead singer of house band Arsenal. Sherrie also loses her gig as a waitress, and she is reduced to working as an “exotic dancer” (stripper) at the disreputable Venus Club, run by the commanding Justice (Teresa Stanley).
Things get rocky at the Bourbon Room when father and son German developers Hertz (Bret Tuomi) and Franz (Travis Walker) threatened to tear the joint down and redevelop into a Disney-style sanitized playground.
Love makes unexpected turns when Lonny declares devotion to Dennis and light-in-the-loafers Franz takes up with Casey Tuma’s Regina (rhymes with vagina), a crusading, socially-conscious city planner.
None of this matters very much. What does matter is the anthemic songs, played with expert bravado by a precision band, highlighted by lightning-fast guitar-shredding by Chris Ciccino.
Director Kristin Hanggi was nominated for a Tony Award, but this is not the kind of show that wins Tonys. It’s the kind of show that sells tickets. If you loved the extreme looks, music and attitude of the 1980s, you’ll love this show.
Tickets are $25-$65. Call 954-462-0222 or visit