Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cars 2 a Flimsy Retread

“Cars 2” an Unreliable Re-Tread

By Skip Sheffield

“Cars 2” just isn’t the same without the voice and presence of Paul Newman. The young audience won’t notice or care about this, but an old gearhead like me is affected adversely. Movie star Paul Newman, who died Sept. 26, 2008, was probably the most famous non-career car racing enthusiast in America.
Newman’s character of Doc Hudson, represented by a 1951 Hudson Hornet, was the heart and soul of “Cars,” the 2006 Pixar computer-animated release. Doc was both a doctor and a judge in the fictitious town of Radiator Springs, Arizona. The town was located on the once busy Route 66, which famously “winds from Chicago to L.A.” When the new and improved Interstate 40 was built, it by-passed Radiator Springs and many other small towns like it.
“Cars” was an unexpected hit because there are so many car freaks in America, and the story, written by Pixar founder John Lassiter and Joe Ranft, honored history and folklore while providing light entertainment by an all-star cast of anthropomorphic motor vehicles.
Alas “Cars 2” is a shoddy re-tread of the original concept. Lassiter is back as co-director with Brad Lewis, but Joe Ranft was killed, ironically in a car accident before the first film was released.
Lassiter and screenwriter Ben Queen must have felt the need to transplant the two main characters: young racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) to foreign locales for fun and merriment. The fatal flaw in this plan is that it gave way too much screen time to the comedian who calls himself Larry the Cable Guy. Larry is a one-trick pony; which is drawling, dim-witted rube.
Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer voice two new characters: Finn McMissile (Caine in James Bond mode) and Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer as a Bond babe).
These characters get sidetracked as Lightning and Mater blunder their way through Japan, Italy and the U.K. Returning voices Cheech Marin, Jeff Gordon and Bonnie Hunt are largely ignored.
The film is in 3-D, which I am told by my fully-sighted friend Beth, is quite effective. The theater which hosted our advance screening chose to play the film at deafening volume, perhaps in an effort to keep everyone awake. Sorry kids, I’m afraid “Cars 2” will try the patience of even the most loyal Disney/Pixar fans.

Live Life Long and Love Horses

Forever is a Long Time

By Skip Sheffield

Who wants to live forever?
Not I, but hmm, the older I become, the more I realize life isn’t just for the young.
“How To Live Forever” is a documentary about really old people. We are talking seriously old, like 100 years or more.
Once he passed the half-century mark and his mother passed away,filmmaker Mark Wexler began seriously contemplating his mortality. Why do some people live much longer than others? There is no simple answer, though it is obvious if you abuse your body you will lessen your chances of longevity. Yet in his three years of world travels Wexler found some confounding contradictions. Take Buster, a 101-year-old British bloke who has been smoking since age 7 and still enjoys pints of beer when not running marathons. If there was ever a pillar of health and physical fitness in was Jack LaLanne, but the beloved fitness guru died after this film was made, of pneumonia at age 96, on Jan. 23, 2011.
Wexler visited the world oldest woman, Edna Parker, in a nursing home in Shelbyville, Ind. She too has died since this film’s completion, at age 115.
Wexler visited Okinawa, which has some of the happiest, healthiest senior citizens in the world. Wexler noted they kept busy; they had good nutrition and low-stress lifestyles.
On the other side of the coin is actress Suzanne Somers, who advocates ingesting massive amounts of hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, human growth hormones and melatonin.
It would seem that attitude has a lot to do with longevity. Food critic Jonathan Gold declares the eating is the “great pleasure of life,” and you can tell it’s the truth for him.
You will find no hard, fast certainties in “How To Live Forever,” but it certainly is food for thought.

“Buck” a Real Horse-Whisperer

“Buck’ is another documentary opening in our area. Buck Brannaman is a lifelong cowboy and horse trainer who has a well-documented reputation as an effective “horse-whisperer.” Brannaman became a national figure when he signed on as a consultant to writer Nicholas Evans and film producer Robert Evans for Redford’s 1998 film “The Horse Whisperer.”
If you love horses, you will love “Buck.” I happen to love horses, and I discovered quite early I have an affinity with the magnificent creatures. As it turns out that is the key to understanding horses. You can’t fear them and you can’t force them to do your will.
“Everything is a dance,” Brannaman explains, and he proceeds to show how with love and gentle persuasion you can get a horse to bend to your will.
Brannaman specializes in re-training damaged, unruly horses in clinics he teaches all over the country. He is a mild-mannered man, but Brannaman can scarcely conceal his contempt when he learns a horse owner has abused her horse. In the course of filming, director Cindy Meehl uncovers the fact that Buck and his brother, who were childhood rodeo stars, were beaten regularly by their alcoholic, abusive father.
So “Buck” is as much about the man as it is about his near-mythical powers with horses. Brannaman may be the first cowboy in America who is as much at home with Oprah Winfrey as he is in the saddle.

Three and a half stars

How To Succeed in Boca

“How to Succeed” a Big Success

By Skip Sheffield

In the wake of the sad news of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sudden closing of Florida Stage, it is gratifying to report live theater is alive and well in Boca Raton. A terrific production of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” continues through Sunday, June 26 at Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway.
The show is produced by Vicki & Peter Halmos Family Foundation, parent corporation of Entre’Acte Theatrix, which is in turn an offshoot of Palm Beach Principal Players: a “Conservatory for the Serious Young Actors.”
There are a lot of serious actors in this production, and yes they are younger than what you typically see in professional productions. Make no mistake though, these kids are pros, and the production values are first-rate, from costumes to sets, props, lighting and sound.
“How To Succeed” is a chestnut from 1961 that made a Broadway star of Robert Morse as a conniving corporate climber, J. Pierpont Finch.
Here Finch is played by Shane Blanford, who studied at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The title of the show comes from a manual that Finch, a window-washer who would be a CEO, is reading chapter by chapter. The character of Finch breaks the “fourth wall” regularly by looking smug and smiling directly at the audience (with pinpoint spotlight to make sure we’ll notice) every time he advances up the corporate ladder of the “World Wide Wicket Company.”
Finch’s rapid rise from lowly mail room clerk comes at the expense of anyone who gets in his way, but the biggest casualty is Bud Frump (Greg Halmos), the newly-hired head of the mail room. Bud isn’t exactly a ball of fire. The fact of the matter is the only reason he has a job at WWW is because he is the boss’s nephew.
That boss is J.B. Biggley (John Costanzo), a pompous, insincere and easily flattered jerk; in other words, a typical boss.
The first person to notice Finch is Rosemary Pilkington (Leah Sessa), a corporate secretary who longs for marriage as a traditional wife and helpmate, as expressed in the self-deprecating “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” Rosemary’s best buddy Smitty (Lisa Kerstin) has similar 1950s domestic aspirations. Yes, this is a dated show, and some of the references will be missed by the younger audience, but the basic satire on corporate structure is still solid and applicable.
Frank Loesser’s catchy songs are beautifully sung by the ensemble cast and fervently played by a four-piece onstage combo. The score isn’t in the category of all-time classics, but the two best-known tunes, “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man” are like old friends come by to visit.
The wardrobe, particularly the dresses on the women, is a colorful rainbow riot, and Kimberly Dawn Smith’s choreography, which is a big part of the production, is on target and graceful. The original choreography by the way was by Bob Fosse, who refused credit because he didn’t want to slight the published choreographer.
“How To Succeed” was adapted from a satirical book by Shepherd Mead, published in 1952. The revamped book musical by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, was good enough for a Pulitzer Prize in 1962. I don’t know if producer Vicki Halmos is clairvoyant or simply in-the-know, but a new Broadway revival starring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe opened March 27, 2011 and is a big hit commercially and critically.
Here’s hoping for everyone in the South Florida Theater community that Entre’Acte Theatrix has a big hit on its hands, for it certainly is well-deserved.
Tickets are $25 and $30 ($10 student rush) and may be reserved by calling 561-241-7432 or 877-245-7432.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Good Hair in South Florida

Best “Hair” Ever at Broward Center

By Skip Sheffield

When the musical “Hair” made its debut at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in October, 1967, it was already dated. The hippie era it celebrated- if it ever existed- had fizzled out into violence, crime and acrimony.
Yet the characters created by Jerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermott lived on to become a part of American culture.
In a sense “Hair” is as much a period piece as “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific,” but it is back, younger, livelier and sexier than ever in a revival that continues through Sunday, June 5 at Arsht Center in Miami. The show moves to Broward Center June 7-19.
This newest version of this modern, mythical, free-form classic combines various incarnations of the story, including the original stage show and the 1979 movie, with added songs and dialogue.
Though it makes for a longer show, this is the best all-around “Hair” I have ever seen. The two male leads, the draft-fearing slacker Claude and free-loving hedonist Berger are powerfully realized by Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt.
Peace activist Sheila, who is loved by Claude but lusts for Berger, is realized with sexy sweetness by Caren Lyn Tackett.
Jeanie is pregnant and proud, and Kacie Sheik brings good humor to what could be a troubled character. Matt DeAngelis nicely brings out the sexual ambiguity of Woof.
One of the members of the “tribe” is played by Olympic Heights High School and proud FSU graduate, Mike Evariste.
There is a terrific band up on scaffolding onstage, lead by pianist David Truskinoff and complete with horn section.. The band doesn’t really let loose until Act II, when guitarist Josh Weinstein begins unleashing power chords and Hendrix-flavored feedback.
“Hair” is an in-the-aisles, in-your-face and tousle-your-hair experience. If you are nervous about having your comfort zone invaded, this is probably not a show for you. If nudity and sex offend, by all means stay away, for the Act I finale includes nude bodies of all shapes and sizes, in their newborn glory.
It seems almost quaint now the way “hair’ celebrates pot-smoking, free love and civil disobedience, but if you enjoy it as a period piece you see the cartoonish aspects of this wacky mid-American “tribe.”
There is a serious side to “Hair” that is not lost. Young lives were being sacrificed to what turned out to be an unwinnable war, and Claude becomes the martyr symbol for soldiers offered up for sacrifice.
For sheer joy and entertainment, it is doubtful you will discover any show this year that tops this “Hair.”
Tickets are $25-$69 at Broward Center. Call 954-462-0222.

Kevin Bacon Provokes Cuban Missile Crisis

Super Powers Explained (sort of) in “X-Men: First Class”

By Skip Sheffield

So now we know: Kevin Bacon provoked the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
It’s hard to take any Marvel Comics fantasy very seriously. “X-Men” is amongst the most far-fetched of the Marvel universe. “X-Men First Class” provides a back story for the characters previously chronicled in three movies and one spinoff since 2000.
The common thread with X-men (and women) is that they are all genetic mutants. In comic book logic that’s all the explanation you need to account for people who can throw fire, freeze objects and move things just by force of the mind.
“First Class” begins in Poland and New York in 1944.
Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner as a youth, Michael Fassbender as an adult) is being pressured by a Nazi scientist to make German coin move just by concentrating on it. Erik tries but fails. Then his mother is brought in and a gun is put to her head. The coin still doesn’t move. Then his mother is shot dead and the coin flies as if shot from a cannon. The key to Erik’s power is rage. He will grow up to be the character known as Magneto.
In Westchester, New York rich kid Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher as a child, James McAvoy as adult) discovers a girl rummaging for food in his kitchen. When he catches her the girl turns blue and scaly.
The girl’s name is Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and she becomes Charles’ best mutant friend.
We shift a few years ahead to 1962. Charles is now a student at Oxford. He amuses himself by reading minds and hanging out with Raven, drinking and making witty quips.
Charles will grow up to be mutant ringleader Professor X. Shape-shifting Raven will become Mystique.
Shift to Argentina and we find Erik hunting for and finding former Nazis who were responsible for the death of his parents.
Meanwhile in Miami mastermind bad guy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is hatching a plot to join forces with the Russians and control the world.
Bacon has the bonus of playing two really bad guys: the sadistic Nazi scientist met earlier and Shaw, an inventor who has designed a goofy helmet that makes him impervious to mutant attacks. He has a dandy bad-girl sidekick-villain too; a beautiful and sexy babe named Emma Frost (January Jones).
In the illogical world of comic book superheroes, it is unusual to find such convincing explanations for the mutating power of rage, greed and extreme genius, and vintage news footage adds an authentic touch.
As a kid growing up in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis, it would have been nice to simply blame the whole scary mess on a single fiendish villain, but as cartoonist Walt Kelly so drily observed in his Pogo comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Have fun with this escapist, noisy, violent fantasy but remember the scariest creature of all is Homo Sapiens.