Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gorgeous George in Paradise

George Clooney Does the Right Thing in “The Descendants”

By Skip Sheffield

It was a choice between Martin Scorsese’s family film “Hugo” and gorgeous George Clooney goes to Hawaii in “The Descendants.”
Since Fox Searchlight had invited us to “Descendants’ first, and since Beth was driving, we decided to see what Mr. Clooney is up to.
“The Descendants’ is a breakthrough for Clooney as an actor, as he has to do more than just be handsome and dashing. Clooney’s character of lawyer-father Matt King is in fact not very heroic. His wife is at the hospital in a coma after a boating accident. Matt had been neglecting his wife before the accident. When he collects his sullen teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), she informs him her mother had been carrying on an affair.
Matt’s potty-mouthed 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a disciplinary problem and is not doing well in school. When Matt learns his wife will never recover, he must tell his girls the truth.
That is the setup for a drama with ample dashes of comedy, based upon the 2009 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, with screenplay by director Alexander Payne, whose last movie “Sideways” caused quite a stir in 2004.
Like “Sideways” “The Descendants” is about men behaving badly. Over the course of a family trip to the island of Kauai in search of the man who cuckolded him, Matt gains insight into what a crummy father and husband he has been, and how much everyone resents him.
Matt comes from an old Hawaii family that is in part related to Hawaiian royalty. Back in 1860 the family was granted 25,000 pristine acres on Kauai. Now Matt’s family wants to cash out and sell the land, but as executor of the estate, Matt has the final judgment.
Along for the ride at the insistence of Alexandra is her wiseguy boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who rubs both Matt and Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) the wrong way.
The philandering lover turns out to be Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a smarmy real estate agent who is also involved in the sale of the King land. Speer is a hypocrite of the worse kind: he is a married man with a loving wife (Judy Greer) and two adoring children.
Matt’s relatives aren’t much better than he. Led by the boozy, blustering Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), the clan is practically licking their chops over the prospect of newfound, unearned riches.
I have a particular interest in Hawaii and its history because my mother and her parents lived there for six years, starting in 1941, during the Hell of World War II. My parents first met there and my sister was born there.
Hawaii has some things in common with semi-tropical south Florida; particularly by the way its economy is driven by real estate.
“The Descendants” is ultimately a feel-good movie because characters learn to change and do the right thing. George Clooney did the right thing by choosing this role and proving he really can act.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welcome Back Muppets

Triumphant Return of The Muppets

By Skip Sheffield

Who doesn’t love The Muppets?
I sure do. The Muppets bring back fond memories of my three daughters growing up in Boca Raton, watching “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” on television.
Certainly I’m not alone in my nostalgic feelings, and that is exactly why the Jim Henson franchise is being rebooted by Disney in “The Muppet Movie.”
The motivating spirit behind this project to create a seventh Muppet movie 12 years after the last one is writer, actor and producer Jason Segel.
Segel is an avowed Muppets fan, and thanks to the success of his movies he has the clout and financial wherewithal to lead the charge.
Segel co-wrote The Muppet Movie with Nicholas Stoller, with whom he wrote “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek.” He also stars as Gary, a Muppets fan from Smalltown USA who lives with his “brother” Walter, who is a newly-created Muppet character.
Like Pee-Wee Herman, Gary and Walter lived in a cute little cottage that is more like a boy’s clubhouse. Gary does have a girlfriend named Mary (Amy Adams), but they have been together ten years and Gary has yet to pop the big question.
The setting of Smalltown is like an idealized 1950s TV show, with vintage cars, mom-and-pop stores, and smiling citizens who sing and dance at the drop of a downbeat.
In Fact “Life’s a Happy Song” pretty much tells the story as a song sung by Gary and Walter and later an elaborate dance number in the town square. The song was written by musical director Bret McKenzie, who wrote or co-wrote several other new songs to add to the Muppets musical library.
The set up for the story is Gary’s decision to give Mary her dream trip to Los Angeles. When Walter learns Gary and Mary are going to Los Angeles, all he can think is that it is the home of the Muppet Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. At the last dramatic moment, Gary tells Walter he is going too. Soon a 1950s-vintage Greyhound bus pulls up, and they are off.
Muppet Theater is no longer a working studio, but a museum; a museum which is on its last legs. A wheezy old tour guide (Alan Arkin in the first of many guest star cameos) takes them on a tour of closed offices and broken attractions.
The Muppet Theater is about to be sold to oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who lets slip his real intention is to demolish the theater and drill for the oil he knows is below.
What is a Muppet to do? Put on a show, of course, to raise the $10 million it will take to buy the property. So begins a reintroduction to the Muppet characters, starting with an initially reluctant Kermit the Frog. You’ll have to see the movie to see all the comical details that go into reassembling the old gang, but trust me it is very clever and knowledgeable about musical comedy conventions, with characters breaking the fourth wall to talk about plot twists and motivations. I love the map travel concept. I’m surprised no one has thought of it before as a gag.
Muppets have never been real, but they have always represented the best of an optimistic, friendly, generous can-do America. Sly references to the current reality are many. I love that Fozzie the Bear is now performing with a Muppets tribute band call The Moopets. They are Muppets with a cynical edge, you see.
No, there is no room for cynicism in Muppetland, where even villains can see the light and get into the act. Yes, this movie will make tons of money for a corporation that already makes tons of money, but when it’s this much fun, I’ll let it pass. Jim Henson left this world in 1990 at the far too young age of 53. As long as Muppets can bring laughter and love, Jim Henson’s spirit will shine.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Melancholia" Addresses Big Questions

“Melancholia” Addresses Cosmic Questions

By Skip Sheffield

When a film is titled “Melancholia” you know you are not in for a barrel of laughs.
“Melancholia” is an archaic expression for depression. It is also the name of a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth in Lars van Trier’s challenging new film of the same name.
“Melancholia” is challenging in a good kind of way. It took me a while before I could see where the writer-director was going in part one, called Justine. The opening sequence is pretentiously arty, with alternately dark and bright, mysterious celestial images, displayed to the tune of Wagner’s tragic, grandiose opera “Tristan and Isolde.”
The setting is an imposing seaside estate so large it has an 18-hole golf course. It is the wedding night of a young couple: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).
Justine is not your typical radiant bride. While she smiles, kisses and show affection for Michael, she is clearly troubled by something. The story begins comically with the couple’s absurdly long limousine having trouble navigating the long, winding, narrow road to the estate.
It is a huge, elaborate wedding with full orchestra, gourmet dinner and scores of guests, overseen by a fussy, temperamental wedding planner (Udo Kier).
Nothing goes right with the wedding or subsequent reception, starting with the late arrival of the couple. It quickly devolves into an uncomfortable wedding hell.
The bride’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) warily tries to sooth the bride. Her father (John Hurt) seems three sheets to the wind. The mother (Charlotte Rampling) is an obviously embittered mess.
Claire’s husband John (Keifer Sutherland), the guy who is footing the bills, is angry and exasperated. Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) is an egotistical jerk. Jack’s young assistant Tim (Brady Corbet) has a thing going for the bride.
Weddings tend to be emotional occasions, but this one careens out of control. The whole thing is an embarrassing spectacle. Clearly this marriage is doomed before it ever begins.
Doom is the main subject of the second part of the film, titled Claire. Doom is manifested by the aforementioned rogue planet called Melancholia, which was only hinted at in the first part. It is clearly visible on the horizon and looming larger all the time.
John insists Melancholia will miss planet Earth by miles. Claire isn’t so sure. Their 10-year-old son Leo (Cameron Spurr) simply wonders why everyone is so upset.
Leo seems to have a calming effect on Justine. In fact she seems preternaturally calm compared to her sister, who is falling apart.
If you’ve made it this far, the finale of the film is heartbreakingly beautiful. The performances are searing.
“Melancholia” dares ask the really big questions. What is the nature of happiness? Is true love possible? How does one face the inevitability of death? That von Trier can pose these really vexing questions in such visually beautiful, poetic manner is proof of his artistry. I have found von Trier’s earlier films angry, abrasive and depressing. This one makes up for that. Perhaps it is because von Trier himself was diagnosed with clinical depression, recognized the problem and got treatment for it. True art often come from a very painful place.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Give Me a Head With Hair

Skip at age 25

Hair: I’ve always had a thing about it. I like it long and natural, on men and women.
When I was a baby I had platinum curls, like a Botticelli angel. My mother was thrilled, and as I was first-born, my dad grudgingly let her have her wish to leave my hair alone.
By the time I was two my hair was quite long, and I had a sister a year younger. She was born larger than me, and she grew quicker, and more robust. It was not long before people were asking if we were twins.
This became too much for my old man. At age 2.5 he decreed I must have a haircut to look like a real boy. My mom cried copious tears, and saved some platinum locks in an envelope in my baby book.
At age 4, for some reason my dad decided I needed a “butch” haircut. We were living in Narrragansett, Rhode Island in the Dunes Club. At a Halloween costume party, my mom costumed me as Father Time and my 1-year-old brother Richard as the New Year baby. I weighed maybe 32 pounds, and with my shaved head, brown skin from a summer in the sun, and skinny body. I looked like a little Gandhi. We won first place.
When I was 7 my paternal grandfather played a mean trick on me. I was up to 45 lbs., but still wretchedly skinny. He took me to a barber shop in St. Cloud Fla. and said “Give him a G.I.”
I didn’t know what that was, but I found out soon enough. I felt humiliated with my almost bald head.
My dad started going bald in his early 20s, and he despised guys with long hair. I made it through elementary, junior and senior high without any more scalping, then it was off to college. It was the British Invasion era, and all the guys who were allowed were growing long hair. I was the lead singer in a band that had two guys in the National Guard and a third who at age 23 was already bald. They all bought wigs to become The Weeds. I tried a wig, but I looked too much like a girl. I decided to let my own hair grow.
There were strict appearance standards at the time at Florida Southern College, but I ducked under the radar, and transferred to Palm Beach Junior College for my sophomore year.
It was a trying, chaotic year to say the least, but I earned my A.A. When it came time to collect my diploma, the Dean of Men spotted me and said, “Are you a student here?” I said yes, and I was picking up my diploma before I went back to see my family in Columbus, Ohio.
“Oh no you’re not,” he said “Not before you get a haircut.”
Turns out the dean had a sweetheart deal with the barbershop across the street.
I paid my $5 and got a brutal prison shop hairdo. The dean smiled menacingly as he relinquished my diploma.
I returned to Florida Southern for my last two years, and continued to play music as my locks grew longer.
When it came graduation time, my mom beseeched me.
“Please get a haircut,” she pleaded. “Otherwise your father won’t come to your graduation.”
Frankly I didn’t care, but I did it for mom, and I looked like a 16-year-old boy. I vowed at that time I would never again have a short haircut, as long as I had enough hair on my head not to appear foolish.
I broke that promise twice: at my first marriage at age 23 and my second at age 28.
Now I am 64- the same age my mother’s father when he died (with a full head of hair)- and sadly, I am divorced. I have not had a “store bought” haircut in 3 years. My daughter Laura does the honors. I don’t have the luxuriant “Acrylan carpet” of curly hair I once had, but there is something still up there. So with my Native American brothers, I will continue to go natural as long as nature smiles on me. Hair, it’s a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Racy Fun at Willow Theater

A Saucy “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”

By Skip Sheffield

Oh my, Boca Raton Theater Guild has gotten racy in its mature years.
BRTG is producing Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at the Willow Theater. If you know anything about Busch, you know his plays are anything but G-rated.
“Allergist’s Wife” is a solid R for language and subject matter, and that’s fine for broad-minded adults- particularly hip New Yorkers.
The play is set very specifically on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a posh apartment. Patti Garner is Marjorie, the allergist’s wife of the title. Michael Beecher is Dr. Ira Taub, her doctor-husband of 32 years. Living with the couple is Marjorie’s mother, Frieda (Iris Acker).
As we meet Marjorie she is chatting with the door man, Muhammad (Yusuf Rathmore) and confiding she feels “dissatisfied.”
“Everything today seems so terrifying,” she confesses.
Clearly Marjorie has problems, and they have become manifest in a freak-out at the Disney Store. It is also evident Marjorie longs for some kind of change in her predictable life of shopping, museum and theater-going.
Change arrives in the form of Lee (Barbara Sloan), a childhood friend.
One guesses that Lee, who used to be Lillian Greenblatt, was an ugly ducking that grew into a swan. Lee is forceful and self-confident; maybe a little too forceful.
Much like the man who came to dinner Lee moves in and brings about some marked changes in the lives of Marjorie and Ira. Some make them downright uncomfortable.
Lee is the kind of person who enjoys luring people out of their comfort zone. This is a comedy about self-styled sophisticates, and it’s fun to watch them squirm.
It’s also fun to watch Iris Acker cheerfully play one of the saltiest mothers-in-law you can imagine.
Everyone in the cast is a seasoned professional save Yusuf Rathmore, an FIU chemistry major who is making his stage debut. Rathmore is just fine, and perfectly cast.
Patti Gardner and Barbara Sloan must be friends in real life, because they have that all-important chemistry in their character’s relationship, which makes their rather surprising Act Two plot twist believable.
Michael Beecher has less to work with as his do-gooder doctor, but he pulls off a few surprises of his own.
Above all everyone seems to be enjoying themselves under the direction of Genie Croft, who has directed three previous shows at BRTG.
“Allergist’s Wife” is a far cry from the community theater-level productions done by BRTG in its formative years more than 20 years ago. Like Karen Stephens’ “Bridge & Tunnel,” this is an entertaining professional show, and worthy of your support.
Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Sugar Sand Park, 300 S. Military Trail, Boca Raton. Tickets are $18. Call 561-437-3948.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Heist, a Downer and French Sex

“Tower Heist” Another Caper Movie With Big Stars

By Skip Sheffield

Everyone likes a good caper movie. That’s why Hollywood keeps making them.
The latest is “Tower Heist.” The only original twist is the unique form of the fortune the heisters seek. I won’t give it away.
“Tower Heist” is light, entertaining fare with a decent cast. Ben Stiller is Josh Kovacs, the harried manager of a Donald Trump-type Manhattan high-rise.
Alan Alda is Arthur Shaw, the Bernie Madoff-like tenant who owns the building and lives in the penthouse suite.
Alda seems to relish this kind of capitalist-pig role, and he makes Shaw really reprehensible and ripe for a fall. Shaw has bilked investors for millions, maybe billions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme. The losers include his employees, who stand to have their pension fund wiped out.
That fund figures out to about $20 million, which is the sum Kovacs calculates Shaw has stashed in his penthouse safe.
So Kovacs enlists fellow employees and losers to cook up a scheme to break into Shaw’s penthouse and steal the stash. The guys include Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick and Michael Pena, and since none has criminal experience, Kovacs enlists recently-released convict Slide (Eddie Murphy) to pull off the caper.
The presence of Eddie Murphy doing his wiseguy thing guarantees some chuckles. Gabourey Sidibe, the young woman who was so moving in “Precious,” shows she has comic chops too in her small role of Ponzi loser Odessa.
Like most caper movies the premise is wildly improbable, but under the direction of Miami Beach native Bret Ratner, at least it’s fun.

"Gainsbourg" a Musical, Sexy French Romp

Love a sexy French film? “Gainsbourg” is your ticket.
“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is the ironic title of a film by comic book artist Joann Sfar, inspired by the real life of French-Jewish artist, pianist, songwriter, singer and lover, Serge Gainsbourg.
Born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents, Serge (Eric Elmosino) as he later re-named himself, was precocious musically and sexually. Lucien had an enormous hooked beak of a nose, which we see parodied in a cartoon puppet figure which represents his alter ego. We see Lucien rejected by girl because he is “too ugly,” but that never stopped the confident Serge-to-be.
Once Serge Gainsbourg became a musical star, women were only too happy to jump into his bed. In one notable scene we see him happily fornicating on the bed of rival artist Salvatore Dali.
“Gainsbourg’ is studded with celebrities of the 1960s era; most noticeably Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) who then was at the peak of her movie stardom. Other beauties he wooed and won were Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon).
Serge Gainsbourg never made much of an impact in the USA. The only song of his I remember is the torrid “Je T’Aime,” with its breathy feminine spoken lyric, which was banned in many parts. Judging from this film, Serge (he died in 1991 at age 63) was quite a guy. Eric Elmosino has already won Best Actor awards in France and New York’s Tribeca Film Festival). Serge Gainsbourg is vivid proof you never know what a woman is attracted to. His legacy lives on in his daughter, singer-actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Too Happy? "Son of No One" Will Bring You Down

“Son of No One” is a gloomy little film that reminds one how bad in was in New York City just a decade ago.
Channing Tatum stars as Jonathan “Milk” White, a rookie cop assigned to New York’s notoriously rough and violent 118th Precinct. It’s 2002 and Milk lives with his lovely young wife Kerry (Katie Holmes) on Staten Island.
When mysterious hand-written notes begin arriving at the office of much-raking newspaper reporter Loren Bridges (Juliette Binoche), evidence of a cover-up of two murders that occurred in 1986 begins to emerge. That’s all you need to know to realize this is probably not going to lead to a happy ending.
Writer-director Dito Montiel has Katie Holmes and Juliette Binoche playing against type as tough, angry, foul-mouthed women. Also playing against type is Tracy Morgan as a docile grown up but broken childhood friend of Milk.
Playing the types for which they are so well-known are Al Pacino, chief of the 118th in 1986 and Ray Liotta as his 2002 counterpart.
If nothing else, “Son of No One” is gritty and seems real. That’s what makes it such a downer.