Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Won't Back Down" for Performances, Not Story

See “Won’t Back Down” for its Performances

It would be unfortunate if people thought “Won’t Back Down” is simply an anti-union film. There have already been union protests about this film from Walden Media, the same company that produced the doomsday education system documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

“Won’t Back Down” is a fictional drama, co-written and directed by Daniel Barnz (“Phoebe in Wonderland”) and inspired by California’s 2010 “parent trigger law,” in which parents attempt to take over failing public schools.

The drama is about two mothers. Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom with a daughter Emily (Malia Fitzpatrick) with dyslexia. Jamie works hard as a bartender and struggles to help her daughter do her schoolwork.

Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) is a teacher at the Pittsburgh school Emily attends. Nona too has a child with a learning disability. Cody Alberts (Dante Brown) has suffered brain damage.

The elementary school Emily attends is one of the worst schools in town, and Emily is stuck with one of its worst teachers: Deborah (Nancy Bach). Deborah is lazy, apathetic, and treats the kids with malice. You would think in the real world Deborah would be fired, but according to this scenario, the union protects her and her job regardless.

I’m hoping this is just exaggeration for dramatic effect, but you don’t go to this movie for its melodramatic, then rah-rah story, you go for the powerful, heartfelt performances of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. As a bonus you get Rosie Perez in her first film role in some time, and a boo-hiss performance by Holly Hunter as the prickly teachers’ union head, Evelyn Riske.

Two and a half stars

“The Master” Also a Movie Whose Performances Overshadow Story

“The Master” is notable for its bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a shell-shocked, depressed and alcoholic World War II veteran. Freddie is the proverbial powder keg ready to blow. We see an early irruption when Freddie freaks out on a customer during a portrait photography session in a department store.

A troubled soul like Freddie is ripe for a cult. He finds one in “The Cause,” founded and run by genial, enigmatic but firm Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Dodd takes a shine to Freddie, takes him under his wing and becomes his mentor. The problem is Dodd is a crackpot and maybe even a crook, protected by his followers and his dutiful (but not stupid) wife Peggy (Amy Adams).

While Hoffman is quite good at capturing a man so full of himself he feels he had license to lead people, it is Amy Adams who is the real surprise. Let’s put it this way: this is Amy Adams as you have never seen her before.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”), “The Master” looks a lot like L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientologist minions, but it could be any organization led by a larger-than-life figure with messianic delusions. As with “Don’t Back Down” you see this movie for its performances, not its story. In this case it wreaks havoc but really goes nowhere.

Music Geeks Unite

A Funny Look at Singing Competitions

By Skip Sheffield

Maybe I enjoyed “Pitch Perfect” too much because I was in a high school a cappella group and had the time of my life.

On the other hand, my guest had no such experience, yet she laughed and enjoyed the film as much as I.

School a cappella groups have come a long way in the eons since I was in one. We dressed formally and sang Madrigals from the 15th through 17th centuries in seven-part harmony, as well as Broadway show tunes when we performed at country clubs for money (it went to the choir fund, not us).

The groups in “Pitch Perfect” perform contemporary pop, hip hop, even rap, with complicated, intricate choreography and flashy outfits.

“Pitch Perfect” is based on a book by GQ writer Mickey Rapkin, who traveled the country observing college a cappella competitions. The screenplay was written by Kay Canon (“30 Rock”) and it is the feature film directorial debut by Jason Moore, who was nominated for a Tony Award for directing “Avenue Q.”

Anna Kendricks stars as Becca, a headstrong but directionless college freshman at Barden University, where her father teaches comparative literature. Becca wants to compose music and move to L.A. and become a DJ. Dad insists she at least try college for a year, then if she still wants to go to L.A., OK.

When a member of the female a cappella group The Bellas hears Becca sing in the shower, she accosts her and urges her to audition for the group. The Bellas have never won the collegiate a cappella competition, but Becca’s more progressive musical ideas may just be the key to success.

That’s the setup of a comedy of personality clashes as the Bellas try to get their act together. Anna Kendrick is enormously appealing as Becca, and her singing voice is quite good.

However the leader of The Bellas is Chloe (Brittany Snow), who is quite set in her traditional ways. Outstanding comedy relief is provided by Rebel Wilson as the self-proclaimed Fat Amy, who is “the best singer in Tasmania.” Wilson is fearless and shameless in her pursuit of laughs, and she scores.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hana Mae Lee as Lilly, a girl whose voice is so tiny and meek you can barely hear her. Then there is promiscuous Stacie (Alexis Knapp), who plays the slut for laughs.

The guys hardly count in this estrogen-fueled comedy. Adam DeVine is the egotistical jerk singing star Bumper is at one end of the spectrum and Skyler Astin is nice guy Jesse (and possible romantic interest) at the other.

If you want to laugh, not think too hard and enjoy tight harmonies and dancing, “Pitch Perfect” is pleasant indeed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Gere is One Sleek Bad Boy



By Skip Sheffield

Richard Gere has been a very bad boy.

To be more concise, Richard Gere’s character in “Arbitrage” is a very badly-behaving person, and he gets worse in the progression of this white-collar thriller debut, written and directed by NYU Film School graduate Nicholas Jarecki.

Coming on the heels of “Cosmopolis,” “Arbitrage” is another timely reminder of the nasty stuff that goes on as a matter of course around Wall Street.

Gere is Robert Miller, founder and CEO of a hedge fund bearing his name. The story opens on the eve of Miller’s 60th birthday. He is at the top of his form. His brainy, loyal daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) is poised to take over after he retires. His adoring wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) is the cream of philanthropic society.

Arbitrage means taking advantages of price differences between markets. In theory one can make a risk-free profit at zero cost.

However there is a human equation involved. Hedge fund managers are supposed to adhere to the highest moral and ethical standards. Major institutions stake their resources and reputations on them. As the Bernard Madoff scandal proved, hedge funds can be a very risky business indeed and downright criminal if the guy at the top is a liar and thief.

Robert Miller is not a thief, but he is skating on the thin ice of moral and financial crisis. A bad call has put half of his hedge fund in jeopardy, and he has been robbing Peter to pay Paul to cover up for his bad judgment.

With typical arrogance of a tycoon, Miller feels he is above conventional morality. He has been having an affair with a pretty young art dealer (Laetitia Casta) and promoting her career. One reckless decision by Miller will result in tragedy for one human life and the ruination of Miller’s career and company.

As the web of deception tightens on Miller, he reaches out to an unlikely young ally named Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker, perfectly cast), and in turn Jimmy will be put in jeopardy.

Breathing down Miller’s trail is brazen, wily police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), who is not averse to pulling off a few tricks of his own to snare the perpetrator.

Early in his career Richard Gere played a lot of idealized young romantic heroes. Now that he has silvery hair and a creased face he has more resonance and depth as an actor. This is one of his best performances ever.

The always-entertaining Tim Roth affects a skeptical combative stance and a tough New York accent for his bullying detective.

Susan Sarandon saves her best for the last as Miller’s forgiving, loyal, but quietly raging wife Ellen- finally at the end of her patience.

There is nothing novel or groundbreaking about “Arbitrage,” but it does generate a fair amount of suspense and impassioned performances all around. Sadly, the end has the ironic ring of truth. Good guys don’t always win and bad guys don’t always lose.

Nicolas Jarecki is a bright young talent to watch.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Harmonia do Samba Plays Pompano

Top Brazilian Group Harmonia do Samba Plays Pompano Beach

By Skip Sheffield

It is hard not to notice the growing number of Brazilians and their influence in South Florida. In some neighborhoods Portuguese is heard more often than Spanish or English, especially in West Boca Raton, where there is a Brazilian church, Brazilian restaurants and even a Brazilian motorcycle club.

Mauro Santos has been promoting things Brazilian in South Florida for 17 years, including a magazine, “Tititi,” and a Brazilian Film Festival, which just had its 16th anniversary.

Santos and his partner Carlos Salles through a group called Brazilian Party Productions are hosting the popular Brazilian musical party group Harmonia do Samba in concert at 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Cinema Club, 3251 N. Federal Highway, Pompano Beach. The concert is part of Harmonia do Samba’s third national tour of the USA.

“We first had them at the grand opening of the Cinema Club,” reveals Santos. “They will be playing Boston, New York City and San Francisco. Boston has the highest number of Brazilians. South Florida is in second place and growing.”

It is estimated there are more than 300,000 Brazilians in South Florida alone, and well over a million nationwide.

Harmonia do Samba was formed in 1993 in Salvador, Bahia Brazil. The group has recorded 12 CDs and three DVDs, sold more than 4 million albums and it performs around 120 concerts worldwide. The group is fronted by Alexandre Xanddy, who is famous for his improvisational skills.

Brazil celebrated its 190th Independence Day on Sept. 7. There was a large public party with free entertainment at Sanborn Park in downtown Boca Raton. One person manning a booth there was none other than Boca Raton Tribune Publisher Douglas Heizer, who arrived with his family from Rio de Janeiro more than ten years ago.

“There used to be more Brazilians in Pompano. Now West Boca has one of the largest populations,” he said. “There are quite a few super-rich Brazilians who fly their jets into Boca Raton Airport. South Florida is relatively much cheaper than Brazil. That is one of the reasons people keep coming here. A two-bedroom apartment in Rio costs as much as a four-bedroom house in Boca.”

General admission tickets for Harmonia do Samba are $55. VIP tickets are $65-$85. Tickets are available at Picanha Brazil, 22797 ST 7, west Boca Raton, Christine & Company Hair Salon, 4400 W. Hillsboro Blvd. and several other locations. Lo on to

Girls Just Want to Talk Dirty

By Skip Sheffield

Sex is funny.

Sex is also tragic and baffling but almost always interesting. That’s why it has been an enduring subject for stories, poems and plays through the ages.

“For a Good Time Call” is a contemporary R-rated female comedy about phone sex, but it’s more than that.

“Good Time” was co-written by Lauren Miller, who also stars as a good little rich girl also called Lauren. Lauren is trying to break into publishing in New York City with little luck. Her love life is even worse. Her feckless boyfriend Charlie (James Wolk) has decided he wants to break it off and go to Italy. Lauren and Charlie had been together two years and were living together in her late grandmother’s apartment. To add to her misery, Lauren learns her apartment is no longer rent-controlled and will be rented to the highest bidder. Lauren is homeless and jobless in the big city.

Out of misery comes comedy. Lauren answers an ad for a roommate at a posh Grammercy Park apartment and discovers it was placed by an old college nemesis, Katie Steele (Ari Graynor). Lauren and Katie had a falling out as college freshmen ten years previously. Now they are thrown together by circumstances beyond their control.

Yes, “Good Time” has its hook on the rather raunchy subject of phone sex. Lauren discovers Katie has a lucrative side business as a phone sex operator, and inevitably the otherwise prim Lauren is drawn in to the scheme for some quick cash.

“Good Time” is really more about friendship between polar opposites. While the raunchy stuff is at times laugh-out-loud funny, the story is surprisingly sweet and sentimental under the direction of first-time Canadian Jamie Travis.

The humor is accented by some amusing cameos. Justin Long plays again type as the effeminately gay friend of Lauren. Seth Rogen, who is Lauren Miller’s real-life boyfriend, has a hilarious bit as a horny airline pilot. Kevin Smith is a heavy-breathing caller. Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) has a brief but memorable performance as a frosty editor offering Lauren’s dream job. Mimi Rogers has aged noticeably to fill her role as Lauren’s snobby mother.

“Good Time” is not profound but it is better than a trifle. It’s a fair to middling comedy about young adults acting like juveniles.